Mailbag: Statefulness without a Parser

Hi Emily, I appreciate the content you create to further the IF community.

I’m curious what games or platforms stand out to solve some of the issues you listed in your parser article 9 [years] ago.

I’d like to create a text heavy game with detailed world state and want to research the projects that handle these situations the best. Specifically UI driven interaction from the player. 

[I then asked for confirmation that the writer would like to see this handled as a mailbag post.]:

I’d love to see a follow up on how you feel things have changed. From the perspective of a “traditional” game developer IF seems stuck in an award state [sic] of being too gamey for readers and not enough mechanics for gamers. It’s a hard problem to solve as most people aren’t writers, programmers and designers , that’s a lot of skill sets to tackle.

I’m not quite sure what “an award state” is, but maybe “an awkward state”? I disagree, though. “Not enough mechanics for gamers” or not, games from 80 Days to Choices and Episode to the works of Choice of Games to Failbetter’s entire oeuvre are making enough money and attracting enough attention to support quite a few small to medium studios. And that doesn’t touch on the audio IF, the visual novels, the interactive film, etc., etc., etc. Interactive fiction, broadly drawn, is doing fine. And I know quite a lot of traditional game developers who think so, too.

But okay, let’s set aside that part of the question. The question is about how to do UI for a game with a lot of world state and a lot of text, but without a parser.

Many IF tools in the last decade have been trying to solve a different set of problems. ink is designed for use in commercial-sized branching story games, but it’s designed for a branching menu type of player experience. Texture binds the user more tightly to the text, rather than more tightly to the world model. Windrift focuses on presentation. Dialog is still designed for parser-based play, and is looking at different ways of handling the coding, rather than different ways of handling input.

detectiveland

Of course, there are some exceptions. Robin Johnson’s Versificator is about exactly this issue. Detectiveland and other recent games in the Versificator system present options to the player as links, but keep an inventory and quite a bit of world state around, allowing for fairly complex and sophisticated puzzles.

There’s quite a lot going on in the page layout of a typical Versificator game, so it can be a little overwhelming, and I don’t know how well the system plays with screenreaders. (Possibly just fine — I simply don’t know.) But as a way of handling what is essentially a parser-style world model with no typed verb guessing, this is one way to solve the problem.

Another standard approach is to mark up the text of a game with links associated with the in-game objects, with a result that can look a little more like a conventional Twine game. Quest and Inform + Vorple can both be used to build experiences of this kind.

Re: Dragon uses Inform to drive gameplay that uses hypertext paradigms some of the time and some of the time a simulated inbox:

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 9.23.43 PM

Meanwhile, here’s a sample scene from a Quest game (Victorian Detective 2), where we see options associated with specific objects:

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 9.59.16 PM.png

Then there’s Wunderverse, which seemed to be trying to solve this problem. I haven’t heard anything about it significantly developing in the past few years, and the apps on the app store have very very few reviews, but it was trying to deal with the question of a parser-esque world model as well.

Insignificant Little Vermin was an IF Comp game from 2017 that had text and a menu system tied to a detailed combat model. It was a demo of the Egamebook system, which apparently tracks a spatial representation of the world in some degree of detail.

Moving further afield, Character Engine also does UI for otherwise open-ended experiences, though its focus is dialogue mechanics rather than small-object manipulation. My talk Conversation as Gameplay gets into some of the details of how I approached one particular game.

In fact, there is a whole category of posts on my blog that looks at works that somehow straddle the line between parser and choice-based interfaces. There’s quite a lot in there.

*

So there are some tools and examples. I have also a little advice from a higher-level theory perspective, which may or may not be useful.

Which is: if your game has many many affordances, then the challenge is to let the player efficiently search the possibility space for affordances she can use.

A parser allows the player to type anything without going through subsidiary layers, so it’s fast, but it doesn’t guarantee that what has been typed will be a valid affordance, so the experience may be frustrating.

Games like The Sims tie menus to objects in a physical world, so you’ve got clusters of affordances: things you can do with a TV, things you can do with a stove, things you can do with a bathtub, and so on. That’s one way of indexing things, and Quest is doing something similar by attaching verb menus to individual objects in the game text.

Much older menu system games attempted similar things in the 1990s, though sometimes these were organized verb-first rather than noun-first:

lucasarts

But if we think of this as fundamentally an organization-and-search problem, we might also reach for some familiar search UX paradigms. In particular, people are very used to Google-style search bars where you can type keywords, get suggestions, and see a list of options after the search has been committed. An Earth Turning Slowly explores that idea a bit, but one could do a lot more with it.

One thought on “Mailbag: Statefulness without a Parser”

  1. I want to mention the Elm Narrative Engine, because it is highly related to this topic, and I feel should be included in the discussion.
    This tool is web-based, has a “schemaless” world model for building complex world states with minimal restrictions, employs a “salience” and “quality” based rule matching system, and is view agnostic. UI typically centers around nouns rather than verbs, somewhat like classic point and click adventure games, but you could display the world state any way you want, and interactions can be anything from clicking “links”, to something as complex as using the the browser’s Geolocation API.
    Version 5.0 has just been released with a new text based authoring syntax and debug tools. You can play with a live sandbox example at https://ellie-app.com/7QdZzstKG6Fa1.

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