Parsercomp 2022: Things That Happened in Houghtonbridge

We’ve had multiple stories in this comp that have you start off in a seemingly ordinary house or building, probably based on a place familiar to the author, then discover the bizarre and fantastic as you explore. It’s a pattern as old as Colossal Cave and Zork, really. But you seldom see a work that holds off on the turn quite as long as this one, or provides such a convincing pretense at being a a relatively mundane story. The story of a teenager investigating her aunt’s disappearance, and gradually uncovering her secrets as you explore her house, is certainly enough to carry a game by itself, especially when you can talk about her with the rest of the family: the concerned mother, the distant father, the hostile and secretive sister whose secrets turn out to be linked to the aunt’s. So it’s a family drama blended with detective story and adventure-game puzzlery, but then hallucinogens enter the story, and then you start having obvious hallucinations yourself without having taken anything, and then things really start getting weird when it turns out that some of your hallucinations weren’t hallucinations at all. It all builds up to a finale involving magic and alternate dimensions. You can question how much of the ending is “real”, but for my money, all the fantastic elements feel a lot more grounded once Aunt Beverly returns and takes charge of the situation, mainly because she’s willing to explain everything.

Repeatedly, throughout the game, the player character expresses qualms over invading her aunt’s privacy. Should I really be unlocking this door? Do I have the right to read her diary? To break into her safe? The player is prompted, and I of course unhesitatingly select “Yes” every time. I appreciate the PC’s concerns, and consider them to be a sort of flavor text that helps establish her character, but her perspective is not mine.

The actions you can perform, and therefore what puzzles you can solve, are to some extent linked to the passage of time, which is linked to advancement in the story. This is sometimes a little frustrating, putting some avenues of investigation out of reach just when you start making headway in them, but the game is usually pretty good at guiding you back to the things you can actually do, sometimes by means of text messages from friends or family members.

ParserComp 2022: Of Their Shadows Deep

Oh, this one’s nice. Pastoral and poetic in tone, its main mechanic, the core of all its puzzles, is literary-style riddles — riddles that, once answered, turn into the things their answers name, but are still somehow made of words. That’s the power of abstraction you get from text — although the same transformations are also powered by concrete poetry, words arranged to make shapes, sometimes in very clever ways. (Admirably, the author has taken special care to make this not interfere with screen readers, for those who use them.)

That makes it all sound very cerebral, but the heart of the story — and its inspiration, according to the endnotes — is that the riddles are a metaphor for the struggles of an old woman with dementia, losing her vocabulary. Solving them is a sort of quest to help her preserve what she’s losing. It puts a layer of sadness on every puzzle, and nicely connects theme and mechanics.

Riddles are perilous territory for adventure games, because of how they can stop a game dead: where a well-implemented object-based puzzle can give you more cues about what you’re supposed to be doing with each near miss, riddles tend to be all-or-nothing. Fortunately, the riddles here are easy, and on top of that, the in-game hints are pretty good.

In addition, the prose describing the environment is delightful, filled with randomized wildlife. I think this is the most satisfactory game I’ve seen in this Comp so far.

ParserComp 2022: Anita’s Goodbye

Another time-travel game, fairly small and kind of underdeveloped — it would be more satisfying with more interactive detail, and some of the puzzles just outright tell you what to do instead of presenting you with the information you’d need to figure it out. A time travel device moves you through a three-day span, and also lets you send objects between the days, but it’s all a bit unconvincing: although the three periods share a layout, it’s clear that they’re essentially parallel copies of each other, not the same place at three times. You cannot, for example, leave an object in the past and see it show up in the future. Past and future have nothing to do with each other, except in certain hand-authored special cases.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say that this is a fundamentally bad game — just that it could be a lot better with some more work put into it. Satisfying time travel mechanics are fairly hard to do, and even the sleight of hand necessary to cover up their absence is kind of tricky.

