VERB NOUN
February 17, 2011 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Before the Infocom text parser allowed computer games to understand complex sentences, and long before Watson was coded to parse and comprehend natural language, adventure gamers had to solve every problem presented to them with just two words: a verb followed by a noun. The father of the text adventure game was Scott Adams (no, not that one), and his games, which were published by his company Adventure International, are freely playable on a number of different sites and devices - and many of them are fiendishly challenging to this day.
posted by jbickers (38 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
So, retro gamers were talking like Advice Animals before it was cool?
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:30 PM on February 17, 2011


It occurs to me that language parsers for text adventures haven't advanced a bit in 20 years. Has anyone tried to use a state of the art natural language parser in any games? I can only think of Facade that tried to push the limits.
posted by empath at 12:31 PM on February 17, 2011


I have to recommend (the tangentially linked) GET LAMP, a documentary of impressive depth and breadth on the history of text adventures by MeFi's own Jason Scott. I'm a little too young to have enjoyed these games in their heyday, but I have an interpreter on my iPad and spend an embarrassing amount of time fiddling with my syntax to just pick up the fucking lamp already.

I don't see the fucking lamp here.
posted by Zozo at 12:34 PM on February 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


So, out of curiosity, how good is the cutting edge of natural language interpretation these days? Watson implied it was fairly good, but then again, Watson has an insane amount of memory and processing, and seems to focus more on quickly finding relationships than actually answering questions.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:35 PM on February 17, 2011


It occurs to me that language parsers for text adventures haven't advanced a bit in 20 years.

This is not true.

Has anyone tried to use a state of the art natural language parser in any games?

Yes, although of course this is one extreme of the spectrum. The main problem is that it expands the player's perceived broadness of allowed input to a size that is orders of magnitude past what the actual game logic can deal with. So instead of being frustrated that the parser doesn't understand you, you get frustrated that the game's world model isn't sophisticated enough to deal with your input.
posted by dfan at 12:35 PM on February 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's an actively discussed topic in the IF world. In general, it's easy to point at the parser's problems, and hard to come up with something better. Some are advancing multiple-choice choose-your-own-adventurish games, which strike me as different in kind (fine and good in their own right, mind you, but not having the appeal to me, personally, that other IF does.)
posted by Zed at 12:39 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


It occurs to me that language parsers for text adventures haven't advanced a bit in 20 years. Has anyone tried to use a state of the art natural language parser in any games? I can only think of Facade that tried to push the limits.

If you think that parsers haven't advanced in the time since Adventure, you haven't been paying attention. Emily Short has a list of IF works that are notable for their interface, including a whole range of parser augmentations and replacements. But dfan (himself an author of interactive fiction!) beat me to the punch.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 12:40 PM on February 17, 2011


Actually, the first game I ever played on a computer (early 80s) was a game that consisted solely of text cues and text inputs by the player, called "Adventure." Although it included some interesting elements, like a killer pirate, it was mostly a homage to Lord of the Rings.

Would love to find that game again. It engaged the imagination the way old radio programs do. I think this site is talking about the game I remember. I'm not savvy enough to figure out how to download it onto my laptop in a playable format, though.
posted by bearwife at 12:43 PM on February 17, 2011


Today that's called Colossal Cave Adventure, available as a zcode file, and there are zcode interpreters for every platform ever. (The wikipedia article contains several links to downloads for different platforms.)
posted by Zed at 12:46 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Emily Short has a list of IF works that are notable for their interface, including a whole range of parser augmentations and replacements.

Yeah, but compared to the interface advances in every other genre of computer game?
posted by empath at 12:46 PM on February 17, 2011


Oh, I see you'd gotten that far... if you want to memail me what OS your laptop is, I'll help you find the right download.
posted by Zed at 12:47 PM on February 17, 2011


Bearwife: try this page. Specifically, you can play online or download it.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 12:47 PM on February 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't say I've played huge amounts of if, but I play the winners of the IF competition every year, and they are still mostly 'guess the verb' games, and none of them, even the experimental ones take advantage of the amount of processing power and memory available to computers now.
posted by empath at 12:48 PM on February 17, 2011


To expand on dfan's point, you can see some of that in action in Starship Titanic, a 1998 graphic adventure game by Douglas Adams. You interacted with the ship's robots by typing in what you wanted to say, and the robots responded accordingly. Reviewers became very frustrated at how the robots mis-understood what you typed and made seemingly context-less replies. More recently, Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas created Facade, which does something similar. Its behavior was a lot better than that of Starship Titanic, but it was pretty brittle about things like spelling and grammar. Think of it as a text game mediated by your average MeFi reader.
posted by sgranade at 12:49 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many thanks to Zed and jsnlxndrlv. Now I will doubtless spend hours replicating the lost hours of my college years . . . though probably not at 2 AM in the science center between cigarette breaks.
posted by bearwife at 12:54 PM on February 17, 2011


I remember 'helping' my parents play Pirate's Cove on our Vic-20 when I was about five years old. In this game you are transported to a desert island and have to build a ship, sail to Treasure Island to collect... well, the treasure, obviously.

