Writing Pithy Game Microtext: Dactylic Megaliths

[I did this as a tweetstorm, but here it is as promised for people who prefer long form.]

HELLO I propose occasionally to talk about the art and process of writing pithy game microtext at ironically unmicro length. So! you are about to get 2000 words on a 35-word description for one of the locations in the Cultist Simulator Explorer’s Build.

“The Unnumbered Stones: Megaliths placed in obsessive, inerrant rows by priest-castes long dead. Time has long erased the original blood-stains, but on moonless nights, the locals supplement what remains. Hidden chambers might guard hidden treasures.”

Here is the thing. If you are writing microtext, you want every word to do as many things as possible. This is usually true of other writing, of course, but here, and in poetry, it’s extremely fucking true.

Let’s unpack the megaliths.

“The Unnumbered Stones”: this is an opening description for a place a player can loot. It’s based on the Carnac Stones in Brittany, but like everywhere in Cultist Simulator, I avoid using real-world place names where I can.

I’ve never specified, for instance, that the player is based in London, although plenty of people have assumed they are, and London is likelier. Equally, the Unnumbered Stones are on ‘the Continent’, i.e. somewhere in Europe. (Non-UK types might not be aware that UKians, with our typical alloy of elegantly expressed xenophobia and ethnocentrism, refer to That Land Mass Out There as if it were (a) something we’re not part of and (b) the only continent out there.)

Anyway “Unnumbered” refers to the frequent folktales about standing stones that can’t be counted. I could have gone with “Uncountable” but it then immediately sounds like it wouldn’t be a name in use by the locals: someone would have gone out there and tried to count them, and either succeeded, destroying the ambiguity we need to be eerie; or failed, in which case it couldn’t be too close to civilisation or it’d be a proper scientific curiosity.

I mean there are ways round these (“what counts as a stone?”) but if you are having an argument with your hypothetical reader about what you meant, you’ve already buggered it up. So “Unnumbered” it is, and that has the extra benefit of suggesting there are a lot of them.This works particularly well because the Stones are a repeatable location: you can keep going back and digging for treasures there, unlike the various Tombs and Collections and Towers I have elsewhere.

“The Unnumbered Stones. Megaliths placed in….” Megaliths is a great word anyway, but (i) I can’t say “The Unnumbered Stones. Stones placed by…” The repetition just sounds rank. (ii) I often like to start a sentence off with a dactyl – stressed syllable then two unstressed. It’s a nice dramatic cadence to start with, like rolling thunder.

“Megaliths placed in obsessive, inerrant…” and after a strong start I want to get a little crunchy. “obsessive rows” would be okay, but that focuses attention on the obsessive, and demeans the placers a bit. “Obsessive, inerrant” makes it clear they’ve done it properly, presumably according to some deeper schema; and “inerrant” is a crunchy enough word that it slows down the progress through the sentence, gives it a bit of ceremony.

“rows by priest-castes long dead”. Two things here. Cadence first: I do that stressed-stressed stressed-stressed thing (double spondee, I think) at the end of a sentence all the time, and sorry, I’ve basically just ruined everything I ever write for you, once you hear it you can’t stop. Anyway dum-dum dum-dum says “we”re done here but it’ll take a moment”. Ceremony again.

Setting stuff. Not just priests, priest-castes. This gives us the cadence but it also implies a larger structure and context. These aren’t just bits of rock chucked down in a field, a whole society of bronze age lithenthusiasts have been doing something grand for unknown reasons. I don’t come out and commit to this, but it sounds like a thing. I specifically had the priestly caste of druids in mind, and I hope that resonates somewhere, but I certainly didn’t say druids, because (i) the word now sounds a bit daft (ii) erryone knows there’s no evidence the druids actually placed megaliths, quite the reverse. But if I signal them, I can suggest blood and mistletoe without being called up on my dodgy history.

and this is why I’ve gone with the passive. I could have said “Priests long dead have placed megaliths in obsessive, inerrant rows”. But aside from losing the lovely dactyl and then the dum-dum dum-dum, I give away the answer right at the start! You see rocks in a field, you think, ooh, what hands long past, and then I tell you, ah, these hands long past. The passive is often a problem because it witholds information the reader needs to parse the sentence. But sometimes we want to withold that a bit longer.

Okay. “The original blood-stains are long gone.” That would be weak af. “Time has long erased…” Let’s put Time front and centre, because we want to emphasise age. “Long erased” is a little highfaluting, but not enough to distract, it just sounds minutely austere and high-style, like a quick draught of arctic air. It also neatly gets us out of committing to any history or worrying about druids. How long? Hundreds? Thousands? just, long, let’s move on.

and the good bit: blood! so we’ve got the implied druids, we’ve got the stones, this is a game about secret gods and occult murder, everyone was basically expecting blood the moment we got into the sentence. So we’re bringing in the blood, but only apophatically, i.e. only through mentioning its absence. I tell you what, you could read this sentence twice and come away with the impression there’s actually some actual visible blood. I did, which is why I made the mistake we’ll come to in a moment.