The premise is that Anita (whoever that is) has died, and you’re trying to get some closure by visiting her one last time in an alternate timeline where she didn’t. This leads to an ironic ending where the Anita who survived doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. It’s an ending that could have been melancholy, but instead the author basically went for cheap shock, which would probably feel insulting in a game where the premise is better-integrated into the gameplay.

ParserComp 2022: The Impossible Stairs

At last, the randomizer pulls up the one that I had been particularly looking forward to. For one thing, it’s by Brian “Mathbrush” Rushton, who’s made quite a name for himself in the community over the last several years, and is responsible for the 2020 train heist game that I liked so much. For another, like that game, this is an authorized sequel, and the game it’s a sequel to is The Impossible Bottle.

I’ll say this right off: It is a lesser work than the one it’s based on. It satisfies, but it does not dazzle the way Bottle did. To a large extent, that’s because Bottle‘s spatial weirdness has been replaced with time travel, and that’s much more familiar ground in adventure games. The cleverest time-travel puzzles in this game are echoes of Timequest and other decades-old works.

Nonetheless, it makes good use of the premise, not for its own sake, but to show a portrait of a family and how it changes over the course of decades. The changes are largely negative ones: people age and die or move away, the house itself becomes damaged, and ultimately the place is entirely abandoned as you approach your own end. Your temporal peculiarities let you fix some things, and see change that would normally require multiple lifetimes, which brings a sense of hope to it all, but there’s still a lot that’s beyond your power to affect. You can always revisit the past, though. Nothing is ever truly lost from your perspective. The feel is comforting, cozy, in contrast to Bottle‘s sometimes disturbing bizarreness. The family here may not comprehend what you’re doing, but at least they’re never dehumanized.

A brief mention of supply chain issues reminds me of how Bottle linked everything thematically to COVID lockdowns, and I can kind of see something similar going on here, comment on how the last couple of years have distorted our perspective of time. It’s a bit of a stretch, though.

It uses the same hybrid interface as Bottle, in which hyperlinks just generate text that gets fed into the parser. The problems with such a system are noticeable in one room: the text contains a link on the word “house”, which produces a disambiguation prompt — “Did you want to examine the house or the smashed treehouse?” — even though the link you clicked on isn’t ambiguous at all.

ParserComp 2022: You Won’t Get Her Back

A chess problem, spiced with story. A king mourns the loss of his queen after his villainous opponent sacrificed his own queen to kill her, but he still has a loyal pawn who could possibly bring her back. (I don’t think the mechanics of chess quite fit the story here, since it’s possible to promote a pawn to a queen when the original queen is still on the board. But it kind of depends on whether the identity of the queen as a character is linked to its physical piece or its notional game object, and that’s really beyond the scope of the rules of chess.)

At any rate, the story here is really just flavor — while it does get reiterated during play, it isn’t extensive and doesn’t have a profound effect. No, the game is simply a chess problem, and the input is mainly a matter of making moves in “algebraic” chess notation. It’s not a large problem, giving each side just one piece other than the king, and it’s rendered smaller by the way that the game recognizes hopeless situations and cuts them short, in some cases before I personally understood that they were hopeless. Indeed, it’s so eager to do this that for a while I got the impression that there was only one allowable move from each position.

Apparently the problem is called the Saavedra Position, and it was thought that the best you could to is force a draw until Saavedra spotted a way to avoid stalemate through a clever underpromotion. It’s unlikely that I would have thought of this on my own if the game didn’t go to such pains to suggest underpromotion as a viable approach: a conspicuous portion of the help text discusses how to notate underpromotions, there are special commands for specifying what piece to promote pawns to by default, and even the title is a pretty big hint. I think that’s the main design takeaway here: how to direct the player by making them aware of possibilities.

