What compassless games are missing

Well, I keep talking about Bring Me A Head! because it’s a specific example, I know why I wrote it that way, and the idea that compass directions would’ve made it easier to navigate kinda beffudles me.

The room descriptions are written like basic parser room descriptions, with exits listed at the bottom in their own paragraph. In the vestibule, for instance, it says: “You can enter the Duc’s sanctum or the hangman’s gallery.” The words “Duc’s sanctum” and “hangman’s gallery” are special hyperlinks to move into those rooms.

In a parser game, this would probably say something like: “You can go north to the Duc’s sanctum or south to the hangman’s gallery.” But since the hyperlinks take you to these places, there’s no need to know if they’re north or south. All you need to know is the relationship between the rooms: the vestibule connects the sanctum and gallery.

I could go back and add compass directions to the descriptions, but it wouldn’t express new information about how the rooms connect (that information is already in the game), and it wouldn’t change how navigation actually happens with hyperlinks. It would just provide raw data to create a castle blueprint, which isn’t important.

This is what I mean about people processing space differently. It sounds as though some people need a blueprint, no matter what, because they feel disoriented unless they know exactly where they are. Whereas I think that having a blueprint for Bring Me A Head! would make the environment more mundane. Not a nightmare castle. Just another building with a floorplan. And when games like The Dreamhold do use compass directions, that doesn’t make navigation easier for me anyway.

Yeah, whenever there’s a flashback, that’s from his memory. I think he mentions, during the burnt stationery one, that he was in the room when it happened. You can assume he’s been most places in the house, but even those he’s re-smelling in the present. And of course he was never at the opera or anywhere like that.

…am I allowed to rip off the setting from The Penultimate Peril?

Ok, I’ve tried to explain myself three times, but it is my fault for not be capable of express myself properly. So, instead of following with this discussion, I think it is better if I make a game out of it. Indeed I have it now. A new entry for the less than three hours future ectocomp :slight_smile:

I still need to study and plug into the orientation mechanics I want. I will share it with you one of these days.

I often get east and west the wrong way round when envisioning spaces. Nevertheless, the compass directions allow the creation of a visual map. I still have a mental picture of how the town in Anchorhead is laid out, the estate agent over to the north east, the house to the south west. I can recall a number of the rooms in Midnight. Swordfight., but have little sense of how they fit together other than the fountain being outside.

Having a sense of place is only one virtue; there can easily be other overriding concerns.

Chandler has a point and it is an important nuance. For certain games, providing a complete maps just spoils the fun of knowing the place first hand, mapping them, or just learning their ways in the players head. So a floor plan, yes, it is no a solution for every game. For example, in Bring me a head! the executioner knows well the castle, so a stylish map would work there (for me I mean, as a designer). But in Eat me, the map has no sense at all. The child doesn’t know the castle and it is part of the fun discovering the layout and the content of each room. So, for works that rely upon alternatives ways of navigation, you can’t just drop there a complete map to solve the orientation problem.

Also, Chandler has a point where a designer could avoiding orientation on purpose to benefit from works in a nightmare scenario, or just, no Euclidean ones. You know, the dream-like aesthetic that in Red prince works pretty well, or in Lime Ergot, or like in Toby’s brain processes spaces and smells. In Toby’s Nose, you don’t need to build a map of London in your head. The same happens for Midnight Swordfight, you don’t need to learn the layout of the place, because it just doesn’t matter for the story at hand. We have learned that not all IF has to be dependent on the location paradigm. We could say that Midnight Swordfight is dependant on “scenes” as the unit of the story.

Anyway, there are ways to provide explorability and having a map: war fog, uncomplete floorplans (Thief 1, The dark project), automaps, etc.

Definitively, each design has to provide a solution for navigation and orientation (in my book), and only if it feels the topic. Of course, in dream-like worlds, as we have seen, that’s not necessary at all.

So in the end, about the topic of people processing the space differently, or that some people need to “know exactly where they are”. That is not the question at hand. People have been mapping their way in classic adventures since always, by paper, or from memory. The question is, they need to learn the space while they are exploring is. That is they don’t know the place first time visiting, but they learn of it by the process, and that’s a really great mechanic. This is like in 3D games. People get lost in Dark Souls, but in time, with practice and by trodding the same tracks again and again, the finally get a picture of the whole place in their heads. But the place is unknown and strange for them the first time they arrive. People need to get lost, but at the same time, they need to learn their way in the world. That’s difficult without a proper means or orientation, that could be a compass or a map, or whatever.

Again, let me insist, for dream-worlds that are not needed at all.

This gives me an idea. A dream-world where places are explored by thematic or mental association, not by geography.

