Graphical Interactive Fiction

Hi Guys,

I am a hobbiest game developer and for my current project I thought I would go back to basics and make a super-retro game. I like the idea of interactive fiction but I can’t really get into it that much because the lack of visual location cues makes me feel lost easily after which I tend to loose interest.

I was wondering if IF purists would consider graphics to be a hindrance to the writing or can they help those of us who have a more visually inspired imagination enjoy the genre . The game I am working on has very deliberately bad graphics, similar to those in Mystery House and alot of the puzzles are depicted visually.

Do IF fans consider Mystery House IF or is it an adventure game?

Also given I am writing my own IF engine from scratch, are there any helpful documents with lists of IF conventions so I don’t frustrate IF fans if my engine doesn’t work the way you would expect?
Are there any features that current IF engines lack?


I guess it pretty much depends on what you think of. When I think of interactive fiction, I think of text adventures. So by that definition, the old Sierra Adventures would be adventure games, but not IF. There are of course text adventures with graphics like the Legend games, later Infocom games (Arthur, Shogun) or the Scott Adams games I played (The Incredible Hulk). Nowadays, many games that are developed with Hugo are using graphics (Necrotic Drift, Future Boy). But mostly, the accompaning graphics are of purely illustrational use, they could be shut off without making the game unplayable (I think Zork Zero was an exception).

I think, you should ask your question on the newsgroup The people over there are really helpful (although such a question could also trigger a flamewar - you never know…)


I think you’ll be surprised how little people are bothered about it.

If your game relies on graphics, it may cause problems with accessibility for some people, but in general I think you should just make the game that you want to make and not worry too much about whether it fits neatly in any particular pigeonhole.

The usual problems that people experience with homebrew parsers are:

  • Lack of portability. If you’re starting from scratch, you might like to work in Flash or some other online format for maximum accessibility. If you can come up with a sturdy engine, you’ll actually have a significant advantage over most other IF games.
  • Lack of support for abbreviations like ‘x’ for ‘examine’ or ‘i’ for ‘inventory’.
  • Lack of ‘undo’. (I think you can get away with this, depending on exactly how your game is going to be old school. If you can die, or perform actions that will have bad consequences, players will usually be annoyed if they have to reload from their last save rather than just typing ‘undo’.)
  • Lack of complex phrases. Now, again, this depends on what kind of game you’re making. If you require inventory management, for example, then being able to parse a command like “drop all but ming vase” is pretty much a necessity. But unless they’re forced to, I bet most people never use commands of that complexity.
  • Disambiguation. Okay, actually, even Inform is pretty bad at this. “Unlock door with blue” “Which blue do you mean, the blue key or the blue gem?” Duh, what do you think I mean? (TADS, at least, handles this sensibly.) But being able to ask the player questions that they can then answer to narrow down what they mean can help things run more smoothly. But, yet again, this is also something that you can try to avoid in your game design by naming objects distinctively.

And try these links:

Not quite what you’re looking for, I know, but hopefully they’re a start.

Thanks for the responses.

I will hopefully have a beta up in a week or so for you guys to try. It will be in Java Applet form so easily web accessible.

One important thing is to have the parser give as accurate information as possible when it doesn’t understand the player’s command. The game should subtly teach the player the scope and limits of its parser through the error messages.

Here’s an example of a good parser:

That’s not a verb I recognize. (You don’t need to use the verb SHAKE in the game.)

You can’t see any such thing. (The verb was understood, but the chair is not here or you have to refer to it with some other name.)

That’s clearly unedible. (The verb and the noun were understood, but the action is not sensible.)

That’s not something you can open. (It doesn’t have any drawers or it’s not the kind of desk that opens.)

What do you want to shoot the villain with? (The shooting action requires two nouns.)

I understood “throw ball”, but not the rest. (This verb requires only one noun.)

Here’s an example of a bad parser:







This leaves the player completely in the dark. Does the action fail because the verb is not supported? Did I misspell a word? Did I use an unsupported synonym? Do I need to be more specific? Less specific? It’s easy to make a parser that understands correct input, but the hard part is to make it understand incorrect input. If you look at the standard library of any IF system you’ll see that most of it is for handling these cases.

