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Creating a Vivid Setting

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Twine is a free tool anyone can use to create interactive fiction. In this chapter excerpt, Melissa Ford teaches how to write a strong setting for your story and how to organize map-based games. Once you learn how to build a space out of words, you can forge off the beaten path and chart your own unique trail.

This chapter is from the book

One of the first interactive fiction games, Adventure, explored a real space: Bedquilt Cave in Kentucky. The original author, Will Crowther, loved caving and wanted to re-create the sensation of cave exploration as a text-based game. So, he mapped out a real cave and coded the game, and he threw in some fantasy elements like an annoying dwarf and the magical word XYZZY. Later on, Don Woods expanded the game, giving gaming adventurers hours of play.

Players felt as if they were really crawling through a cave. It didn’t matter if they had never been spelunking; Crowther acted as the player’s eyes and ears. He led them through the subterranean scenery so they could imagine what it was like to crawl through narrow rock passages. I’ve played that game so many times that I think if I were ever to go to the real Bedquilt Cave, I could find my way around it just because of this game.

It’s time to turn your eye toward setting, which refers to the physical space of a story. By writing a vivid description of a place, you help your players feel as if they’re being transported there. Stories and games are magical because they make you feel as if you are traveling without leaving your home.

This chapter teaches you how to write a strong setting and how to organize map-based games. Once you learn how to build a space out of words, you can forge off the beaten path and chart your own unique trail; maybe you’ll even create your own land or planet.

Understanding the Importance of Setting

Have you ever woken up somewhere unfamiliar and needed to take a few seconds to figure out where you are? Well, readers go through that sensation every time they start a Twine game.

The setting helps players figure out what’s happening and helps them guess what will happen next. Location sets readers’ expectations. For example, a story set on a distant planet is going to be very different from one set in a cave, or a futuristic restaurant, or a gloomy English manor.

You can use players’ expectations to your advantage: You can give them exactly what they expect, or you can twist their expectations to surprise them. (This is called subverting expectations.)

Setting is the first thing readers encounter, so you have to make it good, and that means making it vivid. You need to make readers feel as if they’re standing in a new place even though they’re still sitting in their living room. Think about your favorite settings: What makes you want to enter Narnia, or go to Hogwarts, or visit Mars?

A simple set of prompts can help you get started imagining a place and help you figure out what information you need to convey to your reader.

Creating Setting from Prompts

These are some questions to ask yourself when you sit down to start writing a story or game:

  • What’s the location? This is the general place or places where the game is set, such as New York City, Narnia, the beach, or the moon.

  • Where does the player character start? This is the specific place the game begins, such as the lamppost in Narnia or the front door of a house.

  • Where does the game end? Once you’ve decided the specific location where the game ends, you can focus on what motivates the characters in your story. Why do they want to get to that endpoint? More importantly, how do they get to that endpoint?

  • What buildings are there? What human-made structures are there? Which buildings are important to your story? Consider monuments, parks, and stores—anything built or shaped by humans.

  • What does the geography look like? Are there mountains that will become obstacles for the player? Water and coral reefs around the submarine? Giant canyons on the surface of the planet?

  • What time is it? Is your story set in the middle of winter? Is it near a holiday? Is your story taking place during the day, or at night, or both?

  • What is the weather like? Think about the climate and weather of your setting, which will impact how the player moves through the story. Is it a rainy place? Is it very hot? What do players need to wear to be comfortable?

  • What are the other people like? Maybe there aren’t any other inhabitants in your story (creepy!), but if there are, what are they like? Are they helpful? Distrustful? Do they speak the same language as the player character or a different language? Of course, aliens count in this category, too.

  • What is the culture of the area? How does your player character relate to the culture of the area? Is the player character from that area and accepted by others? Is he or she an outsider from an area at war with the people in your setting?

  • What is the area’s past? Think about the place’s history. If your story is set on a distant planet, have other outsiders passed through there, changing the way the aliens think about outsiders?

Now that your imagination is percolating, I’ll walk through two new Twine tools and how you might use them to create a space: (link:) and (display:).

Adding Descriptions with (link:)

You’ve already learned how to use a little scripting, though you may not have realized that your foray into coding a game has already begun. The [[link]] tool that you’ve been using to connect two passages, [[hyperlinked words|Passage Name]], is a kind of script. Those double brackets around the words tell the program to link the current passage to the passage named on the right side of the vertical bar.

Now, however, you need to learn some scripting that involves using parentheses to set a tool apart from the plain text in the passage. The (link:) tool allows an action to occur inside the existing passage; namely, it allows you to give the reader small, optional details to the story without troubling the reader to enter a whole new passage.

With the (link:) tool, the text still appears as hypertext on the screen, and players instinctively know to click the links in order to explore where they go. But unlike the [[link]] tool, the (link:) tool keeps the player in the same passage (and, therefore, all the other text remains on the screen, too) and expands the paragraph to include the new text.

To create an internal link, write the link’s text inside the quotation marks inside the parentheses and write the words you want to appear when the link is clicked inside single square brackets, like this:

(link: "Words you want linked.")[New words that appear and replace the linked text.]

You’ll notice that the order of the hypertext word or words and the passage name mirrors the same order seen in the [[link]] tool, with the hypertext listed first and the name of the passage to the right.

