Table of Contents
of Player’s Rights
War With a Crossword
Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects
such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern
- Tom Stoppard, Artist Descending A Staircase
Making books is a skilled trade, like making clocks.
- Jean de la Bruyere (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-mache 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
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
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.
Magdalen College, Oxford
2 - In
It’s very tight. But we have cave!
- Patricia Crowther, July 1972
Perhaps the first adventurer was a mulatto slave named Stephen Bishop, born
about 1820: ‘slight, graceful, and very handsome’; a ‘quick, daring,
enthusiastic’ guide to the Mammoth Cave in the Kentucky karst. The story of the
Cave is a curious microcosm of American history. Its discovery is a matter of
legend dating back to the 1790s; it is said that a hunter, John Houchin, pursued
a wounded bear to a large pit near the Green River and stumbled upon the
entrance. The entrance was thick with bats and by the War of 1812 was
intensively mined for guano, dissolved into nitrate vats to make saltpetre for
gunpowder. After the war prices fell; but the Cave became a minor side-show when
a dessicated Indian mummy was found nearby, sitting upright in a stone coffin,
surrounded by talismans. In 1815, Fawn Hoof, as she was nicknamed after one of
the charms, was taken away by a circus, drawing crowds across America (a tour
rather reminiscent of Don McLean’s song ‘The Legend of Andrew McCrew’). She
ended up in the Smithsonian but by the 1820s the Cave was being called one of
the wonders of the world, largely due to her posthumous efforts.
By the early nineteenth century European caves were big tourist attractions,
but hardly anyone visited the Mammoth, ‘wonder of the world’ or not. Nor was it
then especially large (the name was a leftover from the miners, who boasted of
their mammoth yields of guano). In 1838, Stephen Bishop’s owner bought up the
Cave. Stephen, as (being a slave) he was invariably called, was by any standards
a remarkable man: self-educated in Latin and Greek, he became famous as the
‘chief ruler’ of his underground realm. He explored and named much of the layout
in his spare time, doubling the known map in a year. The distinctive flavour of
the Cave’s names - half-homespun American, half-classical - started with
Stephen: the River Styx, the Snowball Room, Little Bat Avenue, the Giant Dome.
Stephen found strange blind fish, snakes, silent crickets, the remains of cave
bears (savage, playful creatures, five feet long and four high, which became
extinct at the end of the last Ice Age), centuries-old Indian gypsum workings
and ever more cave. His 1842 map, drafted entirely from memory, was still in use
forty years later.
As a tourist attraction (and, since Stephen’s owner was a philanthropist,
briefly a sanatorium for tuberculosis, owing to a hopeless medical theory) the
Cave became big business: for decades nearby caves were hotly seized and legal
title endlessly challenged. The neighbouring chain, across Houchins Valley in
the Flint Ridge, opened the Great Onyx Cave in 1912. By the 1920s, the Kentucky
Cave Wars were in full swing. Rival owners diverted tourists with fake
policemen, employed stooges to heckle each other’s guided tours, burned down
ticket huts, put out libellous and forged advertisements. Cave exploration
became so dangerous and secretive that finally in 1941 the U.S. Government
stepped in, made much of the area a National Park and effectively banned caving.
The gold rush of tourists was, in any case, waning.
Convinced that the Mammoth and Flint Ridge caves were all linked in a huge
chain, explorers tried secret entrances for years, eventually winning official
backing. Throughout the 1960s all connections from Flint Ridge - difficult and
water-filled tunnels - ended frustratingly in chokes of boulders. A ‘reed-thin’
physicist, Patricia Crowther, made the breakthrough in 1972 when she got through
the Tight Spot and found a muddy passage: it was a hidden way into the Mammoth
Under the terms of his owner’s will, Stephen Bishop was freed in 1856, at
which time the cave boasted 226 avenues, 47 domes, 23 pits and 8 waterfalls. He
died a year later, before he could buy his wife and son. In the 1970s,
Crowther’s muddy passage was found on his map.
The Mammoth Cave is huge, its full extent still a matter of speculation
(estimates vary from 300 to 500 miles). Patricia’s husband, Willie Crowther,
wrote a computer simulation of his favourite region, Bedquilt Cave, in FORTRAN
in the early 1970s. (It came to be called Colossal Cave, though this name
actually belongs further along.) Like the real cave, the simulation was a map on
about four levels of depth, rich in geology. A good example is the orange column
which descends to the Orange River Rock room (where the bird lives): and the
real column is indeed orange (of travertine, a beautiful mineral found in wet
The game’s language is loaded with references to caving, to ‘domes’ and
‘crawls’. A ‘slab room’, for instance, is a very old cave whose roof has begun
to break away into sharp flakes which litter the floor in a crazy heap. The
program’s use of the word ‘room’ for all manner of caves and places seems
slightly sloppy in everyday English, but is widespread in American caving and
goes back as far as Stephen Bishop: so the Adventure-games usage of the word
‘room’ to mean ‘place’ may even be bequeathed from him.
Then came elaboration. A colleague of Crowther’s (at a Massachusetts
computing firm), Don Woods, stocked up the caves with magical items and puzzles,
inspired by a role-playing game. Despite this, very many of the elements of the
original game crop up in real life. Cavers do turn back when their carbide lamps
flicker; there are mysterious markings and initials on the cave walls, some left
by the miners, some by Bishop, some by 1920s explorers. Of course there isn’t an
active volcano in central Kentucky, nor are there dragons and dwarves. But even
these embellishments are, in a sense, derived from tradition: like most of the
early role-playing games, ‘Adventure’ owes much to J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The
Hobbit’, and the passage through the mountains and Moria of ‘The Lord of the
Rings’ (arguably its most dramatic and atmospheric passage). Tolkien himself,
the most successful myth-maker of the twentieth century, worked from the example
of Icelandic, Finnish and Welsh sagas.
By 1977 tapes of ‘Adventure’ were being circulated widely, by the Digital
user group DECUS, amongst others: taking over lunchtimes and weekends wherever
it went... but that’s another story. (Tracy Kidder’s fascinating book ‘The Soul
of a New Machine’, a journalist’s-eye-view of working in a computing firm at
about this time, catches it well.)
There is a moral to this tale, and a reason for telling it. The original
‘Adventure’ was much imitated and many traditions are derived from it. It had no
direct sequel itself but several ‘schools’ of adventure games began from it.
