Choice-based IF vs Parser IF

There’s no contempt to be found here. You must have misread something.

I hope it doesn’t matter if I revive this topic, I found it really interesting (and not only for newbies).

I asked myself these questions when I began to play IF, and I found a kind of distinction which seems useful to me - I hope it isn’t trivia.

According to me, freedom player is an illusion in all IF : both Twine and Inform games are jails build by the game designer to lock up the player, but these prisons don’t have the same nature.

In a Twine game, the jail is a concrete, a material one : like Houdini, the player is tied by links, but his mind is free - free to decide which link is the looser to escape. The skills he needs are technical, logical ones : even if he doesn’t understand what the game designer wants, he can escape by a process of trials and errors (or die if the game designer is a cruel one). In a way, Twine games are behaviorist, which paradoxically (or not) help them to convey emotion (I totally agree with @mathbrush on this point), because game designers could freely work on this point.

On the contrary, in an Inform game, the jail is an abstract one : if he wants to escape, the player needs to find the right verb, thus to undesrtand the mind of his guard, the game designer. The skills he needs are psychological ones (obviously, a kind of empathy). So Inform games are mostly cognitivist, which allow their authors to freely expand their exploring part.

In the way I see things (maybe wrongly), Twine and Inform games are in the same positions than painting and writing in Lessing model (Laocoon) : each one has an inborn feature (behavior or mind), that he could easily manage, and an acquired one, that he have to work hard on (mind or behavior).

Finally, this could explain why players like @GlassRat or me aren’t good at playing Inform games : they simply lacks of the psychological skills needed - but they could grab them if they try. (For me, it is not simply a matter of bad design, as Peter Piers said, but maybe I’m wrong.)

Having designed and enjoyed both parser and choice fiction, my take on the actual difference is that with a parser game you can more easily get into simulated “physics” since the system is built on objects and parts of things that can simulate physical manipulation more freely for the player.

I have had parser games I have written that surprised me when something unexpected happened that I didn’t plan for but the parser decided was possible based on how I set it up. Usually it’s a bug and they’re hard to chase down, but if you design your world and systems well, game elements can interact in surprising and logical ways the author does not expect and the players can experiment with.

(Example - in Transparent I plotted to trap the player in one ending, but I read a transcript where someone managed to escape using a method I hadn’t even considered. Even though technically a bug, I left it in since it’s a logical move the player can make.)

You can do simulation in a choice narrative, but it tends to be more the “on paper math” kind of thing–“You have 6 wooden spoons” as a stat rather than bits and bobs the player can actually throw around and clang together and put some in their backpack and some in one room and some in another and one on the table in the kitchen and some more in the piranha aquarium. Both paradigms are fun and have merit depending on the story you’re writing.


There is more to be understood in IF design than this, I would say.

The big obvious difference is that choice fiction has all of your actions and item interactions visibly presented to you at all times (much like a point-and-click adventure game), and (unless the game is cheating) all of a parser games actions are known but not seen, and are many, but very few matter. In most instances only one action matters and you need to guess which one.

In my experience with trying out Twine and making my own choice game system, it’s actually not that difficult to emulate a parser game world on its surface. I was easily able to replicate the beginning section of Anchorhead (probably my favorite IF game).

Mechanics aside, there is a feel that comes across differently in both formats. I present Ecdysis as a prime example of what I’m talking about. The hesitation it gave me, and questioning myself and the game, when I began to realize what series of commands I had to type out to progress in the game is not something you can easily replicate by having you click a link with it already spelled out for you. I don’t think that magic will ever transition to choice games.

Choice games still have their strengths over parser games though. For example, they do dialogue way better than parser games, IMO. Even with a choice system shoehorned into a parser game, it comes across as pretty clunky to me. So choice games are better for long winded story writing, and parser for many short bursts of text.

As an example of choice game done well, IMO, I suggest Bogeyman. A lot of the choices are non-choices that would basically be a “more” prompt in a parser game. I don’t think anyone would want to play a parser version of Bogeyman, but as a choice game it just feels right to me.

I think there are exceptions to this, or at least ways for choice games to disguise your available actions/item interactions. One way would simply be to nest actions–if you have three links, and those three links each have three different links behind them, when you click the first link you don’t necessarily know what the second link is going to be. There are other ways to do it–not making it obvious what the consequences of clicking a link are (that one puzzle in howling dogs relies on this), or having a persistent or recurring link that changes its significance in a logical way (Bigger than you think, and also certain games with inventories where at a certain point you can click to the inventory to get a new action–which also demonstrates the nested link technique).

Now that’s not to say there isn’t a general tendency–in choice games the author has to work to conceal the scope of available actions, in parser games the author has to work to make them manifest.

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I agree with what you’re saying, but it still kind of follows what I was saying too. Just like a point-and-click adventure where (as an example) examining a treasure chest brings up a zoomed-in image upon which you can then examine the keyhole, a choice game can work similarly when trying to emulate an adventure game by providing a different set of choices after examining an object or whichever.

But even so, all actions available for that for moment are presented to you visually (even the ones in your inventory), unlike a parser game where you have to mentally scroll through your lexicon of verbs and guess which will do anything, with the potential for the situation actually needing a verb that you didn’t even know existed.

That isn’t to say that you can’t create interesting puzzles even when the choices are all laid out for you. Like you said, it all depends on the order of the actions. Point-and-click adventures have been stumping people for years with their puzzles, and their world interaction generally only consists of examine, take, use, and talk. Sometimes even less. Modern point-and-clicks even did away with pixel hunting by letting you highlight every item in the room that you can interact with. It hasn’t made the games any easier, just less frustrating.

