ParserComp 2022: ConText NightSky

I’ll have to state right off that I didn’t finish this game, as it soft-locked before anything very interesting happened, and it’s entirely possible that I didn’t even begin to see the real plot. If so, it takes a while to reach it. You spend a lot of time navigating the corridors of an arctic research station, looking for breakfast and a shower, getting some offhand world-building in the background, learning things about the player character and their coworkers. But maybe that’s all there is. The author says that this game is basically a demo for a new engine.

What I really want to comment on is the UI. First of all, the game has the output text trickle in character by character, like in a console videogame. This is just about tolerable in a game not made mostly of text, but it’s absolutely a bad idea for a game where you spend so much time walking back and forth through multi-room corridors. It just slows you down when you don’t want it, and if there was any button to skip the text animation, I never found it.

Secondly, this game takes autocompletion to an extreme. At every point, the command line is accompanied by a list of every word you could type as part of an acceptable command. The effect is that interaction feels a bit like a Monkey-Island-style point-and-click adventure, choosing words out of a menu. (You don’t actually pick them with a mouse, but you usually don’t need to type anything more than the first letter of each word plus tab to complete it.) Where one of the strengths of parser interfaces is the sense of boundless generality, this UI makes the player acutely aware of exactly how limited your input is.

Curiously, the output text imitates the form of traditional adventure-game room descriptions, with its lists of objects, a style that’s a consequence of a world model that the UI makes it clear isn’t actually present here. Like CGI lens flares, it’s technological artifacts reinterpreted as a style. This isn’t the first time I’ve observed this, and it will doubtless not be the last.

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