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Parser Problems Punish Potential Players, Piss Away Pleasant Playground, December 5, 2022
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
I was cautiously looking forward to this one. Looking forward, as my fondness for early text adventure is just a thing about me by now. Cautious because those early days are much more enjoyable in my head than in front of me. And as a standalone app, unless Paul was building on a rock solid parser there were decades of learnings he’d need to implement.
I was right to be cautious. Part of it was my fault. I was bringing TADS-like parser dialect to this game. I did reasonably quickly figure out my blindspot and adjusted to this new parser syntax. But man was it frustrating. So much guess-the-noun, guess-the-verb. A tried and true way to combat this is to artfully provide valid words in descriptions and error messages. Not only do we NOT get that here, the text actively steers us wrong. An early puzzle involves getting out of a thick copse of trees, but…(Spoiler - click to show)it requires you pull an object out of your pocket, which I never thought to do as a ‘status’ command had previously told me I was carrying “Nothing, zilch, nada.”
Other tried and true ways to combat search-the-X problems is the hint system and walkthroughs. The hint system is context aware, but pretty primitive in that its suggestions are of limited help and relevance. But the walkthrough, I’m not sure what to do with that. I explicitly tried commands suggested by the walk through to be variously met with “Be more specific” or “you can’t do that.” Why are you taunting me, walkthrough?
To be fair, early games sometimes used “You can’t do that” as a synonym for “You don’t need to do that yet.” I certainly tried to embrace the experience with that in mind. So for 40 minutes I exhausted the hints and walkthrough and just typed variation after variation trying to hit the magic combo that would do what I wanted (as told by the walkthrough!) to do. I gave up at the 1 hr mark.
It’s a shame the parser problems are so dire. The bones of the game seemed amusing - the ASCII art was the perfect note of blast from the past, and much of it was really well done. It was SO well done I could even use the pictures to suggest relevant nouns, but that ended up being unevenly implemented. The few puzzles I encountered were simple but very evocative of early text adventures and would have elicited wry smiles had it not been so hard to bend the parser to my will.
Really, it feels like this would be a warm happy play if the parser could get out of the way. It would probably take heavy coding, but parser work alone wouldn’t solve it. Even with the current parser, the author could do a lot more in descriptive text to cue the players, and in beta testing to wring out contradictory, even deceptive text. I kind of hope they do, as this is a thing that makes me happy it exists, but the parser won’t let me enjoy it.
And at a minimum, ensure the walkthrough gives actual commands that work! It is the promise of this that pushed it from a 1->2 for me. A valid walkthrough would be a good way to show it is not Unplayable. Yes, I am committing the cardinal sin of critiquing on content that doesn’t actually exist.
Playtime: 1hr, stuck for 40min of it
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Intrusive
Would Play Again? Probably not but Maybe? If hint/walkthrough and in-game guidance significantly improved.
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
5 people found the following review helpful:
The parser's more disorienting than the jungle, November 21, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
These days when I’m reviewing a custom-parser game, there’s a little introductory patter I usually launch into where I talk about how back when I was first getting into IF 20ish years ago, seeing that an author had created their own parser for a game was invariably cause for alarm – a sign that I was about to be subjected to an insufficiently-tested, awkwardly-designed system that lacked any of the conveniences that contemporary audiences had justifiably begun to take for granted. But over the years, the quality of custom-parser games has inarguably gotten much better – indeed, one even took fifth in last year’s Comp! – with authors paying attention to what the mainstream systems offer and incorporating most of the same features in their own work.
This trend is a very positive one all around, but here’s a downside – it meant I blithely booted up Jungle Adventure with high hopes for enjoying a round of puzzle-solving and treasure-hunting in tropical climes, and wound up striding gormlessly into a rusty old mantrap of a custom parser that brought me right back to the bad old days.
This is going to be a very negative review, because Jungle Adventure is a badly designed game that’s frustrating in the extreme to play. That’s deeply unfortunate, though, because it’s clear the author put a lot of work and creativity into it. This is most obvious in the detailed, often-clever ASCII art that decorates most scenes – it’s fantastic, with a sense of whimsy and humor (like the bend in the protagonist’s plane once it crashes) that always made me smile. But it’s also reflected in the many different gameplay modes Jungle Adventure boasts; much of it is typical parser fare, but there are also some choice-based sections as well as an extended graphical maze, complete with RPG-style combat.
If the author had a lot of fun putting the game together, though, the player is likely to have no such luck. While most of the puzzles aren’t especially challenging, Jungle Adventure is a beyond-punishing gauntlet of suffering, largely due to the extremely limited capabilities of the parser. From peeking at the python code, in fact it looks like there isn’t really a parser – just a whole mess of hard-coded if-then statements that manually match different input the player types. That means that unless you read the author’s mind and type the exact right thing at every stage, you’re doomed to see a litany of completely unhelpful error messages as the game fails to communicate whether you got a verb wrong, an object wrong, a preposition wrong, or are just barking up the wrong tree.
