IF-THEORY

Mapping the Tale: Scene Description in IF

by J. Robinson Wheeler

The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory.

The tale is the map that is the territory.

You must remember this.

—Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Intrinsic to interactive fiction at its inception was the simulation of location, of giving the player the ability to move from place to place. This illusion is achieved, simply and efficiently, by strings of text, location names and scene descriptions; and by a map of connections between the objects that print these strings. When the player surrenders his sense of place to the game's map, he responds to a new bit of text by imagining he has walked (or crawled, or slid, or climbed) somewhere he hasn't been before, and is taking in all of the details. If he recognizes a bit of text, he knows he has re-entered familiar territory.

The basic requirements of scene descriptions go no farther than this. If you let the player know where he is, and where the exits are, your job is done. This article, however, will provide many examples of scene descriptions that first meet and then, in some way, exceed these requirements. If your IF game has a story, your scene descriptions should serve the story. If you want to give your game atmosphere, broaden your use of sense details within your scene descriptions to include sounds, smells, and even textures, instead of just sights. If you want your game to have a strong narrative voice, scene descriptions are a good place to establish it. If you are using a well-defined PC, the scene descriptions can be used to reinforce your protagonist's point of view of each location. If your game has a complicated back-story, scene descriptions can provide expositional as well as locational detail. If the pace of the game quickens, scene descriptions should keep pace, becoming briefer, more active, even changing from turn to turn to sustain the player's feeling of urgency.

Caves

In the beginning, Will Crowther's original "Advent" (1972), the basic map-and-scene-description system we still use today was invented and put to use in a simulated exploration of Bedquilt Cave. The scene descriptions were evocations of actual locations, and the location names were encapsulations of these evocations. Some of them were fictional, serving to create the ambience of adventure rather than the pure simulation of caving, as in the following example:

In Hall of Mists
You are at one end of a vast hall stretching forward out of sight to the west. There are openings to either side. Nearby, a wide stone staircase leads downward. The hall is filled with wisps of white mist swaying to and fro almost as if alive. A cold wind blows up the staircase. There is a passage at the top of a dome behind you.

Rough stone steps lead up the dome.

From a sense of nostalgia, or an interest in re-exploring well-trod IF territory for one's own creative satisfaction, many modern authors continue to use caves as a setting, even knowing full well that any cave descriptions are going to be compared to what's already been done (and done many times, as IF in its first decade was dedicated almost exclusively to Advent dervatives). The evocative potential of cave descriptions seems not to have run dry, but new authors should proceed with care; an IF trope, even if intended as homage, may be perceived as an IF cliché instead.

Base of Canyon
You are in an alcove, a side chamber at the base of a vaulting canyon. The walls spread upward around you. And the distant roof is hung with glimmering stars -- droplet-tipped stalactites in some hidden suffusion of light. A crevice runs along the canyon at your feet. You can cross it and continue on ahead, or re-enter the crawl behind you.

A pool of thick, dark, reeking blood is spilled across the ground. Bats crawl all around it -- rustling, fluttering, feasting.

The above example is from Andrew Plotkin's "Hunter, in Darkness" (1999), in which he revisits not just "Advent" but an equally early game, "Hunt the Wumpus" (Gregory Yob, 1972), which is usually considered an IF precedent but not IF. "Wumpus" does feature a small map of locations and the ability to walk or shoot crooked arrows through the connecting passages. Here, in a scene late in the game, Plotkin follows the conventions of scene descriptions, but reaches for a bit more atmosphere. After the matter-of-fact location name, the description itself starts with "You are in...", a tradition that is still perfectly acceptable. Note, though, that it does not read, "You are in the base of a canyon," nor is the location name "Alcove." The disjoint adds to the sense of size and space, of the player taking in the proportions of the canyon as he steps into it. Before this location, the game has squeezed us through a succession of claustrophobic rooms and tunnels; here, there is space, vaulting up around us as we peer out of the alcove. The next sentence is a blunt declaration, "The walls spread upward around you." This simple sentence serves two functions: repetition for impact ("vaulting canyon" carries the same information), and the directing of the player's eyes upward, following the canyon walls up. The next sentence starts with "And," which is a stylistic choice that will bother grammar pedants, but it works in this context. The player's eyes then switch abruptly from the lofty beauty of the ceiling to the crevice in the floor, the mention of which segues into the convention of listing the available exits from the room. Here, Plotkin avoids having to mention compass directions, but still points the player at appropriate exit actions: either going back or going ahead, across the crevice. There is a certain momentum built into the scene description, backed up by the momentum of the plot that has accrued by the time the player reaches this location, that points across the crevice and to whatever lies beyond. The player has reached the climax of the game, and the scene description is crafted not merely to describe where he's standing, but to keep the tension building.

