ParserComp 2022 wrap-up

Okay, ParserComp 2022 has been over for a good few days now. I said at the beginning that the number of games seemed very comfortable for the deadline, but I wound up scrambling at the end nonetheless, due to interference from life for a couple of weeks in the middle. But most of the games were pretty short (and I gave up on a couple of the longer ones before reaching an ending), and I wound up giving a brief writeup to all of them but one, The Euripides Enigma. I could write it up now — there’s no rule saying you can’t play or discuss the games after the Comp’s deadline! — but I just don’t feel like it.

After the first few games, I fretted a bit about whether this entire event was a bit retrograde, more concerned with rehashing the past than with exploring new possibilities. I suppose that’s how a lot of people see IF in general: aren’t we all just still trying to be Infocom? But to me, amateur IF has always been more about taking paleo-IF as a starting point and striking out in new directions. But one of the main new directions people have struck out in over the last decade is the Twine Revolution and the shift to choice-based interfaces, and ParserComp is kind of set up to attract people who’d like to roll that back. Gladly, though, I found a good amount of experimentation here: new engines and interfaces, new forms of interaction. And if not all of it is entirely successful, well, that’s just in the nature of experiment.

Which is part of why I find the scoring system so unsatisfactory. Unlike the IFComp, which simply asks you to rate every game on a 1-10 scale, ParserComp imposes a rubric. Players are asked to rate the games in eight categories: Writing, Story, Characters, Implementation, and Puzzles each get a weight of 17% in the final score, with 5% going to Use of Multimedia, Help and Hints, and Supplemental Materials. Not only does this reflect the values of the comp organizer rather than the players, it’s clearly set up to favor the conventional over the extreme. Works are effectively penalized for doing a puzzle-free narrative, or a pure puzzle game without characters. Heck, one of the entries arguably didn’t feature writing per se. I hope the authors pay less attention to their numeric score and more to the reviews, where more nuanced reactions are possible.

ParserComp 2022: October 31

Here’s another one it looks like I’m not finishing. The whole idea is that you’re spending the night in a spooky house full of Halloween monsters — at the very least, there’s a werewolf, a skeleton, and a mummy, and on the basis of the garlic and wooden stake in my inventory I’m going to go ahead and say there’s probably a vampire as well. Monsters are killed or escaped in time-limited chase sequences that can come without warning, so saving frequently is crucial. Other than that, it’s a largish exploration game with locked doors and secret passages. It has a bit of a problem with recognizing alternate phrasings, but nothing that an old hand like myself can’t power through with the aid of the in-game hint menu — very often, all I needed from the hints was confirmation that what I had attempted was the right thing, and all I needed to was to rephrase it until it worked. There’s my advice to the author: Accept more phrasings.

On the other hand, phrasing isn’t always the problem. Some of the puzzles are a bit too read-the-author’s-mind-ish, and I found myself playing mostly from the hints after a while. The reason I’m giving up on it at a mere 40% completion is that I finally hit a point that the hints don’t adequately cover — they advise recovering a ring stolen by a mouse by trading some cheese for it, but the mouse won’t take the cheese and I don’t know why.

Seems like it wouldn’t take a lot of reworking to turn this into a decent puzzle-based adventure game, though. It’s written in Adrift, but avoids the most common pitfalls of Adrift games, like overdescribing rooms.

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.

ParserComp 2022: Cost of Living

Here’s an experimental one. It’s a two-layered narrative: layer one is a short story by classic sci-fi writer Robert Sheckley, a critique of technological consumerism and consumer debt, and layer two, where all of the interactivity takes place, is a discussion of the story by a couple of audience members, breaking in periodically in a different font. Their conversation contains occasional blanks for the player to fill in with interpretive words: “Don’t you get the feeling that Carrin is ______ about Miller?

