How To Write A Good IF Comp Blurb

IF Comp is fast approaching. We’re in an era where comps get a lot of entries – almost eighty, in the past couple of years, which is way too many for most judges to play. It’s more important than ever for your game to make a good first impression. In past years I’ve reviewed the blurbs and cover art of the entries: the following is some advice garnered from the time I’ve spent thinking about the blurb part. (Cover art is a whole other topic, and one I’m less confident about giving design advice on.)

First of all: writing blurbs is difficult. For many IF authors, they’re the most painful paragraphs to write in the entire process. Ideally, you shouldn’t leave it until the last minute. Think about your blurb as you write the game! Write a bunch of different blurbs in different styles to see which you like the most!

Secondly, writing a blurb is an art, and art resists rules. Very good blurbs can absolutely break a lot of these guidelines: if you’re already writing very good blurbs, you need no advice from me.

What Your Blurb Should Include

Genre. Genre is both your friend and your enemy. If your work is related to any established, recognisable genres (hint: it is), you probably want to signal that. This helps set expectations for the reader, and helps select for players more interested in your work. ‘Genre’ here covers both mechanical approaches and fictional conventions.

But if genre is all you signal, you’re in trouble, especially if you’re doing a genre that’s already heavily represented in IF.

Grimnoir:

It’s his biggest selling point and it’s a cold, hard fact: occult detective Jacob Morris has never lost a case, and he’s been in this business a long time. Join him and his singularly skilled colleague Solene in rainy Steel City as they take on a series of cases involving monsters, people, and that which falls between.

This immediately references a well-known subgenre (paranormal mystery) – and a genre-reliant tone (noir). The reader immediately has a pretty good idea of what to expect.

What’s Cool About Your Game In Particular? This is the counterbalance to genre: you want to highlight what makes your game different or unexpected. If all your blurb suggests is ‘explore a dungeon and fight monsters!’ your audience are going to be bored before they start playing.

A lot of authors, I think, want their Big Distinctive Thing to be a surprise, a thing the player gets to discover for themselves through play. This is rarely a good strategy. (When it does work, it’s usually because there are several Big Distinctive Things, so you can afford to hide one of ’em.)

Dead Man’s Fiesta:

Summer was coming to an end, and all you wanted to do was finish grieving in peace before you had to go back to work. And because it had been a rough couple of months you bought yourself a car, you know, as a treat.

It turned out to be haunted. That was a big deal for you.

This is the story of how you dealt with that problem.

This does a good job of establishing the game’s main goal – dealing with a haunted car – while also establishing its themes (grief) and tone (melancholy of a very anti-melodramatic bent). This is going to look something like a paranormal mystery, but it’s not going to be following that genre’s tonal conventions.

Writing style. This might seem obvious: but interesting, capable prose in the blurb suggests that there’ll be interesting, capable prose in the game. A lot of blurbs end up containing awkward turns of phrase. Treat your blurb like the rest of your game and get a reader for it.

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder:

You should carry the bag. I’m more of a delegator.

That’s not precisely an original joke, but it’s a solid one, and does a lot of work. You already know the tone of the humour, the character voice, something about the mechanical focus. You know, even if you haven’t encountered Ryan Veeder before, that this is a confident writer.

Content warnings. A huge topic, but the short version is that it is kind, considerate and polite to your audience to warn about potentially distressing content. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that’s much more important than the integrity of being spoiler-free. Specifics about the content are much, much better than suggesting age ranges (I could rant about this but it’d take up its own entire post), but anything’s better than nothing. It is not possible to do a perfect job of this, but trying is important.

bogeymanComplement your cover art. Cover art is more suggestive than descriptive, but it can help emphasize or clarify what you’re saying in your blurb, and vice versa.

An excellent example here is Bogeyman: taken individually, the cover image, title and blurb are each suggestive but vague. But put them together and you have a very strong picture of the game’s tone, themes and genre.

