You can also see some marketing here.

So Jonathan Blow’s recent criticism of the IF community has been getting a lot of attention (Aric Maddux, Chris Klimas, Robb Sherwin, Stephen Granade, indiegamer, metafilter), and that may be why we got a spin-off Metafilter thread on the topic of parsers today.

I have a couple of thoughts about this.

1. This is Jonathan Blow. He tends to be outspoken — what he has to say about adventure games in this article is nothing compared with what he has to say about social games, which he labels as outright evil. There’s some content backing both points, but it’s been generalized and strongly stated for effect. While I disagree with a lot of the substance and think it could stand to be quite a bit more nuanced, he’s giving an interview about a future product, in which he has successfully said a lot of provocative things, generated a buzz, and positioned himself memorably with respect to a couple of other schools of gaming. To a reader less sensitized than we are, this might come off as no more than “this game will be content-rich, not work like social games, and will have some of the appeal of an adventure game, but more accessible.”

2. That said, the examples that he’s using suggest that he’s not really responding to the latest and greatest. So I feel free not to take them especially seriously as criticism of the latest community output.

2a. Yeah, the hat tip to the awesome plot device that is amnesia — that’s worth a snicker, but so what? Someone sufficiently skilled could still do a cool game about amnesia. Whether that person is Jonathan Blow remains to be seen.

2b. It looks like he is taking a specific potshot at Telltale’s episodic adventure games. I haven’t played by any means all of them, but I find them relatively free of maddening adventure game logic, pleasantly accessible, and really funny. That said, they are closer to graphical adventure roots than much modern IF is to its roots. IF has made forays into the puzzleless, the systematic/simulationist (where puzzles are based on a standard set of learnable rules and multiple solutions are available for most problems), and the tactical (where there is a whole scale of possible win/loss via randomized combat, etc.) I do occasionally wonder what would happen if there were more graphical adventure games that explored some of that territory — though I’m sure there are more than I’m currently aware of. See also Life Flashes By.

3. The idea Blow repeats here is a standard meme. On the big scale of Cluelessness about the Thing He Is Critiquing, this rates only about 5 picoEberts. And that’s our problem to solve. There will always be a serious barrier to sharing and marketing IF as long as the standard perception is that it’s about fighting the parser.

Part of the problem is that lots of people haven’t really played much IF since 1980-odd; another part is that the way IF has developed isn’t in the direction that they think it should have developed. There are good reasons why the parser hasn’t (and shouldn’t!) become a chatbot that pretends to understand all player input, but that’s a natural direction to wonder about; see this old chat with Brian Moriarty, who, I think we can agree, has more of an insider view on the problem than Blow ever has.

Meanwhile, we’ve made some progress on teaching the player IF affordances — which I think is the real solution here — but it’s not a finished process. We’re working on these issues, in a lot of different forms and projects.

Anyway. Long story short: yeah, I agree Blow is incorrect about what we’re doing and about our evolution. But I don’t think his being off base is really anything more than a reminder of something we all already knew: IF has PR problems. Our best steps forward aren’t visible enough. They don’t do enough to supplant what people already think about interactive fiction.

66 thoughts on “You can also see some marketing here.

  1. Um. Not that you don’t have good points here, but I think you’re taking his interview a little personally. Your Point 2a is needlessly defensive; he’s not saying there is anything wrong with the amnesia plot device. He mentions BioShock is a great example, etc. And just because you aren’t Brian Moriarty doesn’t mean you can’t have a reasoned opinion about the industry.

    I’m not Brian Moriarty either, and unlike Blow I don’t create hugely successful games, but I would humbly submit that IF has more than “PR problems.” That’s like saying LARPing would be a national sport if people would only *understand* it better. The issue with both is accessiblity. Like a good John Donne poem, IF is simply too obscure and hard to engage with unless you’ve been properly trained to appreciate it. That’s not a problem with public relations, that’s a problem with usability. I’d love to hear what Jakob Nielsen would say about the IF interface.

    I myself am a huge fan of the form, and will comtinue to be so. But I was trained at an early age. :-)

    • “Your Point 2a is needlessly defensive; he’s not saying there is anything wrong with the amnesia plot device.”

      Oh, I didn’t mean I thought he disliked the amnesia plot device — just the opposite. He thinks it’s cool; many of us think it’s, well, a bit overplayed, which forms one of Robb Sherwin’s major reactions to the interview. What I was saying was, so what if he does like it? It’s an overused trope, but tropes get overused for a reason, and it’s usually possible, if you’re gifted and original enough, to breathe some life even into the oldest oldies.

      “IF is simply too obscure and hard to engage with unless you’ve been properly trained to appreciate it.”

      Mostly, but there’s a lively and ongoing discussion and work on how to make that less true, and some excellent attempts (Blue Lacuna, Walker and Silhouette, Aotearoa, Aaron Reed’s suite of extensions for improving the parser) to make affordances explicit and teach the player how to play. My point is: those are problems, they’re serious and real, and we’re working on them; but we shouldn’t be surprised that the rest of the world is unaware of the work that’s been done so far. There’s not enough of it yet, it’s not splashy enough, and we have a hell of a lot of past history and preconception to overcome, even if we do find better solutions.

      • Ah…gotcha. Totally with you! The splashiness and attention will come, I think, once the Good Work progresses. I think people will forget the past as well, when the time is right. Right now that’s the shiniest reference point. Like Justin Timberlake when all he had were his Disney days.

      • I’m down with the parser being the biggest barrier to entry for IF, and it’s the number one thing about interactive fiction I’ll fix when I get my Magic Wand of Three Wishes That Also Gives Free Ponies. And I don’t expect gamers in general to know about what’s going on in the community. But when someone says, hey, I know adventure games, and they’re fundamentally broken in this fashion, and in fact that’s still the case with the works coming out of the current IF community, I’m quite happy to point out that they’re wrong.

        Jonathan Blow gets more attention in one month than the entire IF community gets in a year. I’m happy to play my own marketing game and reference him in an attempt to make innocent bystanders more aware of what the community is doing in this area.

      • Well, accepted best practices in IF over the last ten or fifteen years *have* done a lot to improve the guess-what-the-author-was-thinking aspect of puzzle design, and guess the verb in general. But those do still tend to be presented as standard problems with the genre as well.

        On the other hand, maybe if we make our work more widely accessible, it will be easier for people see the other ways in which we’ve explored new directions. But I think it has to look and feel new in order to be perceived as new; and that’s going to take browser IF, more attractive displays, better parser/tutorial handling… all the stuff we keep talking about.

  2. Hi Emily. This is kind of weird, because this article (and many others) are written from the viewpoint that I am totally wrong and can’t possibly know much about adventure games, yet I completely agree with the things you’re saying about improvements in parser tech and design slant, etc.

    Yes, I agree that parsers have gotten better, and that the process of playing an IF game is smoother than it used to be. Of course the solution is not to try and build an AI into the game that understands everything, because even if that were technically possible, it only kicks the can down the road a little (for an explanation of why I think this, see Frank Lantz’s rant about The Immersive Fallacy and apply those ideas specifically to IF).

    I have played many modern IF games, and yes, they are better than the old IF games. On a relative scale there has been a lot of improvement. But the same basic problems still exist; they are just kind-of mitigated. And it seems you agree (“We’re working on these issues in a lot of different forms…”)! So we agree!

