I have not managed to play all the games. I’m afraid “real life” intervened. I am sorry to those authors whose games I did not get round to playing or reviewing: Building the Right Stuff, Eidolon, Fifteen Minutes, Following Me, Milk Party Palace, Paradox Corps and The Black Lily. I did play Caroline and Laterna Magica, but I did not feel I had anything to add to other reviews.

Obviously anything I say is uninformed by those games I haven’t played. But I’d like to thank all the authors for their efforts.

Of those games I played, I think four stand out for me, in no particular order: Creatures Such as We, Hunger Daemon, Venus Meets Venus and With Those We Love Alive. I had my reservations about Creatures, but all of those struck me as fully complete and rewarding games to play. Everyone should get something out of them.

In the next “rung”, proxime accessit as it were, I would put Alethicorp, Jacqueline, Jungle Queen, Krypteia, Missive, Raik, The Entropy Cage and Transparent. Those are all games where I have significant reservations of one sort or another, but which I still feel have are either near-successes or interesting failures. In some cases (particularly Transparent and The Entropy Cage) I am keen to see how the game might be polished for a later release. But they all seem to me to have something substantial to offer.

In singling out those games for special mention, I shouldn’t be understood to say that I didn’t think there were good things in many others. There were. But those are the games that, for me, stand out.

I have a few general observations.

I was impressed (as others have been) by the increasing range of work being done in non-parser IF. By that I mean that Twine authors, in particular, seem to be exploring a wider range of subject-matter, technique and voice than they did in the past. Twineland is buzzing with innovation, which is very much to the good. Here, I would single out Missive and The Entropy Cage as successful experiments, The Contortionist as a worthy but less successful attempt. Away from Twine, Alethicorp was also notable.

I don’t want to pick over the scars of The Unpleasantness, but I do think that those interested in or committed to the parser need to think hard about direction of travel. I am not by any means saying that the parser is “dead”; Hadean Lands proves that. But it’s quite obvious that writing a parser game is hard: it presents a serious challenge to combine excellent writing, solid game design for an interface which has limitations, decent puzzle design (if that is required), and really solid coding. Apart from Hunger Daemon I don’t think any of the games I played pulled all those things off simultaneously.

I know it’s been said before, but I wish we saw more collaboration. The range of skills required to produce a first-rate parser game is such that very few people have them all, and probably nobody gets it right first time. In fact, one might say that the wonder is that there are so many skilful authors of parser-IF. And beside that, I wonder whether collaborative efforts might be better able to hash out issues of basic design and concept better than a single author can, even with the assistance of beta testers.

I also wonder whether there is a way that one can increase, within the community, the breadth and depth of discussion of game design issues. It’s quite striking to me that whereas the Inform thread here sees lots of traffic dealing with rather specific problems, the game design thread sees not only much less traffic, but much less discussion of specific issues. It’s very common on the Inform thread to see someone asking “How do I do this particular thing?” But on the game design thread the discussion tends to be at a very high level, and I wonder why authors are reluctant to go there to say “Does this puzzle work?” or “How am I going to solve this pacing problem?” Perhaps the reason this doesn’t happen is fear of spoilers. Presumably established authors have networks of contacts they feel they can discuss this sort of thing with. But I would like to encourage the less established to worry less about “spoilers” in the sense of things that might reveal plot, and more about “spoilers” in the sense of things that might make their game less rewarding to play.

I don’t at all agree with those who perceive the parser as being in any way threatened by the work that is being done in Twine, and in particular by the “serious” themes it often addresses. If anything, I would say, my disappointment is rather the reverse. A game like Hunger Daemon makes me very happy; I think it plays to the strengths of the medium. But I would also be very happy if the parser were used to address topics such as those we see in Krypteia, Creatures Such as We, Venus Meets Venus, With Those We Love Alive or Raik. I cannot see it as inevitable or desirable that the “parser” should be synonymous with “puzzlebox”, or even any puzzle at all, and I would be happy to see more risks being taken in the Comp in that respect. Good as they were, nobody could accuse the best parser games in this comp of attempting anything new or risky; only Enigma really made any attempt to push in that direction, and for that its author should be congratulated, even if it didn’t quite work. I worry that Twine authors and parser authors are seen as forming two opposed “camps”, or that the innovations of Twine authors are seen as a threat to be met by nostalgic retreat and a sense of being beleaguered. That is not a necessary or a productive response.

