Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

Parser as Prototype: why choice-based games are more interesting

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Gosh, but it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here. The reason for that is I’ve been tied up with inkle: the last post was September ’12, which was about when we started on our Sorcery! series, and that hasn’t really let up. Sorcery!, if you don’t know, is a series of choice-based text-games for touch screens, that’s done pretty well so far. I’ve been working on the design, and also done the adaptation from the original gamebooks to our inklewriter-based format.

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about. What I wanted to write about the type of games we’re now making. They’re not parser games – they use choices – but in terms of design, they’ve ended up being closer to parser games than anything else. In fact, I’ve got a provocative statement to make, which is this.

“Parser games are prototypes of choice-based games.”

This is not quite true, but it’s quite close to something true. I’m now going to try and argue it.

A Matter of Structure

First up, I don’t want to start inventing terms, but I want to talk about the underlying models behind the game, and not just the interface into that model. Our games have explicit choices – but so does everything from Versu to Choice of Games to a traditional book CYOA. But in terms of how these stories are created, these examples form a spectrum from simulation through to state-machine. We’re on that spectrum ourselves, somewhere left of centre.

We don’t use a simulation-ready engine. By which I mean, none of our games have an update loop. There isn’t a single code-path that gets called on every “turn” of the game, so there’s nowhere sensible to update timers or process background events (note: I mean, nowhere in the script. The apps themselves have update loops, obviously).

Instead, we our scripting language is built around a state-machine: a tree of text, with options that branch to other bits of text, and joins that link the story-flow back up again. It’s got a memory: as the player works through, the engine remembers what you chose and alters counters and flags appropriately, and this information is used to alter the text and choices that appear later.

Modelling the World

But the devil is in the data. We use it to model explicit things, that’s straightforward enough – how much health or money do you have, have you learnt a fact about the backstory yet. But we also do a lot more implicit modelling, say friend/foe counters for what characters think of you, and what the game thinks of you, that alter the game appropriately. These are interesting because they are altered not by one decision but by many. Use enough of these hidden switches, and the outcome of any given play-through might become difficult to predict even for its author, though of course, all the outcomes themselves are pre-scripted.

But it doesn’t end there: we also have support for named constants and routines, and those can either be calculations or  – with a bit more infrastructure in the script – sub-sections of story, that are dropped into, played through, and then returned from. That means with a little more work we can start to model the game world. For instance, we can keep track of the time of day, and create a day/night cycle when the hour shifts past dawn or dusk. Characters can move around the map, based on rules and goals which shift, using variables to track where they were last, and what they think they want.

We can then insert new text, options and even little chunks of interactivity into the flow depending on variable-state: adding in options to talk to characters if they happen to be where you are; or different options for manipulating items if they’re in the required state. We can insert the same interactive chunk into multiple places on multiple occasions (using cycles and sequences in the text to prevent the repetition from becoming obvious). At this point, what we’re doing is more like adding responses to standard commands in Inform than anything you could do in a gamebook.

The Design Process

During the construction of Sorcery! 2, and as we move into Sorcery! 3, which is going to be even more open-world-ish – these possibility are starting to mess with my head. The more I write like this, the more I’m turning off the multiple-choice part of my brain, and turning back on the parser-IF design side. The design process of locations, puzzles and interactions is starting to feel more the process behind The Mulldoon Legacy or Make It Good than the process behind games like The Intercept.

Instead of simply writing, laying down choices that endlessly move the story forward, we’re now constructing locations, adding details, altering the description of those details based on state, providing options to manipulate those states, and providing outcomes based on reaching certain states. That is to say: create rooms, with objects, and puzzles.

So that’s to say, our choice-based games are reaching up out of the gutter to approach the fidelity of a parser game. But parser games are still richer, right? They have hidden affordances, moments of inspiration, that sense of infinite freedom…

The Myth of Freedom

Well, don’t they? I started to think that, no, maybe they don’t. I mean, it’s obvious a parser game doesn’t allow you to type anything. But more importantly, the player at the keyboard of a parser game doesn’t act like the game can understand anything either.

A player – at least, one who is capable of playing – approaches the game with a list of relevant verbs, with an eye for useable nouns, and with an ear for the normal interactions of movement, stacking objects, and pushing, pulling and touching things. They learn new verbs if new verbs are introduced, and mostly complain if new verbs are expected but are not introduced. When we play a parser game in that fluid way we enjoy, we are not playing a game of infinite scope or freedom. We’re playing a game of finite choices, we’re just assembling and filtering that list in our heads, instead of the computer doing it for us.

