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Developing a Setting for Fantastical IF

by Emily Short

Table of Contents
• Introduction
• Finding Ideas
  • Starting Places
  • Invention
  • Research
• Constructing Your Map
  • Structure
  • Interconnection
• Presentation
  • Consistency
  • Imagery
  • Atmosphere
• Living With the Work


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 cliché.

[A brief digression about clichés. 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.

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This article copyright © 2001, Emily Short

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