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The Craft of Adventure

Five articles on the design of adventure games

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

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4 - A Narrative...

The initial version of the game was designed and implemented in about two weeks.

- P. David Lebling, Marc S. Blank, Timothy A. Anderson, of ‘Zork’

It was started in May of ’85 and finished in June ’86.

-- Brian Moriarty, of ‘Trinity’ (from earlier ideas)

Away in a Genre

The days of wandering around doing unrelated things to get treasures are long passed, if they ever were. Even ‘Adventure’ went to some effort to avoid this.

Its many imitators, in the early years of small computers, often took no such trouble. The effect was quite surreal. One would walk across the drawbridge of a mediŠval castle and find a pot plant, a vat of acid, a copy of Playboy magazine and an electric drill. There were puzzles without rhyme or reason. The player was a characterless magpie always on the lookout for something cute to do. The crossword had won without a fight.

It tends to be forgotten that ‘Adventure’ was quite clean in this respect: at its best it had an austere, Tolkienesque feel, in which magic was scarce, and its atmosphere and geography was well-judged, especially around the edges of the map: the outside forests and gullies, the early rubble-strewn caves, the Orange River Rock room and the rim of the volcano. Knife-throwing dwarves would appear from time to time, but joky town council officers with clipboards never would. ‘Zork’ was condensed, less spacious and never quite so consistent in style: machines with buttons lay side by side with trolls and vampire bats. Nonetheless, even ‘Zork’ has a certain ‘house style’, and the best of even the tiniest games, those by Scott Adams, make up a variety of genres (not always worked through but often interesting): vampire film, comic-book, Voodoo, ghost story.

By the mid-1980s better games had settled the point. Any player dumped in the middle of one of ‘The Lurking Horror’ (H. P. Lovecraft horror), ‘Leather Goddesses of Phobos’ (30s racy space opera) or ‘Ballyhoo’ (mournfully cynical circus mystery) would immediately be able to say which it was.

The essential flavour that makes your game distinctive and yours is genre. And so the first decision to be made, when beginning a design, is the style of the game. Major or minor key, basically cheerful or nightmarish, or somewhere in between? Exploration, romance, mystery, historical reconstruction, adaptation of a book, film noir, horror? In the style of Terry Pratchett, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Hardy, Philip K. Dick? Icelandic, Greek, Chaucerian, Hopi Indian, Aztec, Australian myth?

If the chosen genre isn’t fresh and relatively new, then the game had better be very good. It’s a fateful decision: the only irreversible one.

Adapting Books

Two words of warning about adapting books. First, remember copyright, which has broader implications than many non-authors realise. For instance, fans of Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragon” series of novels are allowed to play network games set on imaginary planets which do not appear in McCaffrey’s works, and to adopt characters of their own invention, but not to use or refer to hers. This is a relatively tolerant position on the part of her publishers.

Even if no money changes hands, copyright law is enforceable, usually until fifty years after the author’s death (but in some countries seventy). Moreover some classics are written by young authors (the most extreme case I’ve found is a copyright life of 115 years after publication). Most of twentieth-century literature, even much predating World War I, is still covered: and some literary estates (that of Tintin, for instance) are highly protective. (The playwright Alan Bennett recently commented on the trouble he had over a brief parody of the 1930s school of adventure yarns - Sapper, Dornford Yates, and so on - just because of an automatic hostile response by publishers.) The quotations from games in this article are legal only because brief excerpts are permitted for critical or review purposes.

Secondly, a direct linear plot is very hard to successfully implement in an adventure game. It will be too long (just as a novel is usually too much for a film, which is nearer to a longish short story in scope) and it will involve the central character making crucial and perhaps unlikely decisions at the right moment. If the player decides to have tea outside and not to go into those ancient caves after all, the result is not “A Passage to India”. (A book, incidentally, which E. M. Forster published in 1924, and on which British copyright will expire in 2020.)

Pastiche is legally safer and usually works better in any case: steal a milieu rather than a plot. In this (indeed, perhaps only this) respect, McCaffrey’s works are superior to Forster’s: then again, Chaucer or Rabelais have more to offer than either, and with no executors waiting to pounce.

Magic and Mythology

Whether or not there is “magic” (and it might not be called such, for example in the case of science fiction) there is always myth. This is the imaginary fabric of the game: landscape is more than just buildings and trees.

