How to write good room descriptions?

How can I make the location feel real to the player? How much details are needed? Should I describe the smell, temperature, threes, ground, sky…?

I guess I should mention what an average person would notice about the area. If the player goes outside, it would be logical that he notices the cold and the wind … but I shouldn’t keep telling him this.

What is the best way to write about the exits? The cardinal directions easily make them sound a little too mechanical.

Standing with my eyes closed allows me to visualize that I’m in that area myself: I’m facing south. In front of me, the path leads into the darkness. I can still hear chatter from the camp behind me. To my left - that’s east - is that wierd hole in the ground, and so on.

Also, I find google image search and quite good to get inspiration for a specific locations.

There’s really no singular strategy to writing good descriptions. It’s very contextual, and different ways of describing a place will produce different effects. Both of these are valid, and describe basically the same place:

…but they suggest profoundly different stories.

I think if you’re writing a parser fic, there is (at least potentially) going to be an expectation that anything that warrants a description is something that can be interacted with. Like, if you’re going to actually name individual items in a room, I as a player am going to want to interact with those items because I’m going to assume they’re relevant in some way. So be prepared to at least write some custom text for anything that can be seen but can’t/doesn’t need to be interacted with.

I say this of course as a total n00b to parser fic, but that’s what I’ve discovered playing: I want to see and touch everything to see if it might be useful.

Otherwise, I think the thing with description is that it can be used to various effects. In general, I think more description slows things down, which can be good for pacing. If you want to build up atmosphere in a horror game, for example, description is one way to both give a lot of creepy details and slow down the overall pace of the story. In more action-packed sequences, slim description will pick up the pace.

Why worry about what an ‘average’ person would notice? Room descriptions are a great chance to enhance atmosphere or characterization by describing what your PC notices.

A while ago someone posited three different descriptions for a table (my google-fu is failing to locate it so here is a paraphrase):

  1. X TABLE

You reflect on the day you bought this table with your roommates. Laura fell in love with it right away when she saw it in the thrift shop; Jason didn’t really care, but shrugged because it was the cheapest one and you needed something to eat on.

  1. X TABLE
    Genuine Earth manufacture, by the looks of it!

  2. X TABLE
    You see a scratched and stained wooden kitchen table.

Only one of the three is about the table’s physical appearance, you’ll note. (And for purposes of rhetoric, it’s also the most boring.)

same goes for room descriptions, I think. They can be very evocative if you choose the right words. Some games are about pretty much nothing BUT location. And that’s just fine with yours truly (I’m a sucker for good atmosphere in a game; yes, I adored “Myst”).

I prefer to list exits with their compass direction because, let’s be honest, it makes life for the player a lot simpler. You can insist on left, right, back and forward, but then you’ll have to limit movement carefully or do a lot more coding because the perspectives will change every time the PC moves. “Hunter, in Darkness” has a nice sequence featuring left/right/ahead/up/down options only, but the game is designed so you can’t get lost.

Of course, with a strictly hypertext/choice game you don’t have to worry, because the player can do nothing except click the options you present, and most games don’t give you the chance to turn around. In any case, the options for which way to go are all in the hyperlinks, so a player won’t get stuck unless you screwed up and sent him into a loop, or purposely designed a maze of twisty little passages for him…

But even sticking with the compass you can list things out of order, use verbs creatively, vary the sentence lengths and so on to keep things interesting.

Google VR is definitely nice, if you have a real-life location in mind. In some cases you can use the map/street view to get a panoramic look at any point near a street; handy if you wish to pay a visit to a plaza in Rome, but haven’t got the airfare.

Graham Nelson had a section on room descriptions in “The Craft of Adventure”: HTML version. The whole essay is definitely worth a read, even if some parts are less applicable now than they used to be.

Style-wise, what might be considered a “good” description of a location may not be what serves the story. If a protagonist is tied to a chair, they won’t necessarily notice the cleverly-matched chair rail and crown-moulding in the dining room.

Don’t forget to mention exits!!

I thought this as soon as I saw this thread title.

Generally speaking, Graham Nelson is a great starting point for anyone.

I also vaguely remembered such a resource. Thanks a lot for pointing us to it!

Here are a few more resources about writing room (and other) descriptions …

This article by Stephen Granade is very practical: … tions.html

Quotes from IF reviews about good and bad descriptions (plus a few more links):

Related threads from the newsgroup: … 6_settings

Graham mentions the book Writing BASIC Adventure Programs for the TRS-80 … I just found out that it can be downloaded here: … nk_DaCosta

Grahams piece made me wonder about writing “You are in…” or “You can see…” in the description. Does it serve some purpose, giving the player a bit more presence in the world, or is it just tedious and redundant?

