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Developing a Setting for Fantastical IF


One of the great pleasures of writing IF is building the world in which the adventure takes place. But the task of making a setting that works for a game isn't a trivial one; and writing a fantastic or imaginary setting requires some special skills.

When people talk about what impressed them about a setting, they often mention things like "evocative imagery," "strong atmosphere," and "richly developed background." Figuring out how to endow your own game with these desirable properties is perhaps less easily done, however. And what about things like "consistency" and "structure"?

Much of what follows is applicable to designing IF settings of all kinds, but some of it is particularly geared to the problems of inventing something wholly imaginary.

Finding Ideas

Starting Places

One usually starts somewhere. An image out of a memory, or a dream. Some interesting error of interpretation, a metaphor taken literally, a what-if possibility that lodged in the brain and is begging to have its implications explored. What if the world really were flat? What if numbers were characters you could meet on the street? What if there were a god who collected people's memories in a bottle? What if time flowed backwards, what if Napoleon had died in infancy, what if you woke up one morning and found yourself to be a giant cockroach?

These starting ideas can be about other things than the state of the game world. They can be ideas about genre ("I'd like to write a Western."). They can be ideas about presentation: the voice you're going to use to narrate the game, an attitude, a style, a programming trick that no one has tried yet. These are all valid seeds -- the kind of thing you can take and start writing with -- and they can come from anywhere or nowhere.

Here's the thing: in my experience the best games are generated when I start with more than one of these ideas, preferably ones that don't obviously go together. "I'm going to write a game set in the Wild West" is okay, but it doesn't generate any conflicts; it doesn't produce any story. "I'm going to write a game about a mute woman in the Wild West who is, unbeknownst to those around her, actually a correspondent for an important newspaper" suggests places to go. Why is the woman doing this? How did she get started? Whom does she meet? Who takes her for granted, and who sees her for what she is? What is her attitude to her handicap? How is this going to affect the gameplay?

This idea by no means provides a whole plot or setting, but it has potential. And ideally it should be combined with a couple of other ideas that have nothing (at first glance) to do with that premise.

This needn't mean making the plot hopelessly complicated; it just means giving the game multiple distinct elements that can be yoked together. As mentioned, this can generate new and productive questions. It also decreases the risk that what you're about to come up with is a hopeless clich?.

[A brief digression about clich?s. The problem with them isn't that they present ideas that people have seen before, but that they allow the author to rely on a crutch -- the tried-and-obvious, the generic -- instead of inventing something afresh. You want to write a game with dragons and elves? Fine. But do the work of reinventing the dragons and elves yourself. Ask yourself the questions over again, and don't be satisfied with the prepackaged answers: What do they look like? What do they do? Where do they come from? People like to remark on the fact that Andrew Plotkin has written award-winning games using two of the settings (caves, one's apartment) that are considered most tedious and overdone; the point isn't that he possesses mystical Zarfian Powers, but that he understands the process of imagining something anew. Imagination is, perhaps counterintuitively, a discipline; the good news is that, like other disciplines, it can be cultivated actively.]

There are a whole host of ways to get at these multi-pronged ideas. Take two unlike genres and ram them together to see what they produce (Elves in 1890s New York. Aliens land in Heian Japan. A cyberpunk comedy of manners.). Pull together thoughts you had intended to use in two different games. Take some obvious or easy assumption and warp it (the cute child you were going to have accost the PC asking for help now becomes menacing or threatening somehow instead.).

And sometimes things may come to you even when you're not looking, and demand to be admitted, which is why I am constantly scribbling IF-related notes into the notebook I supposedly use for schoolwork. The bell on the darkened lake shore, in Metamorphoses, comes from a class I had on Japanese art; the gondolier's cloak is a reference to the dark cloaks of the assassins in Gene Wolfe's work; the faces on the side of the gondola are the upturned faces in hell in What Dreams May Come. The obsession with clockwork is partly a nod to Myst, partly a bow to the machinery in Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before. The cistern is an actual cistern I saw in Greece, though the paintings on the walls I imported from elsewhere. And so on.