I’ve argued in the past that for parser games to be penetrable to newcomers, we need to improve the input loop and ensure, at the very least that (a) the player cannot type anything the game simply won’t understand, due to incorrect verbs, or typos, or whatever; and (b) any error, clarification or other null-content messages the player invokes should not hang around a moment longer than they are useful. The player’s scroll-back should be a stream of content, positively-reinforcing perfect playthrough.

But while these two things are now both possible – Interactive Parsing does one, Vorple the other – I no longer think they’re enough. Having the game not let me type a command that it won’t understand is a good way to teach me to interact with parsers, but it’s still the game saying “no” to wrong input. Instead, why shouldn’t the game do that filtering of the context for me?

If it did – if it filtered all the possible input down to what’s sensible and interesting, and then presented them as a choice – surely then the game is reinforcing my presence and position in that world, and not detracting from it. In this new game, every action I take is interacting directly with something which has been determined to be interesting, rewarding and worth my attention. I am in a loop of meaningful activity.

 

Building A Choice-Based Parallel

The choice-based games we’re now making at inkle are stabs in this direction: they have simple world-models, but clever contextual recognition: we’ll turn options on when they’re relevant and hide them when they’re not.

If you want the joy of the puzzle where you think to do X with the Y, you can still have it, but as an author you simply need to put X and Y in different places and have your player think of bringing them together: that act is, in itself, enough. You want more detail? Make Y a subelement that the player needs to choose to act on, before being given options of how to act — that’s exactly what your text game player is doing in his head as he constructs his X with Y plan, after all.

You want to replicate that moment in Spider And Web? You can; although, the solution will most likely be brute-forceable now. But how many players brute-forced that moment anyway…?

You want to replicate that moment in Photopia? Harder, perhaps, but you can still have a long choice of verbs… and if the solution isn’t the first the player tries, they’ll still have a moment of  delight when it works…

A Shift Of Default

So, at the very least, a choice-game can start to approximate a parser game, to a less or greater extent. We can maybe agree that.

But what about all the things a choice-game does better? Like forward-momentum, story, and dialogue? Simple cause-and-effect? A variation of scale – interacting over moments one minute, years the next? Make It Good contains 5 characters and took 10 years to write; Sorcery! 2 has about forty and took 6 months. None are quite as complex as the ones in Make It Good, true, but several are really quite complex, and can be goaded, fooled, tricked, bribed, discouraged, and misled, over the course of short-to-medium length interactions.

In a choice-based framework, it is easy to make time pass; it is the natural state of play. And this is where I get my “prototype” statement from. There are things I can do in a parser game which I can basically do in a choice-based game, but there are things I can do in a choice-based game which are virtually impossible in a parser game. So, bar a few edge cases, and specific, unusual effects, the choice-based game with a strong underlying world-model provides for a wider super-class of experiences and narratives.

In general: if we’re comparing a system which has an update loop (parser IF) and a system with a spine (standard choice-based authoring), I think what I’m finding is that it’s far easier to call out to an update loop from the story spine than it is to create a story spine from inside an update loop where the passing of time can only ever be inferred.

Context-Free Actions

In fact, I’d argue there’s only one area that parser games hold high over choice-based structures, and that’s “context-free actions”: actions which are always available, but have little impact on the game-state; such as examining, checking your inventory, or moving around the map. They’re not totally context-free, of course, but in a choice-based game, it’s hard to insert them into the right point in the flow because they can be executed at more or less any moment, and indeed, might need to be.

These verbs open the scope of parser games a little – they let the player break out of the forward flow of the game to gather information from around the world, and across their possessions and what they can see. I think it’s here that the “freedom” of the parser game really lies – not in the commands at all, but in the breadth of objects that can be passively examined at any time.

Still, though; having the main game feed fill up with examinations of items – and often repeated examinations – does seem a little less than perfect. Solutions to that have been tried with multiple windows, showing maps and inventory screens – but these somehow never quite gel, and I suspect it’s because suddenly listing out these options in parallel with the main game starts to make the experience  feel overwhelming. (Something the parser does well is to provide a large possibility space that looks like a small one. In fact, I’d argue the parser does a better job of seeming constrained than it does of feeling open..!)

