The compass, location descriptions and mimesis

So, I’m unearthing this thread from a couple of years back.

It’s a useful discussion on alternatives to the standard navigation model of n,s,e,w. All of the relevant arguments I agree with.

My question though is not about the mechanic, it about the representation of the mechanic within the text. In a game where the author is striving for total immersion, complete mimesis and a more…er…literate…approach to room descriptions, using the ‘north to’ tags effectively pulls the reader out of the story world and into the game mechanics.


“A dark, windowless hallway. Dusty doorways lead mysteriously into the family bedrooms wherein various nefarious deeds were done before everyone mysteriously disappeared in a freak golfing accident.”


“A dark, windowless hallway. Dusty doorways lead north to Sybil’s room, south to the Master Bedroom and west to the baby’s nursery. It was in these very rooms that various nefarious deeds were done before everyone mysteriously disappeared in a freak golfing accident.”

yes…it’s bad…it is just an example…but you see what I’m getting at…In the second sentence, to me, I am ripped, as a reader out of the scene, and then, after a mechanical explanation, shoehorned back into it.

This has probably been discussed in the forum before, but I can’t find precisely what I’m looking for

So, just for general discussion:

  1. Is this actually a problem/thing?
  2. How irritating for the player is it to not have directions embedded in the location description?
  3. Are there any other location description techniques that people have experimented with that minimises this particularly memesis destroying sin?

I’m wondering also whether there’s been significant discussion of this before, but my searches aren’t unearthing anything.


But the second one isn’t made much better by removing the compass directions:

and the first one doesn’t give you a way of getting to an individual bedroom. (“Enter family bedrooms–which bedroom do you mean, Sybil’s bedroom, the Master Bedroom, or the baby’s nursery?”–now that rips you out of the scene.)

There’s been plenty of discussion – going back to the 90s. The upshot is that we’re all used to it, and the practical convenience of typing “N/E/N/D/W” to move around quickly is so enormous that we’ll never get rid of it.

(Supporting “GO TO KITCHEN” is popular, but as an extension of the compass system, not a replacement of it. Ditto “EXITS”.)

Another relevant observation is that you can put a compass-rose diagram in the status line, but at least half your players will never notice it.

At this point my list of “adventure navigation interfaces that really work” is

  • Classic IF-parser compass directions
  • 2D map, clickable
  • Hierarchical menu options, explicitly presented as a menu (KoL/Fallen London)
  • Fully-rendered first-person scenes (Myst-style or full-on 3D)

(I’ve tried to get going with hyperlinks in room descriptions, but it remains clumsy no matter how familiar I am with the environment.)

“Adventure” here implies that the player will spend a lot of time running around through familiar terrain. In games where you proceed linearly forward, always entering new terrain, different concerns apply.

I completely agree. Hence the dilemma. Like I say, it’s not the mechanic, but how that mechanic gets represented in the text (or not) without vexing the player overmuch.

n.b. admittedly, the example I gave wasn’t the greatest example the world has ever seen.

Note that every one of these options winds up being a huge part of the game experience.

Andrew, I agree absolutely with ALL your points. My question though isn’t about the mechanic, it’s about an elegant representation of the mechanic embedded in text that doesn’t break player immersion in story. I was just wondering whether there have been some interesting ways of representing directions in text that minimises the mimesis breaking and doesn’t vex the player too much.

This is the bit I can’t find a great deal of discussion.

Just as an example, in my current IF work, the house it’s set in is south facing. So I can say, for example ‘The light streams in from the south window, filtering through the doorway opposite into the dimly lit hall.’ so this is a case of ‘implying’ the direction in the text…so I guess one way of making directions in text less obstroperous would be implied direction. Hope this makes my comments clearer…

Not to be overly harsh, but I think that gets you the worst of both worlds–you’ve shoehorned a compass direction in but you’ve also made a puzzle out of walking into the next room. Players today expect the exits to be in the room description (well, at least I do), and it’s a lot less immersive to have to stop and think “What direction is the exit from this room again?” then to see it listed. (In general I’d say having trouble interacting with the game is more immersion-breaking than reading prose that’s slightly unnatural but that’s another story.)

Check this description out, from Losing Your Grip:

Northeast Walkway The walkway runs along the east wall of the hallway. A sweeping staircase joins the walkway to the southwest.

If you stop to think of it you might figure out that you can go south–you’re in the northeast corner of the building and the walkway runs south along the east wall–but this sent me to a walkthrough.

