For over four years DEREK BREWSTER has been writing adventure games, and for the past three he’s been reviewing them as well. With all this accumulated experience, he now lays out some golden dos and don’ts to constructing your own adventures.
The first thing to ask yourself is just what your adventure might have to offer an unsuspecting public. Will it surprise in any way or be innovative in theme, plot or screen presentation?
Technical innovation in adventuring is important precisely because it is so rare. After all there’s a vast wealth of old adventures and you must give the player some reason for choosing your game over those already in existence. Therefore it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for the programmer to take a good look at adventures old and new to see the kind of areas in which the budding writer might excel.
Some of the earliest adventures were written in BASIC. Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code is very well-disposed towards humans, but microcomputers take a long time to translate the language and hence programs are slow, too slow for today’s commercial games.
Machine code, a language much more easily understood and worked by the computer, is super fast, but it isn’t a language designed for humans, and many struggle with a tongue that assumes a great intimacy between programmer and machine. Utilities provide a relatively easy way to sample the speeds of machine code programming without the need to climb the strenuous learning curve of the machine’s language. For a modest loss of room for innovative manoeuvrings, these routines provide adventures which are consistently better than most, for they are at the very least competently programmed.
The most famous utility was the Quill, updated with the Illustrator and Patch and Press, but this has now been overhauled, revamped and put out as the most impressive utility to date, The Professional Adventure Writer (PAW), a utility which is probably good enough for just about all mainstream adventures as it does just about everything you need.
In between, Incentive released a very useful aid named the Graphic Adventure Creator, whilst many smaller concerns released utilities for those on the lookout for the exotic, or perhaps a different look. This last is an important point as adventure cloning can bore players, hence the importance attached to PAW offering several ways of displaying the adventure written with it. In general, an adventure written using a utility must be innovative wherever it can, as people expect more from a game they believe they themselves might have written — if only they had the time.
Here’s your chance to say something intelligently and coherently to a captive audience. All should be in context and keep concisely to the theme. You can take a leaf out of the notes of novelists here and try a little research into your chosen theme. For example, a game chronicling the travels of Ulysses should be just that, with the finished article being, in my mind, no way compromised because it might be considered educational. If I learn something new by watching a TV program, or playing an adventure, then the source of that new information goes up in my esteem.
The geography and bearings of your world should be readily understood with deserts wide, crevasses narrow and mazes convoluted, but don’t overdo the mazes and always give them a reason for being there.
At this stage you should consider the problems that will make up your adventure — for that is what an adventure is, a set of puzzles punctuating a coherent plot. Try to formulate problems you might meet in real life and to make the problems develop realistically. Avoid too many problems which are overly artificial, as with the rubber mat which is needed to prevent the aspirin falling down a hole no matter where the player is in Subsunk. Problems have a spacing and a direction. Manipulating these two factors you can sidestep the linearity which plagues many adventures and instead fan out the problem pathways so, ideally, the player has several paths to follow at any time. Avoid the two extremes of allowing the player to wander endlessly or becoming trapped in the first location; instead aim for five or six locations leading into relatively easy problems to ease the adventurer in to the game and thereby building confidence.
At one time design might have been curtailed
by your programming ability or the utility you employed, but what with the
likes of PAW, design can once again be fruitfully employed. Involved are
ponderables such as screen layout, spacing and look of the text, right
through to how many pictures, and of what size, should illustrate the
adventure. Personally, I prefer a few well chosen graphics of high quality as each is then a reward for progress thus far, with the player
perhaps really contemplating and enjoying the artwork. This is better
than pressing any key to get rid of a shoddy sketch at every other
location, which is the case in poor games. Think carefully before using
white as a background at all locations, and if the border colour is to
vary, try and vary it subtly, as dramatic variations cause a flash.
More than any other area, good vocabulary is a sign of a good, well considered adventure. Be very loath to increase the difficulty of the game by choosing obscure verb/noun word couplings. Friendly games try to anticipate the attempts of the player with logical and common couplings forming the solution, and helpful messages accompanying couplings which are close but do not quite show an exact understanding of the problem.
Be careful not to mix opposites, for example DISEMBARK should reverse BOARD and LEAVE ENTER, but not BOARD and LEAVE, with no DISEMBARK. These errors are most easily spotted and rectified if the game is shown to many who have had no part in the writing of the adventure. Play-testing is indeed an important final stage.
So there it is, a guide to writing an adventure. Clearly not all these steps are hard and fast rules, but an author would be well-advised to consider each stage of writing carefully, for it is in the department of planning that good adventures are born.