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MUSH 101 - A Game of Words

Virtual reality and 3D games may be the next big thing, but for almost thirty years players have been creating their own online worlds using nothing but words and their imaginations (and, okay, a little help from a computer).

A MUSH is a multi-player online game that blends creative writing, improv acting and role-playing into a unique interactive storytelling experience.

A Story and a Game in One

The outlaw hoists Sophia up on his horse, gripping her tightly and using her as a shield. “Now settle down there, missy,” Kelly advises her. “Sheriff! You best put your guns up. Nobody wants this pretty little lady getting hurt now!”

“No one wants the pretty little lady getting hurt, but no one’s negotiating with an outlaw either, Kid!” calls out Mitchell, keeping his gun right where it is. “You’ve killed before. I’m not one to think you’d hold off on account of me.”

“All I want is my boy you got in there, and we’ll be on our merry way. Ain’t no need for anybody else to die today,” Kelly says, with a quirk of a grin despite the serious situation.

This isn’t an excerpt from a western novel, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It’s a transcript of gameplay from Sweetwater Crossing MUSH, an online game set in 1860’s Nebraska Territory.

Sweetwater is closed now, but it ran for over two years, involved dozens of players, and generated more than 500 scenes like the one above. They combined to tell a collaborative story about the townsfolk of Sweetwater Crossing – ranchers and outlaws, shopkeepers and schoolteachers.

There are MUSHes for virtually any setting you can imagine: science fiction, fantasy, historical, supernatural, superheroes and more. Many are based on popular books and TV shows. Others are wholly original.

It may look more like a novel than a game, but a MUSH does have rules to keep things fun and fair for everyone involved. Everybody wins when they work together to tell a story.

Virtual Worlds

Like a video game, a MUSH provides a virtual world for the characters to inhabit. The main difference is that it uses text instead of graphics to describe the locations.

A MUSH room description.

You connect to the game using a special app called a MUSH client, which shows you the world and lets you communicate with other players. You’ll learn more about MUSH clients and connecting in another part of this tutorial.

Players on the Stage

Without players, the game world is nothing but a ghost town – a movie set with no actors. As a player, you’re the actor. You take on the role of a character in the story. You define your character: their appearance, their personality, their skills and backstory.

As you explore the game world, you see things through your character’s eyes and react to things as your character would. You write their actions, thoughts and dialogue. Nobody else can write for your character but you, although other characters’ actions can impact your character.

The fun part is interacting with other characters played by other players. MUSH scenes can involve two characters or twenty. They can be dramatic (like the jailbreak) or light-hearted (like a barn dance). Most games have a blend of interpersonal drama and adventure, not unlike a primetime TV drama.

Writing Without a Net

In a MUSH scene, you and the other players take turns, round-robin style, each writing a paragraph from your character’s point of view. Each paragraph builds on what came before to further the overall story.

The catch is – this all happens “live” in real-time, and the story isn’t decided in advance. You start with a rough idea for a scene, based on whoever happens to be online at that moment, and just run with it. Being forced to come up with plot and dialogue on the spot is a great way to hone your writing skills, and it can be fun to write a story collaboratively.

Some MUSHes, like Sweetwater, run for years. Players come and go. Characters develop their own personal story arcs, growing and changing.

With MUSHes in every genre, there’s something out there for everyone. All it takes to play is an Internet connection and some imagination.

This article is part of the MUSH-101 tutorial.