Mike Russo's ParserComp 2022 Reviews

Midnight at Al’s Self Storage, Truck Rentals, and Discount Psychic Readings, by Thomas Insel

Hey, python game, you still around? I know I said some mean things about you, but it wasn’t anything personal; just a little tough love, you know? Anyway I hope you’re here, because see this ^? All in bold up there? Now that is a title, funny and intriguing and creating a vibe as well as doing some real work grounding the player in the situation they’re going to be inhabiting once they load the game up. Why settle for less, when you could have something like that for yourself, too?

(Although, now that I think about it: I’m hoping that “Self Storage” rather than “Self-Storage” is just a typo).

OK, the unkind might say that beyond a killer title there isn’t all that much to Midnight at Al’s. It’s got a quotidian premise that doesn’t fully exploit the craziness said title seems to promise and which only twists late in the day, pivoting to the less-than-compelling Generic Horror Plot #17 (woooo it was built on an old Indian burial ground woooo – kinda problematic!) at that. There’s only one real puzzle, and fewer jokes than you’d think. And there’s some wonkiness to the implementation, including one game-ending bug that’s really easy to trip into.

I can’t deny that the unkind have a point, and we’ll return to those complaints in due course. But despite the flaws I had a good time with this one. Partially, I admit, is that it’s just nice to sink into a nice, familiar Inform 7 game after a Comp that’s been heavy on custom parsers and old-school text adventures – this is my IF comfort food, and I don’t think I’m alone on that. But it’s also the case that that one real puzzle is very satisfying to work through, requiring you to think about what you’re trying to accomplish, deduce what’s going on with a non-obvious but clearly-implied barrier making the simplest way of solving the problem fail, then reassessing your options and capping things off with a nice aha! moment. I’m being intentionally vague here since there’s just the one puzzle so for folks who’ve played the game there’s no ambiguity about which one I mean, and it’s fun enough to solve that I don’t want to spoilt it even a little.

Admittedly, that puzzle does have more than its share of fiddliness – there’s part of it that involves unlocking something, and despite the game clearly knowing exactly what I was trying to unlock and with what, it took me like six tries to phrase the action so that it would be accepted. And it also plays host to the game-ending bug: fair warning to players, if you try to enter the freight elevator you’re never getting back out (heartbreakingly, I’m 99% sure I know exactly what gave rise to this bug – I’m also not one to criticize, since the initially-released version of my entry in last year’s IFComp could lead to the player get stuck in the middle of a swarm of bees being stung forever, which we can all agree is infinity times worse than anything an elevator can get up to). And outside of this, there are several places where things feel a bit more duct-tape-and-chewing-gum than they should, like the ability to cram inappropriately large objects into your backpack and a too-sudden ending that maybe indicates the author ran out of time.

Again, though, I think the pros outweigh the cons. I’ll wrap up with one more thing I liked about Midnight at Al’s: despite the fact that her characterization didn’t come through much after the opening, I enjoyed the protagonist, a disaffected teenager with a dumb summer job and a predilection for hardcore bands (I assume ironically, unless maybe it’s hardcore’s time to come round again?) She seems scruffy but scrappy, the kind of underdog you root for, much like the game itself. The winning sequence promises that she’ll return for future adventures, which I’ll definitely be down for, though hopefully those will get a bit more testing first!

al’s mr.txt (76.5 KB)

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Cost of Living, by Dorian Passer

We’re getting close to the end of the Comp now (of the remaining five games, I’ve beta-tested four of them, and the remaining one has been pulled from the competition at least for now, though I may still write a review), and for me it’s closing at it began, with a game whose interface pushes the limits on what counts as a parser game – in Cost of Living, you type into MadLibs style boxes embedded in the dialogue of two characters discussing a short story from the Golden Age of sci-fi, with your input affecting some of the finer details of their conversation. In fact, the game was briefly disqualified from the competition before an appeal brought it back, and while as I’ve said I’m not especially fussed about policing genre boundaries, I can see why, since while the only interface element is typing text and seeing more text get spit out at you in response, it departs from some of the deep unwritten rules about how parser IF works, like the player’s typing corresponding to some actor taking some distinct and discrete in-world action.

One could argue about the epistemological status of the game all day, of course, but I had my fill of arid formalism back in law school so I return to the principle I outlined in my Kondiac review: if it’s in ParserComp, it gets a ParserComp review. So how does this work? On the whole, not great, in my view, though this isn’t so much down to the novel interface as specific thematic and narrative choices the author made in the flame story which conflict with the text being riffed on. It’s hard to explain why that is without going into some detail on the embedded short story, so fair warning for 70-year-old spoilers.