Nitku’s example is especially important, and it’s one of the things I always got wrong in homebrew IF. It’s easy to check an input line for known words, and then match this up against a preset list of known actions. For instance, if the first word is “get” or “take” and the word “jacket” is contained inside the input, then run code for picking up the jacket. But what happens when the player wants to “take off jacket” or you’ve also included a bee (intended as pure scenery) and the player is trying to “get yellowjacket?”

What this alludes to is an underlying object model, in which everything in the game (aside from pure scenery, which should still react to basic commands) is an “object” with properties such as whether or not it’s a container, a platform, something that can be used to tie other things together (i.e., a rope or string), something sharp, something that provides a light source, and so on. Then comes the even harder part – building a parser that doesn’t check specific words against a list of possible commands, but is built as grammar rules. In other words, something to the effect of “get/take/pick up [object]” and the parser compares known objects against the input.

But believe me, this is difficult to get right. I started working on a home-brew .NET game for IFComp '09, originally intended as a joke. I wanted the parser to be good though – I mean, good enough to avoid the two-word-parser syndrome, handle objects like described above, parse the right way, etc. I spent quite a few hours on it, and eventually just ran out of time and motivation. It’s pretty interesting, though. It handles some complex concepts, including object disambiguation and grammar rules (based on my experiences with the Hugo IF language). It handled attributes, etc. Not sure I got around to pronouns (i.e., “get it” after doing “x rock”), but it was on the to-do list.

At the end, I decided it was too much effort for a joke entry, and that if I really wanted to code something, I should write a Hugo runner native to .NET. Of course, I’ve done no such thing (I’m lazy), but I did decide that writing a homebrew parser the “right” way just doesn’t seem worth it. :slight_smile:

My first version probably won’t have a very good parser. I am actually doing this for a 4k competition, so I have to fit the parser + graphics + text in 4k of code. I will try to gear the game towards only requiring verb + object actions to keep things simple. If I manage to get it finished and it is well received I will start work on a more sophisticated parser + visual editor.

I think natural language processing is a fascinating topic and I am a much better programmer than writer so hopefully I’ll be able to come up with something interesting.

Erm… while it’s laudable and interesting that you’re willing to try and cram all those things in 4kb… I feel I should point out that it’s better to have no graphics and a more robust parser. Eye candy can’t really ruin a game. A bad parser can, very easily.

Even fully utilizing 4k, I think a 2-word parser would be the best that can be achieved – even without graphics. If the game itself carefully avoids objects and scenery that might lead to ambiguity (don’t include a jacket and a yellowjacket both), and if the puzzles are simple and obvious enough not to require much command experimentation (don’t require complex ropes and containers, etc), it might be possible to pull off something playable. Or, maybe a one-room game with limited scope.

It has been a long time since I’ve tried working under size limit constraints. I remember having to optimize CoCo/TRS-80 source to fit memory limits, and it was always a pain.

Good luck!

This thread has strayed from its original question, which is cool of course, but I think the original question is an interesting one.

I’m not a typical IF player at all, so maybe my opinion isn’t worth a darn. But I think I would find graphics distracting. IF is more like a novel than it is like GTA (or whatever), and my thought is sort of, if you can’t do it well enough, why try to do it. I’d expend my energy on good prose and and as others have said, as robust a parser as possible under the limitations. It’s possible that a good story will make even a simple IF game really standout, while graphics will definitely not.

oh, it can!

Mystery House

King’s Quest

I don’t know about you, but these depictions are truly crude and laughable, despite being the top “eye candy” for the time. Even Myst suffers from that today.

