Interactive Fiction – Part 1


Interactive Fiction is a genre of gaming that presents the entire game universe in just about the most minimalistic way that is possible: Just plain text. Though some do have illustrations accompanying them, the more common form of IF does not.

IF (Interactive Fiction) goes as far back as the 1970s, on big mainframe computers about the size of a small house (but with all the power of a simple calculator). The basic reason that the games came into such popularity in the 1980s was a very simple one: Computer graphics back in those days didn’t even compare to that of the cheapest Saturday Morning Cartoon. Thus, as you can see from the inset screenshot there (taken from an IF game from Sierra that included graphics along with the text), it was more evocative to describe what your character saw as opposed to trying to crudely display it.

Now, while I am a huge advocate of gameplay over graphics, these early games are a prime example of bad graphics. The figures in the screenshot above are bad for the following reasons: The people are just crude clones of themselves; the wire-frame drawings have no sense of solid shape to them (You can see right through the staircase); and the graphics are so crude that the note on the ground has to be labelled as such.

But, as many people noted, a prose description of the same room connected with the player’s brain, and opened-up a much more visual approach to the game. For example, I wrote a prose description of the same scene above:

As is plainly obvious, the prose description makes for a far more immersive experience than any graphics of the era could possibly hope to produce. As a result, a few companies sprung-up during the 1980s and produced top-selling IF games – namely companies like Infocom, Level 9, Magnetic Scrolls, and Scott Adam’s Adventure International.

IF can be cleanly divided into two eras: The Commercial era of the 1980s, and the Independent era that we have now.

See, despite what a lot of people think: IF is not a dead genre of gaming. Far from it: It thrives more today than it did back in the 80s!

The reason for this is quite easy to discover: The Commercial era of IF games (when you’d find such text-only titles on the shelves of a gaming store) thrived simply because graphics during that era sucked so much. Once graphics made some significant advances there is just no way that anybody could make selling text-only games with any sort of profit.

But, that doesn’t mean that the genre was, or is, invalid in any way, shape, or form. On the contrary: Advances in design, depth, and greater allowances of memory on computers has now led the way to better IF than was originally seen in the 80s – the games have evolved into complex and evocative works that have finally lived-up to their name of Interactive Fiction.

In fact, some of these modern works are truly amazing to play and behold.

But, first, let’s take a look back to the 1980s and see if any of those older IF games are even worth playing nowadays.


Getting these old games to run is easy. The original programmers put all of the text and gameplay data into a single file, and then a different program for each specific type of home computer translated that file into the needed language. This makes it painless for a modern day gamer to boot-up the game: Just grab a modern interpreter (easy to find) and load the game’s main file.

In this case, for the first series of games by a company called Infocom, I’ll be using a Windows interpreter called Frotz.

Playing an IF game is an extremely simple affair: You type (usually in plain, simple English) the very things that you want your character to do. For example, in the given screenshot (which is the very opening text of Zork 1: The Great Underground Empire) you could do any number of things:

Examine the mailbox (To which the game replies: The small mailbox is closed.)
Open the mailbox (Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.)Read the leaflet (To which the character will automatically take the leaflet, in order to read it, and then display the leaflet’s contents to you.)

The entire gameplay example given would appear on the screen exactly as given below:

The number of moves to accomplish these actions (displayed at the top) will have rolled to 3, and my score is still at 0 – the leaflet is clearly not a treasure. =)

Exploring the world of an IF is a matter of old-fashioned mapping. Simple boxes connected by lines helps map-out the described world. For example, our stating location could be drawn onto our sheet of paper as such…

Moving about the world is again accomplished by typing in simple commands, though movement can be abbreviated as much as you want. For example, we could WALK NORTH, or GO NORTH, or RUN NORTH, or even just type N – to the game it is basically all the same.

By mapping both what is described, and by our very moves as well, a map starts to form. It is important to realize, spatially, what you are mapping. For example: The prose is clearly stating that we were on the west side of a house, and then we moved to the north side.

A house is a 4-sided object (at the very minimum), so it would be incorrect to make our map look as such below:

Spatially this map makes no sense: The Open Field was described as being “West of the White House”, and going north put us “North of the White House”. A more accurate map would be drawn as such:

And, in fact, we can verify that this is exactly how the map should look by doing the following: From the North side of the house we try going South (which the game tells us is an invalid move because “All the windows are boarded up”.) But if we go West, we find ourselves back at the Open Field with the mailbox.

Usually mapping in an IF game is a basic affair, and you can even do away with it by getting a pre-made map (back in the 1980s Infocom sold Hint Packs that came with the entire game’s solution as well as a pre-drawn map (to the right is a small excerpt from the actual Zork 1 map that they sold.