‘Zork’ (which was to be the first Infocom game) and ‘Adventureland’ (the first
Scott Adams game) include, for instance, a rather passive dragon, a bear, a
troll, a volcano, a maze, a lamp with limited battery-power, a place to deposit
treasures and so on. The earliest British game of real quality, ‘Acheton’,
written at Cambridge University in 1979-80 by David Seal and Jonathan Thackray
(and the first of a dozen or so games written in Cambridge) has in addition
secret canyons, water, a wizard’s house not unlike that of ‘Zork’. The Level 9
games began with a good port of ‘Adventure’ (which was generally considered at
the time, and ever since, to be in the public domain, on what legal grounds it’s
hard to see) and then two sequels in similar style. All these games had a
standard prologue-middle game-end game form: the prologue is a tranquil outside
world, the middle game consists of collecting treasures in the cave, the end is
usually called a Master Game (Level 9 expanded on the ‘Adventure’ end game
somewhat, not so well).
Of this first crop of games, ‘Adventure’ remains the best, mainly because it
has its roots in a simulation. This is why it is so atmospheric, more so than
any other game for a decade after. The Great Underground Empire of ‘Zork’ is an
imitation of the original, based not on real caves but on Crowther’s
descriptions. ‘Zork’ is better laid out as a game but not as convincing, and in
places a caricature: too tidy, with no blind alleys, no secret canyons. Its
mythology is similarly less well-grounded: the long-gone Flathead dynasty,
beginning in a few throwaway jokes, ended up downright tiresome in the later
sequels, when the ‘legend of the Flatheads’ had become, by default, the
distinguishing feature of ‘Zorkness’. The middle segments especially of ‘Zork’
(now called ‘Zork II’) make a fine game, one of the best of the ‘cave’ games,
but ‘Zork’ remains flawed in a way that many of Infocom’s later games were not.
In the beginning of any game is its ‘world’, physical and imaginary,
geography and myth. The vital test takes place in the player’s head: is the
picture of a continuous sweep of landscape, or of a railway-map on which a
counter moves from one node to another? ‘Adventure’ passes this test, however
primitive some may call it. If it had not done so, the genre might never have
3 - Bill of Player’s
In an early version of Zork, it was possible to be killed by the collapse
of an unstable room. Due to carelessness with scheduling such a collapse,
50,000 pounds of rock might fall on your head during a stroll down a forest
path. Meteors, no doubt.
- P. David Lebling
W. H. Auden once observed that poetry makes nothing happen. Adventure games
are far more futile: it must never be forgotten that they intentionally annoy
the player most of the time. There’s a fine line between a challenge and a
nuisance: the designer has to think, first and foremost, like a player (not an
author, and certainly not a programmer). With that in mind, I hold the following
rights to be self-evident:
- Not to be killed without warning
At its most basic level, this means that a room with three exits, two of
which lead to instant death and the third to treasure, is unreasonable without
some hint. On the subject of which:
- Not to be given horribly unclear hints
Many years ago, I played a game in which going north from a cave led to a
lethal pit. The hint was: there was a pride of lions carved above the doorway.
Good hints can be skilfully hidden, or very brief, but should not need
explaining after the event. (The game was Level 9’s ‘Dungeon’, in which pride
comes before a fall. Conversely, the hint in the moving-rocks plain problem in
‘Spellbreaker’ is a masterpiece.)
- To be able to win without experience of past lives
This rule is very hard to abide by. Here are three examples:
i) There is a nuclear bomb buried under some anonymous floor somewhere,
which must be disarmed. The player knows where to dig because, last time
around, it blew up there.
ii) There is a rocket-launcher with a panel of buttons, which looks as if
it needs to be correctly programmed. But the player can misfire the rocket
easily by tampering with the controls before finding the manual.
iii) (This from ‘The Lurking Horror’.) Something needs to be cooked for the
right length of time. The only way to find the right time is by trial and
error, but each game allows only one trial. On the other hand, common sense
suggests a reasonable answer.
Of these i) is clearly unfair, most players would agree ii) is fair enough
and iii), as tends to happen with real cases, is border-line. In principle,
then, a good player should be able to play the entire game out without doing
anything illogical, and deserves likewise:
- To be able to win without knowledge of future events
For example, the game opens near a shop. You have one coin and can buy a
lamp, a magic carpet or a periscope. Five minutes later you are transported
away without warning to a submarine, whereupon you need a periscope. If you
bought the carpet, bad luck.
- Not to have the game closed off without warning
‘Closed off’ meaning that it would become impossible to proceed at some
later date. If there is a Japanese paper wall which you can walk through at
the very beginning of the game, it is extremely annoying to find that a puzzle
at the very end requires it to still be intact, because every one of your
saved games will be useless. Similarly it is quite common to have a room which
can only be visited once per game. If there are two different things to be
accomplished there, this should be hinted at.
In other words, an irrevocable act is only fair if the player is given due
warning that it would be irrevocable.
- Not to need to do unlikely things
For example, a game which depends on asking a policeman about something he
could not reasonably know about. (Less extremely, the problem of the hacker’s
keys in ‘The Lurking Horror’.) Another unlikely thing is waiting in dull
places. If you have a junction at which after five turns an elf turns up
bearing a magic ring, a player may well never spend five consecutive turns
there and will miss what you intended to be easy. (‘Zork III’ is very much a
case in point.) If you intend the player to stay somewhere for a while, put
something intriguing there.
- Not to need to do boring things for the sake of it
In the bad old days many games would make life difficult by putting objects
needed to solve a problem miles away from where the problem was, despite all
logic - say, a boat in the middle of a desert. Or, for example, a four-discs
tower of Hanoi puzzle might entertain. But not an eight-discs one. And the two
most hackneyed puzzles - only being able to carry four items, and fumbling
with a rucksack, or having to keep finding new light sources - can wear a
player’s patience down very quickly.
- Not to have to type exactly the right verb
For instance, “looking inside” a box finds nothing, but “searching” it
does. Or consider the following dialogue (amazingly, from ‘Sorcerer’):
(with the small key)
No spell would help
(with the small key)
This is so misleading as to constitute a bug, but it’s an easy design fault
to fall into. (Similarly, the wording needed to use the brick in ‘Zork II’
strikes me as quite unfair, unless I missed something obvious.) Consider how
many ways a player can, for instance, ask to take a coat off:
remove coat / take coat off / take off coat / disrobe coat / doff coat /
* (I was sceptical when play-testers asked me to add “don” and “doff” to my
game ‘Curses’, but enjoyed a certain moment of triumph when my mother tried it
during her first game.)
