Parser: friend or foe?

Right, I guess it’s time to tackle this one. The recent discussion on 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:

  1. It’s old and it’s never been revamped;

  2. It’s newbie-unfriendly.

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?

the parser is a historical accident. Would Adventure use a parser if it was programmed in the macintosh? Text and command-line were all the rage back but soon to be displaced, aside from some diehards. Text is always the lowest entry, be it for communication, theater, movies, tv and also games. Fact is that there’s a whole generation of gamers growing now with neither older arcade button-mashing skills nor text typing enjoyment. Twine and choice “games” are much more engaging to a generation used to short bursts of trivial playing of crappy bird. Revamping the parser will do nothing for these fools, so just keep it as it is.

There will always be far more barely interactive pieces of bad fiction passing for games than true games, so I guess it’s a good thing we’re getting rid of bad guesstheverb parser IF. yay

If it didn’t use a parser due to that, would it have been as important as it is? Would indeed the genre have survived this long? It may be an accident, but that doesn’t make it less meaningful. Life on earth is an accident, a freak occurrence that just won’t let go.

And yet people still buy books. In fact, people have found new-fangled ways to read books, in tablets. I don’t buy that text is dying. Besides, Inklestudios and Choice Of are text-based too.

That I can agree with, though I’d phrase it differently: Twine and such CYOA has a very low learning curve, it’s more immediate, and it’s easier to fit in when you’ve got a spare five or ten minutes. Parser IF demands a bit more from you, in this era of casual gaming.

Mind you, back when there was no casual gaming, there were less gamers. So I rather believe that there are as many people as there were interested in non-casual gaming - it’s just that suddenly there are tons more that prefer to crush candies or to enrage avians.

reading text is easy, typing is not. Unless of course it’s about typing short bursts of silly social crap on wutzup or twitter

BTW, have you played Hallowmoor, by Mark Snyder? I wish I saw more twine works like that…

I did and I loved it. Best parser-IF-flavoured non-parser game I’ve played.

Second-place comes Jon Ingold’s “A Colder Light”, but it plays a little bit more awkward.

Thing is, Hallowmoor is ballsy in that it’s using Twine to program the sort of game that would normally work best in parser-IF. It’s the odd one out. I wish there were more, but it’s the exception, just like The Space Under The Window is an exception in parser-IF.

There was a Twine version of Coloratura as well. I personally couldn’t get into it. Immersion was shot. I mean, we’re talking about a game where in the first move you could “EXAMINE UNIVERSE”. That’s a level of coolness you just can’t get in non-parser IF.

…which is probably the aspect of parser IF that’s made it survive, even if (some!) people are less willing to type. The openness of it, as long as it’s properly coded. The one “puzzle” in Photopia would not be nearly as memorable without a parser. The recent game Moonbase Indigo, which I’ve yet to play but have read about a lot, is all about typing in crazy Bond-style commands that you dont really expect to work, except that they do. Or how about Bellclap or Crystal And Stone, Beetle And Bone, where the parser has a personality/character? The parser can be under-used and mis-used, sure, but when it’s well used, man, it can be sublime.

first things first: I’ll play Moonbase after I’ve completed his classic :blush:

I don’t follow, and I’m curious - has JRWheeler made a game called “Blush”?

EDIT - Aaaaaah. Sorry, sometimes emoticons appear spelled out instead of icons for me. Go fig. What classic would that be? ASCII and the Argonauts?

Focusing on the typing aspect of parser game is a losing battle if we want mainstream acceptance. It’s not that easy to type on mobile devices. We have the tech now where can replace the verb-noun typing with verb-noun voice recognition.

I don’t think it’s the typing that made parser games interesting. There are a few things I think might better be more fruitful angles to follow:

  1. when that prompt comes up the potential actions combinations are huge! (all verbs * all nouns) but the player needs to narrow that down into combinations that make sense.
  2. possible actions (within the potential action space) are discovered not presented. You have to try things out.
  3. The nature of parser IF is world-models represented in consistent relationships that are discoverable
  4. It’s easier for authors to expand out their worlds while keeping the physics of the world consistent.

