Art historians talk about painters using certain kinds of palettes. "Caravaggio used a palette with black tones," they say. And what they mean by this is that all the colors are mixed in a certain way from certain base colors, so that even though there may be a red and a blue and a yellow, they will have that same blackness in them, and never resemble the pure candy-like colors of Reni, or the moody grey-blues of Fragonard.
Movies have styles and looks, too: take the brilliant, comic-book reds and blues of Dick Tracy, or the constant rain in The Crow (which otherwise I can't recommend), or the goldish tones of Gattaca. Compare the Los Angeles of Blade Runner with that of L. A. Confidential. The mood and concept of the movie is so deeply enmeshed with the setting in each case that the physical objects carry markers of what the movie as a whole is trying to do.
Can you do something equivalent in IF? Absolutely. Ian Finley's Kaged is full of light that falls from odd angles; of dramatic moments, stagily presented; of the monumental propaganda of a mechanistic and inhumane bureaucracy. Some of what creates the atmosphere is detail -- carefully chosen objects -- and some of it is the way that the setting is described. In every lit room, light has a certain quality, comes in some color, falls at some angle, is soft or hard, casts harsh shadows or glows diffusely. The air is warm or cold, damp or dry. Materials give textures to objects: the dullness of unfaced concrete, the luster of satin, the grit of sandstone. There is smell, and size, and the sense of space in a location (echoing, empty, cramped, ill-proportioned).
Even the colors that you choose, and the words you use for them, generate the sense of mood. You don't have to stick with "red" and "blue" and "green." For Metamorphoses I had in mind the rich but slightly muddied colors that I associated with Renaissance book illustrations: russet, indigo, jade, dull copper. And I chose as often as possible to go with words that were themselves associated with some kind of material, though one can just as easily describe colors in terms of flowers (rose, lavender) or fruits (plum) or any number of other things. If you feel that your vocabulary isn't up to producing quite the effect you want, sit down and thumb through a thesaurus, or read some prose of the general style you're looking for; there's nothing wrong with doing research at this level, either.
I tend to choose descriptive words for their connotations (what does this word remind me of?); for the narrative voice I'm using (what level of diction is appropriate?); and for sound. Language can be cold and strong, made of short sentences, hard consonants, deep vowels. It can be soft and lush and leisurely, sibilant in sound and intricate with Latinate derivatives. It can hurry and tumble along, or keep a stately ceremonious pace. The choices you make don't have to be startling all the time, or over-elaborate; nothing clogs prose like a redundant superabundance of ill-selected adjectives, or a proliferation of high-falutin' verbiage. But the texture of your prose, like the cinematography of a movie, becomes part of the atmosphere.
The process of writing a game is, at least for me, a fairly intense and immersive one. I make bundles of notes and maps and diagrams. I keep around photographs, or webpages, or bits of poetry, or whatever I'm consulting for inspiration. I stick mood-appropriate music on infinite repeat. Gradually the process starts to feel less contrived and more automatic. Further embellishments volunteer themselves rather than having to be actively fished out of the ether.
Between the discipline of creation and the chance of discovery, the world I'm building takes on the qualities of autonomous reality. It feels like a place I've visited. The good parts are fixed, unchangeable, sure. If I'm lucky, those parts add up, in the end, to a coherent whole: a structure that makes intuitive sense, with a consistent mood and no jarring discontinuities, solid and habitable. A world that is no longer an extension of me, but belongs to itself.
Sometimes -- most often on the verge of sleep -- I return to one of them as a tourist. I ring the bell; and then I stand, waiting, at the edge of the darkened water.
This article copyright © 2001, Emily Short