Nouns also need...
- To be allowed reasonable synonyms
In the same room in ‘Sorcerer’ is a “woven wall hanging” which can instead
be called “tapestry” (though not “curtain”). This is not a luxury, it’s an
essential. For instance, in ‘Trinity’ there is a charming statue of a carefree
little boy playing a set of pan pipes. This can be called the “charming” or
“peter” “statue” “sculpture” “pan” “boy” “pipe” or “pipes”. Objects often have
more than 10 nouns attached.
Perhaps a remark on a sad subject might be intruded here. The Japanese
woman near the start of ‘Trinity’ can be called “yellow” and “Jap”, for
instance, terms with a grisly resonance. In the play-testing of ‘Curses’, it
was pointed out to me that the line “Let’s just call a spade a spade” (an
innocent joke about a garden spade) meant something quite different to extreme
right-wing politicians in southern America; in the end, I kept the line, but
it’s never seemed quite as funny since.
- To have a decent parser
(If only this went without saying.) At the very least the parser should
provide for taking and dropping multiple objects.
Since only the Bible stops at ten commandments, here are seven more, though
these seem to me to be matters of opinion:
- To have reasonable freedom of action
Being locked up in a long sequence of prisons, with only brief escapes
between them, is not all that entertaining. After a while the player begins to
feel that the designer has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at
him. This is particularly dangerous for adventure game adaptations of books
(and most players would agree that the Melbourne House adventures based on
‘The Lord of the Rings’ suffered from this).
- Not to depend much on luck
Small chance variations add to the fun, but only small ones. The thief in
‘Zork I’ seems to me to be just about right in this respect, and similarly the
spinning room in ‘Zork II’. But a ten-ton weight which fell down and killed
you at a certain point in half of all games is just annoying. (Also, you’re
only making work for yourself, in that games with random elements are much
harder to test and debug, though that shouldn’t in an ideal world be an
A particular danger occurs with low-probability events, one or a
combination of which might destroy the player’s chances. For instance, in the
earliest edition of ‘Adventureland’, the bees have an 8% chance of suffocation
each turn carried in the bottle: one needs to carry them for 10 or 11 turns,
which gives the bees only a 40% chance of surviving to their destination.
There is much to be said for varying messages which occur very often (such as,
“You consult your spell book.”) in a fairly random way, for variety’s own
- To be able to understand a problem once it is solved
This may sound odd, but many problems are solved by accident or trial and
error. A guard-post which can be passed if and only if you are carrying a
spear, for instance, ought to indicate somehow that this is why you’re allowed
past. (The most extreme example must be the notorious Bank of Zork, of which
I’ve never even understood other people’s explanations.)
- Not to be given too many red herrings
A few red herrings make a game more interesting. A very nice feature of
‘Zork I’, ‘II’ and ‘III’ is that they each contain red herrings explained in
the others (in one case, explained in ‘Sorcerer’). But difficult puzzles tend
to be solved last, and the main technique players use is to look at their maps
and see what’s left that they don’t understand. This is frustrating when there
are many insoluble puzzles and useless objects. So you can expect players to
lose interest if you aren’t careful. My personal view is that red herrings
ought to be clued: for instance, if there is a useless coconut near the
beginning, then perhaps much later an absent-minded botanist could be found
who wandered about dropping them. The coconut should at least have some
An object is not a red herring merely because it has no game function: a
useless newspaper could quite fairly be found in a library. But not a
The very worst game I’ve played for red herrings is ‘Sorcerer’, which by my
reckoning has 10.
- To have a good reason why something is impossible
Unless it’s also funny, a very contrived reason why something is impossible
just irritates. (The reason one can’t walk on the grass in Kensington Gardens
in ‘Trinity’ is only just funny enough, I think.)
Moral objections, though, are fair. For instance, if you are staying in
your best friend’s house, where there is a diamond in a display case, smashing
the case and taking the diamond would be physically easy but quite out of
character. Mr Spock can certainly be disallowed from shooting Captain Kirk in
- Not to need to be American
The diamond maze in ‘Zork II’ being a case in point. Similarly, it’s polite
to allow the player to type English or American spellings or idiom. For
instance ‘Trinity’ endears itself to English players in that the soccer ball
can be called “football” - soccer is a word almost never used in England.
(Since these words were first written, several people have politely pointed
out to me that my own ‘Curses’ is, shall we say, slightly English. But then,
like any good dictator, I prefer drafting constitutions to abiding by them.)
- To know how the game is getting on
In other words, when the end is approaching, or how the plot is developing.
Once upon a time, score was the only measure of this, but hopefully not any
4 - A
The initial version of the game was designed and implemented in about two
- P. David Lebling, Marc S. Blank, Timothy A. Anderson, of
It was started in May of ’85 and finished in June ’86.
-- Brian Moriarty, of ‘Trinity’ (from earlier
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
medi?val 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
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,
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.
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 medi?val’, 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
One is tempted to call the medi?val 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 medi?val
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’
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
Just as most Hollywood films are three-act plays (following a convention
abandoned decades ago by the theatre), so there is a conventional game
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
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
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
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.
5 - ...At War With a Crossword
Forest sways, rocks press heavily, roots grip, tree-trunk close to
tree-trunk. Wave upon wave breaks, foaming, deepest cavern provides shelter.
- Goethe, Faust
His building is a palace without design; the passages are tortuous, the
rooms disfigured with senseless gilding, ill-ventilated, and horribly crowded
with knick-knacks. But the knick-knacks are very curious, very strange; and
who will say at what point strangeness begins to turn into beauty? ... At
every moment we are reminded of something in the far past or something still
to come. What is at hand may be dull; but we never lose faith in the richness
of the collection as a whole... We are ‘pleased, like travellers, with seeing
more’, and we are not always disappointed.
- C.S. Lewis (of Martianus), The Allegory of Love
From the large to the small. The layout is sketched out; a rough synopsis is
written down; but none of the action of the game is yet clear. In short, there
are no puzzles. What are they to be? How will they link together? This section
runs through the possibilities but is full of question marks, the intention
being more to prod the designer about the consequences of decisions than to
Puzzles ought not to be simply a matter of typing one well-chosen line. The
hallmark of a good game is not to get any points for picking up an easily
available key and unlocking a door with it. This sort of low-level achievement -
wearing an overcoat found lying around, for instance - should count for little.
