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that language thing

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Postby Jephrey » Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:05 pm

What constitutes good writing style?

Playing Zork, I found the following type of language to be very useful:

> Take lamp

I liked that. The language is empowering, moreso than "You carefully remove the brass lantern from the old wooden table and salaciously slip it into the poche of your Belgian smoking jacket."

So maybe it's a question of setting. I like the simple, single word "taken", because it focuses on action, but makes the burden of taking action very light: I feel like I can do anything (if I can come up with the right word!). The single word communicates (to me, anyway) deftness and surety. The feel of it focuses on "what have I got?" rather than "What do I look like?"

Depending on the game, of course, it might be more better to know how I look. But my point is this: Prose in IF doesn't necessarily share a virtue list with prose in literature. I myself am turned off by long blocks of text on a computer screen, unless I have specifically asked to see it. Translated into gameplay, this would mean a phrase like "examine mortgage papers" would bring up a detailed, skilfully written passage about the Mortgage Papers of Destiny.

I also like sparse initial descriptions of rooms, because I can only imagine things at a certain speed. Once I've imagined the carpet, I'm ready to imagine the ceiling, etc. But there's no doubt it also comes from favoring a "mechanical" map (dungeon rooms, doors, traps, gold pieces, etc) rather than close, Agatha-Christie style observation of the persian rug fringe whose color matches the threads found on the coat of the formerly famous and stunningly handsome Captain Snelling, late of Scotland Yard.

I suspect even in lengthy prose works, that computer screen text shouldn't be identical to book-page text, but I'm not sure in what ways. Any thoughts, experiences, or different points of view?
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Postby Chenshaw » Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:17 pm

I have toyed with the idea of writing a game in the retro style, as spare as possible, focused on movement, puzzles and interaction. But I find it impossible! As soon as I think up a scenario and locations, I find that the retro style just doesn't fit at all. Still, there's not always (or usually) a need for really lengthy descriptions and lots of text, and I agree that you can only take in so much at a time anyway.

Waitkey and clear screen actions can keep text from being too overwhelming (although cls can be very annoying at times - like when you would like to be able to scroll back to check something).
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Postby Lumin » Tue Apr 10, 2007 8:03 pm

Obviously I don't want to read a novel for every action I take, that would get old fast, but it's nice when solving an important or especially difficult puzzle rewards you with an interesting description or a bit of plot.

As for descriptions, I like important rooms to have more detail to invite the player to spend more time poking around, but again there's the danger of going overboard. It's a little difficult to focus all your attention on a room description that takes up an entire page, especially when you feel that on top of it you have to examine every noun...your eyes kind of start glazing over after awhile.

On the other hand, if a room isn't important enough to merit more than a line or too, (maybe the player is just meant to move through it) you have to start wondering whether it was necessary to include it in the first place.

As in most things, I figure somewhere in the middle is probably best.

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Postby Shuarian » Tue Apr 10, 2007 8:57 pm

I think Lumin has it right. For simple actions, simple feedback is enough. It's no big deal to take an item into your inventory:

>take unimportant book

However, under different circumstances, adding some background can be a way of telling a story, or to 'nudge' (he, guess what game I've played lately) a player into a certain direction:

>take important diary
You take the long lost diary you used to write in when you were a child. So much has changed since then. As painful as growing up under your drunk parents was, you must read the diary in order to find out blablabla..

It also can be a way of rewarding the player. I guess something like the following example wouldn't be very nice:

>solve very difficult puzzle at the end of epic game
You won. Bye.

So, as Lumin said, it depends on the situation - and on the coherence in using these different responses.
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Postby David Whyld » Wed Apr 11, 2007 11:54 am

I'm kind of in two minds about the whole thing. On the one hand, I love the retro scene and quite often find myself firing up an old game for nostalgia value instead of playing a modern game, and the fact that the game I'm playing has a two word parser, line descriptions no more than a couple of lines long and very, very little depth, I don’t find a problem. Maybe it’s just that I'm aware that computers back then were very humble things and if you put in a huge amount of text for each location, you'd be running out of memory by the time you hit the fifth location, so it’s easy to make allowances. Given the choice between a 50 room game with very brief descriptions but lots to do, and a 5 room game with very long descriptions and not much to do, I know which one I’d go for.

