Parser Games in the IFComp

I don’t really like to post every two posts like this, but I have to address your comment: being hit with guess the verb is just as bad as a CYOA where you hardly bother to read the text and just select one of two similar-looking hyperlinks, sometimes one clearly correct and the other one an insta-death, and other times both so similar as not to make a difference at all.

Bad game design destroys immersion, and guess the verb is bad design; not an intrinsic feature of the parser.

Both Inform and Twine are a delight to use, and I’m equally comfortable writing in either medium, but it’s a completely different experience.

Parser IF is infinitely harder to write, and I feel a much greater sense of satisfaction from completing one of those. But writing them is not as enjoyable as it used to be, partly because it’s very hard to get your game noticed, even in this community, and partly because the bar has been set so high; there’s a level of expectation amongst modern players that is difficult to match. What would have been a perfectly acceptable commercial game in 1988 would be torn to pieces today, and the level of polish expected these days substantially detracts from my level of enjoyment in constructing them.

With choice-based IF it’s all about the writing, and that’s attractive. There’s much less to get wrong. It also has the advantage of being much more widely recognised (when I talk about IF to anyone who’s not familiar with it, it’s always the Choose-Your-Own-Adventures they remember.*) and more accessible to new players (no rules to learn, and hence less frustration). The final clincher is that you can turn your choice-based game into something that can be downloaded and played on a Kindle or other e-reader, and hence can even provide a trickle of income.

Nonetheless I prefer parser-based IF, and I’d be sorry to see it become the Neanderthal or Betamax of IF. I don’t think it will ever reach a wider audience though, and will always be a niche thing.

*What’s more, they’re all back in the bookshops again.

Perfectly true, but guess the verb is an unfortunate problem with parser games; you don’t get the same issues with CYOA.

Need to disagree here. A good IF author can eliminate guess-the-verb problems. But I guess, intrinsically speaking, there is no guess-the-verb in CYOA at all, so yeah. What was I saying?

No, you get other issues, which was kinda my point. Different systems, different things that can go wrong. A good game is good in any system, and a bad game is bad either way.

I disagree with this (at least as far as Inform 7 goes; I’m not familiar with TADS). There’s things I’d theoretically like to do with Inform 7 that are pretty hard to do in I7 as it stands. For instance:

Write rules that dynamically generate new descriptions of objects based on a variety of factors. (Doable!) Allow the player to refer to the objects using those descriptions. (Less doable!

Have several NPCs in one location doing things. Report those actions in one summary paragraph, so that if Alice, Bob, and Casey are digging, the game prints “Alice, Bob, and Casey are digging.” This seems hard because it would essentially involve trapping every NPC action before it hits the report stage.

Routinely retain memory of the string a player typed to refer to an object, so that when doing action involving Lord Carnarvon we can have different things happen depending on whether the player typed “Lord Carnarvon” or “Carnarvon” or “That guy.” (Something over and above a simple test for whether the player’s command includes one of these strings.)

And maybe toss in this mishegas about Threaded Conversation – you can’t figure out who the first noun refers to and adjust your understanding of the second noun based on that, without a truly heroic parser hack.

Apparently big things are afoot for the next I7 update, mostly involving the handling of default text (which might help with my NPC reporting issue). And maybe Curveship would allow some of this, if anyone understood Curveship. But it doesn’t seem to me that the parser has reached its apex, or at least it’s not that I can’t think of anything more there is to be done, if I had infinite programming skill.

This rather fascinating and beautiful looking website highlights one of the problems with CYOA. It demonstrates graphically how the original CYOA books became increasingly linear:

I can remember this phenomena with the Fighting Fantasy series. They all had the same number of pages but some, like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and The Forest of Doom felt like enormous, ever branching worlds you could spend hours exploring, whereas with others, like Citadel of Chaos, it felt like no matter what choice you made, you were always set back on the same path. I disliked the latter kind as it never felt like I was in charge of the story. I feel the same way about very linear parser-based IF.