A memorable puzzle will need several different ideas to solve (the Babel fish
dispenser in ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, for instance). My personal
rule with puzzles is never to allow one which I can code up in less than five
Nonetheless, a good game mixes the easy with the hard, especially early on.
The player should be able to score a few points (not many) on the very first
half-hearted attempt. (Fortunately, most authors’ guesses about which puzzles
are easy and which hard are hopelessly wrong anyway. It always amuses me, for
instance, how late on players generally find the golden key in ‘Curses’: whereas
they often puzzle out the slide-projector far quicker than I intended.)
There are three big pitfalls in making puzzles:
The “Get-X-Use-X” syndrome
Here, the whole game involves
wandering about picking up bicycle pumps and then looking for a bicycle:
picking up pins and looking for balloons to burst, and so on. Every puzzle
needs one object. As soon as it has been used it can be dropped, for it surely
will not be required again.
The “What’s-The-Verb” syndrome
So you have your bicycle pump and
bicycle: “use pump” doesn’t work, “pump bike” doesn’t work... only “inflate
tyre” does. There are games where this linguistic challenge is most of the
work for the player. An especially tricky form of this problem is that in most
games “examine”, “search” and “look inside” are different actions: it is easy
to code a hidden treasure, say, so that only one of these produces the
The “In-Joke” syndrome
In which the player has to play a parody
of your company office, high school class, etc., or finds an entirely
inexplicable object (say, a coat with a mysterious slogan on) which is only
there because your sister has a very funny one like it, or meets endless
bizarre characters modelled on your best friends and enemies.
Then again, a few puzzles will always be in the get-x-use-x style, and that
does no harm: while pursuing tolerance of verbs to extremes leads to everything
being “moved”, not “pushed”, “pulled”, “rotated” and so on: and what artist has
not immortalised his madder friends at one time or another?
Variety in style is very important, but logic is paramount. Often the
designer begins knowing only that in a given place, the player is to put out a
fire. How is this to be done? Will the means be found nearby? Will the fire have
other consequences? Will there be partial solutions to the problem, which put
the fire out but leave vital equipment damaged? If the player takes a long time
not solving the problem, will the place burn down so that the game becomes
unwinnable? Will this be obvious, if so?
In some ways the easiest puzzles to write sensibly are machines, which need
to be manipulated: levers to pull, switches to press, cogs to turn, ropes to
pull. They need not make conversation. They often require tools, which brings in
objects. They can transform things in a semi-magical way (coal to diamonds being
the cliche) and can plausibly do almost anything if sufficiently mysterious and
strange: time travel, for instance.
They can also connect together different locations with machinery: chains,
swinging arms, chutes may run across the map, and help to glue it together.
A special kind of machine is the kind to be travelled in. Many Infocom games
have such a vehicle (for the ignoble reason that the code was already in the
‘Zork I’ kernel, but never mind) and cars, tractors, fork-lift trucks, boats,
hot-air balloons have all made appearances. The coding needs a little care (for
instance, not being able to drive upstairs, or through a narrow crevice) but a
whole range of new puzzles is made possible: petrol, ignition keys, a car radio
perhaps. And travelling in new ways adds to the realism of the landscape, which
thereby becomes more than a set of rules about walking.
Keys and Doors
Almost invariably games close off sections of the map (temporarily) by
putting them behind locked doors, which the player can see and gnash her teeth
over, but cannot yet open. And almost every variation on this theme has been
tried: coded messages on the door, illusory defences, gate-keepers, the key
being in the lock on the wrong side, and so on. Still, the usual thing is simply
to find a key in some fairly remote place, bring it to the door and open it.
If there are people just inside, do they react when the player knocks on the
door, or tries to break it down or ram it? If not, why not?
In some situations doors should be lockable (and open- and closeable) on both
sides. Though irritating to implement, this adds considerably to the effect.
In a large game there may be several, perhaps five or six, keys of one kind
or another: it’s essential not to make these too similar in appearance. Some
games have “master keys” which open several different locks in a building, for
instance, or “skeleton keys”, or a magic spell to get around this.
Air, Earth, Fire and Water
The elements all tangle up code but add to the illusion. Fire has many useful
properties - it makes light, it destroys things, it can cause explosions and
chemical reactions, it cooks food, it softens materials, it can be passed from
one object to another - but in the end it spreads, whereas code doesn’t. If the
player is allowed to carry a naked flame around (a burning torch, for instance),
then suddenly the game needs to know whether or not each item in the game (a
curtain, a pot plant, a book) is flammable. Even the classic matchbook of
matches can make for grisly implementation.
As in Robert Redford’s film, so in the best game landscaping: a river runs
through it. But in any room where water is available, players will try drinking,
swimming, washing, diving. They will try to walk away with the water. (And of
course this applies to acid pools, natural oil pits and the like.)
Liquids make poor objects, because they need to be carried in some container
yet can be poured from one to another, and because they are endlessly divisible.
“Some water” can easily be made into “some water” and “some water”. If there’s
more than one liquid in the game, can they be mixed? Pouring liquid over
something is likely to make a mess of it: yet why should it be impossible? And
The compromise solution is usually to have a bottle with a ‘capacity’ of,
say, 5 units of water, which can be refilled in any room where there is water
(there is a flag for this, say) with 1 unit drunk at a time. The player who
tries to pour water over (most) things is simply admonished and told not to.
Implementing swimming, or being underwater, is a different order of
difficulty again. What happens to the objects being held? Can a player swim
while wearing heavy clothes, or carrying many things? Is it possible to dive?
Moreover, does the player run out of air? In many games there is some such
puzzle: a room where the air is poor, or open space, or underwater: and a scuba
mask or a space helmet is called for. One should not kill the player at once
when he enters such a hostile environment unprotected, since he will probably
not have had fair warning. Some games even implement gases: helium, explosive
hydrogen, laughing gas.
And so to earth. One of the oldest puzzles around is digging for buried
treasure. The shovel can be found in just about every traditional-style game and
a good many others which ought to know better besides. Of course in real life
one can dig very nearly anywhere outdoors: there’s simply little cause to. Games
really can’t afford to allow this. It’s quite difficult to think of a persuasive
way of breaking the news to the player, though.
