GET PARSELY: Adventures With Text and Maybe Pictures

Thanks to Parsely I’ve been really interested in text adventure games/interactive fiction of late. I’m currently playing the original Zork and generally trying to digest what implications IF might have for tabletop RPGs.[1] RPGs can use some visual elements during play, but as with text adventures, we often only convey images during play through descriptive words. On the other hand when you look at the packaging of any given Infocom game, it’s full of visual stuff to excite the player, to a degree that contemporary video games very rarely bother with. They even went so far as to include “feelies,” weird little props to enhance the experience. (Leather Goddesses of Phobos even had a scratch and sniff card with different scents that came up during the game.)

As video games started to become able to have some semblance of visuals, there was still a certain imaginative leap asked of the players. Game publishers usually had a professional illustrator do a painting that conveyed the general feel of the game, and even when, say, Nintendo, used pixel art on game covers, they still had more detailed art in the game manuals. There’s definitely a parallel to RPGs, which can have all kinds of illustrations to put you into the right mood, but ultimately consist of setting info, game rules, etc. and aren’t a visual medium per se. There might be some times when you can point to the professionally-done fantasy art in a D&D book and relate it to something in your campaign, but chances are the price tag for artwork of that caliber for your own characters will be out of your reach.

From the NES Metroid manual

Pixel Art
What’s rather interesting is how the role of pixel art has changed. The so-called “AAA” video game titles use 3D graphics and aspire to something like photorealism, and genres that were traditionally all sprite-based (shmups, fighting games, platformers, etc.) have come to use 3D polygons too. These days pixel art pretty much only comes up as an artistic choice, which in turn means that it’s more likely to be used in a stylish indie computer game (or by the likes of Paul Robertson), than to suffer the mediocrity of the kinds of games that keep the Angry Video Game Nerd raging away.

In an important sense we’ve more recently reached a point where pixel art is normally the proper visuals ans seldom winds up a rough representation of what the designer wants to communicate. Some of it is no doubt nostalgia, but I would like to see pixel art make its way into tabletop games more. As far as I know Jonathan Walton is the only one who’s really been experimenting with this kind of thing (check out the cover of Super Suit). Not unlike with Blowback‘s brilliantly effective use of photography (a mixture of stock and original), pixel art won’t work for every game of course, but as I’ve started looking into commissioning pixel art I’ve found that the artists on DeviantArt who do it don’t charge very much, plus there are quite a few free pixel fonts out there. I’m definitely going to be experimenting with this kind of thing whenever I finally put together a Parsely game of my own[2] (and I may even mess around with ASCII art a bit too).

A Side of Parsely
Parsely[3] is much more interesting than it might appear on the surface. It might be a bit of a stretch to call it an RPG, but it’s definitely an analogue RPG-ish thing played by people. While the layout of rooms and how things work within a given Parsely game is tightly restricted (almost comically so; there’s exactly one way to get past the orge), reading any given Parsely game you’ll find there are places where the Parser/GM must, at a minimum, think up how to explain what happens on the fly, and while you could give obtuse computer-like responses to things not already covered by the game (“That sentence isn’t one I recognize.”), players will inevitably come up with commands that are eminently plausible even in the absurd, constrained world of a text adventure (“Kiss the princess.”)

While Action Castle is a sort of medieval mini-Zork, Jared gets into trying an assortment of different things in the successive Parsely games. In some (Spooky Manor and Pumpkin Town) characters can turn into different forms with different abilities, for example, and Space Station makes use of a stopwatch. There’s also the concept of “Microgreens,” super-short Parsely games of 1-3 rooms, of which Flaming Goat is the only specimen so far. (Update: Scratch that; Jared posted up a second one, Blackboard Jungle.) Just as people have done all kinds of strange things with the medium of text adventures–from Infocom’s more experimental titles to the avant-garde efforts of the IF hobby scene–there is tremendous room for trying out different kinds of things.

The Parsely game I’ve started working on is called Miyuki Kobayakawa’s Doki-Doki Adventure, and aside from using pixel art and having the conceit of a setting inspired a bit by Paul Robertson and Takashi Murakami, it’s going to have an event that changes the nature of the locations in the game. I’m also contemplating a game based off of the webcomic I write for, where you switch between different cast members to resolve all of their various little quandaries.

[1]Also, I’ve been reading Twisty Little Passages, which is highly informative but also in an extremely academic style.
[2]I’m also contemplating trying out Inform 7 to make an electronic version once it’s done.
[3]Which BTW is now available in PDF; 99 cents per game.

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4 thoughts on “GET PARSELY: Adventures With Text and Maybe Pictures

  1. I strongly advise checking out I7. Even making something simple really increases your appreciation of what goes into the medium, and making something more complex helps you appreciate what can come out of the medium. I’ve even mentioned the idea of making visual novels with I7, and it was confirmed that this is possible (though untested) with the Glimmr extensions.

    The PARSELY games sound interesting. I’ll be sure to try one out when I get the chance!

  2. my main problem with the language is that it’s a little too close to natural language, for me. I write something that seems good, but it picks up ambiguity somewhere. Fortunately, the community is great for helping out with that!

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