Yet whenever I play a modern game and find the same problems, it bugs me no end. If I'm standing in a field and I try to X TREE and get told YOU SEE NO SUCH THING, I groan. In a retro game, I’d see that message, assume examining the tree wasn’t important and not worry about it. In a modern game, I see that message and mutter about the writer missing things out and not knowing what he’s doing and how he ought to get himself a better set of testers or what the heck is he doing including an invisible tree in his game, etc, etc.

In an ideal world, all the old retro games would include descriptions for everything that could be seen. And I mean everything. I remember paying The Boggit many moons ago and being really impressed that everything I could see in the opening locations could be examined. That might not seem like a big deal now – it’s pretty much a given – but back then to be able to examine everything was something special because usually you'd run out of memory before long if everything was covered. The Boggit’s writers got around this by splitting the game into three parts (which was a pain back in the days of games on cassettes with their X minute loading times but anyway…).

As for the screen filling up with lots of text, I'm quite fond of it myself… but only if it’s there for a valid reason. If you’ve just examined a wall and see 27 lines of text telling you what the wall looks like, that’s going too far. If you’ve read a book and a good deal of information needs to be conveyed to you, I don’t mind it taking up several screens. If it’s a choice between telling me 5 screens of text in a manner that furthers the storyline and adds depth, then I'm all for it. If you're telling me 5 screens of text in 5 lines, I don’t like it.

In the end, though, I think it all depends on the game you're writing. If your game is terse and to the point, you don’t want to suddenly burden the player with several screens of text when the last 15 locations they’ve visited have only had a line or two descriptions.

As for the

> take lamp

thing, I'm not that fond of it myself. I'm not sure whether it’s better than

> take lamp
You take the lamp.


> take lamp
You reach out, pick up the lamp in your hand, check it for a moment to ensure it works, then slip it carefully inside your backpack for later use.

but just telling the player TAKEN seems a little too terse for my liking. But it’s not a big point. It’s hard to imagine a game being spoiled by putting TAKEN in place of a more flowery description, but again it depends on the game you're writing. A game with long, flowery descriptions for everything you come across just wouldn’t be the same with

> take lamp

just as a game with brief descriptions for everything wouldn’t work with

> take lamp
You reach out, pick up the lamp in your hand, check it for a moment to ensure it works, then slip it carefully inside your backpack for later use.

Both are fine in the right context.
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Postby MileStyle » Wed Apr 11, 2007 3:48 pm

Regarding the thing about room descriptions. I don't tend to write long ones. Three sentences at most. But it's what you do with them that makes the room fun - the objects listed in the main room description, when examined, open up more items for scrutiny, and perhaps more within them too. It creates more depth and certainly doesn't require a page of text to describe a room. Let the room grow with what's immediate to the player as opposed to giving them everything at the start.
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Postby djchallis » Wed Apr 11, 2007 4:15 pm

in my mind, interactive fiction has two sides to it. firstly, it is still fiction, and so many of the same rules apply to writing IF as to writing novels. secondly it is still a game, and so it needs to completely absorb the player into it. this requires obvious things like catering for as many different actions as you can imagine the player trying to do (aka eliminating the "you see no such thing" problem).

but if IF is still fiction, then prose should be used in the same way: to advance the storyline. in static fiction, seeing lots of poetry inbetween sections of actual plot can seem a little tacked on and becomes useless. so in IF, write what you need to write to forward the plot. if taking the lamp is something really normal, then leave it with a simple response. if it is the object of your quest, then a little more description might be necessary.

in david's lamp situation, the version where he checks the lamp could be used well. the lamp could later stop working, and a reference could be made to when he checked it. maybe the character is paranoid about such things?
or maybe you're using it for a less cheesy plot-move. but it can be useful.
although i would shorten it slightly to: "you pick up the lamp, check it to ensure it works, then slip it inside your backpack."
it depends on which part of the prose is the message you want to convey though.

how about this for a solution. instead of the lamp situation, say it's the action of moving north. we have a room that the player will visit many times during the game, however on one or two occasions entering this room is of special significance. if you stick variables in, you can make the response "you move north" change for these specific times, so that it says whatever is needed to build up the atmosphere for those moments.
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