A work of interactive fiction is a web of descriptions. Nearly every object and room in a work has a description, a block of text associated with that object which is printed after a LOOK or EXAMINE command.
The word "description" is a lie, though, or at the very least misleading. The main purpose of a description may not be to describe an object. At the most basic level, descriptions are the primary method by which an author conveys information about a game world.
Authors don't have to reveal much about an object or room at all in a description. They can overtly or subtly mislead players. Elements of an object can go undescribed in order to emphasize other elements. An author can write a description that lies, if the narrator telling the story is unreliable. Descriptions can also carry more information about an object than the physical: what mood the room or object evokes, the state of the game world, and even meta-game information.
Letting go of the preconception that descriptions must describe frees authors to achieve any number of effects. This hasn't been discussed in depth before, despite the sizeable amount of extant advice on writing descriptions, especially for rooms. Graham Nelson, in The Craft of Adventure (later subsumed into the Inform Designer's Manual), explores both the craft and art of writing room descriptions. He focuses on physical descriptions, a relaying of what the room looks like, as well as how you provide the player with directional information. Similarly, in Writing Basic Adventure Programs for the TRS-80, Frank DaCosta gives five guidelines for writing room descriptions, four of which are generally applicable: include pathway hints, use non-oriented language (as opposed to language such as "You fall into a dark, slimy pit" that depends on how you entered the room), avoid describing unimplemented objects, and use creative descriptions. In both works the assumption is that descriptions describe. This assumption is so self-evident that neither work discusses how you describe objects, since you'll just be talking about what the object looks like.
I'm interested in the things you can do with a description besides describe. If you're looking for a primer on how to describe objects, look elsewhere, preferably at how games you like handle this task. Throughout I'll be speaking to authors, though players may find this article interesting. I won't be talking much about the art of description-writing. I'm taking a nuts-and-bolts approach to the task: if I have three goals for a description, how do I go about assembling sentences to achieve those goals? Last, I'll continue to call the text associated with objects and rooms "descriptions," but keep in mind that a description doesn't necessarily have to describe.
Rather than pull examples from other games, I'm going to invent descriptions for a completely new game, Quod Erat. In it, the player is a tourist visiting the ruins of Ostia, once a thriving harbor city some twenty miles from Rome. While there the player will find a coin that, when rubbed, will send them back in time to when Ostia was still a thriving city.
Let's start with mood and atmosphere. How you describe is as important as what you describe. Choice of words and phrasing; the use of literary techniques such as metaphor, assonance, and juxtaposition of images; and what you emphasize in your descriptions have as much of an effect on the atmosphere you invoke as Monet's choice of colors did on his series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral.
The first location in Ostia the player will reach is actually the tombs just outside of Ostia. I want to emphasize the emptiness of the ruins as a contrast to later in the game, when the player travels back to the living city of Ostia. And I'm not above using cheap dramatic tricks to get my point across—good thing I'm discussing craft and not art. I also want to remind players of their status as tourists.
Tombs Outside Ostia
Walls, or the remains of them, box you in on all sides. Wind whistles through the head-height niches in some of the structures. Underneath your feet loose stones crunch. In the southwest corner the walls are low enough and the dirt piled high enough that you could scramble out.
I've pulled out every clichéd trick in the book. I have wind whistling through empty openings, I have crunching stones underfoot, and I have a total lack of life. Players will undoubtedly look at the niches, so I'll re-emphasize the dead nature of Ostia. I'll also again remind them that they're tourists.
>EXAMINE THE NICHES
Burial niches, according to the poorly-photocopied sheet you read back in the Welcome Center. They are just deeper than you can reach, and all are empty.
One of the main locations in Ostia is the Capitolium, an ancient temple dedicated to the Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. The Capitolium is an imposing edifice, despite its lack of a roof or front wall. As above I want to mention the ruins of Ostia and the general disrepair of the Capitolium in the room's description.
In Front of a Brick Shell
To the north rises a shell of reddish brick. It's twice as wide as it is deep or tall, and it's very tall. The wall in front of you is missing, giving you room to enter the shell. The whole thing is on top of a tall podium, though your side of the podium has stairs. Ruins are on all other sides, though most of them look to be to the south.
