What if… Part 2: Parser-less IF games, the power of omission, brute forcing, freedom, edutainment and the longest title for a post I have ever dared to write

What if Interactive Fiction games didn’t have a parser, but a point and click interface?

Wow. I searched for "Interactive Fiction" on google images and the first result was a screenshot from Vespers 3D hosted in an article on the Rampant Coyote Blog. Small world indeed!
Wow. I searched for "Interactive Fiction" on google images and the first result was a screenshot from Vespers 3D hosted in an article on the Rampant Coyote Blog. Small world indeed!

(Since I can’t link to sites in the caption, here’s the blog of the dude that’s making Vespers 3D and here’s the Rampant Coyote Blog. Tell them I said hi.)

“How do you dare to suggest castrating IF games!” I hear you say. Now, please put the torches and pitchforks down and hear me for a second. I’m not talking about using graphics or anything like it, all I’m saying is that I’d like to explore what IF games would feel like with other kinds of user input.

The gist of the idea is: Interactive Fiction meets SCUMM. It’s pretty easy to imagine, just take Monkey Island 2, remove the graphics and put text on top. There, you are done. But what does this mean? It seems pretty simple on the surface, but let me assure you, it’s not. At least form the designer’s point of view.

“But… but you loose all the freedoms that the parser gives the player!” would be the normal response to such a suggestion. Which is fundamentally true, but with a caveat. You see, the vast majority of IF games defines a list of verbs that the player can use, so I can happily transform this part of the parser into simple buttons without loosing much. But then, the player now has the ability to be certain that there are exactly X number of verbs available, at least at the moment. What this does is erase the exploration of verbs, which to be quite frank is one of the many joys of playing a good IF game.

Right, now, if the player clicks on verb buttons instead of writing verbs, then what about the nouns? Simple! Just click the desired noun in the text displayed on the screen.

Sounds restrictive? Maybe, maybe not. Every IF game fundamentally functions like this, since the player is restricted by the descriptions he is given. If your house doesn’t have a ceiling, but the narrator never mentions this, then the player is never going to find out about it. The command “look at ceiling” just returns a “I don’t know what ceiling is”. It’s the elephant in the room, if the narrator feels like ignoring it, you’ll never know about it.

Which is a wonderful tool to mess with the player’s head. I can imagine it now: The whole game takes place inside a seemingly empty room, but as the player looks at the few things casually mentioned by the player’s character, other things start to get mentioned. After a few minutes of playing, the seemingly empty room is now filled with stuff.

I have to admit that it sounds like a gimmick, but that may be because I haven’t described the psyche of the player’s character or the reason why she’s in this room, or why she’s avoiding mentioning almost every object.

It plays to the strengths of the genre, to the strengths of text. I’m sure it can be done in 3D graphics with the latest shaders, but I’m not that sure if it would be as interesting. In a visual medium, every time an object gets mentioned it would suddenly appear out of nowhere, distracting the player, giving too much detail and letting the player form an impression on said object based on it’s appearance. You can’t regulate how much visual information you get from an object, at least not without abstracting reality. And even just the fact that you are abstracting reality sends a message to the player.

In text? You can perfectly omit visual detail without raising any kind of suspicion.

…..

Where was I? Oh, right.

Loosing the parser and replacing it with a point & click interface would certainly close a few doors, but I’m quite curious of how many it might open.

I think that one of the most important changes this introduces, apart from the obvious accessibility improvement, is that now the player would be able to brute force the puzzles. I guess it depends on your opinion, and how you think about design, but for me? Being able to use brute force is instrumental to my enjoyment of a game, especially at the beginning stages. It means I’m never stuck, it means I always have something to do or try.

Sure, I’ll get used to the game and eventually will start to develop strategies, think more about a problem before trying to resolve it and so on, but at first? I’m gonna test the limits of the system, I’m gonna see how far this thing can go before it breaks, I need to understand the fundamental rules of the system before I can start really thinking about how to resolve a problem.

Now, in most games, this process is not fun*. I fail over and over again, replaying the same level constantly just because I’m testing the interactions and controls (Does this enemy kill me? Do I die if I fall here? How do I hadoken?).

If that GIANT BALL OF FIRE hits you, does it hurt?
If that GIANT BALL OF FIRE hits you, does it hurt?

In most IF games I’m in this stage permanently. Which things are interactive? What type of grammar does the parser recognize? Is there a time limit for certain puzzles? Can I answer to questions from NPCs? Can I give objects to NPCs? Can I tell things to NPCs? Can I spit? Can I dance? Can I jump? Can I shout? Can I ride a car and run over someone? Can I take off my pants? Can I pick up a rock and throw it? Can I write my name in the sand? Can I hit myself? Can I punch someone? Can I bite someone? etc, etc, etc.

That’s the beauty and the curse of any IF game: Freedom. The good part is that the game designer has the opportunity to surprise his/her players with unexpected recognition of uncommon verbs. In Lost Pig, I was delighted when I found out that I could command Grunk to spit on things, to take off/put on his pants and all sorts of uncommon actions that aren’t normally recognized by the parser. The downside is that it allows for so much freedom that the player ends up frustrated when half the things he tries to do are met with a variation of “Er… what?” from the parser. There’s no computer program, at least not at the moment, that can respond correctly to every three word sentence a human being can come up with.

The solution? Well, you either have to eliminate the parser and replace it with… oh, I don’t know, maybe something pointy and clicky? Or… you could beta-test the thing to hell and back, adding every single thing your focus group can come up with. Then spend a few years in beta, monitoring what every player writes. And then maybe after 5 or so years release the game to the public. And then spend the next few years polishing it.

Yeah.

*This is why I’m concerned about the future of videogames as learning tools. In theory they are exceptionally good at teaching how a system works but if they are not designed to be fun and easy at first, they can end up being less effective than our normal means of teaching. I can’t even imagine the kind of responsibility that would imply for the game designer in charge of an “edu-game”, especially since videogames are not used as a teaching tools yet (they are not a “proved” way of teaching).

[/rambling]

By no means this so called “solution” I’m suggesting is all-encompassing. Would Galatea work if it didn’t have a parser? My guess is “no”. And obviously there’s that other solution I already mentioned but this one is by far easier to implement.

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2 thoughts on “What if… Part 2: Parser-less IF games, the power of omission, brute forcing, freedom, edutainment and the longest title for a post I have ever dared to write

  1. Lot´s of theory. But everything changes when you actually start making a game.
    You have some interesting ideas, but they are piling up here.
    Make a game, at least as a proof of concept!

  2. Diego Doumecq

    I already have the foundations of a prototype, all it needs is some days of programming and a lot of polishing.
    Now, the thing is, I’m not a writer. I know my way around words, true, but I for now that’s my limit. Coming up with interesting characters in interesting locations with interesting relationships is not my forte.

    That’s why I haven’t done an IF game yet, or finished Space Juice 13, I can’t come up with an interesting story.

    Or in other words: I need a writer to work with me.

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