    I think the strong difference in opinion has to do with the fact that people in the IF community think that mitigation of problems is wonderful, but I don’t agree. I think that these games are still pretty much unplayable when you view them through the same lens of playability that other genres have been using for over a decade. Mitigation is not enough; problems have to be solved enough that they are cleared out, revealing another sub-layer of problems which also needs to then be solved, etc, etc.

    What I said in that interview was not in any way cynical or calculated, by the way. They’re my honest opinions. I think people are not used to hearing honest opinions in interviews, which is why people get riled up about this kind of thing?

    In any case, if I am wrong about these things, then my explanation for why adventure games died must be wrong. So then I ask the community, why did they die then, and why haven’t they magically resurrected now that the tech is better and authors have more experience making more-polished things? I mean this as a serious question.

    My comments were made based on the observation that modern game designs tend to have some kind of “core gameplay” that is tight and highly refined. When I ask myself what the “core gameplay” is of adventure games, the answer is not good; certainly what I see is not something tight and highly refined. That is true, it seems to me, whether we are talking about text adventures or graphic adventures. That’s why I think the genre is so unpopular.

    • Okay, several points here.

      (1) Adventure games as a whole are not *dead*. Telltale, Wadjet Eye, et al. are still making and selling them. New and old adventure games are making new appearances on mobile platforms, too. They’re not as big as Halo, no, but they exist and make money on a scale far beyond, say, the average novel.

      (2) Speaking of the average novel, aesthetically successful and refined is not the same thing as commercially successful. We can have a discussion about what might make IF sell like a AAA game, where I’d be happy to admit how long I think it’ll be before that happens (hint: not before the heat death of the universe). But that’s not what I thought we were talking about.

      (3) And speaking of adventure games, IF != adventure game. Some IF is text adventure, some isn’t. There are subgenres of IF that share pretty much only the existence of a parser with Colossal Cave.

      (4) “modern game designs tend to have some kind of “core gameplay” that is tight and highly refined. When I ask myself what the “core gameplay” is of adventure games, the answer is not good; certainly what I see is not something tight and highly refined.”

      An interesting observation, but I think it assumes that the core gameplay of all adventure games and all IF is going to be the same thing — and part of what makes IF in particular fascinating (to me) is the fact that it can present so many different styles and flavors of gameplay under the same interface, with “random grab-bag of unrelated puzzles” as possibly the least interesting style.

      “Suveh Nux” is all about learning and applying a magical language; it’s very focused, fair, and accessible, and also a completely different type of game from the also very-focused “‘Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus”, a combat/conversation game that spells out the available actions in the status bar. Not all IF is stochastic; not all IF pauses the story while the player looks for the right thing to do next; not all IF even requires the player to make an observation. “Rameses” will pretty much ratchet along to a conclusion even if the player types nothing but WAIT for dozens of turns in a row. “Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom” offers a very small, tight verb set (I think there are five verbs plus the directions that matter at all) and then implements them with ruthless efficiency.

      What IF doesn’t offer a lot of, usually, is idling activity — stuff to do that is totally unchallenging but will slightly advance your position if you just plug away at it, like hunting boars on WoW or picking a gazillion carrots on your virtual farm. But to my mind, that activity = grind = exactly the kind of low-value, unfun activity that makes player’s lives worse (as you put it).

      More significantly, IF isn’t like Solitaire or Diner Dash. It’s hard to play without thinking. It doesn’t induce a flow state. And in a way that does make it less appealing for some purposes, because there are times when you want a game to be relaxing in that particular way.

      But I don’t think those are negative things. A lot of games I’ve enjoyed, from Braid to Halo: ODST, did not induce a flow state and weren’t grindy either. (I’d also say that I found my first few hours of Halo more confusing than most IF games I’ve played in a long time, because it took me a good while to understand what the core gameplay was about. Shoot things, sure, that’s obvious; but it wasn’t obvious to someone not used to the genre that there’s a lot of tactical thinking to do about selecting and hoarding weapons, gaining new weapons from your fallen enemies, etc. I misunderstood how to approach the problems for a while. Then I learned.)

      So what I think we really need to work on is making the parser better at communicating affordances and offering better tutorial content (a lot of IF assumes you’ve played some before). And we need to solve another access and appearance problem by making IF play — and look good — in a browser.

      A lot of the other design issues that go into good core gameplay — making sure that puzzles/systematic play elements are sensible and clearly clued (or else nonexistent), that there are hints over the rough spots, that there’s juicy toy content to play with even when a puzzle is blocking progress, that difficulty roughly ramps over the course of the game, that the game doesn’t outstay its welcome by being longer than its content supports, that there’s a satisfying cycle of rewards for success — have to my mind been solved in at least some of the extant canon.

      • I think Johnathan’s critique has a fundamental point that may be easy to overlook but once you see it, it’s huge and it’s there.

        To give some context, I like IF games a lot and I have played “Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom” recently and liked it, too. But I just stopped playing after trying to get the necklace in the ice tower which the girl snatched away or something. The reason is that I had no clue what to do next, and running around didn’t solve anything, so I quit in frustration and haven’t picked it up again.

        What Johnathan describes is the very problem of adventure game / IF puzzles: they quickly degenerate into an out-of world exercise in frustration. The things I make the character do in order to solve the puzzle are no longer natural from an in-game point of view, I just do them because I’m desperate, maybe I have missed something and now I have to lawn mow everything, and even then I’m probably missing something, and when I finally get the solution, it’s hugely disappointing because it was too hard or too easy or too stupid. It’s just incredibly frustrating if you can’t solve a puzzle after a small amount of time. It’s no longer fun.

        Puzzles are the most widely used gameplay element for IF and that’s why it carries this curse.

        As I understood Jonathan, he wants to take the frustration out of it. Whether he succeeds is another question, of course.

        By the way, I think one notable exception to the “frustrating puzzle phenomenon” was LOOM. It had lots of puzzles, but I think the problem was softened greatly because the focus was on remembering the spell, not on figuring out which spell to use. It just felt great, somehow.

      • Anonymous: It’s just incredibly frustrating if you can’t solve a puzzle after a small amount of time. It’s no longer fun. Puzzles are the most widely used gameplay element for IF and that’s why it carries this curse.

        This is something I often feel (and there are ways around it — I’m going to mention Jim Aikin’s hint systems soon). But doesn’t Braid have the same potential problem? From what I’ve heard, more than basically any platformer, it has puzzles where you can be utterly stuck until you find the solution.

        Emily:

        What IF doesn’t offer a lot of, usually, is idling activity — stuff to do that is totally unchallenging but will slightly advance your position if you just plug away at it, like hunting boars on WoW or picking a gazillion carrots on your virtual farm.

        Maybe literal idling is just as big a factor? If you’re stuck in Machinarium, you can still look at the pretty pictures and listen to the music and watch the little background animations. Or (in some parts) you can walk around to different locations and see more of the visuals. IF doesn’t offer anything like that passive stimulation; the prose as a rule just sits there when you aren’t doing anything to it. Even if there’s juicy toy content or if you can move around and get a lot of decent prose (like when first exploring the island in Blue Lacuna, pace Pudlo), it isn’t as passively engaging as graphics and sound.

