Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The TriadCity Style Guide

Gamers don't want to read miles of prose. They're busy exploring, interacting with stuffs, chatting, not getting killed. Yet TriadCity has the ambition to be richly detailed. How to balance?

Most of our authors do it by writing in layers.

Start with a basic room description, keep it to one short paragraph. The game engine will add lists of items or other characters which the player's character is able to perceive. Your paragraph should be detailed enough to give players a concrete sense of space, yet terse enough that it can be scanned quickly. Note that since many players are blind, terseness works in favor of screen readers as well. If descriptions are too long, the reader may miss chat messages or other details which would interest the player.

Room descriptions have tertiary characteristics we colloquially call "nouns". If the description is, "An ordinary bedroom with a chest of drawers in one corner", the player will be able to query the game engine for more detail on the nouns "bedroom", "chest", "drawers", and "corner". If you choose not to provide that detail, the game's response will be the highly unhelpful "If only there were a corner here to see". But you can add whatever detail you like, for example, "The corner is dark, cobwebby, dappled in flickering shadow from a lamp burning atop the chest of drawers.". Then you can go on to provide detail about the lamp, and so on, to whatever depth you feel is appropriate. It's then up to the player to decide whether to investigate that detail, or not, at her discretion.

You can go further by providing items for players to interact with. You may choose to put a chest of drawers of one or another type into the room. Then, along with looking, players can touch, smell, open, close, and generally fiddle, including finding things hidden inside — or putting things inside themselves. All up to you as the author. What are you seeking to achieve with this room?

TriadCity fully enables all sense descriptions; it's your choice to provide them or not. Players can touch the chest of drawers, listen to it, taste it, smell it. Your sense descriptions can be serious, or flip: "taste the chest" may result in "Aren't you afraid you'll get splinters in your tongue?" Or it could be "The chest tastes like dried blood." You concretize your intent for the room by providing layers of these details for players to interact with.

It's especially important to keep screen reader constraints in mind. You want the chunks of text read by screen readers to be short enough to not block each other. It's probably good to login from time to time with an accessible MUD client, to listen to the reader do its thing inside your rooms. It could give you a better sense of how real users will experience them.

This scratches the surface, but that's the thing. You can stop with just a surface, or you can supply layer after layer of detail, depending on your intent and available time. A good part of an author's artistry is deciding when there's just enough versus too much for players to absorb.