"And there's no precious graphics to help, either."
"Dammit! So let's recap: there are four directions that I can move in and none of them work. What the fuck am I supposed to do?"
An annoying aspect of oldschool Text Parser
-based Adventure Games
, especially Interactive Fiction
, was a limited ability to recognize command inputs. Additionally, the error messages would frequently lack clarification as to what you were supposed
to do, often making you want to put your fist through the screen.
For example, let's say the command to look at a monster was "look monster". If you typed in "look at monster", the game might say something like "I don't know how to do that" or "I don't see an 'at' here". This got better over time, but never completely disappeared before command-line interfaces went out of style. Still, the text parser remained a staff favorite, as it allowed them to anticipate what the player might type in a given situation. Should the player's input be totally off-the-wall (such as 'pick nose'), they would create a suitably off-the-wall response.
The name of this trope is a reference to Homestar Runner
. In the Strong Bad E-Mail video games
, Strong Bad imagines himself as a character in a text-based adventure game, and imagines the problem above:
: And you'd be all like "get ye flask", and it'd say "You can't get ye flask
", and you'd just have to sit there and imagine why on Earth
you can't get ye flask! Because the game's certainly not going to tell you.
aficionados claim that this problem was rarely all that bad except in the earliest and worst examples of the genre, and they get really cheesed off that it's the one thing about the format that people still remember
. Of course, the fact that it is
the one thing they remember is telling... but then, the company most widely known for their Text Parser
adventure games (Sierra, of King's Quest
and Space Quest
fame) is also the one with one of the worst parsers ever, that didn't improve much in the six years they used it before switching to a Point And Click
The modern Interactive Fiction
hobbyist community includes this trope among its list of things to avoid. Called 'Guess the Verb' bugs, such errors are universally accepted as a sign of sloppy programming. It's now accepted as a standard that every object with any kind of use must have at least one
'archaic' or 'unusual' descriptor — 'stopper' in reference to a bathtub plug, for example. Of course, nowadays, we have context-sensitive adventure making programs like Inform7 programs that can make this process as simple as typing "Understand "Plug" or "stopper" or "thingy" as the bathplug
, making the whole item-creation process take seconds instead of days or weeks.
Another option is to give a list of all the possible words. One small game, used to demonstrate features of the C programming language, listed its 6 verbs and 12 nouns in the help screen. Chris Crawford's Storytron
engine has you choose each variable part of the sentence from a drop-down list, and then adds or replaces the next part of the sentence as appropriate.
Examples of games with actual good
parsers include The Hobbit
and anything by Infocom
. Ironically, that includes some of the oldest
adventure games; many of the newer ones tried to reinvent the parser wheel. The TADS (Text Adventure Development System) runtime is particularly good at such reinvention — not only can you actually get
ye flask, TADS allows to choose between multiple
ye flasks, and will ask which one thou actually wantest
Sometimes called "Guess The Verb" or "Guess The Syntax". The "ye" comes from Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe
. The equivalent frustration in non-parser Point-and-Click
games is the Pixel Hunt
. Contrast The Dev Team Thinks of Everything
, if you are working with an exceptionally good text parser.
Contrast Unexpectedly Realistic Gameplay
, where the solution is something you shouldn't
be able to do in a game, but can.
- Deathmaze 5000, for the TRS-80 and Apple II, contained (among other things) a pit in the first level containing an item you needed to complete the game. Once you stepped on it you were stuck in one place, and your only clue was "To everything there is a season." In case you didn't pick up on the clue, it would shout "To everything, TURN TURN TURN" after a few minutes. Typing in "Turn" did nothing. Physically turning by hitting the move keys did nothing. None of the items you got on that level were "turnable". The only way to know what to do was if you bought the Deathmaze 5000 Hint Sheet from the software company in the early 80's (and whoever you are, you don't have it).