Still, digging in some form makes a good puzzle: it artificially creates a
new location, or a new map connection, or a new container (the hole left
Animals and Plants
Vegetation fits into almost any landscape, and in most games plays some part
in it. This is good for variety, since by and large one deals with plants
differently from machines and people. One pulls the undergrowth away from ruins,
for instance, or picks flowers. Trees and creeping plants (wistaria or ivy, for
instance) ought to be climbable. The overgrown-schoolboy element in players
expects this sort of thing.
A plant which can be grown into a beanstalk is now, perhaps, rather a cliche.
So naturally no self-respecting author would write one.
Animals are even more useful, for several reasons: they move, they behave in
curious and obsessive ways: they have amusingly human characteristics, but do
not generally react to conversation and need not be particularly surprised by
the player doing something very shocking nearby, so they are relatively easy to
code: and they add a splash of colour. What would the Garden of Eden have been
without turtles, elephants, rabbits, leopards and guinea pigs?
The classic, rather predictable puzzle with animals is solved by feeding them
some apposite food to make them obedient, then getting them to do something.
Good games find something better. (Significantly, the animal puzzles in
‘Adventure’ - the bear, the bird and the snake - are better characterised than
most of those in later games.)
So dawns the sixth day of creation: we have the mountains, rivers, plants and
animals, but as yet no people.
The trap with “people” puzzles should perhaps be called the Get-X-Give-X
syndrome. People are a little more complicated than that. The nightmare of
coding real characters is illustrated well by one of Dave Lebling’s example bugs
> SHOW CORPSE TO MICHAEL
Michael doesn’t appear interested.
Of course, Michael is only Veronica’s husband; why would he be interested?
People are the hardest elements of any game to code up. They can take five
times the amount of code attached to even a complicated room. They have to:
- react to events (as above!);
- make conversation of some kind or another;
- understand and sometimes obey instructions (“robot, go south”);
- wander around the map in a way consistent with the way the player does;
- have some attitude to the player, and some personality.
They often have possessions of their own and can expect to be attacked, have
things given to or thrown at them, or even seduced by a desperate player. All
this requires code. Good player characters also do surprising things from time
to time, in a random way. In some games they have a vast stock of knowledge and
replies. The woman selling bread-crumbs at the very beginning of ‘Trinity’ (who
does not play a huge role in the game) can say over 50 different things.
Most conversation is added to the code in play-testing. If the play-testers
complain that “ask waiter about apples” does nothing, then add some reply, even
if not a terribly useful one.
Good player-characters may come and go, turning up at different times during
the game: they are part of the larger plot. But there is also room for the
humble door-keeper who has nothing to do but check passes.
Almost every game contains a maze. Nothing nowadays will ever equal the
You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
But now we are all jaded. A maze should offer some twist which hasn’t been
done before (the ones in ‘Enchanter’ and ‘Sorcerer’ being fine examples).
The point is not to make it hard and boring. The standard maze solution is to
litter the rooms with objects in order to make the rooms distinguishable. It’s
easy enough to obstruct this, the thief in ‘Zork I’ being about the wittiest way
of doing so. But that only makes a maze tediously difficult.
Instead there should be an elegant quick solution: for instance a guide who
needs to be bribed, or fluorescent arrows painted on the floor which can only be
seen in darkness (plus a hint about darkness, of course).
There is much to be said for David Baggett’s recent answer to the question
“How do I make my maze so that it doesn’t have the standard solution?”: omit it
Above all, don’t design a maze which appears to be a standard impossibly hard
one: even if it isn’t, a player may lose heart and give up rather than go to the
trouble of mapping it.
...and Other Old Cliches
There are a few games which do not have “light source” puzzles, but it’s hard
to think of many. The two standards reduce to:
- the player’s lamp slowly runs down and will need new oil at least once;
- a dark room, full of treasure, can apparently only be reached through a
very narrow passage, one which cannot be passed by a player carrying anything
(including the lamp).
Most games contain both, and perhaps most always will, but variations are
welcome. (There is a superbly clever one in ‘Zork III’, for instance, perhaps
the best thing in it.)
Similarly, unless there are very few portable objects, it becomes ridiculous
that a player can carry hundreds of bulky and fiddly things around all the time:
so most games impose a limit on how much can be carried, by convention four
(i.e., because that’s what (some versions of) ‘Adventure’ did). It is bad form
to set puzzles making life difficult because the limit is four and not five
(after all, in case of emergency, a player could always carry something else).
Of course the norm is to provide a bag for carrying things.
Sophisticated games also quietly work out the total weight being carried.
(One of the Infocom games contains a marvellously heavy red herring which can be
carried anywhere, but is terribly exhausting to move.)
Mention of exhaustion raises the question of the player’s state of health.
Some games take a quite role-playing-style view of this, with (perhaps hidden)
attributes of “strength” and “constitution”. The player grows weary and needs
food, tired and needs sleep, wounded and needs recuperation. A puzzle which
really exploits this would be difficult to make fair. Consequently all rules
like this make nuisance for the player (who will be obliged to go back to the
orchard for more fruit every few dozen turns, that kind of thing) and should be
Rewards and Penalties
There are two kinds of reward which need to be given to a player in return
for solving a puzzle. One is obvious: the game advances a little. But the player
at the keyboard needs a reward as well, that the game should offer something new
to look at. In the old days, when a puzzle was solved, the player simply got a
bar of gold and had one less puzzle to solve.
Much better is to offer the player some new rooms and objects to play with,
as this is a real incentive. If no new rooms are on offer, at least the
“treasure” objects can be made interesting, like the spells in the ‘Enchanter’
trilogy or the cubes in ‘Spellbreaker’. In olden days, games killed the player
in some way for almost every wrong guess (or altered the state of the game so
that it had become unwinnable). This was annoying and meant that virtually all
players were so paranoid as to save the game before, say, picking up any new
object. Nowadays it is thought polite not to kill the player without due
warning, and to make smaller mistakes recoverable-from. A good alternative to
the death sentence is exile (i.e., in some way moving the player somewhere
inconvenient but returnable-from).
Writing Room Descriptions
First, a warning: it is tempting, when beginning to code, to give rooms
“temporary” descriptions (“Slab room.” “Cloister.”), and leave the writing for
later. There is no more depressing point than when facing a pile of 50 room
descriptions to write, all at once, and feeling that one’s enthusiasm has
altogether gone. (The same warning 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 author to think about
what the room is ultimately for, which is no bad thing. So write a few at a
time, as coding goes on, but write them properly: and edit later if necessary
(it will be).
