Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Death of Parser Fiction? (a review of several ifcomp games)

Further down I review three parser games from this year's interactive fiction competition:
"Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus" by Marco Vallarino
"Steam and Sacrilege" by Phil McGrail
"Theatre People" by Michael Kielstra

The 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition has more games than ever (58?). But of these, surprisingly few are parser based games. I count 6 in Z-code, 11 in glulx, and this year only 1 TADS game. That's a total of only 18 parser games, fewer than were entered in 1996, the second year of the competition. Of course this isn't a rigorous analysis. There may be some home-brew parser games I haven't counted. The lines of what constitute a "parser" are kind of blurry. "Mirror and Queen" (Chandler Groover) allows open input and recognizes a huge vocabulary of topics, but doesn't "parse" actions. "Inside the Facility" (Arthur DiBianca) is a z-code game with such a highly constrained list of actions that it has its own unique play dynamic. On the other hand, "Detectiveland" (Robin Johnson) features such exceptional world modeling that it feels like a classic parser game even though "Detectiveland" is actually point and click.

I wouldn't be the first to predict the demise of parser fiction. Pundits were saying that in 1992. Then the following year Graham Nelson released Inform and launched a new age for interactive fiction. I may be wrong now...I haven't played them all, and I've already overlooked "Fair" which actually was quite good ("Fair" published in Glulx by Hanon Ondricek for this year's comp).

Here I plan to discuss three parser games which succeed and fail for different reasons.

"Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus" by Marco Vallarino

is the best of the three games I'll mention here. This game has shares some of the same design goals as "Theatre People". A light comic puzzler set in an environment which the author loves. "Zigamus" is a comic horror piece, set in a classic video game museum in Rome. I assumed this was based on a real museum, but it may be imagined. In either case, the author knows his video game history, and there are little bits of trivia to be found throughout the museum. There is even

The puzzles are well clued and could be solved without resorting to the walk-through (I was weak and looked once anyway). One bit of pacing seemed a little contrived: a video game machine gives strength boosts (something which would seem useful as soon as possible) but the player is disallowed from using it until after another goal is met.

My favorite bit of writing is the description of the director's office, which evokes a greater sense of horror than all of the zombies put together. This may have been foreshadowing for a twist at the end. I hope that this author will participate again in competitions and hone these more advanced skills of writing: character development, thematic development and story arc. These are the qualities of interactive fiction which set a level 7 or 8 game apart from level 9 or 10. But even as a light puzzler about killing zombies in an interesting setting, this is worth a play.

"Steam and Sacrilege" by Phil McGrail

is ambitious but flawed. The game is several chapters long, with many locations. The writing is good and delivers just the right tone of steam-punk inspired mystery. But typing "examine me" gives the lame default response "As good looking as ever." This needed sooo much more beta testing.

Just in the first scene (an interaction with a mechanical hotel clerk) it is necessary to ring a bell to get the clerks attention. Ringing it a second time, especially late in the conversation, delivers buggy consequences. I had to consult the walk-through to figure out how to communicate with the clerk. And honestly, I'm not sure I would have solved that most basic puzzle without the walk-through. When it comes time to "sign my name" to the guest register,

>sign name
You pause.  The mechanical man probably wants you to write your full name.
>sign my name
I didn't understand that sentence.
>x business card
Printed in exquisite scripts, your name stares back at you from the paper card.  "Marshall Worthington - Milliner".  Beneath it is a slylish bowler image in glossy black ink.
>sign Marshall Worthington
You write your name on the small piece of glass, being careful not to smudge the wax lines.
>sign name
You pause.  The mechanical man probably wants you to write your full name.

Really?  I have to consult my business card to remember what my name is?  (Your name isn't indicated anywhere else in the story, so you must do that). That just made me laugh.

Later I meet a mechanical bellhop who instructs me "place your bags in my hand and your key in my chest." First I tried "give suitcase to bellhop and give key to bellhop." The command was accepted, but did not activate the bellhop. I tried again, reading the instructions more literally this time, "place bags in hand" Neither"bag(s)" nor "hand" is understood by the parser. The walk-through says "Put suitcase in metal fingers." (metal fingers? I didn't see that description in the text). But the walk-through command doesn't work either.  Finally, out of desperation, I type "give suitcase to bellhop and put key in chest." Finally, I advanced to the next chapter.

I can't play a game where even the walk-through is this buggy.

"Theatre People" by Michael Kielstra

has a promising backstory. You are a junior stage hand who hopes to bask in the limelight yourself. This idea has potential for good comedy, and the author's bio indicates he knows the theatre community. But again, the crucial "examine me" command gives nothing special. The author lists his family as his only play testing credits. Bless his poor family for doing this, but this game needs months of additional development and testing. The player finds doors which can not be opened and chairs that can not be sat upon. The back-stage area, which says it is "full of props" feels barren and cold. The game requires greater depth of implementation, something every comic puzzler needs to keep players amused and occupied while they are struggling to solve the puzzles.

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