Parser Games in the IFComp

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?

Well, it all depends on the system you’re using to write your CYOA. You could write a CYOA in Inform 7 with a clickable hyperlink interface; that’s what Bigger Than You Think does, and also A Colder Light (which may push the CYOA/parser boundary, but that’s not the point here). Then you can do your patrollers the same way you’d do them in Inform, including the text that describes them. The only difference is that you’re sending commands by clicking hyperlinks instead of by typing them in.

Other systems often have scripting power. You could probably harness it to make a patroller; it might be a lot of work, but it’s usually a lot of work in parser IF too.

Anyway, my point is that the difference between CYOA and parser is in how the user interacts with the program. CYOAs and parser games can do the same stuff with the input once they’ve gotten it, if they so choose.

(I’d be pretty stunned if Final Girl actually did something like that, though. From what I’ve seen of StoryNexus, which is a pretty fair amount, it’d be pretty dang hard to do the scripting/adaptive text that would come from modeling a 3-D state in it. And fairly pointless; StoryNexus has other ways of modelling your location and what NPCs do.)

I have a pet theory that might be one piece of the puzzle for why hypertext interactive fiction is catching on now with Twine and other systems that have come into being: if Eastgate Systems didn’t charge $300 for Storyspace and priced their hypertext words the same price as print hardcovers–particularly in the 90s, when there was a lot of buzz about that form–then I do think that there would have been a lot more people making hypertexts and more would have found their way to the IF Comp in some fashion. Instead with the steep price it became mostly of interest to academics (their naming it “Serious Hypertext” as their marketing tag also probably didn’t help). Very different communities between the 90s adventure game community and the hypertext stuff, but with open access to tools there would have at least been the opportunity for more cross-fertilization than what actually occurred.

Thus Twine, Undum, etc. kind of filled an artificial hole in the marketplace (such as it is!), a vacuum created by Eastgate itself, and the recent increase in the use of these tools is, in a way, catching up for lost time for a demand that was always there (keeping in mind what was said about the effect of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters). This doesn’t really explain the CYOA/gamebook side of the equation of course, but might be a piece of the puzzle.

tl;dr If the most popular hypertext authoring tool would have been readily more available in the 90s, perhaps there would have been more non-parser alternatives earlier in the IF community.

Yeap. But there’s extensions for this that are pretty easy to install, and all come with really good documentation. When I cracked open Inform 7 a year ago, I was shocked at how easy it was. I was messing around with Tads2 back in the day, and AGT – which was a nightmare. Inform 7 makes it pretty easy to do whatever you want, but you have that fiddly parser to deal with. [emote]:D[/emote]

I guess it boils down to what game you want to make. If you want to put in RPG elements, for example, that’s hard to do with strictly hyperlinks, since there’s a lot of micromanagement that goes behind the scenes in determining outcomes. That kind of programming has to have a strong library behind it. You could simulate this with CYOA, but I don’t think it would come out with the same kind of complexity. The closest I’ve seen to this was the old ‘Lone Wolf’ series, which turned a CYOA to RPG, but this required manual work, and was easy to cheat at.

Ah, brilliant insight. I’ve often looked at something interesting published by Eastgate and got to the bottom of the page and said twenty-five dollars, are you out of your mind? It might be a great service if someone who knows somebody at Eastgate would convince them to port some of their stuff to modern formats (maybe they’re already in modern formats, who knows) and get them into game bundles and the like. I bet they could get some free publicity out of it, and then they’d make a lot more money selling them for two bucks a pop than they currently make selling them for twenty-five.

Disclaimer: I know nothing about the business side of anything.

Really the best thing for them would probably be to get their stuff onto iPads, but then I wouldn’t get to play them, so if you know someone at Eastgate don’t tell them about that.

I’m downloading the demo of Storyspace. I have absolutely no idea why it would be worth $300…but if they’re selling books at $25, they ought to make the barrier of entry easier for authors. Perhaps that’s how they gate the good/bad ones…perhaps?

EDIT Ugh…it’s powerPC…not even compatible with a current Mac. Is this a real company or is this just a legacy webpage?

I find this whole “what if there could be a hybrid interface” thread puzzling, because we already have Quest, which lets you click on objects and select verbs from a menu, or use the alternate parser interface, as needed.

Maybe people just want a nicer interface for Quest?

There’s this which seems to be OSX:

Hah, (face palm) – I haven’t played any current Quest games that use the GUI interface. That’s close to what I was thinking of, at least, as a wire-frame model. However, looking at the system, I’d rather create my own interface with I7/Glulx. [emote]:D[/emote]