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The Ancient Art of the MUD (A Writer’s Perspective of the Crafting of a Text-based Game)

A brief discussion of how to enthrall the imagination of a text-based game's players with eye catching text, creative storyline, and a strong sense of cohesion.

MUD, a term that has in recent years been all but forgotten by the average gamer, lost in a world filled with the flash and sparkle of the MMO, the realistic avatars and gore of the FPS, and the occasional pale storyline supported by pleasing graphics of the single-player RPG. I remember the very first time I laid eyes on the plain black and white text scroll of a MUD. I was eleven years old, sitting on the floor of my mother’s house in a cramped little corner and my computer was running slower than a gelatinous cube on a treadmill thanks to the wonders of the dial-up modem. I look back on that day now, remembering the time before my obsession for computer games led to my scorning of the occasional venture into sunlight and all the cash I’ve saved on sunscreen since, and can’t help but smile.

Despite the childhood dreams of creating video games my brother (Jeremy Alessi, author of the Games Demystified series) and I had, game writing is something comparatively new to my resume. This isn’t to say I didn’t offer the occasional ‘helpful’ comment to him on some of his late-night programming frenzies, but it wasn’t something I had set my sights on just yet. Before discovering the MUD Isles of Aedin (islesofaedin.com), I had worked toward a lifetime of writing short stories and novels. But as video games become more and more realistic and people demand greater and more in depth storylines, I’ve stumbled upon a way to combine my two great loves. And now I want to share my experience with other people who might eventually be drawn into the frightening, addictive, and fantastical world of the ancient text-based game.

 

Isles of Aedin Map

 

A MUD, also known as a Multi-User Dungeon, is a primarily text based game, relying on story, community, and role-play to entertain for the most part. This requires both staff and gamer to dive deep into the imagination, creating an entirely new world filled with details both great and small. In fact it is the minor details that really make the world, as great writers of any medium would tell you. From a consumers’ perspective, it can be said that the minor details don’t seem that important until you’re missing them. From a writers’ perspective, the minor details are both the most difficult and the most fun to create.

                The challenge for writing for a game like IoA, or any role-playing game for that matter, is finding a way to bring characters of all different backgrounds together while still letting them feel different. This includes special scenarios where the staff members interact directly with the players’ characters and even extends to the description text of each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of rooms, monsters, and items. This means that the second-person perspective should be avoided whenever possible when describing a room, since each player walking through might react differently. What might scare one person might not even faze another.

                This can make creating an area with a certain feel all the trickier, since you can’t tell the person what they’re feeling, but are forced to describe something and let them react while trying to evoke the emotions of the player with the right vocabulary. The following are excerpts from the game portraying well written examples of room description.

                This first one was taken from a secluded shrine for one of the world’s deities:

 Zacotl

“The small path ends as the trees part, revealing a small clearing. Sunlight filters down from above, splashing the vibrant green grass and wildflowers. The noise of the central part of the grove all but fades away in this quiet sanctuary. An altar of stone rests in the center of the small clearing of verdant grass. Tangled vines have grown wild across the hard stone and though no markings can be seen, it is obvious that this is a place sacred to the twin goddesses of nature. Overhead the soft warbling of songbirds blends with the chirping crickets below into a sublime symphony of sounds. Small trinkets of adoration and worship have been left at the base of the altar, each one a symbol of devotion to their beloved gods.”

 

This next example is taken from the description of a lock picker’s shop in a small, pleasant village:

 

                “A nimble fingered Barenleute leans on a long, wooden table, his eyelids at half mast as he struggles to keep awake. At the sound of potential customers entering his shop, he sits bolt upright and tumbles backward off his stool with a loud thump! The bear quickly scrambles back to his feet, his eyes darting around the room in the hopes no one noticed his clumsiness. With fabricated aplomb he hops back onto his precarious perch and lifts a lock pick from the table, expertly spinning the delicate tool around his furred fingers.”

 

                Without singling out the player these excerpts manage to convey a certain feeling, the first something divine and pleasant, while the latter a little more humorous. The first paragraph makes use of alliteration like in the phrase ‘sublime symphony’, and good, yet slightly vague, descriptive words like ‘sacred’, and ‘warbling’, all of which suggest a place of holy tranquility in a nature setting without actually telling the player what they ought to be feeling. The second paragraph’s use of words like ‘tumbles’, ‘scrambles’, or the phrase ‘fabricated aplomb’, suggests an awkward sort of humor based on a fake sense of dignity. Now let’s try something a little darker:

 

“You can hear the screech of enraged animals as you approach this area. The sickeningly sweet scent of death clogs your nose and raises the bile in your throat. As you get closer you can start making out rows and rows of rusty cages, not all of them empty. Starving predators eye you hungrily, their fur coming out in clumps, their sides lean and tight around their ribs and nearby more prey-like animals cringe at your approach. Drying streaks of blood stain the tiled floor while ominous knives and hooks hang from the stone walls. You find yourself wanting to flee from the horrific sight before you.”