Personally I prefer authors not to do implied direction sorts of things, because I’m actually reading room descriptions in different ways at different times: first as a literary experience, perhaps, but subsequently rather more mechanically; and on those later passes I like to be able to extract the directional information quickly and clearly. As I recall, Hanon Ondricek’s Transparent frequently used descriptions that sort of concealed the mechanics of layout, and the result was that I found it a fairly counterintuitive experience until I found the feelie map that went with the game.

As I recall, J. Robinson Wheeler’s theorybook article ( ) about room descriptions talks about some ways of organizing the presentation of information within a room – that might get at some of the things you’re interested in?

There’s a very good old story on This American Life about a blind man who, because he had failed to account for the shape of a hotel room, managed to get lost inside it for a few hours, without being able to find the phone or the door. I kind of think parser IF players are more or less in the same boat: They operate inside a mental model of the game world, and if that model is incorrect it can easily become a prison. So fuzziness in communicating those things to the player invariably lays traps for the player, which is why if the cardinal direction convention is being followed it is perhaps better to allow for some clumsy prose in order to more effectively allow the player to construct that model.

Emshort makes a very good point. I tend to include background information, digressions, literary stuff in general in room descriptions inside [first time] blocks, so that room descriptions degrade into a more utilitarian form once they have been seen once.

As a writer you’re always trying to get the important details into your reader’s head as economically as possible.

I guess my view is that in traditional IF, the compass directions are not competing with the prose, nor distracting from it. The compass directions are just more of those important details. You’re building a scene and the player needs to have it all.

I would suggest anyone that wants to toy with compass directions first play Graham Nelson’s The Tempest from 1997.

Why? They worked well in Blue Lacuna, I thought.

I think it may rarely be a good idea to mention a compass direction unless it is an exit. I always think direction=exit. So, a 'south window" could mean I can go south to get closer to the window.


Has there ever been an attempt to do a parser game with FPS controls (i.e. wasd or maybe flbr)? You’d have to implement facing, but that seems like a more intuitive way to move around the game world. It also means that the mental-mapping skills you build up in every other genre of video game would translate better.

Just an FYI, as a player this drives me crazy. Typically IF puzzles require some degree of detail obsessiveness and when a room’s description changes after I’ve seen it once, I’m always left with the nagging suspicion that there was important information there that I no longer have access to.

One thing I’ve considered is sort of bringing back the VERBOSE/BRIEF/SUPERBRIEF distinction, but not quite how Infocom did it. Brief would be the default: it shows you the full room description when you first enter, and when you use LOOK, and otherwise an abbreviated one. But ‘abbreviated’ in this case means omitting only the background information and such that you mentioned; it would still include a general description and exit listing. Superbrief would be the same as Infocom’s “brief”, giving only the names of visited rooms unless you say LOOK. And Verbose would be like standard verbose. The question is, whether enough people would use this to justify the modification of every room description. (I’d probably make a simple text substitution [v]verbose only[/v] or such, but it would still take some effort.)

I assume you mean that you have a house where the front yard is south of hall, the kitchen is east of hall and the bedroom is north of hall, but instead of compass directions going to the bedroom from the hall is either “forward” or “right” depending on whether the player entered the hall from the front yard or the kitchen.

Yes, the idea tends to pop up whenever alternatives to compass directions is discussed, and the consensus is always that it just wouldn’t work at all. Perhaps there is a very small group of people who have such a strong spatial imagination that, when playing IF, they place themselves in an imaginary 3D world and translate compass directions into moving left/right and forward/back inside the world. For them a relative movement system would be great, and everyone else would get at least triple mental burden when they would have to remember not that bedroom is north of hall but that bedroom is forward from hall coming from the yard but right coming from the kitchen and left coming from somewhere else.

There are some games that use a left/right/forward/back navigation system, but the viewpoint is fixed so that in practice they’re just synonyms to west/east/north/south.

(If you meant something else then ignore everything I said.)

Not exactly in the keystroke sense I think you mean, but there are certainly IF games that do implement facing, of which the most purely experimental was Rat In Control. Joe Mason’s A Stop For The Night is also worth looking at, and reviews for it (disclaimer: including mine) suggest that judges often found this fairly disorienting.

I should point out Beyond Zork has some lovely room descriptions managed by not having to describe room exits (it uses an automap). It’s probably the closest to what you’re looking for.

T-Zero also does the minimalist-no-exits description in a couple points but unfortunately has no mechanism for conveying the information other than typing EXITS everywhere it happens.

Rogue of the Multiverse used left/right/forward/back in a relative facing way, but it was a section set in a prison that was supposed to disorient you. It also as I recall was pretty scrupulous about listing what exits led where.

(As I mentioned in the other thread, Pacian has consistently opposed compass navigation, so you can look through his works for alternatives. But most of them require a pretty radical rethinking of how maps will work.)