 

What Not To Include

Excuses and apologies. You want to be putting your best foot forward, and that means having confidence in your own work. Making excuses has precisely the wrong effect. If you say ‘sorry this is bad’, you’re telling your readers to expect it to be bad, and those expectations matter. If you absolutely must drag yourself, the appropriate place is somewhere towards the end of the in-game credits (‘Any remaining flaws reflect solely on me.’)

Your own jacket quotes. You want to be confident about your game, but there’s such a thing as too confident. There are certain words – ‘brilliant’, ‘timely’, ‘hilarious’, ‘profound’ – that are great recommendations when someone else says them about your work, but if you say them it has the opposite effect, because it makes you look like a used-car salesman. Don’t tell your players how they ought to feel about your game.

Verbiage. Your blurb should be short. 100 words is on the long side. Say everything you need to say, and don’t cut so hard that you sacrifice clarity. However:

  • Avoid repeating the same point.
  • Trim down waffly sentences. Short phrases have more impact.
  • Consider whether what you’re saying needs to be in the blurb, or if you could move it to the in-game About text, the endnotes, a postmortem, or a development blog.
  • Don’t say something, then walk it back or quibble. Say what you mean the first time.
  • Don’t bury the lede. Hit your main points and don’t clutter them with unnecessary details.

Grimnoir again:

It’s his biggest selling point and it’s a cold, hard fact: occult detective Jacob Morris has never lost a case, and he’s been in this business a long time. Join him and his singularly skilled colleague Solene in rainy Steel City as they take on a series of cases involving monsters, people, and that which falls between.

As I said above, this nails the genre and mood! But then it keeps on nailing it. Here’s a quick and dirty rewrite:

Steel City. Occult detective Jacob Morris has never lost a case, and he’s been in this business a while. Monsters, people, and that which falls between.

That’s maybe an overly harsh cut, but it gets across everything essential in half the space. Once you’ve established paranormal noir detective you don’t need to talk about the rain and there’s a femme fatale and you’re going to be taking cases; we already expect all that stuff! (And laconic style feels much more noir.)

Your creative journey.  “I started writing this in mid-2016 when I was still in grad school, had a baby and dropped everything in early 2017, and finished it up in a mad rush over the last three weeks of the comp deadline” is not going to make anyone more interested in your game. If you want to talk about that, that’s fine, but the blurb is not the place for it.

The big exception to this is if your creative process was integral to the content of the work itself. “This was originally designed as a study tool for medical students, but it got out of hand” or “I wrote this for my seven-year-old child” or “This is a nonfiction piece that I wrote as a diary” are all important context.

Definitely to be avoided: creative-journey bits that also sound like an apology. “We worked really super hard on this and it’s our first game and we just hope someone enjoys it” is OK in other contexts, but in a blurb it sounds like “we don’t have much confidence in this, but please please like it.”

Telling us that this is an interactive work. That might be relevant for a blurb in another context, but this is an IF competition; you can take the interactivity as read. Talking about the kind of interaction – the scope of player control, the stakes and scope of what can happen in the story – is useful! But phrases like ‘a story where you decide the outcome’ or ‘what will you do?’ make you look naive, or as though you think your audience is.

Questions. OK, This is more of a pet peeve than a hard-and-fast piece of advice. I get the idea: a question is intended to make the reader curious and draw them in. But often, a question ends up saying nothing. A question should always add some information to the blurb that isn’t already present or strongly implied. If a question boils down to ‘I’ve given you the premise… what will happen next?’, get rid of it.

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3 Responses to How To Write A Good IF Comp Blurb

  1. Pingback: Mid-September Link Assortment – Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. Makes me wonder how you feel about the about-the-game blurbs I write for the second paragraph of every walkthrough I write. They’re almost always some variant of:

    “In this optional-adjective genre game/story, you play as Name, a professional in Location. An interesting event or situation demands your attention. You need to accomplish a particular goal. Content warning if necessary.”

    It’s concise and manages to cover all the points that I want to cover, but I do worry that they all start to sound alike when I read one after another.

    • I mean, those blurbs are serving a completely different purpose from a Comp blurb! They’re not pitching the game. They’re indexical – there to provide basic information and reassure the reader that this game is the same one they were thinking about – and that means that being exciting isn’t really as important.

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