Right, I guess it’s time to tackle this one. The recent discussion on IntFiction.org got to be one of the reasons why intFict had to be created, because it got sidetracked by a lot of irrelevant discussion. But the actual issue is still valid: what can we say about the future of Parser IF?
Emily Short and Jon Ingold have written reams on the subject. As much as admire and respect them both, I’d rather that we sort of started the discussion afresh, without going back to their arguments unless we happen to share their points of view - otherwise this discussion has been totally pre-empted, and nothing new will come of it.
There seem to be two big issues regarding the parser, or at least these are the issues I can identify as being the ones most often pointed out:
It’s old and it’s never been revamped;
Re 1), I’m not sure what the big problem is, because if it works why fix it? Seriously, though, the whole “it’s never been revamped” thing is simply not true. It’s just that the major enhancements came decades ago with Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls, and they were so good and so solid there’s been no need for further improvement. Much as the technology behind creating books has improved since Gutenberg and the technique for reading them has remain unchanged (with a nod to certain books all the way from Ulysses to House of Leaves), so has the technology behind making or porting IF games evolved but the actual gameplaying remained the same.
This does hide another issue, which I’m sure is what most people mean by 1): not that it’s old, or that it stayed the same for decades, but that it’s got some conventions that might have made a bit more sense in its first technology-limited incarnation. Commands that boil down to verb+noun (leading sometimes to, in some games, awkward phrasing - we’ve all experienced it, I’m sure, to a bigger or lesser degree), and in fact the knowledge that there are a handful of “standard” verbs that you can play most games with almost exclusively - and if you don’t know what these verbs are, or that “put” is a convenient hold-all for a lot of interactions, or that “search” can have a special meaning unrelated to “examine”, or that “examine” and “read” are often synonims…
…or that IF uses cardinal directions for movement, a relic from Colossal Cave’s spelunking environment that survived beautifully because it’s a very good way to depict absolute movement (relative movement has been done, as a gimmick, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth IMO unless there’s a good reason for it to exist)…
these are things we take for granted. These are also things that newcomers seem to have an issue with, and now we enter into 2). I’m not sure whether we should re-vamp these things… or somehow clue players in, like having a tutorial. Some games nowadays have tutorials. I have no idea how well they do the trick, as I’m an experienced IFer, but they seem to be allright; but, is every single game supposed to have a tutorial mode? Should we start considering an optional “Release along with tutorial” (I7, naturally) option which bundles a tutorial game just so the player has a chance to get to grips with it?
Or should we start reinventing the wheel? I can’t imagine that’s a good solution - what good is, say, a square wheel?
Or should we accept that the people who gravitate towards IF in the first place are people who were informed, by websites and such, that “Newcomers should start with game X because it’s simple, fun, and has a tutorial” - and keep on as we are?
Or should we start doing away with the parser entirely? I’d rather not, but commercially it seems viable. “Hadean Lands” seems to have made a splash, but a modest one. (EDIT: This needs correcting. Hadean Lands is getting bigger by the week, it seems. No mean feat - it’s not just parser IF, it’s big and difficult parser IF. Kudos to Zarf) Textfire is all but dead, much to my disappointment. Meanwhile Inklestudios and Choice Of are positively thriving.
Or maybe we should start doing what Infocom did at the end and include bells and whistles? Cypher seems to be highly praised and (relatively) high-profile for the sheer amount, and quality, of its multimedia aspects. The only drawback is that the parser itself is shit, so the game is all but unplayable for newcomers and oldcomers alike.
Come to think of it, if Cypher had a decent parser, it might have been more visible and enjoyable… but if Cypher were CYOA, with the existing multimedia, from the looks of things it’d be more commercially viable.
Something else we have to ask ourselves: do we care?
Yes, I know we care, in the sense that we want new people to start writing IF, we want it to live on, we want new people writing new things; as well as new people writing old things, and old people writing new and old things alike, and Adam Cadres writing new things that look like old things (Endless, Nameless). Therefore, we have to care about drawing people in.
But do we care that the parser is a hurdle for some? Remove the parser and you have Twine, CYOA, and all that. And all that’s valid, but the people who are interested in that sort of thing already have all those engines and platforms and communities, haven’t they? If they weren’t interested in IF when it had a parser full of sensible, solid conventions, does it matter that they’d be interested in IF if the parser were radically different?
Could it be, in short, that there’s nothing at all wrong with the parser and there’s just more people who were never really into the parser in the first place but had no alternatives - who suddenly DO have an alternative and are exploring it? And that people who are into parser IF number not much more and not much less than the people who were into parser IF years ago, or will be in years from now?
I know Laroquod for one makes a tremendous effort in getting IF out there. Laroquod, I know you’ve mentioned this in another thread, but please give us more details, even if you just quote what you said there - what are those people saying about the IF you expose them to? Are they really looking for CYOA IF? Does the parser intrigue them? Does something put them off, and if so what?
Arguments have been made for an AI sort of parser that understands exponentially more than the current parser, links to dictionaries to increase the synonim list and reduce player frustration, and all that. I think that’s a shoot in the foot, and we’ve been in this road before - adverbs keep coming up. Everything that you add in complexity to the parser is multiplied tenfold, or a hundredfold, in complexity for the author, for very little net gain. “The future of IF is an AI parser”? I sincerely hope not. (EDIT - Historically, all attemps for a more understanding parser became ELIZA-style bots that pretended to understand more than they do. It’s tons of work for the author to keep the illusion up; whatever the author does, the illusion will always break, sometimes comically, sometimes catastrophically; and the net gain is what, the player being able to write more words to convey the same action? I mean, are players really expected to play the whole game with commands like “Ok, now I’d like to go back to the kitchen and pick up that knife to try and force this lock open”? Heck, I’m sure we have the means right now to make this command parseable - but is it worth it?)
I mean, what this post boils down to:
What the heck is wrong with the parser we have, that so many people want to change it or abolish it?
NOTE: Jon Ingold has spoken at length about how he feels CYOA is more suited to some actions, games and stories than parser IF. I totally agree. (he also says that he thinks CYOA is generally better suited to IF. That I don’t agree with) That doesn’t mean CYOA should replace parser; just that there’s space for them both to live in harmony.
EDIT - This thread can also be a place to resume talking about the number of parser entries in this year’s comp compared to the number of non-parser entries. That discussion existed before, and it was aborted in strange ways. I don’t personally see that as an issue or the beginning of the end for parser IF - just that people who would previously make poorly-implemented and guess-the-verb parser games are now making interesting and enjoyable CYOAs. Surely that’s a net gain?