Building the boat required you to haul all of the pieces or a ship, one at a time, to the beach. On the beach lived a mongoose. If you LOOK MONGOOSE, it is 'nothing special'. Just your everyday, run-of-the-mill, standard issue mongoose. Well, we would drag this mongoose around with us everywhere because, you know, snakes. I so wanted a pet mongoose at that point.

After constructing a ship we set sail for Treasure Island with our trusty mongoose in tow. Traipsing around we come to a temple guarded by a pit of snakes. Ah-ha! Good this we brought along this mongoose!

DROP MONGOOSE

The five year old flyingfox waited with baited breath for 22-column blood and gore as our trusty mongoose tore through these pesky snakes. Oops, it turns out that our mongoose wasn't, in fact, a mongoose. The snakes killed our mongoose and then our player. I've never hated mongooses (mongeese?) so much in my life. This was the ultimate act of betrayal to a five year old. Damn dirty mongoose.

For decades "the mongoose isn't a mongoose" was a running family joke. A few years back, I found Scott Adams' website and downloaded Pirates Cove. With red eyed ruthlessness that would concern even a ravenous Riki-Tiki-Tavi I tore the file apart. Pouring over every string from the file I finally found the answer to the question that had been plaguing our family for over two decades. You were supposed to use the parrot to kill the snakes. The Parrot?!?

I carefully played through the whole game again (only took a few hours), recorded a text log of the whole game and sent it off to my parents. It took 25+ years, but we finally had closure.
posted by flyingfox at 12:56 PM on February 17, 2011 [17 favorites]


Yeah, a big part of the problem is that a parser doesn't exist in a vacuum: it's the player's interface to a world model, and so while IF parsers/input engines have in fact made pretty impressive progress in the range of input they can handle correctly and the flexibility with which they can handle variation, resolve ambiguities, etc, they still have to work within the domain of the world being modeled under the hood.

So these days you're going to have an easier time picking up the lamp, but the world still has to know whatever it is about the lamp that you want to know or do. And, in fact, world modeling has made significant progress as well, to the point that there are fairly elaborate basic physical/relational models available both as built-in functionality of some of the languages and, notably, as user-contributed libraries that extend that core functionality.

But it's still an issue of simulating a whole world. Every possible thing you can think of to do with one or more objects, any thing you could think to type into the command prompt, the game has to either (a) correctly identify as something it knows how to make happen, (b) correctly identify as something it can't make happen, or (c) convey to you that it's not sure how to handle if there's a potentially resolvable ambiguity involved.

That's a lot. You look at the evolution of 3D action games in the face of physics engines like Havoc, and there's (when done well) suddenly a lot more bits of simulated interaction in those worlds where you can, say, arrange objects to provide a platform to jump up from, or knock out a tower by blowing out its support structure. And that's a huge change from what used to be pretty much totally static environments in older 3D games, but even for that huge change the number of verbs involved in those new physics puzzles is tiny. Jump, collide, throw, push, pull, a few things like that.

IF has the task of trying to handle your entire working vocabulary, both at a parser level and at a world simulation level. Its an enormous task, and in practice what an IF game needs to do with most of those possibilities is ignore them. And just as a good 3D game makes clever use of a reductive set of physical interactions to leverage the state of the art in physics simulations, a good IF game makes clever use of a reductive set of commands to create compelling descriptive scenarios.

There's very little incidental flash to IF, and so it's harder to be properly distracted from the practical limitations of parsers, world models, and an author who can only write so much text and implement so much special-case logic in a given game. But that doesn't change the fact that lots of folks have done lots and lots of very clever work to improve the state of the art significantly since the early Infocom days.
posted by cortex at 12:56 PM on February 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


If I recall correctly, Scott Adams made some neat graphic adventure games too. I think I played them on an Apple II+. There was a real thrill to watching each new room/scene start out as black-on-white outlines then get slowly filled in with tiny checker-board like textures (to simulate shades of various colors) -- like having the curtains slowly parted for the next act in a play.

I aslo recall that each game contained a slideshow about the evils of software pirating, featuring a crudely-rendered image of Scott Adams himself.
posted by treepour at 12:59 PM on February 17, 2011


Yeah, but compared to the interface advances in every other genre of computer game?

What kinds of advances do you mean? Other than things like the Wii and Kinect most games have been built around the joystick + buttons interface (slightly modified to mouse + buttons interface on computer games due to the fact that a mouse was already standard). The way you communicate your actions with a parser is much more expressive and complex already than the way you communicate with a game like Halo or Starcraft. The gameplay is the real content, the interface is just the way the player interacts with it. Unless you are somehow going to make the actual game better by letting the player do new or better things, a better parser is not going to do much.

I wouldn't say I've played huge amounts of if, but I play the winners of the IF competition every year, and they are still mostly 'guess the verb' games, and none of them, even the experimental ones take advantage of the amount of processing power and memory available to computers now.

