Short, Friendly Parser Puzzle Games

From time to time I post lists of games that do particular things. This time the criteria are: the game is a relatively short, not overwhelmingly difficult parser piece, which should be playable in a couple of hours (and often less); it has definite puzzles, a game-like arc, and a win state; and it’s old enough, new enough, or under-discussed enough that you might not have already heard of it.

I almost put Oppositely Opal in here, as that is just the kind of game I’m talking about, but its healthy batch of XYZZY nominations mean you probably know about it already.

RaRLargeReference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics. This is a fairly new Ryan Veeder game, and it reveals its Veederishness first by using a title that fakes you out into thinking you are about to download someone’s thesis. It is, in fact, an entertaining short puzzle game about being an early human, someone who doesn’t yet understand the concepts of language and symbol. It is not just a game with a protagonist who knows less than the player; it is actually exploring how we understand what see when we see it, and models the transformation of the protagonist’s understanding. If you like the idea of cave man communication as game, you might also want to check out The Edifice.

seeksorrowStarry Seeksorrow (Caleb Wilson). From last year’s ShuffleComp. The protagonist is a magical doll that comes to life when necessary to protect the main character: this is gentle fantasy with a few hints of something darker behind the scenes.

Ka (Dan Efran). An escape game themed around the Egyptian afterlife, in which you have to perform rituals in order to make progress as a soul. It’s solemn and dreamy, and sometimes a bit reminiscent of Zarf’s work: a landscape full of partially metaphorical objects, an absence of other people or the pressure of time.

fragileshells.pngFragile Shells (Stephen Granade). Escape from a damaged orbiting space station. Granade is a physicist who has worked extensively with NASA and on communicating scientific concepts to a general audience; Fragile Shells presents a realistic, near-future setting, in contrast with a lot of space games. Speaking of which:

Piracy 2.0 (Sean Huxter). Your spaceship is attacked by pirates; can you get out and save yourself? This one is particularly rich in alternate solutions and story outcomes, and is longer than most of the others on this page, while still being roughly the length for IF Comp. I really enjoyed it at the time, but it hasn’t been discussed as much afterwards as I might have expected, especially given the rich array of possible outcomes the story provides.

Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life (Truthcraze). As the name implies, this is an Indiana Jones-style adventure with a couple of unexpected puzzles. The comp version had a few tricky moments, but I generally enjoyed it.

beetmongerIf you like the archaeology angle but don’t want to spend the whole game on that, The Beetmonger’s Journal (Scott Starkey) has an archaeological frame story and some fun experimentation with narrative and viewpoint.

Sparkle (Juhana Leinonen) offers mystical, transformative magic puzzles, from the original ShuffleComp. The internal logic of those puzzles is a bit silly, but the game clues them well enough to make it all work.


Looking for something longer? Here’s a list of substantial, high-quality, but underplayed large parser games.

Readerly Experiments in Narrative Form

Sometimes people write to me asking for suggested lists of interactive fiction that fit particular criteria. When that happens, I like to publish the results to my blog rather than just answer by email — both in order to establish a resource for other people in the future, and in case commenters here have additional thoughts that might be useful.

Yesterday I was on a panel that included Richard Beard. He is an author of novels (including the OuLiPian Damascus, which constrained itself to use no words not in a specific issue of the Times) and nonfiction, as well as a contributor to PAPERCUT, an enhanced ebook app. Today he wrote to me for suggested IF — perhaps prompted by my vehement assertion during the panel that there’s lots of interactive fiction that is not simply an enhancement of a pre-existing static text:

I’m particularly interested in any experience that is excitingly different from reading a book, but still recognisable as reading (rather than, say, wordy gaming). This would seem to mean experiments with narrative, with new ways of enfolding form and content and new ways of enlivening conventional storytelling techniques.

“Recognisable as reading rather than wordy gaming” seems to me to exclude parser-based works, since those require typed input: probably not a “reading” activity. Otherwise I would include last year’s Map and Midnight. Swordfight., both of which are certainly experimenting with allowing a plot to be radically reshaped (but within a predictable system) by the reader’s actions. I’d also mention Analogue: A Hate Story for its compelling use of a database narrative structure; Lime Ergot for evoking the reader’s curiosity and telling its story through telescoping descriptions; What Fuwa Bansaku Found for its reweaving of translated Japanese poetry into a new story. Alethicorp‘s storytelling via a faux corporate website probably also includes too many non-reading actions.

