Telling backstory

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dan...@franke.name

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Jun 9, 2005, 1:19:23 AM6/9/05
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Question for experienced IF authors: what are some good ways to
incorporate lengthy backstory into a game? I'm working on a SciFi-ish
game in which the society's history and resulting attitudes are key to
establishing the believability of the setting. If I wanted to convey
it all from the get-go I might end up writing four screenfuls of
introductory text, and I've played enough games to know that's a big
turn-off. So, where does backstory belong? Room descriptions? Object
descriptions? Environmental actions?

David Fisher

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Jun 9, 2005, 1:35:37 AM6/9/05
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<dan...@franke.name> wrote in message
news:1118294363....@o13g2000cwo.googlegroups.com...

A thread from November 1999 about communicating back stories without several
pages of text:

http://groups-beta.google.com/group/rec.arts.int-fiction/browse_frm/thread/7923c4bd3f3f3cd2

(Definitely not wanting to cut short any discussion from wise and learned
(or otherwise :-) IF authors ...)

David Fisher


Ian Haberkorn

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Jun 9, 2005, 3:05:42 AM6/9/05
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dan...@franke.name schrieb:

> Question for experienced IF authors: what are some good ways to
> incorporate lengthy backstory into a game?
> If I wanted to convey it all from the get-go I might end up writing
> four screenfuls of introductory text...

Scattering information in objects is a good way of providing it
bitwise, if they fit into the locations. Think library, packages, safe
contents, diplomas, tapes, newspapers, photographs...

If the PC himself doesn't know the backstory in the beginning, you
could provide him with a notepad that he automatically records
information in. After collecting enough stuff, its lecture would cite
the key elements of the backstory in a structured way.

Objects triggering memories is another method often used. To me, its
danger lies in trying to make it "surreal" which often comes over as
cheap or "pseudo-deep" (e.g. putting on the masks in "The Dreamhold").

NPC stories: An frequently cited example is from "Christminster", where
the PC needs to crawl through a tunnel several turns long. An
accompanying NPC explains the backstory to him, breaking up the text
into more digestible bits.

For cinematographic effect, you can start with one or more key scenes
from the past where the player has only a few actions to take but which
explain the later setting sufficiently. Simple example: If the setting
is a postnuclear landscape, the PC could be the unfortunate power plant
engineer or the bomber pilot who caused it in the first place.

Also, if you haven't already, I strongly recommend you read the chapter
"A triangle of identities" from the Inform Designer's Manual which has
some comments on opening text:

http://www.inform-fiction.org/manual/html/s48.html

Good luck,

Ian

Destriarch

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Jun 9, 2005, 3:51:17 AM6/9/05
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Another danger is having too many 'flashback' style occurrences. One
game that eventually did nothing but get on my nerves was 'Babel' which
was constantly interrupting the game to display lengthy pieces of
back-plot. Compared to the amount of psychic flashback scenes involved,
there actually seemed to be very few puzzles in the game, and a whole
lot of empty rooms with no real function but to string the map out. The
game must have been fairly decent by IF standards since it won a prize,
but the constant cutscenes irritated me, especially when I felt that I
hadn't made any significant headway in the game since the last
cutscene. It was like a literary version of Metal Gear Solid: Sons of
Liberty in a way. Every room or two that you passed, you got a
cutscene. Mind you at least it was fairly well-written stuff, it just
got old really quickly. Still, just my oppinion.

I personally favour arranging things episodically. At the beginning of
the game you get about a pageful of introductory text setting the
scene, the next few puzzles must be completed to accomplish a larger
meta-puzzle, and when that puzzle is done you move to the next
'chapter' in the game, maybe a load of new rooms open up or the
character is moved to a different location, and you get another big
list of info. As a variation on the theme, you could give the player
additional information when their score reaches a certain level from
completing puzzles in general, rather than advancing the plot after key
puzzles.

Another trick you could use is the 'Bumper Book of Info' - an object
that contains information on as many subjects as you can think of that
the player can consult any time he comes across a reference he's not
sure about. There's a good example in the Inform manual, showing you
how the dictionary in Ruins works. Variations on this theme include
scattering knowledgeable NPC's around the game for the player to
consult, although if you get too many NPC's the player may find it a
bind searching for the one with the specific information he needs.

Ash

Tikitu

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Jun 9, 2005, 7:33:12 AM6/9/05
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> Question for experienced IF authors:

Disclaimer: i'm not (yet) even an IF author, let alone experienced. And
the thread David Fisher points to looks pretty comprehensive to me. But
I still have some perhaps useful thoughts to add.

> what are some good ways to incorporate lengthy backstory into a game?

> I'm working on a SciFi-ish game [...]

Short answer: show don't tell. And look at SF short stories for
examples. (You probably already have, so I'll expand a bit on what I
mean.)

Backstory and cultural surroundings are typically both difficult and
important in SF; difficult because they're really different to our
experience, and important because if you're writing SF then those
differences probably matter (otherwise you should ask yourself why :-)
This is even more so for shorts, because everything is condensed and
intensified compared to a novel. (More or less the same happens with
IF, particularly the short free stuff that tends to get produced these
days. I'm not totally off-track :-) There's a lot written about how sf
authors attack this, try magazines like (from memory) Analog, which
have regular advice columns for beginning writers.

You can do a lot with genre conventions, particularly in SF. Cryogenic
suspension for a 200-year interstellar journey carries a whole
freightload of associated assumptions, compared to doing your grocery
shopping on Aldebaran and having to wait _forty_ _minutes_ in the queue
for the jump gate, can you believe it? (Tends towards cliche, of
course, but cliche is just convention gone stale, it's not inherently
bad if _lightly_ sprinkled.)

