Question over parser games [Commercial Success]

Here me out. There is Fallen London, Choice of Games, 80 Days (Inkle), and Indie visual novels. All of which had or have met some level of commercial success using text-based products. There are books, Words with Friends, Wordle, and crossword puzzles. Seems like text-based games or interactive fiction, or narrative games can still enjoy a modest level of commercial success, made even easier with distribution platforms such as Itch, GOG, and Steam.

Everything seems like, but parser-based games. And I’m not fully sure why. I’ve heard it said parser games are too difficult, too old-school, too much like being handed only a few pages of a story.

So, my question is what is holding parser-based games back? How can the gap to more commercial success be closed? I’m not naively trying to bring Infocom back, but are parser games just too stigmatized or is the leap across too wide?


I think the thing about parser games is that you have to learn them. Parser games can only accept very limited types of commands, and most people do not have the patience to learn them. Choice games on the other hand, are much easier—make a choice and select it. Parser games have a learning curve, and since they’re so different from modern games, it’s hard to transfer knowledge between them like you can with, say, an FPS and a third-person open-world game.


You could have a (skippable) tutorial to help, but that can only get you so far too…


The obvious but incomplete response is that choice-based games have a different user-interface than parser-based games, and that makes them accessible and enjoyable to a wider audience. Beyond that, there are some less obvious issues:

  1. The games often have different fan-bases. In a vast generalization that should not be taken seriously at all, choice-based games are fifteen-minute puzzleless games about feelings that you play on a cellphone at lunch, while parser-based games are plotless puzzlefests written by and for middle-aged British mathematicians.
  2. Slightly more seriously, there are only about two dozen people who regularly write interactive fiction, and a lot of them have migrated from older parser games to choice-based games. It’s not that parser-based games are dying; it’s that interactive fiction died thirty years ago, and a lot of the people that were manning the life-support have moved onto different things. When there’s a very small pool of authors to begin with, there’s not much space for a variety of games. If a good scenario is getting a hundred people to play your game, why bother writing a game that might get ten players?
  3. There’s a much lower barrier of entry to creating choice-based games as well as playing them, so there’s more stuff out there, and so there’s probably going to be more stuff that any particular person will like.
  4. There’s a persistent idea, particularly among certain prominent authors, that IF is or should be primarily a narrative; that is, IF is (interative) literature, and writing an IF game should be about writing the prose. The goal of Inform 7, for example, is to make writing a game much closer to writing a story, with I7 doing the unpleasant and ancillary work of coding for you as much as possible. If you like that sort of approach, then you’re probably going to enjoy writing or playing a choice-based game more than a parser-based one.
  5. Why should commerical success be the goal? I have a job; I’m with fine IF as an occasional hobby.
  6. Why bother bringing parser-games back at all? They’re in an uncanny valley between games and prose fiction, and you’d reach a much larger audience and have much better success if you spent the same amount of time creating a Steam game or a novel.

No, the reason for why every game in the jam has to have a tutorial at the start is because it is mandated by the rules. And it is mandated by the rule because the original goal of the jam was to “Create a TEXT ADVENTURE game suitable for children with no prior experience.” (see [Text Adventure Literacy Jam - IFWiki]).

I don’t get it? why is this bad?


Probably that is why every game in the Text Adventure Literacy Jam has to have a tutorial at the start. But yikes, some of the participants in TALJ are parser veterans like Dee Cooke and Garry Francis.


Oh no. Come on, you are basically giving Graham Nelson and Mathbrush too much weight. As someone with some mathematics background, I really feel out of place. I started at the CoG forum, then came over here. My play testing list now includes more parser stuff than choice stuff- and I have yet to play test any Choicescript stuff since the beta testing market over there is usually full to near saturation. And it’s not helping much.

What about the “older crowd who grew up with Colossal Cave Adventure, Mind Forever Voyaging, Zork etc” vs “younger crowd who has no idea what these are”? I am part of the younger crowd.

Back some 10 years ago in that year’s IFComp, people were complaining about the parser-choice divide. And people were saying that IF was dead. 10 years later, this resurfaces.

Yep. The reason why Twine is so popular is that it has a low bar of entry, which attracts people.

I’m on the hobbyist camp.

I’m not sure what you mean by that. Care to explain?

Edit 2:

It’s good intention to have a contest for beginner-friendly parsers, but these guys have been making more advanced and complex parser stuff, so it will take some skill to teach newcomers the tricks of the parser trade.