The story, also titled Cost of Living and apparently in the public domain so it’s fair game for reuses like this, is by Robert Sheckley and while it was published way back in 1952 it has some moments of spooky prescience in the way it depicts a far-future family living lives of convenience, swaddled in a home featuring numerous labor-saving appliances that spring to life with a single press of a button, and an omnipresent voice-activated assistant that’s not too far off of Alexa. It’s also modern in the way that it shows the corrosive impact of a rampant consumerism that’s displaced all other aspirations and values – the central conflict is about whether Carrin, the family patriarch, who’s more than maxed out his credit to buy all the gizmos and gadgets he barely uses, will effectively sell his son into debt peonage to finance yet more useless consumption that will keep him level with his neighbors.

This crass materialism and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses status anxiety are juxtaposed against the hopes of the aforementioned son, who dreams of one day getting to be one of the few skilled laborers remaining in this static society – fixing the automatic machines rather than being effectively infantilized by them – or escaping it entirely by piloting a rocket ship to Mars and fulfilling a long-promised, but long-deferred, colonization effort.

In other words it isn’t saying anything you haven’t heard of, or thought of, before, as a person actively participating in the world circa 2022, but it is certainly relevant in a way a lot of 1950s sci-fi no longer really is, and while it’s written in functional prose that lacks much in the way of subtle emotional shading or nuanced dialogue, Sheckley’s a good enough writer to make it work for the ten pages or so it takes for the story to unspool.

(Parenthetically, I should say that the whole debt peonage angle doesn’t really make sense. The family is in hock for millions of dollars, with an annual salary of 30k, while the monopolistic company that makes all this expensive-to-produce junk pushes yet more stuff on them in order to heap up ever more implausible IOUs. This doesn’t make sense given how these kinds of debt arrangements work in real life, which is to drive down the cost of labor and put it under the thumb of the owners of capital – think of the sharecropping system – because it’s clear that the labor the father performs is completely useless, and it’s not so much the high cost of labor inputs that’s holding back the company’s profitability as it is their habit of giving loans to people already leveraged a hundred to one. There are hints in the story that this is more a matter of political economy, as the company has secured legislation that makes some purchases mandatory, so maybe the idea is that the corporation is trying to substitute itself for the state by effectively privatizing the generational public debt that governments carry to steward society – that would be interesting to dig into, but the story doesn’t really go there).

Again, all of that is completely non-interactive and just as Sheckley wrote it in the 50s. The part that’s interactive is a dialogue between two bodiless, backstory-less, quality-less characters (they have names, that’s it) who are discussing the events of the story. As they talk, one of them will say something like “Why is Carrin ____ about Miller?” (Miller being a neighbor of Carrin’s who committed suicide before the game opens) and you get to type something into the blank. Then the next bit of dialogue will incorporate and respond to what you typed in. As I said, it looks like MadLibs, and sometimes that seems to be exactly how it’s implemented, with your input mechanically parroted but not meaningfully impacting the course of the conversation. Other times the game does pull off the neat trick of seeming to understand what you wrote – I think at minimum, it’s got a word list or algorithm that allows it to know whether a word has positive connotations or negative ones, so the dialogue can proceed accordingly.

Here’s an example of it working well. I got a prompt asking me to characterize the son’s mood after he responded somewhat sullenly to Carrin’s overtures, and I wrote in “enthusiastic.” The game recognized this was an inappropriate response:

Harris: What made you think Billy was in a enthusiastic mood?

Vesper: I was just being sarcastic. It’s obvious Billy isn’t happy about something.

It’s a neat trick (even if now that I paste it in, I notice the game can’t figure out how to get a/an to work). However, the reason I was being kind of a jerk and pushing back here is that I’d first tried to type “disaffected”, which I thought was a good explanation for Billy’s mood, only to be told to check my spelling, and then hit the same rejection message after trying two or three more options. If this restricted approach was needed to keep the game on track, that would be one thing, but sometimes the decisions for what’s accepted and what isn’t seem bizarre. In that above-mentioned “Why is Carrin ____ about Miller?” I tried putting in “thinking”, only to be rebuffed and asked whether I meant “thinning” instead, which it was happy to accept when I dutifully typed it in. And due to the failure to characterize either of the conversationalists in any real way, it never felt like I was playing a particular role, or even that their disagreements had anything behind them other than airy abstraction, which further reduces the stakes and creates an aura of artificiality.

The bigger issue is that, perhaps in recognition of the fact that making this kind of natural-language input work well is really, really hard when engaging with ideas of any complexity, the author’s chosen to have the dialogue focus less on the ideas of the story but on having the Greek Chorus try to figure out the emotional states of the various characters. This is not very interesting because nothing here is at all mysterious; it’s a sci-fi story from the 50s written by a white dude, everybody’s motivations, desires, and feelings are pretty straightforward throughout. Having the peanut gallery constantly interrupting the story to say stuff like “Do you think Billy is ____?” also has the effect of flattening out what ambiguity there is, and making the story feel clumsier (it’s also strange that it’s not clear whether they think they’re responding to a piece of fiction – they don’t seem familiar with the story’s world, but they also appear invested in the characters’ emotional well-being and eventual fates in a way that felt deeply weird to me, a metafictional construct seemingly playing dumb).