I didn't call it the Capitolium because the player doesn't know that's what it is yet. This segues nicely into my second point: descriptions don't have to be static. They can reflect the increasing knowledge of the player or the changing state of the game world. In the case of Quod Erat, the player will eventually find a tourbook and map, the better to learn about Ostia. The tourbook will give them more information about Ostia, and that knowledge will be reflected in the room descriptions. For instance, once they find the tourbook and return to the Capitolium, they'll see the following:
In Front of the Capitolium
According to your tourbook, the rectangular shell of reddish-brown brick rising in front of you is the Capitolium, dating back to the reign of Hadrian. The shell is over fifty feet high and deep, and twice as wide. It stands atop a tall podium; luckily there are stairs leading up to the Capitolium. The wall in front of you to the north is missing, giving you room to enter the former temple. The forum stretches out on all other sides, the bulk of it lying to the south.
I would limit how much game-critical information is in a changed room description. Players who aren't using the VERBOSE setting won't see the new room description unless they type LOOK. Even the players who are using the VERBOSE setting may just skim the room description, assuming that it's the same as before.
The description of an object can change as the player learns more about it. A common trick is to describe an object in sketchy details when listed in a room description, only to have the object's description tell the player what it really is. The EXAMINE command is commonly assumed to mean, "I want to take a close look at the object." It's thus reasonable for what is described as a piece of paper in a room description to turn out to be a grimy dollar bill when examined.
The coin that allows the player to travel in time begins as a dirt-covered nub on the floor of a room. This is both to keep the player from finding the coin right away and to encourage experimentation once the coin is found.
Base of the Western Spiral Staircase
This narrow niche off the cella ends to the west in a spiral staircase winding around a thick column. The floor of the niche has been swept smooth by countless feet, except for raised nubs of dirt near the north wall. The cella itself is to the east.
>EXAMINE THE NUBS OF DIRT
For the most part, rocks covered in dirt. There is a glint from one of them.
>EXAMINE THE GLINT
Something disc-shaped, and covered in dirt. Metal shows through the dirt in places.
The glint serves to tell the player that there's something special about one of the nubs of dirt. The hint of metal suggests that the disc should be cleaned. This is important, since the coin is activated by rubbing it. When the dirt is cleaned off, it is revealed to be a coin.
>EXAMINE THE DISC
Now that you've cleaned off the dirt, you can see that the disc is a coin. One side is badly damaged and nearly smooth, but the other side has a picture of a man on a chariot holding a spear aloft.
And to olden Ostia the player goes! Mentioning the results of an action in an object description is a good way to acknowledge the player's actions, but can become tiresome if they carry the object throughout the remainder of the game. After the first time they examine the disc/coin, I'll strike the first sentence and add the phrase "of the coin" to the remaining sentence, so that the description will begin, "One side of the coin is badly damaged..."
I'm glossing over a number of game details, of course, like what synonyms for "nub(s) of dirt" or "glint" the game should recognize. Since I'm worried about descriptions and not general game design, I'll merely wave my hands about furiously and assume we'll get those details right.
So much for evolving player knowledge; what about an evolving game world? In Infocom's Enchanter, the room descriptions change as the game progresses, describing a castle that decays further with each passing day. The change I have in mind for Quod Erat is even more dramatic. The player can, by mucking about in the past, end up destroying the Capitolium. When the player does so and returns to the present, the description of the Capitolium has changed.
In Front of the Capitolium Podium
The podium where the Capitolium used to be rises in front of you. Marble stairs lead northward to its top, where few of the Capitolium walls, none more than two feet high, still stand. The forum stretches out to all sides of you.
After the very first description I gave, I mentioned that players will undoubtedly look at the niches. When you mention things in room descriptions, players will usually examine them. The more prominently you mention objects, or the odder you make their description within the room description, the more notice they'll draw.
You can use this fact to direct players' attention and lead them in the direction you want them to go. For instance, once in old Ostia, the player will come across a Roman terra-cotta lamp. This lamp will serve a two-fold purpose. One, it will provide light. Two, it will be a source of heat. (It will also provide fire, always a dangerous substance in interactive fiction. I'm sure the game will deal with it properly, hand wave, hand wave, hand wave.) The heat from the lamp will be necessary to soften the wax stopper of a bottle later on.
Since players won't necessarily connect heat with light, I'll mention it explicitly so as to direct players and help them follow my lead. When reading a paragraph, people remember best what's in the first sentence, followed by what's in the last sentence. For this reason I'm going to mention the heat in the first sentence. This is an effect that is not to be overused. Players may figure out that you always put important details in the first or last sentence if you don't vary your technique. Save the first-or-last-sentence trick for situations where you want to give a stronger-than-normal clue.