Edit 3:

This is important. You can’t just type anything and expect things to proceed. There are limited things you can do (directions, look, examine, take, etc). Not to mention the more complex ones (more stuff you can do).


Have you played Garry’s or Dee’s games? Just because they’ve been making more advanced and complex parser games doesn’t mean they cannot make beginner-friendly parsers. There’s a reason for why their entries always rank high in the TALJ… It’s because their games ARE beginner-friendly.


Come on, you are basically giving Graham Nelson and Mathbrush too much weight.

Incidentally, there was a somewhat-recent thread about the preponderance of mathematicians in IF. (I’m a mathematician myself in real life, though I am— and believe Mathbrush is as well, given how he spells ‘color’— not British.)

What about the “older crowd who grew up with Colossal Cave Adventure, Mind Forever Voyaging, Zork etc” vs “younger crowd who has no idea what these are”? I am part of the younger crowd.

Cool, I like parser games too.

Back some 10 years ago in that year’s IFComp, people were complaining about the parser-choice divide. And people were saying that IF was dead. 10 years later, this resurfaces.

Nah, that’s a separate discussion entirely. I just mean that you’re not going to have anything as popular or commercially viable as Infocom, etc. again.

I’m not sure what you mean by that. Care to explain?

My last game (Vain Empires) was fairly large by IF standards. The text in it is about the size of a novella. It took more than a year to develop, although it certainly wasn’t something I was working on with the schedule of a full-time job, or even on a regular schedule. If I’m putting that much time and effort into something, it would probably make more sense to either make a traditional computer game and sell it on Steam (if I want to scratch the game-writing itch) or write a traditional and send it to a publisher (if I want to scratch the narrative-writing itch). A year is a long time to spend on something that fewer than a hundred people are going to play, especially when half of them are going to complain that I didn’t spend another year bug-testing or implementing every potential command.


I can kind of agree with this. Parser IF had its hey-day in the Infocom era and made an indelible mark on gaming history. In the early days of gaming, space and RAM were precious so most games didn’t have room for extensive in-game text to tell a story which is why there was often a manual and reference material to set up the story of what these sprites are doing to each other onscreen and what that might mean. Infocom made games that were just prose and had the first games where the story was the focus - even they were space limited on the amount of text they could include in some earlier games. They were commercially successful because other games couldn’t do that.

Nowadays there are virtually no such limitations. A shooter game can have plot branches and extensive dialogue trees, or an entire parser game can be run within the environment of a graphic adventure. That doesn’t in any way mean mean IF is dead…it has just evolved and is a component and development tool of many larger games.

Parser IF is kind of how the Model T automobile was an important step in transportation leading up to modern cars. There is a niche of collectors who still rebuild and treasure them, but there never will be a commercial market to sell them to non-hobbyists, and despite how cool and fundamental they are, they aren’t the best option to drive cross-country on modern roads.


Oh, I get to beat my drum again. Those who have heard me beat this drum may wish to go for a bathroom break.

I’ve spent YEARS trying to get people to play parser games with almost no success. These people are readers and puzzle lovers, people who should absolutely be in our camp. But they aren’t. So I quiz them relentlessly about what the problem is. And here is what I’ve gleaned: Parser games are not likely ever going to be commercially viable because of the typing, the learning curve/conventions, the lack of attractive UI, and the perception of them as cruel, long Zorkish puzzlers.

We could meet modern players halfway by altering some (not all) parser games to have clickable text and verbs, minor graphic/text effects, and standard tutorials like most graphical games have. But many parser authors feel vehemently that this would ruin games. I think not, if the right games were chosen and care was taken to retain as much of the text-adventure feel as possible. I’ve banged on extensively elsewhere about good candidates for this and what kind of changes we might try.

But parser games as they are are going to stay a niche entertainment for a few dozen people at most. We can either do some experimenting with modifying some parsers to see if that works, or we can accept that they’re a charming little hobby.

That said, I like writing games that are just the way I like them, without worrying about whether or not they’ll make any money. Artistic freedom.


Legend Games:


Magnetic Scrolls:


The closest thing to this nowadays is the Quest game system.


I have many theories which are all probably wrong and many anecdotes which are probably representative of nothing…

There are tons of games now and many people might try one out for a few minutes and move on if they don’t like something (for all games). You almost need to be determined to like it before you’ve even tried it. Eg from marketing or reaching some sort of critical mass in the market or society or community.

I wonder how things change over time. As the style of text games changes, you may gain some players but lose others. If the main audience doesn’t want them to change, and a new audience isn’t found, the popularity seems like it will inevitably decrease.