I’ll restrain myself from offering too many examples, but a few of the most egregious include the fact that neither X nor LOOK AT suffice to examine an object – just LOOK THING; that EXIT means QUIT but LEAVE means EXIT; to get the batteries out of a RADIO you can’t OPEN RADIO or LOOK IN RADIO, just TAKE OUT BATTERIES; and when you’ve got the opportunity to offer an object to another character GIVE RADIO doesn’t work but RADIO does.
Compounding this obfuscated system is an obfuscated game design. While there are hints offered in every room, they’re often fairly cryptic, and I found them inadequate to the challenge of gently leading me to the solutions to puzzles like e.g. the second one, which requires finding the aforementioned radio by intuiting that you’re probably wearing clothing with pockets and typing LOOK IN POCKETS, despite the inventory screen telling you nothing of the sort. Similarly, many of the remaining puzzles require you to squint at the ASCII art and guess what it’s depicting – and which of several synonyms for the object the game will deign to accept. I quickly had recourse to the inauspiciously-named junge_adventure_walthrough.txt (now I really want someone to make the Jung-themed adventure game…) but it only explains the solution to like half the puzzles, and just gestures towards them in general terms when what’s really needed is the exact syntax.
I was able to make it to the end by diving into the aforementioned source code and reading off exactly what I was supposed to do. This didn’t save me from a frustrating time in the maze, though – there’s a lot of randomization here, as well as a bunch of instadeath traps and unbeatable monsters (have I mentioned that there’s no undo, and while there are save slots, there appears to be a bug preventing you from overwriting them?), and a combat system that seems coded such that guns are strictly worse than punching, a fact the descriptions in no way makes clear. Still, I am a cussed, ornery soul on occasion, and I certainly did feel a sense of accomplishment at bashing my head against the maze over and over until I battered my way through – a sense of accomplishment significantly tempered by realizing, after I solved one more puzzle through the expedient of source-diving, that my reward was just a message congratulating me on getting past the first chunk of the jungle, and that there will be more to come once the author gets around to it.
It’s not impossible that part two of Jungle Adventure could be turn out well – stranger things have happened. But to accomplish that, the author will need to do what the authors of custom parser systems have done since they started making them good: look at what the major systems do, imitate them unless there’s a very good reason to drop or change a feature, and test, test, test. As it is, Jungle Adventure Part One is a testbed for some cool graphics and a diverse set of gameplay systems, but I can only recommend it to those looking to bone up on their python-reading skills, or people with disastrously low blood pressure. As released, it’s a frustrating, unrewarding experience that risks resurrecting my old prejudices, though I’m doing my best to fight them.
- Mr. Patient (Saint Paul, Minn.), November 20, 2022
- jaclynhyde, October 23, 2022
3 people found the following review helpful:
A custom python parser game with ascii art but fiddly interactions, October 15, 2022
This seems exactly like the kind of game that would be made by a talented and energetic individual who had never played a text adventure made in the last three decades if they woke up one day and said "I'm going to make the coolest text adventure on earth" but didn't have many people test it.
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It's a python game with a bunch of actually really good ascii art. It has a maze, randomized combat, some tricky puzzles, art that sometimes changes according to your actions. Seems like everything a text adventure would need.
Except it has very few of the quality-of-life expectations most parser games have, and many of the solutions are poorly hinted.
For instance, on the very first screen, you are around some trees. Commands like N, NORTH, I, INVENTORY, X ME, LOOK ME don't work at all, but that's okay, this is a custom parser so it has no need to follow conventions from other games. Rereading the help text shows that STATUS gives inventory (although I didn't notice this till later). X TREE and EXAMINE TREE don't work, but LOOK TREE does. It turns out you're supposed to (Spoiler - click to show)CLIMB TREE. Once you make it to the next screen, it's not a big jump to (Spoiler - click to show)LOOK PLANE, but now what? After several fruitless minutes, I turn to the guide to discover I should (Spoiler - click to show)LOOK IN POCKET. But why? If the author had had several people try this game out, they would have found quickly that few people would guess this. You can access a HINT that generally helps you, but most people seem to like games to be solvable without HINTS, using them only when stuck.
The randomized maze combat was hard. I was determined to finish this game, although I kept randomly dying (and there is no UNDO and typing the wrong command after dying exits out of the game entirely, and the command for loading a game during the game is different than the command for loading the game after dying and typing the wrong one will also exit the game as will hitting enter just one too many time). Combat is just pressing enter over and over after picking your weapon, and looking at the code the strongest-looking weapons are incredibly weak while the weakest-sounding weapon is the strongest. There are several insta-deaths in the labyrinth as well.
Overall, it looks like it was magnificently fun to code and make the art, but it doesn't seem like a game that was created with a lot of player-side input, and I ended up frustrated. My 1-star rating is not indicative of the effort put into the game or the total amount of fun that can be derived from it, but merely results from the fact that my usual grading rubric (polish, descriptiveness, interactivity, emotional impact, and replayability) evolved from a different style of text adventure than this one.
(Note: for a much more positive review by a different reviewer, see this link: https://intfiction.org/t/b-j-bests-ifcomp-2022-reviews/57995/3?u=mathbrush)