Size doesn’t matter. It is all too easy to write a huge room description,
rambling with irrelevant details: there are usually one to three essentials to
get across, and the rest should be cut. (This is admittedly a hard-line view on
my part, and opinions vary.)
But even the most tedious junctions deserve description, and description is
more than a list of exits. Here is ‘Adventure’ at its most graceful:
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.
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. Even if nothing happens here, these are real places.
Flippant, joky room descriptions are best avoided if they will be often
revisited. About once in a game an author can get away with:
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’,
which demonstrates the lengths one has to go to when faced with a relentlessly
ordinary junction-with-window. The sentence which the whole description has been
written to avoid is “You can go up, down or north.”
Room descriptions are obliged to mention the obvious exits - and it is
certainly poor form to fail to mention a particular one unless there is good
reason - but there are ways to avoid what can be a tiresomely repetitive
business. For instance,
Little light seeps into this muddy, bone-scattered
cave and already 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.
In other words, the “You can’t go that way” message is tailored to each
Avoiding repetition is well-nigh impossible, and experienced players will
know all the various formulae by heart: “You’re in”, “You are in”, “This is”,
“You have come to” and so forth. I usually prefer impersonal room descriptions
(not mentioning “you” unless to say something other than the obvious fact of
As in all writing, vocabulary counts (another respect in which Scott Adams’
games, despite awful grammar, score). If there is a tree, what kind is it, oak,
juniper, hawthorn, ash? Then, too, don’t make all room descriptions static, and
try to invoke more than just sight at times: smell, touch and sound are
powerfully evocative. Purity and corruption, movement and stillness, light and
dark have obsessed writers through the ages.
Above all, avoid the plainness of:
You are in the Great Hall. You can go north to the Minstrel’s Gallery,
east to the fireplace and down to the kitchens.
There is a sword here.
So much for bad room descriptions. The following example (which I have not
invented) is something much more dangerous, the mediocre room description:
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
...seems a decent enough try. But no novelist would write such sentences.
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 (in the middle? on one edge?). And why
“Whirlpool Room”, which sounds like part of a health club? As a second draft,
then, following the original:
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. Sinister,
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 much
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 distinct possibilities of a puzzle or
two... Perhaps there are frogs who could eat the algae; perhaps the player might
find a use for iron oxide, and could scrape rust from the railing. (Herbalists
probably used to use rust for something, and an encyclopaedia or a chemistry
text book might know.) 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 who
stares 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? - And so a location is made.
Puzzles and objects are inextricably linked to the map, which means that the
final state of the map only gradually emerges and the author should expect to
have to keep changing it to get it right - rather than to devise an enormous
empty landscape at first and then fill it with material.
Back to atmosphere, then, because throughout it’s vital that the map should
be continuous. The mark of a poor game is a map like:
Dungeon --- Oriental Room --- Fire Station
(fish) (megaphone) (tulips)
in which nothing relates to anything else, so that the game ends up with no
overall geography at all. Much more believable is something like:
Oriental Room --- Jade Passage --- Fire Dragon
(buddha) (bonsai tree) Room
The geography should also extend to a larger scale: the mountainside should
run across the map in both directions. If there is a stream passing through a
given location, what happens to it? And so on. Maps of real mountain ranges and
real cave systems, invariably more convoluted and narrow than in fiction, can be
quite helpful when trying to work this out.
A vexed question is just how much land occupies a single location. Usually a
location represents a ‘room’, perhaps ten yards across at the most. Really large
underground chambers - the legendary “Hall of Mists” in Adventure, the barge
chamber in ‘Infidel’ - are usually implemented with several locations, something
Ballroom NW --------- Ballroom NE
| \ / |
| Dance Floor |
| / \ |
Ballroom SW --------- Ballroom SE
This does give some impression of space but it can also waste locations in a
quite dull way, unless there are genuinely different things at some of the
corners: a bust of George III, perhaps, a harpsichord.
On the other hand, in some stretches, drawing the map leaves one with the
same frustration as the set-designer for a Wagnerian opera: everything is set
outdoors, indistinct and without edges. Sometimes an entire meadow, or valley,
might be one single location, but then its description will have to be written
carefully to make this clear.
In designing a map, it adds to the interest to make a few connections in the
rarer compass directions (NE, NW, SE, SW) to prevent the player from a feeling
that the game has a square grid. There should also be a few (possibly long)
loops which can be walked around, to prevent endless retracing of steps and to
avoid the appearance of a bus service map, half a dozen lines with only one
If the map is very large, or if a good deal of moving to-and-fro is called
for, there should be some rapid means of getting across it, such as the magic
words in ‘Adventure’, or the cubes in ‘Spellbreaker’. This can be a puzzle in
itself - one that players do not have to solve, but will reward them if they do.
Looking Back at the Shape
A useful exercise, towards the end of the design stage, is to draw out a tree
(or more accurately a lattice) of all the puzzles in a game. At the top is a
node representing the start of the game, and then lower nodes represent solved
puzzles. An arrow is drawn between two puzzles if one has to be solved before
the other can be. For instance, a simple portion might look like:
Find key Enter garage
This is useful because it checks that the game is soluble (for example, if
the ignition key had been kept in a phone box on the motorway, it wouldn’t have
been) and also because it shows the overall structure of the game. Ask:
- Do large parts of the game depend on one difficult puzzle?
- How many steps does a typical problem need?
- How wide is the game at any given time?
Bottlenecks should be avoided unless they are reasonably guessable: otherwise
many players will simply get no further. Unless, of course, they are intended
for exactly that, to divide an area of the game into ‘earlier’ and ‘later’.
Just as some puzzles should have more than one solution, some objects should
have more than one purpose. In bad old games, players automatically threw away
everything as soon as they’d used them. In better designed games, obviously
useful things (like the crowbar and the gloves in ‘Lurking Horror’) should be
hung on to by the player throughout.
A final word on shape: one of the most annoying things for players is to
find, at the extreme end of the game (in the master game, perhaps) that a few
otherwise useless objects ought to have been brought along, but that it is now
too late. The player should not be thinking that the reason for being stuck on
the master game is that something very obscure should have been done 500 turns
6 - Varnish and
So you have a game: the wood is rough and splintered, but it’s recognisably a
game. There’s still a good month’s work to do (and several centuries’ worth of
debugging), though it is easier work than before and feels more rewarding.
