Parser Games in the IFComp

Have a look at this.

What are the reasons for the decline?

Some speculation follows:

  • Parser games age slowly. Thus,

    [*]each parser game has to compete with the masterpieces of its genre — no matter how old,

  • excellent parser games were rare back then, hence each one got much attention. Today, even good parser games are like drops falling into the ocean.


  • Part of the community has not played parser games in their childhood, and this part is increasing.
  • Parser games require (much) more work than CYOA: coding, debugging, more details etc.
  • For smartphones, CYOA is better suited than parsers. In general, CYOA is more accessible.

I don’t think parser games are going extinct, but they might become a niche within a niche. Maybe.

P.S. Jack Vance, the inventor of the “grue”, died a few months ago.
P.P.S. Here is a crossview version. Zoom and enlarge it. No additional information, just for fun, don’t expect much.

I find that sad. [emote]:cry:[/emote]

For what it’s worth, I think that the rising popularity of CYOA games (and their rising presence in the Comp) is not affecting this curve very much. That is, if we had had zero Twine games this year, it would still be 15-20 parser games.

Exactly, you need to look at that curve in the context of how many games of any stripe are in the Comps.

Still makes me sad. [emote]:cry:[/emote]

Five years from now, there’ll be an IFComp in which only a handful of entries are parser games. Five years after that, there’ll be none.

CYOA - the paint-by-numbers of the IF world. (I welcome your hate mail).

I quite like CYOA games, but I find it disappointing how they seem to be dominating the IFComp this year instead of parser games. Then again, I find the IFComp disappointing nowadays.

I was sad to hear this. My ex wife actually broke the news to me when it happened. Jack Vance was my all-time favorite author, and my collection includes every book he wrote except for maybe one (or any of the detective stuff). Up until the week my son was born, he was supposed to be named Vance, until she got the stubborn idea that “Heath” (following the death of Heath Ledger) would go better with twin sister Hadleigh.

I don’t think the growth in CYOA is causing the apparent decline in parser fiction either, but it is useful to look at the advantages of CYOA (and Twine in particular) if you want to understand why they’re on such different trajectories.

Twine is a very author friendly system that requires almost no coding knowledge. It’s based on a visual story map, which makes it simple to keep track of complicated plot structures. A finished Twine game is just an HTML file, which means it can be hosted anywhere and played on basically anything. And since it’s HTML it’s very easy to polish (you can just dump CSS and JavaScript right into the story file). But maybe most importantly, the control scheme is utterly intuitive. Everyone who has ever used the internet knows how to click a link and understands what that action means.

The parser has none of these advantages. You have to learn Inform code to write an Inform game, and even though Inform 7’s natural looking paragraphs are better that straight up programming gibberish, it’s still a very hard system to write in. (Personally I must have made a dozen attempts to write an Inform game and I never got anywhere.) Story files have to be played with an interpreter, and the online wrapper can be kind of slow and I don’t think it works on as many devices. And the parser itself is really opaque and difficult to teach to people. Fewer and fewer people have experience with that kind of command line interface nowadays. And even when you know what you’re doing, it can still be finicky.

I don’t think parser games need to become more like CYOA necessarily, but if the goal is to grow the audience then I do think folks should at least be finding ways to make parser games as accessible as CYOA. Stuff like the keyword interfaces from Blue Lacuna or Walker & Silhouette.

Another thing is many people are gaming on the go with their phones. It’s really hard to get into a text adventure and type in commands…Twine games can be hit and miss depending on how the author formats the output, but I played all of BLOOD ON THE HEATHER on my breaks at work. Inklewriter also seems optimized to be played on phones - each choice button is large and tappable.

I don’t think parser games will go out. The quality turnaround is different as well: Twine stories can take a day or a week or a month, so you see more of them, whereas any substantial parser IF is at absolute bare minimum a two-week affair for a short game with speed-if quality, and often multiple months or years if the author wants to turn out a polished game of any depth or quality.

It’s like despairing that full fledged $60 console releases are “declining” due to hundreds of indie games popping up. One thing trending up does not mean a decline in the other necessarily. The proliferation of CYOA just offers more variety of what to play. I used to be stodgily against CYOA, but I really like the new systems which offer variables and some ways to offer more depth than just “click here to turn to page 23”.

I mean I guess the other thing is, are there fewer parser games being made in general, or just fewer being entered in the competition? Because Twine games take less time to write and tend to be shorter, so you might expect to see more of them in a competition with a hard entry deadline and a two-hour time limit.

It’s hard to say because the use of Inform is rather spread out these days. Students try it in classes, etc. (Dunno about other IF systems, but Inform 7 at least.)

Within this community – the folks that interact here – it’s pretty clear that fewer parser games are being produced. It’s a gradual thing, though.

I’m less than eager to rehash this whole discussion yet again, so just one point: I don’t think that making parser games as accessible as CYOA is a sensible goal. Accessibility is, y’know, kind of their thing. The parser has different strengths, which are worth playing to - not to say that making parser games more accessible isn’t a worthy goal, but I’d be happier if we did a better job of focusing on our strengths, and if more people - from both sides of the aisle - just chose the right platform for the game they actually freakin’ wanted to make.

Parser IF is always going to be a relatively challenging medium to make and to consume. That may mean that it’s not for everyone. That’s okay.

I think it may be the case that the games that the folks here are working on are pieces of work on a larger order – simply larger tasks that take longer to make. There are fewer people releasing one-room games made over a weekend; instead the authors are venturing deeper into the jungle of the possible and blazing new trails. Just traveling along a path is much quicker when you don’t have to swing that machete every few steps.

Not to be contrary, but is it possible that the people who write parser fiction spend less time on the forums?..I know I’m very guilty of sinking a huge amount of time in surfing and reading online when I could be working on a game.

Sure, it’s possible, but what would make you think so? In the 90s I sank huge amounts of time into reading Usenet. I don’t think my work-procrastinate balance has changed much.

However, I do spend more of my game-development time these days on non-parser projects. (iOS Meanwhile, Seltani, etc.) Emily Short has been working on Versu, Aaron Reed has all manner of crazy academic projects. These are all informed by our IF history – no pun intended – but they are new things.

Right, where’s Andy Phillips when you need to prove a point?

I’m a big fan of both parser and choice-based IF, and I’m certainly not saying choice-based IF is better, but I do think that tiny speed-IF parser games are usually much less satisfying to play than speed-IF choice games.

I think the lack of parser games coincides with the decline of software engineering. I see it at work too. So many “programmers” now turn to scripting, PHP, RoR, and Node and most of them have little idea how to construct something complicated. They burn through script until something looks right, disregarding any attempt to make something readable, reusable, maintainable, or egad, elegant.

So it makes perfect sense that Twine would become more popular to authors than Inform or TADS. People are impatient and want results immediately and don’t want to tackle even the slightest bit of complexity. It also makes sense that an interactive HTML interface would become more attractive than a parser based interface.

As much as I hate to admit it, I do believe parser-based IF is mostly static, in decline, or dead in its current form and reach.

Do I think there are ways to revive it. Yes, but not without a shit-ton of money and licensing already popular material.

David C.