      • What Johnathan describes is the very problem of adventure game / IF puzzles: they quickly degenerate into an out-of world exercise in frustration. The things I make the character do in order to solve the puzzle are no longer natural from an in-game point of view, I just do them because I’m desperate, maybe I have missed something and now I have to lawn mow everything, and even then I’m probably missing something, and when I finally get the solution, it’s hugely disappointing because it was too hard or too easy or too stupid. It’s just incredibly frustrating if you can’t solve a puzzle after a small amount of time. It’s no longer fun.

        This is a fairly widely observed phenomenon, actually; Craft of Adventure talks about IF sometimes being like a novel whose pages can get stuck together, because the puzzle closes something off. But this is much less true about a lot of modern IF than it used to be, for both internal and external reasons. Puzzle design tends to be more generous, with more clues, multiple solutions, and (sometimes) game structures where you can move ahead even if you haven’t solved every single bit; there’s also more of a trend towards including built-in hints; and externally, even if the author didn’t provide hints, the odds are that someone else has hints or a walkthrough out there on the web, if it’s a game of any size. (My own personal definition of a good puzzle, given for an interview years ago, is one that remains fun from the moment you see it to the moment you’ve solved it; and that means that even if you can’t work out what to do next right away, there’s always something you can do to experiment and get new information from the game that will help guide your thinking towards a solution.)

        Anyway, I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing off your point; it’s a good one, and comes up a lot, but I also think that there’s been a lot of change on that front.

        I’d also say that something similar is true of most genres of game. I got stuck in Batman: Arkham Asylum for at least an hour because I was having trouble killing Poison Ivy, and that wasn’t fun after the first two failures either — I only got past that point by handing the controller off to someone else. Most platformers (with Braid as a notable exception) make me give up in rage because the difficulty is a difficulty in execution, and I do not enjoy replaying the same screen over and over and over again until I hit all the jumps just right. If the challenge is a conceptual one, at least there’s some chance that I’ll get there after a while by thinking about it. I guess you could say that at least I’m forced to keep doing the intended gameplay because there’s no other way to engage with the game other than by jumping around (say). But from my point of view, being stuck and frustrated is being stuck and frustrated, regardless of what kind of thing you’re allowed to do in the meantime.

        With IF, at least the odds are good that I can arrive at a solution either by thought or by external clues. With a lot of performance-based games of their various types, I can watch a YouTube of someone solving that screen however many times I like, but it isn’t going to magically get *me* past the situation.

      • Most platformers (with Braid as a notable exception) make me give up in rage because the difficulty is a difficulty in execution, and I do not enjoy replaying the same screen over and over and over again until I hit all the jumps just right. If the challenge is a conceptual one, at least there’s some chance that I’ll get there after a while by thinking about it.

        For me there’s a qualitative difference between the usual platform problem and puzzle problem. With timing-based challenges and things like that, I can (with luck) see that I’m getting closer — “oh, I almost got to that platform” or “hey, there was a lot less on Monster X’s health bar when I died that time.” Which sometimes gives me confidence that I can improve. (Or sometimes makes me think, “I was nowhere near that double jump and never will be,” and I quit.) With puzzles, usually if I don’t see the solution it’s a brick wall. I can’t get better at this puzzle with practice.

        This is independent from the “You missed the fourth jump, now you have to do the first three again problem,” which is pretty annoying and which different games handle differently well.

      • With timing-based challenges and things like that, I can (with luck) see that I’m getting closer — “oh, I almost got to that platform” or “hey, there was a lot less on Monster X’s health bar when I died that time.” Which sometimes gives me confidence that I can improve. (Or sometimes makes me think, “I was nowhere near that double jump and never will be,” and I quit.) With puzzles, usually if I don’t see the solution it’s a brick wall. I can’t get better at this puzzle with practice.

        Hm. Most of the time, timing based challenges feel like they’re as much a matter of luck as anything else. For me, I mean. I can see that other people are skilled at them, but I always feel like I have 0 skill and gain 0 XP each time I play. Not to mention that the frustration level when I fail for the Nth time is off the scale more annoying than any frustrating moment in IF. I am in most aspects of life a pretty low-rage person, and I don’t get vehemently upset when my luggage gets lost, I have to stand in line for a long time, I have to spend half an hour on hold with customer service, the IRS screws up my tax return information yet again, etc. But failing the same platform level over again after many many tries, and seeing nothing specific I could improve for next time, does make want to scream obscenities and throw things. Which is ridiculous and out of character, and also a big fat hint that I May Not Be Having Fun.

      • Probably this is mostly that Our Mileage Varies, although I do have that 0 skill 0 XP feeling with some games — especially ones where you have to use the mouse and the keyboard simultaneously. And then there are all those double-jumping platform games where I often learn so quickly that I can’t do it that I don’t have time to fill my Rage Meter at all.

        The thing I’m talking about can happen in non-timed contexts too, to some extent. It’s sort of like the difference between the crossword (per Graham Nelson) and the riddle (per Nick Montfort) — I can fill in some of the crossword, and recognize that I’m getting closer, but the riddle comes all at once or not at all.

        To use a non-IF example, there’s a fiendish series of games called Blocks With Letters On which involves (mostly untimed) maneuvering blocks around various hazards to form words. In some levels the word you’re trying to form is pretty obvious and the question is how you get there. Some of the more ridiculous levels involve an incredible amount of coordination and planning, sometimes from a starting position where it’s not clear how you can do the first thing without messing up the whole level. And then there’s a great feeling of progress when I figure out how to, say, get one block into the area where it clearly needs to go, even if I still haven’t figured out what to do with it when it gets there.

        Other levels the main challenge is figuring out what word you can make using various constraints. And there if you don’t see it, you don’t see it. Those are the only levels that sent me to walkthroughs.

        IF definitely has some of the first kind of puzzle — you’ve spoken of gradually assembling a plan for Make It Good — but it seems like it’s more often the second. There are games that do a good job of gradually revealing more and more hints of what you’re trying to do, but the solutions still tend to be pretty all or nothing, I think. That might be the phenomenon Anonymous was talking about, which definitely isn’t unique to IF, but perhaps more common there.

        [BTW: I remember that you got to Cerberus in Don’t Look Back before giving up. There were some pretty crazy timed jumps before then — for instance the three platforms with the lava balls popping up — did you get very frustrated with that, did it help that the difficulty was part of the point, or are you actually perhaps somewhat OK at platforming?]

      • In the end I got farther than that with Don’t Look Back, but I was playing it for work reasons and out of a strong interest in what it was doing artistically, so I soldiered through.

      • matt w: Maybe literal idling is just as big a factor? If you’re stuck in Machinarium, you can still look at the pretty pictures and listen to the music and watch the little background animations.

        Yes, I think so. A graphical user interface is more “primordial” than a text-based one. There is always some sensory input, and that greatly increases tolerance to the problem of being stuck.

        Emily: I’d also say that something similar is true of most genres of game.

        Sure. It sucks in other genres, too. But that doesn’t mean that IF should keep doing that. ;)

        The problem is that IF is pretty much limited to the gameplay mechanism of puzzles. In other genres, you can jump and run around and make other gameplay decisions, or you can admire all the graphics and audio that’s coming out of your computer. But if you’re stuck in IF, there’s no alternate mechanism that can ease the frustration, that’s why it’s so important to get this right. Which is difficult, because it’s a problem fundamental to the mechanism of puzzles.