The large concepts behind a work of IF may come partly from ideas you have going in, but (if your experience is anything like mine) they will also to a large extent develop from questions you ask yourself afterwards.

Most of the games I've written -- most of the short stories, as well, and the novel, too, for that matter (don't ask) -- have evolved in this way. I have my two or three strong, strange ideas. They don't seem as though they entirely go together, but they're not entirely at war, either. They seem as though they might work.

Then I ask myself questions.

In Pytho's Mask, for instance, I had a couple of notions. I wanted to do a game that could actually be a natural extension of, or conclusion from, the competition announcement for SmoochieComp, in which a strange masked man gives you an invitation on a white card. So I had that element: you're a woman at some sort of party, you're attracted to the masked man, but you don't know who he is. The romance element was a requirement anyway, but this gave it a little bit more shape. If you're going to have a masked man, though, you need some kind of mystery about his identity -- so I made up a couple of characters who could each potentially be he.

Then there was the business about the moon. The first location I wrote is the one that is still the first room of the game: the terrace, made of moon stone. I was trying to dodge the clich? of having a moonlit terrace, and it occurred to me instead to have a terrace that was glowing of its own accord, instead. That rapidly gave rise to a couple of questions: what kind of world was it in which you could casually travel to the moon and bring back rock from the quarries there? Especially given the other starting idea I had (that the game should be set in a 17th-18th century Western-style society), the answer couldn't have anything to do with space ships in the ordinary sense. Likewise, if the moon was truly glowing of itself, the cosmology had to be different from our own.

This in turn suggested an easy congress between earth and the moon by ship -- so that the moon would be like a colony of an early modern European empire. Correspondingly, it needed to play into the political system: hence, the Moon Minister.

From there the idea of having a more direct connection between cosmology and court suggested itself. The Sun King was an obvious trope to play with, perfectly right in all its implications for the fancy court society I wanted, and then the Earth Minister seemed a good balance for the Moon. Drawing on some of the chthonic vs. celestial power ideas gave me further conceptual material to go on here: the Earth Minister would be female to balance the male Moon Minister, and she would have sort of general agricultural powers, and she would be (or seem) very kindly and practical.

So far, so good; but the picture still seemed a little static. I needed some more players at the court, or the positions would be a little too tritely symmetrical.

I'd had playing in the back of my mind an entirely unrelated idea for a sort of science fiction story: what if humanity developed a form of immortality treatment, but it left you sterile? Or what if you could only have the treatment if you agreed to be sterilized (as a form of population control)? People would be forced to choose between having long life and having children. It wasn't a really well-developed idea, because I didn't have anywhere to go with it. But somehow or other it popped through into this universe: instead of a treatment, there was just this genetic quality of long life, but it was associated with androgynous persons who were incapable of bearing children. These would be relatively rare -- this isn't exactly a sensible way for evolution to work, and androgyny would run in the noble houses but only manifest itself some of the time (since obviously there had to be some people still reproducing and passing the dormant gene along). But there would also be considerable honor that accrued to the position, since the very long-lived would be an important resource to a society.

Too important, though, perhaps. From a game standpoint, having a perfectly reliable oracle would make things boring; having an ultra-wise villain would also be kind of unfun. And the androgyny suggested someone whose position in society -- and in the cosmology I was building -- would be a little peculiar. A force of ambiguity and disruption, paired with that celestial body most often associated with disastrous omen in ancient times: the comet.

Much of the finer-grained detail developed as I worked on the conversation system. What might one want to ask about? The player would have to have some way of coming to understand this bizarre cosmological system, so unlike our own, and so I created some mythology for it. What stories would people tell themselves about the relations of earth and moon? What boundaries could there be on the King's power? Did his Empire extend forever? Had it always? How was it founded? If there were any foreigners, how were they regarded, and how treated? (I put a few into the game for good measure.)

And then the physical environment. What did it look like? How did it symbolize and embody various aspects of the cosmology in question? (Since obviously this was going to be a symbolism-rich sort of world.) What was the history of the various rooms, and who had been there before, and what memories were associated with them?

