SPAG Verdicts: ParserComp, Spring Thing

Read on for capsule reviews of both major comps this spring.


An Adventurer’s Backyardby lyricasylum

In Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), lunch comes in cans marked “FOOD.” An Adventurer’s Backyard, by lyricasylum, could very easily be served in a box marked “TEXT ADVENTURE.” It’s set in what seems to be an upper middle class home — there’s a fairly extensive backyard, naturally, plus a patio and a balcony — with treasures littered here and there. Some are just sitting in plain sight, while others are in containers we must open. We gather the treasures, and the game ends.

At its best, a game like this, even if it had no ambition beyond a simple treasure hunt, might try to give the player a sense of place or history or wonder, or even just try to generate a laugh. But AAB has been written with an absolute-minimum aesthetic; we’re in a regular house, where everything is described in purely functional terms, in no more than a sentence or two, perhaps with an adjective like “nice” or “tasty.” It feels like the game was assigned to the author as a task to be gotten over with. There are a few implementation issues, too, most of which involve a cat whose collar we need. This becomes a puzzle only because we need to guess the syntax. I had to resort to the ADRIFT debugger to solve it.

This is probably a first effort, and as such, it’s perfectly serviceable and something to be proud of. To the author I would say this: Put more joy into it. Even a simple treasure hunt can be made
entertaining if it’s clearly a labor of love. — Sean M. Shore

Chlorophyll, by Steph Cherrywell

Steph Cherrywell has fast become one of the best new IF writers, and if you want to know why, here’s the very first response I got:

“She’s a lovely shade of jade green, with a cascade of lush foliage tumbling down her back.”

Now that’s a character description. Specifically, it’s of your mother, a plantlike alien scientist (a premise reminiscent of the equally good Coloratura); you’ve accompanied her on a mission to a research base, but after an accident, you’ve got to get things running again — and save her life. Though this is not exactly an underexplored plot, and the puzzles are largely IF comfort food, Cherrywell’s world-building makes it both fascinating and thoroughly lived-in — the base, for instance, is made for photosynthetic life, with sunlocks where airlocks would be, topiary salons and water bars you’re too young for, chlorophyll acne; the detail goes far beyond the cosmetics. The piece gains added gravitas from something that is underexplored in the genre: one of the most genuinely moving mother-daughter relationships I’ve seen in IF, and certainly in parser. — Katherine Morayati

Delphina’s House, by Alice Grove

Child-friendly magical realism is a well-trod parser-IF trope, the medium inherently containing a certain amount of childlike wonder; I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Here, you are Delphina — ahem. You are Delphina: Adventurer to Distant Worlds, Weaver of Stories, and Maker of Mud Pies; and you’re all outta pies, so distant worlds and story-weaving it is. Along the way, Grove touches on some other much-loved IF tropes: twinkly imagery, parallel Alice in Wonderland worlds and objects that travel between them, molten glass and starstuff. — Katherine Morayati

Down, the Serpent and the Sunby Chandler Groover

A competition called ParserComp is naturally designed to attract games that demonstrate the strengths of traditional IF. One entry that fits the bill is Down, the Serpent and the Sun, which takes advantage of the ease with which parser games can establish a sense of place, compared to more choice-based fare.

The place in question is the internal anatomy of a giant feathered serpent god, which devours the player in the first few turns. Starting in its mouth (we’re swallowed whole, thankfully), we can journey down through its digestive system, taking the odd detour into other organs. Elaborate descriptions of gory innards, half-digested corpses and eldritch architecture abound, but the amount of text between each command is relatively restrained and the author’s commitment to the apocalyptic tone sells it – even if at first it might seem a bit much for a game where one way of losing is to emerge too soon from a snake’s butt. The puzzles are pleasantly straightforward (at least to reach one of two similar endings), making this a nice game of exploration through an atypical and grotesque setting. — C. E. J. Pacian

Endless Sands, by Hamish McIntyre

The risk with comps like these is that games will have unexpected synergies. Sometimes it’s funny, as with Introcomp’s Scroll Thief and Soul Thief this comp’s Terminator and Terminator Chaser. Other times… let’s just say it probably didn’t help McIntyre at the start that I played this, with its kidnapping plot and Vampire Queen involvement (“Ugh, what a bitch. You can’t believe you thought she was hot.”) after Sunburn. That is all.