Wow! So it wasn’t just me. I remember thinking the number of endings seemed to be going slowly down, but I didn’t have the stats or know-how to determine either way. Thanks very much for that link. It has all kinds of crazy good stats.

Yes, by the last few choiceless story pages predominated. I try to avoid having any choiceless pages in my own stories.

I think they even stopped advertising the number of endings on the cover at some point.

I always remember the later CYOA books were never as good as the earlier ones. Linear progression and lack of choices don’t tend to make for good replay value. The earlier ones I used to read and reread trying to reach every different ending, but with the later ones I think I read through them once and then decided I was done with them. Not to mention that the earlier ones were full of stories about magic, science fiction and monsters, whereas the later ones tended to cover far less interesting subjects.

That photo from the UFO book at the end unlocked a memory in me. I had read that book after all, after saying only the other day I hadn’t. I added a comment about this to my Trapped in Time review: ifcomp2013alawadeclarke.blogspot … ansen.html

  • Wade

While I enjoy both parser based and CYOA, I think the strongest strength of parser based IF is it is closer to an actual gaming environment. In parser IF, you have physical characters, objects (and in Inform 7, scenes), which have a physical placement in the game world. This game world exists in 3-dimensional space defined by text instead of graphics. You can create physical relations to things, and create random combinations of events, (like in a graphical 3d game) that can come about by objects that exist independent of each other. This gives the freedom of creating A.I. for creatures and NPCs that reflect a non-linear changing game state.

The parser is the way one interacts with this environment. Comparing this to a first person 3d game, where people explore and react with the environment in relative space using items and physical actions.This allows free movement through the game environment because the player is another object in the environment, and can move through it in a non-linear way.

And that’s the problem for people who don’t understand how to play a parser based game. Most everyone has played a first person 3d game. Put out a new one with an interesting story, and there’s no learning curve. With IF, the way of interaction hasn’t been popular to a mass market for awhile. However, it’s my belief that the medium of interaction is less important then the story and game play. Maybe someone needs to write the IF version of Harry Potter – then you’ll see an influx of players. Also, to do what I’ve mentioned in the first 2/3 of this post, you have to know a little programming.

I don’t think that’s an inherent difference between parser and CYOA. (Leaving aside the idea that an “actual gaming environment” is like a 3-D graphical game’s space, which is controversial.) You can have a CYOA that has a modeled environment with things placed in locations. Operation Extraction does that, The Binary does it to some extent, Bigger Than You Think does it, The Adventures of Phoebe McGee too. The thing about this is that the most common CYOA tools don’t make it as easy to do this sort of thing as to do a branching story, but it’s possible.

The difference between CYOA and parser isn’t necessarily a difference in world model, it’s a difference between how you interact with whatever world model there is.

I look at a CYOA a little differently in how the story progresses through time – both in game, and out. CYOA is more like a cassette tape, where the spool unwinds in one way, or another. (It can go different ways, I know, so it’s not exactly the same. However, most CYOA even has a ‘rewind’ button.) So, you have a constant linear progression of time. The point I was trying to make, badly, is that parser based interaction is more like a CD-ROM, that can skip around in a non-linear fashion. You have independent objects that exist in non-linear time, and can move independently of each other, and meet in different ways, depending on how they are placed in the game world at any given moment.

For example, if you have a patroller moving through a space, and your character moves in a different way, or spends time drilling down through descriptions, then that patroller might do something different – open a different door, move closer, move away if he hasn’t heard the player, etc. This object can have its own mind. I’m not sure how you’d replicate a random movement in CYOA. Does Final Girl do this? I haven’t played it.

Anyway, I’m sure I’m going to be proven wrong, since people are always pushing the envelope. Personally, though, I enjoy parser based more because it feels that I have an ‘avatar’ that can interact with the environment. Bad implementation breaks immersion, but good implementation draws me in more than selecting between limited choices. I feel like I can try things that I would try in a 3d environment – jump on things, break things, toss things, push things, smell things, taste things, etc. I like this freedom of interaction.