Leaning on the Interface

So for our games, we’ve cheated. We’ve created an interface layer on top of the game. We have a visual map, because having something to look at helps, and so the player can understand they are moving around. We’ve created inventory screens, and placed Examine buttons on those screens, as well as adding Examine choices into the normal flow at places where it made sense. It’s the multiple window solution – but we’ve made them stack in a rather attractive way, and I think we got away with it.

The resulting balance is, I think, quite effective: and as we set about constructing Sorcery! 3, we’re finding that starting to play out. The new game is being built with a framework of locations, objects and map connections; these fire off calls to update-loop-style routines which do turn-by-turn work, before calling set-piece-like sequences of choice-based flow that carry the meat of each scene. At the end of the scene, we pass flow back to the map layer. The result is a choice-based game which allows free exploration of an environment, object-based puzzles, but which on meeting a character can drop instantly into dialogue-based conversation without a change in interface or tone.

Testing will, no doubt, be a nightmare, just as for a parser game.

And a voice in the back of my head is nagging me to try porting Make It Good. I think it could be done. I fear it would be better.

 

 

 

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Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

32 thoughts on “Parser as Prototype: why choice-based games are more interesting

  1. To me, any game without agency (i.e. any choice game) cannot be more interesting than a parser game which actually allows it.

    • How do you figure a choice-based game has no agency? There are finite options, you pick one. For that matter, how do you figure a parser game *does* have agency? There are finite options, you pick one.

      • While I don’t agree with MTW on the agency thing, I think that boiling things down to finite options is way too reductionist – I think agency in games involves a great deal more than just making choices.

        But this is a good, substantive challenge, and I’ll enjoy figuring out precisely how I don’t agree.

      • @Sam, I was being a little glib: I think agency is about being able to form strategies within the rules of the world; so to plan-then-execute. In a parser game, you can obviously do that. In a choice-based game, it depends on the game, but it’s not true to say in general you can’t. Indeed, I think this is my argument condensed: I’m finding, the more I write choice-based games, the more I’m making games in which you can attempt strategy. At times, at least.

  2. Your conclusion seems somewhat negated by the fact that many people genuinely find parser games more interesting. It’s a nice argument, but obviously, there’s something missing between the theory and the application.

    Gameplay isn’t just about the choices you make. Bioshock would work great as a CYOA (using the term loosely here), but most people would prefer to play it as an FPS, because they find the style of interaction more engaging. I’m a parser guy, and for me, the parser vs. CYOA dichotomy is similar. It’s not just the interface; a well-designed parser game offers an expansive sense that anything is possible. The theoretical outcome is the same – you figure out what actions are available and choose one of them – but it *feels* much more like you’re coming up with options yourself rather than fiddling with options someone else wrote up and listed for you.

    For some, that’s unwanted, and they just want to read the story and make their decisions. For others (like me), that’s the whole appeal, and it makes the immersion much deeper.

    • Actually, my own experience is that at some point, now that I’ve played a few parser IFs, it does boil down to ticking off a set of 5 or 6 verbs along with anything in the text that might conceivably go with them, adding to them the occasional abuse of examine and the non-diegetic ones (jump, sing, listen, etc.) simply because I’m tempted to.

      So after my 5th IF a few weeks back the sense of infinite possibility became the sense that I’m seeking an interesting and fruitful recombination of a decidedly finite set of mechanics. (This isn’t bad actually, since every game is like that.) Ex.: “Oh, lookee here, a helmet. Oh! I can hear better with the helmet on! That was an interesting combination of an item and an action.” That sort of thing, but that would be possible in a choice-based game, too.

      Also, this is subjective, but the option itself to examine, listen, taste, and other non-diegetic actions prompts me to type them far more often than is strictly (or even non-strictly) necessary for the gameplay. It’s an outgrowth of the “anything is possible” implicit promise I think, my expecting that whenever I listen, for example, I would hear something. More often than not it doesn’t of course, and I’m left vaguely dissatisfied.

      I think my point is that basically the loose nature of the parser’s affordances keeps me often off-track instead of on-track, and diminishes my implicit trust in the author. I mean, I tend to approach a parser game a bit mechanically so as to be sure I’m not missing anything, because in a parser game it’s so easy to _hide_ anything for the sake of one puzzle of another. This feeling persists irrationally even if the design is evidently good, simply because of the interface.

