§51   The room description

When beginning to code a design, it is tempting to give rooms temporary descriptions (“Slab room.” “Cloister.”), and leave the writing for later. There is no more depressing point than facing a pile of 50 room descriptions to write, all at once, and feeling that one's enthusiasm has altogether gone. (The same applies to making an over-detailed design before doing any coding.) Besides, when testing the rooms concerned, one has no feeling of what the game will look like except tatty, and this is also depressing. Also, writing room descriptions forces the designer to think about what the room is ultimately for. So most designers like to write a few at a time, as coding goes on, but to write them properly: and edit later for consistency and second thoughts.

In any room description there are usually one to three essentials to get across, and the rest is better cut or relegated to text appearing only if the player chooses to examine something in particular. Even the most tedious junctions deserve description, however, and description is more than a list of exits. Here is ‘Advent’ at its most graceful:

Shell Room
You're in a large room carved out of sedimentary rock. The floor and walls are littered with bits of shells embedded in the stone. A shallow passage proceeds downward, and a somewhat steeper one leads up. A low hands and knees passage enters from the south.
In Limestone Passage
You are walking along a gently sloping north/south passage lined with oddly shaped limestone formations.

Note the geology, the slight unevenness of the ground and the variation in the size of the tunnels. Nothing happens here, but it seems a real place.

Flippant room descriptions are best avoided if they will be often revisited. Subtler humour is more durable:

On the wall by the bed is a slightly curved, full-length mirror. You reflect upon this for a while.

(From the Cambridge University game ‘Xenophobia’ (Jonathan Mestel, 1989). This wording is also neat in that it applies equally well on the tenth visit to a location as on the first, whereas text like “Astonished to see a mirror, you leap back…” would not.) About once in a game an author can get away with something like this:

Observation Room
Calvin Coolidge once described windows as “rectangles of glass.” If so, he may have been thinking about the window which fills the western wall of this room. A tiny closet lies to the north. A sign is posted next to the stairs which lead both upwards and downwards.

A characteristic piece of Steve Meretzky from ‘Leather Goddesses of Phobos’, demonstrating the lengths one has to go to when faced with a relentlessly ordinary junction-with-window. The sentence Meretzky is at pains to avoid is “You can go up, down or north.” With care it is even possible to remove mention of a room's exits altogether, but only if the information is presented in some other way. For instance:

Dark Cave
Little light seeps into this muddy, bone-scattered cave and always you long for fresh air. Strange bubbles, pulsing and shifting as if alive, hang upon the rock at crazy, irregular angles.
Black crabs scuttle about your feet.
The only exit is back out north to the sea-shore.

Here, the “You can't go that way” message for the room has taken up the slack.

Experienced players know all of the various formulae used in room descriptions by heart: “You're in”, “You are in”, “This is”, “You have come to” and so forth. This, perhaps, is why some designers prefer impersonal room descriptions, not mentioning “you” unless to say something other than the obvious fact of being present. Once into the text then, as in all writing, vocabulary counts. If there is a tree, of what species? If a chair, of what style? (‘Cutthroats’ (Mike Berlyn and Jerry Wolper, 1984) describes a cupboard of no particular interest as a “lopsided wooden dresser” for the sake of painting the scene.) Room descriptions should not always describe static, fixed things, should bring in senses other than sight and should not always be monochrome. Plainness and repetition are to be avoided at almost any cost:

You're on a winding drive outside a magnificent door. Exits are west to a woodshed, upwards to a vine and in through a door. You can see a vine.
You're in a woodshed in the swamp. Exits are east to a winding drive and west to a herb garden. You can see a candle and a woodpile.

(‘The Price of Magik’, BBC Micro version – in the Amiga version of the later ‘Time and Magik Trilogy’ re-release, the winding drive description ran to an eighty-word essay, and did away entirely with the mechanically-generated “exits are” sentence.) So much for what is bad. The following, from ‘Advent’ again, is something much more dangerous: the mediocre room description.

Whirlpool Room
You are in a magnificent cavern with a rushing stream, which cascades over a sparkling waterfall into a roaring whirlpool which disappears through a hole in the floor. Passages exit to the south and west.