- The item in the pit was a calculator that displayed 317. If you cleaned it, it displayed 317.2. Typing "HELP" at this point gives the cryptic instructions "Invert & telephone." The player had to think of turning an old-fashioned square-digit calculator display of 317.2 upside-down, which would resemble "2LIE", and then look at the buttons or dial on a telephone to turn this into "2543". This leads to the actual solution, shown on the hint sheet: turn right 2 times, then left five times, then right four times, then left three times.
- At one point in the game, you have to fart. Yeah. You just type "fart." There are no hints that this would do anything useful, naturally. (Although if you'd experimented with typing "fart" earlier, you'd have been rewarded with being propelled down the hallway on a jet of your own exhaust.)
- 8-bit adventure Heroes of Karn required you to extinguish some smouldering ashes with the water you were carrying. None of PUT WATER ON, DROP WATER ON, POUR WATER ON, USE WATER WITH, QUENCH, DOUSE, EXTINGUISH, COOL, DAMPEN, MOISTEN, SOAK, DRENCH, FLOOD, WET or IMMERSE ASHES would work. Figuring out you had to "WATER ASHES" was by far the hardest part of that game.
- Parodied in Hugo's House Of Horrors:
Please say "undo bolt".
- In many adventure games, the player was safe with the generic verb "use" applied to any object or situation. Some games, however, would not make that leap. Especially frustrating when you're given an item and you're not sure what it is and how you're supposed to use it, such as being given a crank in Laura Bow 1 which you're not sure what to do with. "How do you want to use the crank, Laura?" Aaaaarrrrgghhhh!!!
- As pointed out by Syd Lexia, in the very first Sierra game, Mystery House, the game will accept PRESS BUTTON, but not PUSH BUTTON.
- Peasant's Quest has many funny responses to incorrect (as well as correct) commands.
- Pretty much the entire point of Pick Up The Phone Booth And Aisle is trying different verbs to see what ending you get.
- Sierra, creator of King's Quest and Space Quest, never got beyond "<verb> <noun>" phrases in almost a decade of parser design. Their most infamous example, however, is the end of Leisure Suit Larry 2, where the player has to make a bomb using an airsick bag as the wick. The problem is that "bag" is not considered a synonym for "airsick bag" - despite there not being a different bag in a five-mile radius. As a result, many walkthroughs in magazines and on the internet falsely claim that the input here has to be a full sentence (including the word "the" several times).
- This one isn't actually Al Lowe's (creator/programmer) fault. There was an unrelated bug that needed fixing, so Lowe, pressed for time, had someone else fix it. He assured him everything was fine, and the code seemed to check out. The only problem? The programmer changed "bag" from a noun to a verb. Lowe never noticed, as the policy for testing was to use the longest sentence possible, which bypassed the error. More info can be found on Lowe's site.
- In King's Quest, most locked doors can be unlocked by a variety of phrases, such as "open door with key", "put key in key hole", "use key to open door", etc. Except for the magical door in King's Quest II, which only accepted "unlock door".
- As part of its copy protection, King's Quest III included several spells the player needed to cast. Rather than an easily-copied phrase, each spell consisted of several steps requiring advance preparation. Unfortunately, several of those steps required a specific verb or the entire process would fail.
- In the first Space Quest game you have to INSERT the keycard. No synonymous or rephrasing of that unusual and unnecessarily technical term will be accepted.
- Parodied at one point in Quest for Glory II, where the "proper" command is "use lamp", but the game will not only accept "put down lamp" and "drop lamp", but gives you funny messages if you do (having you verbally abuse the lamp for the former and break up with it for the latter).
- Quest for Glory I allowed one to type "Pick Nose" (mentioned in the description), which would allow a thief to train his lock picking skills (and get a message saying "Success! Your nose is now opened!). Having too low a skill would cause one to jam the lockpick up one's nose into their brain and die. The really funny bit is that later games (and remakes) kept this Easter Egg (sans the dying part) even when the series abandoned the text parser. The game would then play the "door unlocking" sound, and simply display "success", meaning that players who had not played the original and clicked on themselves with the lockpicks by accident were rather confused as to what just happened.