More charitably: Endless Sands is a standard adventure-puzzler (you’ve been stranded by the aforementioned Vampire Queen in a desert you must escape), set in a standard desert atmosphere, with all the expected desert landmarks: cacti hither, oasis yonder, sand, dunes, Pyramid of Doom expanses, boy howdy, that sure is some sand. The tone, meanwhile, is dry as the atmosphere, and varies from effectively sarcastic (“Congratulations! You have successfully murdered one of the few living things around here!”) to over-bro. Solidly implemented — the watch is a nice touch — but perhaps a little parched. — Katherine Morayati

Lockdown, by Richard Otter

Okay, look. Parser games have a certain functional language that’s almost impossible to unwrap from around the code. You can try, but for a comp for smallish games it becomes a Phantom Tollbooth-esque pointless task. That said, there are times you really should try not to use it, for instance, when you find yourself emulating the dry objects-and-locations rundown for sentences like this, among the first a player sees: “A receptionist is lying on the floor.” Or: “You take the silver necklace from the body of Rachel.” And definitely: “She has been shot several times in the chest. She is carrying a notepad.  She is wearing a white shirt and a blue skirt.”

As it turns out, this is somewhat the point. The character is a sociopath (of the somewhat unfortunate variety characterized primarily in terms of DSM diagnoses) and a murderer — the exact character type, in other words, to be so clinical in his narration. However, the writing’s insufficiently polished, the puzzles too cookbook and the actual narration too much of the “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” stripe to give the author the benefit of the doubt. — Katherine Morayati

A Long Drinkby Owen Parks

A noir! In IF, this sets high expectations — about half of them set by Make It Good — but I’m deep enough into working on a noir of my own (quite different than this) that I’ll go with it. Unfortunately, implementation bugs of the sort that’d have been caught on the most cursory copy edit and a little too slavish adherence to the hardboiled monologue style make the drink rather weak. – Katherine Morayati


Oppositely Opalby Buster Hudson

Witches! Competitions (called PotionComp, a broad chuckle of a gag)! Bratty PCs! Many, many references to Wicked! Alliteration! Hint cats! This is the goofy-fun game of ParserComp,  and in a certain mood, there’s nothing you want more than some good goofy fun. While the premise suffers slightly from its proximity in release to that other potion-assembly puzzle game, and while the PC’s voice often veers too far away from “pleasantly bratty” to “annoyingly faux-gonzo” (ED. NOTE: AUTHOR IS RESPONSIBLE FOR BROKEN LEGS / IS PERHAPS A BIG OL’ HYPOCRITE), it’s both a delightful caper and a big ol’ hint-cat hug to one of the deepest-ingrained nostalgias of parser IF enthusiasts: the spell-collecting Enchanter sort of game.

Also, I might not have mentioned: There’s a hint cat. There. Is. A. Hint. Cat. Who provides hints in catlike fashion, and generally improves everything by its presence, as cats do. And for once the author didn’t forget to implement >PET CAT. I swear I’m going to write this in for the next XYZZYs. — Katherine Morayati

Six Gray Rats Crawl Up the Pillow, by Boswell Cain

Six Gray Rats describes itself as a “gothic vignette,” which is key; you’re a foppish aristocrat who, as foppish aristocrats do, has taken a stupid bet from a court buddy: spend the night in a haunted Renaissance house, get mad cash florins if you come out alive. Mouldering atmosphere abounds, both in the house itself and the cod-Renaissance memories that the player may explore parallel to the story, and is mostly the point; what puzzles there are are standard IF fare (though, to be fair, equally standard of the haunted-house genre), and what story there is is largely backstory.

The author’s clearly put quite a bit of polish into this piece — take the cover art, or the custom inventory menu, which implements the PC’s many memories as seamlessly as anything I’ve seen. However, a few minutes’ worth of poking reveals unimplemented objects and some unfortunately placed default language (supporter descriptions in Inform can be tough to customize, but even the most cocksure, blase superfluous man would note a certain bit of death in more horrified fashion than “On the armchair are a dusty, desiccated corpse…”); what’s there is great, equal parts evocative and dryly satiric, but whether due to the nature of this genre, which is almost always better more rococo, or the past few years’ worth of juicy parser games, I found myself wanting more. Still, not a bad place to spend a night. —Katherine Morayati

Sunburn, by Caelyn Sandel

Sunburn bills itself as a “social justice horror story.” You’re a woman who turned down a man, Paul, for a second date; unfortunately, that man was the one-in-a-you-never-really-know-how-many who reacts violently, locking you in his office to die — because you’re also a vampire, who will die if exposed to sunlight, and he knows it. But just as readily as Paul can use your vampiric nature to threaten you, you yourself can wield it for your redemption — a standard supernatural trope, and a satisfying one. There’s a neat interconnection to all the pieces: the sort of man who would lock a woman he dated in his office to die would naturally carry a weapon, and the sort of villain who would appear in a vampire story would naturally use weapons like crossbows; and the fact that, supernatural element aside, this sort of  man enacting this of sort of violence is very much non-fictional does raise the stakes of your standard locked-room scenario significantly.