Shore of An Underground Lake
A narrow ledge of solid rock at the southern end of a great cavern. Beyond it lies a body of water so flat, so black and tranquil, that it might be a surface of polished obsidian. Embedded in the wall, a mirror reflects your movements: an odd smoothness in the unshaped stone.

A heavy bronze bell hangs from a stand.

This example, from the beginning of Emily Short's "Metamorphoses" (2000), is highly economical and strongly styled. The location name itself conjures the broad picture, and then the description text ticks off details to flesh it out and build the atmosphere. Missing is "You are on...", leaving a chiseled sentence fragment as the starting point. This is a stylistic trait of this particular author, but it works especially well here. Scenes before this one have already established an identity for the player character and a tightly focused narrative point of view, hers. Omitting "You are on..." preserves the game's voice and introduces a note of tension that is never resolved.

Know the territory, so that you can go somewhere new. To paraphrase Andrew Plotkin, if you want to write a cave, go visit a cave. In addition, play some IF with cave descriptions, and study them, before you try writing your own.

Here is an example of a weaker scene description. It has the right elements, but does not hold up to the same level of scrutiny:

Tunnels (as Peter and Valerie)
A huge cavern rises above you. The far reaches are lost in shadow mist, and the vaults above fade into a darkness pierced with long columns of stone. Chill water drips and pools in broken declivities. You can hear little else. A river of smoke-grey travertine flows down one wall of the chamber. Pale fungi gleam in phosphorescence somewhere above. Gloomy side chambers stretch off in many directions.

This example appears in "Being Andrew Plotkin" (Wheeler, 2000), and is an agglomeration of shorter descriptions written by Andrew Plotkin himself, taken from various pages of Plotkin's personal website (which uses cave exploration as an elaborate metaphor for site navigation). These descriptions predate "Hunter," but the stylistic similarities are recognizable. What comes out of this scene description is a sense of contour and shape: the declivities which pool with water, the flowing of the travertine down a wall, chambers and pockets, flat darkness pierced by rounded stone.

The pieced-together nature of the description is evident, unfortunately; the ceiling is described as being lost in mist, fading into darkness, and hiding phosphorescent fungi all at once. The attention to where the player's eyes are looking, evident in the example from "Hunter," is missing here; instead of a progression from eye-level to ceiling to floor, we look up, then we see pools of water, then we listen, then we look at the wall, then we notice a light source whose location we aren't even sure of, then a collection of exits. The words are Plotkin's, but the organization obviously is not. A characteristic precision is missing; authors should endeavor to follow the better example.

Let us leave Bedquilt Cave behind and visit an equivalently nostalgic setting from IF history. This, one of the most well-remembered and often-quoted scene descriptions in IF, the starting location of "Zork" (Blank, Lebling and Anderson, 1979) is bafflingly minimal and inert:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

What is memorable about this? Perhaps that it is iconic, starkly so; "a white house with a boarded front door" is easily and quickly drawn in the mind, drawn and then stored. Trying further to explain its appeal would be pointless and grasping. There simply isn't much there, which becomes clear as we walk all the way around the house, and view equally slim scene descriptions:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

>SOUTH
South of House
You are facing the south side of a white house. There is no door here, and all the windows are boarded.

>EAST
Behind House
You are behind the white house. A path leads into the forest to the east. In one corner of the house there is a small window which is slightly ajar.

With dark wit and a bit of daring, Adam Cadre's "Shrapnel" (2000) riffs on our expectations of this familiar location:

West of the house
You are standing in an open field west of a white house with a boarded front door. Towering Carolina pines loom all around this clearing, silhouetted in the dusk; soon it will be night.

