“The Dream” for me is to write flavour text.
How many of us actually take the time to sit and read a book in Skyrim or Dishonered, or follow the exchange of emails between colleagues in Shadowgrounds or Alien vs. Predator. Do you take the time to read the info about the new item set you just picked up, the nation you just occupied, or the wondrous monument you just built? If so, thank you, and you can stop reading this and go read this instead, it’s a lovely bit of narrative starring the major Planeswalkers in Magic: the Gathering and really shows you how their respective mana-colour forms their personality.
The simple fact is there is far more to learn in these bits of text than just the solution to a puzzle, or a boost to your skills. They’re made with good reason, to deepen your experience and add detail to a world in a way that falls somewhere between the typical “showing” and “telling” methods.
For those unfamiliar, telling is someone announcing “That roof looks like it could fall any moment, we’d better move!” where showing is having the roof creak and drop dust, possibly even falling apart as you watch. Most films start with exposition to set the scene, Star Wars‘ flying space-text being a form of exposition now so iconic no entry into the franchise should be without it, not even Rogue One despite how markedly different it’s set to be. It’s a quick and easy way of compressing a great deal of background information so that the viewer can jump straight in, but it doesn’t have the same memorable impact as observable moments and background detail that demonstrate clearly what you’re trying to tell.
Flavour text is a great balance. At its best it is something written under the guise of not being raw information despite the fact that that is exactly its intent. Instead we read a letter, a journal entry, a missive, an order, something that presumes knowledge on behalf of the intended reader, despite the fact that the actual reader knows nothing but what he or she can deduce. Let’s create some examples: first something essential, the player needs to know where in a research complex they can find blueprints. Maps can guide a player to the right room, but do they have time to ransack the place?
The shut-down is on the 23rd, we don’t have time to transfer the whole contents of the server to the secondary site so the techies are working on shifting everything for which we haven’t got a physical copy. You’re digitising the physical stuff in the filing cabinets in Unit 3 when we reach the other end and I don’t care about your opinion or how long it’s going to take you because some of us got stuck with recreating the models for the Jupiter project. Before you start loading up Unit 3 can you drop the blueprints into my desk?
From that the reader knows to look for a desk belonging to “Henders”, potentially shortening their search. It’s not essential for them to know, because an exhaustive search of the room they already know to look in will find the blueprints eventually, but what else can you gather from that short paragraph? The facility was shut down in a hurry but the staff knew it was coming. The fact that the blueprints are still their to be found must mean something dramatic happened in the mean time. You also now know that there was a “secondary site”, a backup plan that you might discover soon.
Ok, now let’s go non-essential. Let’s keep it in the same setting, but this time the players have just picked up a random piece of unrelated documentation that pertains to a different project being run by the same research facility. It’s damaged and incomplete.
– unable to maintain a stable wave-function for more than five minutes before collapsing, but it’s worth noting that the intervening time has yielded some promising signs. Once again the interference has rendered all video evidence incoherent, Denver has assigned herself to the task of constructing a containment unit for the camera in the hopes of finally getting some visible documentation. A standard Faraday Cage simply is not sufficient, and my hopes are that Denver’s efforts may help us extend the period of stability for longer, and potentially make it viable to send a camera through without loss of data.
Besides the failures to document, results have been better than anticipated, and so far there has been no critical breach in containment (words I dare not speak aloud) and fail-safes have proven more than adequate. Against the possibility that a stable wave-function becomes self sustaining I have prepared –
None of it is relevant to the story, or quest, and none of it may become necessary later, but in 149 words you describe so much and add a great deal of depth to the scene. Without knowing any more than what is written above you can already conjure up some fantastic images of the room in which you found the document: A weirdly cased camera pointing at a bizarre mechanism surrounded by measuring equipment, screens showing mostly static except for one which shows a disturbingly clear picture of what happened next. The destruction of the document itself speaks volumes, and perhaps the body of Denver is still clinging to the camera controls nearby, the fruits of her determined labour on a bench nearby.
Books build scenes descriptively, and can tell us what the details infer without going into every minute detail. Whereas a constructed scene must go to the effort of showing us, allowing for greater detail at the loss of certain inferences. A neat combination of the two turns a picture into a story, or can make a big change to the way you interpret each separate component in turn.
Take the time to read. Start light with the twenty or so words at the bottom of an otherwise unremarkable Magic card, or a few Pokedex entries you may have skipped over in the past. Before long you’ll spend as much time in the library of Myst as you do trying to solve the puzzles.