The traditional way to score an adventure game is to give a points score out
of some large and pleasing number (say, 400) and a rank. There are usually ten
to fifteen ranks. A genuine example (which shall remain nameless):
Beginner (0), Amateur Adventurer (40), Novice Adventurer (80), Junior
Adventurer (160), Adventurer (240), Master (320), Wizard (360), Master
in which, although ranks correspond to round numbers, still they have perhaps
been rigged to fit the game. Another amusing touch is that ranks tend to be
named for the player’s profession in the game - so, a musician might begin as
“Novice” and rise through “Second Violinist” to “Conductor”. One of the wittiest
is in the detective game ‘Sherlock’, where the lowest rank - of zero achievement
- is “Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard”.
Among the questions to ask are: will every winner of the game necessarily
score exactly 400 out of 400? (This is very difficult to arrange if even small
acts are scored.) Will everyone entering the end game already have a score of
360, and so have earned the title “Wizard”? Will the rank “Amateur” correspond
exactly to having got out of the prologue and into the middle game?
So what deserves points? Clearly solving the major puzzles does. But do the
minor, only halfway-there-yet puzzles? Here, as ever, games vary greatly. In
‘Zork III’, the scoring is out of 7 and corresponds to seven vital puzzles
(though a score of 7 does not mean the game is over). In ‘The Lurking Horror’,
20 major puzzles are awarded 5 points each, making a maximum of 100.
Alternatively, there is the complicated approach. Points are awarded in twos
and threes for small acts, and then in larger doses for treasures - silver bars
5, gold amulets 10, platinum pendants 20. Treasures are scored twice, once when
found, once when removed to safety - to the trophy case in ‘Zork I’, or inside
the packing case of Level 9’s game ‘Dungeon’ (no relation to the port of ‘Zork’
of the same name). Furthermore, 1 point is awarded for each room visited for the
first time, and 1 for never having saved the game - a particularly evil trick.
In some games (such as ‘Acheton’) score actually falls back when the player
is wasting time and nothing is being achieved: the player’s mana gradually
fades. This annoys some players intensely (no bad thing, some might say).
Games used to have a “Last Lousy Point” by custom - a single point which
could only be won by doing something hugely unlikely, such as going to a
particular area of the Pirate’s Maze and dropping a key. This custom, happily,
has fallen into disuse.
For some puzzles, a perfectly good alternative solution will occur to
players. It’s good style to code two or more solutions to the same puzzle, if
that doesn’t upset the rest of the game. But even if it does, at least a game
should say something when a good guess is made. (Trying to cross the volcano on
the magic carpet in ‘Spellbreaker’ is a case in point.)
For example, in ‘Curses’ there are (at time of writing) six different ways to
open the child-proof medicine bottle. They are all quite hard to guess, they are
all logically reasonable and most players get one of them.
One reason why ‘Zork’ held the player’s attention so firmly (and why it took
about ten times the code size, despite being rather smaller than the original
mainframe ‘Adventure’) was that it had a huge stock of usually funny responses
to reasonable things which might be tried.
My favourite funny response, which I can’t resist reprinting here, is:
You are falling towards the ground, wind whipping around
Down seems more likely.
(‘Spellbreaker’. Though I also recommend trying to take the sea serpent in
‘Zork II’.) This is a good example because it’s exactly the sort of boring rule
(can’t move from the midair position) which most designers usually want to code
as fast as possible, and don’t write with any imagination.
Another form of wrong guess is in vocabulary. Unless exceptionally large, a
good game ought to have about a 1000-word vocabulary: too much less than that
and it is probably missing reasonable synonyms; too much more and it is
overdoing it. Remember too that players do not know at first what the relevant
and irrelevant objects in a room are. For instance:
This small cavity at the north end of the attic
once housed all manner of home-made wine paraphernalia, now lost and
unlamented. Steps, provided with a good strong banister-rail, lead down and to
the west, and the banister rail continues along a passage east.
This clearly mentions a banister, which (as it happens) plays no part in the
game, but merely reinforces the idea of an east-west passage including a
staircase which (as it happens) is partly for the use of a frail relative. But
the player may well try tieing thing to the rail, pulling at it and so on. So
the game knows “banister”, “rail” and (not entirely logically, but players are
not entirely logical) “paraphernalia” as names of irrelevant things. An attempt
to toy with them results in the reply
That’s not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.
which most players appreciate as fair, and is better than the parser either
being ignorant or, worse, pretending not to be.
A feature which some games go to a great deal of trouble to provide, but is
of arguable merit (so think I), is to name every room, so that “search winery”
would be understood (though of course it would do nothing almost everywhere...
and a player would have to try something similar everywhere on the off chance).
Some games would even provide “go to winery” from nearby places. These are
impressive features but need to be coded carefully not to give the player
information she may not yet have earned.
Hints and Prizes
A good game (unless written for a competition) will often contain a hints
service, as the Infocom games did in latter days. Most players will only really
badly be stuck about once in the course of a game (and they vary widely in which
puzzle to be really badly stuck on) and it is only fair to rescue them. (If
nothing else, this cuts down on the volume of email cries for help which may
arrive.) There are two ways to provide hints:
- in the game itself, by having some sage old worthy to ask;
- properly separated from the game, with a “hint” command which offers one
or more menus full of possible questions.
Of course, a hint should not be an explicit answer. The classic approach is
to offer a sequence of hints, each more helpful than the last, until finally the
solution is openly confessed. Perhaps surprisingly, not all players like this,
and some complain that it makes play too easy to be challenging. It is difficult
to construct a hints system in such a way that it doesn’t reveal later
information (in its lists of questions to which answers are provided, for
instance): but worth it.
At the end of the game, when it has been won, is there anything else to be
said? In some games, there is. In its final incarnations (alas, not the one
included in the ‘Lost Treasures of Infocom’ package), ‘Zork I’ offered winners
access to the hints system at the RESTART, RESTORE or QUIT prompt. ‘Curses’ goes
so far as to have a trivia quiz, really to tell the player about some of the
stranger things which can be done in the game. (If nothing else, this is a good
chance for the game’s author to boast.)
