Zork, an early work of interactive fiction, running on a modern interpreter
Interactive fiction, often abbreviated as IF, is a simulated environment in which players use text commands to control characters. Works in this form can be understood as literary and as computer games. Often the term interactive fiction is used to describe or refer to text adventure games, which are a particular type of adventure game. Sometimes the term IF is used to refer generically to all adventure games, at other times to the games produced by the interactive fiction community rather than game companies.
IF author, developer, and critic Graham Nelson has characterized interactive fiction as "a narrative at war with a crossword puzzle".
Today, interactive fiction no longer appears to be commercially viable, but a constant stream of new works is produced by an online interactive fiction community, using freely available development systems. Most of these games can be downloaded for free from the Interactive Fiction Archive (see external links).
Since 1995 there has been an annual Interactive Fiction Competition for relatively short works. There are also annual XYZZY Awards given out in various categories, modelled on the Academy Awards. Another annual competition, the Spring Thing, has been held since 2001 to highlight works considered to be too long for the Interactive Fiction Competition.
The medium of interactive fiction
Text adventures are one of the oldest types of computer games and form a subset of the adventure genre. The player uses text input to control the game and the game state is relayed to the player via text output.
Input is usually provided by the player in the form of simple sentences such as "get key" or "go east" which may be handled by a simple parser. Parsers vary in sophistication; the first text adventure parsers could only handle two-word sentences in the form of verb-noun pairs. Later parsers could handle increasing levels of complexity from sentences such as "open the red box with the green key then go north". This level of complexity is the standard for works of interactive fiction today.
Works of interactive fiction bear a passing similarity to Multi-User Dungeons or 'MUDs', a form of online text-based role-playing game which became popular in the mid-1980s. The resemblance is a passing one, however -- though both rely on a textual medium, MUDs are not works of fiction, but communities of players.
In 1975, Will Crowther wrote the first text adventure game, Adventure (originally called ADVENT, and later Colossal Cave). It was programmed in Fortran for the PDP-10 In 1976, Don Woods discovered Adventure while working at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, and obtained Crowther's permission to expand the game. Crowther's original version was more or less realistic; Woods' changes were reminiscent of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and included a troll, elves, and a volcano inspired by Mount Doom.
In 1976, the game began spreading on ARPANet, and has survived on the Internet to this day. The game has since been ported to many other operating systems.
The popularity of Adventure led to the wide success of interactive fiction during the late 1970s and the 1980s, when home computers had little, if any, graphics capability.
The commercial era
In the United States, the best-known company producing works of interactive fiction was Infocom, which created the Zork series and many other titles; among them Trinity, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and A Mind Forever Voyaging.
In June of 1977, Marc Blank, Bruce K. Daniels, Tim Anderson, and Dave Lebling began writing the mainframe version of Zork (also known as Dungeon), at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. The game was programmed in a computer language called MDL, a variant of LISP. In early 1979, the game was completed. Ten members of the MIT Dynamics Modelling Group went on to join Infocom when it was incorporated later that year.
In order to make its games as portable as possible, Infocom developed the Z-Machine, a custom virtual machine which could be implemented on a large number of platforms, and which took standardized "story files" as input.
Infocom's games were popular for many years, but the company was bought by Activision in 1986 after the failure of Cornerstone, its database software program, and stopped producing text adventures a few years later.
Infocom's games are now considered the classics of the genre, and the period in which it was active is thought of as the first golden age of interactive fiction. In 1992, Activision released volumes one and two of The Lost Treasures of Infocom, a collection of all of Infocom's games.
Adventure International was founded by Scott Adams (not the creator of Dilbert).
In 1978, Scott Adams wrote Adventureland, which was loosely patterned after the original Advent. He took out a small ad in a computer magazine in order to promote and sell Adventureland, thus creating the first commercial adventure game. In 1979 he founded Adventure International, the first commercial publisher of interactive fiction. The company went bankrupt in 1985.
Legend Entertainment was founded by Bob Bates and Mike Verdu in 1989. It started out from the ashes of Infocom.
Their text-adventures used (hi-res) graphics as well as sound, but were still "true" text-adventures. In many areas, the parser was better than the one used by Infocom. Among their better-known titles are Eric The Unready, the Spellcasting series and Gateway (based on Frederik Pohl's novels).
The last text-adventure created by Legend was Gateway II, while the last game ever was Unreal 2 (the well-known 1st person shooter action game). Legend has been shut down in 2004 by Atari.
In the UK the leading companies were Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9. Also worthy of mention are Delta 4, Acornsoft, Topologika, Melbourne House, and the homebrew company Zenobi.