As the story comes to a conclusion, the framing dialogue also goes off on a weird tangent – I don’t think I can coherently talk about this by blurry-texting spoilers, so fair warning the rest of this paragraph discusses the latter portions of the frame narration. Without any solid textual prompting, the two characters decide that part of why Carrin is upset is that a throwaway reference to life expectancy now being 150 years means that there are life-extending drugs available, but these are unpleasant to take and his son being indebted means that he, too, will need to take these unpleasant medications to live long enough to work off the increased debt. Again, there’s no basis for this turn towards the more overtly dystopic – it’s clear this remark is just Sheckley filling out his picture of a post-scarcity society, with no indication there are downsides to living longer – and it’s at odds with where the story ultimately goes, which is an ironic coda showing that the characters have become so stunted by their situation that when they imagine the great adventure of going to Mars, all they can picture is pushing a button. There’s no comparable final tag to the frame dialogue, or last moment of interactivity, so it feels like that whole thread just peters out.

There’s clearly innovative thinking that went into presenting this story in this way. And I definitely get the draw of trying to create an interactive Socratic dialogue that uses textual input without being limited to the medium-dry-goods model of traditional parser IF. I can even see that this approach has some potential advantages, since at least with a keyword-based system you don’t need to deal with the challenges of parsing grammar and can focus on understanding nouns, verbs, and adjectives that might not be bound by concrete physical objects, actions, or properties – which is still a hard enough nut to crack!

But I don’t think Cost of Living qua game is a good advertisement for the power of this model; while there are moments where the game does seem to respond in a nuanced way to the player’s input, even then it comes off as a parlor trick, not just due to the limitations of the current implementation but because there’s a fundamental disconnect between the engagement the interactive frame offers and the themes the static fiction is presenting. In the end, I’d have to say that I’d have probably enjoyed this story more if I’d just read it in a book, rather than playing through it like this. That’s a damning indictment, I recognize, but I repeat that it’s not because I think any departure from parser conventions is doomed to failure, or even that this particular departure is likewise preordained for perdition: it’s primarily that the cogs in the two pieces of the game just don’t mesh at the basic literary levels of theme, character, and tone. In theory these are fixable problems – though they’re also generally the hardest problems in any kind of writing – and at any rate there’s value, and honor, in a failed experiment. From some of the conversation on the game’s itch page, it’s clear the author is looking to refine their model, so I hope this critical review is useful for that, and I’ll be around to check out what they come up with next.

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Lantern, by Sylfir

A couple days ago as of this writing, Sylfir’s games vanished from itch, without so far as I know any explanation. I’ve seen speculation that this was an attempt to withdraw Lantern from ParserComp, which I suppose is plausible though in that case I’m not sure why they got rid of all their other games, as well as their account information, too. Given the game’s current unavailability, and the uncertainty about why that is and whether it will ever be available again, it’s perhaps inappropriate to write anything about it. But as I said in another thread, if we listened to Virgil the Aeneid would have been destroyed in antiquity, and despite Kafka’s posthumous autographopyromanic wishes the consensus is in favor of reading and engaging with his previously-unpublished stuff. Those are maybe too-exalted reference points, but Kafka at least didn’t have much of a predecease reputation; it mostly came later, based on the work. Anyway to square the circle, I resolved the check out the game, but only review it if I had positive things to say.

Given that you’re reading this, of course, it’s clear that I did. Lantern is a bit rough, and I must confess I played it almost entirely with the trackpad rather than using its parser, but it’s creative and has some charm. It’s part of the escape-the-room (well, three rooms) mini-genre, with the uncharacterized player character dropped into locked oubliette without explanation and forced to rely on their wits to solve a series of contrived puzzles and break free. To be clear, I’m not harping on the lack of plot or realism as flaws: they’re part of what I expect from this kind of game, and their presence helps to set player expectations accordingly. What departs from the standards of the genre, though, is that while you start out unable to see anything, that isn’t a barrier that’s quickly vanquished by the titular bringer of light: no, you’ve somehow been deprived of your sight, so you need to navigate your way through these brainteasers with your other senses.

This is a conceit that’s actually ideally suited for IF, I think, since depriving the player of sight in a graphics-based game would be perverse and probably lead to significant interface issues. Here, though, it’s just a matter of changing how the world is described to the player, forcing them to feel around rooms to find out what’s there, listen for movement, and lick and smell to identify objects. The author doesn’t make this too taxing a process – and in fact does a nice job of updating the names of objects as you investigate them with your different senses and figure out what they are – but it’s an effective gimmick that works well with the obsessive investigation escape-the-room games typically require.