Most importantly, I'd advise (from both interactive and vanilla
fiction) _show_ don't _tell_. Don't whatever you do _explain_ the
backstory, make it visible in the surroundings. (The all-time perfect
example is the novel "Riddley Walker", by Russell Hoban -- he goes so
far as to write in a wildly altered form of English, and never explains
what things mean. You pick it up as you go along -- mimesis fans, eat
your hearts out :-)

I'm not saying don't do cutscenes, but don't do "In 2317 the first
advance scouts of the Dusbol Migration were encountered at the
Tannhauser Gap" cutscenes. And as much as you can, embed casual
references to things that the PC knows about but the player doesn't
into the text. Players do absorb this stuff, almost unconsciously (be
careful that you've provided enough once it becomes important for
puzzles, of course). A vidscreen in the corner of the room is showing
coverage of the Saltzer robot-bashing trial. That rowdy group at the
bar are wearing Empire sidearms, might be wise to leave before the
wirehead slumped in the corner notices. And so on.

Hm, longer than I'd intended. Just a quick (really) IF-oriented
postscript (this is covered also in the '99 thread): descriptions
(room, object, even "you can't do that" responses) come from someone.
The voice you choose for that someone can convey a lot of subtle
information. You're seeing with the PC's eyes (probably), and a room
description should ideally tell you both about the room and indirectly
about the PC (at least for establishing this sort of
setting/backstory). Use brand-names for machines (instead of "a
complicated machine sits in the corner", "a TeknoGizmo 3 (latest model,
you note approvingly) sits in the corner"), the player is still in the
dark but it's clear the PC knows. For backstory, call it
"top-of-the-line Navigator's Guild production" or "Empire-approved, so
it probably doesn't work and might even be making transcripts". And so
on.

Slightly epic, maybe if I ever finish my WIP I should try a sf piece
:-) I do think that genre has _huge_ potential for this sort of thing,
and of course it doesn't have to be as blatant as my ad hoc examples.

--tikitu

Daniel Urtiz

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Jun 10, 2005, 6:45:36 PM6/10/05
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"Ian Haberkorn"

> Objects triggering memories is another method often used. To me, its
> danger lies in trying to make it "surreal" which often comes over as
> cheap or "pseudo-deep" (e.g. putting on the masks in "The Dreamhold").

Come on, Andrew. Where are you? Perhaps you're still working up your
lather into a proper foam.

Ian Haberkorn

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Jun 11, 2005, 2:45:21 AM6/11/05
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I forgot to add that "Shade" by Andrew Plotkin is a great example of
unobtrusively and seamlessly providing a backstory within a setting.
(It is one of my favorite IF pieces.)

Ian

Jacek Pudlo

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Jun 11, 2005, 6:23:39 AM6/11/05
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"Ian Haberkorn" <haber...@yahoo.com> skrev i meddelandet
news:1118472321....@g14g2000cwa.googlegroups.com...

>I forgot to add that "Shade" by Andrew Plotkin is a great example of
> unobtrusively and seamlessly providing a backstory within a setting.
> (It is one of my favorite IF pieces.)

Yeah, that should calm him down.

samwyse

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Jun 11, 2005, 8:24:39 AM6/11/05
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Ian Haberkorn wrote:
> dan...@franke.name schrieb:
>
>>Question for experienced IF authors: what are some good ways to
>>incorporate lengthy backstory into a game?
>>If I wanted to convey it all from the get-go I might end up writing
>>four screenfuls of introductory text...

Step one, learn how to write. Here's a link that I just found last
night that may help, "Fifty Writing Tools":
http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=61811

Poyner Online is dedicated to "Everything you need to be a better
journalist", but the writing tools are applicable to anyone, with many
examples drawn from fiction.

> Scattering information in objects is a good way of providing it
> bitwise, if they fit into the locations. Think library, packages, safe
> contents, diplomas, tapes, newspapers, photographs...

See especially tools #10, #14 and #16.

> Also, if you haven't already, I strongly recommend you read the chapter
> "A triangle of identities" from the Inform Designer's Manual which has
> some comments on opening text:
>
> http://www.inform-fiction.org/manual/html/s48.html

The above link points to an excellent example of tool #23: Place Gold
Coins Along the Path. I refer to the sentence, "Aunt Jemima has two
cats, Jane and Austin, but she finds Austin especially annoying – this
ought to make Austin your natural ally, but as it is you tend to glower
at each other." It gives you backstory, but also surprises and amuses you.

Ian Haberkorn

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Jun 11, 2005, 3:31:38 PM6/11/05
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Jacek Pudlo schrieb:

> "Ian Haberkorn" <haber...@yahoo.com> skrev i meddelandet
> >I forgot to add that "Shade" by Andrew Plotkin is a great example of
> > unobtrusively and seamlessly providing a backstory within a setting.
> > (It is one of my favorite IF pieces.)
>
> Yeah, that should calm him down.

Sorry, forum, for feeding Jacek/Daniel. Actually I meant the above
statement seriously: "Shade" is good IF!

Ian

gravity

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Jun 21, 2005, 2:20:00 PM6/21/05
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"Daniel Urtiz" <to...@dr.com> wrote in message
news:51463662.05061...@posting.google.com...

> Come on, Andrew. Where are you? Perhaps you're still working up >your
> lather into a proper foam.

let's all get lathered up with Andrew. sounds like a hoot.

m.


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