The commonest ‘mythology’ is what might be called ‘lazy mediŠval’, where anything prior to the invention of gunpowder goes, all at once, everything from Greek gods to the longbow (a span of about two thousand years). In fact, anything an average reader might think of as ‘old world’ will do, the Western idea of antiquity being a huge collage. This was so even in the time of the Renaissance:

One is tempted to call the mediŠval habit of life mathematical or to compare it with a gigantic game where everything is included and every act is conducted under the most complicated system of rules. Ultimately the game grew over-complicated and was too much for people...

(In some ways, the historical counterparts of the characters in a mediŠval adventure game saw the real world as if it were such a game.)

That last quotation was from E. M. W. Tillyard’s book ‘The Elizabethan World Picture’, exactly the stuff of which game-settings are made. Tillyard’s main claim is that

The Elizabethans pictured the universal order under three main forms: a chain, a series of corresponding planes and a dance.

Throw all that together with Hampton Court, boats on the Thames by night and an expedition or two to the Azores and the game is afoot.

Most games do have “magic”, some way of allowing the player to transform her surroundings in a wholly unexpected and dramatic way which would not be possible in real life. There are two dangers: firstly, many systems have already been tried - and naturally a designer wants to find a new one. Sometimes spells take place in the mind (the ‘Enchanter’ trilogy), sometimes with the aid of certain objects (‘Curses’); sometimes half-way between the two (Level 9’s ‘Magik’ trilogy).

Secondly, magic is surreal almost by definition and surrealism is dangerous (unless it is deliberate, something only really attempted once, in ‘Nord ‘n’ Burt Couldn’t Make Head Nor Tail Of It’). The T-Removing Machine of ‘Leather Goddesses of Phobos’ (which can, for instance, transform a rabbit to a rabbi) is a stroke of genius but a risky one. The adventure game is centred on words and descriptions, but the world it incarnates is supposed to be solid and real, surely, and not dependent on how it is described? To prevent magic from derailing the illusion, it must have a coherent rationale. This is perhaps the definition of mystic religion, and there are plenty around to steal from.

What can magic do? Chambers English Dictionary defines it as

the art of producing marvellous results by compelling the aid of spirits, or by using the secret forces of nature, such as the power supposed to reside in certain objects as ‘givers of life’: enchantment: sorcery: art of producing illusions by legerdemain: a secret or mysterious power over the imagination or will.

It is now a commonplace that this is really the same as unexplained science, that a tricorder and a rusty iron rod with a star on the end are basically the same myth. As C. S. Lewis, in ‘The Abolition of Man’, defined it,

For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of man.

Role-playing games tend to have elaborately worked-out theories about magic, but these aren’t always suitable. Here are two (slightly simplified) excerpts from the spell book of ‘Tunnels and Trolls’, which has my favourite magic system:

Magic Fangs: Change a belt or staff into a small poisonous serpent. Cannot “communicate” with mage, but does obey mage’s commands. Lasts as long as mage puts strength into it at time of creation.

Bog and Mire: Converts rock to mud or quicksand for 2 turns, up to 1000 cubic feet. Can adjust dimensions as required, but must be a regular geometric solid.

Magic Fangs is an ideal spell for an adventure game, whereas Bog and Mire is a nightmare to implement and impossible for the player to describe.

If there are spells (or things which come down to spells, such as alien artifacts) then each should be used at least twice in the game, preferably in different contexts, and some many times. But, and this is a big ‘but’, the majority of puzzles should be soluble by hand - or else the player will start to feel that it would save a good deal of time and effort just to find the “win game” spell and be done with it. In similar vein, using an “open even locked or enchanted object” spell on a shut door is less satisfying than casting a “cause to rust” spell on its hinges, or something even more indirect.

Magic has to be part of the mythology of a game to work. Alien artifacts would only make sense found on, say, an adrift alien spaceship, and the player will certainly expect to have more about the ‘aliens’ revealed in play. Even the traditional magic word “xyzzy”, written on the cave’s walls, is in keeping with the centuries of initials carved by the first explorers of the Mammoth cave.


Design usually begins with, and is periodically interrupted by, research. This can be the most entertaining part of the project and is certainly the most rewarding, not so much because factual accuracy matters (it doesn’t) but because it continually sparks off ideas.

A decent town library, for instance, contains thousands of maps of one kind or another if one knows where to look: deck plans of Napoleonic warships, small-scale contour maps of mountain passes, city plans of New York and ancient Thebes, the layout of the U.S. Congress. There will be photographs of every conceivable kind of terrain, of most species of animals and plants; cutaway drawings of a 747 airliner and a domestic fridge; shelves full of the collected paintings of every great artist from the Renaissance onwards. Data is available on the melting point of tungsten, the distances and spectral types of the nearest two dozen stars, journey times by rail and road across France.