Three snarling attack dogs fight with one another over the remains of your corpse.

>S
You walk around to the south side of the house...
 

South of the house
You are standing south of a white house. There is no door here, and all the windows are boarded. However, one window upstairs is unevenly boarded, and you can see light shining through a crack between two boards.

>E
You walk around to the back of the house...
 

Behind the house
You are behind the white house, where the husks of the other buildings on the estate stand: the stables, carriage house, outhouse, niggers' quarters, all are just collapsed heaps of weathered wood now. The house itself stands to the west, the back door slightly ajar.

Starting from the scene descriptions found in "Zork," Cadre has embroidered them with just enough extra detail to evoke an actual setting, a sense of time, place, and character that are missing from the original. Choose your details carefully, because they can tell a whole story.

Minimalist scene descriptions like those above are no longer common to any games but those of the speed-IF variety and the occasional large-scale IF, where they are the fatigued work of an author trying to bully through to the end of a long project. From "First Things First" (Wheeler, 2001):

Laura's office
Laura's office is a small, windowless room with a file cabinet and a plain white desk. The only exit is to the east.

If you find yourself writing a scene description like this one, drink some strong coffee and try again.

Secondary sense descriptions

Sight is the natural sense that we cater to in a scene description, answering the player's question "What can I see here?", but secondary sense details can be useful tools for IF authors.

Darkness
It is too dark to see.

A rattling, rustling hiss courses back and forth here. It reminds you of... what? Perhaps the sound of the wind in the dry grassy plains, back wherever they are. If so, the wind itself is a distant high wail to the northwest; a deep rumble is barely detectable to the west; and a cacophony of shrieks and brassy calls pours from the northeast.

A singing, thrumming chord hangs above you as well.

A cheery bubbling sound surrounds you.

The chord is getting louder.

This scene description from "So Far" (Plotkin, 1996) completely dispenses with sight, replacing it with sound. Note how many different kinds of sounds are evoked, and that the final sentence, "The chord is getting louder," is used to create suspense.

In the earlier example from "Being Andrew Plotkin," the player is told what it sounds like to be standing there, which adds a little bit of atmosphere, but it is not deployed with enough aim to have much effect. Sound description doesn't matter to the scene; the appropriate time to use it is when it does.

In my own defense, here is a better-crafted scene description from the same game:

Weird Tunnel
You are on your hands and knees in a claustrophobic tunnel. It leads down, as nearly as you can tell, but your equilibrium is distorted in here. The curving walls gleam with the semblance of wet rock, but the palms of your hands tell a different story. It feels like organic tissue, a thick layer of hide, with the elastic strength of muscle. Like sharkskin, it is silken and slick in one direction but resists any backwards movement with a roughened grain.

Here, sight is given less attention than the sense of touch; it's not what the place looks like that makes it weird, it's how it feels on your bare palms. The direction of the room's exit, down, appears at the top of the scene description instead of at the tail, but the fact that there is only one way to go is underscored by what does come at the end, the sharkskin feel of the floor. The description gives the player the unsettling impression that he is sliding down a gullet rather than doing some casual spelunking. "This is no cave," as Han Solo once put it.

Smells, too, can be the right detail to add in certain locations, as in this example from "The Tale of the Kissing Bandit" (Wheeler, 2001):

Garden park
The luscious gardens, abloom in the early spring, send forth their heady aromas on the nuzzling breezes. Aloft, too, are the erotic perfumes of the finely dressed ladies in white, walking two by two in the early eve, innocent as does, poised as summer swans.

Active scene descriptions

Scene descriptions can move even farther away from being passive scenery, instead serving as active instruments of narration. They describe this present moment of the story, what is happening instead of what is visible. Here is an example from "First Things First":

Hanging for dear life
You are hanging for dear life, with your body slipping around the trunk of the tree. Soon you'll be upside down, trying to support your weight with atrophied muscles, with fingers that can't find a grip on waterlogged bark.

You feel your body shift again.

