The Compass, Is everyone Just Lazy

Time to discuss this already over used and abused topic.The compass that just won’t go away.

But why? Is it really so essential to gameplay that we use a system that seems so outdated? Is it really as outdated as it seems?

While I work on my games I always seem to comeback to thinking, how does the player always know which direction north is? I generally ignore this problem due to the fact most of my work focuses on ancient history, which allows me to give the player a physical compass solving my problem. Until today, where I am now working on a game set in space. And the issue presents a whole new conundrum, where is north?

In space concepts like north or south no longer apply, only on a planet with a magnetic field can this exist, so do I create something new? And then comes in the difficulty. How do you give a solid idea of direction. Originally I think left or right, but in that case I would have to program the game to respond depending in which direction you enter the room, and I’m just to lazy.

Thankfully my game is on a spaceship, so I just use naval terminology, Starboard, Port, Fore, and Aft. But not everyone has that advantage. In which case replacing the compass would become an almost situation. But is it really that hard to create a concept of direction that feels real. I remember Blue Lacuna did it well, but also had the problem in which, I could get impossible lost. Unable to remember how to go from one place to another. The directions just wouldn’t fit in my head. So pretty soon I turned I switched to the typical form of movement.

Yet I felt dirtied, that the effort that must have gone into it was wasted, because I was to lazy to try and learn something new, or to use my brain which could really do with some stretching.

So the question really is, why is it that we are still using a standard that was set before I was born? Is it the laziness of the writer, or of the player? Is it for lack of another way to adequately represent the game world without a solid image? Or does it express the difficulty of change in Parser based interactive fiction as a whole, that seems to lead to it becoming less and less widely used by the IF community?

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IF protagonists are all Kuuk Thayorre!

I think the answer is as simple as: No one’s come up with any better way to help the player navigate a big space. CEJ Pacian hates the compass and has knocked it out in most (if not all) of his games, but they also don’t usually have the same kind of navigation; they can be linear (Gun Mute, Love Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower), navigate in ways that are different than usual IF (Walker & Silhouette which is all keywords and I think doesn’t have many large spaces, that recent one with the vampire where mentioning anything or maybe typing “x” automatically takes it to it), or in one case deliberately disorienting (Rogue of the Multiverse where you’re in prison).

Well… In my games I generally try to avoid the compass by
a) listing the exits by name and
b) allowing "go to " to move between the locations

Of course the underlying structure is still the compass and if you try and find out you can also still move via compass directions.
Nonetheless for me it feels more natural to say “go to the big house” instead of “n”.

On the other hand, this might only work reasonably in games with a small amount of locations…
(Advantage of the compass is the possibility to navigate fast because of the one- or two-letter abbreviations. Depending on the size of the map it can be annoying to type location names to navigate (you also have to memorize them in the right order).)

The concept of absolute direction is built into Inform and other parser languages because it’s a good idea.

Is it the way people think? Not really. I actually wrote a left/right/forward/back sequence in OOxF - and then effectively deprecated it by having the PC translate it into compass directions in his head.


  1. We don’t have any concept of absolute direction apart from compass directions.
  2. Players who get lost are less likely to enjoy a game.
  3. Players are significantly more likely to get lost when forced to use relative directions.
  4. Even if they don’t, it’s annoying to enter relative directions. You have to track a facing in your head, or have the game output it to you.

Using absolute directions might be “lazy”, but it’s also smart. Just because it’s the built-in solution doesn’t mean it’s not the right one.

Lots of things about parser-based IF have changed, but changing this particular convention often bewilders people. Mike Roberts went as far as writing a game that could be played in either compass or relative mode, and much of the discussion about that centered on how much harder relative mode was to understand and remember (!topic … 3klnrmPbmc ).

The evidence seems to be that many players do want to build up an absolute map of the game world as they play, and that they find this easiest to do if they have compass directions (or the equivalent) to use. I don’t see any reason to stigmatize this as “laziness”.

My personal preference is to provide both compass directions and GO TO ROOM commands, so a player who doesn’t like compass mapping or just wants to move quickly through the map can have an easier time of things. But this is a supplement, not a replacement.

