The Legacy/Influence of Chris Crawford, Interactive Storytelling and Process Focused Game Design Applied to Parser Games

I’ve recently watched a few different lectures given by Chris Crawford and have found his design philosophy to be very inspiring. For those unfamiliar Crawford is a game designer focused on Process driven Interactive games, which he uses those two terms in specific ways. When it comes to these two concepts I feel parser based IF has a few elements which could lend itself to this design philosophy.

With the parser, even though Crawford himself has expressed doubt (timestamp 7:25) at the ability to use keyboard input in game design, I do feel there is a way for the parser to offer a unique level of interactivity to game design that is also process oriented. While expressing these doubts Crawford himself admits that the keyboard is the most expressive way for the player to interact, especially since with the parser we can tap into the player’s preexisting knowledge of natural language. The verb focus of a parser also lends itself to process oriented game design since verbs themselves are processes. I also believe that parser games (especially text focused parser games) have an easier time increasing the actually accessible states of the game by being able to include more verbs more easily (as compared to graphics based games which then need to implement visual representations of different state changes; for example it is much easier to write in text how fire propagates rather then modeling fire propagation in a 3d environment with particle effects, animations etc). The problem with a parser however is that the parser intrinsically creates a huge amount of imaginable states (see previous video) and so extra care has to be taken to create the context of the game and to align the imaginable states of the player with the accessible states of the game. And all of this ultimately ties back to the idea of listening as we are able to use an intuitive language of listening (natural language), and we are able to more easily listen to more of what the player would like to do (creating more accessible states).

I am only really familiar with Inform 7 so for this section I will be focusing on I7 entirely but this may well be applicable to other languages, I just don’t have the knowledge to say so. When it comes to I7 I feel that there is a similarity to languages such as Prolog (Timestamp 19:50) primarily in the logical programming paradigm such as through the use of relations, facts and rules, (for example in I7 the code Every person has nose.) which lend itself both to process based design and to thinking. In this case I don’t think I7 has a necessary advantage, but instead it offers a unique approach. Crawford has previously used classic adventure games as an example of poor game design(timestamp 31:58), primarily pointing to their reliance on boolean states. However this form of design is avoidable. I feel this logical approach allows for an author to more easily design a complex state with rules (processes) by which to change it. Just as the verb approach of the parser aids with Listening, the rules of each verb literally Carry out the Thinking of interactivity.

Here is a tiny example
"Example 1"

Laboratory is a room.

A nose is a kind of thing.
A nose is part of every person.
A nose has a number called usability.
The usability of a nose is usually 100.

Carry out an actor attacking someone(called the target):
	say "[The actor] punches [the target]";
	decrease the usability of a random nose that is part of the target by 5.

Without creating any specifics of the game we have created processes by which the initial state of the game is created (giving everyone a nose) and rules by which that state can change (attacking people decreases the usability of their nose(and this is represented in a non-boolean fashion you could go further in creating equations to calculate the amount by which the usability of a nose is decreased by)). This example by itself is nothing too interesting but it shows this design philosophy of creating rules for interactivity rather than creating specific interactions, as well as interactivity which is non-boolean (as it’s not just a matter of if one has a nose but what state that nose is in).

Finally when it comes to the Speaking aspect of interactivity I think text based games have a huge advantage because text is a much cheaper medium than most other forms of speech. This not only allows for more people to be able to start making games and interactive stories, but it also means that projects which would be impossible if done graphically become possible (Dwarf fortress which while still somewhat graphical is a great example of this). Text also allows for the author to better utilize negative space, to allow the player to use their imagination to fill in the gaps left by text which can be harder to do in visual representations.

I would be really interested to hear what other people think of this design philosophy. As I have mentioned elsewhere in the forums I’m not very well versed in traditional IF games, and I’ve never played a classic adventure game. Instead I’ve been brought to IF primarily from Twine and Ren’Py AIF games which I felt were doing really interesting things when it came to interactivity and emergent storytelling especially within languages that people often view as more constrained/linear. So if anyone has examples of parser games which have similar design philosophies which I’m not aware of I would love to check them out. I unfortunately haven’t been able to play Crawford’s Gossip but I especially thought his approach to character driven games, using this interactive and process focused design especially peaked my interest in this design philosophy. One similar game project I am aware of which relates to IF (I don’t recall if it was a parser game or not) was the Versu project which I’ve heard a couple lectures from Emily Short about. Unfortunately however the games (the main one being blood and laurels) are no longer available.

2 Likes

Versu was not parser-based. It was choice-based, but the available choices were selected from a large library according to a bunch of salience criteria.

I think the general take on Crawford is that he gets sidetracked by details and does not see what people are actually doing in the IF world. The whole obsession with “boolean states” never really made any sense.

3 Likes

Having listened to some of these videos, I feel that assessing a game in terms of its global variables seems a little reductive. It sounds like something from an 80s game magazine:

1000 points! Over 50 global variables!

Does he mention games that he likes?

To me the parser both benefits and suffers from the limitless variability of language. Even though it isn’t so, a good parser game can make the player feel that anything is possible.

5 Likes

I can agree with this. Two of my favorite games are the first and second Monkey Island graphic adventures. Those contained an enormous amount of text dialogue and choices via the sentence-building interface. When adventure games went “talkie” with the advent of CDs and the space to store voice-acting the dialog text volume went way down, and despite being well-acted, lost a bit of the special comic timing and detail that was possible with text balloons.

I even turned off the voice acting in Ron Gilbert’s recent SCUMM style Thimbleweed Park to replicate this and it got very close. But it still seemed in the early SCUMM they were freed because text is “cheap” and takes up little space - but great text can get so much story and character across with the smallest amount of resources.

1 Like

The only game I recall him mentioning liking is I believe called Battle for Britain, which was a flight simulator/dogfighting simulator, I think he mentions this in the video called the Mystique of the Loop but I could be misremembering. Even with this game though he still picks it apart quite a lot. The main thing I remember him sharing about liking this game and flight simulators broadly was that they typically had a narrow window of imaginable states and reachable states, in that the simulation created expectations which were met. Other than that I feel I mostly hear him discussing his own games such as Gossip, Balance of the Planet and Siboot.

And yeah I completely agree about the parser, the important part is just managing player expectations through the games context to create that harmony between the players imagined states (what the player wants to type into the parser) and the available states (the inputs understood by the parser).

Since you mentioned Prolog, maybe you’d be interested in Dialog? It’s a language that’s been inspired by Prolog, so it goes a bit further in the “logic programming” paradigm that Inform 7 (which is also a source of inspiration for Dialog).

I don’t really know about Crawford, but maybe Dialog is more in line with his way of thinking.

3 Likes

Interesting, yeah I’ll definitely have to look more into Dialogue. As for Crawford he seems a bit more interested in creating his own languages, storytron was his big language project iirc.

1 Like