However – I think CYOA is way easier to use. I checked the ‘Bigger Than You Think’ link, and as I was playing it, I was thinking that it would be great if the system allowed for both kinds of interactions. Clicking on a location to move, or going that way. Instead of the ‘Pepsi or Coke’ argument, I’d say take the best of both mediums to have the immersion of parser IF, and the modern hyperlink way of interacting. Certain elements would have to be used with the parser, but quick links could prevent against not seeing available exits and guess the verb problems.

The greatest thing I remember about CYOA books is when I finished ‘exploring’ the book, and flipped through the pages like an ordinary book looking for things I missed. I remember one book where I found an interesting passage that didn’t lead anywhere… and nothing led to it.

I’ve tried to go this way and couldn’t make it combine well with the puzzles. The sheer amount of interaction possible in parser IF meant I either had a massive list of links, or the solution became obvious (because there was suddenly a link for some specific action). I imagine it could work very well for a game focused on experiencing the story, but at some point you might as well just write it in CYOA format in the first place. Anyway, I like listing exits, and I try to just tell the player the verb - but having some things hyperlinked causes it’s own set of problems, the biggest of which is that now the player has to guess that the action they need to do isn’t supplied by a hyperlink.

I’m working on a solution for this problem, but it has to be explained to the player through help menus. Basically, if you put the obvious stuff as links, including story progression actions, then the player can move through the obvious actions of the story and move it forward. However, subtle actions, puzzles that require deduction, or things that must be examined, moved around, etc. – these actions would be performed and veiled by the parser. You could then give the player who just wants to get through the story the ability to get to a certain ending through clicking. However, to find the best ending, score, or hidden items, the parser is required. This would help ease a player into the parser, if it’s not a requirement for interaction, but instead a requirement for finishing the game completely.

I see – it might be confusing to have both. Well, a game should have a learning curve. The hypertext could get you through the first few chapters of the story as you learn the ropes. Then, the parser could become more and more important as the game goes on. This is an increasing difficulty scale, because parser IF is somewhat difficult to learn.

This is not an easy marriage, but the parser is IF’s engine, in my view, and I never want to totally throw it out. However, everyone understands hyperlinks, so that’s the way to reach a larger audience. IF takes a lot of work to create, and the friends I’ve told about this have no idea what I’m talking about. So, I’m attempting to create something that someone with zero IF experience can play, but is still a parser based IF game when stripped down. Which is basically saying that I’m trying to re-invent the lightbulb, but this time, with more style. [emote]:D[/emote]

I’m wondering if a Frankenstein-like hybrid would be compelling or just stupid. You would click around a CYOA kind of like an overworld, then at certain points the page has an window containing a full parser section. In a mystery you’d click around until you needed to talk to someone in detail using Conversation Package, or explore a room meticulously, then have to type commands into a mini parser adventure. Or go the other way and make conversations of a primarily parser adventure in the CYOA section with dialogue menus and changing text pictures based on the character’s reaction to you.

An RPG like this might be kind of cool to have big giant choices on an overworld map of text description and clickable options like you’re reading a vintage book (I’m thinking Undum-esque) for the long distance travel and macro decisions about running your kingdom, then when you reach a certain quest area you “zoom” down into the parser to explore places of interest or have an encounter in a small adventure section. I could think of several types of grand epic or picaresque tales that could be told in a connected series of tiny adventures with a persistent inventory and statistics.

Yeah, this is exactly what I want to see – something that takes the incredible strength of Inform with its extensions, rules, and world building, but graft some of the logical ease of use of CYOA on top of it, without sacrificing the freedom of the parser. I love the idea of being able to look and manipulate everything, but it’s easy to get lost in the wall of text, gloss over exits, or miss out on a solution that to the author seemed perfectly reasonable.

(Extremely light spoiler - Necrotic Drift) Perfume.

So, I see the reason for hypertext and GUI interfaces. These clear up all of these problems. But why not create multiple solutions through the same narrative using both?