Aiding the author in the transition to this more active style of scene description is the use of linking text. In the typical case, IF games move the player from room to room directly, eliding the short journey in between. Transitional text is used for special cases, where how you got there matters, and it makes sense to think of them as part of the scene descriptions that follow them. Two examples, once again from "Hunter, In Darkness" and "Being Andrew Plotkin," respectively, illustrate this technique:

>FORWARD
You continue. Scrabble with fingers, brace arms, push with toes. You're definitely tilted head-down now. Is the stone pressing more tightly to either side of you?

Tight Crawl
You lie on your side, gasping, trying to recover some strength. Your back is sore; your neck is worse. Your head aches from cracking into unexpected stone. A cold stony knot presses into your left side, your right knee. You stretch forward once more, feeling for a few more inches before you continue.

Splash.

Your fingers are submerged in water.

--

>OUT
You experience blind panic for the first time in your life, despite the absurdity of the setting, and the recognizable fiction of the threat. Your life; how small and petty it all seems, and how short. There is little light in these twisting tunnels, and the faster you run, the more time moves in slow motion, and your thoughts turn inward. Your life has been blind and short, you think; appropriate, because down this last dark turn of the cave tunnel you have met with an unexpected, dead end.

Dead End
It is the classic dead end. More than that, it is the archetypal dead end. Nowhere forward, nowhere back. The ceiling shocks with its height, the walls oppress with their closeness. There are no exits.

A helix of light hangs in the air here, twirling and changing colors.

"We're trapped!" whispers Valerie, as much color drained from her face as there is pulsating in the helix above.

Authors should be aware that certain effects work only once, and that a scene description written to take advantage of a strong but one-time lead-in may look awkward all other times the player reads it. The above example from "Hunter" is somewhat guilty of this, but Plotkin does replace the supplementary text; the one-time only moment of your fingers splashing into water changes, on repeated looks, to:

A trickle of water runs past you, and merges into a shallow pool at your fingertips.

In the following example from "Christminster" (Gareth Rees, 1995), the player is ascribed an overly-generous respectfulness, in that she bows her head in memory of the honored dead every time she passes through:

Archway between the Courts
A long, low stone archway with First Court to the west, and a door to Second Court to the east. On the north wall is a war memorial, a series of simple slate tablets listing the names of the members of Biblioll College, undergraduate and graduate, who died in the First World War of 1914-1918. You bow your head for a moment in memory of these young men and what they might have become.

This is passable, and perhaps forgiveable if one takes into account that "Brief" was still the default mode for IF games at the time, and the author may have assumed that most players would only see it the one time.

More notorious is an example from "First Things First," in which a location (to which the player repeatedly returns) sports a scene description that is only appropriate once:

Inside house
You finally step into your house. Not much of a victory, given the circumstances. Just a lot of planks and rafters. A temporary work ladder is nailed into the structure, and leads up to the second floor.

Ignoring this scene description's other faults, we see that the same basic problem is on view in "The Mulldoon Legacy" (Jon Ingold, 1999):

>DOWN
(down a short flight of stairs)

Outside the Botanical Room
Success! After descending a few steps northwards on the catwalk you have slipped into a darker archway in the middle of the cavern and are now standing face to face with the Botanical Room door to the north. Typically, all you have to do now is work out how it opens, as there is no window you could look through to check if the plants are still alive.

The Botanical Room door is closed and locked.

Note also the parenthetical transition text, which appears on every trip to this location even though it is not important. The main problem with this scene description is the author's intrusiveness, a problem often expressed as telling instead of showing.

The same author continues to write scene descriptions in a similar vein, but has learned better how to get away with it, by quickening the pace of his stories, so that a one-use scene description is likely not to be accessed more than once. Here, in "All Roads" (Ingold, 2001), his scene descriptions are clearly functioning as narrative:

Scaffold in the City Square
Your head is pulled back, held by the rope pressing on your throat. Your toes pivot on a rickety stool, which shakes as your legs shake. The crowd filling the square are chattering like monkeys, but they are just flits of colour in the corners of your eyes. You cannot look round - instead you gaze straight across the Square, to the great dial of the Clock.

Slowly, the hand of that great dial swings lower. You are going to hang.

--

Venetian Streets
You walk through streets and winding alleys, avoiding the canals where the crowds will be. The Captain has one hand on the manacles around your hands, and the sharp tip of metal is ever present on your back. Tall buildings rise impassive on either side, cutting out the sun, and you wonder if you shall ever see it again.