        I’m beginning to think that the core gameplay mechanism of IF, puzzles, is not a good idea. I have always had more fun if it is obvious what do to (like in LOOM or the “IF shooter” Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies); the fun lies in just doing it.

        Emily: With IF, at least the odds are good that I can arrive at a solution either by thought or by external clues.

        I never manage to think like the author. :)

        Concerning external hints, I think they are a poor substitute. The best example for that is Spider and Web. The main puzzle was simply brilliant, but it would have soooo much more rewarding if I had come up with it myself instead of needing to read a walkthrough.

    • It’s incorrect on the face of it to refer to modern adventure games as either unplayable or dead, given that many people are clearly playing them. I have friends whose recent game-playing experience is almost exclusively limited to Telltale’s games.

      Whether a game is “unplayable” depends on the player. I know people for whom Braid is unplayable–the mild platforming skills required to progress are simply beyond them. Any game which requires a mouse is unplayable by my mother; while she can happily use a keyboard, she can barely click on an icon successfully.

      Crosswords are utterly unplayable. Few people will ever complete a Saturday New York Times crossword. Would anyone dream of describing crosswords as “unpopular”, however? And would you take seriously for a moment a person who declared that what crosswords really need is to be revamped to make them accessible to the illiterate?

    • So then I ask the community, why did they die then, and why haven’t they magically resurrected now that the tech is better and authors have more experience making more-polished things? I mean this as a serious question.

      They already have, you’re just not looking. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drawn_%28series%29
      These ‘casual adventure’ games are the top draw in that market and making a lot of money.

      • Thanks for bringing that up — I meant to link in the whole range of casual adventure/hidden object stuff, but forgot.

        Though it’s interesting in light of this discussion that a lot of those games have actually changed the core gameplay to be more directed: not “wander around a bunch of screens thinking of what to click on,” but “solve this hidden object puzzle, then this sliding block puzzle, then this code.” I find this more artificial, and I don’t enjoy hidden object puzzles very much, so these aren’t refinements that I’m especially pleased to see, but.

  3. Also, it’s weird that the IF blogosphere has responded so energetically to these comments, with what are basically attacks (“this guy is obviously ignorant of adventure games” being the main one, though the oh-he-is-just-self-promoting stuff above feels like an attack to me as well), but I never got one email from anyone interested in understanding why I hold those opinions, and whether or not there might be some real justification to what I was thinking. You know, intelligent-discussion type stuff.

    • I’m sorry if I seemed to be attacking you. My point wasn’t that you were being cynical or lying. I don’t think that. But my observation has been that you tend to express strong opinions without a lot of conceding or mitigating nuance; none of that content about “things have gotten a bit better” was in the original interview, for instance. And I recall some similarly strong-worded ideas about challenge in games (which you also thought I’d misread) and in other talks and interviews of yours.

      So when I see someone making strong statements without acknowledging the numerous exceptions, I conclude one of the following things:

      – person is unaware of the exceptions
      – person does not wish to acknowledge the exceptions because it weakens their position rhetorically
      – person doesn’t think this is really the right context to go into the exceptions because there’s not enough space, or the purpose of the discussion is something else entirely

      My impression from what you said here was a combination of 1 and 3, really. You had some points to make in broad strokes. You made them, in an interview that wasn’t *about* adventure games per se and had some other important ground to cover. This isn’t *wrong*, as much as it may annoy those who have skin in the game and therefore line up to say “yes but what about…”.

      Now, possibly the case is more (3) and less (1) than I thought.

      So let me unpack why I thought you might not be taking all the evidence into account. My reading of the interview was that you were not only attacking the parser (fair enough; that’s an ongoing issue) but also claiming that modern IF hasn’t advanced at all in terms of puzzle design and partakes of the same errors and excesses as the worst of graphical adventure game mistakes. Which goes from “doesn’t note the exceptions” territory to “completely skips over many of the critical discussions and highly praised games in the community for the last fifteen years.” So if you were saying that, it seemed to me to suggest a significant lack of awareness.

      Going back to look at the original text, I can see where I get this: your language is full of absolutes.

      “Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.”

      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.”

      “It’s true for all these games” suggests you’re specifically, authoritatively ruling out exceptions. It implies that you’re unaware of the whole genre of puzzleless IF; IF that explicitly tells you which items are useful and which aren’t, or that features built-in helps and hints; the various games that, far from being a random grab bag of read-the-author’s-mind stuff, explicitly train the player in one type of interaction and set successive puzzles in that interaction type.

      If what you really meant is “it’s true for all these games to different degrees, because even the ones that partially mitigate it don’t solve the problem completely because even if you fix the puzzle issues, there are still parser problems” — well, okay. But that’s not how it read to me, or, I think, to most of the other readers I’ve talked to.

      Finally: “I never got one email from anyone interested in understanding why I hold those opinions, and whether or not there might be some real justification to what I was thinking. You know, intelligent-discussion type stuff.”

      The last sentence there is “basically an attack” too, no?

      I am not averse to discussing this with you as intelligently as I’m able. I suspect others feel the same way. I just didn’t feel constrained to have that conversation in private when the original piece is public; especially given that I primarily wanted to address things that other people were saying in public. I don’t think “intelligent” and “public” are mutually exclusive.

      • Ugh, I typed a long reply and then accidentally hit CTRL-R and destroyed it. Yay web.

        Anyway, instead of “It’s true for all these games” you can substitute “it’s true for all these kinds of games”. This was a verbal interview (as you can probably tell), so word choice was not nearly as careful as might happen in a written interview. Also, keep in mind these are excerpted parts of a longer interview, so the stuff about adventure games was an even smaller part of it than it would seem here.

        Anyway, when it comes to the difficulties of adventure games, I was speaking quickly and covering a broad area of games, so there isn’t a particularly distinct delineation between thoughts.

        When it comes to puzzle quality, I agree that puzzle quality is a lot better now, in textual IF, than it used to be. But I don’t even think that is super-important. What’s important is that puzzle quality for text adventures is not forced to be bad by the medium itself. When you have bad puzzles in text adventures, it’s generally individual authors messing up, which is inevitable in any medium.

        So my thoughts about poor puzzle quality mostly have to do with graphic adventures, which have generally terrible puzzles. Part of that is cultural (graphic adventure authors don’t typically shoot very high in terms of puzzle quality) but I think part of it is interface-imposed: graphic adventures in their typical form just don’t permit for a very wide gamut of types of puzzles. So they mostly end up being “click on X” or “use A with B” and we all know how that goes.

        My issues with text games are more about interface. And yes, the interface is better, but it’s not solved, and “totally solved” is the benchmark I am aiming for (and will inevitably miss, by at least a little, as we always miss in game design). But the amount by which text adventures miss “totally solved” is huge. That is not to belittle the progress of people working on these things; it is a very hard problem, as you well know! (Yes, there are some solutions to the problem that completely get rid of interface ambiguity, such as (in the simplest case) just assigning hotkeys to various actions the player can perform, and I think this is a promising direction as a subgenre of its own, but at the same time it’s not representative of adventure games as a whole, and I am not sure how interesting that subgenre is, gameplay-wise, compared to the genre as a whole, etc, etc).

        My point in the interview is that instead of trying to fight that very hard interface problem, I am going off and doing something else which I believe will result in smoother core gameplay.

