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.
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:
Some text, a prompt, a cursor.
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.
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.
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.