 Israg Isle

                While the paragraph describes the area just fine in detail, it also tells the character what they’re doing rather than allowing them to react. Not all characters would feel the need to investigate further and approach the animals and some may have stronger stomachs (or happen to be a bit more evil) than others and feel no desire to flee. This would have been a much better way to portray that room:

 

“The screeches of enraged animals echo through the space. The sickeningly sweet scent of death hangs heavy in the still air around rows of rusty cages along the walls. Starving predators searching for a way to escape, pace restlessly in their small prisons while their fur falls out in clumps and their skin is stretched taut across their ribs. Nearby more prey-like animals cringe at even the slightest sound, their bodies hunched and bent from weeks of torturous experiments. Drying streaks of blood stain the tiled floor while ominous knives and hooks hang from the stone walls.”

 

                This area was notably gloomy and a sinister. Note the uses of certain words to suggest that the place is unpleasant, decrepit, and should inspire fear without actually telling a person what they should be feeling. The goal is to imagine and describe what would terrify, soothe, or make a player laugh. Not to simply tell the character that’s what they’re feeling. Think of it like a picture painted with words. An artist isn’t likely to simply paint the word ‘sad’ on a canvas and have it pronounced a masterpiece. Instead he would imagine what might inspire sadness in the viewer, or himself, and turn that blank canvas into an image that could bring tears to the eyes. So make a picture of that place in your mind first, fill it with every detail you can think of from each of your five senses then pick out the things that stick out the most to you. Does the place have a pungent odor? Is the air sticky and moist from humidity or arid and still? Is there something nearby making a loud racket? Sometimes the best way to reach your audience is to appeal to senses other than vision, it can be difficult, but it often has a more profound impact.

 

 

Now let’s take a look at the creation of Non-Player-Characters (NPCs) and monsters. These you can get a little more direct with because in order for the player to see the description, they would have to actively look at the target. This means the use of second-person is a bit more acceptable, but again you’ll want to rely more on the words to show people what to feel, rather than telling them. This example was taken from a fairly lighthearted area. Imagine a village of bee-keeping, bi-pedal British-like bears with a strong love of booze:

 

 “Barenleute Brew Master: The Barenleute appears to be a small humanoid bear, wearing a smart, cleanly cut suit, which has taken to walking on his hind legs. His fingers are long and nimble and his short fur glimmers in the light. A bright streak of cream cuts through his dark fur to outline his face and his chocolate brown eyes gleam with surprising intelligence. He clutches a heavy pewter stein in one paw and the thick foamy head of the deep amber mead spills over the lip of the mug as he raises it to his lips.”

 

These next examples are a pair of monsters taken from some seriously gruesome wizards’ towers. Be sure to note the variation in adjectives and verbs used between the more lighthearted description above and the ones below.

 Galirrim

                ”Flesh Fiend: A towering creature made of moist raw meat lumbers toward you. Ivory white bones protrude from the fleshy fists in wickedly sharp points as it raises its arms out threateningly. It gnashes its rotting and jagged teeth in indescribable pain and fury as strings of saliva fall from its gaping maw. Empty eye sockets stare at you blankly and the horrific monster squelches loudly as it moves.”

 

“Animated Wall Trap: A massive limb crafted of thick, pitch-black liquid sprouts from a dark, void-like hole in the floor and waves half a dozen finger-like appendages wildly. Each watery protrusion bends with an alien grace, revealing a third knuckle in the slender fingers. At first the animated creature seems to be utterly blind, but as it shifts it reveals a single, colossal eye in the palm of its disembodied hand. The eye blinks slowly and rivulets of crimson blood stream down the hand as if the creature were weeping. “

 

                Notice the large use of adjectives in all the descriptions. While story writing usually demands the use of adjectives and adverbs to be limited so it doesn’t distract the reader, they tend to be far more acceptable in situations like this where the reader is going to be too distracted to easily be able to read through the entire description. This way they can get a feel for the creature with a quick glance in between weapon swings or spell casts. Short and sweet is the name of the game. Also, don’t be afraid to be blunt with your audience. If you want something to be scary, funny, or whatever, then don’t be afraid to use whatever tools you can, while still remembering to avoid telling people what they should be feeling. Players are most likely to only give many of these descriptions cursory glances unless they see something that really catches their eye, so you’ll want to feed them as much information as you can in that brief once-over. Some words just draw the eye more than others.