History crowds with fugitive tales. Finding an eyewitness account is always a pleasure: for instance,

As we ranged by Gratiosa, on the tenth of September, about twelve a clocke at night, we saw a large and perfect Rainbow by the Moone light, in the bignesse and forme of all other Rainbows, but in colour much differing, for it was more whitish, but chiefly inclining to the colour of the flame of fire.

(Described by the ordinary seaman Arthur Gorges aboard Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition of 1597.)

Then, too, useful raw materials come to hand. A book about Tibet may mention, in passing, the way to make tea with a charcoal-burning samovar. So, why not a tea-making puzzle somewhere? It doesn’t matter that there is as yet no plot to fit it into: if it’s in keeping with the genre, it will fit somewhere.

Research also usefully fills in gaps. Suppose a fire station is to be created: what are the rooms? A garage, a lounge, a room full of uniforms, yes: but what else? Here is Stu Galley, on writing the Chandleresque murder mystery ‘Witness’:

Soon my office bookshelf had an old Sears catalogue and a pictorial history of advertising (to help me furnish the house and clothe the characters), the “Dictionary of American Slang” (to add colour to the text) and a 1937 desk encyclopaedia (to weed out anachronisms).

The result (overdone but hugely amusing) is that one proceeds up the peastone drive of the Linder house to meet (for instance) Monica, who has dark waved hair and wears a navy Rayon blouse, tan slacks and tan pumps with Cuban heels. She then treats you like a masher who just gave her a whistle.

On the other hand, the peril of research is that it piles up fact without end. It is essential to condense. Here Brian Moriarty, on research for ‘Trinity’, which went as far as geological surveys:

The first thing I did was sit down and make a map of the Trinity site. It was changed about 50 times trying to simplify it and get it down from over 100 rooms to the 40 or so rooms that now comprise it. It was a lot more accurate and very detailed, but a lot of that detail was totally useless.

There is no need to implement ten side-chapels when coding, say, Chartres cathedral, merely because the real one has ten.

The Overture

At this point the designer has a few photocopied sheets, some scribbled ideas and perhaps even a little code - the implementation of a samovar, for instance - but nothing else. (There’s no harm in sketching details before having the whole design worked out: painters often do. Besides, it can be very disspiriting looking at a huge paper plan of which nothing whatever is yet programmed.) It is time for a plot.

Plot begins with the opening message, rather the way an episode of Star Trek begins before the credits come up. Write it now. It ought to be striking and concise (not an effort to sit through, like the title page of ‘Beyond Zork’). By and large Infocom were good at this, and a fine example is Brian Moriarty’s overture to ‘Trinity’:

Sharp words between the superpowers. Tanks in East Berlin. And now, reports the BBC, rumors of a satellite blackout. It’s enough to spoil your continental breakfast.

But the world will have to wait. This is the last day of your $599 London Getaway Package, and you’re determined to soak up as much of that authentic English ambience as you can. So you’ve left the tour bus behind, ditched the camera and escaped to Hyde Park for a contemplative stroll through the Kensington Gardens.

Already you know: who you are (an unadventurous American tourist, of no consequence to the world); exactly where you are (Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London, England); and what is going on (bad news, I’m afraid: World War III is about to break out). Notice the careful details: mention of the BBC, of continental breakfasts, of the camera and the tour bus. In style, the opening of ‘Trinity’ is escapism from a disastrous world out of control: notice the way the first paragraph is in tense, blunt, headline-like sentences, whereas the second is much more relaxed. So a good deal has been achieved in two paragraphs.

The point about telling the player who to be is more subtle than first appears. “What should you, the detective, do now?” asks ‘Witness’ pointedly on the first turn. Gender is an especially awkward point. In some games the player’s character is exactly prescribed: in ‘Plundered Hearts’ you are a particular girl whisked away by pirates, and have to act in character. Other games take the attitude that anyone who turns up can play, as themselves, with whatever gender or attitudes (and in a dull enough game with no other characters, these don’t even matter).

An Aim in Life

Once the player knows who he is, what is he to do? Even if you don’t want him to know everything yet, he has to have some initial task.