What if you want quotation marks to appear with the link? For example, what if you want the linked text to be part of a conversation between two characters? For this, you put single quotation marks around the double quotes, as shown here:

(link: '"What the character is saying."')[New words that appear and replace the
linked piece of dialogue.]

Now the quotation marks remain as quotation marks when they appear onscreen. Try both of the preceding examples on your computer and click Play to see the (link:) macro in action.

Next try the following example. Open a new story in Twine and call it Link and type the following:

Every wall of the room is covered in ceiling-to-floor bookcases filled with old,
dusty books. (link: "You pull an untitled book off the shelf.")[You stare at the
strange symbols that dot the spine of many of the books, and feel a breeze move
through the room even though all the windows are closed. The book you have pulled
from the bookcase feels heavier than a normal book.]

When you play this example, you should see two sentences, one in plain text and one hyperlinked, as shown in Figure 3.1.

FIGURE 3.1

FIGURE 3.1 Example text using the (link:) tool.

When you click the hyperlinked sentence, it’s replaced by the text you put in brackets, as shown in Figure 3.2.

FIGURE 3.2

FIGURE 3.2 Once the linked text is clicked, the new text appears.

Notice that the hyperlinked text disappears from the screen when you click it. If you want any hyperlinked text to stay on the screen, you need to repeat it inside the brackets.

The small but mighty (link:) tool can help you build your setting by placing the power in players’ hands. They can get as much description or as little description as they wish. When using the (link:) tool, remember to additionally use the [[link]] tool to continue the story and move players out of the current passage.

Repeating Text with (display:)

Sometimes you might want to repeat the description of a complicated space, especially if you want the player to visualize the layout and have access to the same choices several times. The (display:) tool gives you an easy way to repeat text. It’s perfect for creating small spaces in a story, such as looking at a room in detail or describing the layout of a town square.

In fact, Anna Anthropy’s Twine game called Town does just that. You start out in a plaza and see a palace, an armory, and a bank. Each time you click on one of the links, you get a little bit of information about that building but still see the description of the plaza. You feel as if you’re turning to examine each building while staying in the same space, since the overall description of the setting doesn’t change. Of course, there is a link to the next part of the story in the description of one of the buildings, so you can continue once you’ve explored the small area as much as you like.

To create using this tool, add this line to any passages where you want to repeat the text of another passage:

(display: "Name of Passage")

Get ready to work through an example that shows how you might use the (display:) tool. Open a new story in Twine and call it Alien Restaurant. Change the title of the first passage from Untitled Passage to Restaurant and type this in it:

Every table is occupied by [[squid-like aliens|Aliens]] dining in pairs.
There is an aquarium filled with [[neon-blue fish|Aquarium]] dividing the
restaurant. The only empty table is set with the expected [[plate|Plate]],
[[silverware|Silverware]], and [[napkin|Napkin]], but also has a
[[strange box|Meal Box]] with dozens of knobs sticking out of the top,
a [[bowl|Meal Bowl]] filled with tiny metal balls, and a [[stick|Meal Stick]]
with a suction cup on the end.

This is the passage that you repeat when you use the (display:) tool. Every time you add (display: "Restaurant") to future passages, this entire passage repeats on the screen, as shown in Figure 3.3.

FIGURE 3.3

FIGURE 3.3 This passage repeats every time you use the (display:) tool in a future passage.

You want players to be able to click on any of the links in the passage to receive more information about the squid-like aliens, the neon-blue fish, or the strange box, but you also want players to be able to make second, third, and fourth choices instead of moving into another section of the story. In other words, you want them to stay right here in this restaurant and explore.

To make this happen, you need to start filling the newly created passages that describe parts of the restaurant. You’re going to keep the description simple and then display the description of the restaurant again. The reason for keeping the description brief is that the Restaurant passage is already pretty long, and you don’t want to give readers too much text to read through.

In the passage titled Aliens, add the following description and script:

You try not to stare at the alien couple sitting at the table closest to the door,
but it's impossible not to gape at their waving tentacles. They sense you staring
at them, and turn around to stare back at . . . YOU.
(display: "Restaurant")

You can see the additional passages fanning out around the Restaurant passage in Figure 3.4, even though only the Aliens passage is filled.

FIGURE 3.4

FIGURE 3.4 The additional passages fanning out around the repeating Restaurant passage in the blue grid screen.

You need to play this story so far to make sure everything is working. Click the Play button and then click the text squid-like aliens. Your screen should look like the one shown in Figure 3.5.

FIGURE 3.5

FIGURE 3.5 The passage shows new text in addition to all the text and links in the Restaurant passage.

Not only do players see the description of the squid-like aliens, but they can now choose to learn more about the silverware or that bowl filled with tiny metal balls, since you’ve repeated the Restaurant passage. This way, players can continue to explore the restaurant. Fill in the additional information in the other passages and make sure to always end each passage with (display: "Restaurant") so the player can keep exploring.

Be sure the capitalization of the title and the capitalization of the room name inside the display tool match. For instance, because the passage title is Restaurant, you need to capitalize restaurant when you write the name of the passage with display:, like this: (display: "Restaurant").

Remember that Twine is case-sensitive, and if the capitalization doesn’t match, Twine gives you an error message telling you that a passage doesn’t exist. Your first stop whenever you receive an error message should be to ensure that the capitalization in links matches the capitalization in a passage title.

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