Fine Writing

Gareth Rees, January 1995

Proposition: adventure games don't encourage beautiful prose. Reasons:

  1. It is much more difficult to read prose on a computer terminal than it is to read prose on paper;
  2. adventure games develop their story very slowly by comparison with ordinary fiction, and every effort needs to be made to ensure that it's no slower than it absolutely needs to be, and long descriptive passages are unhelpful in this regard;
  3. the prose in a game consists in the main of detailed descriptions of objects, rooms and actions, the sort of descriptions that in ordinary fiction would be dull and distracting from the plot; and
  4. players are conditioned to regard everything that's mentioned in a description as essential in some way, or at least worthy of investigation in case it should be significant.

For example, in Curses you definitely need to be aware that not everything casually mentioned in a room description is just descriptive scenery:

Old Furniture
Scruffy old furniture is piled up here: armchairs with springs coming out, umbrella stands, a badly scratched cupboard, a table with one leg missing... You try to remember why you keep all this rubbish, and fail. Anyway the attic continues to the southeast.

> examine armchairs
That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

> examine umbrella stands
That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

> examine table
That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

> examine cupboard
You peer at the scratched cupboard, which is open and contains a bird whistle, a gift-wrapped parcel and a guaranteed-unbreakable medicine bottle with a child-proof lock (which is closed and contains a red tablet).

But consider the poor player who finishes Curses and then embarks upon The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Erica Sadun:

Windswept Field
You are standing amidst the tall grasses in a windswept field. Above the sky is blue. A small kill winds its way around granite boulders down the mountain. Purple and white peaks surround you on all sides, as does the forest. Within the greens of the summer mountain are the brown scores where loggers were and will be again. Blue herons pass occasionally overhead and gentle deer stop - to eat the summer berries or drink from the kill water. Small frogs jump in and out of the kill and insects skim over the top, never breaking the surface. There are grey and silvery fish darting below the sun bleached rocks. You are surrounded on all sides by wild bushes. A narrow thorny gap lies to the west.

:examine grasses
That's just scenery.

:examine sky
That's just scenery.

:examine kill
I don't understand.

:examine boulders
I see no boulders here.

:examine peaks
That's just scenery.

:examine trees
I don't know the word "trees".

:examine blue herons
I see no blue herons here.

:examine gentle deer
I don't know the word "gentle".

:examine summer berries
I don't know the word "summer".

:examine frogs
That's just scenery.

:examine insects
That's just scenery.

:examine fish
I don't understand.

:examine bushes
That's just scenery.

[A 'kill' (as is reasonably clear from the context) is an American dialect word for 'stream', from the Dutch. The author explains that 'the windswept field is a real place; this is Grog Kill, NY'.]

I don't want to pick on this game, because it's generally of good quality, but it seems to me that the puzzle-solving nature of adventure games makes such long room descriptions unwise. A player can never afford to relax and treat them as just 'elegant prose', because they might conceal subtle hints.

My own feeling is that it's sufficiently difficult to produce clear, sharp, crisp, accurate, terse, lively prose for all the functional text in an adventure game that it's not worth trying to write beautiful descriptive passage that the player is likely either to skip and hurry on towards the next puzzle, or else scour for clues and then discard when none are found.

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Andrew Clover