- Among the many frustrating puzzles in Starship Titanic is obtaining one of Titania's (the ship's AI) broken eyes. It's one of four similar-looking globes (the others are lightbulbs). You can't just reach out and grab it, even though you can poke it and the game will tell you what it is. You have to summon the Bellbot, hold your cursor over the correct one and type: "Get the broken eye". "Get the eye", "Hand me the eye", "Give me Titania's eye", or "Give the eye to me" will not work. Worse, "Get the broken bulb" also works.
- On a game based on the Spanish comic books "Zipi y Zape", apparently you had to drop a nail so that your father sits on it and wounds himself with it and drops a patch. The thing is, people tried lots of variations of "drop nail" or "put nail near father" without any progress. It took SEVENTEEN years until someone with programming knowledge hacked the game files and found out that the exact code had to be "throw nail under tree". As if nails had to be thrown, or anything could be put under trees. Let's all play nail throw! You can find the whole thing explained, if you can read Spanish, in here..
- Scott Adams' 1978 Adventureland required the player to enter the unintuitive UNLIGHT LAMP in order to prevent a lamp from using up its fuel, and would not recognise the verb EXTINGUISH (and certainly not the phrases PUT OUT or TURN OFF).
- The Angry Video Game Nerd provides the following example of a flawed parser interface in his attempt to play The Count on the VIC-20:
"Okay, so I went north? What'd that do?"
OK. What shall I do now?
>go east again
Use 1 or 2 words only!
"Oh, okay, I'll give you two words!"
Don't know how to "FUCK" something.
- The game Asylum knew those words... use them once and you get a warning, use them again and it boots you from the game!
- And this was after he sooner found a way to eat his pillow than he did find a way out of the room he was in.
- Bureaucracy uses this as a game mechanic: you get penalized for inputting an incorrect command, by an increase in "blood pressure". If blood pressure becomes dangerously high, your character dies.
- The otherwise excellent Curses by Graham Nelson had a section where you had to cram a voice-operated robot mouse into a mouse hole and then give it instructions - only the standard commanding language explained in the instructions ("mouse, go north") didn't work. Trying every verb on every object randomly might bring you to the correct solution: you have to address the hole, not the mouse ("hole, go north"). It also freaked out completely if you just gave it the following simple command:
Yourself does not wish to dance with you.
- The Fahrenheit 451 text adventure was a nasty example. You could be killed for something as simple as crossing the street at the wrong times of day, there were several times you had to fight off a Hound or Fireman...and the result was based on if the computer felt charitable, and you advanced the plot contact members of the Underground using literary quotations as pass-phrases. However, the parser system was pretty craptastic, and if you so much as left out a punctuation mark, then you lost your chance to use the phrase, and had to leave the building and come back to try again. Worse, it had plenty of Guess The Verb moments as "Talk to man" worked sometimes, while others you had to use "Ask Man" with no indication as to what. Top it all off with a Downer Ending with a side order of Fridge Logic if you managed to put up with the game's quirks long enough to reach a conclusion.
- Satirized in Guess the Verb, an IF game containing several scenarios, each revolving around an uncommon verb.
- In the The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy text adventure, you're actually expected to input an incorrect command at one point, which has an effect later in the game.
- If you never input a senseless command, the game will eventually take a certain correct command (I forget what it is, but it's one you need to complete the game) and use that as the deadly insult. You get kudos for timing it right and saying the actual quote ("I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle").
- One PC magazine described this kind of thing as "toying with various ways of saying PUT BABEL FISH UP ZAPHOD'S JACKSIE".
- Also in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a cup of "tea". If you type GET TEA you are told that you can't do that. After a tremendous amount of frustration, you'll finally figure out to type GET CUP. That's, of course, because it's not tea, but an "Advanced Tea Substitute", which the game abbreviates to ATS (hence, GET ATS also works). As a running joke in the series, it is "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea". You also start the game with "no tea" listed in your inventory. (When you finally do pick up the cup of real tea, instead of saying "Tea: taken", the game says "No tea: dropped". This becomes important later, because in order to be let into Marvin's room, you have to prove how philosophically deep you are by carrying tea and no tea at the same time.)
