Actions that are always awkward in parser games

I’ve noticed that some things you have to do in parser games are almost always awkward and difficult. To me, these are two examples that always crop up and are hard to phrase:

  1. putting something (like a ladder or a chair) under an object or against wall (sometimes it’s “put BLANK under BLANK” or “push BLANK under BLANK” or sometimes even just “DROP LADDER” or “OPEN LADDER”)
  2. Looking on top of a wardrobe or cabinet (“FEEL ON TOP OF CABINET”, “SEARCH ON TOP OF CABINET”, “LOOK ON CABINET”, “SEARCH CABINET”, etc.)

These don’t HAVE to be awkward, but I feel like each other has a specific command in mind and only implements that, so in practice, it’s hard to guess the verb.

Have you guys noticed any other situations where’s it’s almost always hard to know what command the author is looking for?

Conversation is difficult to phrase, although that may simply be a consequence of it being a complex activity. Nevertheless, the typical idea is that you want to convey to, say, Alice that Bob has been unfaithful. So how do you do that?

Well, you tell Alice about Bob. Which presumes that the most salient fact you can tell Alice is about Bob’s unfaithfulness. Or do you tell Alice about unfaithfulness? Perhaps ask Alice where Bob has been? Gah. There are better ways of doing things, but they almost always need to be overtly clued (“You could tell Alice about Bob’s treachery, or ask Alice about her pet hamster. Or you could talk about something else.”).

Picking up something with something else. “TAKE COIN” is so ingrained that it’s hard to break out to “TAKE COIN WITH MAGNET”.

And that’s one of the things that marks the difference between a good/great game and a great/excellent game. “Reaching into a hole” always feels awkward to me, I never know whether the game is going to accept it. Likewise “putting an object across a gap to cross the gap”. And although the mouse puzzle in Curses is conceptually sound, it’s not what I’d call fair - it’s difficult for the wrong reasons.

I have found that every time I find a situation like this and the first input I try works straight away - which probably means that the author had taken pains to antecipate various forms of phrasing the command and had implemented them - I relax a little bit more, I trust the game a little bit more. These actions don’t have to be awkward.

The most beautiful moment I had of this was in Coloratura.

[spoiler]I had been picked up by someone. I wanted them to drop me. I wanted them to let me go. I wanted them to drop me NOW because otherwise they were going to get hurt, I think, and I didn’t want that. It was vital that the first command I typed worked (it says something about the quality of the game that I didn’t care I could have just UNDOne the wrong action).

So I just typed what felt most natural. > LET ME GO.

It worked, and the game soared even higher in my consideration.[/spoiler]

Sometimes convention works against games. If an command is best expressed by breaking convention, it’s best to embrace it - and be robust enough to encourage the player to think outside convention themselves.


There’s a lot of words that have been spilled about search vs. look [preposition] vs. examine, but as for “top of cabinet”, that’s a noun phrasing issue and should therefore either be 1) aliased a lot and/or 2) properly “clued” by the correct phrasing being in the text somewhere. For instance the examine text:

x cabinet
A massive old metal cabinet, warped and rust-stained. Dusty cobwebs festoon the top of the cabinet, and the doors hang uselessly ajar.

(For the record, I think that if just looking at something without manipulating it at all would convey X information, then X information should be available in the examine text. Elsewise search can be used, and it shouldn’t be a problem for “search [preposition] [noun]” folks to implement some kind of response to “search [noun]” that prompts for a preposition, and “search [noun]” folks to make sure that at the very least there’s a “I only understood you as far as wanting to search” response available to “search [preposition] [noun]”. But hey, I’m just mostly a player…)

Honestly, having to SEARCH a container to look at what’s in it is just plain unfairness. Something that comes from the very very old text adventures assumptions. SEARCHING a pile of rubble to find something useful is allowed, SEARCHING an opaque container is not. What should I LOOK AT it for?

(Anyway: I used both the container AND the pile of rubble and made both unfair in some ways, so who am I to speak?)


Although not many game rely on shooting, it is indeed awkward.
Examples? You have a gun and there’s a target. How do you correctly spell it in English? SHOOT THE TARGET? or SHOOT THE GUN? or simply SHOOT, given there’s a gun and a target?


I haven’t come across games where SHOOT was a problem. If SHOOT GUN doesn’t auto-disambig or bring up “What do you want to shoot at?” disambig question, the next thing you try is SHOOT TARGET.

SHOOT GUN AT TARGET and SHOOT TARGET WITH GUN are easy to support as well, and I think authors are generally on board with that sort of thing.

(The subtlety is that FIRE not quite a synonym – you never write FIRE TARGET or FIRE TARGET WITH GUN – but I can’t remember noticing a case where an author got this wrong.)

Yes, theoretically “FEED” is also a tricky issue, where “FEED LION” can be “give the lion some food” or “give the lion AS food to something else”, but, as with SHOOT, it doesn’t really come up.

Now, TIE… I just remembered TIE.

I hate TIE. I go around not knowing if I should “tie rope”, “tie bar”, “tie rope to bar”, “tie bar with rope”. Worse, if I don’t hit upon the right syntax, I’m liable to get a misleading error message, that may make me think I’m not supposed to do any tying at all.

Hands down, most awkwardness I’ve ever encountered in several games - persistently - was with the verb TIE.

Of course, we’re all focusing on prepositions and things involving secondary items, I trust that’s escaped no one’s notice.

And we have all gotten so used to the verb PUT. PUT is a wonderful verb. I’m not goin to try LEANing the LADDER AGAINST THE TREE first; no, I’m going to try PUT LADDER AGAINST TREE. Maybe even PUT LADDER ON TREE, 'cause it’s easier and maybe it’s the underlying mechanism (though of course I won’t balk if the game tells me off).

(I also occasionally have some awkwardness with LEVER/PRY. OPEN DOOR WITH CROWBAR? UNLOCK DOOR WITH CROWBAR? PRY/LEVER DOOR WITH CROWBAR? PRY/LEVER DOOR? It’s rare for all of these to be implemented, and I somehow always hit a couple of wrong syntaxes before doing the right one. It doesn’t help that “UNLOCK DOOR WITH CROWBAR” is sometimes easier to code and some authors don’t give it further thought…)

If the rope is takeable, “tie rope to [something else]” makes more sense, but if there’s a ropelike object inherently attached to something else (e.g., shoelaces or a latch string) then I can see “tie [the non-rope thing]”. Yes/no?

Half my (italian) beta testers had problems with a gun of mine because SHOOT GUN was not hinted enough so I had to code every shooting syntax. That’s why I hate it. But it was supposed to work in a two-word parser.

Just played a game that illustrates something I said before. I had to use a ladder to reach a fire escape.

PUT LADDER UNDER ESCAPE just dropped it. Just dropping the ladder wasn’t enough.

LEAN LADDER AGAINST WALL didn’t help, though I didn’t think it would. CLIMB LADDER wasn’t enough until the ladder was properly positioned.

The walkthrough says PUT LADDER ON FIRE ESCAPE. Yeeeeeaaaaaahhhh… that’s not good.

I’d cheat and do what Gotomomi did when you talk to people - Multiple Choice it.

A designer can circumvent this issue entirely in many cases by creating a concrete object that embodies whatever abstract idea needs to be conveyed to the NPC. For example, the player could find a photo of Bob with his mistress and could then SHOW PHOTO TO ALICE.

Nicely put. I’ve seen it done before in games, but I never spotted the underlying storytelling technique.