The basic moral of the story is this: you can gather questions around just about any interesting idea you have. Why is this here? Who made it? When did it get here? What is it for? What does it mean? The more you prod at this sort of thing, the more fully the background will develop. It's possible to spend a great deal of time developing background that will never be relevant to the game, but I have discovered two things.

1) Often stuff I think is going to be irrelevant I can find a way to fit in anyway, if it seems like a nifty idea;

2) As an author, one fairly quickly gets a sense of which background issues deserve to be worked on and which don't.


Research is an obvious and important step for a historically-based game. (What kind of boots did a well-brought-up young lady wear in Victorian England?) Perhaps less obvious is its applicability in developing a fantasy setting.

When I'm in the process of putting together material for a game, I sometimes spend a fair amount of time in bookstores and libraries, paging through anything that looks relevant. For Metamorphoses, I read up on Renaissance philosophy and the history of science. For other games, I've looked up architectural forms, literature, mythology... anything that seemed relevant or related in general type to the setting I was working on.

Sometimes I'm working on background and I'm trying to remind myself of the kinds of questions I should be asking. It's easy to write a room description that hasn't been thought out enough; it's easy not to do enough of the work of imagining. Looking at a book about, say, everyday life in ancient China makes me aware again of some of the relevant questions: what did the people here eat? what did they wear? what were the politics? Obviously the depth and complexity of the background you're building will determine what questions are useful ones to ask yourself.

And sometimes I don't even know what I'm looking for, exactly. Sometimes I just page through things: travel magazines; atlases; historical documents; illustrated books of antiques. Encyclopedia articles on costuming through the centuries. Web pages on 19th century railways, or out-of-fashion cars, or demonology, or the elements. I think of it as a kind of seeding process: random number generators need somewhere to start, and so does the image-generating part of my brain. Often some strange landscape will catch my eye, or some building, and even if that never makes it all the way into the game itself, there is a quality of it that informs my sense of what the feel of the game is about. For one of my works in progress I keep a collection of photographs of various objects that I consider in some way relevant: things that I imagine could exist in the game world even though they may not actually show up.

Sound like a lot of work? Perhaps it is, but it's largely fun work -- and, at least for me, corresponds with the kind of thing I tend to do by way of procrastination and relaxation. I like going in bookstores and wandering around pulling things off shelves, letting my imagination wander. It's not a lot of additional effort to take the interesting and curious things I run into that way and see whether they fit in anywhere with my work in progress.

Constructing Your Map


I like a game where you don't have to make a map.

Partly this is because I am stubborn and partly it's because I'm lazy. And I'm not sure that it's a principle to which all IF authors need to cater, or ought to cater. But there is an underlying idea here that is good, which is this: in the ideal IF setting, the parts of the setting relate to each other in comprehensible ways. Things are located sensibly. I dislike mazes not only because you do have to map them but also because they interfere with and scramble up the intuitive sense of place that I otherwise build up as I play.

The more fantastical the setting is, the easier it is to get away with making it illogical: a game set in an old western town needs its saloon, its bank to be robbed, its dusty street, and the relations of one place to another are probably clear. But a game set in some surreal landscape can conceptually get away with having, if necessary, a desolate waste full of ominous mirages right next to a beautifully trimmed hedge garden.

Nonetheless, it helps the player if you don't give him too huge a landscape to wander through at once: too much freedom is overwhelming, and one is left without a sense of where to go. Curtailing someone's motion through the landscape, at least on the first runthrough, is often useful. The idea of locked doors and keys may be a somewhat overused one, but there lurks an important issue there: in order to control the pacing of the game and give the player a comprehensible experience, you need to dole out the pieces at a reasonable pace. Not too much at a time.

Correspondingly, the more detailed the environment is, the bigger it will feel, in terms of exploration-potential. Five rooms containing one item each will seem from a game-play point of view like less work than one room with several dozen items.

Another useful technique is to create obvious divisions or symmetries in the game world, something to give the player a handle on distinct sets of locations. Metamorphoses has a very symmetrical map, because it suited the symbolism of the world to make it that way. One of my other works in progress is less symmetrical, but it has sections, what I think of as neighborhoods; each has distinct thematic features of its own.


