Interviews with ParserComp organizers past and present.
What is a ParserComp?
Competitions are a pillar of the contemporary interactive fiction scene. They greatly increase an entrant’s prospects for critical attention, and likewise increase a critic’s prospects for being read. This is because a competition is a way to concentrate and centralize the IF conversation around a pool of contestants. For a month or so, the entrants’ games are played, discussed, and evaluated. These are exciting times for players and authors alike.
As some of you might recall, Gold Machine covered the Spring Thing Festival in April. The focus of that coverage was providing impressions and recommendations for entry games that I had played. During that time, Adam Sommerfield, an organizer for a smaller but well-regarded competition called ParserComp, asked me to write something about it when the time came. Said contest is a natural fit for discussion here at Gold Machine, since it exclusively considers parser-based interactive fiction. A “parser” is a natural language interpreter of text commands. It’s the input mechanism that all Infocom text adventures are based on (even Journey in my opinion, though disagreement is a valid response).
I was a little dissatisfied with my Spring Thing coverage. In retrospect, I think I spent too much time summarizing reviews that I had already posted elsewhere. I’ve decided to sacrifice breadth of coverage for depth this time and will feature ParserComp-related interviews for the next three weeks (my 2022 ParserComp reviews can be found in this thread). This first post features organizers (past and present) of the competition, in hopes of understanding the history, philosophy, and goals of this community event. I started by contacting Adam Sommerfield to get some historical background.
[Note 1: ParserComp judging is open until July 31st 2022, 6 PM CST! As of press time, there are over five days remaining to play and rank ParserComp games. Check them out here.
Note 2: All interview content has been edited for clarity and economy. It was gathered via messaging at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum over a number of days.
Note 3: Voting has been extended to August 2, So a) there is more time to play and rate games and b) the Brian Rushton interview will be published after voting closes.]
I’m doing a short interview with Christopher Merriner and Jeff Greer about the competition, but I’d like to start from the beginning. Would you mind sending me a few words about the history of ParserComp: what it is, why you started it, and what its mission is?
ParserComp was actually created in 2015 and ran for a season and a half. It was quite successful, but the creator stopped. Here’s a link:
So Chris, Jeff and I can’t claim to be the original concept creators, but we certainly have brought it back and also shook the rules up a bit. It started a few years back, around Autumn 2020, with a post on IntFiction that I made saying that it would be great to have a “War of the Z-Machine” competition; you can compete if your system can create a “*.Z3/Z5” playable game [a format used by most Infocom games].
The conversation, as it so often does on IntFiction, steered towards bringing back ParserComp. I really loved the idea, and I already knew that I wanted to give it more of a Jam feel; with this in mind I immediately set up an account on itch.io.
I wrote the rules, promoted it, and I remember that it really ran itself in many ways—it all felt very natural and flowed easily through the stages. The rules were well-received, and everyone followed them.
In short, what I wanted was a competition where you could use any software to create your game but from the user’s perspective it must play like a traditional Parser game first and foremost. I used the phrase “think Zork or Photopia” a lot!
I then went to run ParserComp again in 2022 (earlier this year) but I began to feel unwell. I stepped away asking Chris if he would kindly step in, which he did.
[What follows is correspondence with 2022 ParserComp organizers Christopher Merriner and Jeff Greer.]
Since not all of my readers will follow the IF scene as closely as we do, I think it would be best to start by asking: what is ParserComp? What is its history, and how did you get involved?
ParserComp was started in the first part of 2021 by Adam Sommerfield. I have followed Adam’s activities in various areas of IF, particularly impressed by his work with Zil/Zilf including instructional videos on YouTube. When Adam was unable to continue running ParserComp 2021, I volunteered to take over the admin duties and he accepted my offer. From that point forward I ran the comp, provided an end of comp spreadsheet with game data and announced progress on the forum. After the comp and judging was complete, I announced final game winners on the IntFiction forum.
When it came time for ParserComp 2022, Adam again asked for volunteers to run the comp. I had intended to help out with admin duties and offered to help.