        I don’t really have an interest in convincing anyone that adventure games suck or that they are awesome. I was just saying these things in order to provide context for explaining why The Witness is the way it is: because this is my perception of the problems with the genre. If you’d like, you can put “it is my humble opinion that” in front of every concrete statement in the interview, but it is my humble opinion that that would make for tedious reading.

        (And at this point, the connection between The Witness and graphic adventures is kind of tenuous, since the game has really evolved into its own thing which is more like some kind of puzzle System Shock; and the connection between The Witness and text adventures is very thin indeed. I was really *only* bringing text adventures into the discussion to talk about parser problems, because really when I think about what I want the gameplay of The Witness to be, and what I want it not to be, I am usually thinking of point-and-click style games, because those are much closer to what I am doing.)

        As for puzzleless IF, I have played a number of such games (including Photopia and your own Galatea). I don’t find these games quite to my taste (some more than others, though; I liked Galatea a lot more than Photopia, for reasons having to do with What Is The Point of My Doing Anything)… but despite that the games aren’t totally to my taste, it seems like a promising direction. I just don’t feel that those games have found quite the right kind of payload to deliver, yet. (It’s not the same kind of payload as reading a book, because it’s a game; yet if the reason I used to play those games was mainly the puzzles, and then the puzzles are taken out, then something big has to substitute into the design in a different way. I don’t feel that something big has been figured out yet, at least not in anything I have played. Suggestions are welcome, though, if you guys think there is something puzzleless I should try.)

        As for the “intelligent-discussion” thing, I think I am just frustrated at the way the internet works. It’s all about posting on one’s blog and talking past the person who is being talked about, which to me is frustrating since I am not really interested in winning an argument; I just want to figure things out, for real, and the internet culture of always shouting past the subject of the posting doesn’t lead to figuring things out for real. However, of course, an interview is by its very nature this kind of talking-past-others kind of communication too, so I pretty much started it. I don’t know what to do about this except maybe to never do interviews, but a lot of people like to read interviews, so, ehh, I don’t know.

      • Okay, thanks for the clarification. I agree with quite a bit of this, and this

        “My point in the interview is that instead of trying to fight that very hard interface problem, I am going off and doing something else which I believe will result in smoother core gameplay.”

        …makes plenty of sense. There are times when I feel like trying to deal with this interface problem and times when I don’t. One of the great things about doing some non-IF game work has been the opportunity to work outside that particular box.

        Re. “I just don’t feel that those games have found quite the right kind of payload to deliver, yet. (It’s not the same kind of payload as reading a book, because it’s a game; yet if the reason I used to play those games was mainly the puzzles, and then the puzzles are taken out, then something big has to substitute into the design in a different way. I don’t feel that something big has been figured out yet, at least not in anything I have played. Suggestions are welcome, though, if you guys think there is something puzzleless I should try.”

        …hm, interesting. Ever try The Baron? It’s absolutely not a general-purpose answer to this question, but it’s doing some interesting things that focus the gameplay on intention rather than action. ‘Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus might also be interesting; I think it has some flaws, but it’s introducing a systematic type of gameplay that isn’t exactly puzzly in the conventional sense.

        “As for the “intelligent-discussion” thing, I think I am just frustrated at the way the internet works. It’s all about posting on one’s blog and talking past the person who is being talked about, which to me is frustrating since I am not really interested in winning an argument.”

        This is tricky — I wanted to talk about a bunch of people talking about you, so no one’s specific blog/comment area was really appropriate, and then when I have a large amount to say, I don’t always want to make that a comment anyway.

        In the future-web, possibly there will be some clever way to assemble all the conversations about a single person/topic/issue into some grand thread despite their cross-web spread.

        Or not, because that could also be really annoying. I dunno. The internet: Also Not Totally Solved.

      • Jonathan: So my thoughts about poor puzzle quality mostly have to do with graphic adventures, which have generally terrible puzzles. Part of that is cultural (graphic adventure authors don’t typically shoot very high in terms of puzzle quality) but I think part of it is interface-imposed: graphic adventures in their typical form just don’t permit for a very wide gamut of types of puzzles. So they mostly end up being “click on X” or “use A with B” and we all know how that goes.

        Hrm, I want to connect this with your comment that graphic adventures are dead. Because I think that Damian is right that they aren’t, or games with that play style aren’t. Machinarium is just below Braid in the Humble Indie Bundle 2, and point-and-click games are all over the web; they’re not all just room escapes either.

        Now, many of the puzzles in Machinarium aren’t innovative to say the least — it includes a jump-these-three-pegs-past-these-three puzzle, ferchrissakes. Its appeal is mostly in its graphics, I think. The online games don’t have super-innovative puzzles that I can think of for the most part either — most of them are about codes, though there are some damn clever ways of hiding the codes — but then, they’re still alive, aren’t they? And part of their popularity may be that they stick to a core gameplay. You can play them on your lunch break if you know what you’re doing. IF has more different types of gameplay and room for innovation in its puzzles, I think, and that makes it less accessible.

        Another issue connects to the point about idling I made above. It’s much more engaging to follow a walkthrough for a point-and-click than for IF, because you get to see the pictures. If I want to completely give up on a point-and-click and still see the end, I’ll follow a walkthrough rather than watch a video; if I’m completely giving up on an IF, I’d rather read a transcript than type in commands from a walkthrough. But one thing IF can do much, much better than point-and-clicks is in-engine hinting. You can reveal solutions to a puzzle bit-by-bit using a special command in your IF game; point-and-clicks seem like they’re stuck about where Machinarium is, where for each screen you could either get a single fairly obvious hint, get a complete walkthrough if you could beat that stupid spider game, or (most likely) find something on the web. For an example, look at Jim Aikin’s A Flustered Duck, whose puzzles are often pretty ridiculous — but the hint system is so damn good that I enjoyed most of them anyway, because I still got something from figuring out the puzzle after reading half the hints. I don’t know what the moral of this is.

        Oh, only just now did I notice that the title of this post is the end of an IF room description.

    • My issues with text games are more about interface. And yes, the interface is better, but it’s not solved, and “totally solved” is the benchmark I am aiming for (and will inevitably miss, by at least a little, as we always miss in game design). But the amount by which text adventures miss “totally solved” is huge.

      What would constitute “totally solved?” Maybe that’s not something you can answer with any finality until that goal is within reach, but I’m hoping you can give me some sense of what direction you think IF developers should be charting in order to solve the interface problem as you see it.

      • “Totally solved” to me would mean that the player spends no time at all with interface problems, or bumping up against the wall of what is represented in the game and what is not, etc.

        You know how someone can get into a flow state when playing a game like Geometry Wars? “Totally solved” would be something like that, for adventure games.

      • I don’t think “flow state” is really compatible with what IF is. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; some games offer that and others don’t. I think of that kind of floaty, zen-like experience as something a bit detached. It’s a way of freeing up my mind to think about other things. I tend to play Solitaire, Diner Dash, et al. most when I’m trying to work out some problem but need to keep the fussy, distractable part of my mind busy.

        Playing IF is a very different kind of experience because it’s constantly asking me to form questions about the world and guess at answers. Even if the parser were transparent as glass, the core gameplay would still be about forming and re-forming my mental model of how the world worked; doing experiments to see whether that model was correct; using that information to do something new. (Even puzzleless games do tend to play on this. Pieces from the IF Art show are often very sensory-heavy, but this still requires the player to ask himself, ‘I wonder what this strange object would feel like?’ or the like.)