Just because you have processing power and memory doesn't mean it can be used to make a game more enjoyable though. The idea that the technical limitations of parsers are holding IF back is like blaming paper and ink for the lack of great modern novels.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:00 PM on February 17, 2011


I think Fa├žade provided a useful case study for the value of natural language input: despite years of work, and a surprisingly resource-intensive system, the game's ability to understand input is insufficient: you can present it with lots of different input, and the game may not give you an error message, but the characters' in-game responses of confusion betray the illusion: you still have to work out the parameters of what kinds of input the game can make sense of in order to make any progress.

I find it less frustrating as a player to make use of modern IF parsers: they can accept "verb-noun" commands, yes, but they can often also navigate to a specific location when presented with that location's name, take multiple objects, change the state of one object relative to another, convey commands from the player to non-player characters, or simply process a list of commands presented at once. Sure, these commands may be limited to conventional structures, but this is no less appropriate to IF than a fighting game's seemingly arbitrary use of sequential button inputs to trigger unique attacks.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 1:08 PM on February 17, 2011


West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.
posted by brand-gnu at 1:19 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to recommend (the tangentially linked) GET LAMP

Seconding this! The documentary is many things - a chronology, of course, of game development - but also a philosophical discussion (at times an argument) about language, the brain, and perception. Everyone in it is much smarter than me and I really enjoyed hearing them speak about developing games.

Colossal Cave Adventure and Dungeon! were not only my first computer games, but my first experiences of any kind with computers, at the age of eight.
posted by Miko at 1:21 PM on February 17, 2011


text adventures! who gives a shit about THOSE THINGS anymore
posted by jscott at 1:27 PM on February 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


There was one on the C=64, I was eight at the time, and I can't remember what the title was, but it had me stumped for days. There was a pit, and a hook in the ceiling, and I had a rope. I knew I was supposed to use the rope to get across the pit, but all the combinations of [VERB] ROPE that I tried just wouldn't work. Finally, I tore into program listing itself (in BASIC), and found it. SWING ROPE. I remember being both frustrated that the solution was SWING ROPE (what, I don't have to THROW ROPE or LOOP ROPE or anything first?) But I was equally smug that I got around it in my own way. :)
posted by xedrik at 1:44 PM on February 17, 2011


adventure gamers had to solve every problem presented to them with just two words: a verb followed by a noun.

Fuck that.
posted by orthogonality at 1:56 PM on February 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


I have a pretty nifty about a parser that I wouldn't mind implementing. The downside is that players have to learn lojban first.
posted by adipocere at 1:59 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


they are still mostly 'guess the verb' games

Like Halo is a "shoot the Covenant" game, Minecraft is a "dig the rocks" game, and basketball is a "put the ball in the hoop" game. Much of the fun (to me, anyway) of IF is figuring out how to make the parser understand what I am trying to do. This is in fact, the primary challenge in one of my favorite games of all time -- IF or otherwise -- The Gostak.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:00 PM on February 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


>> adventure gamers had to solve every problem presented to them with just two words: a verb followed by a noun.

> Fuck that.

Drink beer.
posted by m@f at 2:01 PM on February 17, 2011


how good is the cutting edge of natural language interpretation these days? Watson implied it was fairly good

It's okay, if you want everything phrased in the form of a question.
posted by JHarris at 2:51 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Egress
posted by humboldt32 at 3:04 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


> POST COMMENT

With what? Your bare hands?

> YES

You post a comment with your bare hands. Underneath your post you find a box a box labeled "Favorites".

> OPEN BOX

What?

> OPEN FAVORITES

The box's favorites flow out onto the dirt floor. You now have an empty box.

> GET FAVORITES

You already have the box labeled "Favorites."

> GET

You pick up the Favorites and put them in your bag.

> DROP BOX

What?
posted by chairface at 5:16 PM on February 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


I remember 'helping' my parents play Pirate's Cove on our Vic-20 when I was about five years old.

SYS32592
posted by rifflesby at 6:00 PM on February 17, 2011


Minor thing. Scott Adams is certainly the father of the commercial text adventure game, but obviously there's a smattering of people like Woods/Crowther who did Adventure first (and which inspired Adams to make his first game, Adventureland).

Unless someone has a question, I won't go off on GET LAMP here - Metafilter has already been way kind in discussing it before now.
posted by jscott at 11:37 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


*grabs pencil & paper, starts a map*
posted by Pronoiac at 8:25 AM on February 18, 2011


but I play the winners of the IF competition every year, and they are still mostly 'guess the verb' games,

Tell me about it!

semi-self link - I did some of the descriptive text for that game. It is ridiculous how much time you can spend coming up with a description/interaction for every bit of the game world.
posted by mikepop at 8:36 AM on February 18, 2011


"To save interactive fiction, we have to kill the text adventure."
posted by jasonstevanhill at 10:19 AM on February 18, 2011


And, in other news, Blue Lacuna.
posted by jasonstevanhill at 10:39 AM on February 18, 2011


This post just got a hat tip in Emily Short's response to Jonathan Blow's incidental critique of interactive fiction. Blow himself shows up in the comments for rebuttal.
posted by Iridic at 10:34 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


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