This seems a decent enough try, but no novelist would write like this. Each important noun – “cavern”, “stream”, “waterfall”, “whirlpool” – has its own adjective – “magnificent”, “rushing”, “sparkling”, “roaring”. The two “which” clauses in a row are a little unhappy. “Cascades” is good, but does a stream cascade “over” a waterfall? Does a whirlpool itself disappear? The “hole in the floor” seems incongruous. Surely it must be underwater, indeed deep underwater? Come to that, the geography could be better used, which would also help to place the whirlpool within the cave (is it in the middle? on one edge?). And why “Whirlpool Room”, which sounds like one of the perks of a health club? Here is a second draft:

Whirlpool Ledge
The path runs a quarter-circle from south to west around a broken ledge of this funnel cavern. A waterfall drops out of the darkness, catching the lamplight as it cascades into the basin. Rapid currents whip into a roaring whirlpool below.

Even so, there is nothing man-made, nothing alive, no colour and besides it seems to miss the essential feature of all the mountain water-caves I've ever been to, so let us add a second paragraph (with a line break, which is easier on the eye):

Blue-green algae hangs in clusters from the old guard-railing, which has almost rusted clean through in the frigid, soaking air.

The algae and the guard-rail offer possibilities. Perhaps there are frogs who could eat insect-eggs in the algae, or perhaps the player might find a use for iron oxide, and could scrape rust from the railing. Certainly the railing should break if a rope is tied to it. Is it safe to dive in? Does the water have a hypnotic effect on someone staring into it? Is there anything dry which would become damp if the player brought it through here? Might there be a second ledge higher up where the stream falls into the cave?

Lack of variety comes in many forms. Brian Howarth's eleven “Mysterious Adventures” games written for the Scott Adams game engine invent some interesting milieux (‘Feasibility Experiment’ (1982), with objects like “Vague Shapes”, is worth a look) but they are highly repetitive and difficult to tell apart. The main weakness of ‘Enchanter’ is a sparse, location-heavy map, especially in the prologue, where many rooms over-describe their neighbours. Slightly at odds with the traditional dungeon elsewhere, ‘Enchanter’ blends in horror tableaux: dead grass “seems to grip at your feet”, a demon statue “seems to reach towards you”. There's a lot of “seeming” motion, because the deserted, blasted landscape is largely static: “listless waves barely stir the flotsam and jetsam” sums it up only too well. The outcome would have been mediocre had the puzzles in the game not been exceptionally good, and a few of the interior locations appealing. Here is a fine example of the interior room as vista, overlooking a landscape and drawing together the whole game's map:

Map Room
This room in the high tower appears to be a map room, with hundreds of ancient maps covering the walls. A huge globe, made of gold, sits on a pedestal in the center of the room. Through the tower windows can be seen a vast forest stretching out to the northeast and the sea, covered in fog, to the east and south. Stairs to the south lead to the bottom of the tower.

It is a vexed question just how much land occupies a single location. Usually a location represents a single room, perhaps ten yards across at the most. Really large chambers are usually given several locations, so that a ballroom might be divided into corners with names like “Ballroom Northwest” and “Ballroom Southwest”. The “huge cave about 3,000 feet across” of ‘Acheton’ occupies no less than 16 locations, which although it conveys a sense of space can also seem repetitious and wasteful.

At the other extreme it is sometimes necessary for a single location to do duty for a great swathe of ground, especially out of doors, where drawing the map can leave one with the same frustration as the set-designer for a Wagnerian opera: everything indistinct and without edges. ‘Spellbreaker’, under tight constraints on locations, includes one-location meadows and volcanos. The reverse position is taken by the distinctive and plausible ‘Gateway to Karos’ (Derek Haslam, 1984). Locations are superimposed in a square map-like grid onto the rivers, cliffs, forest and so forth of the island of Karos, so that each location represents perhaps one square kilometer:

You are in a cluster of roofless, abandoned buildings, apparently part of an ore-washing mill. A dry water-channel runs northward, and a path leads west.
A garden spade, well used but still strong and sharp, lies abandoned here.