      • Interestingly, what you’ve described is a lot like the core gameplay of The Witness. But like I was saying in a different comment, I don’t think The Witness is much like an adventure game any more. So there must be some degree of further-specificity that defines what IF is apart from Witness-like games that are not IF. Your description didn’t talk about language at all so I would guess that language has to come into the definition of the core gameplay somehow.

        If “flow state” is incompatible with IF (and I agree it might be, though I don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about IF as you guys) then I am not quite sure what that means, given that a flow state seems to be very important for people to enjoy reading works of linear fiction.

      • Sophia: Having occasionally played (and conducted) faux-IF with a human narrator, I can say this doesn’t work as well as one might think it ought to. The result is a bit more like a tabletop RPG: there’s only so much detail a human GM can keep in mind, and then also the process of programming IF means that certain ambiguities are ruled out. I have occasionally thought about a front end to IF experience where there was a chatbot (of ideally human-like skill) that responded to obviously off-base chatter and reformulated valid but conversational directives into proper IF commands; passed those commands to the game layer; and then communicated the result back to the player. To the best of my knowledge this hasn’t been tried, but I’m not really sure how successful it would be. It also doesn’t do the job of communicating affordances very well, which is an ongoing issue with the parser.

        Long story short: I’m not sure this is as obvious as you think it is.

        Jonathan: Like Ron, I think the feeling of getting absorbed in reading is very different from gameplay flow state. IF does often accomplish a similar effect for me — deep engagement with the imagined world, a sense of story time unfolding smoothly as I go, a degree of faith that the author knows where we’re going. It’s closer to immersion, an absorbed investment in the story and game, than flow, which at least for me is actually about having the game be so easy that one part of my brain doesn’t have to focus on it at all. It’s the difference between the mental functions required to enjoy a movie and the ones required to ride a bike.

        In my experience only a small part of achieving immersion is about the parser per se. An IF parser written to the average modern standard is fine at delivering that experience for me. Other factors are much bigger, like the quality of the puzzles (if any), the integration of story and gameplay, and the pace at which interaction happens.

      • Hope it’s not too late for a few more responses. Jonathan Blow wrote:

        “Totally solved” to me would mean that the player spends no time at all with interface problems,

        A lot depends on what you’d count as an interface problem. In a sense, all gaming can be boiled down to interface problems. Figuring out how to get a key off of a bed of spikes in Braid is an interface problem. So from the very start we have to differentiate between interface problems that are intended (i.e. puzzles, challenges) and interface problems that are unintended (i.e. poor design, bugs).

        The problem, as I see it, is that the frustration players sometimes encounter don’t necessarily adhere to one side of that line or the other. A player encountering a “fetch the key” puzzle in Braid can be just as frustrated by the puzzle itself as they would be by a segment that was simply the product of bad design.

        The problem with regards to IF is that there seems to be no way to eliminate the frustration that some players feel when they realize that the parser itself doesn’t impose structure on the game play. When you play a platformer, you learn in relatively short order that you only have a handful of ways of interacting with the world (run, jump, throw, rewind). Those behaviors become the syntax of how you’ll address the game world, and they make it possible for the player to structure their interactions in more immediately comprehensible ways. Any time they encounter an obstacle they can say, “Alright, I don’t know how to get past this, but I do know that it has to involve either running, jumping, throwing, rewinding or some combination thereof, so let’s get to work running through the combinations.” In principle they could simply run through the iterations until something works, but the fun of it is outsmarting the game by planning out in advance an method that ends up actually working.

        Where IF differs is that it doesn’t provide that fixed set of interactions, and without that opacity, I don’t think IF would be IF. So some degree of frustration is built into the system. Any approach that eliminates that frustration is likely to eliminate as well what makes IF fun to the people who enjoy IF. As I argued over on my blog, the opacity of the parser is its strength, not its weakness, but it has to be matched by world design that keeps the player from feeling totally adrift. We eliminate that tension between the “broken parser” and world design only at the risk of losing what’s so appealing about IF in the first place.

        You know how someone can get into a flow state when playing a game like Geometry Wars? “Totally solved” would be something like that, for adventure games.

        But Geometry Wars is a reflex game. I’m not sure it’s possible to make an IF game that allows the player to achieve a flow state. Maybe that’s a failure of imagination, though, and if you can conjure up the image of the sort of IF game that would allow for that sort of play, I’d be interested to see it. The IF community loves a conceptual experiment, so I’m sure we could even get someone to mock one up. But it seems to me that keeping the player from slipping into a flow state is actually one of the objectives of most IF games. We generally want there to be speed bumps to make the player pause and think about their next move.

    • I wanted to e-mail after reading this suggestion, because I saw this thread earlier this afternoon and felt like I was already late to it, but I can’t seem to find an easily located e-mail for you.

      When showing up late to a thread like this often I think, I have thoughts, but the only place I know to share them is my personal blog, which of course is the kind of talking-over that you would probably discourage…

      but definitely the dialog going on here about these issues is really interesting! Perhaps I can threaten the general threat of tracking down people at GDC whereever these issues are discussed.

      • I believe the counterpart to a flow state in IF is engaging the reader-mind (as opposed to the game playing mind). I read a book of fiction very differently than reading an IF, but occasionally I do get bits & snatches of the same ‘flow’ feeling of a novel within an IF. (Em: there was a Seattle IF thread touching on that a bit ago which you were in, IIRC.)

      • Amanda: I don’t know that there’s a place at GDC where people are likely to be talking about the IF interface, but I know that the San Francisco IF group was talking about having a meeting on March 5th or maybe earlier in the week if people needed that. (I’d attend if I had time, but I think my schedule is likely to rule it out.)

        Ron: That could be; if so I’m blanking a little on the details.

      • (Hey, I found it: http://groups.google.com/group/seattle-if/browse_frm/thread/d00e78b1d827cf30#

        For the curious: it was in response to katz’s husband typing in OUCH and then katz wondering what the parser would have done even if it had understood that. Cue discussion on role playing. Today’s thread regarding immersion/flow and the parser, reminded me of this, notably the first sentence:

        “My own angle on this is that immersion is best served when the player is most able to act and least conscious of the parser as a barrier — but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can type whatever you like. It might just mean feeling extremely confident about what you can and can’t do in the game. There are times when roleplaying is great and appropriate (Lost Pig again) and others where the form of engagement I have with the game is a little different.

        But “it should understand whatever I do!” is not only a hopeless goal, it’s actually counterproductive as a design desideratum. The constraints in the UI don’t *just* keep the player from feeling like part of the world. They also do a lot to communicate what kind of game this is and how we might successfully interact with the elements of it. While I don’t think you were quite asking for that, what you *are* asking for — recognition and support for roleplaying — becomes in the extreme case almost the same thing. ”

        End quote. I might restate the idea thus: giving the parser the ability to understand every conceivable thing is like giving an FPS’s controller a button for every conceivable thing: KISS, COBBLE SHOE, PLANT A MAPLE TREE, etc. It isn’t helpful. It turns any game into a life sim.)