      As to the more fiddly nature of choice-based interface, I agree it can be that, but a whole monitor’s worth of overlapping screens is hardly ever the best approach to designing such an interface. Stuff like wording the options itself in a writerly manner so the player has to wonder meaningfully which one exactly he/she would like to choose, providing a 4-step decision of 2 options at each step instead of 8 all at once, etc. Also, I think that the elements of a passage in a choice- based narrative should clamor for the player’s attention (and then be acknowledged in the choices), unlike parser-IF where stuff gets interesting only after the player has interacted with something (often repeatedly and with more than one something) and he/she has free rein when and what to interact with.

      Personally, I think I like more the choice-based gameplay potential for “limited actions in a near-infinite universe” (http://www.crypticcomet.com/blog/?p=313), than the parser’s “unlimited actions in a near-infinite universe (but not really)”.

  3. In a parser game you have much more control over the rhythm of response. Some commands return a word, others a page (of course, this is a double-edged sword). I’ll admit I haven’t played the Sorcery! games — is there a video transcript demo somewhere? I’m wondering if the responses you get to choices are all about the same shape and weight.

  4. You present a good case, but I’m not sure I’m convinced … I find that “choice based games”, where the only interaction with the game is clicking on links, are inherently distancing – I don’t feel that I’m in control, but am merely a detached observer. With a parser, I have a strong sense of being part of a simulated world that I can interact with and change, but with only a few choices I feel like I’m wandering round a largely static tree of text. Of course, you can justifiably argue that this difference is an illusion, but then isn’t the whole point of a game to be an illusion of something, and that what matters is how it feels to play the game, not what’s actually going on underneath?

    Perhaps my problem is that choice based games commonly only really offer a few choices at each stage, usually those that advance the narrative. While with parser games there are usually only the same few choices available in a narrative sense, I’m not constrained to go with them: I can play about, going back over previously examined bits of the game or (in Make It Good) watching the world change around me. But adding lots of choices at every stage would seem to make the interface unwieldy, except in the parser case. However, as a long time fan of parser games, I’m hardly your average player, and if I were trying to make a living I wouldn’t consider myself to be representative of much of a target market …

    • For me a lot of the difference has to do precisely with the sorts of features that signal an underlying world model. Trad CYOA does feel a bit detached for me a lot of the time. Once you get more choices, recurring choices that represent persistent verbs, shorter responses describing smaller changes, etc, choice models start to feel much more like the engaging aspects of parser IF. (To me, anyway. I realise mileage varies.)

  5. There is a strong technical throughline in your argument. But I don’t think it is borne out in some of the value conclusions at the end of your branches, to use a CYOA analogy 🙂 And in other ways, what you argue is not relevant to the effect of either type of game; for instance, to illustrate that a parser game could technically become a CYOA game if it moved more ultimately along its own branches. This may be true for a lot of parser games, but it doesn’t necessarily make them worse, or better, or more or less interesting than a CYOA. Though as an explorer of the form, it’s clear you do find that end more interesting.

    At a woods and trees level, the business of bringing thing A to thing B, then seeming to intuit the connection between A and B, is what I see as the defining effect of a parser game. Without the hole of the parser to stick one’s intuition into by typing, fed by quite a complicated relationship you have with the prose, the CYOA can either make/present the connection, or not make the connection available. I feel like this effect starts to get lost in semantics if we slide into degree. One degree feels one way, something in the middle (like A Colder Light) feels different, and something with only explicit choices offered feels different again. It’s an emotional response that changes. Even if a parser IF can be considered a prototype of a more focused CYOA, it has its effect that to me is not reproducible in a different format. So does CYOA. That’s sort of the point where I lose interest in an advocation that one should be collapsed into another.

    Again, it depends on cases. You described a general case of parser IF being able to handle commands in any room, but questioning the value of this given the commands usually involved. For some games, that’s true. In others, it’s important. In a game I made, Six, you can examine pretty much everything and everyone and parts of all those things. As a child simulation game, I think it works well to reflect your character curiosity. Somehow the same mechanism would just seem tedious in a CYOA where every single object (heaps in each room) came with an ‘examine’ link or a hyperlink. And be less lyrical. Though you’d probably write better prose than ‘EXAMINE THE TREE? YOUR SHOES? YOUR SHOELACES? THE TABLE?’ etc 😉 The parser game can trickily include all of the trigger words without actually highlighting any of them in any physical way, or forcing interaction with them. At least if the writing knows how to do the trick.