(About a dozen neighbouring locations share the short name “Eastlands”.) A middle position between ‘Spellbreaker’ and ‘Gateway to Karos’ is taken by ‘She's Got a Thing For a Spring’ (1997), an evocation by the nature photographer Brent VanFossen of the mountains of northwest America. Almost an interactive postcard, this thoroughly appealing game features elks, mooses, eagles and so forth, but is equally vivid with terrain and vegetation:

Granite Canyon
You're on a shelf overlooking a small canyon, apparently carved by the nearby stream and 20 or 30 feet deep. A rocky path enters from the west beside a tangle of blackberries, and dead ends at a ledge overlooking the stream below. Above you, granite walls continue to rise, the pink stones a beautiful contrast to the clear blue sky. An animal trail leads up, too steep to walk, but you might be able to make it in a scramble.
Beside you stands a small tower supporting one end of a steel cable.
The end of a spruce branch is just barely visible deep inside the blackberries.

A single location can also substitute for an infinite expanse, such as the Neverending Lane of ‘Jinxter’.

Another consideration in outdoor locations is that the slow process of sunrise and sunset ought to affect room descriptions. ‘Christminster’ organises time so as to keep the player indoors between seven and ten p.m. so that only two states are needed, full day and full night. ‘A Mind Forever Voyaging’ derives most of its impact from its depiction of the same city decaying in ten-year stages, as it rolls forward in history like H. G. Wells's classic (and classically filmed) novel Things To Come. The definitive shifting-description game of recent years is Andrew Plotkin's ‘A Change in the Weather’ (1995):

You're standing on a ledge, on a rather steep, overgrown hillface. Greenery hides the stream below and the hilltop above, and the meadows and sky beyond sweep away into the incandescent west.

You're standing on a ledge, on a rather steep, overgrown hillface. Rain hides the stream below and the hilltop above, and to the west is only dark.

Descriptions alter not just through time passing, but also because of differences in perspective. Still the most remarkable example is the ‘Suspended’ complex, which a player in suspended animation controls through robots with different sensory perceptions. Here is the same place from four points of view:

I'm in a large room which looks like the inside of a globe. The walls seem sculptured with wiring, swirling around the room's perimeter, leading into a tall column. The column itself has a door on its face. Doorways lead to the west, south, east and northeast.

Sonar indicates a large, spherical open area with a hollow column running from floor to ceiling. The column reflects sonar evenly indicating no distinguishing external characteristics.

All around me charges flow, shaped by the very nature of this room. The electrons are being channeled into an electrical column, central to this environment.

A small humming can be detected from a column which extends from floor to ceiling.

Another device, used in the spy thriller ‘Border Zone’ (Marc Blank, 1987), is to respond to directions not with a description of the new location but with a response about how you got there:

You open the door and walk out into the passageway. You scan the passageway, noting guards at either end, machine guns poised at their sides. You don't remember them from the beginning of the trip, so you can only suppose that security has been tightened in the search for the American agent.
Outside Your Compartment
You are standing in the passageway that runs along the length of the car. At either end of the passageway, a guard is standing, machine gun poised at his side. Right now, you're standing outside your own compartment.

Mike Berlyn (XYZZYnews 17) groups the issues here under the headings Size/Scope, Ceilings, Floor/Ground, Walls, Lighting and Mood (“a depressed person is not likely to have yellow-and-red throw pillows”: oh?).   Gerry Kevin Wilson offers three don'ts for room descriptions: “1. Don't mention a player's actions in a description. 2. Don't mention moveable objects in a description. 3. Don't exceed one screenful of text in a description.”   “Very often, a map or the plan of a building can suggest a plot element that no amount of abstract thought could generate.” (Gil and Beryl Williamson, in Computer Adventures – The Secret Art.)   Wisest of all, perhaps: “It's awful to sit down and think, ‘I've got to write fifty room descriptions today, and each one of them has to be clear, crisp and vivid while conveying exactly the information I want it to convey’ ” (Gareth Rees, Usenet posting, 7/6/94). Don't write them all at once.

  But Meretzky was not always as corny as his reputation. Influenced by ‘Suspended’, which he had play-tested and later called “probably the most interesting and daringly different game Infocom ever did”, he used a virtual reality theme to construct almost the only work of early IF to contain serious political themes: ‘A Mind Forever Voyaging’ (1985).