Read over both the above descriptions again (this time scan them rapidly, almost at the same time, as if currently fighting against them) and pick out which words catch your attention with a quick glance and consider why. Is it the meaning of the word or the structure of the word? Usually you’ll find it to be a combination of the two; people are just hardwired to notice and react to certain words. For example the word blood tends to stick out, likely as a combination of the visual of the double O’s, as well as the connotation behind the word itself (most people notice actual blood quickly and it typically evokes an immediate, and often unpleasant, response). After you finish writing a description of something that you want to have a profound impact on your audience, give it a couple quick glances yourself to see which words pop out at you. Do they adequately describe the ‘feel’ you were going for? If not then try changing some of the less memorable adjectives or verbs into something a little more eye catching. Your players will likely notice the difference, even if they don’t exactly know why.

 

 Windgard Isle

                The things explained so far are just the basic building blocks of the players’ interactive experience within the game. Additional components like background and history of the fantasy world take far longer to craft but are just as important. Without a detailed universe, there is nothing for the players to build upon. This includes things like unique deities, detailed histories of past wars, folklore, and current events. This also includes scenarios run by the staff. Scenarios are special events written and executed by the staff and are designed to draw players into exciting role-playing situations. Think of them as mini D&D campaigns or side quests within a never-ending storyline.  These are what keep the woKurmthas Islerld new and interesting.

                Scenarios can be as massive as a months’ long murder mystery to as short as a single night of fun and games at a festival. One of the key aspects of creating and executing a scenario, or any other part of the game for that matter, is working with your team. This can be difficult; each of you is going to very likely have a different idea of what the scenario should be, even if you agree on the plot. Just like when you see a movie and you can point to exactly what made it a John Woo or a Michael Bay film versus a John Hughes flick, each writer or designer is going to have their own flavor. These different ‘flavors’ can have a painful effect on the continuity and cohesion of the game. The ultimate challenge is finding a way to take all the pieces and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle to create the big picture.

                The greatest weapon in your arsenal, your BFG if you will, against a fractured feeling game is communication. Sure you’ve heard it a thousand times before, how communication is necessary, but it’s one of those things that really can’t be said enough. There are dozens of ways to handle a project that multiple people will be working on. You can keep everyone up-to-date with e-mail, but that’s old school and everyone has lost an important e-mail at least once. But thanks to some seriously innovative folks, things like Google Docs or Dropbox can be major stress relievers. Using programs like these, even teams that are spread across the world can keep each other in the loop. But those are just tools. Without the team actually speaking and planning together, all the organization in the world won’t save you.

                Another thing to consider is being purposely vague on certain descriptions or explanations. If you’re not sure what another person on your team is planning for an upcoming event or even an expansion of the world and it might conflict with your own project, don’t be afraid to use vague descriptions. Sure this isn’t ideal, but it could save you some embarrassment or confused players for the time being. You can always go back later and add more detail once you confirm that your ideas and those of your teammates’ mesh.

                Even a small team of writers and designers can have major problems with cohesion. This can result in a game world that feels broken and confusing, like a jumble of half a dozen imaginations tenuously held together with duct tape and crazy glue. While technically true, the real goal is to connect everything into a seamlessly sewn together product. The last step in keeping your game from looking and feeling like Frankenstein’s monster can be found in the immortal words of Kelly Johnson. Keep It Simple Stupid. If you over complicate things you will, without a doubt, confuse both your audience and yourself. It’s hard enough as it is, remembering every piece of lore, every room, every monster, every fraction of information that you or your teammates have written. Don’t make it harder on yourself or your players by adding disgustingly elaborate twists.

 

 Unlabeled Map of the Isles

                These are just some of the barebones guidelines to writing for a good ol’ fashion MUD, but many of these things can be translated into more modern forms of games. No game (or book or movie for that matter), no matter how new or old, should tell the player what to feel. Instead a game should give the players the tools to decide for themselves. A game should always remember to draw the attention of the player, whether it’s through eye catching words in the text-based genre or jaw-dropping graphics and game play of a newer age game. And no matter what, a game needs a sense of cohesion and continuity for the player to become attached to the world and the characters within. So write what you know, write what you love, and always remember to KISS.

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