That said, Sunburn suffers a bit from its scale. Its premise is solid and the work starts menacingly enough, an endlessly looping serial killer tape in a room so barren as to be inescapable; but the fact that escape takes roughly two and a half puzzles soon undermines this. It’s plausible that a man like Paul would be so in love with the “brilliance” of his plan that he forgets to take the damn key off the windowsill, less plausible that someone with the resources to pull it off would have such a non-descript office, with such little security. The puzzles are remarkably well-clued, but there could stand to be about twice as many; what setpieces there are — the fire crystal, the reactive paintings — were striking and memorable, but almost seemed like missed opportunities to raise the entire environment to that level. Specifically, there are hints that you need to feed on someone to regain your strength and bust the place up, but besides the final confrontation, you never get a chance. A lot of these missed opportunities have to do with revenge. My first instinct was to throw the audio player into the fire and destroy dude’s voice WITH FLAMES. The default response — “Futile.” — though it perhaps works in a resigned way, was somewhat underwhelming. Similarly, I wanted the final confrontation to last more than one turn — though maybe it’s fitting that this guy and his crossbow go down so quickly.

(A final note, not so much a critique, but a remark on one of the endings: perhaps it’s the timing of the piece, but the idea that an audio recording would convince the police to listen to a member of a group they’re already disposed to hate seems… disproven lately, to say the least. There are hints in the writing that this reading is intentional; yet the standard IF victory banner, “you have brought a murderous, entitled misogynist to justice,” doesn’t seem ironic.) — Katherine Morayati

Terminator Chaser, by Bruno Dias

Easily the most impressive presentation of the comp, in design and in accessibility; the decades of parser innovations that’ve come about since the 1980s are… largely not in evidence in ParserComp, which makes them ever more welcome here. The story itself is a traditional IF-SF blend of base exploration and corporate machinations, indebted to Babel and Delusions and such; though it shares some of the weaknesses of those works — the backstory is engaging but somewhat ham-handed in how it’s doled out, “suddenly a thought strikes you” stuff. Still, the reason this is such a stock premise is because it’s generally effective. — Katherine Morayati

Terminator, by Matt Weiner

(No relation to Terminator Chaser. Hoo boy, is there no relation.)

In a sense, every ParserComp game makes an argument for some aspect of traditional parser, and Terminator‘s element of choice is clear: the elaborate puzzle setpiece. You’re exploring a crashed spaceship (again); the trick is, you don’t explore it yourself. You control it by remotely controlling several scouts and drones, giving them commands from safety. By now you’re either reaching for the nearest pen and paper to map and plan, or reaching to close the tab. And while as a coding exercise this is near-virtuosic, you’re… kind of either inclined toward this or you’re not. I’m also not sure IF is the best medium for this; sometimes with puzzles like this the lack of sight is the point, but after a while one longs for some coded-in, preferably graphical diagram. Hell, the premise doesn’t even have to be a video game; me, I scratch my “command individual units in turn-based fashion IN SPACE! itch about once every six months with Space Alert.

But then, I’m a Story Person. — Katherine Morayati


Doggerland, by A. De Niro

In the early years of parser IF, it was stereotypically obligatory for most games to have a maze. In the early years of hypertext fiction, it was equally obligatory for most stories to be structured as a maze of poorly-explained internal links for the reader to wander through without guidance. It may be time for a theory of hypertext fiction design that rejects the device of making links out of words that have no more than a metaphorical or suggestive association with the target passage. I’m not going to prescribe that it should never be done at all, only that maybe it should be disreputable in the same way twisty-passage mazes are disreputable in parser IF, and authors who do it should feel obligated to preface their work by explaining how they “put a really creative new spin on the idea.”