CYOA games have to present all their choices. There’s typically limited space to do this; discovering is about trying limited options; but there’s a problem with action-granularity… parser-IF generally keeps the granularity of the actions consistent and the magnitude of effects caused by those actions within a tight range. I played the Versu game “Blood and Laurels” - and it is CYOA but the player will often have many more actions available at one time than in normal CYOA. On a continuum of “possible actions” B&L sits higher than typical CYOA but much lower than parser

Also B&L presents options rather than forcing their discovery and B&L has a world-physics that are enforced by in code. I notice myself (and some other Twine authors) are also beginning to use more “eventloop” style twines as opposed to waterfall models. This might be a transition in Twine-games where world models are more consistent because they are code-enforced and scaling out worlds becomes easier. Otherwise we’re relying on authors to do this… and that’s hard.
(Technically click only hypertext is turing complete, but that doesn’t make it easy to author stories! Author ease is important to sophistication)

Can we do discovery without the typing?

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I’m glad to disagree. :slight_smile: I play the hell out of iFrotz. I hardly ever play IF on my desktop anymore.

Shame I’m in the minority. :stuck_out_tongue:

  1. and 2): I agree, and in my mind they are part of what the typing is all about. 1) without parser is a huge list of verbs and nouns that’s just painful to go through, and it’s just faster to type - see Legend Entertainment games for a taste of that. 2) doesn’t seem possible without typing.

  2. True, but we can also have those things in non-parser form - Hallowmoor, Colder Light, Eidolon. We can also have parser games that eschew these mechanics. So for the sake of this discussion, I’m not sure this is that relevant a point.

  3. Unlike 3), I agree that this particular authorial ease does have everything to do with the parser and how it’s well established, an existing framework you can build a lot over. Score another point for the parser!

I so wish there was an iPod version so I could play that…

Re discovery and typing: Howling Dogs would suggest yes. I hated that particular Howling Dogs puzzle, but, again, I seem to be in the minority. It’s possible instead that parser IF is about that discovery, and CYOA is not (well, not about THAT sort of discovery), so the game should be authored with this critical design choice in mind.

Is it important that the player be subtly clued that they can fly, so at the right time they can just soar above a maze in a moment of inspiration? You want parser IF. Is it more important that the player explores an environment rich in story and background, where most items will have only one (possibly two) ways of interaction, and discovery is more about the story, setting and characters than the actual communicating with the game? You want CYOA.

Jimmy Maher spoke about Nince Princes of Amber (or whatever it was called). Seems to be a CYOA game in the trappings of parser-IF, with very broad choices along the lines of “invade/defend country”, “betray prince”, and stuff (from what I recall, admittedly sketchy, but it was along these lines). It’s very cool to write these commands, but in a game like that, CYOA would work best - it’s not about figuring out that you should choose these commands, but about knowing when to invade, when to betray, when to befriend.


I daresay we can, but a different sort of discovery.

I was wondering now what a Twine version of ADVENTURE would look like, but since we have Coloratura to play with, we can use that instead.

EDIT: Missed the very beginning of your post!

I wonder if we want mainstream acceptance. The only time IF had mainstream acceptance was when there weren’t graphics worth a damn, in Infocom’s time. When things started getting graphical, mainstream IF started to gradually slide into the niche we have today.

And if it weren’t for Michael Roberts and Graham Nelson (and others, but mostly these two, and probably Nelson especially because he only went and gave everyone a means to make their own Infocom game), the niche would be considerably smaller. I’d say we’re already a considerably-sized group. I like new people coming in; but how badly do we need “mainstream acceptance”? Badly enough that we consider losing the parser?

first things first :wink:

Ooooh yeah, that’s right! Have fun. I’ll get around to it some time, I read great things about it.

I sense a disturbance in the force. On one hand I wish Textfire had suceeded, on the other I’m saying maybe we don’t want people to buy the games. Hmmmmm.

Seriously, though, I should clarify a little bit. Any IF-related enterprise is something I will support and want to see succeed. But I was never as enthusiastic about Inklestudios as I was about Textfire, or indeed about Hadean Lands. Inklestudios is doing great stuff, is bringing people to IF… but is bringing people more to CYOA than parser IF. That’s nice and all, but it just proves that people who are not already attracted to parser IF (or people who will be attracted once they learn it exists, and these people ALWAYS learn it exists because they will, at one point or another, be all over the ADVENTURE GAMES section of an abandonware site, which often features parser IF) are not going to suddenly become more attracted to it because it’s revamped, or has a tutorial, or what have you.

