World Models Rendered in Text

Last month I wrote a bit about text generation and generated narratives overall. This month, I’ve been looking more at parser games — games that typically are distinguished by (among other things) having an expressive (if not very discoverable) mode of input along with a complex world model.

My own first parser IF projects were very interested in that complexity. I liked the sensation of control that came from manipulating a detailed imaginary world, and the richness of describing it. And part of the promise of a complex world model (though not always realized in practice) was the idea that it might let players come up with their own solutions to problems, solutions that weren’t explicitly anticipated by the author.

It might seem like these are two extremes of the IF world: parser games are sometimes seen as niche and old-school, so much so that when I ran June’s London IF Meetup focused on Inform, we had some participants asking if I would start the session by introducing what parser IF is.

Meanwhile, generative text is sometimes not interactive at all. It is used for explorations that may seem high-concept, or else like they’re mostly of technical interest, in that they push on the boundaries of current text-related technology. (See also Andrew Plotkin’s project using machine learning to generate imaginary IF titles. Yes, as an intfiction poster suggested, that’s something you could also do with an older Markov implementation, but that particular exercise was an exercise in applying tech to this goal.)

There’s a tighter alignment between these types of project than might initially appear. Bruno Dias writes about using generative prose over on Sub-Q magazine. And Liza Daly has written about what a world model can do to make generated prose better, more coherent or more compelling.

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Recent Parser Treats

At the most recent IF Meetup, I prefaced the discussion by talking about recently released parser games, and we played a bit of A Beauty Cold and Austere as a group. A couple of the games I mentioned then, I haven’t actually written up here. So in the spirit of June being (sort of) Parser Month:

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Quickfire (Sean M. Shore) was a contestant in the New Year Minicomp this year. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he won the IF Comp in 2014 with his comedy-lovecraftian puzzle game Hunger Daemon, and came second place in Spring Thing 2011 with Bonehead, a parser game about baseball.

The premise this time is that you’re a contestant on Top Chef and have 20 minutes to prepare latkes — a timed puzzle where you do have a basic recipe, but it’s still possible to get the details and timing wrong. The scenario is straightforward enough that you can replay if things don’t go quite right the first time — it took me four passes to get the outcome I wanted out of the game.

And there’s a lot to appreciate about the implementation. The game notices a lot of possible details if you miss a step or swap out a suboptimal ingredient or don’t quite nail your cooking times. And I found myself engaging the cooking part of my brain (“hey, I could start heating this skillet up while I’m still mixing things to go in it”). One of the most persuasive cooking puzzles I’ve seen in parser IF.

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A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey)

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A Beauty Cold and Austere is a parser-driven text adventure about the awe-inspiring loveliness of mathematics. Its set-piece puzzles range from basics of arithmetic and geometry, through combinatorics and probability, up to linear algebra, calculus, and a wonderful interactive toy that explores the concept of divergent vs convergent series. Along the way, you encounter a number of historical mathematicians, math-related poetry excerpts, and mathematically-relevant settings (Trinity College Cambridge puts in an appearance, as does the Library of Alexandria). There are also obligatory Zork and Adventure references.

Puzzle-driven exploration of a surreal, conceptual space is less common in IF than it was circa twenty years ago, and indeed this game feels like it would have been a smash hit in the IF community of the mid-90s. The implementation is meticulous, the puzzles ingenious and pleasingly crafted, the state space free of unwinnable situations, the hints neatly coordinated with your progress, and the sense of humor pretty much exactly on point for the rec.arts.int-fiction days. Though there are lots of NPCs, all of them are there for puzzle-related purposes, and none of them really disrupt the player’s sense of splendid solitude. The author credits Curses! with acquainting him with the genre, and that makes plenty of sense: ABCA has fairer puzzles and less cruelty than Curses!, but it shares in that game’s gleeful juxtaposition of modern, historical, fictional and surreal locations. I liked A Beauty Cold and Austere immensely: I still have a great fondness for that type of game, and this is a superb example. I am glad the IF world still produces this kind of game, and also glad it no longer produces only this type of game.

I don’t want to suggest that ABCA‘s appeal is exclusively nostalgic. There are parser puzzle games written these days that exist mostly as a nod to bygone tropes, but A Beauty Cold and Austere has something of its own to say. Compared with the 2017 average, the game may be light on story and characters, but it’s strongly and elegantly themed. This is a game about intellectual awe, about the attraction of abstract and intangible subject matter, about human response to more-than-human truth. The final imagery is moving, sublime, and all the more meaningful because it feels earned, both by the protagonist and by human intellectual progress overall.

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Illuminismo Iniziato (Michael J. Coyne, Spring Thing 2018)

illuminismocoverIlluminismo Iniziato is a parser-based puzzle game in Spring Thing 2018, and a sequel to Risorgimento Represso (2003). The protagonist has come from our world, but been drawn into a universe of wizardry. You’ve got an overarching quest to solve, but getting through it requires breaking into various locations and getting access to various objects, as well as relying extensively on tyromancy, the art of scrying via cheese. Your protagonist bumbles around a bit, and while you’re able to do good things for some of the NPCs, you’re also responsible for assorted farcical mishaps.

The puzzles are fair and reasonably clued. I got stuck and had to ask for help once, and it was totally my own fault for not thinking enough about one of my existing inventory items. In general, nothing was too ferociously hard, and several of the puzzles are of the farce-puzzle sort where you will get them wrong in goofy ways before you get them right. I’d say overall it took me around three hours to play through.

The implementation is very solid. I ran into one tiny cosmetic bug once, and it was the kind of error (not having a custom response to looking at the floor in a particular room) that wouldn’t even arise in a game that was less ambitious about its world model. The NPCs have lots to say and a multitude of reactions to what you do, without overpowering the rest of the game. The world state feels complex, and your actions feel consequential, but until a timed sequence in the end-game, I never ran into a place where I’d gotten myself into a dead end by doing the wrong thing. This is quality parser-craft.

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Zeppelin Adventure (Robin Johnson, Spring Thing 2018)

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Robin Johnson’s Versificator engine is designed to give the player access to a parser IF-like world model but a choice-based interface, free of verb-guessing. The two previous games in this space, Draculaland and Detectiveland, feature navigation and inventory puzzles that feel quite text adventure-like, but in a more accessible format.

At any given time, the player has quite a few choices available — usually one or several movements between rooms, as well as ways of examining or interacting with environmental objects, and then some things that you can do with your inventory items. But these aren’t listed all in one place; instead, choices associated with something in your inventory become visible only when you’re carrying that inventory item. So there are partially hidden options, and you do generally have to draw some connections yourself before being able to execute a puzzle solution.

zepellincover.jpgFeatured in Spring Thing 2018Zeppelin Adventure continues that tradition, set this time in a wacky-explorer universe where people are plotting out Mars from their giant balloons. Yours, however, suffers an accident and crash-lands on a planet dominated by robots, and you have to go on a quest to find repair parts for your engine.

As the cover art suggests, this is a pulpy kind of story that leans into certain genre conventions both present and historical.

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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”:

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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.

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