While the concept works, there are some foibles in implementation. Most obviously, there are a host of typos littering pretty much every description of a room or object, which is fairly distracting, and there are a couple of bugs (one item’s name appears to incorporate fragments of code, and I was able to simply reach through a locked closet without first finding the key). The interface can also be frustrating if you go into Lantern expecting to type your way through it. The game engine appears to be primarily choice-based, with descriptions highlighting certain clickable keywords and ending with a likewise-clickable inventory list that includes your sense organs (you can click an item once to select it, then click it on another to combine them or use a sense; double-clicking does a closer inspection of the thing). The game allows you to type commands as an alternative to using the links, but this implementation means, however, that if you’re examining an object the keywords for the other objects in a room, or those denoting your inventory and senses, usually aren’t displayed. This means that typing TOUCH TABLE, then TOUCH PAPER might fail, whereas the commands would work fine if you tried them in the opposite order. I can see this being hideously frustrating, but I switched to playing exclusively via clicking very early, and found the interface worked just fine that way.

Clicking also makes it easy to exhaust all the different action combinations, which I had to do a couple of times. There’s at least one puzzle here that defies all logic and I can’t imagine a player solving it except by lawnmowering through the possibilities on offer (using the knife on the scratches reading HELL to change it to HELLO, which summons another character to a different room). But again, I kind of expect that from these kinds of games, and the number of potential actions is sufficiently low that it’s not too onerous to power through.

So we’ve got a puzzle game with a fun gimmick, many rough edges, not much plot to speak of, and an interface that can feel like rubbing your face against a cheese grater if you try to play the game the way its entry in something called ParserComp seems to imply you should. I whiled away a pleasant enough half an hour on it, but I can’t say it moved me or made me laugh or clap with delight at its cleverness. So I suppose by some standard it’s no big deal that it’s not online anymore, and wouldn’t even be a big deal if it vanished completely with nobody ever the wiser. I’m not sure I can muster a rigorous rebuttal against that argument, but it still makes me kind of sad – and if that’s where the standard is set, I think a lot more of us than just Sylfir are in trouble. 98% of pretty much everything pretty much every one of us does is imperfect, compromised, wouldn’t stand up to even the flimsiest scrutiny – and oblivion is the destination it’s all hurtling towards. Call me sentimental, but I’m not inclined to hurry the process along.

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Hello Mike.
Thanks for your review.
I realize that you have played the game before the Dracula bug was fixed. I have corrected the troublesome variable that caused the problem, and Dracula can now be killed and the game solved.
I was informed of the bug some time after having entered the competition so of course some people will have played the faulty version.
Best regards
Finn

P.s.
Spoiler alert!!

As for the problem with the clock in the library. It was pointed out to me that people might be peed off a bit having to wait at the library for so long before it changed. So I came up with the idea of the clock.
When you enter the library the first time the clock strikes midnight. As you do whatever you have to do in there, time passes, and at one o’clock the library as you know it disappears. If for, whatever reason you want to go back to the earlier library, all you have to do is to >set clock to midnight, or >set clock to 12 :wink:

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Thank for the detailed review. It’s amazing! I was excited to read it and it did not disappoint. Many fair and constructive points. So, thank you, again, Mike! Since this review has the same stance as hawkbyte’s review, I’ll try not to repeat myself too much, except for now. I accept that I’m a terrible critic and author. I certainly could have made better “specific thematic and narrative choices”, but didn’t because I misunderstood the competition format. All things considered, I saw my choices as an an acceptable risk.

And speaking of the topic of competition formats, please let me start by apologizing for entering a demo into this competition. This is the first time I’ve released a work and also my first engagement with an online community. I was not aware about the difference between a jam and a competition, and itch doesn’t help with the distinction. I want to acknowledge all the immense effort the other participants have spent on this competition. Thank you! I also want to thank you, Mike, for all the time you spend reading and reviewing all of the community’s works. And, of course, I extend a thank you to everyone else that also reads and reviews the community’s works. Thank you! As I said before, we probably wouldn’t be here without you.

So now with that preamble out of the way, please allow me to constructively reply to some pertinent points of your review.

However, the reason I was being kind of a jerk and pushing back here is that I’d first tried to type “disaffected”, which I thought was a good explanation for Billy’s mood, only to be told to check my spelling, and then hit the same rejection message after trying two or three more options."

