Interactive Fiction – Part 6

There are a lot of more primitive IF titles in my collection, some worth taking a small look at (others far more crude than worth the effort). The thing to remember here is that, yes, I do like retro games, but I also am quite aware that not all of these games will be of interest to anybody out there outside of a ‘game archeologist’.

The IF titles from the 70s and early 80s are of the type I talked about previously: Only accepting two word inputs (a noun and a verb, such as GET DIAMOND or ATTACK TROLL), and containing not so much prose as terse two-sentence descriptions

A good example of this would be: YOU ARE IN A CAVERN. THERE IS A RIVER OF LAVA HERE WITH *FIRESTONE* IN IT. EXITS ARE S. This being a room from IF title called Adventureland. Yes, it made a big point of calling out the treasures you needed to collect just like that.

While I really had fun solving this IF game on my old Commodore 64, overcoming such puzzles such as fending-off chiggers that would kill you after passing through them by covering yourself in mud, the fact is that the game is really just the product of an era when even the best of graphics paled in comparison to the worst of Saturday Morning cartoons.

Memory was at such a premium for these games that even these two or three line room descriptions frequently employed a sort of compression technique (such as reducing common phrases like ‘on the’ or ‘you can exit’ to simple called routines).

Even a few years later, with a bit more memory and resources available to him, a re-released version of Adventureland with simple graphics did nothing to elevate the game above being a simple treasure hunting romp with illogical situations and puzzles (such as going inside a tree stump, where you drop the treasures off to obtain points, and where a bunch of rubies are found, as well as a door that leads into the larger portion of the game – even the inexplicable glass trophy case found in Zork makes more logical sense than this).

In fact, at this point in time I cannot honestly recall any one particular IF game from this early era that is even remotely worth the effort of uploading for people to download and play: The games literally just belong in some sort of digital museum.

Scott Adams is probably the most famous author of these early IF games, having even formed a small company (named Adventure International) that published around a dozen of his adventures – all of them equally primitive and illogical.

The very first IF game to have spawned this entire genre is also still quite famous: The Colossal Cave Adventure. Inspired by an actual massive cave complex, and based on its underground geometry even, this game was originally written by Willie Crowther and later expanded by Don Woods. If you are really wanting to experience these primitive IF roots, then this is probably the game to grab and play.

Over on the Colossal Cave Adventure page you’ll find a treasure trove of trivia, maps, as well as numerous versions of the original game to download and play (emulator required). There’s the original version, as well as a number of expanded versions (more rooms, more points, more puzzles).

I’m also providing a link for you to play a version of it right online in your browser: Click here to jump straight into it. In fact, in looking at this online version I think it is probably the definitive version of the game, having been totally re-programmed and reconstructed, from the ground up, in three separate stages, by today’s most esteemed independent IF authors.

Independent IF games have actually been around since back in the 80s, with entire software programs published (such as The Computer Novel Construction Kit) for the express purpose of letting anybody create an IF game with no complex programming required.

In fact, quite interestingly, in a 1984 book that I have called “Compute’s Guide to Adventure Games” by one Gary McGath, at the end of the book he goes into some theoretical details involving the future of IF games and he was surprisingly accurate in many regards, especially in saying that in the future IF author would use an IF design kit as described beforehand. He rather astutely noted that authors of IF games are more comparable to actual book writers than programmers, and that by eliminating this barrier more involved games would result.

Curiously it was after he wrote that book that those very game creation kits did indeed appear.

The evolution of those first IF creation kits has resulted in the most amazing piece of high-level IF creation software you could ever imagine, and for free: Inform.

This interpreter is now in its 7th – and most elegant – version of all. Programmed by the learned Graham Nelson, who teaches pure mathematics at his official role at St. Anne’s College in Oxford and is also a poet and is the author of Oxford Poetry. In fact, this piece of software – along with another called TADS – have launched the IF genre quite nicely into our current era of gaming in ways that nobody on the commercial era could’ve ever predicted.

The New York Times has even done articles on Graham, and Inform, in the past, lauding it with due praise.