In real life, space is continuous; in IF, it is discrete and comes in boxes. This often discourages authors from making use of grand vistas, which is rather a pity: I like games in which I can sometimes see from one room of the game to another. It may take some special programming to make this consistently behave right, but the rewards are considerable. Seeing far away objects before you are able to reach them (the sinister tower at the top of the hill) builds a sense of anticipation. It also deepens the sense that the setting you're moving around in is not just a movie set.



It's important to implement your game world with some consistent degree of depth. Implementing deeply and thoroughly (so that everything has a description, and the parts of everything have descriptions, and so on) is perhaps the best way: from a player's perspective, it's excellent to be able to examine not only everything in the description of a room but the subcomponents of the object. It deepens the sense of reality; it suggests that all is not cut out of cardboard and pasted together in haste for our benefit. Like this:

The desk is an ornate contraption from the end of the last Empire. Its front legs are shaped like women carrying water, and there are drawers beneath the desk surface and an impressive collection of pigeonholes mounted above it. An inlaid mahogany door can be used to close up and lock the whole, but at the moment it stands open.

The women, now that you look at them, are wearing archaic dresses and carrying elegant fluted jugs. Their faces have been individualized a bit -- the cherubic girl on the left looks considerably sweeter than the veiled dowager supporting the right side.

With one hand she is lifting up her gown so that it does not drag on the ground, and with the other supporting her water jug. She seems not to notice the immense weight resting on the crown of her head.

You may not have time to implement deeply and in detail, however. Or you may want a deliberately austere feel for your game. Perhaps instead of attaching subdescriptions to your objects, you have all the subparts pointing back to the same thing:

The desk is an ornate contraption from the end of the last Empire. Its front legs are shaped like young women carrying water, and there are drawers beneath the desk surface and an impressive collection of pigeonholes mounted above it. An inlaid mahogany door can be used to close up and lock the whole, but at the moment it stands open.

The desk is an ornate contraption from the end of the last Empire. Its front legs are shaped like young women carrying water, and there are drawers beneath the desk surface and an impressive collection of pigeonholes mounted above it. An inlaid mahogany door can be used to close up and lock the whole, but at the moment it stands open.

At least having the important nouns all be recognized is a nice touch, however. You can get away with doing either, but it's best if you do it consistently. What gets confusing and draws attention is when some rooms are implemented in excruciating detail -- packed with multipartite objects, with all sorts of optional rugs and light switches and irrelevant ceiling panels thrown in -- and then other rooms are half-baked, with only a couple of carelessly constructed objects in them.


It's impossible to prescribe a methodology for creating evocative imagery, but it is, perhaps, possible to talk a little bit about what it is.

The evocative image suggests something beyond itself in the player's mind. It is a pointer to a hazy-but-fascinating reality that the player may only partly grasp.

An enormous stone head, broken in the desert. The bridge built to span an impassible chasm, with technology long ago lost. The scaffolding around the partially-constructed space ship, blocking half the sky of stars. A fragmentary thing evokes its whole; an ancient one, the lost world that created it; an unfinished one, the thing that it is supposed to become. And often those entireties seem more magnificent when they are alluded to than they could possibly be if the player were able to perceive them fully.

Think of it this way. A statue the size of a skyscraper is just... big. A single stone toe, lying on its side in the dunes, taller than you can reach with your arms extended -- it takes what is colossal about the first image and expresses it in accessible terms. People who play IF often have good imaginations, but their imaginings still work best in terms of lengths and sizes they can visualize easily.

Also striking are images that contravene our sense of how the world works, and make us wonder about the alternative reality that allows for it: changes of scale; processes that run more quickly than they do in life, or in the wrong direction, or that are frozen in the middle; doors that open on nothing, objects that hang in midair, inanimate things come to life.

And yet all the startling invention in the world can seem like a cheap carnival trick if it is not well described. Particularity is your strongest tool. Saying that something is "stunning" or "immense" impresses less than some more mundane but tangible evidence of size or richness. Magnificent attire is less interesting than a bejeweled costume, which is in turn less colorful than a lace cuff studded with rubies.

