Thaumistry (Bob Bates)

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I recently wrote about Bob Bates’ commercial parser IF game Thaumistry for PC Gamer. Bob was kind enough to speak with me about the project for context.

A couple of other observations came up in that conversation with Bob that couldn’t go into the PC Gamer article because they involved spoilers or too much detail about parser IF implementation, but I thought I’d discuss them briefly here.

I’ll do the spoilery bits last, with additional warning, for those who might not have played the game but intend to do so in the future.

Other references.

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Mailbag: The Unique Selling Points of Parser IF

@mattlaschneider writes: I’d love to see a series of posts geared towards people who are interested in learning to write parser IF in a post-Twine era… I could be totally off base, but I do think that parser IF has a lot to offer people who would normally otherwise be attracted to Twine.

We then had a long Twitter-thread argument about whether it was even appropriate to try to recruit people to writing parser IF, especially because I think many people who come to IF because of Twine have motives or needs for which parser IF is a terrible fit.

So let’s start with the reasons not to write parser IF, and we can come back to the question of how to write it if somehow none of my persuasions work on you.

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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.

Worldsmith (Ade McT/interactive fables)

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Worldsmith belongs to a category that is still pretty rare, even in this age of growing opportunities for commercial IF: it’s for-sale parser IF. A demo is available for free, but the full version is $5.99. Not only that, but the author has collaborated with furkle (of SPY INTRIGUE fame) to skin an Inform 7 game with images, video, hyperlinks and custom menus. The surrounding images help communicate status information, with images of the NPCs you’re conversing with, and/or the planet you’re currently constructing.

Then there’s the gameplay. Worldsmith is heavy on both simulation and procedural text; I’ve seen a lot of authors start work that made ambitious use of those, but very few actually finish something of that scope and complexity.

The essential premise is that you are a world-builder in competition with several other world-builders (a very high-powered version of the Great British Bake-Off, perhaps). In order to do this, you must combine fundamental elements such as Air and Fire to make planets; set the planets in chosen orbits in your pet solar system; seed those planets with life; and then nurture the life to a degree of sentience that will survive in the wider universe and be able to leave its home planet before said planet becomes uninhabitable.

So far as I’ve seen, this is very much a systems game rather than a puzzle game. There is loads of information to learn about how various elements combine and what sorts of creatures they are likely to produce. Though you get a tutorial (a rather exasperated encounter with your teacher, who evidently feels that you really should have mastered the elements of world-construction by now), there’s a dizzying amount to retain, and you’ll likely find yourself reviewing your instruction manual quite a lot.

I haven’t managed to win. On the contrary, I’ve made a series of half-baked planets and seeded unsuccessful life on them, and needed to restart several times. (It turns out that if you teach your lifeforms too much too quickly, they’ll probably just destroy themselves, so slow up, Prometheus.) But I feel like I’m learning, so this is good restarting, rather than the bad frustrating restarting when a puzzle game has gone unwinnable.

In response to the decisions you make, your world is formed with differently described land forms, creatures, and technologies. It’s probably the closest thing to Spore-in-text-form that I’ve seen.

Still, eventually I realized that if I wanted to blog about this piece, I was going to have to go against my usual preference and write it up without having played the whole thing. So that’s a big caveat. I have some things to point out about Worldsmith but I have not seen anything near all of it, and certainly not most of its storyline.

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Mustard, Music, and Murder

PeterkinCoverChristopher Huang’s Mustard, Music, and Murder is a less intricate construction than his previous, highly randomized detective puzzler An Act of Murder, but it’s likely to appeal to many of the same players.

Mustard is a bite-sized mystery IF set after WWI, where the central challenge is to work out the alibis of various office workers who might have committed a murder.

In the rather artificial mode of traditional logic puzzles, the characters turn out to have interacted in neatly quarter-hour chunks, so you need to interview everyone and then work out the resulting schedule to find out who could possibly have been alone at the right time. But as with An Act of Murder, realism isn’t precisely the point here. Instead, the game feels a bit like an early Lord Peter short, offering fifteen minutes’ worth of deduction in a cozy 1920s setting. The environment is implemented fairly lightly to avoid red herrings, but includes several entertaining surprises.

Mustard, Music, and Murder includes a hint system that will step you through the solution if need be, so there’s no chance of being stuck, but I didn’t need to rely on that too heavily.

Huang is also crowdfunding a novel about Peterkin, the game’s protagonist, and his fondness for this period and genre shine through.

Bring Out Your Dead: Interface

Bring Out Your Dead is a jam I ran for defunct WIPs, over the week around summer solstice. It is now complete, and you can see the 89 entries. Not all of these are interactive fiction: being on itch meant that the jam attracted a number of not-even-slightly IF projects, from a hexagonal Tetris variant to a bullet-hell shoot-em-up to Conflux, a 3D puzzle game about getting the right perspective on your environment.

Providing any kind of coverage of all 89 works is more than I can do, but I did want to look at a few concept trend over the next few days, starting with experiments in storytelling interface.

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Interactive Comics Prototype (Carl Muckenhoupt) is an interactive comic where changes in one panel instantly propagate forward to later panels. That means it’s possible to explore a Time Cave-structured story extensively without moving on from a single page.

What would this look like for a longer structure? I could imagine each strip being itself a node in a larger tree; I could also imagine a game where you’re actually working your way backwards, trying to open up earlier panels so that you could exercise greater and greater agency, in the style of 18 Rooms to Home. I would definitely play more of something like this.

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