This depiction on the other hand is as evocative and timeless as it ever was:


There’s no substitute for words when it comes to make one’s imagination roll on and I suspect those with “more visual inspired imaginations” actually lack imagination at all and have to rely on an artist’s particular depiction. Or perhaps it’s just laziness as usual…

It is a little ironic that you would post a screenshot from Mystery House as that is actually the type of graphics I am trying to emulate. Mystery House was actually huge success in it’s time and I am sure it’s not simply because it’s audience lacked imagination as you suggest. I suspect there are a great many avid readers who can’t get into interactive fiction not for lack of imagination but for the feeling of being lost without any visual reference as to your location.
I am hoping for a sort of hybrid with descriptive text matched with intentionally crude line drawings. The line drawings provide the bones so you don’t feel lost, while the text can provide the meat for your imagination.

Oh, that ruins it for you? It doesn’t for me, especially when you consider - and you can’t NOT consider - the state of technology back then. You happened to mentioned revolutionary, breakthrough games, even graphically speaking. That was the top of the tops.

I feel you’re veering into another territory entirely - the territory of “Pictures age, descriptions don’t”. But everybody knows that by now. And honestly, does it matter if the game is fun? I must have replayed - and rewon - King’s Quest I AGI at least ten times when I was a kid, and I still kinda like.

Maybe I should have put it another way. “Eye candy can’t ruin a game, unless people aren’t willing to look beyond it.”

Try playing it again, today. Or perhaps you should spare ruining your good childhood memories…

play this on the other hand and you may be surprised: … vent.z5.js

if you never played it, it’s a novelty; if you played it already back then you may be surprised at how much better it “looks”: years of experience later may positively make words and descriptions of places feel a lot more vivid rather than dull and pixelized…

Even when Quest for Glory I first came out (with graphics similar to King’s Quest), I didn’t think them impressive or pretty. They were serviceable, but they were still mint-green. As a contrast, Another World will probably always be a beautiful game in my eyes, regardless of the state of current-generation graphics; moreso, I think, than its more technically impressive sequel, Flashback.

IMHO, some graphics age well, and there are some descriptions that age poorly.

Actually, I have replayed both of them recently, as well as adventure. I suppose I just don’t care much about the graphics as long as the game is good. It was a common POV at the AGS forum, and generally within the indie graphical adventure game community, and I expected to find it here. Apparently not. No sweat, different strokes for different folks and all that.

Personally, I have found, as a rule of thumb, that if I approach a game/film/novel/whatever with good knowledge of the time it was written, I’m more apt to enjoy it, rather than trying to measure everything by my modern eye. Also, I can get to discover some overlooked gem. It happens more often than you’d think.

Oh, I’d certainly enjoy good gameplay or artistically used graphics regardless of whether they were monochrome or 32 bit; I do, however, consider the graphics and / or sound of some games to contribute to the immersion more than that of others. I can still consider King’s Quest a good game; in fact, I generally think that in purely mechanical terms Another World is fairly rudimentary. But graphics or sound can serve to enhance the gameplay, just as, for instance, Five Times A Stranger was enormously enhanced by the sounds of receding footsteps, the changing paintings, or the apparition in the bathtub. They weren’t glitz; they had a definite purpose in mind, which they achieved brilliantly.

You could change the graphics of Flashback quite a lot, and it would still be the same game. One cannot say the same about Another World, because the mood and the unspoken story rested so heavily on its visual theme. It did help, of course, that we had never before that moment seen such large objects on the screen in motion, let alone with a fluidity that sprites or BOBs still struggle to match. But the point is that we can’t ignore the graphics or put them in a box separate from the gameplay. Another World banked on being weird and cinematic and melancholy, and this new, seemingly impossible graphical style that Chiahi pioneered helped effect that.

At the same time, just as with classic movies, I do hold to the notion of judging a game by the standards of its time. That does not mean I can watch The Lawnmover Man without cringing. :stuck_out_tongue:

I do agree about Another World, terrific game.

but Lawnmover Man was already bad enough even at the time… :wink:

Yo! There’re many ways to use pictures on an interactive fiction in order to give the player a visual reference. I think that It can be achieved effectively without need for an image to each room and maintaining a greater weight of the text descriptions.

Here are some examples:

What game is the second one? That’s a great example of purely illustrative imagery in service of text. Besides the beautiful artwork, the black&white blending of it all also evokes a marvelous baroque feel…

my spanish is not that rustyso I might give it a try…