Games vary in how much they reveal at once. ‘Trinity’ is foreboding but really only tells the player to go for a walk. ‘Curses’ gives the player an initial task which appears easy - look through some attics for a tourist map of Paris - the significance of which is only gradually revealed, in stages, as the game proceeds. (Not everyone likes this, and some players have told me it took them a while to motivate themselves because of it, but on balance I disagree.) Whereas even the best of “magic realm” type games (such as ‘Enchanter’) tends to begin with something like:

You, a novice Enchanter with but a few simple spells in your Book, must seek out Krill, explore the Castle he has overthrown, and learn his secrets. Only then may his vast evil...

A play is nowadays sometimes said to be ‘a journey for the main character’, and there’s something in this. There’s a tendency in most games to make the protagonist terribly, terribly important, albeit initially ordinary - the player sits down as Clark Kent, and by the time the prologue has ended is wearing Superman’s gown. Presumably the idea is that it’s more fun being Superman than Kent (though I’m not so sure about this).

Anyway, the most common plots boil down to saving the world, by exploring until eventually you vanquish something (‘Lurking Horror’ again, for instance) or collecting some number of objects hidden in awkward places (‘Leather Goddesses’ again, say). The latter can get very hackneyed (find the nine magic spoons of Zenda to reunite the Kingdom...), so much so that it becomes a bit of a joke (‘Hollywood Hijinx’) but still it isn’t a bad idea, because it enables many different problems to be open at once.

As an aside on saving the world, with which I suspect many fans of ‘Dr Who’ would agree: it’s more interesting and dramatic to save a small number of people (the mud-slide will wipe out the whole village!) than the whole impersonal world (but Doctor, the instability could blow up every star in the universe!).

In the same way, a game which involves really fleshed-out characters other than the player will involve them in the plot and the player’s motives, which obviously opens many more possibilities.

The ultimate aim at this stage is to be able to write a one-page synopsis of what will happen in the full game (as is done when pitching a film, and as Infocom did internally, according to several sources): and this ought to have a clear structure.

Size and Density

Once upon a time, the sole measure of quality in advertisements for adventure games was the number of rooms. Even quite small programs would have 200 rooms, which meant only minimal room descriptions and simple puzzles which were scattered thinly over the map. (The Level 9 game ‘Snowball’ - perhaps their best, and now perhaps almost lost - cheekily advertised itself as having 2,000,000 rooms... though 1,999,800 of them were quite similar to each other.)

Nowadays a healthier principle has been adopted: that (barring a few junctions and corridors) there should be something out of the ordinary about every room.

One reason for the quality of the Infocom games is that their roots were in a format which enforced a high density. In their formative years there was an absolute ceiling of 255 objects, which needs to cover rooms, objects and many other things (e.g., compass directions and spells). Some writers were slacker than others (Steve Meretzky, for example) but there simply wasn’t room for great boring stretches. An object limit can be a blessing as well as a curse. (And the same applies to some extent to the Scott Adams games, whose format obliged extreme economy on number of rooms and objects but coded rules and what we would now call daemons so efficiently that the resulting games tend to have very tightly interlinked puzzles and objects, full of side-effects and multiple uses.)

Let us consider the earlier Infocom format as an example of setting a budget. Many ‘objects’ are not portable: walls, tapestries, thrones, control panels, coal-grinding machines. As a rule of thumb, four objects to one room is to be expected: so we might allocate, say, 60 rooms. Of the remaining 200 objects, one can expect 15-20 to be used up by the game’s administration (e.g., in an Infocom game these might be a “Darkness” room, 12 compass directions, the player and so on). Another 50-75 or so objects may be portable but the largest number, at least 100, will be furniture.

Similarly there used to be room for at most 150K of text. This is the equivalent of about a quarter of a modern novel, or, put another way, enough bytes to store a very substantial book of poetry. Roughly, it meant spending 2K of text (about 350 words) in each room - ten times the level of detail of the original mainframe Adventure.

Most adventure-compilers are fairly flexible about resources nowadays (certainly TADS and Inform are), and this means that a rigorous budget is not absolutely needed. Nonetheless, a plan can be helpful and can help to keep a game in proportion. If a game of 60 rooms is intended, how will they be divided up among the stages of the game? Is the plan too ambitious, or too meek?

The Prologue

Just as most Hollywood films are three-act plays (following a convention abandoned decades ago by the theatre), so there is a conventional game structure.

Most games have a prologue, a middle game and an end game, usually quite closed off from each other. Once one of these phases has been left, it generally cannot be returned to (though there is sometimes a reprise at the end, or a premonition at the beginning): the player is always going ‘further up, and further in’, like the children entering Narnia.