ParserComp 2022: Radio Tower

Another novel engine: this one was made in Godot, a system not usually used for text adventures, but apparently just as capable of supporting them as any other Turing-complete programming language. Despite using a newish engine, the game is old-school, and the parsing is fairly primitive: you get two-word commands, a mere handful of verbs, and no abbreviations or synonyms whatever — if you want to go north, you have to type “go north” in full, and if you want to examine something, then I’m sorry but the accepted verb is “inspect”. In general, the only words that are available for use at a given moment are ones currently displayed on the screen, either in the output text or in a sidebar containing a verb list and your inventory, in colors indicating their function: blue for verbs, green for takeable objects, brown for inspectable room features, red for directions. Colored words embedded in the output text look enough like hyperlinks that I really want to click on them, but that functionality doesn’t exist. There are some context-specific verbs that only show up when they’re doable, but most object interaction is done with a generic USE.

It’s mainly exploration-based, telling its story environmentally, although there’s a strong temptation to ignore the environmental storytelling and only pay attention to the colored words. The basic idea is that you go to check up on a friend when the radio tower next to his house is hit by lightning, and in the process you discover the mad science stuff he was tinkering with and get attacked by wandering monsters. The monsters at least form an additional game mechanic, based around healing items and ad hoc weapons that can only be used once, forcing you to keep finding more of them. The inflexible two-word parser and the multiple weapons combine in a weird way: you have to phrase your attacks as “attack hatchet” or whatever. I feel like there must be a way of phrasing this that doesn’t make it sound like you’re picking fights with your inventory.

ParserComp 2022: The Muse

Here we have a sort of religious horror story that’s also a riddle. It’s a translation from Spanish, and it’s a good translation; I have no complaints about the prose. In structure, it’s a series of vignettes. An evil muse makes you relive moments of sin from your past and then write verses about them in a book, delighting in your transgressions. The vignettes are pretty minimal: most require just a single command to complete, although it’s not always obvious at first what that command is. Writing a verse consists of choosing a single word, and any word you type in will be accepted, although picking something meaningful and relevant can provide hints to the larger puzzle of who you are and why you’re in this situation. Here the game uses the parser interface to its strengths, making input completely freeform so as to avoid constraining your guesses.

The same can be said for the ending. There’s no natural ending built into the story: the vignettes cycle after a while, and the only way to escape the cycle is by asking God for forgiveness. This can be done in more than one way, and can be done at any time, including before you’ve seen the entire story. My first play-through ended prematurely when I wrote the word “mercy” into the book, thinking not “Lord, have mercy on me”, but “I was pretty merciless in that last bit. Maybe I can counteract that a little.” Another premature ending happened when I was told to start an animal sacrifice ritual, and had no idea what to do, and thought “Maybe we start with a prayer?” And it’s a bit of a shame that this happens, because ending the game provides revelations that would otherwise be built up to slowly over the course of the story.

ParserComp 2022: Midnight at Al’s Self Storage, Truck Rentals, and Discount Psychic Readings

This is a decently-put-together short piece that feels like an intriguing first chapter. It follows the same basic pattern as the opening to Curses!, giving the player a deceptively mundane task — moving three boxes to the loading dock — that lead you into something strange and supernatural, involving a mysterious cave under the storage facility. And then the game ends.

That’s my biggest complaint, really: that the balance of content is tilted against the part where it starts getting really interesting. The bulk of the player’s time is spent firmly in the realm of the mundane and mechanical, including some fiddly business about a tight passage and a freight elevator. If the game were much longer, I’d say that this is the sort of interaction that needs to be either circumvented or automated on repeat visits. In fact, the game kind of does that in the end, skipping over the whole thing when you get the final box.

I suppose the real point, though, is in the depiction of place, which is one of the things parser IF is really good at.

ParserComp 2022: Improv: Origins

Neil deMause is one of the old guard of IF, an entrant in the very first IFComp and author of the acclaimed Lost New York. But it’s a bit of a surprise to see his name crop up here, because his last known IF work was 20 years ago. (Welcome back, Neil!)

Improv: Origins is a prequel to a series of superhero parody games he wrote from 1997 to 2002, featuring the “Frenetic Five”, a team whose questionably-useful powers are all inspired by parser-driven text adventures. The player character, Improv, specializes in using ordinary objects in unusual ways, and he’s supported by a character who can find objects, a character who can guess words for you, and so forth. As such, ParserComp is almost the only venue where they really fit any more, in an IF world that’s increasingly leaving both parsers and puzzles behind. Although the game presents itself at first as an Improv solo adventure, it’s really an origin story for the team, showing how Improv met everyone else.

