Who Here Knows About Interactive Fiction?

Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Interactive Fiction, Reading, Writing | 0 comments

It’s like fic­tion! But all inter­ac­tive and stuff! Whoa!


Inter­ac­tive fic­tion. You may read that and be say­ing to your­self, “What the hell? I knew this guy was off his rocker…”

And you would be right. About the rocker, I mean.

But inter­ac­tive fic­tion is a thing, and a really cool thing at that.

How old are you, dear reader? No, no, you don’t have to tell me exactly. Just a ball­park figure.

30? 40?

Well, if you are 30 years or older, you most likely have encoun­tered some form of this, if only from Info­com game ads on T.V.

Zork, Colos­sal Caves, Sus­pended, Plan­et­fall. These text-based games from an ancient age of yore were all sim­ple forms of inter­ac­tive fic­tion, con­sist­ing of words on the screen describ­ing places, things, peo­ple and dia­log, and would wait for player input to proceed.

Here is a quick example:


Zork Gameplay Image


Some text, a prompt, a cursor.

Zork Gameplay Image 2


By typ­ing “open mail­box”, we inter­act with the mail­box and see a leaflet.

We could then “get leaflet” or “exam­ine leaflet” or “close mail­box”, etc.

Zork Gameplay Image 3


How­ever, just because I am such a rebel, I will go to another loca­tion instead. Typ­ing “n” is the same as typ­ing “north”, as in “go north”. Inter­ac­tive fic­tion tends to use com­pass direc­tions for ease of map­ping, but some games use other forms of movement.

That is a quick look at the basics, but I am not here try­ing to get you to play the ancient relics, though if you do I think you may enjoy them, but rather to talk about inter­ac­tive fic­tion in its cur­rent incarnation.

Many years after graph­ics pushed text-based games to the way­side, an enter­pris­ing indi­vid­ual decided to reverse-engineer the for­mat Info­com had used to run, and cre­ate, their stories.

Gra­ham Nel­son embarked on a quest, and years later we ended up with a design sys­tem for IF called “Inform”, which pro­duced games com­pat­i­ble with the old Info­com soft­ware, and the newer soft­ware designed specif­i­cally to run these kinds of stories.

Since the mid nineteen-nineties, some fright­en­ingly tal­ented peo­ple have used this, and a few other sys­tems, to cre­ate actual works of fic­tion, but fic­tion that directly involved you. While the orig­i­nal games, like Zork, had you map­ping com­plex mazes and hunt­ing for elu­sive objects, all with­out nar­ra­tive flow or fancy prose, this new work was not held back by lim­ited RAM and 1980’s com­puter hardware.

The sto­ries are grander, the prose more detailed, the puz­zles more log­i­cal, the games often far more fair than the Info­com classics.

Short-stories, or nov­els, in game form.

Here is an exam­ple of a more recent story, cre­ated by Emily Short.

IF Image 1
IF Image 2
IF Image 3


It’s a story! It’s a game! It’s a game-story-game thing!

“Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but how do I go about play­ing … read­ing … what­ever, these things?”

Well, the games are in story files. You run the story files using a pro­gram. Super simple.

Gar­goyle is one of the best pro­grams for Win­dows, and is what I used for the screen­shots. It also runs on Mac and Linux.

Mac folk may also want to check out Zoom, which is a real nice player with all sorts of library func­tions for your col­lec­tion of stories.

Now, for the games/stories, the best place to go is IFDB . This is the place to find almost any­thing ever made in inter­ac­tive fic­tion. Reviews, lists, rec­om­men­da­tions, it’s all there. Start with sto­ries cre­ated by Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Adam Cadre, and oth­ers on this list at IFDB.

Also, you can play the sto­ries online with Parch­ment, a sweet player that runs in most web browsers.

And last, but not least, if you feel like a new adven­ture in life, you could always write a piece of IF your­self. Inform 7, the lat­est ver­sion of the Inform soft­ware, uses Eng­lish lan­guage sen­tences to program/write games like these. Sim­ple sen­tences like “The Liv­ing Room is a room. North if the Liv­ing Room is the Kitchen. The table is a sup­porter in the Kitchen.” cre­ate game worlds and objects.

So go play some sto­ries, and maybe make a few.

Some use­ful sites:

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