Now, the system makes it clear that it’s paying attention to how you fill in the blanks. An introductory section is very clearly responsive, asking yes/no questions, and later parts bring up words that you typed in previously. Nonetheless, it felt mostly inconsequential. Obviously the course of the pre-existing Sheckley story isn’t going to vary with your choices, but even the discussion seemed like it was just producing the same output regardless of what I typed a lot of the time, just swapping in the words I typed. I suspect that it really was varying the output, but not being very obvious about it. I could accept this as what Emily Short calls “reflective choices”, prompting the player for a reaction just to provoke one, but a lot of the prompts seemed to be angling for specific responses, like a middle school English test. Consider the passage:

Vesper: He gossips about everyone in town. Company’s code. Yeah right!
You know he uses that line at every house on that block.

Harris: You don’t think Pathis is being ______?

How do you fill that with anything other than “honest”? And if you’re giving me a purely reflective choice and making it clear what you want me to choose, I start to feel like my interaction isn’t serving any purpose at all.

Also, the ending is less than satisfying — so much so that I thought at first that I had hit a bug and the game had ended prematurely. Admittedly, the inner story’s ending is unsatisfying by design — it’s depicting an unsatisfying world! — but the game gives the last word to Sheckley, not the audience, and I would have at least expected the commentary track to have a summing-up, giving the fictional audience’s thoughts after seeing the whole thing.

But I can kind of see a thematic justification. Two-layered stories always implicitly ask “What is the relationship between the layers? Why is this particular story told in conjunction with that particular story, and how do they resonate?”, and once you’ve posed that question outright, the obvious answer is that the Sheckley story is about a society that’s technologically advanced but constraining, pressuring people to conform while plying them luxuries that don’t really satisfy them, and then the interactivity is similarly technological but constrained, unsatisfying, and pressuring. I don’t really buy this, though, because you have to ignore so much about the story to make it work. The inner story’s central ideas are luxury and debt, and the outer story doesn’t reflect that at all.

Still, I give it kudos just for experimenting with form. That’s always interesting to see, no matter what the result.

ParserComp 2022: Kondiac

I recently learned the term “database fiction”. It refers to works like Her Story or Portal (Brad Fregger, 1986) where the player’s main activity is querying a database for more story.

Kondiac is the smallest work of database fiction I’ve ever seen, consisting of “about 9 different pages” according to the author. Each page is an image of a document, mostly containing text with names or other notable keywords you can enter into a search bar to pull up more documents. (I’d be very surprised if it’s actually parsing the input at all.) There’s no definitive ending; you just stop looking for keywords when you’ve satisfied yourself that you’ve learned an Alaskan town’s grisly little secret, which, if you’re genre-savvy enough, could happen the moment you enter the game’s title and see the words “butcher shop”.

And that’s honestly a bit of a problem. The game starts with just a prompt and a photo of a building, with no instruction or orientation to let you know what kind of game it is or what you’re supposed to be doing. By the time you know what you’re looking for, the game is over. Can we really call it a mystery when answers precede questions in the audience’s mind?

ParserComp 2022: Gent Stickman vs Evil Meat Hand

On the surface, this is a slim bit of nonsense made of crudely-drawn stick figure art, with minimal implementation and puzzles that you really need the built-in hints to solve, including critical-path urination at one point. It really reminds me of the stuff that students used to slap together in Flash, back in the day.

And honestly, the surface is pretty much all there is. Nonetheless, it stands out in ParserComp for violating one of the basic assumptions I had about the sort of games I expected to find here: there is no text output. Commands are typed in, but the results are communicated entirely with pictures. And while it seems likely that this isn’t the first game to do this, I’ll be darned if I can think of any others. Modern IF has more gone the opposite route, keeping textual output and ditching the parser, and it’s good to be reminded that there are still other possibilities out there, underexplored and waiting. This game doesn’t do a lot with the concept, but it does at least show some of its difficulties and promises — specifically, the asymmetry of communication. In an all-text game, concepts are communicated from player to game and game to player in the same way. Take that away, and you immediately create uncertainty about the possibility space, even in a dinky game like this one. Even the hints require interpretation. There’s stuff here that could be built on.