The request suggests that the writer might not be looking for something like 80 Days, which — though very much an experiment in narrative and remixable vignettes — bears enough game markers in terms of scores and goals that it might be off-putting to a readerly audience. Anything from StoryNexus is probably off the table, thanks to the card metaphor and overt mechanics. The emphasis on reading would also seem to exclude interactive film, interactive audio, and interactive comics.

Even the Choice of Games catalog — though almost purely textual — might seem too game-like, given that there are success and failure possibilities and some stats-tracking is expected if you want to get the best outcome. (Otherwise, as a first taste of CoG for someone interested in readerly merits, my picks would be The City’s Thirst for general prose quality and imagery, and Slammed! for its investment in its character arcs.)

And given the desire to actually try the works in question, I unfortunately also cannot suggest anything from the Versu project, since those apps are now unavailable.

So now that I’ve eliminated many many honorable mentions:

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Interactive Film


The bump in FMV games in 2015 sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole investigating interactive film, and games with a large component of filmed content; and here is a bit of a round-up of what I found.


Her Story, an interactive database game, about which I’ve written several times. It makes strong use of its exploration mechanic and has been positively received in a lot of places, though there have also been some vocal objections to what might be a misleading portrayal of mental illness.

The Last Hours of Laura K is another game (after a fashion) about exploring database footage. In this case, you have many, many hours of footage of Laura K during the last hours of her life, collected from cell phones and surveillance cameras and other sources – the sort of tapestry you might imagine law enforcement being able to pull together either now or in the very near future. There’s too much here to watch straight through, though, so you can also access different snippets associated with times when Laura was sending or receiving social media messages, since you also have access to her media accounts. I don’t feel I’ve yet solved anything, but it’s a curious and voyeuristic experience that captures some of the same exploratory play.

Contradiction, a murder mystery adventure, covered on Offworld and reviewed here (and an honorable mention for narrative in the IGF). Despite some moments of frustration, I generally liked the acting, the strong sense of pace, and the design, which stuck to the contradiction-spotting mechanic with just a few light lock and key/evidence-finding puzzles.

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IF for the Lengthening Nights: Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson); Witches and Wardrobes (Anna Anthropy); Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)

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Late fall hasn’t always been the greatest time for me. Like a lot of people, I’m responsive to the amount of sun in my life; on top of that, when I was a junior academic, that was the point at which real panic set in about finding a job for the next year.

A couple of those years I was living in the midwest, too, as a really unprepared coast-native. My colleagues in Minnesota took pity on me and gave me a down jacket to wear, a hand-me-down from one of their wives, because I had somehow not grasped that it was going to start snowing and keep snowing and not stop with the snow for the next four or five months. The jacket was enormous and teal. I looked like an 80s-themed reskin of the Michelin Man. As the winter went on, I also needed gloves and silk long johns and a ski mask because, with wind chill, it would get to twenty below sometimes on the way to work. I didn’t have a car. Getting groceries was a problem. I wasn’t sure how much I should be running the heater because, having just moved into this apartment, I didn’t know how efficient the system was and I was afraid of getting slapped with a huge bill I wouldn’t be able to pay.

Now this was all hard to navigate, because things that make me sad include: being thousands of miles from my family, friends, and significant other; being uncertain about my job future; getting very little sunlight; being cold a lot; being hungry a lot; falling down on the ice and bruising myself (at least once per trip). Oh, and I had a fun medical emergency at one point, too.

That was the year I started taking a survivalist approach to mental health. One of the stupid things about sadness is that it gets harder to remember how to make yourself less sad. I gathered my anti-sadness devices and I put them in one cabinet in the kitchen: chocolate, favorite books and candles to light and gifts from friends and things that made me happy to look at. I made anti-sadness playlists. I had a perfume, essence of blood orange, that I’d wear for protection when things were particularly bad. (“For protection”: I’m not ascribing magical powers to it, but even just finding the desire to protect yourself can be important, depending on your state of mind.)

