Flavor text? Is that like scratch and sniff? So do I lick the page or what?
If you’re asking those questions, you have a well-developed sense of sarcasm, but this blog post might not be for you. (Note: You might taste something by licking your screen at this time. Such flavors are not the fault of this blog post and could pose a health risk.)
On the other hand, if you’ve worked in the games industry (analog or electronic), or if you’re a gamer who pays attention to the games industry, you’ve probably run across the term.
Flavor text can refer to any text that isn’t rules, such as in the great flavor-versus-crunch ratio debates about D&D content. (Doesn’t that sound fascinating? Thrilling stuff, that.) But it’s more common use in the industry is in reference to the sentence or two of non-rules text associated with a card, miniature, or electronic object in a game. It’s text that gives something context and meaning beyond a picture, the name, and “+1 Attack Power.”
Flavor text helps set the tone for the product and develop a player’s sense of the game’s world. Much of the time it’s a forgettable cluster of words that a player reads once and then ignores. Sometimes it’s an annoying nuisance because the flavor text implies rules that don’t exist. Yet every so often, it fires the imagination or hits the funny bone hard and becomes a defining element of the game.
I’ve written my fair share of flavor text—for Magic: The Gathering, Dreamblade, doomed Gleemax games that will never see light of day, the Lords of Waterdeep board game, and various Dungeons & Dragons game elements. Despite all that experience, I can’t say I’m an expert. In fact, I know I’m not even in the same league as the best. But if it becomes your job to write a sentence or two about 400 different game objects, I might be able to help with what little I’ve learned.
In most cases, flavor text has a limited amount of space. This limit is usually not a number of words but an actual length of text or number of characters. In this way, writing flavor text is like tweeting.
Of course, you can’t rely on internet abbreviations such as “rly” or “r u ok.” Instead, cut useless helper words like “very,” and beware of adverbs as they tend to lengthen and weaken sentences (“slowly walked” vs. “trudged”).
The thing to do when you only have a sentence or two of space is think about every sentence as a joke. By that I mean, it should structured to have a punchline. In essence, getting to the end of the sentence or two rewards you for reading it, regardless of if it was meant to be funny, poignant, sad, or whatever.
Being pithy is also a lot like writing tweets, but in this case, it’s about being good a writing those clever tweets that make you chuckle or think. Check out @ElizaBayne some time. Her tweets are mostly jokes, but they get at the idea of the punchline in a single sentence.
Also, quotes attributed to Ben Franklin or Abraham Lincoln are a good place to look for more pithy structures. Some are of course humorous, but many are more serious.
Use the Context
The art and name associated with your card or digital item defines the boundaries of your flavor text. If the name is “Ghost Legion” and the art is a gloomy picture of misty spirits suffering from deadly wounds, your pithy joke won’t work no matter how funny it might be.So you need the art and name. If you have the art, but it’s your job to come up with the name, it’s tempting to think that makes it easier, but don’t be fooled. Naming objects for a game is its own knotty problem. If it’s your job to define all three elements, for the love of everything holy don’t try to do it all at once! Here’s the most advantageous order: rules, art, name, flavor text. If you get any two of those elements right at the same time, count yourself lucky.
Write to fire the imagination of the reader. Use unusual metaphors, unique thoughts, and subtext.
Just the other day, I was reading a novel and a character was described as having “hands that had never dug a grave.” Out of context, it’s not that great (doesn’t most everyone have those hands?), but put those words as the thoughts of a hardbitten, muddy soldier on a battlefield looking at some well-heeled, neat commander who leads from his tent, and then those seven words are suddenly laden with subtext and meaning.
Ultimately, there’s only two ways to learn to write well: Read and write.
Of course that’s an oversimplification, what I really mean by “read” is experience most every damn thing you can get your hands on, and read. Go hiking. Enter a marathon. Visit Peru. Buy beer from a corner store in the bad part of town after two in the morning. Take risks, whatever you consider a risk. I don’t mean be stupid—wear a seatbelt and use a bike helmet—but expand your boundaries. Build the neural network that will let you make unusual but meaningful connections.
Then read all the greats, the not-so greats, and the terrible hacks, and read enough of them so that you really understand why people make those distinctions. Read histories. Read romances. Read mysteries. Read science fiction. Read fantasy. Read westerns. Read children’s books. Read suspense. Watch movies of all kinds and when one really excites the writer in you, read its script.
And then write.
So with all this advice in mind, what do I actually do? Usually, I stare numbly at the computer screen and wonder what the hell to write. That’s when I rely on strategy.
I’ve put flavor text into a few categories. I turn to this list as an idea starter when I’ve otherwise run out of steam.
• Zen Wisdom: This is my shorthand for anything that sounds mysterious or profound. A good example comes from a Terry Pratchett novel, Soul Music, that I recently read: “Some shadows are so long they arrive before the light.” Even without context, it’s a great concept, and you can see the punchline structure of the sentence quite clearly.
• Boasting Quote: A boasting quote is just what it sounds like, but it doesn’t have to be the subject of the card or digital item doing the boasting. It might instead be someone talking fearfully or lustfully about the subject, “Her glance was fire, and when our eyes met my soul burned.”
• World Revelation: This kind of flavor text relates some detail of the world of the subject or some fact about the subject itself. “The monks of the Sky Abbey vow never to allow their feet to touch the earth after ordination.” Most flavor text about items in a digital game take this form. Such details might sound like game mechanics but have very little to do with how the item functions in play: “The TK42A Assault Rifle fires 72 energy rounds per second in and can be fitted with an underslung plasma cannon.”
• Comic Concept: It can be hard to make a comedy work is such a small space, and it should always suit the mood of the art, but the punchline structure obviously lends itself to this approach.I call it a comic concept and not a joke because often it can be more successful to relate something funny about the subject (world revelation).
• Myopic Focus On Thing: This is my shorthand for picking out some element of the art and highlighting it for the flavor. Perhaps there’s a chaotic battle scene but one set of warriors is interesting. Maybe there’s a scene in an alchemist’s lab and the flavor text focuses on a particular bottle. Often this is a way to take art that didn’t quite work out and make it suit the rules better, like in the case when the rules and name talk about a magic sword, but the image is a whole guy in armor holding a sword that looks pretty normal.
• Fancy Description: This isn’t usually a great strategy, but sometimes it suits the subject. Basically, the flavor text just describes the object in the art in some compelling way. This usually only works when the object is alone in the image and looks interesting or needs some element of it explained. “Twelve rubies adorn its hilt of gold, and its black blade is pure adamantine.”
Of course, you can do more than one, such as by revealing some humorous (comic concept) aspect of goblin culture (world revelation).
Looking back over what I’ve written, the task of writing flavor text simultaneously sounds scientifically tactical and artfully mysterious. That’s fitting because good writing is alchemy. It’s quack science. You have to absorb all the principles, read all the experts, and consult the work of the great ones, but then at some point you’re left with the leaden rules, and you have to turn them into gold. If that’s your job, I wish you the best of luck!