What makes an effective location description in CYOA?

Assuming you have a hyperlink story that is location-based–by which I mean, the nodes are typically not scenes, but locations that may be revisited multiple times over the course of the story–what are the elements that make those location descriptions effective? I’m particularly interested in:

  • How does an effective location description in CYOA differ from an effective location description in a parser game?

  • How do you communicate the accessible, adjacent locations?

Others with more experience will chime in shortly, but for one thing, CYOA has a luxury that parser-IF doesn’t. In CYOA the author has control over the next command of the player. In parser-IF, the author will have to skillfully direct the player towards items of interest, and away from useless scenery (Zarf is particularly good at this).

This skillset is probably superfluous in CYOA, where useless scenery simply doesn’t get its own link, period. So the need to focus your player’s attention drastically changes. What it changes to I don’t quite know and will leave for experienced CYOAers to expand. :slight_smile:

Advice for IF location descriptions is probably still applicable, but you might also want to see how Fail Better games design their reusable content for their CYOA-type games, as I think their approach to writing is close to what I think you are looking for. Writing for reusable content requires a certain balance that one-off content doesn’t and they discuss some of their design concepts and writing tips involving that and other things at their wiki: wiki.failbettergames.com/

Players tend to quickly skim text they think they have seen before, so for a revesitable location make it obvious if something has changed – for example, put new stuff in a separate paragraph at the end.

On the other hand, small cosmetic changes to the original text can keep things engaging. For example, changing “There is an old man working on a crossword” to “The old man is still working on his crossword. He hasn’t made much progress.”

You can give it momentum. The difference between single location descriptions isn’t very big, but on the whole it’s striking.

The effect is something resembling this:

And you can deliver all this in ten seconds of playing or less.

I’d say the location description is effective when it’s so good the player has to stop and read it, love it, click the optional links.

The most functional way is just to give a link. It’s also practical when you’re revisiting locations. I prefer combining this with in-universe entering quips (one for the first time, several randomized for returning visits). See, the choice games can have much more locations than parser ones, so the full description can be inconvenient. Also it’s a problem of communicating the location links between the action links (changing something, taking something) and flavour ones.

That’s a pretty important design question. One way you could solve this is by where you put the links. If flavor links were always first, or put among the paragraphs, but exit links were always at the bottom, then the player could be confident when clicking if they noticed the pattern.

So then would the general format would be something like this, with the adjacent locations mentioned on a separate line/paragraph? (I realize my examples here are rather colorless.)



or even

The general convention in IF is to have the exits at the bottom with other things on top. There are different opinions on listing objects, but they would appear above the exits.

I knew that was the usual setup with parser games, but I wasn’t sure if CYOA had its own conventions and nuances there that I might not be picking up on. But if CYOA and parser are more or less the same (at least in that regard), that certainly makes things simpler.

This thread desperately needs some screenshots to back the opinions.

Thanks, everyone. I’ve been reading all your comments with interest. There don’t seem to be nearly as many resources out there about CYOA design/craft/theory as there are about designing for the parser. (Or if there are, I apparently don’t know all the right places to look.)

Ooh, nice. What’s interesting about your screenshots is that none of these examples incorporate the available locations into sentences, but make them part of the interface somehow. Hmmmmm.

Then of course there’s this sort of interface: giantbomb.com/images/1300-2569111

It seems, though, that with something set up like the Twine screenshot, it’s more difficult to differentiate the exits from the main content of the page.

One of the advantages of CYOA over parser is that the presentation of your world model and the way you choose to display things are entirely a matter of personal creative vision and taste, especially if you’re using something like Twine that doesn’t by default assume anything about the way your game will be set up other than that it will involve clicking on links.

My own two cents is that you don’t really need to differentiate exit links from other links; it’s pretty clear that a link like “Outside” or “Kitchen” will take you to a new location.

That struck me when I first read your original post. Parser IF’s been around for quite a while and there’s a lot of theory, and the medium has gained by all that theory.

CYOA is a lot more fractured in that way - CYOAers haven’t yet felt the need to buckle down and start really thinking about the medium; they think about what they need for their game, and that’s it. I hope to see a lot more people following your example, bg; the medium can only gain from asking these questions.

I’d argue that the lack of strongly codified conventions and ideas about “the ideal way to do things” is one of the reasons CYOA/hypertext is so interesting right now.

I also don’t think many of the people who make this kind of IF think of themselves as a singular community in the way that the people who make parser IF do. I’d imagine there’s still a lot of theoretical discussion, it’s just happening in the wider context of indie game design.

As it was when parser IF was just appearing, and as it made THAT very interesting. But there comes a point when people start asking this sort of questions, and that means that the medium is maturing. It doesn’t mean that the medium will be calcified into something fixed forevermore; on the contrary, it will allow people to realise what works best and roll with it. As a result, there may be a more standardised formula (though my forays into CYOA and especially Twine and Inklewriter already show me a very standard, stable existing formula), but as with parser IF, experimentation will never - should never - die.

Note that we may be speaking of different things, or in a slightly different light. I think you may be seeing “strongly codified conventions” and “ideal ways to do things” as straitjackets - which they can be, granted, if no care is taken. But I mean merely analyzing what has come before, seeing what works, and asking how it could be made better. It’s a natural process - and in a creative medium, a necessary one. It need not stifle; but without it, there’s no general growth.

Designing a game rather than a CYOA game is a valid approach, sure. In the end it’s probably the best approach for any individual game. Subvert expectations and all that. But not everyone will make that one-in-a-hundred game, whereas everyone will benefit from some careful thoughts on the medium, its weaknesses and strengths.

The CYOA medium can only grow stronger from this reflection. But of course, if, as you say, there is no such community, no one interested in asking these questions, the point becomes moot.

I never said there isn’t a community, I said that it’s not a community significantly distinct from the community that makes and talks about indie games in general. For many people, the term “interactive fiction” doesn’t even enter into it, it’s all just games.

There is a fair amount of stuff out there, you just have to know what they call it. Digital narratives, branching narratives, gamebooks, hypertext, and CYOA all share a lot in common and you can often find similarities between what they are talking about.

FailBetter Games and Choice of Games publish design articles on the work that they do.

There are also a number of active bloggers who blog about CYOA but they use the term gamebook. A lot of what they are talking about still applies to digital CYOA. There is also a yearly gamebook writing competition with prizes called the Windhammer Competition. I imagine the winners may have written making-of articles or shared craft theory.

Design articles on story telling board games would also be another source of craft and theory discussion, with paragraph-based board games being a good example of something one could be doing in a digital CYOA.

ElliotM, thank you for those. It’s good to see there’s more discussion than what gets mentioned around here. :slight_smile: For better or worse, although CYOA and parser are accepted as both being IF and part of this board, community and discussions, a lot of parser IF discussion tends to find some mention here, one way or another, where a lot of CYOA discussion doesn’t.

I’m just pointing this out next time someone feels the need to say how skewed this place and its constituents is towards parser IF (no, it hasn’t happened in this thread, and doesn’t often happen, but when it does happen, it’s said with a passion or as a basis for an argument).

Thanks, everyone!

(And for anyone who comes across this thread while searching for CYOA resources, here’s another useful site: “Fun da mentals : Rhetorical Devices for Electronic Literature” by Deena Larsen.)

Peter, you can add this podcast into the list of cyoa theory. I’m sure you saw it in the announcement for Ink, but they have more than just the announcement cast.