On the front of the emergency anti-sadness cabinet, I taped a postcard from a French town where I’d spent a week with my partner. I didn’t quite go so far as to write “Hey, dumbass, if you are sad, >OPEN CABINET” — but that was the meaning of the card, an inescapable in-plain-sight reminder in case I was too sad-stupid to remember on my own.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of introducing a couple of games that touch on some of those feelings and that (at least for me) are ultimately comforting.

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IF Comp 2015 Roundup

ifcomp15 logoI have now reviewed all the comp games I am going to review, though some of the reviews have yet to be published. Most recent years I’ve done an end-of-comp roundup (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007) in which I talk about standout games, as well as some trends I noticed arising from the competition. This year by request I’m doing that early, even though there are still a bunch of reviews still to come out. It is little lighter on trend analysis than previously, but then one of this year’s main features was having a little of everything, and being less easily summarized.

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2015 in Interactive Fiction So Far

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It might seem a little late in the calendar year to do a half-year roundup of interactive fiction, but in fact the end of September is typically the turning point of the year: after summer is over but just before the release of the annual IF Comp games.

First, a general Don’t Miss category. This is personal and doubtless incomplete, but:

Best of. On IFDB, stalwart reviewer MathBrush has a list of 2015’s best IF releases so far. It’s a very good list, with a variety of parser and choice-based IF to look at. I might also add Caelyn Sandel’s Bloom series, Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie’s Neon Haze, and Vajra Chandrasekera’s Snake Game.

Other standouts for me have been Her Story (my review, followup thoughts), Lifeline, Sunset, Below, and Arcadia. Some of these I enjoyed, some I thought were interesting, and some seemed likely to have a strong impact on future work (and I’ve unpacked some of that later in this post). They’re all worth knowing about.

And this is a little outside the standard IF fold, but I enjoyed the FMV graphical adventure Contradiction a lot more than I expected to.

An undercelebrated resource in walkthroughs: David Welbourn has been building a steady supply of high-quality parser IF walkthroughs, supported by his Patreon. When I say “high-quality”, I mean that they’re divided into sections for easier use, provide maps and commentary, and frequently include discussion of how you’re meant to figure out a particular puzzle. Often David will go out of his way to document interesting side aspects of the game in question. These walkthroughs make games accessible that might have been too hard to get through or demanded too big a time commitment before, and they provide a useful resource for people writing up games later (whether in an academic context or not). It’s often fun to read through after you’ve finished a game and find out what you missed.

Here are his walkthroughs for a few games that I remember enjoying but thought were a bit overlooked by the community at large (sometimes because they were challenging): Muggle Studies, Adventurer’s Consumer Guide, Katana. Or perhaps you’ll like Firebird, which did make a bit of a splash in 1998 when it came out, but doesn’t get a lot of discussion now. And style points for providing a walkthrough of Everything We Do Is Games.

Digital Antiquarian. Jimmy Maher’s blog about the history of interactive fiction (and related games) through the 1980s is consistently compelling. He approaches the work from many angles — the history of the companies and individuals writing the software, the state of the industry, the themes and design of the games themselves. Superb. I occasionally call out links in my link roundups each month, but every post is worth reading.

Sub-Q Magazine. I am so excited about this that I go around annoyingly telling people about it at the drop of a hat — which is also why I’ve used a screenshot of Sub-Q’s current lineup at the top of this post. Sub-Q is an online magazine for interactive fiction. It pays authors, which gets into another 2015 trend that I’ll talk about in a minute, but what excites me even more is the editorial discipline and mission of the site. The first two months of Sub-Q have featured well-chosen reprints, new work from established and rising IF authors, and interactive pieces solicited from speculative fiction authors who haven’t previously worked in IF. Moreover, that work comes from all over the world and represents a variety of cultural perspectives. The currently running story is a wonderfully vivid piece of Nigerian fantasy. This doesn’t happen by accident, but only as a result of dedicated editorial work.

New works come out with cover art and blurbs. The site runs author interviews and tool coverage as well, in between stories. It is great, seriously, filling an important unfilled space in this field. As recently as my 2014 retrospective post, people were speculating about whether something like this would even be possible. I will be really really sad if it winds up having to shut down due to lack of subscription. If I were an eccentric IF-loving billionaire, one of my first moves would be to make sure Sub-Q was fully funded.

After the fold, more thoughts on specific trends and developments.

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