Also - choice narratives are WAY easier to troubleshoot and debug. That’s the main appeal for me. My parser stuff gets so weirdly complicated that it’s a nightmare to beta test.

My strategy to increase agency and make choice-branches less straightforward is actually kind of a cheat - or an illusion I guess…

For example, in robotsexpartymurder you meet your neighbor Ivan at one point. This could essentially be a text wall describing the interaction - basically the point is to teach the player that they can visit Ivan and hang out, which opens up more plot. This could be done with a wall of narrative text, or more likely 5-6 screens with a next/continue button.

What I’ve found more fun (hopefully) is to let the player roleplay their end of the conversation which pretty much plays out the same no matter what. At one point, you can respond to Ivan with about fifteen different choices reflecting your attitude toward him, and how much you remember who he is. All of them lead to the same next passage…possibly with a tiny bit of variation to smooth out the transition. The only real difference is you can
make the interaction more abrupt by choosing the disdainful options, which basically cuts down the extent of his reply, but you get to the same endpoint no matter what.

Hopefully, the effect of this is on replay, the player will naturally choose some different options and see the conversation morph. And if they remember his name from a previous playthrough, you get a super abrupt “yeah we’re totally already friends, I know you, let’s hang out” variation that actually lets you shortcut right into his storyline instead of ending the conversation as it normally does.

I did a lot of work on several instances of this type of thing to hopefully reward and deepen the story on repeat play, capitalizing on previous knowledge of the player. On the first play-through the story is the main character barely remembers who their neighbor is. But once they get to know him by experiencing the rest of the plot, they realize they can recall his name from a list at the beginning and trigger the “ah, I know, you, we’re serious friends, let’s move the plot along instead of going through all this again” variation.


That’s funny. I’m not sure how far you played into the demo I released the other day, but we both apparently have the mindset. :grin:

I originally wanted some branching, and I still might, but right off the bat I was like “Holy cow, this is a lot of work! Let’s dial it back some.” which is why it ended up mostly being flavor texts or multiple routes to the same conversation conclusion.

Even just the layer of emulating a parser game (just faking it with links) was a lot of work! Like if you had already examined something or talked to someone before looking at this object, suddenly the default description didn’t make sense and I had to account for that. And that was all without even a parser’s wide array of commands users could attempt, like “why isn’t there a colorful description for trying to eat the car?” Why would you do that? Just play the game normally! :sweat_smile:

So parser game writers, you have my respect.

Yeah, which is why I kind of think emulating parser exactly isn’t quite the right strategy for providing agency in choice-narrative. Choice gives you way more opportunity to control the pace and the momentum of the story. In Zork, you could spend 100 turns and an entire hour without even getting into the house by examining everything very carefully and trying all sorts of weird experimental reactions.

In parser, the question is “what would you like to do?” - where in choice the narrative can swoop in and go “this happens, how do you react?”. A lot of current parser authoring philosophy involves not giving too much information so the player gets sidetracked. The author balances putting a piano in a room for scenery with all the hassle of implementing every way it can be interacted with, or serving up a terse variation of “There’s nothing important about the piano.” which tends to frustrate player agency.

That said, Cannery Vale was informed a lot by parser. Especially in the first room where the player can do a lot of different things you’d do in a parser version, but only what I plan for them to do. I purposefully hid elements of what can be interacted with until the player has gone where I want them to first.

I agree… but I think it can kind of work anyway.

The thing is, if I just wanted to tell a story with choices, I probably would have used ChoiceScript or Ink (probably Ink because I really like the syntax, if you couldn’t tell). However, more than a story, I also want it to be a world that you could explore. Hopefully one that feels alive or at least reactive, which is why I provided so many condition based descriptions. That’s the best part of parser games to me.

I’m still not sure if my game experiment was a success. It’s very dialogue heavy, but it’s also really open like a parser game. So, best of both worlds? Worst of both worlds? I’m not sure.

But normally, yeah… Choice games are probably best off as branching narratives that read more like a novel.

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Same here, actually! It’s great to consider there are so many different ways to do it. What clicked for me was thinking more about the story than about the props.

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Yeah, same here. I plotted out the rooms of the mansion that it takes place in, but most of my writing ahead of time was spent writing all of the dialogue and story in a wiki, and I just kind of plunked it into the game. Writing the room and object descriptions was such an afterthought that I hope that they weren’t too horrible. :sweat_smile:

A little secret: That demo is literally the first thing I’ve written since highschool, over two decades ago. So… Hopefully it wasn’t crap. Haha.

I think we (or I) might be straying from the topic now. I’m not sure.

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Digressions ares interesting too…

In fact, you all formulated things better than I did. For instance :

That’s basically what I tried to say : in an hypertext game, the game designer puts his cards on the table (but he can hide the next ones he intend to play), while in a parser the player has to guess which card the game designer has in mind… It’s not the same sort of poker. :grinning:

I have this feeling too - I saw many Twine games which manage to give to the player a true feeling of flowing time (by multiplying links, or repeating a same situation). And for me, it’s linked to the nature of hypertext IF, but I’m maybe wrong.

I agree. Maybe this explain why there is so many Twine games which convey feelings ?

However, I’m not really sure that parser games are better for exploring : you can create a world and explore it in an hypertext game as well… But it surely involves a lot of writing.