How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Parser IF

2015-11-03 · by Tory Hoke
tagged Opinion

You’ve heard of parser IF. You want to like parser IF. But there’s a lot of typing, and the goal isn’t always clear, and failing to land on the right verb for what you want to do can make feel kicked out of the story.

It may sound bananas, but the frustration is what makes it fun.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Parser IF


Probably you already like some kind of puzzle. Probably you’re likely to get sucked into a crossword or sudoku or jigsaw puzzle as easily as a good book. But maybe you don’t like puzzles muddled up in your fiction. If you’re used to a traditional reader experience, where the story transports you outside your problem-solving brain, returning to that brain space may feel like defeating the purpose.

It took me about five different games to find one I understood, enjoyed, and played to completion, but now that I’m in it there’s no getting out.

Here’s what I wish someone had told me that might have eased my jump in.

1) Take a deep breath

If I sit down with a short story, I expect to be sucked in by the opening line. If I sit down with a puzzle, I expect to take a minute to understand the rules. Parser IF is part story, part puzzle, but in my experience, it’s best to approach it as purely the latter. If you’re trying to plow through the unknowns to get back to the story—if you’re the type of player who spends about two minutes on a Dragon Age DLC puzzle before looking up a walkthrough (coughs)—take a deep breath; tell yourself “I have all the tools to solve this,” and start messing around.

Sudoku gets fun when you see the patterns.

2) Check yourself out

A pretty good way to start any story is to take a look at yourself with “examine” (or “x” for short.) You’ll get a quick sense of your character and your objective.

> x self

You look great. Better find some other great-looking people.

3) Check your pockets

You might be carrying something at the start. You might pick things up along the way. “Inventory” is theword for taking a look.

> inventory

You are carrying:
a sweet Pokedex


To pick something up, try “take” or “get.” To get rid of it, try “drop.”

4) Move around

Generally the way to move around is by cardinal directions: north, east, south, west, etc. Abbreviations also work.

> n

You stroll north onto the tundra.


This can be hard to wrap your head around, especially if you’re navigating something like a house, where you don’t normally think by a compass.

Reading parser IF, I don’t tend to visualize the layout of an area very well. I kind of bumble around by memory, going aback to one room has been been established to lead to my desired destination rather than taking three right turns.

This is OK. The stories work anyway.


5) Do things to stuff

Take a thing. Wear a thing. Smell a thing. For a list of common options, check out zarf’s handy guide, via the People’s Republic of IF:

Crazy Uncle Zarf's Parser Fiction Intro

A handy guide (by zarf, via the People’s Republic of IF:


6) Do things to stuff with other stuff

Have a thing? Put a thing on another thing. Now you’re cooking with gas.


7) Trust the author, and trust yourself

Hold in your forebrain that you have everything that is required to solve the puzzle before you. You have the logic skills. You have the instructions. You may be an inch away from the right command. Cross that inch.

  • Try a new verb (e.g. if “place” doesn’t work, try good old “put”)
  • Try new prepositions (e.g. if “put thing under thing” doesn’t work, try “put thing in thing”)
  • Reread the last new text presented to you. Sometimes I get excited and skim the last paragraph of new text that has the strong hint for what to do next. Don’t be like me.

8) There’s always “undo.”

Don’t ask permission. Try what you like. If you get in a jam, use “undo.”

Now you’re thinking like a programmer.


(If you’d like a more hands-on primer, check out Adam Cadre’s interactive tutorial.)

Hope this helps, and I hope it helps you enjoy this week’s story—THE HORRIBLE PYRAMID by Ryan Veeder—as much as I did.

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