- Chandler Groover releases Eat Me in IFComp; it places second.
- Eat Me is nominated for eight (I think?) XYZZY awards and wins two.
- As part of the Xyzzymposium, Joey Jones asks if I will write my thoughts on each of the nominees for Best Individual NPC (which includes Eat Me).
- For whatever reason, the Xyzzymposium fizzles out…
- I ask Joey if I could maybe post my orphaned Xyzzymposium articles in this forum, and he agrees.
- I swear, I just blinked and it’s like a year later.
Well, OK, here we go. Of the three different games I covered for this thing, I think Eat Me is the one where I really felt like I had something to say.
Note that this analysis doesn’t shy away from spoilers.
THE NARRATOR: EAT ME, BY CHANDLER GROOVER
Chandler Groover’s grotesquely delicious parser game, Eat Me, makes it clear from the get-go that there is a personality behind its prose, that the words we read – room descriptions, action responses, even the output from system commands – are someone’s voice:
My dear child, listen, and I’ll feed you a tale.
That little word “I” is rarely seen in parser games that use the second person, although exactly who “I” is in this case is set up as a mystery to be solved later:
I’m here with you, but I’m not here. My voice is all you need right now.
This results in an NPC where playing the game is the means by which you interact with them, and so the technical implementation of this character is directly tied to the technical implementation of the game itself. And, oh look: Eat Me was not just nominated for the XYZZY award for Best Implementation, it also won!
Of course, making a character of the parser positions them ambiguously. They can’t be entirely hostile, as without their voice we wouldn’t even know what’s going on. But they could also be seen as the one setting up the challenge of the game. This turns out to literally be the case here – the narrator is the one who has set up this whole edible castle to test the unnamed but gluttonous player character – but would be the case anyway, as it is the hints in descriptions and action responses that guide players towards or away from solutions.
This places a responsibility on this character to convey the right factual information at the right points, and so it is in between these necessary facts that the personality of the narrator must come through, by describing those facts from her (and the narrator is a “her”) unique point of view and by sliding in enough extra, expository comments to flesh the character out without hiding the crucial details that make the game work.
And the narrator’s point of view in Eat Me is definitely unique. This game was also nominated for, and won, the XYZZY Award for Best Writing, and the writing – which is predominantly in the voice of this character – is remarkable to say the least: a rich dessert of mouth-watering, vomit-inducing description that favours precision imagery over prolixity:
Blue flambeaux undulate, and in their flames gleam devices galore constructed to pry screams and more from prisoners. Don’t sit down on that judas chair. Steer clear the rack. Give wide berth to the breaking wheel. They’re occupied already by corpses.
In places that are prominent, but unimportant to the puzzles, the narrator also lets slip some details of herself, indirectly:
Across the eastern wall’s hung a great tapestry woven with warfare and carnage. Your heart would have thundered in the skirmish sewn through these threads, wherein this castle’s pretender found herself driven into exile. Ah, what a bloody rout that was.
Surely she reveals here that she was present for these events – although what exactly they are isn’t defined precisely and is ultimately unimportant to the player character as they eat their way through the castle.
Eventually, once the player character has consumed enough, the narrator is revealed as the Sugarplum Fairy – according to the author, specifically the Sugarplum Fairy from The Nutcracker, although my unfamiliarity with ballet didn’t hurt my enjoyment of this game and its revelations.
In this ending scene, the narrator drops the line:
I couldn’t be more proud to see you now.
Well, if she can see us…
Why, yes, I’m here as well, darling. How clever that you thought to notice me. I’ve whispered words into your ear to weave your story from the start, but it wasn’t my place to stand beside you during your trials. They were your own to face, and now you have. It’s time for your reward.
What is this reward? Well, the Sugarplum Fairy cooks the player character, turning them into one of the food-people that they have been eating throughout the game. Now they will live for “hundreds, even thousands” of years, until “One night another starving soul will dream a road to my castle, and I’ll dress every chamber with candy, fly bacon standards from spires that stretch into the stars.”
At which point, surely, the player character will be consumed by this glutton, just as they consumed the previous over-eaters? But then, isn’t this the personality one should give to the parser? A trickster who only rewards you with a future of greater challenges?
Let’s get a bit more into that aspect of this character, although I risk here straying into Best Implementation territory.
Eat Me is a “limited parser” game. The Sugarplum Fairy wants us to devour everything, so the most significant actions in the game are to move around and eat. There are a few other actions, but almost every other “standard” text adventure verb is unnecessary.
And yet, Groover writes of this game:
There is a misconception that limited parser games are easier to implement than traditional parser games because fewer verbs are required to beat them. I wish I could kill this misconception.
The default Inform 7 library recognizes 96 verbs.
Eat Me recognizes 340+ verbs.
Inform’s built-in ceiling for MAX_VERBS is 255. I had to increase it.
Why is this the case? Well, the responsibility Groover decided to shoulder was redirecting the other things the player might type back to the verbs actually needed to complete the game. Consider if you try to “open” a door instead of “eating” it:
Oh my, your body strains, darling, and the hole in your stomach yawns. You’ve made a bargain, remember, and now you live to eat. Eating is all you need to do. In fact, it’s almost all you can.
Again you strain against your gut. My dear, this just won’t do. Trust in your teeth, put more faith in your mouth, and learn how to apply your appetite. Eat, eat, and eat.
Attend, child, when I tell you most actions are irrelevant. Whatever you take, learn to take with your teeth. Whatever you do will require your tongue. Utilize your appetite and eat.
You have to eat. You have no choice. Next time, no matter what you try, you’ll try to eat instead, and you’ll keep eating after that. All actions you attempt tonight, you’ll attempt with your mouth.
You are going to eat.
[proceeds as though player had typed “eat door”]
This, to me, is slightly nuts. I’ve always seen limited parser games as a pact between the author and player. The author promises that the player won’t be surprised by an unexpected command; the player promises not to be disappointed if commands outside those suggested up front by the game aren’t implemented (though obviously is pleased if some provide an appropriate response).
But that’s not enough for Groover - Eat Me promises not to surprise the player, but also endeavours not to be surprised by the player. It speaks to an absolute dedication to smooth gameplay, on the level of each individual interaction with the parser - which, trying to stay in my lane, is also the game’s most notable NPC. And that’s the key part here. If we’re to be sold on this parser being a real person, she can’t balk at the things we say to her. She can resist them, according to her whims, but she can’t respond like a robot grindings its gears over bad input.
I believe that a limited parser game can be easier to implement than a “normal” one. But it can only do that by leaning into the fact it’s a game and admitting what it doesn’t understand. Groover has leaned in the other direction – making a limited parser game by giving the parser a strong, wilful personality. It results in an unforgettable game – and a truly impressive character.
Addendum: Since writing this, I’ve learned that there’s at least one other ending to Eat Me. Having played through it, I don’t think it changes anything above.