Your response of “disaffected” is perfect, and is exactly the type of response that I envision my audience to use with my works. My primary design directive is to avoid breaking an audience’s suspension of disbelief. The current technology I’m using is necessarily scoped to its original purpose — and while I plan to expand it — unfortunately during your read-through, I did break your suspension of disbelief. I want to deeply apologize that you invested into a response that the current system rejects. I’m asking my audience to empathize and sympathize, which takes non-trivial mental effort. After your third attempt, not only was your suspension of disbelief lost, but so was your trust. I completely understand why you nuked my demo in this review. Your sentiments are exactly how I feel when I’m playing a classical parser-based game. Honestly, this is why I stopped playing them. The constant frustration of being told that I’m wrong became too much for me to bear as I got older and faced the constant frustration of ‘no’ that’s ever-present in our typical lives. (I often wonder how “frustration mechanics” became acceptable in the interactive fiction community. Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Anyways, I’m digressing.) However, with my approach, expanding the range of input is a tractable problem. But that doesn’t take away from what you intuit, which is that natural language is “really, really hard”. So I definitely have more work on my hands other than filling out a word bank. Honestly, I can use all the help I can get!

Without any solid textual prompting […] Again, there’s no basis for this turn towards the more overtly dystopic […] with no indication there are downsides to living longer

For a solid textual prompt, please let me refer you to the opening line of Sheckley’s stateless story.

Carrin decided that he could trace his present mood to Miller’s suicide last week.

In the almost 2,000 words of your review, you never attempt to answer this question: why did Miller commit suicide? Neither you nor Sheckley answer this question. EDIT: Thank you for adding a spoiler-alert warning.

There’s clearly innovative thinking that went into presenting this story in this way.

Yes, thank you for noticing! However, my biggest innovation is my theories and models that are behind this particular instance.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I’ve abandon story-based agency. Instead, my approach uses narration-based agency. Here’s some crude “model-based” definitions to help disambiguate what I mean by “narration-based agency”:

story = ordered sequence of the events
plot = unordered human-curated subsequence of the story
narration = "human element" of the plot

Another way to look at this is through the 5W1H journalistic questions:

story = who, what, when, where
plot-narration = why, how

So far, my intentions have slipped by unnoticed. But they’re there. And not in the Rothko-esque “airy abstraction” sense. I copy-pasted a template across the last five interstitials. It’s literally there. My particular exploration with Cost of Living was that an audience’s input alters the conversation (i.e., narration-based agency) but does not alter Mr. Sheckley’s stateless short story (i.e., story-based agency). And from where does this alteration originate? Within the foreshadowing of the stateless story! Specifically, the audience’s input will lead the conversational characters to conjecture about an upcoming passage, where this conjecture is based upon the foreshadow of the current passage. Here’s the template I copy-pasted across the interstitials:

Foreshadow Loop
~~~foreshadow N-1) compare
audience compares their prediction against the storyteller's solution
~~~

^^^convo LABEL_N-1_1.isHowIFeel LABEL_N-1_2.isHowIFeel
audience compares their prediction against the storyteller's solution
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N-1_1.isHowIFeel LABEL_N-1_2.isNotHowIFeel
audience compares their prediction against the storyteller's solution
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N-1_1.isNotHowIFeel LABEL_N-1_2.isHowIFeel
audience compares their prediction against the storyteller's solution
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N-1_1.isNotHowIFeel LABEL_N-1_2.isNotHowIFeel
audience compares their prediction against the storyteller's solution
^^^

~~~foreshadow N) observe
audience observes the storyteller's foreshadow
~~~

^^^convo
audience observes the storyteller's foreshadow
Audience: $LABEL_N_1
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_1.isHowIFeel
Storyteller: @LABEL_N_1
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_1.isNotHowIFeel||LABEL_N_1.hasNoAffect
Storyteller: LABEL_N_1
^^^

^^^convo
audience observes the storyteller's foreshadow
^^^

~~~foreshadow N) empathize
audience empathizes (generates expectations) with storyteller's foreshadow
1) cultural traditions - we don't realize how much of what we consider 
    universal behavior is actually culturally prescribed
2) genetic heritage - we all have certain constraints
3) ability to analyze and synthesize - if we haven't practiced and developed 
    our thinking skills, we tend to fall back on old habits
4) new information influx - it is hard to make sense of observations when the 
    situation keeps changing
~~~

^^^convo
audience empathizes (generates expectations) with storyteller's foreshadow
Audience: $LABEL_N_2
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_2.isHowIFeel
Storyteller: LABEL_N_2
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_2.isNotHowIFeel
Storyteller: @LABEL_N_2
^^^

^^^convo
audience empathizes (generates expectations) with storyteller's foreshadow
^^^

~~~foreshadow N) predict (why)
audience predicts a later event based upon storyteller's prior foreshadow
~~~

^^^convo
audience predicts a later event based upon storyteller's prior foreshadow
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_1.isHowIFeel LABEL_N_2.isHowIFeel
audience predicts a later event based upon storyteller's prior foreshadow
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_1.isHowIFeel LABEL_N_2.isNotHowIFeel
audience predicts a later event based upon storyteller's prior foreshadow
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_1.isNotHowIFeel LABEL_N_2.isHowIFeel
audience predicts a later event based upon storyteller's prior foreshadow
^^^

^^^convo LABEL_N_1.isNotHowIFeel LABEL_N_2.isNotHowIFeel
audience predicts a later event based upon storyteller's prior foreshadow
^^^

This is one of a few literary loops I’m exploring.

