Room Descriptions, Place, and Interiority

2019-02-06 · by Bruno Dias
tagged Blog / Columns

One of the things I always found enjoyable about writing parser fiction was writing room descriptions. It’s a very specific craft, and one that’s pretty unique to interactive fiction and game writing. In most fiction, it’s relatively rare that you can indulge in this kind of descriptive detail at length; parser games, on the other hand, are traditionally structured around such descriptions.

The location-driven structure of a parser story is a rigid framework that isn’t ideal for everything. As interactive fiction moved away from old adventure-game frameworks, parser fiction often shifted from structures built around location to structures built around time, scenes, or character. Traditional maps of interconnected rooms were often dropped entirely (Aisle, for example) or rethought to tightly integrate movement through space into movement through time or story (Photopia).

Hypertext fiction, not having the same mechanical lineage, rarely engaged with the idea of place in a similar way, though there are notable cases (see for example Howling Dogs). Characteristic-based narratives, with Fallen London as their main forebearer, often used place from a mechanical standpoint in text, treating it much more like traditional literary fiction does: as an ambient sprinkling of detail, rather than through the specific, regimented form of the room description.

This kind of small, evocative detail is flexible and can enrich pretty much any story, by situating a character’s actions and experiences in the specificity of their environment.

Still, I like room descriptions; I like the format and rhythm of taking a paragraph purely to situate the reader. Room descriptions have incredible expressive power within a very regularized form, which makes them a useful tool for narratives that have a big mechanical or procedural component. Voyageur is at its heart a machine for making room descriptions.

Place and description are thought of first as avenues of worldbuilding, and that word has connotations of elaborate fantasy, but worldbuilding is just as present in grounded stories as in fanciful or speculative ones. Even in realist fiction, the world of a story isn’t the world at large but a specific milieu, a specific slice of human experience. And one that inevitably expresses a viewpoint on the place it’s exploring.

This gets us to a much subtler function of place: Expressing interiority. In interactive fiction, it can often feel overbearing to give the protagonist an interior monologue. So we often convolute interior space into exterior space; introspection into perspective. A lot of interactive fiction requires some description of mundane objects, perhaps in more detail than strictly desired; in many cases, this can be an opportunity to describe the lens through which the viewpoint character views that mundane detail.

a compelling sense of place is achieved by making location a part of your storytelling, by situating your story in a space that is vital to that story and which reflects the themes of that story.

Whether it comes in asides, details, or full-on place descriptions, good writing about place is present and economic. The oldest room-description trick in the book is to elevate the environment to the status of subject, using verbs as part of the descriptive palette: The trees loom overhead. The house squats atop the hill. The smell of andouilles wafts in from the kitchen. Contrast with: The trees twist overhead; the house rises atop the hill; the smell of andouilles lingers in the kitchen. You can go too far with this kind of thing, of course, to the point of purple prose. But a good exercise is to look for verbs that don’t say anything specific about what the protagonist is seeing, that carry no semantic weight and only imply place-relationships between things; to be and to have are common culprits.

Ultimately, a compelling sense of place is achieved by making location a part of your storytelling, by situating your story in a space that is vital to that story and which reflects the themes of that story. Description in this sense is a tool for incredibly economical writing, one of the best ways of expressing what world your characters live in and what, in that world, matters most to them.

Exploring ways to find that sense of place outside the traditional parser story format is one of my ongoing interests in IF, and I hope it’ll become one of yours. After all, the where tells us so much about the who, what, and why of a story.

Bruno Dias
Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere.

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