27 November 2011Parsers and prejudice

I originally wrote this post for spectaclerock.com.

Something of a furor has erupted over some brash comments by Jonathan Blow in an interview with PC Gamer:

Adventure games are all confusion. If it’s text, it’s “Why doesn’t the parser understand me still?” So the core gameplay of adventure games is actually fumbling through something, right? And that’s true with modern [versions]. All the episodic stuff that’s coming out. And there’s a whole community that makes modern interactive fiction games and all this stuff. And it’s true for all these games.

He touches a nerve in the modern-day IF community. Bad parsers are what the heyday of interactive fiction is remembered for among mainstream gamers. Homestar Runner parodied this in Thy Dungeonman; lingering in the shadow of the first major East Coast IF meetup in years at PAX East was Action Castle, a live rendition of a text adventure which relished in classically hackneyed phrasings like “You see a thing here,” “Exits are west, east, and in,” and whose moderator gleefully retorted “I don’t know how to do that” or “You see no [whatever] here” whenever a player said a sentence more complicated than what a dog could comprehend. These parodies were affectionate, of course, but illustrative of a problem the IF community has struggled with since players first found themselves standing west of a white house with a small mailbox nearby. It’s not like that anymore.

And it’s true. Great steps forward have been taken in the technology underpinning modern interactive fiction. Synonyms flower across these games with such density that if you wish to call the metal container of water at your feet a bucket, pail, or for that matter, just a container, you can use whichever word you wish. Likewise, you can dig, excavate, or burrow to your heart’s content. You’re even allowed conjunctions, so that you can open an airplane door, don a parachute, and leap out in one command. Mazes, the most infamously laborious and frustrating convention of the medium, are extinct. And there are drop-in extensions authors can add to their games that provide friendly, well-written introductions for new players that explain the basic commands needed to get around. Heck, there’s even an attractively-designed postcard that summarizes things for you.

But even with all this progress, I would argue there are still awkward moments in these games. I recently played Sand-dancer by Aaron A. Reed, which is notable for not only being a well-paced, accessible bit of IF, but it’s also a worked exercise he created for a book that teaches one of the modern-day IF programming languages, Inform 7. Reed is an experienced author; Sand-dancer is well-paced and forgiving; I’ve had an enormous amount of experience playing IF games; and yet I was struggling to find a way to make the game let me pick up a tin can to use with another puzzle. It wasn’t that the game didn’t understand what I was trying to say. It was refusing to allow me to take that action. “You won’t be hungry again till morning,” it explained. But I didn’t want the can to eat its contents, I wanted to use it for another purpose.

The reason for the problem was that the cans were meant to be ignored once a previous puzzle centering around them had been solved. I-as-a-player had come up with a potential line of attack that I-as-character (or perhaps he-as-author) didn’t conceive of.

Such problems are inevitable, I believe, but they aren’t inherent to the medium of IF alone. I think Blow is correct to call IF games confusion, but then I think he ought to call every game a confusion. From a certain point of view, games are a struggle — a confusion, a fumbling — with an interface in order to accomplish a goal. We want Mario to jump across a gap. If we press the buttons correctly, he does. We want to shoot the other players before they shoot us. If we move the mouse precisely, we do. We want our city to flourish. If we use the zoning tools properly in our interface, we do.

Where Jonathan Blow errs is implying that the struggles in adventure games are all elementary ones, where players cannot even begin to operate the interface. That era of interactive fiction, if it ever existed, is over. But there are still hiccups, and they’re part of the experience. I still yell, “I pressed the jump button!” at platformer games as my character plummets into a hole. I’d imagine most people who’ve played platformers for any length of time have had that experience, and we don’t fault the entire platformer genre for it.

There is also a rarer type of frustration in the platformer genre that more closely matches the frustrations of IF: I want to get over there but I don’t know how. The best examples I can think of are the Kaizo Mario-style masocore platformers, where blocks and enemies are placed in such a way that you cannot proceed without doing exactly what the designer intended. You want to move to the right side of the screen in a platformer but get stymied by what appears to be unavoidable death; you want to open a door in an IF game but can’t find a key.

The question, then, is if this confusion is unavoidable, is it pleasurable? And here I think IF is handicapped. IF proponents often argue that textual descriptions inspire the imagination more than graphics. That may be when you’re on the right track in  an IF game, but I think it’s different when you’re running into trouble. Whereas you at least have cheery graphics and music to content you while you work out the solution to a frustrating Mario level, grappling with an uncooperative IF game has about the same level of sensory engagement as compiling a Linux kernel.

Even so, there are standouts. Jeremy Freese’s Violet does an admirable job of creating a narrative voice, for example. Instead of the standard response, “That’s not a verb I recognize,” it tells the player, “Sorry for being confused, budgie, but you’re going to have to use a different verb for me to follow you.” Even though the player isn’t making any progress in the game per se, the game is building engagement in the world.

I think it’s ultimately a matter of taste. Do you enjoy honing your reflexes to seemingly inhuman levels? Then play I Wanna Be The Guy. But most people don’t; at least not to the level that game requires. Likewise, some people like reasoning things out by typing things on a keyboard. To each his own.