So to echo your sentiment, my approach has a LOT of missed opportunity. Again, I do not pretend I’m a literary critic or author — I’m terrible at both. However, despite all my shortcomings, my end goal is to have an audience “noematically interact” with the storyteller’s literary writing process. Barthes proclaims “the death of the author”, which is about an audience’s imagined storyteller. Well, with my approach, I proclaim “the birth of the audience”, which is about a storyteller’s imagined audience. I want to provide a storyteller with an approximation of an audience as that audience makes their way across the entropy of unknown to known that occurs during the progression of a literary work. Even further, I want to provide a storyteller with an approximation of an audience’s affective state (via sentiment analysis) as they read a literary work. This opens up an avenue for a storyteller and an audience to have a deeper connection. In fact, my hope was to have stateful storytellers that are interested in writing “puzzleless” autobiographical works, or other works of literature, join me in exploring this exciting new space in interactive fiction!

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They’re not so acceptable anymore. There’s a clear move by many authors to tend more carefully to parser output, which I am very relieved to see. There will always be things that are not immediately intuitive to new players-- for instance, I’ve recently seen some exasperation at the command REMOVE not working for things like REMOVE RABBIT FROM HAT. REMOVE is meant to apply to things worn by the player, but this is not immediately apparent to many players, of course. I can’t see that changing, and this is probably a case of the player needing to adapt to convention.

There’s also the problem of bad-faith tinkering. If a player spends all their time trying to SNORT CHAIR or FRUSTRATE OGRE, and is then upset that these don’t work, then parser just isn’t for that person, since there is no way an author can attend to all these things.

But generally speaking, I’ve found many modern parser games to be much more player-friendly. Hooray for that.

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Dorian, I would say that perhaps you should create an specific post for your game, to put on it all this interesting stuff, so everybody can find it more easily in the future, and put here a link there.

That way we can also talk about your theories without fill this thread with specific messages not related with reviews.

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Thanks, AZ! :slight_smile: I think it’s time I take your advice on this.

Here’s the link: https://intfiction.org/t/cost-of-living-a-study-in-stateful-media-with-narrational-agency/

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I’m scared to live in a world where people do what I say. Is not the world what we all want for our children! U_U

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And there was much rejoicing! I’ll have to give October 31st another go and check out the ending.

(Thanks too for the note re the clock – I’d figured something like that was up, but I kept trying to futz with the hands rather than the clock overall. Duly noted!)

Of course, and thanks for sharing more on your approach, since I think it’s a really interesting one even if I think there were some issues this time out. There’s obviously a lot here to digest, and I saw you posted a separate thread, so I’ll write back in that one in a bit (might be a day or two since I have a pretty busy weekend).

EDIT: per your request I also added an additional spoiler warning to my review.

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The Impossible Stairs, by Brian Rushton

(I beta tested this game, so this is more a short series of impressions than a full review)

If ever there was a tough act to follow, The Impossible Bottle is it. Co-winner of the 2020 IF Comp – out of a field of 103 – TIB dazzled with a space-warping gimmick for its puzzles, but was more than merely clever, adding winning characters and impeccable implementation. It also proved an excellent demonstration of author Linus Åkesson’s bespoke IF system, Dialog, allowing for interaction just as smooth and deep as anything you can manage in Inform or TADS while also letting the player get through the game without typing and just using hyperlinks instead. Anyone of sound mind would think twice before asking players to compare their game to TIB, but that’s just the situation The Impossible Stairs is in: the present author, Brian Rushton, offered to write a sequel game as a prize in that year’s Comp, Linus picked that prize, and here we are.

Wisely, TIS mostly doesn’t try to one-up TIB; it’s a smaller game, and while it too has a gimmick (that’s actually a rather elegant complement to that of the former game, messing with time while TIB messed with space), said gimmick is comparatively straightforward, and the scope of the game, and difficulty of the puzzles, are both much more modest this time out. That’s definitely not a bad thing – there’s nothing here like that &^% dinosaur from TIB, for one thing, and this is still a satisfying slice of game, probably taking an hour or so to solve and offering at least one or two aha moments as you figure out how to use the strange properties of the titular staircase to resolve the trickier conundrums.