  4. Jonathan,

    I was one of those who responded from the assumption that you don’t know what you’re talking about in regards to IF. I’m sorry if that was insulting. I do, for the record, believe that you are being honest, I never doubted it, but I also believe that your remarks to the effect that *all* modern IF games are essentially broken is insulting. IF has conventions, as do all games, and learning those conventions has allowed me some remarkably immersive experiences. I also had to learn and discover things while playing Braid. I don’t consider that to mean Braid was “broken”, but there was definitely what I would call, fumbling, no more or less than in playing IF, for me.

    I think the reactions that you’re seeing are to be expected from a very small community that cares a great deal about its products. Yeah, we (as much as I can claim to speak for a “we”, which isn’t much at all) take exception to the claim that we’re all working hard on something that’s essentially broken. Such a claim undermines all our work. Of course, that passion doesn’t begin to negate your claim, but it certainly explains the reactions you’re talking about.

    As far as messaging you directly:

    1.) It honestly didn’t occur to me. You’re rather a big name, I didn’t think I could engage you in discussion. Take it as a compliment!

    2.) Bloggers of any stripe blog about their matter of interest. That means that what they deal in commentary. Discussion may occur in the comments section of a blog, but I don’t think bloggers as a whole can be blamed for writing commentary.

  5. Jonathan, if you stopped doing interviews because of this, I would cry. Also, I’d be lynched by every other journo. You don’t want blood on your hands, do you?

    DO YOU?

  6. I thought I should point something out concerning the point about IF games being unmarketable and unpopular: There are actually a handful of IF games on iPhone that are quite successful. “Cause of Death” is very popular and has been selling well. Its sizeable following is mostly comprised of women who enjoy reading novels but don’t have as much time anymore due to kids, work, etc.

    I’d also point out that not every IF game is incredibly frustrating (certainly no more frustrating than a game like Braid). Older games like Shadowgate were definitely frustrating because there was no rhyme or reason to what you had to do next, but I’ve played a lot of games where the puzzle element of the IF was quite satisfying (not only because it wasn’t overly difficult, but because the flavor and logic behind the puzzles actually made sense; tasks weren’t arbitrary and were tied into the storyline in a way that made you feel good about figuring out the answer, they were well designed).

    Also, I’m immediately skeptical of people who come out with one solid game and then spend the rest of their careers giving controversial talks as if they’re the authority on everything. It looks especially hammy considering there are far greater game designers out there (with a greater history of successful and innovative games under their belts) who choose to dedicate their lives to continuing to make creative games (as opposed to speaking at every event in a vain attempt to garner attention and notoriety).

    • One reason IF games haven’t been terribly marketable in the last couple of decades is that the IF community hasn’t gone out of its way to market them. At the moment, the community is overwhelmingly comp-oriented. There is, as you point out, some shift toward trying to market games, but I’m not sure they’ve taken quite the right approach. It may be that IF games would do better if they were marketed much the same way as static fiction, rather than the way that other genres of games are sold.

    • In response to MadArchitect, I was actually making the point that IF games are definitely marketable. Case in point: there currently some very successful IF games on the iPhone (Surviving High School and Cause of Death being my prime examples). I’m not particularily interested in either of them due to the fact that the stories seem to be targeted towards women, but many of my female friends are… and I take it that a big part of the marketing campaign behind these games is based on the fact that they have “on demand” episodes created by writers that come out each week. The new content keeps the fanbase happy, and all of the random community stuff they do helps the word-of-mouth advertising.

      • I was actually making the point that IF games are definitely marketable. Case in point: there currently some very successful IF games on the iPhone (Surviving High School and Cause of Death being my prime examples)

        I don’t mean to sound contentious, but Surviving High School is not remotely an IF game in the sense that people here are mostly talking about. It’s graphical, it’s operated by button-tap, and there’s no parser. Thematically and presentationally, it’s a lot more like a visual novel. (I haven’t tried Cause of Death.)

        I realize this is a distinction that doesn’t entirely make sense with the *term* “interactive fiction,” and there are plenty of people who mean something else by that term. But the thing people are arguing about here is mostly the text input, text output kind.

      • Thomas, I didn’t mean to imply that no one is actively working to produce and market commercially viable IF. It’s certainly out there, but my broader point was that since the demise of Infocom the IF community in general has tended to focus production around any number of comps. I certainly think it’s possible to market IF, and as I’ve written at my blog, I think changes in technology are actually making commercial IF more viable, but to take advantage of those changes IF authors are going to have to start thinking in terms of distributing IF as a commercial product. Personally, I’m of the belief that doing so effectively will require a shift in approach. The old Infocom model of distributing them as stand alone games probably won’t be the best way to market IF in the new economic environment. Rather, we ought to be looking at the models used by the fiction publishing industry for ideas.

  7. Pingback: You can also see some marketing here. « Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling — Jerz's Literacy Weblog (WP)

  8. Well, I have to agree with him that there is not a lot of technical innovation in IF. (there has actually been a lot of technical innovation in IF authoring systems… but that is a different issue).

    For example, these things would make IF immediately easier to use:

    1. Automapping… with built in path-finding so I can go to my map, and click once to go back to rooms I have already been in.

    2. Intelligent auto-complete. for words/commands. Try to automatically complete my words, weighted for commands I have already successfully used. Minimize how much I have to type. At least include a history-by-upkey command like a unix commandline has.

    3. Auto note system. The IF author should be able to create a note that goes with an event, that would go into a game journal. This would only record important events/notes, and wouldn’t just be a transcript of the game text.

    4. Highlight words in descriptions to let people immediately know what are the nouns, verbs, and directions of travel. When someone sees that “The sun is sinking below the horizon”, and “sun” is highlighted, it lets people know that they can hit “x sun” and get more detail… they don’t have to waste time type “x every random item described in the description”. If text said “You can swim to the west”, you could have “swim” highlighted as a verb, and “west” highlighted as an exit, so people don’t have to waste time playing “guess the verb” or “guess the noun”.

    These are a few things, off the top of my head, that would make IF a lot easier for new players.

    And personally, I think the best parser ever created was the Scott Adams two word parser. Truthfully, all I want is Scott Adams parsing technology, being written by someone with amazing fiction writing abilities. I could care less if the modern IF authoring systems lets you do really really interesting conversation systems… or some sort of elaborate modeled spell system… those are interesting, but I rather play a “look key” type game and simply have brilliant inspired writing describing the key.

    Books have crappy parsers, but I usually find them more interesting than most interactive fiction.

    • these things would make IF immediately easier to use:

      All of those have been tried (specific references below). Most of them aren’t universal features of IF, but that’s for a variety of reasons: some of them aren’t really appropriate to all games (automapping and auto-journaling are only useful in games of a certain size and shape), while others are relatively recent additions. Almost all of them are things that some veteran players find distracting and eye-sore-like. (And they don’t mostly address the issue of communicating what the parser can do, with the exception of keyword highlighting, which is the equivalent of highlighting hotspots in a graphical adventure.)

      1. Automapping… with built in path-finding so I can go to my map, and click once to go back to rooms I have already been in.

      See pretty much anything implemented in ADRIFT, which offers much this functionality as part of the interpreter; Erik Temple’s GLIMMR extension package supports the same for Inform, though I know of no large games released yet that make use of it. (The package is pretty new.)

      2. Intelligent auto-complete. for words/commands. Try to automatically complete my words, weighted for commands I have already successfully used. Minimize how much I have to type. At least include a history-by-upkey command like a unix commandline has.