If there is one area of design for the parser where I think serious thought is needed, it relates to the difficulty of telling what I would call “broad” stories. The parser seems to operate at a certain level of granularity: EXAMINE THIS, TAKE THAT, PUT THIS IN THAT, GO NORTH. As that stands, it suggests a certain sort of geography and pacing: PUT TEA IN CUP is fine, but MAKE CUP OF TEA is not. Moving beyond this sort of interaction is difficult, because it’s hard to “train” the reader in a way that makes the interaction easy. This means that the parser offers authors certain low-hanging fruit (mazes, object-collection puzzles, seek-and-finds, inventory management); but these are pretty stale. Yet, like a dog to its vomit, games seem to return to them repeatedly.

Authors, if they take any notice of it at all, approaching this problem in a variety of ways. Hunger Daemon, while basically very conventional, uses a vehicle to open up the geography; Enigma and Transparent in different ways try the rather classic device of using small incremental revelations to open up a back story which has greater breadth than the foreground; Jesse Stavro uses a chapter form. And as we know, on a far more rarefied level, Hadean Lands has an incredibly successful and ambitious way to enable the player to transcend some of the difficulties. But however one cuts it, this is a hard problem for parser-based IF, where it is a much simpler issue for hypertext, which can as easily offer the option to “fly to the moon” as to “open the rocket door”. My impression is that most parser authors (not all, of course, not by any means all) struggle to work out how to tell the stories they want to tell within the constraints of the medium. It’s an area that I think deserves very sustained attention. I’d be sorry if a consensus emerged that the parser is only good for producing a single, rather narrow sort of work, unless one had the time and ability to devote the tens of thousands of hours it must have taken to produce something like Hadean.

Finally, and I hope this won’t be taken the wrong way, I’m sorry to say that I think the average quality of the writing in parser pieces (there are exceptions, of course) is below that in Twine-land. Maybe Twine is more attractive to those for whom good writing is a priority. Maybe the complexity of coding detracts from concentration on writing. Maybe the drudgery of producing so much text that may never see the light of day overcomes people. Maybe it is hard to proofread the text. But I do think it’s important that parser authors don’t lose sight of the fact that theirs is, as much as Twine, a textual medium.

But well done all!

Thanks, Paul, for such a comprehensive set of thoughts. I enjoyed reading these, and your reviews in general.

The past (and indeed the recent) history of IF shows that there are solutions for making parser-scale actions tell a broader-scope story. I do think it’s interesting to talk about large-scale verb modeling (hence the discussion) and I’m excited about what HL is doing, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that there is past work – a lot of past work – that deals in this territory. We do have loads of parser games on IFDB that have extensive plots, or are about deeper themes to one degree or another. The major strategies, if I can oversimplify a bit, are:

  • rely heavily on scenes and menu conversation (a lot of Adam Cadre’s work, as well as a lot of Robb Sherwin’s puzzly but conversation-rich work, and some of J. Robinson Wheeler’s cinematic-paced stuff). This works, though if you’re going really far in that direction it’s unclear why you want the parser and not Twine. But you can do those things inset in a parser game.

  • rely heavily on environmental storytelling and discovery; common in loads of games from Babel onward. This is a standard technique in other game types as well (see pretty much the entirety of Gone Home). Lime Ergot in the current ECTOCOMP is basically an extended play on storytelling through the use of EXAMINE.

  • use context to endow small-scale physical actions with added significance. Floatpoint uses this method, by making ordinary objects part of a symbolic vocabulary used to communicate; some critical moments of Counterfeit Monkey involve actions that are no different from the ones you’ve been performing all game long, but will have a particular effect at that moment. Likewise Spider and Web. Slouching Towards Bedlam gives a special significance to a particular kind of interaction that you’re only likely to realize is there after at least one playthrough.