The independent era has produced IF games more than worthy of having the word fiction in their genre titles. Virtually gone are memory and storage space concerns, and today’s authors are totally free to fill entire screens of your PC with true literary prose. If so desired illustrations and even digital sound can be included (this is not always welcomed by the purists of the genre).

SInform Mapping Toolo what makes Inform such an apex program from which to craft modern-day IF titles? Well, take this quote from Donald Knuth (from “Literate Programming” in 1981) “Programming is best regarded as the process of creating works of literature, which are meant to be read… so we ought to address them to people, not to machines.” This means that (as McGath envisioned) an IF should be able to just sit in front of the PC and write an IF game as an author, not a programmer. Inform does exactly that: It allows you to create your IF game using pure English language, and it also marries this “programming” language with a suite of built-in tools that help you automatically map the entire game, debug it, find inspiration, and far more.

To jump right over to the Inform homepage just click this link.

It even allows you to instantly publish a version of the game to be played online in browsers. This elegant “programming” toolkit is the absolute pinnacle for IF authoring, and has helped authors produce amazing IF games that the authors of Zork and Adventureland would’ve been amazed at. Many of these modern-era games even defy the label of ‘game’ and literally transport the player into the realm of true interactive literature (examples include “A Change in the Weather” and “Curses”).

To fully illustrate the sublime nature of designing a game inside of Inform, here is an actual source text excerpt of a popular game by Emily Short (it’s based on Beauty and the Beast). Even the most inept of game programmers can look at the text and understand just about every core concept.

“Bronze” by Emily Short.

The story genre is “Fairy Tale”. The release number is 12. The story headline is “A fractured fairy tale”. The story description is “When the seventh day comes and it is time for you to return to the castle in the forest, your sisters cling to your sleeves.

 ‘Don’t go back,’ they say, and ‘When will we ever see you again?’ But you imagine they will find consolation somewhere.

 Your father hangs back, silent and moody. He has spent the week as far from you as possible, working until late at night. Now he speaks only to ask whether the Beast treated you ‘properly.’ Since he obviously has his own ideas about what must have taken place over the past few years, you do not reply beyond a shrug.

 You breathe more easily once you’re back in the forest, alone.

 Bronze is a puzzle-oriented adaptation of Beauty and the Beast with an expansive geography for the inveterate explorer.

 Features help for novice players, a detailed adaptive hint system to assist players who get lost, and a number of features to make navigating a large space more pleasant.” The story creation year is 2006.

Release along with a solution,source text,a website,cover art,a file of “Manual” called “Bronze Manual.pdf”,a file of “Complete (Spoilerful) Map” called “map.pdf”,a file of “Walkthrough” called “solution.txt”,a file of “Making of…” called “Overview.html”.

Index map with room-shape set to “square” and room-size set to 60 and room-name-size set to 9 and room-name-length set to 13 and route-thickness set to 15 and room-outline set to off and map-outline set to off and route-colour set to “White” and room-colour set to “White” and font set to “Trebuchet-MS-Regular” and EPS file.

Include Locksmith by Emily Short.

Use full-length room descriptions, American dialect, no scoring, and the serial comma. Use memory economy. Use MAX_SYMBOLS of 7000.

Most new IF games fall into the shorter length of gameplay, mostly because there is an annual IF writer’s competition held over at this website for the past 17 years, and shorter games are pretty much mandatory for this (though longer playing titles do come out steadily).

In fact, there is now such a huge number of IF titles (both excellent and terrible) that efforts have been made to catalog, and review, all of them. The best place to start is over at the Interactive Fiction Database. You can easily be overwhelmed by the staggering number of indexed titles, so I’ll help you out with my favorite IF author: Emily Short. Almost all of “her” (pseudonym) games are well worth your time. Click here to jump over to the index with her as the author.

With the above links, the endless number of IF titles to play, and apex authorship tools now freely available (oh, I forgot to mention that Inform is totally free), one now realizes that IF games did not die-off years ago, but have a solidly beating pulse that outshines the original authors by a sizable distance.

Zork just isn’t that great of a game compared to the true interactive literature of today. Enjoy.

Posted on January 22, 2013, in Interactive Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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