    – Wade

    • Yeah. I pretty much agree with all that. The parser, in the hands of an artist, definitely has a flavour and effects on its own – wide examination is something that a CYOA couldn’t do as well, and those moments of intuition can only be approximated with choices. And, of course, no one thing is really a superset of another thing.

      I suppose when I’m talking in generalities I’m thinking about scope; what gives me the widest range of things I can do. And I used to think parser IF could do anything with enough work behind it. Now; my view on that has flipped!

  6. As I’ve developed the Windows 8 version of Shadow, I’ve removed the keyboard entry aspect and replaced it with touchable/clickable word lists (nouns, articles, verbs). Since doing this, it’s occurred to me that the process of determining what to type is a puzzle in and of itself and probably has a fairly narrow audience. It’s not the typing that will garner a wider acceptance, it’s the words.

    And the intuitive leap you can make from this is in-line with Jon’s assertions. The reader, as long as they have some control over the words, will feel the same interactivity as a parser-based game. The part that’s missing is the typing from scratch.

    If you think about someone that’s played IF for years, the whole typing thing is probably unnecessary anyway. We all know the most common verbs. Why should we need to type them? We know the sentence structures. A lot can be inferred.

    Those inferences, turned into choices, are probably closer to a well-placed product than most parser-based IF.

    • “We all know the most common verbs. Why should we need to type them?”

      As far as the narrow audience of parser-proficient IF players goes, one answer is that it’s much quicker and easier to type the verbs than to click them, at least on a computer. “x bench” flows from my fingers just as if I were speaking. Moving the mouse over to the “examine” button and then over to the “bench” hyperlink, or worse yet moving the mouse over to the “examine” button and then typing in “bench,” would be a lot more annoying if I had to do it to progress.

      (I think of something like SpaceChem, where you have to deploy a bunch of different kinds of gizmo that are represented in a menu at the bottom of the screen. The natural way to do this is click on an element and drag it onto your grid — and this is really annoying. I always use the unintuitive keyboard shortcuts so I don’t have to spend all my time sweeping the mouse around.)

      This is probably much different on touchscreen devices, partly because it’s a lot easier to tap the link on the screen, and partly because it’s a lot harder to type.

  7. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned A Colder Light. By taking a parser game, with the implied word model, and just changing the interface to buttons, would you say it becomes a choice-based game, as you describe it? You can still “break” the narrative with “context-free actions” by examining things and walking around pointlessly. Does that hurt the narrative?

    Did you design A Colder Light with the intent of it having a “button interface”? If not, in the process of converting it, did you feel like presenting the player with explicit choices made it a better work, away from being a “prototype”? Could the work be further improved by porting it to Inkle?

    With the Photopia moment, it’s clear that Parser IF excels in letting the player gleam something subtle from the text that does not have to be telegraphed with a highlighted/hyperlinked word or otherwise presented as an explicit choice. I remember reading about some comics, maybe Sandman, where the editor or letterer bolded certain words in the text that were foreshadowing something, but the author was concerned that diminished the reading experience.

    Leisure Suit Larry 7 had an interesting mechanic: As a point-and-click graphical adventure, you could click on objects, which would open up a context menu with available verbs. There was an extra option available called “Other…” which allowed you to type in your own verb. This was mostly put in as a nostalgic call-back to the old parser-based Sierra games, and was mainly used for jokes and easter eggs. Reading a walkthrough, I can find only two spots where it was required, and those weren’t a result of revelatory inspirations on the player’s part.

    One possible approach in a choice-based interface is to hyperlink all the words, but that is reminiscent of pixel-hunting in graphical adventures. howling dogs includes a page that is mostly hyperlinks, but I think that’s mostly for stylistic purposes and not meant as a puzzle or test of the player’s understanding.

    • SPOILER

      “howling dogs includes a page that is mostly hyperlinks, but I think that’s mostly for stylistic purposes and not meant as a puzzle or test of the player’s understanding.”

      Actually it is; part of the function of the page’s initial appearance is to disguise that it’s a puzzle.

      • I thought I clicked on every link in order and they all gave the same response.
        I’ll try again sometimes 🙂

      • Read the text carefully; there’s a clue about which one is going to yield something different.

    • To respond on A Colder Light — I originally wrote it for a parser, then button-ised it, then eventually turned the parser off. The interactions in that game are all things that parsers can do; looking back now I think it’s pretty solid, and if I converted it to inkle I probably wouldn’t change much. But — if I had been creating it in an inkle format, I’m fairly sure it would contain a broader range of types of action and interaction, since I would have had a broader range of things the player could feasibly do.