So, summing up. An IF designer must provide the following decisions:

  1. The paradigm and the unit of story. Is it the location, scene, or story node?

  2. A mechanic for changing the unit of story. Is it exploration (compass, hyperlinks, go command and relative positions, dream-like visiting places…), changing of the scene, o just a change of node?

  3. A means of orientation (if needed!). It could be the compass (provides automatically a means for movement and orientation at the same time), or a map, or relative directions (what’s ahead, what’s back, what’s left and right).

And as we have seen, dream-like worlds could just erase completely the point 3.

I mean, this is true for Bring Me A Head! as well. It doesn’t matter for the story if the parlor is south from the kitchen, or if the kitchen is behind you. For most games, it doesn’t matter for the story. The only reason it matters is when directions are required for a navigation system. Since compass navigation has been the default in parser games since the beginning, people have come to expect orientation like that.

The reason the map in Eat Me bothers me isn’t because it takes away the fun of discovery for the player. I find it thematically inappropriate, and jarring, for a child to navigate a fairy-tale castle using compass directions. But the game was built around the compass, so there’s no taking it out. And at that point, you may as well throw in a map. I consider the whole thing bad design, and it makes me squirm.

So, we are in a disagreement. But that’s fair because game design is not true science.


This is largely true, but only once you’re a ways into the cave and the twisting passages make things intentionally surprising. Above ground and even the first several cave locations can be played entirely without compass directions.

From the original in-game help:

So, yeah, the compass points were there, and the game will even recommend them once you’re a few rooms into the cave, but most of the vocabulary describes places. I think people frequently forget that.

My home drawn maps don’t even have compass directions in some places. You exit the well house and than go “DOWNSTREAM” a few times to find the grate.

I’d nominate Eat Me for a deluxe graphical edition with a map that is revealed as the player explores, or something similar to Emily’s wonderful map in Counterfeit Monkey. It’s too bad that the Glimmer extensions never caught on because I think they accomplished something like this.

I hadn’t seen this discussion before and it’s great, it would have helped me a lot three years ago… I’m saving zarf’s suggestion in the first page for some later games.

I’m perhaps a bit more used to compass directions than CMG but I hate the concept just the same. They make games really inaccessible to a lot of players and readers. I think they should be an almost last resort design.

And that’s the easy problem: deciding when semi-continuous space isn’t really necessary and removing it. The hard problem is how to make better navigation when the design does need semi-continuous space.

It’s a huge problem for me. My IFcomp game is totally based on continuous navigation, and its not-too complex layout got experienced IF players lost. How can I expect it to be accessible to public outside that! But it’s one of my main goals.

One solution I’ve considered is an autopilot. You tell the game that you want to go to a place, and the game finds the path and takes you to the contiguous room in that direction. At every step, you can keep going or do something else. This would work way better in parser than in choice: I can’t think of a simple, accessible choice interface for this, while in parser it would just be “go to X”. In fact I bet some parser game has already done it.

Now I’m thinking of pairing this autopilot with zarf’s location list suggestion.

The reason we use compass directions in IF and not in real life is that in real life we always know which way our bodies are oriented. I’m sitting in my study at the moment and in the wall facing me is the door to the corridor. If I go through it I’ve got my front door to the left and my bathroom, lounge and kitchen are to the right. You could do this in IF, use left and right for directions and implement “turn left” and “turn right”, but it would be needlessly complicated. The four compass directions plus up and down are merely a commonly understood shorthand for movement in three dimensions. We all have a mental map of the places we visit, and without understanding the way rooms or regions connect with each other, we can’t form an overall mental picture or get a sense of place. Even a child understands how rooms relate to each other and is able to navigate using this mental picture, so the argument that we see these rooms or regions as merely adjacent doesn’t really make sense to me. I found navigating in Bring Me a Head difficult because I couldn’t form that mental picture, so I had to read the room descriptions again and again to reorient myself. In a regular IF game, once I’ve got the map in my head, I can zip through the rooms without thinking or needing to re-read the descriptions. If your aim is to create a place where the topology is deliberately confusing, then by all means abandon the cardinal directions, but there needs to be a good in-game reason for it, I think.

ADRIFT has a neat feature: an automatically generated in game map which allows the player to click on any room to move to it. In my larger I7 projects, I’ve used Emily Short’s Approaches extension to allow the player to “GO TO [ROOM]”. You could combine Approaches with Zarf’s sidebar list of rooms (using Vorple or somesuch) to have the best of both worlds.

Like this?
EatMeMap.blorb (34.4 KB)
I whipped-up a map of the eat-me castle to demonstrate the ADRIFT automap.
It also added movement commands “Ahead”, “Back”, “Left” and “Right” so you can try using relative movement with a map to help you keep your bearings.
Requires ADRIFT 5 runner.