Note that this does NOT mean you have to describe everything down to the last merciless detail, or that you have to focus everywhere on the same aspects of things. Room after room of "You are in a narrow blue room, where the light falls from the upper left corner and the humidity is pushing 95 percent." -- well. It could pall rather quickly. The trick is to envision the most telling bits, and make them as clear in your mind as possible; the rest can be impressionistic. The player will fill it in.


Art historians talk about painters using certain kinds of palettes. "Caravaggio used a palette with black tones," they say. And what they mean by this is that all the colors are mixed in a certain way from certain base colors, so that even though there may be a red and a blue and a yellow, they will have that same blackness in them, and never resemble the pure candy-like colors of Reni, or the moody grey-blues of Fragonard.

Movies have styles and looks, too: take the brilliant, comic-book reds and blues of Dick Tracy, or the constant rain in The Crow (which otherwise I can't recommend), or the goldish tones of Gattaca. Compare the Los Angeles of Blade Runner with that of L. A. Confidential. The mood and concept of the movie is so deeply enmeshed with the setting in each case that the physical objects carry markers of what the movie as a whole is trying to do.

Can you do something equivalent in IF? Absolutely. Ian Finley's Kaged is full of light that falls from odd angles; of dramatic moments, stagily presented; of the monumental propaganda of a mechanistic and inhumane bureaucracy. Some of what creates the atmosphere is detail -- carefully chosen objects -- and some of it is the way that the setting is described. In every lit room, light has a certain quality, comes in some color, falls at some angle, is soft or hard, casts harsh shadows or glows diffusely. The air is warm or cold, damp or dry. Materials give textures to objects: the dullness of unfaced concrete, the luster of satin, the grit of sandstone. There is smell, and size, and the sense of space in a location (echoing, empty, cramped, ill-proportioned).

Even the colors that you choose, and the words you use for them, generate the sense of mood. You don't have to stick with "red" and "blue" and "green." For Metamorphoses I had in mind the rich but slightly muddied colors that I associated with Renaissance book illustrations: russet, indigo, jade, dull copper. And I chose as often as possible to go with words that were themselves associated with some kind of material, though one can just as easily describe colors in terms of flowers (rose, lavender) or fruits (plum) or any number of other things. If you feel that your vocabulary isn't up to producing quite the effect you want, sit down and thumb through a thesaurus, or read some prose of the general style you're looking for; there's nothing wrong with doing research at this level, either.

I tend to choose descriptive words for their connotations (what does this word remind me of?); for the narrative voice I'm using (what level of diction is appropriate?); and for sound. Language can be cold and strong, made of short sentences, hard consonants, deep vowels. It can be soft and lush and leisurely, sibilant in sound and intricate with Latinate derivatives. It can hurry and tumble along, or keep a stately ceremonious pace. The choices you make don't have to be startling all the time, or over-elaborate; nothing clogs prose like a redundant superabundance of ill-selected adjectives, or a proliferation of high-falutin' verbiage. But the texture of your prose, like the cinematography of a movie, becomes part of the atmosphere.

Living With the Work

The process of writing a game is, at least for me, a fairly intense and immersive one. I make bundles of notes and maps and diagrams I keep around photographs, or webpages, or bits of poetry, or whatever I'm consulting for inspiration. I stick mood-appropriate music on infinite repeat. Gradually the process starts to feel less contrived and more automatic. Further embellishments volunteer themselves rather than having to be actively fished out of the ether.

Between the discipline of creation and the chance of discovery, the world I'm building takes on the qualities of autonomous reality It feels like a place I've visited. The good parts are fixed, unchangeable, sure. If I'm lucky, those parts add up, in the end, to a coherent whole: a structure that makes intuitive sense, with a consistent mood and no jarring discontinuities, solid and habitable. A world that is no longer an extension of me, but belongs to itself.

Sometimes -- most often on the verge of sleep -- I return to one of them as a tourist. I ring the bell; and then I stand, waiting, at the edge of the darkened water.

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