Adam selected Christopher along with me and we began working together to make the comp happen again in 2022. I expect ParserComp to continue well into the future. It seems quite popular for a new comp.
I’d also add that the original iteration of ParserComp (organised by Carolyn VanEseltine) was back in 2015 but the competition then lapsed until Adam Sommerfield decided to revive it last year. The competition is intended to showcase parser-based interactive fiction games, where the player interacts with the game by typing text commands and the output is, usually, more text. The style dates right back to the inception of the genre with Crowther and Wood’s Colossal Cave Adventure in the late ’70s and remained popular during its commercial heyday in the ’80s with big hitters like Infocom involved, and then through the post-commercial era to the present day, aided by the availability of free development tools like Inform and TADS.
In the past couple of decades, the IF scene has proliferated and different styles of text game have come to the fore, alongside (if not actually supplanting) traditional parser-based games—most notably, choice-based games, where players advance through the game by selecting options leading to different passages of text. A few years ago, there was a lot of debate in the IF community, sometimes acrimonious, about the relative legitimacy of these different styles of text games. That’s thankfully in the past, and these days major IF competitions like Spring Thing and IFComp tend to feature as many choice-based games as parser-based games. It is a great illustration of the diversity of the current scene, but we feel that there is still a place for an exclusively parser-based competition, where entries are competing against others of the same type. There is still a lot of diversity even within that narrower field, as this year’s competition has proved.
As for how I got involved: as Jeff says, plus I was an entrant last year and, having enjoyed the experience, was very keen for the competition to continue. Jeff took over from Adam at the end of last year’s competition, and I offered my services this year. Even with a relatively small event like this, there is quite a lot to do. It’s great to have another organiser to discuss and bounce ideas off.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced running ParserComp?
Well, apart from a couple of technical issues to do with itch.io, the website we’re using to host the competition (for example, we encountered a glitch when we first set it all up that prevented people from voting at all – now thankfully fixed), one of the main problems we’ve encountered is how to define a parser game. We’ve described such games as involving text input and output, where the primary method of control is entering commands via the keyboard (rather than selecting choices to advance through passages of text) as that seems to typify the sort of classic ‘Zork’ type game that most people (or at least, most people of a certain age) tend to think of as a parser game but, inevitably, there are grey areas – for instance, games that are largely driven by clicking on key words rather than typing in commands. Engines like Robin Johnson’s Gruescript make games that work in that way, but the overall effect is still very much parser-like, even if the underlying mechanics work differently, and we’ve decided to allow such games into the competition. Other examples don’t look or feel very much like parser games at all, and we disqualified one such game from the competition on those grounds, although the author has since made a detailed case for it being a parser game after all.
The challenge is that we want to be inclusive and welcome innovation in the form, but at the same time we need to police some boundaries to keep ParserComp as a recognisably parser game event – otherwise we might end up with another general text game competition like IFComp or Spring Thing. There’s a major subjective element to this, of course, and others are bound to disagree about what we consider to be a parser game and what should and shouldn’t be allowed in. However, as the organisers, that’s our cross to bear, and we hope that participants and judges alike will accept what we’re trying to do in good faith. Similarly, our voting categories are geared towards those elements that are typically found in a classic parser game, with categories for story, characters, puzzles etc., but we do acknowledge that there’s a long tradition of largely or entirely puzzle-free parser games (like Adam Cadre’s Photopia, to name a famous example) and story-lite puzzle-box type text games, that it would be difficult to score in those categories. It’s certainly a learning experience, and we’ll be looking closely at how the scores come out this year to see what, if anything, we need to change for next time round.
Itch.io is not the most flexible game jam environment. Their rating system is pretty set in its ways. We had a problem early on. I had to jump though quite a few coding hoops to get the rating system to work. Itch.io support was no help at all. They didn’t even respond.
We definitely intend to keep ParserComp going well into the future. During the off time this year, we hope to develop a better system for rating. I am looking into third party support as well as developing a self-contained ParserComp system. We see how it develops into next year.