>EXAMINE THE LAMP
Heat rises from the lit wick of the terra-cotta lamp. The lamp is teapot-shaped, with a circular handle on one end and the wick emerging from the spout on the other end. Where the convex lid of a teapot would be is a concave top inscribed with a battle scene.
Similarly, if there's something important in a room which a player needs to examine, you can make sure to mention it in such a way as to set it apart from the rest of the room description. For instance, in Ostia there is a building for the builder's guild. In the guild's courtyard there are some marble columns which contain clues to a puzzle. I want to make sure players notice them.
Courtyard of the Builder's Guild
The courtyard, surrounded by the builder's guild, is a rectangle with its narrow ends to the north and south. The entire courtyard is surrounded by a porticus with brick piers. The north and south sides have squat marble columns that differ from all the others you've seen. Leaning in one corner of the courtyard is a statue.
The phrase "differ from all the others" is meant to catch the player's attention: hey, here's something out of the ordinary. This effect can be used as a stage magician uses patter and fast hand movements, to distract the player for a while. There is a bathhouse in Ostia, and one of the rooms with a basin has a trap door leads to a tunnel below. The room's floor is covered with mosaics, except where the trap door is. If the player examines the gap in the mosaic, or even the mosaic or floor itself, the trap door will be described.
To delay that event, I'm going to make one of the architectural details of the room more prominent. I'll also make sure to mention the basin in nearly every sentence, and only mention the mosaic as a lead-in to describing the basin.
Northern Cold Basin
Geometric designs picked out in black-and-white mosaics run nearly all the way around the basin in the center of the room. All three walls of the basin have niches; from them, water jets from a pipe. The west niche seems deeper than the other three. Tall columns separate the basin from the frigidarium.
I said I wouldn't discuss how you deal with room exits in room descriptions, but I lied just the tiniest bit. There is a south exit from the room which I didn't describe because the only initial way into the room is through that exit.
Object descriptions can carry meta-game information. There are times when use of an object requires special syntax that will not be easily guessible. The stone-placing game in Quod Erat is one such object. Players must place marbles on a rectangular grid.
>EXAMINE THE BOARD
The wooden playing board has hemispherical depressions arranged in a six-by-five grid. Each depression is just large enough to hold one of the marbles from the trough beside the board.
[To place a marble in a specific depression, type >PUT MARBLE IN X, Y where X, Y are the x and y coordinates on the board.]
It's customary to set such meta-game information off from the regular description by surrounding it with square braces.
While descriptions customarily give physical information, they don't have to. You can describe without really describing by depending on what the player knows from real life.
>EXAMINE THE PEBBLE
Pebbles in the past are just like pebbles in the present, only not yet as old.
Sometimes what you want to describe isn't really visible. At one point in Quod Erat, a mouse runs across the floor of the room and into a mousehole. An attempt to examine the mouse will result in
>EXAMINE THE MOUSE
You can see nothing of it, as fast as it ran across the floor and into its mousehole. There is the hint of light glinting off eyes deep within the hole.
Sometimes you'll want to use descriptions to indicate the player's state rather than that of the world. In old Ostia the player can find a bottle of drugged liquor. The player will, of course, drink from it, despite the inadvisability of such an act. Shortly after that occurs, the player's grip on reality will slip rather badly. The resulting room description when it first occurs will bear little resemblance to the actual room description when the player isn't drugged.
In a Grey Fog
You are surrounded by a grey fog which hides most everything. Indistinct shapes surround you, some near, some far. Thinner patches of fog lead south and southwest.
The directions in the description will correspond to actual room exits for whatever room the player is in, though subsequent movement will take the player into uncharted territory.
I've given a number of examples of what you can do with descriptions besides describe. They can set the tone and atmosphere of parts of the game. They can reflect the changing nature of player knowledge and the state of the game world. They can both lead and mislead players, letting you choose in part where the players will focus their attention. They can carry meta-game information, and they can even carry no information about the true physical nature of the object they purport to describe.
The above list is not exhaustive. It's meant to serve as a starting point, not an ending one. Nor is it meant to suggest that all descriptions must do more than describe. Descriptions are meant to convey information in one form or another, and most of the time that information should be the physical description of the object in question. Nevertheless, knowing some of what descriptions can do will hopefully give you ideas of things to do in your own games.