There are some cultures where the people do think in compass directions, and know which direction is north etc at all times! You could just consider every IF work to be written in an parallel universe where that is how it is in Anglo culture too.

Actually, instead of a magnetic field, you could also use the planet’s rotation. (Our concept of north is ambiguous between “in the direction of the magnetic north pole” and “in the direction of the geographic north pole”.)

For your space thing, you could just handwave that once people without naval training started going into space, everyone just agreed to start calling the front of the ship north and go from there to make navigation easier. This has the advantage of being plausible, at least depending on your backstory.

(Dannii – I already mentioned that! A disadvantage is that, if you refer to parts of your body, it’d require a lot of annoying busywork to keep track of which was your north hand.)

Even if the character’s culture uses relative directions, experiments ( have shown that after people are given a temporary sense of absolute direction (such as an ankle bracelet which pushes slightly on the north side of your leg), they retain the ability for some time even once the device is removed. I imagine the AFGNCAAP still has this ability after navigating with compass directions all through the old Infocom games. :stuck_out_tongue:

matt w, my guess is that in languages like that they would refer to your left and right side by your “spear hand” or the like.

And then there are languages where the dominant direction is altitude!

I think the problem here is that you’re really focusing hard on realism, without asking why in this particular instance realism is important - you’re just assuming that if something’s consistently unrealistic, it must be bad. When you catch yourself doing this, you should always go back and fill in the step in the middle: what’s wrong with this being unrealistic? How’s this actually being used, and is that actually a problem?

Because if the only answer you can come up with is ‘it’s bad because it’s unrealistic’, then you’re just being a pedant. If the answer is ‘It’s bad because this unrealistic thing perpetuates a damaging myth,’ that’s cool. If it’s ‘It’s bad because this unrealistic thing runs counter to the artistic effect I’m trying to create,’ great. If it’s just ‘the world doesn’t work that way and this bothers me,’ you need to try again, because this is fiction, where seven impossible things before breakfast is just how we roll.

None of the above, except for this bit, kinda:

It’s for lack of another way to succinctly explain absolute space in a way that is widely understood. We could, for instance, just talk in terms of XYZ coordinates, with >NORTH being replaced by >X-AXIS++. (That’s a closer representation of how directions are actually used in most IF.) But that’d be less widely understood, less brief and less intuitive than NESW.

Do not underestimate the attraction of one-letter commands that are nearly universal across IF games.

Navigation is very nearly never the interesting part of a game, and I don’t want to have to pay attention to it, much less learn game-specific commands before I can do it.

Dannii, according to the article where I read about the Kuuk Thayorre they do indeed say “You have an ant on your south-west leg,” though I don’t know if that’s really good linguistic data.

ETA: Looking up the Guugu Yimithirr who seem to have a similar language, they have monolexemic terms for the left and right hands (see p. 118 of the book, which is p. 144 of the PDF). But on pp. 122-3 Levinson says that they do say “hand on the Western side” even when they might use the special term for “left hand,” at least in carrying out a certain task.

For myself, one of the intriguing aspects of IF was always the spacial discovery. So figuring out that location X is {some direction} from location Y and location Y is {some direction} from location Z is one of the basic principals of IF that I like. It’s a part of the process, similar to reading a book, that allows the reader (not game player) to visualize the author’s world.

David C.

The Tikopia, who live on a fairly small Pacific Island, speak of things being seaward or inland; or at least, they did so in the 1950s. Raymond Firth reported hearing one man say to another ‘There is a spot of mud on your seaward cheek.’

KGentle, if the standard IF PC’s sensitivity to magnetism bothers you, a system like this would be an option. But compass directions are really not that different from the conventions which underlie detective fiction or first-person shooters or episodic television; dispensing with them will make your game more demanding and less immersive for experienced players, and they’ll expect some sort of compensation in return.

I agree with most on the thread here: I don’t consider the compass directions actual Magnetic North, etc. It’s just an easy way to navigate the environment to move the story along.