      So, by being a parser project, I limited what I was able to do in the story. Nevertheless, I hope I covered up for that limitation well and did a good job.

  8. I’m also finding that there’s more I can do with choice-based experiences (in Versu) than I expected, and like you, I find that that has to do with an underlying model that allows me to think in parserish terms.

    The Roman Versu story coming out soon is a project I’ve tried to write in the past both as parser IF and as lightly stateful CYOA, and neither was a good fit. The story is too much about people and not enough about things to be good parser IF; at the same time, there’s too much I want to do with player agency and complex character states for something like ChoiceScript to handle it at all well. (I tried! But… no.)

    Choice-based with a strong model is just right, though. It lets the player choose to do some quite complicated things that would be very hard to express with a parser, keeps the story moving forward constantly, but still allows a sense of presence in the world and moment-to-moment action that I have a hard time replicating in less stateful CYOA.

    And I think you may be right that Make It Good would be well-served by a similar format.

    I’m not quite on board with ditching the parser forever — though I also agree with you that despite a lot of hard and interesting UI work we have not overcome its fundamental accessibility problems. That fact by itself means anything one writes for the parser is going to have a much smaller potential audience.

  9. “Choice-based with a strong model is just right, though. It lets the player choose to do some quite complicated things that would be very hard to express with a parser, keeps the story moving forward constantly, but still allows a sense of presence in the world and moment-to-moment action that I have a hard time replicating in less stateful CYOA.”

    When I read this I kept thinking of “their angelical understanding”: that it has such a sense of spatiality and depth of field that feels huge while playing it–in the service of making an emotional quest feel very tactile and concrete.

    I think it can also be a design challenge sometimes when there is a multitude of triggers and flags that are “buried”: how to let the player KNOW that they are affecting the text in some fashion down the road in the story? Some times it will be more obvious than others. (Or rather, the way to do this–if at all–is different than in parser-based work, where one can rely more on the examination/search commands to have the player tease out differences in an environment).

  10. You present a good case, but I’m not sure I’m convinced … I find that “choice based games”, where the only interaction with the game is clicking on links, are inherently distancing – I don’t feel that I’m in control, but am merely a detached observer. With a parser, I have a strong sense of being part of a simulated world that I can interact with and change, but with only a few choices I feel like I’m wandering round a largely static tree of text. Of course, you can justifiably argue that this difference is an illusion, but then isn’t the whole point of a game to be an illusion of something, and that what matters is how it feels to play the game, not what’s actually going on underneath?

    Perhaps my problem is that choice based games commonly only really offer a few choices at each stage, usually those that advance the narrative. While with parser games there are usually only the same few choices available in a narrative sense, I’m not constrained to go with them: I can play about, going back over previously examined bits of the game or (in Make It Good) watching the world change around me. But adding lots of choices at every stage would seem to make the interface unwieldy, except in the parser case. However, as a long time fan of parser games, I’m hardly your average player, and if I were trying to make a living I wouldn’t consider myself to be representative of much of a target market …

  11. I think there’s some compelling points you’ve made here. And certainly the idea that with Inkle you’re able to do things much faster than in parser-based development is interesting. And yet… I think a lot of this still comes down to personal preference and experience. This is completely subjective, but I like parser based games more. But I admit this is perhaps no different than my preference for 3 chord Rock and Blues over Jazz, beer over wine, dive restaurants over white linen, murder mysteries over literary fiction, or any other personal preferences.

    If there’s a hybrid parser game with the ability to pick commands visually, I would find that interesting. Conventional CYOA seems so limiting to me that I don’t feel the same sense of engagement as with parser based stories. But I think there is still plenty of room for experimentation and improvement in all these areas and I’m glad that people are willing to do this work.

  12. I think the most promising interface is a parser with Threaded Conversations – an interface which isn’t limited only to conversations btw. It allows the author to give suggestions for the next turn, while allowing the player to type anything at all. It allows for unique actions without coding up verb after verb each for a single use. It would even be possible to have the suggestions be hyperlinks so that the players wouldn’t have to type unless they wanted to go beyond the suggested paths.

    • Doesn’t Jon’s own Dead Cities do more or less that?

      • For a long time, I had this idea of making a choice-based game where the choices were all in “parser-ese”, and that could stealthily teach the player how to talk to the parser proper. I still think that approach would work, too, as a way of leading people into playing parser games.