- There's also a puzzle early in the game, on the Vogon ship, where you have to remember a particular word from the Vogon poetry and then type it in while in the airlock. Catch is, you need to use quotation marks. And not all of the ports of the game supported them...
- The Spellcasting 101 series was both an example of and aversion of this trope. On the one hand, you had to use specific verbs for many situations , but all of the verbs in the game (as well as your entire inventory) is displayed in a menu on the left side of the screen, allowing the entire game to be played with the mouse. (Picking up items required clicking on a picture field.)
- Infocom's Shogun, based on the novel by James Clavell, involves the protagonist in trying to communicate with the Japanese by searching for a common language. However, you can't actually input lines in any of the foreign languages you know... and trying to type anything like "Say 'where am I' in Spanish" crashed the parser.
- Zork games suffered from this to some extent, but they did also have some rather amusing responses to bizarre lines the player typed:
It is dark in here. You may be eaten by a grue.
It is a known fact that only schizophrenics talk to grues.
Autocannibalism is not the answer.
I doubt the grue lurking in the dark would agree with you.
Very good. Now you can go to the second grade.
- All things considered, the Zork parser is pretty forgiving. It allowed for articles and for multipart commands ("pick up the box and put it on the table") and had a pretty big vocabulary.
- The foulest, evilest, most likely-to-drive-the-player-mad game was by far Murder in the Museum found on the Big Blue Disk. It deliberately invoked this trope and required players to guess the NOUNS. What was described as "a leg bone" could only be obtained by typing "Get FEMUR", a "small gun" was "DERRINGER" and on, and on. There were no hints as to what you were actually supposed to call an object to pick it up, the text parser was more pedantic than Sierra's, and if you weren't fast with the pencil the game would actually delete the text of the piece of dissolving spy paper from the screen, thereby causing you to lose a critical and random code which would make the game unwinnable. Not that it was possible to figure out what was in the space probe and thereby even progress with the game.
- The original 'ADVENT', also known as Colossal Cave, had something that looked like a snappy comeback, but was actually a question to answer:
> kill dragon
What? With your bare hands?
- The Edutainment Game Voices of Spoon River several times explicitly tells the player to "place" something on something else... but the verb "place" isn't implemented. It's not too hard to figure out that you have to "put" instead, but it's still weird.
- Ad Verbum makes an art of this—for instance, one room is described entirely in words beginning with S, and will only accept commands beginning with S (of note: the only exit is to the north). On the plus side, the parser's willing to accept a large number of words that wouldn't appear in a normal game.
- "The Six Foot Tall Man Eating Chicken" has a pretty big one. There is a cork. There is a bucket with a hole in it. Putting the two together? Plug doesn't work. Use doesn't work... Solution is PUT. Which is never mentioned
- Infocom's Enchanter at one point places an essential scroll (essential as in "the game cannot be successfully completed without it") inside a mouse hole. Retrieving the scroll is complicated in that "get scroll" doesn't work, and neither does "get all from hole," or any permutation thereof. The only command that will work is "reach into hole," which wouldn't have been so aggravating if "reach" was used anywhere else in the game.
- This sort of problem, among others, is heavily parodied in the Adrift games featuring Clueless Bob Newbie, text adventure "author" and legend in his own mind.
- Apple II adventure game Mask of the Sun featured a battle against a skeleton which could only be defeated by using a magic amulet picked up earlier in the game. Unfortunately, the only phrase which would allow you to successfully battle the skeleton was the non-intuitive "FIGHT AMULET". Computer game developer Dan Spitzley described the anguish this generated within his family on IGN's RPG Vault in 1999.
- Parodied in the screenshots of this City of Heroes (April Fools' Day) announcement.