The prologue has two vital duties. Firstly, it has to establish an atmosphere, and give out a little background information.

To this end the original ‘Adventure’ had the above-ground landscape; the fact that it was there gave a much greater sense of claustrophobia and depth to the underground bulk of the game. Similarly, most games begin with something relatively mundane (the guild-house in ‘Sorcerer’, Kensington Gardens in ‘Trinity’) or else they include the exotic with dream-sequences (‘The Lurking Horror’). Seldom is a player dropped in at the deep end (as ‘Plundered Hearts’, which splendidly begins amid a sea battle).

The other duty is to attract a player enough to make her carry on playing. It’s worth imagining that the player is only toying with the game at this stage, and isn’t drawing a map or being at all careful. If the prologue is big, the player will quickly get lost and give up. If it is too hard, then many players simply won’t reach the middle game.

Perhaps eight to ten rooms is the largest a prologue ought to be, and even then it should have a simple (easily remembered) map layout. The player can pick up a few useful items - the traditional bottle, lamp and key, whatever they may be in this game - and set out on the journey by one means or another.

The Middle Game

The middle game is both the largest and the one which least needs detailed planning in advance, oddly enough, because it is the one which comes nearest to being a collection of puzzles.

There may be 50 or so locations in the middle game. How are they to be divided up? Will there be one huge landscape, or will it divide into zones? Here, designers often try to impose some coherency by making symmetrical patterns: areas corresponding to the four winds, or the twelve signs of the Zodiac, for instance. Gaining access to these areas, one by one, provides a sequence of problems and rewards for the player.

Perhaps the fundamental question is: wide or narrow? How much will be visible at once?

Some games, such as the original Adventure, are very wide: there are thirty or so puzzles, all easily available, none leading to each other. Others, such as ‘Spellbreaker’, are very narrow: a long sequence of puzzles, each of which leads only to a chance to solve the next.

A compromise is probably best. Wide games are not very interesting (and annoyingly unrewarding since one knows that a problem solved cannot transform the landscape), while narrow ones can in a way be easy: if only one puzzle is available at a time, the player will just concentrate on it, and will not be held up by trying to use objects which are provided for different puzzles.

Just as the number of locations can be divided into rough classes at this stage, so can the number of (portable) objects. In most games, there are a few families of objects: the cubes and scrolls in ‘Spellbreaker’, the rods and Tarot cards in ‘Curses’ and so on. These are to be scattered about the map, of course, and found one by one by a player who will come to value them highly. The really important rules of the game to work out at this stage are those to do with these families of objects. What are they for? Is there a special way to use them? And these are the first puzzles to implement.

So a first-draft design of the middle game may just consist of a rough sketch of a map divided into zones, with an idea for some event or meeting to take place in each, together with some general ideas for objects. Slotting actual puzzles in can come later.

The End Game

Some end games are small (‘The Lurking Horror’ or ‘Sorcerer’ for instance), others huge (the master game in ‘Zork’, now called ‘Zork III’). Almost all games have one.

End games serve two purposes. Firstly they give the player a sense of being near to success, and can be used to culminate the plot, to reveal the game’s secrets. This is obvious enough. They also serve to stop the final stage of the game from being too hard.

As a designer, you don’t usually want the last step to be too difficult; you want to give the player the satisfaction of finishing, as a reward for having got through the game. (But of course you want to make him work for it.) An end game helps by narrowing the game, so that only a few rooms and objects are accessible.

In a novelist’s last chapter, ends are always tied up (suspiciously neatly compared with real life - Jane Austen being a particular offender, though always in the interests of humour). The characters are all sent off with their fates worked out and issues which cropped up from time to time are settled. So should the end game be. Looking back, as if you were a winning player, do you understand why everything that happened did? (Of course, some questions will forever remain dark. Who did kill the chauffeur in ‘The Big Sleep’?)

Most stories have a decisive end. The old Gothic manor house burns down, the alien invaders are poisoned, the evil warlord is deposed. If the end game lacks such an event, perhaps it is insufficiently final.

Above all, what happens to the player’s character, when the adventure ends?

The final message is also an important one to write carefully, and, like the overture, the coda should be brief. To quote examples here would only spoil their games. But a good rule of thumb, as any film screenplay writer will testify, seems to be to make the two scenes which open and close the story “book-ends” for each other: in some way symmetrical and matching.

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