Again, Cypher did seem to attract a lot of attention on the strength of its multimedia. And it was parser IF, though the actual parser was rubbish. I wonder once again whether the road to mainstream acceptance - if we want it - is not through revamping the parser but making it more visual and auditory?

I wish feelies were still possible. :stuck_out_tongue: Scratch-N-Sniff for LGoP? Yeah, tacky as hell nowadays, but it was an actual bit of the game you could experience with another sense! Not to mention the Wishbringer. Sigh, those were the days I never knew, I was too dumb to be born before '86. Damn.

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[quote=“PeterPears, post:1, topic:113”]
or that “search” can have a special meaning unrelated to “examine”, or that “examine” and “read” are often synonims…[/quote]
Man I really don’t like it when ‘search’ is not a synonym for ‘examine’. When things are synonyms, you have to fight the game less. I’m not as annoyed by ‘examine’ and ‘read’ being different, but nobody ever got stuck in a game because ‘examine’ was a synonym for ‘read’ (unless ‘read’ is not implemented at all, but that’s a different issue).

…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)…[/quote]
Will Crowther saw clearly what the point is of non-absolute directions: tutorial. That seems clearly to be the main reason why in his early game (aboveground), keyword directions are mostly suggested, but when the game moves into the much twistier, more complex cave, it switches to compass directions. He used the right tool for the right job. Modern critics debate each other over which of these navigational systems was the ‘real’ one that he implemented ‘first’ — what a complete waste of time! When Crowther’s task was to introduce newbies to a totally alien way of storytelling, he used locational keywords. When his task was to challenge, he switched to something with a more defined ruleset: compass directions. Use these as your rules of thumb in all future games, and you really can’t go wrong. He pointed the way. I find it quite amazing that he included both navigational systems in the first text adventure, ever, but then… his mind wasn’t clouded by any polarising clash of artistic sensibilities. He was simply thinking, What is the right tool for each design goal in this game? He had nothing else. This makes his insights exrraordinarily valuable to us who can no longer see without all these genre and theoretical filters: or at least, it should do.

I can confidently say that with a single exception, nobody I have ever run into is ‘looking for CYOA IF’. This is never a point in favour. Some people have a certain nostalgia for especially the Fighting Fantasy books, but this does not generally translate into an interest in web-based CYOA, because people tend to think of ‘computerising it’ as a way to ADD capabilities, not as a way to reproduce exactly the same capabilities. So, if you tell anyone that you have computerised Fighting Fantasy books exactly, they are generally not very interested even if they loved those books. It does not generate any ‘medium lust’ whatsoever.

Parser games, on the other hand, do generate medium lust. When you tell someone who loved the original Zork that you are recreating a new game in a similar vein, they get really excited. This may seem counterintuitive to some, but in my dealings with ordinary non-lit-obsessed gamers, I don’t think there is any question that when it comes to the pure public perception of medium, the terms ‘text adventure’ and ‘parser game’ still have the power to generate excitement about the possibilities and coolness of the medium itself, whereas the term Choose-Your-Own-Adventure generates no such excitement. I have never seen a single person say, ‘Ah, I used to love experiencing a story by choosing among multiple choice options, and I really wish there would be more of those.’ However, I have seen plenty of people, young and old, say, ‘[My mother/father introduced to me to Zork and] I used to love experiencing a story by typing random things and getting responses.’

The parser method of interface evokes exploratory emotions that just don’t exist in a web page / book setting. As a result, people can get attached to the parser in a way that I don’t see even Twine afficionadoes speaking of multiple choice. Let me put it this way:

When you market a CYOA game, there is really no point in mentioning the medium or the technology, because nobody cares. ‘I’ve just coded a retro hyperlink game! Like Forest of Doom!’ will excite exactly nobody. You HAVE to get into the subject matter or else you might as well not have written anything.

When you market a parser game, you can say, ‘I’ve just coded a retro text adventure! Like Zork!’ That statement alone will bring out all sorts of gamers out of the woodwork, both the old & nostalgic and the young & curious. The parser interface itself inspires curiosity in a way that point-n-click doesn’t.