Still, there is one area where it’s at least competitive with TIB, and dare I say it, maybe even one-ups the original, which is the cast of characters. Both games are family affairs, casting you as a daughter doing chores before a party. TIB’s Emma is a child of six, and her interactions with her loving but distracted parents – and kinda-jerky older brother – are sweet but don’t draw from too rich of an emotional palette given her youth. TIS’s CJ, though, is an adult (well, mostly), and gets to interact with a broader set of relatives, including her father, grandmother, a cousin, and an uncle, in the course of checking the items off her (well-implemented) to-do list. These conversations are also spread over several different time periods, with characters aging, changing personalities and circumstances or even sometimes passing away as the decades progress. The game’s definitely not a downer, don’t get me wrong, and while the menu-driven dialogue is well-written it isn’t an elaborate focus of gameplay like in an Emily Short game – but still, there’s a surprising poignancy to seeing these kind, well-meaning people at different stages of their lives, and learn to hold on to their memories once some family members are no longer there.

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Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge, by Dee Cooke

(I beta tested this game, so this is more a short series of impressions than a full review)

One of my favorite games of last year was Christopher Merriner’s ParserComp entry The Faeries of Haelstowne, and Adventuron game set in an English backwater where supernatural doings are transpiring. Comes now Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge, and I’m happy to report that IF’s hottest mini-trend, “great ParserComp entries in Adventuron with an implausibly-named British village in their title” has continued into its second year.

Okay, the resemblance is mostly superficial, and plotwise the two games don’t actually have much in common – this is set in the present day, with an appealing teenage protagonist who’s investigating some strange goings-on that have a family connection. If anything, though, THH goes even further than Haelstowne did to make the sometimes-finicky Adventuron parser feel just about as smooth as the far more mature Inform or TADS ones, and it boasts engaging prose that’s incredibly clean (even in the version I beta tested, I didn’t detect a single errant typo in this largish game).

Much of what I enjoyed about the game was delving into the mystery of what exactly was going on with the disappearance of the protagonist’s aunt – that’s a stereotypical setup, but the truth of what’s going on boasts some creative zigs and zags, and the game does a great job of presenting different pieces of the puzzle through varying means, including but not limited to well-written letters and diaries. The structure is well judged to support this slow unlayering of the onion, too: much of the game revolves around unlocking different rooms in your aunt’s kinda-spooky house, but you also travel to a handful of other locations which helps change of the vibe, and time passes as significant plot points are reached, giving the story time to breathe. The puzzles are likewise there more to help pace things out and provide a sense of engagement than to melt the brain – you’ll have seen most of them before – but they’re generally well done, solidly clued, and satisfying to solve; the release version also has integrated hints.

There’s a late-game turn that’s not exactly a plot twist, nor even a shift in genre – I guess I’d call it a tweak to the vibe? (For those who’ve played the game: I’m of course talking about the Alice in Wonderland style surrealism in the field sequence and the endgame). I could see it being somewhat polarizing since it isn’t especially heavily telegraphed in the first two-thirds of the game. Still, I enjoyed it; the early parts of the game clearly establish that there’s some unexplained strangeness that’s been hovering over the town and the protagonist’s family, and it’s satisfying to encounter said strangeness and instead of it just being ghosts of Cthulhu or whatever, it’s actually still really strange!

Regardless, THH is a really fun time, with good writing, characters, story, puzzles, and implementation; I have a hard time picturing the IF fan who wouldn’t dig this one. Definitely recommended, and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled next ParserComp for any game set in like Chipping Sodbury, or some Welsh town without vowels, in hopes of a three-peat.

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Many thanks for the great review! (I would also like to see more Adventuron English supernatural village games!)

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We do seem to have cornered the market in this particular sub-genre.

You can have Chipping Sodbury next time, as long as I can have Spital-in-the-Street. Ok?

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Deal!

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This sounds like the theme for an upcoming comp. For anyone short of a village name, I’d recommend The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff, both by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd.

EDIT: Ah, there’s a third book in the series: Afterliff by John Lloyd and John Canter.

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Why not Wains Cotting, a “little Dorset village”? https://tinyurl.com/wains-cotting

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Coincidentally I played Dee’s Morris a little while ago. And then sent it to my pal Nick to play too. We are both big Hitchhikers fans. We both agreed after playing that it was very Adamsian :smile: @dee_cooke

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You Won’t Get Her Back, by Andrew Schultz

(I beta tested this game, so this is more a series of impressions than a full review – and full disclosure, I don’t even get to the game until paragraph six, so it’s not even short)

I’ve enjoyed seeing other folks sharing their histories with chess as part of their reviews of You Won’t Get Her Back, so here goes with mine. As a nerdy kid, I was course into chess: before the internet and the long tail all nerdy kids were pretty much into the same five things, plus whatever you randomly stumbled across in thrift store-used bins or bootleg tapes from a friend with relatives in Japan. And so since chess was part of the package, so I was in the chess club in middle school.

