So Jonathan Blow’s recent criticism of the IF community has been getting a lot of attention (Aric Maddux, Chris Klimas, Robb Sherwin, Stephen Granade, indiegamer, metafilter), and that may be why we got a spin-off Metafilter thread on the topic of parsers today.
I have a couple of thoughts about this.
1. This is Jonathan Blow. He tends to be outspoken — what he has to say about adventure games in this article is nothing compared with what he has to say about social games, which he labels as outright evil. There’s some content backing both points, but it’s been generalized and strongly stated for effect. While I disagree with a lot of the substance and think it could stand to be quite a bit more nuanced, he’s giving an interview about a future product, in which he has successfully said a lot of provocative things, generated a buzz, and positioned himself memorably with respect to a couple of other schools of gaming. To a reader less sensitized than we are, this might come off as no more than “this game will be content-rich, not work like social games, and will have some of the appeal of an adventure game, but more accessible.”
2. That said, the examples that he’s using suggest that he’s not really responding to the latest and greatest. So I feel free not to take them especially seriously as criticism of the latest community output.
2a. Yeah, the hat tip to the awesome plot device that is amnesia — that’s worth a snicker, but so what? Someone sufficiently skilled could still do a cool game about amnesia. Whether that person is Jonathan Blow remains to be seen.
2b. It looks like he is taking a specific potshot at Telltale’s episodic adventure games. I haven’t played by any means all of them, but I find them relatively free of maddening adventure game logic, pleasantly accessible, and really funny. That said, they are closer to graphical adventure roots than much modern IF is to its roots. IF has made forays into the puzzleless, the systematic/simulationist (where puzzles are based on a standard set of learnable rules and multiple solutions are available for most problems), and the tactical (where there is a whole scale of possible win/loss via randomized combat, etc.) I do occasionally wonder what would happen if there were more graphical adventure games that explored some of that territory — though I’m sure there are more than I’m currently aware of. See also Life Flashes By.
3. The idea Blow repeats here is a standard meme. On the big scale of Cluelessness about the Thing He Is Critiquing, this rates only about 5 picoEberts. And that’s our problem to solve. There will always be a serious barrier to sharing and marketing IF as long as the standard perception is that it’s about fighting the parser.
Part of the problem is that lots of people haven’t really played much IF since 1980-odd; another part is that the way IF has developed isn’t in the direction that they think it should have developed. There are good reasons why the parser hasn’t (and shouldn’t!) become a chatbot that pretends to understand all player input, but that’s a natural direction to wonder about; see this old chat with Brian Moriarty, who, I think we can agree, has more of an insider view on the problem than Blow ever has.
Meanwhile, we’ve made some progress on teaching the player IF affordances — which I think is the real solution here — but it’s not a finished process. We’re working on these issues, in a lot of different forms and projects.
Anyway. Long story short: yeah, I agree Blow is incorrect about what we’re doing and about our evolution. But I don’t think his being off base is really anything more than a reminder of something we all already knew: IF has PR problems. Our best steps forward aren’t visible enough. They don’t do enough to supplant what people already think about interactive fiction.