For now, we are pretty much involved with end of the game processing at this time.
I have had trouble getting the winning trophy engraved as I would have liked. It is still good but not what I intended. I visited a very nice high-end engraving company here in Houston this morning. They were not interested in my small job. I will work on a better option for next year.
I asked about the problems first because I’d like to end in a more positive way. Could each of you share what ParserComp means to you personally? There’s so much that needs to be done at any time in the IF community, and it is always a labor of love. What was it about this competition that pulled you in? I see it as a valuable service to authors and players alike.
There’s something enduring and magical about the parser game genre that appeals particularly to literary-minded game players and game-orientated writers, but also to lots of others who find themselves, for one reason or another, intrigued and drawn in by the genre—Christopher Merriner
I find providing a platform to display the parser game for the art form that it most certainly is to be very rewarding. The parser game is one of those good ideas that has stood the test of time, despite its commercial heyday having passed decades ago and the world having, in many ways, moved on. The genre seems incredibly resilient: periodically over the years there’s been a lot of anxiety about the death of the parser game and the inevitability of it being eclipsed by other forms of interactive fiction, but those fears have proven to be misplaced. Parser games exist in a niche, but it’s a thriving and diverse one, as shown by the sheer number of new works being published each year, the range of authors involved (some veterans who have been involved in the scene for decades and many new authors coming to the form for the first time, excited by its possibilities), and the number of different approaches and authoring tools on display.
In ParserComp, we’ve had games written in well-known systems like Inform, Dialog and ADRIFT, long-forgotten languages like AdvSys, and a whole variety of home-grown approaches, some of which are very novel (like Gent Stickman vs Evil Meat Hand in this year’s competition which takes text commands as input and has hand drawn cartoon sketches as output). There’s something enduring and magical about the parser game genre that appeals particularly to literary-minded game players and game-orientated writers, but also to lots of others who find themselves, for one reason or another, intrigued and drawn in by the genre. As a parser game player, and as a parser game author myself, it’s a real privilege to be able to curate a space dedicated exclusively to showing off these works.
Text based stories stimulate the mind. Our minds are so much better at filling in details and giving characters, places, and storylines life. Life in an imaginary world that has been developed by the author and fleshed out by the reader. In interactive fiction, the reader IS the central character. When done well, the player character (reader) has the power to make the story his or her own. It is the player’s game, not the author’s version. The story is so much richer when the player is so involved.
Parser/text IF has stood the test of time. The more general jams and competitions always include a significant number of parser / text entries and frequently win more than their percentage share of accolades.
I played text based IF in the very early days. Many in the IF community did as well. As a teacher, I always try to utilize “play” and “fun” to enhance learning. Graphics and video don’t give students and people in general the same experience. It is too passive. Having to engage in the game and use abstract reasoning brings satisfaction, enjoyment and learning to the forefront.
The IF authoring systems have become so sophisticated in these modern times. Authors are able to leverage these systems to develop their game ideas and bring them to the players like never before, both text-based and graphical. Modern development systems are still being developed by brilliant individuals. These systems generate a lot of interest.
Text IF is the most challenging for me both writing and playing, but I have a weakness. I think all text-based IF is great, just some better than others. I like to give back to the community. Sponsoring and facilitating jams is one of my ways to give back.
The competitions and jams bring adventure to life. I like to be a small part of that adventure.
Thanks to both of you for these great answers. I appreciate you both running this year’s ParserComp! I’ve had a good time.
Thank you. It is my hope that we can make ParserComp better and better.
Gold Machine will turn the spotlight to authorship with the first of two contestant interviews. We’ll talk with Brian Rushton, AKA mathbrush, about his game The Impossible Stairs. He’s a seasoned author and prolific reviewer, and those experiences make for a lively and insightful conversation.
See you then! If you have thoughts on this new format at Gold Machine, by all means comment here, send a message, or find me on Twitter.
[Images retrieved from craiyon.com]