The reason I bring this up is that the links that determine which branch of Doggerland the player ends up following are labeled pretty obscurely. In fairness, Doggerland is far from the worst offenders among hypertext games with user-unfriendly navigation. It’s not organized as a web that you can get lost in forever, as in old Storyspace hypertexts like Patchwork Girl and Afternoon, but it reminds me of them. Like them, Doggerland feels very Modernist and “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” It’s not actually possible to lawnmow through all the passages of Doggerland in one playthrough (it branches a couple of times and disables the back button), but it still feels like you’re supposed to. The choices you make only affect which parts of the story you read, not the outcomes of the events in the story. There never seems to be any reason to choose not to see any particular part of the story, so the choice-based structure mostly feels like an obstacle. It makes me wonder what Doggerland would look like with a design philosophy of total ease of comprehension, like something Edward Tufte or Chris Ware would endorse, presenting its entire text and the structure of all the links between its ideas at a glance on a single page.

The game uses mouse-over to reveal changes in the text, and as the author’s comment points out, that creates problems for mobile devices. But also, it was irritating for me because I’d get some new text by hovering the mouse arrow over something, then naturally I’d want to try to click the new text, but the new text would disappear before my mouse arrow got there because I’d moved it away from whatever part of the screen was causing the new text to appear. It’s especially a problem that the text you can never reach with the mouse is the same color (red) as the text that’s supposed to be clickable. It was a little like Whack-a-Mole, which wasn’t what I was looking for when I started a game tagged with the genres “poetry autobiography.”

The text itself is good. It’s chilly and surprisingly brief. Spoiler: it’s a personal reflection in which childhood and the past exist by the banks of frozen lakes and seas, which in a future of global warming will all be submerged as warm rains come and melt the ice. It’s selective in its detail but not too opaque. Maybe what bothered me about the presentation was too much reliance on design concepts intended for games that are supposed to conceal things from the player and create challenges. I don’t think Doggerland is trying to do those things at all. — Matt Carey

Mere Anarchy, by Bruno Dias

Mere Anarchy is a vibrant and attractively presented storygame about a revolutionary cell infiltrating the enemy, parcelled up in a magic wrapping. Though short, it is packed with vivid and concrete imagery. Magic and politics is a potent mix. As in The Invisibles or The Illiminatus! Trilogy, esoteric trappings (ritual magic, alchemy, kenning etc.) are matched with radical politics as the player takes on the role of a vengeful anarcho-wizard in a fight against the establishment/magocracy.

The primary form of interaction in Mere Anarchy is the ability to define incidental aspects of the experience. There’s the illusion of gamist trappings with health and sanity stats and optional items, but there doesn’t appear to be any failure states: the options just open up different branches to the same conclusion. Ultimately, the interaction is a means of pacing: player autonomy isn’t exercised through changing the course of the story, but rather by varying what gets presented. Fortunately, the different prose snippets are rich enough to still reward the player for their small choices. — Joey Jones

Ruiness, by Porpentine

With Ruiness, Porpentine is again expanding the design vocabulary of interactive fiction. It’s a powerful idea to use the interface features of Twine to create a limited menu of verbs that players can use to navigate through the whole game, including anticipating what actions are going to be possible in a new scene before they get there. Twine is about limiting the verbs for interacting with IF (not to mention throwing out the indirect objects, adjectives, and adverbs), which can be a great thing because it means it’s easy to make a single-purpose interface that fits the content of a particular story, but that requires hardly any effort for the player to learn. Porpentine is probably the best Twine author at exploiting this potential, creating an innovative new interface with nearly every game she releases.

Like Porpentine’s recent works Skulljhabit and (with Brenda Neotenomie) With Those We Love Alive, Ruiness is structured as a series of locations to be visited over and over at different times. This time, instead of a single strongly-defined protagonist, there’s a character creation feature the player has to use to make a series of adventurers who journey to each of the locations in the game. I appreciated this experiment, but before it was over I felt the gameplay was limiting me to lawnmowing through a clearly defined range of possibilities to see all the text in the game. Even though the game makes the adventurers’ travel sound arduous, there’s no apparent disadvantage to sending each character to every possible location. If you assign every characteristic to only one of your characters (as opposed to creating a new character for every permutation of characteristics, which would be very tedious), almost all the text you see in the game will be unique and there won’t be any need for you read the same passages over and over. Still, you’re not really given the chance to for the sense of discovery that comes from finding non-obvious possibilities in the game system or the sense of agency that comes from story-changing decisions. That is, unless there was a puzzle that went entirely over my head. (I’m aware that something hidden can be found through the text input box, but as far as I can tell it’s really just an Easter egg). The only ending I found was a bold departure from the rest of the story, but it was so enigmatic I didn’t recognize it as a “winning” ending, and I spent a while going back over the same locations vainly searching for another way forward.