User Interface, and all that jazz
No, not windows and pull-down menus, but the few meta-commands which go to
the game program and do not represent actions of the player’s character in the
game. Of course,
SAVE, RESTORE, RESTART, QUIT
are essential. Games should also provide commands to allow the player to
choose whether room descriptions are abbreviated on second visits or not. Other
such options might be commands to control whether the game prints out messages
[Your score has just gone up by ten points.]
and commands to transcribe to the printer or to a file - these are extremely
useful when receiving comments from play-testers.
UNDO is difficult to code but worth it. In ‘Curses’, UNDO can even restore
the player posthumously (though this is not advertised in the game: death, where
is thy sting?).
Abbreviations (especially “g” for again, “z” for wait, “x” for examine) must
now be considered essential.
Some games produce quotations or jokes from time to time in little windows
away from the main text of the game. Care is needed to avoid these overlying
vital text. It ought to possible to turn this feature off.
The author’s only innovations in this line are to provide a “full score”
feature, which accounts exactly for where the player’s score has come from and
lists achievements so far; to provide a choice of “inventory wide” or “inventory
tall”, which is helpful for players on screens with few lines; and to provide
“objects” and “places” commands:
You have visited: Attic and Old Furniture.
Objects you have handled:
the crumpled piece of paper
the electric torch (held)
the chocolate biscuit (held)
bird whistle (in Old Furniture)
the gift-wrapped parcel (lost)
These features may or may not catch on.
Debugging and Testing
Every author will need a few “secret” debugging commands (still present in
several of the Infocom games, for instance) to transport the player across the
map, or get any object by remote control. Since debugging never ends, it’s never
wise to remove these commands: you might instead protect them with a password in
released editions. (The Inform system gets around this by providing a suite of
debugging verbs which is only included if a particular setting is made at
An unobvious but useful feature is a command to make the game non-random.
That is, if there is a doorway which randomly leads to one of three places, then
this command will make it predictable. This is essential when testing the game
against a transcript.
During design, it’s helpful to keep such a script of commands which wins the
game from the start position. Ideally, your game ought to be able to accept
input from a file of commands as well as from the keyboard, so that this script
can be run automatically through.
This means that when it comes to adding a new feature towards the end, it is
easy to check whether or not it upsets features earlier on.
Bugs are usually easy to fix: they are mostly small oversights. Very few take
more than five minutes to fix. Especially common are:
- slips of punctuation, spelling or grammar (for instance, “a orange”);
rooms being dark when they ought to be light (this tends not to show if the
player habitually carries a lamp anyway), or not changing their state of
light/darkness when they should, as for instance when a skylight opens or
- other object flags having been forgotten, such as a fish not being flagged
- map connections being very slightly out, e.g. west in one direction and
northeast in the other, by accident;
- something which logically can only happen once, such as a window being
broken, actually being possible more than once, with strange consequences;
- general messages being unfortunate in particular cases, such as “The ball
bounces on the ground and returns to your hand.” in mid-air or while wading
through a ford;
- small illogicalities: being able to swim with a suit of armour on, or wave
the coat you’re wearing, or eat while wearing a gas mask;
- parser accidents and misnamings.
Do not go into play-testing until the scoring system is worked out and the
game passes the entire transcript of the “winning” solution without crashing or
giving absurd replies.
The days of play-testing are harrowing. The first thing to do is to get a few
“friends” and make them play for a while. Look over their shoulders, scribble
furiously on a piece of paper, moan with despair and frustration, but do not
speak. Force yourself not to explain or defend, whatever the provocation. Expect
to have abuse heaped on you, and bear up nobly under the strain. To quote Dave
Lebling (on testing ‘Suspect’, from an article in the “New Zork Times”):
> BARTENDER, GIVE ME A DRINK
“Sorry, I’ve been hired to mix
drinks and that’s all.”
> DANCE WITH ALICIA
Which Alicia do you mean, Alicia or the
Veronica’s body is slumped behind the desk, strangled with a lariat.
> TALK TO VERONICA
Veronica’s body is listening.
Little bugs, you know? Things no one would notice. At this point the
tester’s job is fairly easy. The story is like a house of cards -- it looks
pretty solid but the slightest touch collapses it...
After a cleaning-up exercise (and there’s still time to rethink and redraft),
give the game to a few brave beta-testers. Insist on reports in writing or
email, or some concrete form, and if you can persuade the testers then try to
get a series of reports, one at a time, rather than waiting a month for an epic
list of bugs. Keep in touch to make sure the testers are not utterly stuck
because a puzzle is impossible due to a bug, or due to it just being far too
hard. Don’t give hints unless they are asked for.
Play-testing will produce a good 100 or so bugs, mostly awesomely trivial and
easily fixed. Still, expect a few catastrophes.
Good play-testers are worth their weight in gold. They try things in a
systematically perverse way. To quote Michael Kinyon, whose effect may be felt
almost everywhere in ‘Curses’,
A tester with a new verb is like a kid with a hammer; every problem seems
like a nail.
And how else would you know whether “scrape parrot” produced a sensible reply
Unless there is reason not to (because you know more than they do about how
the plot will work out), listen to what the play-testers say about style and
consistency too. Be sure also to credit them somewhere in the game.
It’s Never Finished
Games are never finished. There’s always one more bug, or one more message
which could be improved, or one more little cute reply to put in. Debugging is a
creative process and adds to the life of the game. The play-testing process has
increased the code size of ‘Curses’ by about 50%: in other words, over a third
of a game is devoted to “irrelevant” features, blind alleys, flippant replies
and the like.
Roughly 300 bugs in ‘Curses’ have been spotted since it was released
publically two years ago (I have received well over a thousand email messages on
the subject), and that was after play-testing had been “finished”. About once a
week I make this week’s corrections, and about once every three months I
re-issue the mended version. Thus, many people who suggested little extensions
and repairs have greatly contributed to the game, and that’s why there are so
many names in the credits.
Bob Newell recently asked why the old, crude, simplistic Scott Adams games
still had such fascination to many people: partly nostalgia of the ‘favourite
childhood books’ kind, of course. But also the feeling of holding a well-made
miniature, a Chinese puzzle box with exactly-cut pieces.
An adventure game, curiously, is one of the most satisfying of works to have
written: perhaps because one can always polish it a little further, perhaps
because it has so many hidden and secret possibilities, perhaps because
something is made as well as written. For myself, though, perhaps also because
each day somebody new may wander into its world, as I did when occasionally
taken to a Digital mainframe in the 1970s, through a dark warren of passages
untidier even than my bedroom: so that the glow of the words has not quite faded
from my eyes.