In fact, the very nature of the previous example of mapping an IF game brings me to the next issue: Problems and limitations of IF games.

Especially these early examples.

For starters: The text probably could be more clear in stating that you head North from the West side of the house, and then go AROUND the corner to then stand on the North side. Instead we had to verify our map and use extra thinking to draw an accurate map. This is something that a game with even rudimentary graphics wouldn’t have a problem with.

These early commercial-era IF games actually had a lot of these kinds of problems: What is utterly basic, spatial-wise, turns out to be a problem (or even puzzle), all unto itself.

One of the most famous examples of this is the maze that is located within this same game (Zork 1). The description of each and every room of the maze is the same: “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all of them alike.”

In other words: Your character cannot tell one room from another.

This is absurd: Even a blind person can tell when they have moved from one room to another, and that their location in a 3-dimensional world has changed!

The puzzle of the maze is merely to navigate it, and this is complicated by the fact that many directions will loop you right back to the starting room, but the description will still be the same: Twisty little passages, all of which are alike.

So the character is so utterly inept that he cannot tell that walking North put him on a U-Turn right back to the same room?! Even a small mouse in a maze does a better job of mapping than this!

To solve this riddle you have to employ an odd method of mapping: By dropping an object onto the ground, and then moving in various directions, you can tell if you are coming back to the same room or not.

This, while certainly a sort of puzzle that requires lateral thinking, is actually more of a problem with early IF games than anything else.

Also, it should be noted that before Infocom came along most of these early IF games couldn’t even understand basic sentences: Only two-word commands. So you had to type Go North; Climb Tree; Open Door; and so on. Infocom broke huge ground with their more advanced parser (Parser being the engine that examined and understood the player’s input).

PART 3 – INFOCOM (The major player in IF games in the US)

Infocom was founded as a company that wanted to produce business software, but it had no money. It did have, though, a number of great programmers who had made a few well-known IF works back on the old mainframe computers at MIT, and distributed them across the ARPANet (the origins of the Internet).

So, in order to get some cash to produce the business software they decided to make and sell games.

The company would later collapse, rather disastrously, after they abruptly tried to switch from gaming to business software. The entire history of Infocom is rather interesting, and a particular group of students did a very nice essay on the whole long story. I have put the essay into PDF form and uploaded it here for your reading pleasure.

Infocom made the really good move of putting a lot of great impact and visual imagery into their game packaging and advertisements, one of the most famous ads that they did being the book one scanned and displayed to the right.

Packaged with each game were also a number of actual ‘artifacts’ or objects to help draw the player into the game’s world, and to immerse them more into the story. These objects ranged from full-color storybooks and creature catalogs, to actual golden coins, elaborate maps, glow-in-the-dark magical rocks, and more.

In fact, these are the sorts of game packages that people will now pay a lot of money for over on eBay and such. It’s not so much the game that they are after, but the original contents.

Also, they produced several full catalogs that detailed their full line-up of games, and they too were full of rather fanciful ideas and such. One such catalog imitated the look of a passport (along the lines of ‘Your passport to adventure’, and another told a whimsical story alongside the description of the games.

During their heyday as King of Interactive Fiction they would produce 35 IF games of note (ranging from Dungeons and Dragons like adventures, such as the Zork series; to murder mysteries; to titles geared towards children; and even a couple of titles based on famous books or characters.) Their latter games featured graphics, much as a book would have illustrations.

They were later bought-out by Activision, and like every other IF publisher from this era: As soon as computer graphics improved to the point where an all-text game lost its advantage, the entire genre went downhill quite fast. They did produce a couple of fully-graphical games during these later years, such as Return to Zork, or The Mines of Titan, but I’m going to focus on the IF titles first – and to see if they are even worth playing nowadays.

More in Part 2

Posted on October 26, 2012, in History and Details on Specific Genres and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great intro to IF – and you have good taste in WordPress themes too!

    • Thank you! =)

    • THE Retro Gamer

      Wow, such an honor to have you actually like my rambling posts! I remember stumbling across your website a long time ago and thinking how great it was to see somebody so motivated and influenced by IF – and to actually create real educational material that ties into it!

  2. This is very coherent and informative rambling – well worth a read! :) Your IF musings are totally founded and will hopefully create a few more IF fans. I likewise admire your mission, having spent an inordinate amount of time in front of my C64 and DOS prompts. I’m looking forward to going back in time with your posts! – any chance Bard’s Tale 3 or Moebiuis will make an appearance?

  1. Pingback: A Quick Glance At Modern Commercial Interactive Fiction | INDEPENDENT GAMING

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