Venience World (Daniel Spitz, Spring Thing 2018)

Venience World from Spring Thing 2018 offers another possible revision on the parser. Every turn, you have a command line, but listed below it are suggested autocompletions, one word at a time. You can select an autocompletion with up/down arrows, or you can click on one, or you can type out the contents. After you’ve picked the first word, you get options for the next word or phrase, and so on until you’ve completed a line of input.

Below, for instance, we’re offered the opportunity to start with “look” or “open”:

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 1.42.38 PM.png

These parser training-wheels mean that the game can allow the player fairly unusual commands, like BEGIN INTERPRETATION, with no fear of verb-guessing. In this regard, it builds on the author’s previous work Niney, also using unusual parser commands.

Venience World prevents you from reentering a previous command verbatim even if it seems like that command ought to be currently available, and that has results that can feel straight-up buggy. (At one point I repeatedly tried to type LOOK and it would just not register the K keystroke at all, in a weird and disorienting way. I tried several times before I realized that I wasn’t allowed to enter the word LOOK right then, but this feels like the least intuitive way to communicate that to the player.)

There are a handful of previous pieces that have played with similar methods.

Caroline requires the player to type in their choices even though only a handful of options exist: this is an input option that feels antagonistic and high-friction, creating an adversarial relationship between the player and the game. An Earth Turning Slowly uses typing as a way to search through a long list of possible choices and filter down to just the ones the player might want to select.

This particular variant offers a bit more freedom than Caroline — frequently there are more options available. But at least to me, it felt as though agency was severely reduced, and I was less in control of what I was doing and what choices I was making than I would have been even in a conventional CYOA, because often I would start on the path of entering a command without knowing or being able to anticipate what the final words would turn out to be.

I also found that this interface slowed me down. Different input methods allow for different speeds of movement: single clickable options let you move very fast through a narrative, sometimes without fully digesting or understanding the prose first. Parser IF is also usually fast for me, because I type quickly and commands tend to be 2-4 words long at a maximum, so the interaction loop is tight. Venience‘s interface was asking me to do a series of brief menu selections, and that was slower, more on par with the way the Texture interface incorporates physical drag movements into issuing a command.

To go back to a choice input rubric I put together a couple of years ago,

  • Effort — this is more effort than normal parser for me, even if that seems counterintuitive
  • Expressiveness — often I only have one or two options for what I can say on a given turn, even if the wording changes a lot
  • Ambiguity — the system here is almost anti-systematic, not allowing the player to develop and use a consistent vocabulary but forcing new options regularly, and not always making it at all clear what your choices have done to the world model
  • Discoverability — highly discoverable; indeed, this system makes the process of discovery into the main thing the player is actually doing with the interface
  • Pressure — low pressure; there’s little likelihood of failure and no time pressure
  • Embodiment — low embodiment; what you’re doing bears little resemblance to what the protagonist is doing

So this feels like a rubric for high-exploration, low-agency pieces in which my connection to the story is more intellectual than visceral (because embodiment and pressure are low).

And that experience is no doubt intentional. The author writes

Thematically, Venience World is about the thought processes underlying the interpretation of our experiences. Feeling lost, searching for meaning, arriving at and revising our understanding of things.

…and the story concerns someone who is directionless and doesn’t understand their situation.

There’s a second curiosity about the way the text works here, this time on the output side. Usually the selections you make result in new text at the bottom of the screen, creating a standard parser IF-style scrollback. But just occasionally, you’re making modifications to an isolated region of text, like so:

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 2.04.02 PM.png

…so that text changes are appearing in the outlined box, but the commands causing change continue to accumulate at the bottom of scrollback. This also felt a bit counter-intuitive. I think the author wants to show the effects of your actions on ongoing world state, so that needs to be presented in a static layout that can be easily referenced; but the usual way of doing this in IF is to have a status bar at the top (if the contents are quite brief) or a sidebar at the left or right (if they’re longer). That visual distinction helps communicate to the player which text belongs to the temporal flow of the story and which does not.

So overall: this is trying something interesting, but it still feels like it hasn’t finished working out all the complications. I also found the story itself abstract and slow moving. I wake up from sleep, I remember that I’m obsessed with a sequence of numbers, I realize I’m stuck on my research… The low-urgency narrative combined with a low-agency, slow method of entry led to fairly low engagement and immersion.

I could see taking this input method in a different direction. For instance, I might give the player a protagonist with complex and advanced powers that are new to you — such as martial arts moves, performance skills, or social maneuvering. In that case, each turn when you’re exploring what you’re allowed to do right now, the choice-making/choice-revealing interface is doing important narrative work in communicating the protagonist’s identity and world.


Also possibly interesting: this longer discussion of experimentation around what a parser can do.

3 thoughts on “Venience World (Daniel Spitz, Spring Thing 2018)”

  1. I actually was thinking of something similar to this once — a traditional parser interface plus a sidebar listing the verbs that, given the current worldstate, were possible to use productively at the moment. A sort of smart training wheels for new players in a way. I have no idea how successful it would be. It might be a challenge to do it dynamically, but I was also imagining mining the transcripts of an established game (or saving everyone’s commands, like a creepy user-subsidized webapp) and answering the question “what do people usually do in this location?” Admittedly getting enough transcripts might be nontrivial.

    1. There have been a couple of projects vaguely like this, though they were both years ago now and I’m not finding any currently functional links for them.

      One was a site that let you record comments about an IF game as you played, which would be displayed back to another player when they got to the same point; it was a way of adding marginalia, essentially. There were only a few games implemented on the site, though IIRC Galatea was one of them.

      The other was a site that, as you suggest, would show you things that other people had typed in the same location you were currently in, and I recall that existing for either Zork or Colossal Cave, though again it’s been quite a long time and I’ve forgotten. The result, naturally, was that there were loads of suggestions for the first few rooms, and way fewer suggestions later on, but it was kind of interesting.

      Then, as a built-in tutorial feature, my game Bronze does have a mode that suggests currently functional commands based on where you are.

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