The world the player characters explore reminded me of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag, but the vague prose made me feel I was getting a fairly dim glimpse of the world compared to what I’d expect from a fantasy novel. Characters aren’t named, and when they speak, their dialogue isn’t directly quoted. Some passages made me think the history and inhabitants of Ruiness’s world might be deeply consistent and thought-out, but some features like the “Skullipede” and “Lizardhorse” that can be chosen as player characters’ steeds felt more like evocative words thrown together in hopes the player’s imagination would fill in the blanks. Going into detail about the wide world of Ruiness probably would have required several times as many words and far more effort than making the game in its current form, so it may not be fair to call Ruiness flawed just because some of that detail is absent. One of the classic uses of Twine is to make a “game that’s a sketch.” But as Porpentine stretches Twine into a vehicle for more refined interaction design, I hope we’ll see how much more fleshed-out her storytelling can become. — Matt Carey

Sunrise, by Lucky Sun Scribes

Firmly in the visual-novel genre, the choice in this game is between two romantic partners. One interesting feature is that rather than having to choose between equally compelling options, the protagonist must side with either the manipulative creep that they still have confused feelings for, or a kind-hearted but smothering idealist. Some effort is put into making either choice narratively believable, though it’s not entirely clear why she ultimately has to be with either of them.

Sunrise plays to the strengths of the medium, presenting its long internal reflections and non-interactive dialogues with very stylish audio-visual elements; of the music, Abel’s theme is a standout piece. There’s a surprising twist at the start of the second act which breathes life into the story and the expressions in the protagonist’s portrait during this act are utterly delightful. The diesel punk theme, while informing the strong art direction, isn’t particularly developed. While setting deeply informs the reasons the player might choose one partner over the other, the specifics of the kingdom are only lightly sketched. — Joey Jones

Toby’s Nose, by Chandler Groover

Toby’s Nose puts you in the role of Sherlock Holmes’s dog, in one of those familiar mystery-summation scenes, where the detective assembles the suspects in a drawing room and announces who done it. In this case, Holmes still needs assistance from you in identifying the culprit. The game immediately put me in mind of Simon Christiansen’s great spoof of this sort of scene, Death Off the Cuff but Toby’s Nose didn’t work quite as well for me.

Most of the game consists of smelling every noun mentioned in the text to try to pinpoint the suspect. Not just the visible objects — everything. The ABOUT text indicates that you’ll be able to remember important scents in your inventory after you’ve smelled them, but doesn’t make clear that you can remember smells from other locations, from before the start of play.

The author cites Lime Ergot as inspiration, and the influence of that game is clear. Smelling a noun opens up other nouns, which in turn open up others. It’s possible for one noun to open something like a dozen new smell-targets, which might be a bit overwhelming. The vast majority of these will be irrelevant for the mystery, but they are generally very well-written and evocative. In principle, one should be able to lawnmower through all the scents, take careful notes, and at the end, arrive at an inescapable conclusion as to the guilty party. I couldn’t, or at least didn’t. It’s likely a failing on my part that I couldn’t solve the crime from the clues, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. The game allows you to accuse a suspect (via BARK AT) with no evidence whatsoever; indeed, you can do so with the first action after Holmes finishes his opening exposition. If you’re right, job done. If not, well, UNDO and try someone else. I suspect this is intentional on the part of the author, or he’s not too worried about it at any rate. Solving the mystery is in some ways not the point; rather, it’s to take a leisurely olfactory tour of the world of Holmes and other mysteries (referenced in the footnotes). Whether this works for a given player is a matter of taste. — Sean M. Shore

A Trial, by B Minus Seven

At first A Trial appears to be set out with the trappings of an adventure game (cardinal directions, situations that feel like puzzles) and the prose has an artificiality which hints at a writing constraint (though if there was one, it wasn’t obvious). It turns out, after all, to be an open ended explorative piece with embedded stories and extensive and well-attributed excerpts. The individual vignettes vary from the engaging to the obscure, and as interesting as the undertaking was, if there was a deeper structure holding the disparate threads together it wasn’t readily apparent. — Joey Jones

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