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The Modern World of Interactive Fiction

Back in an age of computers that could barely hold this webpage in memory without dying a grisly death, the written word was often the only way to get in depth puzzles, characters, and stories in your game. As computers became more capable, the text adventure eventually fell out of favor, replaced eventually by more graphically impressive titles. But after several decades in varying states of activity, interactive fiction has returned to the scene with some of the biggest—most impressive—and creative titles since the early 80s.

With that said, if you don’t know what on Earth I’m talking about, lets go over text adventures real quick.

The game doles out text for you to read, and you enter commands for your character to complete, to which the game responds. Go north, get lamp, open door, say hello. While most games were this simple, over time they became quite complicated, with lots of puzzles, NPCs to interact with, and plenty of extra actions to perform depending on the story.

The first widely recognized text adventure was produced in 1975, and named, Colossal Cave Adventure, based on creator Will Crowther’s adventures in caving, which still exists in multiple different forms on the internet to this day. (Heck, it’s even open source now.) His work was eventually followed up by creators like Infocom and Scott Adams, just to name a couple, and text adventures would prove popular right up until the end of the 80s. If you want a more in depth version of this history, please watch Get Lamp and Infocom: The Documentary, two fantastic looks at the art, both available for free on YouTube.

After the decline of the interactive fiction market at the end of the 80s, the community simply didn’t burn out or disappear. Many retreated to places like Usenet boards or tucked away internet forums, happy to talk among themselves about the games of old.

One group dedicated themselves to decrypting, documenting, and designing ways to make titles based off Infocom’s self-built format for text adventures, Z-Machine. Some created their own standalone ways to program and build text adventures, in that format or in other new ones. And many used them, in huge, tiny, and every other size in between, text adventures—with the reach of the internet and the small size of even the largest text adventures, the medium only had room to grow.

Let’s jump forward and go hop into some text adventures. If you want to experience modern-day IF, you’re eventually going to need an interpreter – a program that can play text adventure files. There’s multiple different standards of text adventures; Z-Machine, Glulx, Hugo, TADS… Thankfully, we have Gargoyle, which basically runs anything, no questions asked. Just open Gargoyle, open your text adventure, and you’re ready to start playing. There are plenty of other alternatives if Gargoyle isn’t available for you, with a handy table of them maintained on this page. There are also formats like Twine which work straight in a browser, no extras needed.

But where do we even get a good slice of IF these days? Thankfully, we have a full on database to browse through. The Interactive Fiction Database contains info on over 6,000 titles, most of which are freely downloadable, alongside reviews, walkthroughs, and an effective tagging system. I would suggest browsing the database by most ratings first if you’re just starting out—you’ll see games with a lot of attention paid to them, which means lots of reviews, an accurate rating, and plenty of modern day content will be mixed in with the Infocom classics.

Of course, all this effort would be for naught if people weren’t still making IF. Thankfully, the art of making interactive fiction seems to be just fine. The introduction of platforms like Twine, which can play simple choose-your-story games directly in a web browser, sites like Choose Your Story that run their tools in the browser, and the newest version of Inform that makes the code of text adventures look like a pleasant conversation, help make interactive fiction easier to develop than ever.

While it absolutely isn’t as active as, say, general gaming, there are still plenty of events developing around interactive fiction. Emily Short, a well known name in modern-day IF, maintains a regular link dump of upcoming events. Some of the most notable include a brand new IF focused conference, regular meetups across the world, plenty of retail and non-retail game releases, and competitions.

Yep, that’s plural—competitions.

The XYZZY Awards and IFComp, the two ‘big ones’, are about the same age. XYZZY goes back to 1996, and giving out all sorts of awards from the simple ‘best game’ to the more in depth ‘best use of innovation’ or ‘best use of multimedia’.  There’s years of modern IF gold in there if you’re willing to dig for it.

IFComp, borne in 1995, is a more simple “vote for the best” competition that happens every year like clockwork, and has a focus on shorter adventures made within the year, and one of their rules is entries must be rated after two hours of play—while restrictive, the advantage is if you play a game that’s top rated, it will be enjoyable pretty much immediately.

There’s also a third competition that happens yearly—the Spring Thing, created as a sort of antithesis to IFComp. It encourages more experimental content, less attached to the traditional forms of interactive fiction, and doesn’t set as complicated rules, letting the more wild ideas run free for judgement.

The world of interactive fiction goes even further than this too, with the concept being stretched to the breaking point by the multi-user dungeon—practically text-based MMOs with the same inputs as traditional text adventures, the potential to be lost in one of the many hundreds of MUDs still up today is massive. I lost two weeks to Aardwolf, myself, and thanks to its user created content and massive world, I could have lost a lot more.

There’s still more, too!

What about the commercial releases of some text adventures like Hadean Lands or Anchorhead? A massive collaboration by over 80 authors released as recently as December 2018—Cragne Manor. Choice of Games have been putting out plenty of choose your own adventure style games as well. Plenty of interactive fiction communities still exist, including a very amusing one that runs inside of a multi-user dungeon. There’s an interactive fiction archive with a ridiculous amount of historical data. And this isn’t even getting into the old days of text adventures, where computers like the ZX Spectrum had several thousand to play, with plenty of them still holding up.

With all of that said, if you’re interested in the world of text adventures but all of that seemed like a bit much for you, there are plenty of beginner friendly pages out there to help ease you in. Here’s one to teach you the bare basics, and here’s another to give you a bunch of games to start with if the IF database is too threatening.

Have fun, and try not to be eaten by grues.

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