I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me on this and I don’t have a lot of time this week to do any debate. Let me just add that I am not saying you can’t market Twine games, but it really has to be about only the subject matter. Now that the web is and always will be ubiquitously familiar and ordinary, I don’t think anyone will ever again be excited by the mere idea of ‘The dev gives you X choices and you get to click one, like in a multiple choice test.’ It’s just not an exciting format. It is inherently less interesting, structurally, than a parser game. It does not provoke nostalgia for that specific form of interface — nor does it provoke much curiosity in younger generations of potential game players as to the new things that could be done with that interface.

Therefore, all of the burden is on the author to make it interesting. Which not impossible at all.

They are just different tools with different weaknesses. If we are talking about how easy is it for newbie devs to get into, that’s one thing. But if we are talking about how interesting the gameplay sounds to players merely by mention of the technology involved, then parser technoogy is far and away (and I mean by far) the winner among rank-and-file gamers. The parser inspires both curiosity and fear in equal measure, like some ancient dark continent.

Whereas Twine… is just a bunch of links. That technology itself inspires nothing but ennui. 8)


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That’s… a pretty good point. We stuck to these compass directions out of authorial ease and, well, tradition. I wonder how things might have been otherwise.

I mean, I can expound all day about the virtues of the compass for movement in IF; but not only have I been totally brainwashed by actively using NSEW movement for years in IF, the games themselves have always (well, 99,99% of the time) been built around this design relic, shaping their games and their increadingly grid-like maps around the compass.

Food for thought.

I feel an almost personal tragedy that Storynexus did not take off. Here you had an innovative CYOA system on the surface that also involved (usually) hundreds of stats and variables, and a unique card-drawing system that served as the randomization factor.

The learning curve for SN seems weirdly steep - it’s very easy to create cards and do all that, but figuring out how to simulate something you’d do in parser fiction requires leaps of logic that most people won’t take. But it let me do something like FINAL GIRL which would have been absurdly boring in a parser.

I did the first (maybe?) third of an epic I still have planned to write in Storynexus, and the fact that I had to break my originally-planned parser ideas apart and simulate them using board game mechanics was an enlightening experience that improved the game, I think.

For example, many people lamented there was no way to do an in-game clock. I turned to board-game mechanics and put three cards in the deck that advanced time and cannot be discarded once drawn. A player could strategically decide to avoid playing the time card if they didn’t want to advance, but that reduced the number of free slots they had to get new cards. If they had three time cards, they had to play one to clear the board or else they couldn’t get any new storylets to play. This itself presented intriguing concepts - such as a “freeze time” spell that only required me to create a card that eliminated the advance time cards from the board. I also had a happy accident with an object that could transport the player, leading to the creation of a portable magic shop door that could be carried anywhere and accessed ‘by magic’.

I even created a very simple gambling card game that I actually wasted a lot of time playing myself just for fun.

Anyway, not enough people dove into SN to accomplish their goal: they were hoping for one or two ongoing worlds that would be steady sources of revenue. SN included a monetization system like many apps – Players could play steadily for free or speed things up for small amounts of money, and authors could gate their worlds and charge for new content or “expansion packs” or unique choices on specific cards. I wonder what kind of awesomeness could have happened if some of the really good Twine gurus could have moved over and created something with the potential scope of Fallen London.

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Well, seen as just a bunch of links, yes. I think one of the big problems with Twine is that it can make the author do the hypertext equivalent of “Are you listening to me?”

For instance, when you have to hit a key -repeatedly- to see the next bit, or you have to wait a few seconds. It’s something the parser just doesn’t do.

Sometimes I like having a discrete number of choices to work through, and sometimes I don’t. However, I don’t like being messed around that choices don’t do anything, or seeing some textual t5rick that is supposed to trigger some emotion when I’m not looking for a huge emotional experience. Twine allows for technical finery, but I have a reaction to that without content.

The best example of blending technical with writing is probably Brendan Hennessey’s work. I imagine he moved on after some pretty nasty reviews of his IFComp game, which is a pity.

I still remember one review saying “That’s not funny, that’s ILLEGAL!” about things that happen in Bell Park. 10 minutes after reading that, I said “Oops, guess Airplane isn’t funny either. With that one dude setting himself on fire in the plane.”

I think it’s the same guy who auto-1’d final girl, and while he had good observations, he wasn’t back this year, either. Very lose-lose.