        I guess what I’m saying here, though, is I’m not sure I want to be leading people in parser games any more. I think parser games are too limited. I think I like writing choice-based games, because I can do almost all the stuff I liked in a parser game, but I can also do characters, scenes, set-pieces, action… and I can do a *lot* of it, very fast.

  13. To recognize the fundamental difference between parser-based and choice-based games: it is of course that in parser IF, you have to come up with your own commands, while in choice-based IF the alternatives are laid out in front of you. So while we can draw some comparisons, it is often like comparing pears and apples. These are two differing mediums and both can produce good games, but it is really hard to objectively say whether one would be better than the other. It might be basically just a matter of opinion. In parser IF, a good story or puzzle requires creative thinking or even leaps of logic – you really have to think to come up with the right command. This is what I enjoy about parser-based games.

    One more comment: you wrote

    “In fact, I’d argue there’s only one area that parser games hold high over choice-based structures, and that’s “context-free actions”: actions which are always available, but have little impact on the game-state; such as examining, checking your inventory, or moving around the map. ”

    Well, how about word-play games? Or some games requiring logic? I was thinking about my own game “Ted Paladin And The Case Of The Abandoned House”. It has both word-play and logic puzzles. It would be a nightmare to implement as a choice-based game, most probably impossible. Of course the same goes for any such game (Ad Verbum, Letters From Home, Nord And Bert…).

    • That’s true — games where you genuinely use the parser creatively, coming up with things to type which are fresh solutions. That would be difficult to CYOA. But, that is a slightly niche genre, I think? Not better/worse, but still “thin”?

  14. I would love to see a concrete example of your design process (say, for a particular scene/location), having fumbled my way through 4 abortive attempts at writing a choice-based piece with a world model. It’s something that I think has been underdiscussed in the community (even if I’ve only recently started fumbling my way through the community itself)

  15. Interesting thoughts. My fourth-place Ectocomp SpeedIF Faithful Companion is a game that I think wouldn’t have worked at all as a choice-based game; the actions you do have a systematic effect such that fiddling with the extra-diegetic actions Trip talked about can be important to figuring out what’s going on. (That’s a grandiose claim! I’m a bit unwilling to make it less grandiose to avoid spoiling my own game, but if you want to see what I mean without playing look at the NightFloyd transcript. And they didn’t solve the next puzzle, so it’s not even that spoily!)

    Another thought, though, is that the variation of scale that choice-based games enables might not play so nicely with the world model. In order to interact with a world model you need actions that have commensurable effects. Maybe a bunch of different actions have different effects on your hit points, or your mood, or the esteem various characters have for you, or something. And those can have effects on what story branches open. But it seems to me that the variations in scale most naturally wind up as a branching tree that’s laid on top of a world model. (For contrast look at Fallen London, which tracks stats and inventory and relationships heavily, and in which every action is pretty much reflected in that world model; it can do a lot of things but giving you a sense of variation in scale of your different actions isn’t one of them.) Not that I should presume to lecture you on this!

    Also, I wonder the extent to which the different devices can shape our perceptions here. Is it more natural to interact with a computer by typing things and with a mobile by tapping links on the screen?

    • Fallen London doesn’t really match my model of a world-model-based choice-game at all, really; most of the actions / plotlets there are provided out of direct context with one another, through “weak stats”. I’m thinking of much more tightly contextualised sequences of actions, and I think those can scale quite easily. For instance, we might have a series of three choices that cover how to operate a machine; or how to sail a boat up a river; or how to position the members of your party to watch the camp overnight. The model’s the same but the scope of action is quite different (and a choice game can enjoy these without ever revisiting any of the “mechanics” used in each scene).

      I think for the player device is important, yes; typing on a mobile is horrid, and link-clicking on a desktop is perhaps too passive to be truly engaging.

      As for Faithful Companion… so there are a bevy of IF works out there that uses simulation-style mechanics to allow the player some agency, and some puzzle-solving, world-altering clout. I like that kind of thing! And it can be tough to imagine in a choice-based framework. But I have a nagging feeling that it probably *can* be done, with a little thought, and some clever pacing… and that once done, you not only get a very cool choice-based game, but you *also* get the chance to insert, say, a tightly written dialogue sequence. (My own Make It Good is kinda like this too in structure, you see, and I’m not at all sure it can be done in a choice-way. But I’m starting to think it both can and *should*.)

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