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The Craft of Adventure

Five articles on the design of adventure games

Copyright © 1995-6 Graham Nelson. Second edition.
HTML conversion by N. K. Guy, tela design.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. In The Beginning
  3. Bill of Player’s Rights
  4. A Narrative...
  5. ...At War With a Crossword
  6. Varnish and Veneer

1 - Introduction

Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.

- Tom Stoppard, Artist Descending A Staircase

Making books is a skilled trade, like making clocks.

- Jean de la Bruyère (1645-1696)

If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map; otherwise you’ll never make a map of it afterwards.

- J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Designing an adventure game is both an art and a craft. Whereas art cannot be taught, only commented upon, craft at least can be handed down: but the tricks of the trade do not make an elegant narrative, only a catalogue. This small collection of essays is just such a string of grits of wisdom and half-baked critical opinions, which may well leave the reader feeling unsatisfied. One can only say to such a reader that any book claiming to reveal the secret of how to paint, or to write novels, should be recycled at once into something more genuinely artistic, say a papier-mâché sculpture.

If there is any theme here, it is that standards count: not just of competent coding, but of writing. True, most designers have been either programmers ‘in real life’ or at the ‘Hardy Boys Mysteries’ end of the literary scale, but that’s no reason to look down on their better works, or to begrudge them a look at all. Though this book is mainly about the larger scale, one reason I think highly of ‘Spellbreaker’ is for memorable phrases like ‘a voice of honey and ashes’. Or ‘You insult me, you insult even my dog!’

The author of a text adventure has to be schizophrenic in a way that the author of a novel does not. The novel-reader does not suffer as the player of a game does: she needs only to keep turning the pages, and can be trusted to do this by herself. The novelist may worry that the reader is getting bored and discouraged, but not that she will suddenly find pages 63 to the end have been glued together just as the plot is getting interesting.

Thus, the game author has continually to worry about how the player is getting along, whether she is lost, confused, fed up, finding it too tedious to keep an accurate map: or, on the other hand, whether she is yawning through a sequence of easy puzzles without much exploration. Too difficult, too easy? Too much choice, too little? So this book will keep going back to the player’s eye view.

On the other hand, there is also a novel to be written: the player may get the chapters all out of order, the plot may go awry, but somehow the author has to rescue the situation and bind up the strings neatly. Our player should walk away thinking it was a well-thought out story: in fact, a novel, and not a child’s puzzle-book.

An adventure game is a crossword at war with a narrative. Design sharply divides into the global - plot, structure, genre - and the local - puzzles and rooms, orders in which things must be done. And this book divides accordingly.

Frequent examples are quoted from real games, especially from ‘Adventure’ and the middle-period Infocom games: for two reasons. Firstly, they will be familiar to many aficionados. Secondly, although a decade has passed they still represent the bulk of the best work in the field. In a few places my own game ‘Curses’ is cited, because I know all the unhappy behind-the-scenes stories about it.

I have tried not to give anything substantial away. So I have also avoided mention of recent games other than my own; while revising this text, for instance, I had access to an advance copy of David M. Baggett’s fine game ‘The Legend Lives’, but resisted the temptation to insert any references to it. Except to say that it demonstrates that, as I write this, the genre is still going strong: well, long may it.

Graham Nelson
Magdalen College, Oxford
January 1995

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