- Everquest tends to suffer from this trope. When talking to NPCs you will find [certain words] in brackets, indicating they have more to say on the subject; you need to type those words into the chat log in order to continue down that line of conversation. [However, there is a catch] "What, however there is a catch?" Sometimes it's not quite as simple as just typing the words again, and you need to put it in the form of a question; most commonly by adding what to the words in brackets with blatant disregard for syntax.
- And sometimes, the developers made it obvious they were just being mean. For example trying to ask Bootstrutter about "jboots" earns a response something like "What nonsense is this about jboots? Speak to me of Journeyman's Boots!"
- Somewhat related to this trope: you needed to activate the chat text field to talk to NPCs, otherwise, pressing letters on the keyboard would result in activating hotkeys for game commands. Standard fare, sure, but then you take into account that the default key for "Attack" was 'a' and it was possible to attack friendly NPCs. Forgetting to press Enter before typing could be lethal as you'd get three letters into "What" before the NPC flattened you for what seemed like no reason.
- In one storyline mission in Forum Warz you have to complete a text adventure game and tell the character who gave you the mission how you did it. In the mission ending conversation, you tell him you have to enter the command "push button", not "press button"... but while playing the text adventure itself, you can complete that section with the command "use button".
- There is a part in Kingdom of Loathing known as the Leaflet Quest that is a Shout Out to the Zork games. Since it's not too large, a lot of detail was put into putting smart-aleck responses to random commands not facilitated by the usual Infocom queue. For example:
- An incorrect "throw" command yields: "Your request to throw something, presumably at something else, made no sense to me. Perhaps you're trying to throw an item you don't have, or throw an item at a target that doesn't exist, or perhaps those objects simply aren't intended to interact in that way. For more information on the proper throwing of objects, send your name and address to "Throwing: A Guide For Beginners", Pueblo, Colorado, 80019."
- Trying to go up when you can't yields: "Up? Isn't this maze annoying enough for you with just the four directions? I suppose next you'll want to go north-by-north-east."
- It does have some of its own Ye Flask moments, though. Typing "enter house" makes you go inside the house, but "leave house" or "exit house" doesn't work; you have to "(go) west" to get back outside. This can be especially confusing for text-quest newbies, because the house is right next to the starting point, so they may get stuck inside the house before figuring out that "go [direction]" commands exist.
- To this day, LPMUD still can't parse look <object> without admonishing the player to "Look AT or IN something."
- Apparently even some Diku MUDS still hold to this convention. Even though examine <object> can be abbreviated to x <object>, look won't be accepted without a preposition.
- Infocom and Legend games likewise do not accept "look <object>" or "use <object>" on grounds that they aren't meaningful sentences. Nitpicky, nitpicky.
- LifeLine on the PS2 plays similarly to a text adventure, albeit one controlled by the player's voice than with a keyboard. Aside from the joys of iffy voice recognition causing much frustration and the genre standard Guess the Noun portions, there are several instances in which very specific phrases must be used to get the proper effect. One chip is particularly difficult to acquire, merely for the fact that said chip was located behind a bag of some sort, and telling Rio to "check behind bag" didn't work for some reason.
Non-video game examples:
- Phelous points out that the website in Fear Dot Com seems to run on this sort of interface.
- There's a slight variation for anybody programming in Inform 7. Much of the syntax is intuitive, but one can't intuit what won't be intuitive. The result is less Guess The Verb and more "Guess the punctuation and sentence structure. Exactly."
- Well, making creating adventure games more like playing adventure games was one of the stated goals...though on the upside, it still arguably has a shallower learning curve than TADS.
- This is alleviated by the fact that, unlike games, Inform 7 is a programming language and most programming languages expect programmers to get syntax exactly right. Inform 7 also comes with documentation, and in spite of being complicated it can do fairly amazing things with its natural language commands.
- SHRDLU was made to avert this trope. It probably helps that it only involves moving blocks around, rather than being an adventure game.