But though it is dark, it is never dark enough for you to leave.

In the first example, Ingold never even provides a description of the city square itself, or the scaffold, but the PC's predicament is explanation enough for the omission. It is hardly the time and place to be taking in the sights. In the second, the moment is effectively caught of walking against your will through unfamiliar back-streets. In both cases, the player will be engaged in trying to escape from the situations at hand, and typing "Look" repeatedly is probably not going to be his first priority.

Mutable scene descriptions

Sometimes in IF, room descriptions provide game scenery but do not remain static; when we return to a location later on, there will be differences. In "A Change in the Weather" (Plotkin, 1995), the mutability of the scene descriptions makes them memorable. This is one of the key experiments of the game, and its theme, change. The sky grows dark, the sun sets, and the rains come; the map is technically the same, but the descriptions morph dynamically.

Rocky Outlook
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches off to the north and west, a vast expanse of bright meadowland, patched with dark woods and stitched with streams that glitter in the sunlight. In the distance, a lake reflects white fire from the setting sun.

The sun is lazily approaching the horizon.

Rocky Outlook
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches off to the north and west, a vast expanse of bright meadowland, patched with dark woods and stitched with streams that glitter ruby in the sunlight. In the distance, a lake reflects red fire from the setting sun.

The western horizon has become a surging sea of gold and scarlet waves. The light is magical -- a cool bronze radiance that somehow makes the grass and foliage more intensely green than ever.

Rocky Outlook
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches off to the north and west, a vast expanse of dim meadowland, patched with dark woods and stitched with dark streams. A layer of mist is rolling across the landscape.

The mist is turning to a drizzle of rain.

Rocky Outlook
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. A dark expanse stretches to the north and west, impenetrable with rain.

A stream of runoff water is flowing down from the southeast, and pouring down the trench to the unseen stream below.

It's dark and it's raining. Hard.

The question, "How would my PC view this location?" is a useful one for authors to keep in mind when writing scene descriptions. In "Being Andrew Plotkin," which featured multiple player characters, a particular room description repeatedly changed to reflect the point of view of each PC the player inhabited during the course of the game.

File Room (as Peter)
This bleak room with its short, slumping ceiling does nothing to brighten your morale. Short file cabinets, marked in reverse alphabetical order, crawl in a line along the walls like an army of stupid robots. One measly window lets in a tiny square of sunlight.

You see a copier machine here.

File Room (as Valerie)
The file room is one of your favorite rooms in the company building. One, it's always orderly and clean; and two, it doesn't sport brightly colored IKEA furniture. It's businesslike and efficient. There's even a window to give the area a sense of openness. Early moonlight peeks in, drawing a long amber trapezoid on the carpet.

Peter is here.

File Room (as Zarf)
The file room is an unimpressive rectangular room full of squat cabinets. The file cabinets are a pale yellow, like raw milk, and each stands about 38 inches high. There is a maladjusted ceiling tile, and scruffy stains on the padded carpeting. In the north wall is a window, about two and a half feet square, with a crank latch. A copier machine sits near the wall, bearing no make or marking that you recognize, even though no company produces generic photocopiers that you know of. Even more curiously, the wall socket behind it is empty, meaning that the copier is not plugged in, and yet it definitely seems to be turned on.

File Room (as Peter)
The file room looks considerably cleaner, perhaps better than before. The reassuring familiarity of its short, slumping ceiling seems now to brighten your morale. Short file cabinets, marked in reverse alphabetical order, stand in a clean line along the walls like a perfect set of teeth. A window affords a beautiful view and a kind square of sunlight.

A different kind of mutable description is used in "Varicella" (Adam Cadre, 1999). Here, in a spin on the effects of the meta-command "Brief," scene descriptions are elaborate on the first visit to the room and succinct thereafter (though the game is still considered to be in "Verbose" mode by default). Cadre stocks these initial scene descriptions carefully, carefully choosing details that allow him to fill out the game's back-story and to flesh out his large cast of characters. Although the narration is in the traditional second-person, Cadre filters everything through the PC's particular view of the world, always exploring his main character's attitudes and memories.