ParserComp 2022: Alchemist’s Gold

As an unrepentant thief, your goal is to ransack an alchemist’s house in the woods and leave with as much gold as you can carry. This is a solidly implemented physical-puzzle game, not too long or difficult. I have only one complaint: the one time I was stuck enough on a puzzle to use the hint system, which supposedly gives context-sensitive hints, all it gave me was a general “examine everything and draw a map”.

One thing I appreciated was how much destruction you cause in pursuit of your selfish goals: chopping down a tree here, breaking a lock there, an adorable squirrel betrayed. It’s all fairly minor for an adventure game, really, but it gains some meaning from the fact that you’re doing it all to someone, and the fact that the game doesn’t dwell on it feels like characterization. The player character is basically an AFGNCAAP, but at the same time comes off as callous and irresponsible. And I’m here for it. In the end, you have to avoid the alchemist on his return, provoking a sense of guilt that the player character pointedly doesn’t share.

ParserComp 2022: Desrosier’s Discovery

A short and ultimately rather silly archeology story, this is essentially a one-joke game, but you get to determine which of several jokes the one joke is. You do this by choosing one of several objects to save from a fire, although in your first run-through, the fire hasn’t started yet and it’s not at all clear that you’re making a choice. Whatever you choose, it maintains a straight face until the ending. It’s a bit like the various “practical joke on the player” games I’ve seen in IFComp over the years, but less aimed at provoking anger.

The main obstacle along the way is an ancient door covered in runes, with an implication that you’ll be able to open the door if you figure out what the runes say. In fact figuring out the runes is never necessary; depending on what ending you’re heading for, the door may just open itself. I devoted a little time to figuring out the runes anyway: the pattern of repetitions suggest it could be a cryptogram, but nothing I tried worked. I’m left uncertain about whether it’s actually a cryptogram or not.

At any rate, it is what it is, and what it does it executes pretty well, so whether you like it will mainly depend on whether you like what it’s going for.

ParserComp 2022: python game

I don’t want to dwell too much on faults, so this post will be short. This is a cursory combat-based RPG of the most boring sort. Combat is just dice-rolling without interesting choices, and all you can do between fights is wait for random events, where the only random events are the arrival of traders or more things to fight. And there are only two things to fight: a wolf and a bear. Playing this left me thinking “There must be something I missed. This can’t be all there is to it.” But reading the source code confirms that it is. Maybe the author uploaded their test data by mistake.

ParserComp 2022: Uncle Mortimer’s Secret

This one feels distinctly old-school. Partly it’s the palette: the text is in the sort of sixteen-color mix I strongly associate with amateur games from the 1980s. Perhaps this is because it’s the easiest sort of text styling to do in QBasic, which this game is written in. This makes the quality of the parser a pleasant surprise — my only complaint about it is that objects in containers are treated as out of scope, making you use commands like GET PAPER FROM TRUNK instead of just GET PAPER. (The author recognizes this, and emphatically provides a hotkey for the general GET ALL FROM IT, I suspect in response to complaints from playtesters.)

The prose, too, fits the pre-web-amateur impression: it’s wordy, in a trying-to-impress way. A Lovecraft quotation in the beginning made me suspect at first that this was deliberate pastiche, that Uncle Mortimer’s mansion hides eldritch secrets in grand gothic style, but no: the theme is time travel. Uncle Mortimer’s inventions take you to a handful of major events, where minimally-implemented historical figures recognize you from your family resemblance to Mortimer and give you information and/or objects he entrusted to them. Hearing everyone throughout history say variations on “I remember Mortimer, he helped me enormously, and I see your family resemblance to him” gets comical after a while, but for the most part the repetitive structure is used well here. Having similar overall goals in each time period gives the player something reliable to anticipate, even as the obstacles to it change.

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