It’s a crutch, I grant you that - a fallback for when you can’t think of anything more exciting. It’s the most obvious way to present a world to a player in the second person. Room descriptions often gain by avoiding it - but failing to avoid it is not shameful.

My advice: make it like an ice cream sundae and put the cherries on top. That is to say, lead with the most salient details. Stuff like temperature and wind can be put in a one-time only message, perhaps staggered to appear after being in the location a while.

Room Name

(first sentence) (middle sentences) (last sentence)

(exit listing)

(object listing)

If all of these are present in a room, then the player’s awareness (from things they are most aware of to things they are least aware of) will be something like:

  1. object listing
  2. room name
  3. exit listing
  4. first sentence
  5. last sentence
  6. middle sentences

(This will vary by person, of course. But in general.)

I build room descriptions based on a combination of this information and a personal design sense about where I want the player’s attention to go. Examples:

If I want an object (or exit) to be extremely visible, then I separate it from the room description. If I want it to be more environmental, then I embed it inside the room description.

If I want players to read the room description carefully (over the course of the full game), then I keep exits listed in the room description only. If the room description doesn’t matter as much, then I separate exit listings from the rest of the room description.

If the PC’s attention would go immediately to a specific object, then I place it either in the object listing or the first sentence.

…and so forth.

XYZZYmag had Michael Berlyn write on this very subject:

I’ve got some thoughts on this, but I’m struggling to find a way of expressing them without referring to that which must not be referred to in the IFcomp.

Room descriptions are your main opportunity to establish a consistent ‘voice’ through your work. They can be verbose, descriptive, bare, specific, vague, static, dynamic. They are more than a mechanic in that, as well as delivering the required information for the palyer to interact with the world, they both ground it and inform the player’s experience of that world. They establish atmosphere, and set expectations for the text.

They are also your control mechanism for world objects. An object is scenery. It is built into the room description. It is mentioned obliquely. It is separated out. It has the player’s attention drawn to it or it is part of a run-one sentence. It is buried in a list of things. It’s a noun the player can explore, or one you forget to implement. A room description is the starting point for revealing the world.

A room description might be dynamic - it changes in response to a players actions, and, as such, it becomes a part of the narrative drive.

Room descriptions can do alot.


Later edit : Oooh…I’ve just remembered, we were discussing a similar sort of thing relatively recently here: The compass, location descriptions and mimesis

One of the first things I did with the game I’m working on was to say, “At last I can junk the whole cumbersome north-south-east-west description paradigm that sounds so awkward to a player who is new to the genre.”

So I implemented a map that used only “left, right, forward, back, up, and down” as legitimate directions. (No diagonal connections allowed). I keep track of a player’s orientation in a room, so that if he enters the kitchen and the hall is behind him and the dining room is ahead of him, when he enters the dining room and then comes back to the kitchen, he will see that the hall is now in front of him and the dining room is behind him. I even implemented >Turn Right, >Turn Left, and >Turn around, so that a player can change his orientation in a room without leaving it.

Very proud of myself, I was.

Until the first testers go ahold of the game and universally panned it as confusing.

Unwilling to (totally) give up, I (for now) have left the original “left, right” style directions as the default in the game, and told the player that he can type “>Compass on” to revert to the traditional “east, west” style of directions. So far, although the testing pool is small and is made up only of seasoned adventurers, everyone has switched over to Compass directions the moment they had the chance.

Oh well.


There have been a few tests done with relative movement as opposed to absolute movement, but as you saw for yourself, it’s not trivial to implement - and it’s not trivial to play, either. :slight_smile: In a text-based game, changing orientation is an unnecessary complication on top of a game that already demands quite a bit of attention from you. It probably works well as a gimmick, in a short game or a short section of a game, but I certainly wouldn’t want to play a whole game that way.

Then again, if you can find someone who is new to the genre to take a look, you’ll get a fresh pair of eyes. :slight_smile: You’ll also have to get someone who is new to the genre to understand the concept of interpreters, though, and how to interact with the parser. After all that, cardinal directions may actually be easier to understand!

Sounds very interesting! Do you have this online somewhere?

Spoff, you may want to give Rats in Control a whirl:

No one ever really wants relative directions in actual play.

Over the years, whenever I’ve seen someone who is unfamiliar with IF complain about the counter-intuitiveness of compass directions, what they invariably would rather see is pathfinding – that is, they want to type GO TO THE BRIDGE, and then just automatically go to the bridge from wherever they happen to be.