ParserComp: Endless Sands

ParserComp is a competition for parser-based IF games only, run by Carolyn VanEseltine and continuing through the 14th of March. It is designed to encourage this form of game, and also to provide detailed feedback: games are ranked on multiple categories, and judges must submit textual feedback along with their scores. More judges are welcome, so please check it out and share your own thoughts as well.

Discussion here on Endless Sands, a shortish, lightly comic timed puzzle game with multiple solutions.

Endless Sands (Hamish McIntyre) is a shortish, lightly comic timed puzzle game with multiple solutions. You’re a vampire who has offended the wrong vampire queen, and in a kind of mafia hit, she’s had her goons take you out into the desert, where you will certainly die at sunrise if you don’t find shelter. There are several potential shelters, but all of them are challenging to enter for some reason, so you’re best advised to pick one and work on getting in before dawn. It’s open-ended and sandboxy, but easy enough that I found it quite possible to solve on my first try.

There are a few patchy aspects to the implementation — in particular, the spacing of text is a bit peculiar, and in the ending I got, the epilogue was all printed in the boldface usually reserved for YOU HAVE DIED messages.

I also felt that the story could have been more compelling: the vampire queen is angry with the PC for basically no reason, and there is minimal background about their life before this point, which leaves them as a blank slate; so I didn’t have much emotional context to help me care about my character. As a rule, I am more heavily invested in characters who seem to be in the middle of having a life when their story begins — that is, they have goals, a context, tasks that they’re working on, relationships — whereas a lot of characters in games seem to have been born 30 seconds before the story began. If they’re not amnesiacs, they’re the next worst thing, people without any histories worth remembering. This particular game is by no means the most serious offender in this area, but it attracted my attention on this front because the opening overtly side-steps the opportunity to characterize the PC:

Darkness
It’s so dark, you can’t see a thing. Where are you? How did you get here? And what the hell is that buzzing noise? Let’s see, what do you remember? Well, you remember your name, your favourite colour, and the fact that you’re a vampire. Okay the main things are still there, how about more recent events? What’s the last thing you remember?

It’s a bit hazy, but you think you’d just gotten up and dressed, ready to face the night. You were getting some cereal for breakfast (it still counts as breakfast if you’re eating it at 7:00 PM, right?), then suddenly you felt a splitting pain in the back of your head. And then…

In fact this is just the beginning of a long cut-scene intro that still somehow avoids committing to very much information about the protagonist at all. (Could there be a less defining personality trait than that you eat cereal for breakfast?) At the same time, Endless Sands is not really trying for the Nameless Adventurer Who Could Be Anyone effect. The PC does have a handful of definite features besides the vampirism — a favorite band, an ill-advised tattoo — and in some sequences the game does narrate how you’re feeling about things that happen to you.

There are many positives to counterbalance these issues, though. Part of the reason the game lacks narrative pace is that the author has chosen to prioritize simulation and player freedom instead. Endless Sands models a desert in which you can see long distances, and it describes landmarks in various directions in different rooms — a rare example of this kind of behavior. The game is also tracking time carefully to determine when the sun is supposed to come up, and assigning different lengths of time to different actions, so that a conversation turn might take one minute but trudging some distance across the sand might take 5 or 10. The environment thus gains a sense of continuity and extent that is not modeled in very many text games.

I also thought it was interesting that the game explored the limitations of vampirism rather more heavily than its possible advantages. I never bit any other creature; I never turned into a bat or experienced unusual night vision or enjoyed the benefits of superhuman strength, never mesmerized anyone or sensed anyone’s presence just from the smell of their blood. My skin did not appear to be sparkly, and if I gave off an ineffable sense of vampire Cool, the game never mentioned the fact to me. I did, however, have to cope with garlic, sacred ground, and the inability to enter homes uninvited, not to mention the overarching problem that the sun might torch me as soon as it came up. It’s pretty much an anti-power fantasy.

5 thoughts on “ParserComp: Endless Sands

  1. Could there be a less defining personality trait than that you eat cereal for breakfast?

    Perhaps not, but I do think that information gains a bit of interest when set beside the fact that the PC is a vampire. Of course, more detail would be very welcome here: Do I put milk on my cereal, or something more sanguineous? And is the cereal, in fact, Count Chocula, as I am inclined to assume?

    • Yeah, to be fair, there’s a streak of “look, you may be a vampire, but you’re just a regular person really” humor in the opening, of which the cereal-eating is a part. I did like “ready to face the night”.

      But this regular-personness is carried far enough that it interfered with forging an emotional bond with the character (for me). I think it would have been possible to achieve the same effect with more specific details. Indeed, I think it would have been both more characterizing and funnier, since comedy thrives on specifics. (I had totally forgotten Count Chocula was a thing. Points.)

      In any case, I always feel slightly guilty analyzing this kind of thing in detail because when I spend this much time explaining, it makes it sound like it’s a bigger problem than it actually is. I had fun with this game, and I thought the author showed ambition and promise! I just think I would have gotten more out of it if there had been more attention to the character writing.

      • Fwiw, I don’t think you have anything to feel guilty about! I always get the impression, in your reviews, that you’re thinking not only about the strengths and weaknesses of the individual work, but also about what makes IF effective in general, and what the work you’re reviewing tells us about the potential of the medium. (This is part of why I find your reviews so interesting to read, even when they’re of games that I might never actually play myself.) So, to me at least, this kind of discussion about how a work of IF might have done something more effectively comes across as part of that general thoughtfulness, rather than as excessive faultfinding.

  2. Hi Emily, I’m the creator of Endless Sands. Sorry I hadn’t seen your review sooner.

    Thankyou very much for playing and reviewing my IF. I’m glad that, despite its plenty of faults, you still had fun! I’ve had a lot of really useful feedback about it, which is especially helpful since I’m still really just a beginner. I’ve learned a lot since writing Endless Sands, and while I’ve made some updates here and there, I’d definitely take a very different approach if I was writing the game now rather than back then. A few technical things are still outside my skill level, but that’s something to work towards at least. I’m definitely on board with everything you said, particularly about the mostly-but-not-totally blank player character. But hey, this is how we learn!

    Looking back, I know there are still a lot of issues with Endless Sands, but I’m still pleased with how it turned out considering it was my first project, and was a really good learning experience. Hopefully I’ll continue to make better IFs in the future.

    Thanks again! Your feedback is very much appreciated :)

  3. Pingback: Experimentation in the Parser Domain | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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