Dining Hall
Though this dining hall was able to hold the entire Venetian delegation with ease when they were here for the (failed) peace negotiations, you've grown far more accustomed to seeing it at one-thirty in the morning as King Charles and Miss Sierra indulge in a postcoital late-night snack at a table built for sixty. It's been ages since this chamber even remotely resembled the raucous banquet depicted on the tapestry decorating the southern wall. An old suit of armor stands guard over the entrance to the kitchen, off to the north; other exits lead east and west.

Note how much information about the game's world is contained in the description of just one room, and also that the size of the room is implied by these side details rather than spelled out. This is a game world with a full history, and the sense of the kingdom's grander past as opposed to its seedy present is also brought out.

The shorter description of this same location is succinct and functional, but still carries a memory of the original:

Dining Hall
The tapestry decorating the southern wall depicts a raucous banquet, but the dining hall is quiet at the moment. An old suit of armor stands guard over the entrance to the kitchen, off to the north; other exits lead east and west.

Conclusion: Getting the job done

It is not often said, in praising works of IF, "Great scene descriptions!" Even at their best, scene descriptions provide scenery and atmosphere, and are not interactive in and of themselves. They are there to be read, but are usually not the parts of the game that players find most remarkable or memorable.

In practice, authors mainly have to concentrate on getting the job done. A scene description, once written, tends to remain static, because an IF author's to-do list is always full, from the beginning of a project to its release and even after, and never leaves room for rewriting a scene description that gets the job done. Keeping the game from exploding with error messages is much more important. So, to close, here are some examples of authors just getting the job done, with the reminder that it did not stop any of them from winning acclaim for their work.

"Christminster":

Library
A vast room, filled with bookshelves from floor to ceiling: rows and rows of narrow dark stacks stretching away into the distance. There is a card index next to the door, which leads out to the north.

"So Far":

Chill Tunnel
The tunnel is very straight. You can tell that it's not quite east-west, though; the distant bright spot of outside snow is more east-northeast, and a strange watery glow is visible west-southwest.

"Spider and Web":

Angle Branch
The corridor runs north and south, like every other hallway in this place. A short hallway branches off to the northeast. To the west is a blank metal door, with attendant black plate beside it.

"Varicella":

Northeast Tower Antechamber
The northeast tower lies, stunningly, to the northeast, while other exits lead west to the dining hall and south to the eastern ballroom.

"Pytho's Mask" (Short, 2001):

Archway
Inside a sort of archway through the body of the palace itself. To the east lies the square garden; west, more gardens but more wild.

The small door to the south stands open.

"All Roads":

Office of Guiseppe Florantine
The aide's office is simple enough - cabinets line one wall, and a large desk fills the centre of the room, its piles of paper extremely organised. The aide himself is seated in a deep chair behind, looking up at you expectantly.

Everyone writes their fair share of workmanlike scene descriptions, and the above examples should remind authors not be deterred from releasing work because their scene descriptions are functional but not spectacular. As I said at the beginning: Let the player know where he is, and where the exits are, and your job is done.

References

  • "Advent", Will Crowther, 1972.
  • "Hunt the Wumpus", Gregory Yob, 1972.
  • "Zork", Mark Blank, David Lebling, and Thomas Anderson, 1979.
  • "Christminster", Gareth Rees, 1995.
  • "A Change in the Weather", Andrew Plotkin, 1995.
  • "So Far", Andrew Plotkin, 1996.
  • "Spider and Web", Andrew Plotkin, 1998.
  • "The Mulldoon Legacy", Jon Ingold, 1999.
  • "Varicella", Adam Cadre, 1999.
  • "Hunter, in Darkness", Andrew Plotkin, 1999.
  • "Shrapnel", Adam Cadre, 2000.
  • "Metamorphoses", Emily Short, 2000.
  • "Being Andrew Plotkin", J. Robinson Wheeler, 2000.
  • "The Tale of the Kissing Bandit", J. Robinson Wheeler, 2001.
  • "Pytho's Mask", Emily Short, 2001.
  • "First Things First", J. Robinson Wheeler, 2001.
  • "All Roads", Jon Ingold, 2001.