This basically just meant that during lunch periods, I’d play chess against other kids, and occasionally Mr. Young, the teacher who ran chess club. He was a short, powerfully-built ex-player for the Israeli national soccer team – with some level of celebrity, we kids were dimly aware, though now that Wikipedia is a thing I can confirm he was definitely the real deal – who now coached sports classes in a suburban New York school. In retrospect, he was straight out of a Philip Roth novel, though that wasn’t one of my main reference points as a 12 year old. Anyway every once in a while he’d play against one of us, and he didn’t hold back in the slightest, chortling with demoniacal glee as he slashed a queen into the back ranks or wove an ineluctable web of pawns to pin down a free-floating rook.

There was one time, though, when I was playing him, and playing the game of my life – I mean I don’t remember it in any detail, but I must have been, because I actually made it to the endgame with him, and in better position. What I do remember is that I had a bishop in reserve, that once I got it out from behind a yet-unmoved pawn, I’d be able to set up long-range checks that would let me clean up his remaining pieces, probably advance that pawn, and finally, finally win against Mr. Young.

Then he giggled, and somehow took the pawn with one of his that was next to it, putting my king in check while he off-handedly told me about the en passant rule. That was pretty much the last time I enjoyed a game of chess – something about the idea that there was this secret, hidden rule to the game that nobody had ever bothered to explain to me, just lurking until it was sprung like a trap to deny me this one moment of glory, profoundly offended my sense of fair play

Years later, I became a lawyer, an irony that I’m only now noticing.

If this has anything to do with You Won’t Get Her Back – and it doesn’t, that was just an incredibly self-indulgent lead-in, sorry Andrew – I repeat, if I were to try to reverse-engineer some relevance to the actual game I’m theoretically reviewing, it would be to say that I came to it with a predisposition to dislike gimmicks in chess, and it must be confessed that this chess puzzle in parser form has even more of a gimmick to it than the author’s previous games in this genre. Those – Fourbyfourian Quarryin’ and Fivebyfivia Delenda Est (best title of 2021) – involved placing different pieces on a shrunk-down chess board to set up a favorable endgame scenario. Here, we’ve got a straight chess puzzle, like you read in the newspaper, with the player’s actions actually moving the pieces and the opponent moving their pieces in turn – and it all hinges on pawn promotion. Despite that predisposition, though, I really dug YWGHB.

Partially this is due to the narrative content of the game, because it’s not just a dry exercise in piece manipulation. The setup involves the white player being down to just one pawn and their king (the player character), partially because the king couldn’t bear to see any harm come to his wife (the queen) and played too conservatively. Black has their king and a rook, so definitely has the advantage, but of course there’s a chance to succeed, as your king sets his sights on getting his pawn to the enemy’s back rank and promoting it to bring back his queen (thus the title). The writing takes this situation seriously, which I found surprisingly effective – I was definitely motivated to win not just because I wanted to solve the puzzle, but because I wanted to reunite these lovers cruelly torn apart by war.

Still, the game is 99% chess, and the other takeaway from the above story is that I haven’t played the game even semi-seriously in 30 years, so I pretty much suck at it. As a result, my progress through YWGHB primarily involved trial-and-error bashing as I got to the right solution after trying pretty much every incorrect one I could think of. Thankfully, even this rock-stupid way to play is still satisfying, because much as you accumulate knowledge through your failures, you also get a bit of fun ending text describing how you’ve fouled things up, and also get an achievement for your trouble. I’d like to tell you that I’m annoyed by achievement mechanics and how ridiculous it is that we’ve gamified our games. But I’m not made of stone, achievements are fun, and there are a ton of them here so even if winning felt beyond my grasp much of the time, I could at least try to lose in ever-more-exotic ways.

I won’t say too much about the solution, except that it does involve a really cool aha moment, so I can see why Schultz was motivated to implement this puzzle, specifically, in IF – plus it doesn’t require too much chess knowledge to hit on the answer, and the game does a good job of providing a few nudges after the obvious moves fail. There’s also an included walkthrough if the going gets too tough, alongside the author’s characteristically-extensive help and meta commands to orient the player (I realize I also haven’t yet mentioned that the chessboard is fully implemented in ASCII art).

I suppose there are expert chess players for whom YWGHB will be too lightweight to be enjoyable, as they just buzz-saw through the puzzle with their superior knowledge. Similarly, as someone’s first introduction to chess, it’s likely too punishing, with that damned rook jumping on the slightest misstep and resetting things back to the beginning – one critique might be that stalemate doesn’t feel much better than a loss, which may be true in the land of chess puzzles but maybe makes less sense given the conceit that this game is a war between countries, where the difference matters a lot. For folks with some experience of chess but who don’t solve the thing as soon as they look at it, though, I think this is a satisfying puzzle to chew on, with really robust implementation and some nice narrative grace notes.

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The man who ran my chess club was called Mr. Knight, and I remember him being about 300 years old. I dropped out of chess club after a couple of months, having failed to win a single game.

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