  • use symbolism to endow small-scale physical actions with added significance. This one requires some caution because it can mean the player’s wandering a surreal landscape with little investment in whatever the actual story is meant to be, but e.g. So Far does some interesting work with it.

  • design a small, teachable set of new verbs that do something totally novel. Forever Always lets you use adverbs; Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home teaches a small vocabulary for interstellar sailing. Invisible Parties gives you special social skills (yours and your lover’s) that operate on the scale of 15-60 minute activities. Kerkerkruip has a deluxe combat system.

The key thing about choice-based mechanisms is that they deal well with situations where the verb set is highly contingent on the immediate situation you’re in. In conversation, usually a sentence that makes sense in one scene will make none at all two scenes later: conversation is very contingent. Many social interactions of all kinds are very contingent. But sometimes these contingent actions can be represented by more abstract verbs, if the story is sufficiently focused thematically. For instance, in Coming Out Simulator 2014, a very large percentage of the conversation options that could probably also have been represented by the verbs LIE, TELL (THE) TRUTH, and HINT AT TRUTH.

I’m point all this out not to contest your main point – I agree that there are always a fair percentage of parser games that do not go beyond the obvious, and I sometimes feel a bit tired when I run into the same puzzle I’ve played in two dozen other games. It’s more to remind people that these design techniques are out there.

(Also, collaboration can be hard; it may take away one set of challenges but it often introduces others.)

On the Choice of Games forum, by far the most popular category is the “Works In Progress” category, where people post unfinished games in public beta, asking for feedback. They get feedback, and then, as often as not, a discussion about game design unfolds. I notice that WIP discussion happens much more rarely, if at all, on this forum.

I would sharply contrast these WIP discussions with the “General Game Design” board here and the monthly IF #theoryclub conversations on ifMUD. The WIP discussions scratch a similar itch, but the Game Design/theoryclub outlets feel so abstract, so disconnected from trying to solve an actual problem. (“What is this particular game trying to accomplish? How do we make this game better?”)

So, why don’t people post their WIP parser-based games more often? I have my guesses.

  • Competitions. IFComp forbids games that have posted public betas, and Spring Thing forbids games where a public beta has been posted that’s too close to a finished product.
  • Completeness. That clever rope-and-pulley liquid-transfer puzzle just can’t be enjoyed at all until the world model is basically done and reasonably bug free. Choice-based games can usually be played/enjoyed page by page.
  • Chapters. (Two sides of the same coin.) WIPs on the CoG forum are usually roughly in the CoG house style: 100,000-word interactive novels, divided into a linear list of chapters, where early chapters affect later chapters via your character’s stats. Thus, it makes perfect sense to exhibit just the first three chapters of your game and ask for feedback, then finish another chapter and ask for more feedback, until you’re done. Two-hour parser-based games usually don’t have chapters that can be delivered in installments.
  • Puzzle spoilers. There is a huge difference between how you approach a puzzle before and after you know its solution, and a radical difference in the feeling of solving a puzzle and having the solution told to you. IMO, puzzle spoilers are very different from plot spoilers in that regard.

These problems are not themselves directly solvable IMO, but I’d support a deliberate community-building effort to try to overcome these problems. What might work?

  1. A WIP board on this forum.
  2. Deadlines. We already have IntroComp, which is great, but it’s only once a year. I’m imagining something more like #screenshotsaturday, a non-competition deadline that drives people to publish WIPs in time for a certain review period. (Maybe a monthly online discussion event?)
  3. “MechanicComp.” A competition where a particular puzzle/game mechanic is evaluated. It’d be a bit like IntroComp, but with a different focus. (It doesn’t have to be an “Intro;” it’s OK if your prose/narrative isn’t polished.)
  4. Dedicated reviewers. People won’t post WIPs if nobody gives feedback.
  5. Aggressive moderation of reviews. There’s a reason why the CoG forum rules emphasize constructive criticism so much; this has been a problem for us in the past. People have to feel safe when they show off their WIPs.
  6. Loosening competition rules. The big competitions tend to ban/discourage public betas and commercial intent. (It’s not clear whether changing these rules would be worth the benefit.)