      History-by-upkey exists in many (most?) IF interpreters by default. Autocomplete is a little more dangerous because it risks giving away information, but can be found in the ADRIFT interpreter by default, as well as in some mobile devices. Typo correction is a little less distracting, and also exists in a few games; there was an excellent extension for doing it in Inform 6, which hasn’t been fully replicated for I7 (or rather, it was, but it proved eventually to clash with I7’s innards after a certain number of builds).

      3. Auto note system. The IF author should be able to create a note that goes with an event, that would go into a game journal. This would only record important events/notes, and wouldn’t just be a transcript of the game text.

      This is implemented differently in different games, but see Floatpoint, Delightful Wallpaper, The King of Shreds and Patches, and An Act of Murder for examples of this kind of thing, both noting past discoveries and setting up the equivalent of a quest journal of what the player is supposed to do next. There are lots of others — those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head.

      4. Highlight words in descriptions to let people immediately know what are the nouns, verbs, and directions of travel. When someone sees that “The sun is sinking below the horizon”, and “sun” is highlighted, it lets people know that they can hit “x sun” and get more detail… they don’t have to waste time type “x every random item described in the description”. If text said “You can swim to the west”, you could have “swim” highlighted as a verb, and “west” highlighted as an exit, so people don’t have to waste time playing “guess the verb” or “guess the noun”.

      See Bronze, Blue Lacuna, and Aaron Reed’s Keyword Interface extension.

      • Thanks, but I think what I am saying is not being made clear:

        These are things that the IF community may have experimented with, but not things that are any way standardized in the IF interface. The standard IF interface has barely changed from the Infocom days.

        Adrift may have mapping, but Inform and z-machine is the standard for IF and do not. Some games might have custom note systems, but this is really something that should be standard, just inventory is standard in all IF. Sure, there is a keyword interface extension… but this kind of functionality should be a standard part of all modern IF.

        When I play the latest comp entries, most could be games from the Infocom era.

      • And part of *my* point was that, after experiment and consideration, a lot of people feel that these should not be part of the standard interface. A “note system” would have to do very different things in different games. Automapping doesn’t belong in a game with few rooms, or a game with a disjointed landscape, or a game where you want not to emphasize the generally box-and-stick, artificial nature of the experience. And so on and on. The more things you add, the more assumptions you force about the nature of the project being created, and many of these things are simply not universally appropriate — or even close.

        I’m all for authors adding those elements that suit their games, and for the existence of standard code to help make them happen. And I’m really interested in branching out interface designs. But a lot of the experience of developing Inform 7 has been about stripping out standard library features that existed in Inform 6 and generalizing the world model so that the tool is useful for a wider variety of things.

      • And what I am saying, is that I am a typical gamer. Most people, who aren’t a member of the IF literati, would say that the interface for IF is terribly frustrating. You can tell the average gamer that they are wrong all you want… that the interface for IF is great… but it isn’t a matter of right vs. wrong. It is a matter of people saying “this frustrates me”.

        The problem is, you are thinking as an IF author, not as a gamer. You don’t like the ideas/features I mentioned, or suggestions other have made, because they constrain your artistic vision. But as a gamer, I don’t care, I just want some fun.

      • I think it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but my response to your comment got so long that I turned it into its own post.

        The very very compact version is: I agree with you there are issues with IF interfaces; I disagree that standardizing the tool sets with these added features mandatory is a good idea; but I have some thoughts about how your wishes might hypothetically be served.

        And thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s always useful to hear what people do want from within the group some of us are trying to reach.

  9. Pingback: A tangent about marketing « Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  10. The point seems to have been missed, but I am curious. Jon, you described IF as lacking core gameplay, and Emily, you asserted that IF has core gameplay.

    I’m curious if it’s a genuine disagreement or a definitional disagreement (that might highlight root causes of the confusion). Certainly in my own framework, the definition and relationship of core gameplay and puzzles get to the root of my interpretation of Jon’s complaint, and I would equally assert that much IF lacks core gameplay, but I’m more interested in your frameworks then my own.

  11. No one seems to acknowledge that a part — perhaps the most important part — of how J.B. markets is game is to take and hold a point of moral and intellectual authority. Braid, from a narrative standpoint, is incredibly vulnerable to an Emperor Has No Clothes attack. By maintaining a pose of authority and, to a degree, obscurity, J.B. wards off such attacks and is able to make games with serious flaws where the flaws themselves become treated as virtues.

    This technique is common enough in the IF crowd as well — the notion that players who don’t like IF are stupid, etc., etc. — but the soapbox is pretty small for them to stand on compared to J.B.’s.

  12. I’m a lurker, I fully admit that. What I notice here is the over-defensiveness of the people who seem to still like text adventures. They may not be “dead” — but then they are sort of a living dead. Gamers as a vast majority simply don’t care about text adventures any more. Yes, some gamers do. But as far as a medium based on a mechanic, not all that much has changed. When I play Zork, I get the same experience was when I play Anchorhead. Yes, the story in the latter may be a bit better. (A lot better, actually.) But it’s the same overall mechanics. And it’s the mechanics — the medium — of text adventures that gamers have largely (but not entirely) rejected.

    Obviously people who are interested in text adventures will find various examples to show why this isn’t so. But when I start seeing text adventures available via Steam or Windows Live or whatever, then I’ll believe that they’re moving out of their living death stage.

    You still have communities that practice with AGI and SCI games as well. But those barely make a blip compared to the communities surrounding AGS and Wintermute. And even those barely make a blip with the modders for games like GTA IV, Half Life, Unreal, etc. Text adventures do seem to make more of a blip than AGI and SCI, which is perhaps saying something. But I think the audience is still very limited. And that’s fine actually! I can’t believe that those who spend their time with text adventures are doing so in the hope of some future resurgence of the form. So all of this worry about how the mechanic of text adventures has or has not improved over time is meaningless. Whether it has or not, the people who alreaday enjoy text adventures will continue to do so. Those who don’t like them, probably will continue to ignore them.

  13. Pingback: February Meeting Links | Seattle Interactive Fiction

  14. Pingback: The Broken Parser Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to the Adventure Game » CultureRamp

  15. Pingback: What is “the future”? « >SUPERVERBOSE

  16. What Jonathan Blow actually said in the interview with PC Gamer:

    [With certain social games] it’s about the game exploiting your friends list that you already made, so it’s not really about meeting people. And it’s not really about doing things with them because you’re never playing at the same time. It’s about using your friends as resources to progress in the game, which is the opposite of actual sociality or friendship. Maybe not exactly, but it’s not the same thing, right? They’re really just called social games because they run on social networks but they’re way less [social] – like sitting down and playing a board game with friends at a party is a way more social game. That’s an intensely social experience, right? So, like whatever. I hate that name.
    PC Gamer: Do you still think social games are “evil” then?
    Jonathan Blow: Yes. Absolutely. There’s no other word for it except evil. Of course you can debate anything, but the general definition of evil in the real world, where there isn’t like the villain in the mountain fortress, is selfishness to the detriment of others or to the detriment of the world. And that’s exactly what [most of these games are].
    I happen to agree with Jonathan’s point above: ‘social games’ that are set up to only scavenge contacts lists and aren’t very multi-player really are evil. That’s why nothing goes on my phone if it wants that kind of access. Simples!

  17. Pingback: What is “the future”? | >SUPERVERBOSE

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