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- David Bennett
The Writer's Block
- Daniel McIver
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The Writer's Block
by Daniel McIver
It almost seems surprising that
in games which consist entirely of text, the quality of the descriptions
is often so poor. Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that most
mud builders tend to come from scientific backgrounds as opposed to the
supposedly more literate arts backgrounds. Often it seems that descriptions
take second place to the code involved in area construction. This
is a shame, because the code involved in building areas is often quite
repetitive and simple, whereas the descriptions offer a chance to demonstrate
imagination and creative flare
It can be argued that many players don’t
bother reading the descriptions, so there’s not much point ‘wasting time’
trying to write impressive ones. But even players zipping through
an area in fast walk mode catch brief snippets of the descriptions, and
these help set the overall theme of the area for that player. An
area which is full of typos, hastily written descriptions, and poor grammar
puts forward a very unprofessional image of the mud.
I have also noticed that those players who
take time to read room descriptions are often the more ‘desirable’ players
who frequent muds. The players who bother to read the descriptions
are often of the more relaxed variety, less interested in big numbers,
abusing bugs, and more interested in role-playing, and are generally more
pleasant to deal with. Good room descriptions tend to attract these
players, whereas players who consider reading descriptions to be a waste
of precious xp-earning time probably don’t care whether the descriptions
have the appearance of having been written by a two year old with a crayon.
The most common type of room description
is merely a list of exits with any old line thrown in at the beginning
or end simply to fill up a bit of space on the screen. This gets
very boring very quickly, and, since most muds have a line at the end of
the room description listing the exits, it is rather pointless. Since
this seems to be such a common method of describing areas, it is little
wonder that so many players don’t bother to read descriptions.
Large areas with the same description (even
if it’s a very good description) repeated over and over again also become
very boring very quickly. They also suggest that a lack of care and
thought has been put into the area. Worse than this is when the same
description is repeated over and over, slightly altered each time (which
is often done in an attempt to make an area more interesting). This
merely means that the builder wastes time slightly changing each description,
and the players all waste time reading the same information phrased in
lots of different (and sometimes ridiculous) ways, that is if they bother
to read them all.
Obviously, if a large area of around one
hundred rooms has to be described, builders, quite understandably, run
out of ideas for room descriptions quickly. In my experience, properly
describing twenty similar rooms is a tough task for any builder.
The best solution for this problem seems to be to break down the area into
a number of smaller projects for a lot of builders to work on. This
way, the area should contain more variation in approach to the style and
content of the descriptions, although keeping the theme of the area similar
can be quite challenging.
Even writing twenty similar room descriptions
is quite tough, as inspiration quickly runs out. Luckily, good sources
of inspiration are quite thick on the ground. Numerous books on caves,
ancient cities, towns, and landscapes have been published, some of which
are full of beautifully phrased descriptions of locations and scenery.
Snippets of text from these books, suitably modified, can be easily lifted
and placed in your own descriptions. This is particularly useful
if, like me, you’re not very skilled at creative writing. Fantasy
novels, particularly those that take great swathes of text to describe
areas (such as ‘The Lord of The Rings’) are also wonderful sources of inspiration
when building areas.
The style in which the room description is
written is very important. The number of ways the room is going to
be viewed often places limits on the way the room can be described.
Will the room description only be viewed by a player standing in a room?
Can the room be viewed from an adjacent room? What happens if the
room is being viewed through a crystal ball, or through the eyes of a wizard’s
familiar? Will your description make sense when viewed from all these
So, what sort of phrases will not work under
these conditions? "You are in a..." is the first obvious one, as
they may not be anywhere near that room, but still viewing it. "You
are standing on..." could also be inconsistent if the player is sitting
or lying down. The only way to really ensure that the description
will make sense from all viewing points is to write them making no reference
to the player at all. This makes the job of describing areas even
more difficult, as referring to ‘you’ seems to be the natural way of describing
a room. However, the greater flexibility is well worth the effort.
Another issue to consider is describing actions
within rooms. For example, if the description is of a location at
the top of a tree, and describes the player scrambling up it and clinging
to its branches, it’s not going to make much sense if they’re already in
the tree, and type ‘look’ again, or if they’ve just teleported into the
room without doing any climbing at all.
Telling the player what they think in a room
description is also a bad idea. Describe the location, and let the
player draw his or her own conclusion as to what they think of the place.
The length of a description is also very
important. If it is too short, it will hardly hold the reader’s interest,
and will not conjure up much atmosphere. Then again, if it’s too
long, a lot of people won’t bother reading it. To effectively describe
an area then, you may need to break your longer descriptions over a series
of rooms. This can be very difficult to do, as each fragment of the
original room description must make sense on its own, and when passing
through the area from many potential directions. I find that around
fifty to eighty words is often best, as then the description is short enough
to be read quickly, and it shouldn’t scroll off the screen before it can
September 1998 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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