If it weren’t for standards set before you were born, I would not have been able to read your post nor would you have had any conventions by which to write it. It’s no accident that compass directions have been around for thousands of years. They are where global positioning meets language. No amount of new tech can render that fundamental cooperation obsolete, not until the day we abandon either physical reality or language itself. How blind, the tyranny of the new…

The whole point of a standard is supposed to be that you don’t have to change it when new people are born.

I was not expressing any particular opinion on the subject, except possibly inadvertently. The truth is I love the way the compass works. I believe that the reason it hasn’t changed is because it is the most effective way from the players point of view to get around, as well as being quite effective for the author. I find it difficult to write without a way to visualize the location.

Yeah, the “Is everyone just lazy?” kind of challenges everyone directly to say why they are not. If you love the compass and you put the OP up just to start conversation, you’re kind of trolling. I don’t want to start a fight though, because it’s always interesting to discuss tried-and-true methods and how they might be updated, and it’s a good question.

I think Emily Short has it right. Once a player knows what the locations they are dealing with are, they want to go directly somewhere when they think of it. and GO TO [LOCATION] is probably the best. There are extensions that let you do this. One of the most interesting is “Permission to Visit” which lets you restrict the player from zones which can be owned by NPCs whose permission you have to gain to move to that region. There’s also “Regional Travel” which lets the character move to an entry location within a region automatically once they know about it.

Shipboard directions are great, although my first reaction to them is “ugh, which way is left?” (yes, I know, PORT). I always pretty much just think of FORE as north, PORT and STARBOARD as west and east, and AFT as south anyway. So while you are getting relative directions, it’s almost exactly the same as compass directions.

If you want to handle stuff relatively, say where the PC doesn’t have any concept of formal directions, you could give them a series of landmarks to navigate by. Say there’s a tower in the distance, they would NAVIGATE TO TOWER. With that set as pseudo north, the player could APPROACH closer to the tower or RETREAT further away. LEFT and RIGHT would serve as east and west based on the direction when facing the tower. You might provide several landmarks the player can navigate to to provide new sets of directions.

Another interesting experiment is Castle of the Red Prince where every item in the game is in scope at the same time. You simply have to look at something and you’re there. The PC is a fledgeling mage, which explains the teleportation-type powers.

I think choice based narratives have it easier, because the author and the player can disregard specific directions automatically and move through the story based on the links in the text.

There’s a reason why text games are not used as much in education as visual games and part of that reason is the exploration of a visual space. That is, after all, how we navigate all of our lives. We think in relative directions and we can map to cardinal directions. This is established by cognitive studies. Ideally in a text game you could just go to kitchen" or whatever because that’s what you are thinking.

Only later do you ‘translate’ that into “N. E. E.” (for example). But the thought starts as locational specificity and only then is broken down into action. Granted, in real life, if I want a glass of milk, I think “Kitchen”. I then form the action “go to kitchen.” Low-level, yes, that’s in some way becoming “go north (into hallway), go east (into dining room), go east (into kitchen).” But I’m never consciously thinking that way and very rarely is anyone thinking that way moment to moment. (Saying some cultures “think in terms of cardinal directions”, as someone basically did, is true in an aggregate sense but not in terms of their everyday motions or some mental calculus of how they get from one room to another.)

So ideally in a text game I could just type “go to kitchen” or, honestly, even just “kitchen”. (I know there are reasons from a technical standpoint why that can be problematic, but here I’m just focusing on trying to map typed actions to how people tend to think.)

It’s not a matter of being lazy. It’s a matter of this was largely the only mechanic used by early text games to translate locational specificity into movements. Plus it forces some exploration. If I can just type “go to {wherever}” presumably I might just be skipping over locations that the author would prefer I actually navigate to and through so I can read their prose, find bits of puzzles, etc. It’s a glaringly obvious mechanic based on the medium - but also one that is very entrenched. And, as someone pointed out, these are just text games. You don’t have the actual visual space. So relative directions can become very confusing, particularly if you also factor in which way the player is facing as they go from room to room. (After all, an exit can be behind you or in front of you – but still to the east – depending on which way you are facing.) Cardinal directions are thus an abstraction layer that removes a lot of that kind of complication.