Random thoughts on interactive narrative and the parser....

Howdy y’all.

So, I’m sure it’s probably been discussed to death. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m about to get booed out of town again. I don’t know. But I was thinking…

If we look at contemporary interactive fiction as more of an interactive narrative than a traditional “game” per se… Say we look at Blue Lacuna (which I have admittedly only played a bit of, not having as much free time as I like), and then a game like say… Telltale’s “Walking Dead”. Both are “games” heavy on interactive narrative without much traditional “gameyness”. The player gets pulled into the narrative, and transparently makes choices to influence the narrative. And while these two games are fundamentally different in presentation, I think that they both pull the same “mental strings” to compel the player to play. Just that one paints a picture with visuals and audio, while the other paints a picture with words.

So I would contend that both of these games are “interactive fiction”.

The biggest difference I see is in the way the player talks to the game. To me, the flow of ideas from the game to the player is fluid in both interactive fiction and contemporary narrative-style games. And for me, being a player of IF, the flow of ideas from me to the game seems fluid, too. But I don’t think that’s the case for a wider audience. I typically hear/read complaints about the parser in IF shattering the suspension of disbelief for new players. Blue Lacuna’s highlighted words is a really neat way to soften the jarring nature of the parser, but I’d contend that the parser is still there underneath, breaking the suspension of disbelief with it’s poor grasp of language. I’m not dissing on anybody or anything, just that computers are poor at recognizing arbitrary natural language, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that the traditional IF parser was never meant to be a natural language parser, just the most efficient possible interface at the time.

I’m not sure where I am going with any of this, but… Is the parser obsolete? It was nice way back when, sure, when we were playing text adventure games that were so much heavier in puzzle-solving and computers were smaller. But is the parser what makes the potential player of a contemporary “interactive story” shy away? Would we be better off presenting possible choices to the player based on the context of the game and letting them choose, rather than playing “kick the parser”?

I’m not talking about some kind of CYOA-style branching narrative. Something more like a mouse-driven tree-like mechanic. The player is in a room. There is stuff in the room. The player clicks a thing. More details about the thing are given, along with some options of things to do with it. Click click (or tap tap, in the case of a mobile device, which is what I am gunning for here), rather than “I don’t know that verb.”

What do y’all think??? Am I just dumb/crazy?

There are plenty of other people who have had this general idea, and have been exploring things in this general direction over the past few years, so you’re not crazy. Quest is pushing in this direction. Versu is a big ambitious leap in that direction.

Broadly, my sense of things is that

  • interesting things can definitely be done in this direction,
  • it can’t be done while retaining all the other qualities of parser IF, some of which we’re rather fond of,
  • getting it right -building mature tools, developing medium-native skills, making interfaces consistent and intuitive - is much harder than it looks,
  • it’s likely to produce new kinds of game that sit alongside and supplement parser IF ones, rather than replacing parser games outright.

Yup. But it’s a worthy and interesting topic, so there’s still plenty of flavor in that particular bit of gum :slight_smile: Speaking as a player, though: I think there are multiple layers (or at least multiple types) of belief-suspension that go on, and that while the parser may break (or at least strain) a few of them, the parser also makes possible (or at least strongly supports) others, in ways that other formats simply don’t, and can’t. I agree with Maga’s bullet-points. New game-forms can emerge and grow alongside the existing ones (and they should; all forms will benefit from having more neighboring forms to learn from, exchange talent-pools with, etc), but text adventures have some unique superpowers.