The modern era
After the demise of the commercial interactive fiction market, an online community eventually formed around the medium. In 1987, the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction was created, and was soon followed by rec.games.int-fiction.
One of the most important early developments was the reverse-engineering of Infocom's Z-Code format and Z-Machine virtual machine by the InfoTaskForce, a group of enthusiasts, in 1987, and the subsequent development of an interpreter for Z-Code story files. As a result, it became possible to play Infocom's work on modern computers.
The breakthrough that allowed the interactive fiction community to truly prosper, however, was the creation and distribution of two sophisticated development systems. In 1987, Michael J. Roberts released TADS, a programming language designed to produce works of interactive fiction. In 1993, Graham Nelson released Inform, a programming language and set of libraries which compiled to a Z-Code story file. Together, these two systems allowed anyone with sufficient time and dedication to create a game, and caused a growth boom in the online interactive fiction community.
Today, the games created by enthusiasts of the genre regularly surpass the quality of the original Infocom games, and a number of yearly competitions and awards are given out to the best games in the field, among them the annual Interactive Fiction Competition for short works, the newer Spring Thing for longer works, and the XYZZY Awards. Newer games, such as Photopia and So Far, have further increased the vitality of the interactive fiction genre.
Notable works of interactive fiction
- Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther and Don Woods was the first text adventure ever made.
- The Zork series by Infocom (1979- ) was the first text adventure to see widespread release.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky of Infocom (1984)
- A Mind Forever Voyaging, by Steve Meretzky of Infocom (1985), first story-heavy, puzzle-light game.
- Curses, by Graham Nelson (1993), the first game ever written in the Inform programming language, and a classic in its own right. Considered one of the first "modern" games to meet the high standards set by Infocom's best titles.
- So Far, by Andrew Plotkin (1996) is considered by many to be a modern benchmark for its integration of story and puzzle design.
- Photopia, by Adam Cadre (1998), the first almost entirely puzzle-free game. Initially highly controversial.
- Galatea, by Emily Short (2000). Galatea is focused entirely on interaction with the animated statue of the same name. Galatea has one of the most complex interaction systems for a non-player character in an interactive fiction game.
This is a fictitious sample of how an interactive fiction game might typically end:
> look around You are in a big room with tall pillars. To your north reside the large doors into the Wikipedia. > go north The doors are locked. Wait, that makes no sense. Wikipedia is for everyone! Something must be done... > inventory You are carrying a soda, an umbrella, The Key to All The Information in the Universe, and a little plastic bottle cap. > unlock the door Unlock door with what? > key The door opens easily and noiselessly, and before you can walk through, there's a mad rush of people who enter the library and begin improving it. ***Your mission is complete!*** Would you like to restore a saved game, restart, or quit? > quit
Interactive fiction development systems
A number of systems are available today to write interactive fiction.
The term "interactive fiction" is also occasionally used to refer to hypertext fiction.
It is also used to refer to literary works that are not read in a linear fashion, but rather the reader is given choices at different points in the text; the reader's choice determines the flow and outcome of the story. The most famous example of this form of interactive fiction is the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. Examples of interactive fiction are most often found in the genres of fantasy and science fiction and aimed at young readers, but examples can also be found in more adult-oriented genres such as romantic fiction and erotica.
- The Interactive Fiction Archive (http://www.ifarchive.org) (HTML), ditto (ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive) (FTP) See also Baf's Guide, next
- Baf's Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive (http://baf.wurb.com/if/) Useful for finding games in the IF Archive
- The Interactive Fiction Wiki (http://www.ifwiki.org) A MediaWiki wiki specific to Interactive Fiction.
- Interactive Fiction Ratings (http://www.carouselchain.com/if/statistics.php) Lists of the most popular games
- SPAG (http://www.sparkynet.com/spag/noframe.html), a free online newsletter
- XYZZYnews (http://www.xyzzynews.com), a free online newsletter
- Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (http://www.ifcomp.org/)
- Spring Thing (http://www.springthing.net/), an annual Interactive Fiction competition for longer works
- A timeline of events in the history of interactive fiction (http://brasslantern.org/community/history/timeline-c.html)
- IF-Review (http://www.ministryofpeace.com/if-review/) A site dedicated to reviewing interactive fiction
- Usenet news groups (if you have a news client):
- rec.arts.int-fiction (news://rec.arts.int-fiction) Discussion of IF design
- rec.games.int-fiction (news://rec.games.int-fiction) Discussion of IF reading/playing
- Interactive Fiction of Andrew Plotkin (http://www.eblong.com/zarf/if.html), distribution site for several of the most reknowned modern IFs, such as So Far, Shade, Spider and Web, and A Change in the Weather.