“Time has long erased the original blood-stains, but on moonless nights, the locals supplement what remains.” Moonless nights, can’t go wrong with a moonless night in a bit o’ horror. And importantly, then, (i) we’ve got a continuous tradition to the current day, which means that I can put loot in here that has been left any time between like 500BC and 1900AD. This makes my loot tables much more flexible. And (ii), the perils in my design table for the Unnumbered Stones are: “Forest, Hidden Door, Watchers”. The Hidden Door I’ll vaguely imply, later, is in the side of a tumulus. The Watchers are now set up as locals repeating the ceremonies of the ancients, and I don’t need to write any more specific text for them when the player gets to that point, hurray.

Originally the sentence read ‘the locals add more’. Just,  “…but on moonless nights, the locals add more.” Like they’re topping up a barrel of cider. So that wasn’t my greatest moment. Lottie picked me up on it, and I did a recast.

What I like about “supplement what remains”:

(i) The fancy word and the coy structure withold what the locals are doing for just long enough to provide a quarter-giggle or a half-shiver. “The locals kill animals or people and smear the blood on the stones”. Well that’s a bit Eli Roth. We don’t want Eli Roth, we want Arthur Machen, so we hint and tease. The sentence takes long enough to work through that it can mist the details and also have a teeny payoff. I learnt to do this from Graham Greene. Not personally. He did it in ‘Our Man in Havana.’ Here’s Dr Hasselbacher, an elderly World War I veteran who one night is found tragicomically dressed up in his old cavalry uniform:

“Dr Hasselbacher sat facing him wearing an old pickelhaube helmet, a breastplate, boots, white gloves, what could only be the ancient uniform of an Uhlan… he sat forlornly in the bulging breeches. Wormold saw that they had been unstitched along a seam to allow room for the contemporary Hasselbacher.” 

– Our Man In Havana

Greene is balancing the whole scene between the melancholy and the ridiculous; and the tactful grandeur of “the contemporary Hasselbacher” means we don’t focus on the specifics of how Hasselbacher might actually look, and we spend enough of a moment puzzling through the phrase that the effect can concentrate into a laugh.

(ii) the word “remains” has now got an impression of corpses into the sentence, implying without committing to them. This kind of trick works better in in-game text because people will often see the text multiple times and skim it subsequently, so they may take away an impression of words without absorbing the whole thing. (They may do this on the first reading, too, in which case a lot of all that careful rhythm work may be for nothing, but that’s the breaks. This is also why rule number 1 of game writing is to keep everything short.)

But did you spot my mistake? “The locals supplement what remains.” Hang on, Kennedy, I thought that time had erased all the bloodstains? so what does remain? Anything? Nothing? This is the kind of thing that often crops up when a writer fusses with a sentence – fix one issue, and and another pops out because the writer forgot what they were saying earlier. Once you’re used to this, you can often tell what’s over-polished in other people’s work.

Honestly though I think it’s okay. A sentence with enough vim and bravado can just gallop over oddities like this. Poetry does that all the time. Let me know whether you spotted it back at the beginning. I’m not going to go back and tinker with it, though, partly because I have a lot of text to write, partly because I don’t want to tempt people into offering suggestions for changes.

And we’re nearly done! “Hidden chambers might guard hidden treasures.” Straightforward bit of repetition. Repetition in a bit of game microtext does a few things, and this is all the things it does here: It can be a neon sign saying PAY ATTENTION TO THIS BIT. It can provide a calmer, less complicated place for the player to rest their eyes, after they’ve got through an info-heavy segment with lots of distinct concepts and implications. It suggests authority (though it can easily tip over into parody, which is always a problem when you write as purple as I do). The authority here lets it work like gently tapping a gavel: we’re done, let’s move on.

Final point. The sense of “Hidden chambers guard hidden treasures” is slightly odd – does a chamber guard a treasure? it’s the kind of thing an editor would probably call me up on. But I tried switching it to ‘hold’, and that was ugly because of all the aitches in a row. I tried ‘contain’ and it (a) is a bit clinical (b) doesn’t scan so well. I like the active quality of ‘guard’, and I like again that it’s hinting at those troublesome locals. There is probably a better option, but a lot of writing to deadline is a matter of getting something that’s 95%, and then moving on. Which I’m doing, now.

3 comments on Writing Pithy Game Microtext: Dactylic Megaliths
  1. Re: erased vs remains. I did pause a moment when i read it but parsed it as there being a continuing tradition of adding blood, so none of the original blood remains but there is always some blood there. Theseus’ ship stylee as it were. Great post, great craft.

  2. Lovely to see how much work goes into these tidbits. And with supplanting bloodstains, I took it as even if the original bloodstains are gone, sacrifices have been happening throughout the years so to the current locals there has always been a bit of blood on them, yadayadayada

    Great game though part of me does wish you were still at failbetter, but that’s life I suppose

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