I know people who read a lot and play games who won’t touch text games and think it is some kind of quirky niche which isn’t for them. I know other people who read a lot but don’t play games and won’t touch even the simplest choice game. Finally, I know people who play games and played some of the earliest text games in say 1980 but don’t have any nostalgia for frustrating and convoluted puzzles. In short people are complicated and stubborn and stuck in their ways. To be fair there are many things I’ve tried and will never try again.


Aw, we could do a sleeker, better, more modern job than these. Actually design the UI to work with the game itself, rather than simply have a few pictures and old-fashioned looking text. Good game devs design bespoke UI/mechanics for their projects.

Of course, I have zero idea how to do any of this.


Yeah, these are solidly CGA/EGA graphics and text era games.


I feel like this comes down to game mechanics.

If your parser game is a puzzle game, then the clickable text breaks the illusion of protection against brute-force solving. However, this is still just an illusion, because a parser doesn’t know all and can’t handle everything.

If your parser game isn’t a puzzle game, then I cannot be convinced that clickable text could possibly ruin the game.

I feel like the tradition of using puzzle parser design for other genres of parser games is causing a lot of user interaction problems, and maintaining a high barrier of entry for new players.


VGA also. :slight_smile:


Hanon should be an honorary member of the Guild of Thieves, he has stolen the words from my fingers when I was distracted by a major, show-stopper bug !! :smiley:

I remain convinced that the Legend/late Magnetic scrolls UI is by far the best of both worlds, so, I fully concur & agree with Amanda.

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


:musical_score::notes: SEGA!!! :notes:


(Sorry; brain did this, I cackled, decided to share, partners were silent and wondering why I suddenly cackled. Serious discussion now continues…)


The barrier to entry is relatively high for newcomers. Most games just get installed and you run them. Done. Parser games, however, typically require you to download the game, then download an interpreter (make sure it’s the right one so research that a bit), install the interpreter, then open the game in the interpreter… you’ve just lost half you’re potential audience of an already very small number of interested people. There’s also the main interface for traditional parser games being the keyboard. That many buttons means it’s difficult for most to enjoy on their phones. Couple that with an unconventional command prompt interface (archaic by today’s standards, who uses a CLI outside of programmers?), and you’ve got yourself a recipe to remain very, very niche. It can seem overwhelming to most, I feel.

That said, I believe it will gain in popularity, but it has an uphill climb. There needs to be more push for not just compiling to HTML/JS, but actually taking advantage of the browser’s presentation abilities in the parser’s coding environment. I have not checked out QuestJS yet, but I think that might be the direction where all parsers need to go. A browser’s built-in text presentation and layout capabilities are amazing… yet how many parser games take advantage of it? I think mixing parser input/output with HTML/JS/CSS presentation/accessibility is the way forward.


Which also only uses a certain set of “common” verbs and command patterns, which are only known to people who already play a lot of parser games, and span between “unknown” and “paralyzing” for everyone else.

Also, sometimes it uses other verbs, too, but you only intuit that if you know the difference between game systems and their usual default vocab.

Also also, each game can add its own verbs, too, often without telling the player.

For the seasoned parser player, this is an essential part of what makes these games interesting. For everyone else, this is the most insane bit of game design ever presented to a new player in the history of game tutorials.

@zarf has helpful resources, but you need to know to find those, or you need to be introduced to parsers by someone else who has them at the ready, or you need to go the @pinkunz route and play a parser game as a two-player cooperative experience.

I’m only bringing this up, because—from a game design perspective—the problem with the barrier to entry goes way beyond just the CLI. Yes, the CLI is already very jarring for new players, but also way the commands are entered in and the required player expectations are an even deeper obstacle.

This is why I’m such a proponent for clickable text in a parser, especially if clicking the text also enters the command into the prompt for you. Players know what clickable text looks like. Boom, free tutorial. A new player can slowly pick up prompt patterns from what they’re clicking, and then they will practice using the command prompt directly, to have more speed and precision for their actions.

No infodump, no long-winded how-to screen, etc.

HTML TADS has a giant opportunity for this, but authors cannot rely on the presence of clickable text because not all interpreters support that, which is why I—in good faith—couldn’t lean on that for the I Am Prey beta.


EDIT 2: Honestly, Quest and QuestJS both also have a lot of opportunities to do this. In some ways, they are positioned even better, but I’m not familiar enough with how those work to know if more than just traditional puzzle games can be made with those.