The whole game takes place in a single room, a sort of comically adventure-gamey bank vault, containing an impossible-to-open safe that you’ve been hired to open. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult even with the hints you can get from the other heroes; I know I’m not the only one to get stuck on the puzzle to find duct tape, which, given the power to locate objects, is really just a puzzle to realize that you should be looking for it. (I have some complaints about that power, by the way. It doesn’t seem to work on rubber bands, and you need a lot of rubber bands.) Still, it’s satisfying to make use of everyone’s powers, even (especially!) the less obviously useful ones.

The prose is generally good — there’s a repeated gag I particularly liked of Lexicon, the word hero, responding directly to narration — but much of the humor is based around casually mentioning absurd superheero names, which I suppose is consistent with the original Frenetic Five games, but it feels to me rather played-out by now, the same old joke about a subject that isn’t what it was 20 years ago — heck, the superhero parody genre has moved on. We’re in the age of One Punch Man now and this game is still imitating The Tick.

ParserComp 2022: Lantern

Okay, we’re not off to an auspicious start here. Lantern is a Windows app with a hybrid hypertext/command-line interface in a graphical display, written in a Lua-driven engine called LÖVE, which doesn’t seem to be designed primarily for parser IF. The first thing we’re told is “The story is about a blind man carrying a lantern, trying to solve the mystery of his blindness. As he walks around the only sense is hearing, smell, touch, and taste.” Interactive fiction has historically had a substantial following among blind people, as it’s one of the few forms of computer game that they can play, provided it’s in a format that’s friendly with text-to-speech software. This game isn’t.

It starts with your basic amnesia plot: you’re stuck in three rooms (that I could find), with no idea how you got there, and puzzled by the fact that “your sense of sight is missing”. Except I’m more puzzled by why the player character thinks that. If I found myself in a strange room and unable to see anything, I wouldn’t think “I must be blind”, I’d think “Gee, it’s completely dark in here”. I suppose the lit lantern in your hands is supposed to address this, but even with that, I really think my first thought would be “There’s something wrong with this lantern. It’s giving off heat but not light. Is there some kind of cover I have to open?”

I struggled a bit with the UI. The introductory instructions are longer than the screen, and at first I thought it was impossible to scroll — it doesn’t recognize scrollwheel or arrow keys, but can be dragged with the mouse. If you type a command and press enter, and the command isn’t one that the game understands, absolutely nothing happens — no error message, not even clearing the command line. To make it worse, what commands are recognized is highly contextual, even for things that shouldn’t be. You can’t refer to objects that aren’t currently named on the screen — and pretty much every command response has its own screen, because output is all based around nodes, like a Twine game. So if you, say, examine an object, the response acts like a modal pop-up, blocking all other interaction until it’s closed.

In fact, what this scoping suggests is that typed commands are simply mapped onto highlighted keywords or pairs of keywords from the output text, including the sense organs (“fingers”, “ears”, etc.) and so forth that are (otherwise bafflingly) included in your inventory listing. Verbs are effectively fake: “touch” is a synonym for “fingers” and so forth. Thus, in contradiction to the spirit of ParserComp and possibly its actual rules as well, the game seems to be primarily built for mouse input, with the command line as an afterthought. The parsing is lousy enough that I’m not convinced that it’s even happening — the game recognizes so few commands that the game could very well just be looking up the entire command string in a table. Supporting this hypothesis is the fact that adding an extra space between words is enough to turn a valid command into an invalid one.

It’s a difficult game to communicate with — the whole premise is that it’s giving you less information than you want, and it doesn’t make it easy to make your intentions known via input either. After a few hours of just exhaustively trying all the possible combinations of keywords, I’m giving up on it. I solved a bunch of inventory puzzles but I haven’t solved the mystery of blindness. I don’t know what proportion of the game I’ve seen. I’ve seen enough.

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