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Interactive Fiction for Beginners

Updated on April 11, 2009

Interactive fiction is a kind of text-based adventure game played on the computer. (Some definitions of interactive fiction include graphics based games such as Myst as well.) Interactive fiction was at the height of its commercial popularity in the 80s, in the early days of personal computers. As computers became capable of handling increasingly more sophisticated graphics and sounds, text adventure games fell increasingly out of favor.

However, in recent years, they have undergone a revival, driven by a creative renaissance within the genre and the suitability of the games for handheld devices such as Palm.

They also have an advantage over more popular modern computer game types such as MMORGS in that the vast majority are freeware or shareware.

Photo by sklathill
Photo by sklathill

How to Play Interactive Fiction

Interactive fiction games are often puzzle-based. Other games focus more on character interaction or exploring a setting. In fact, some games are written specifically as educational tools for students. Most have several different possible endings, depending on the choices you make during the game, much like the Choose Your Adventure series of novels for children.

In order to play an IF game, you'll need an interpreter. A Beginner's Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction offers a list of IF interpreters available for a range of different operating systems, including Windows, Mac, Linux, and Palm. Personally, I run Windows Vista and primarily use Windows Frotz, which is used to play zcode games, the most common type of interactive fiction format.

Once you have your interpreter, the game progresses through simple commands:

>go north

>open cabinet

>ask Darcy about Elizabeth

Some include images or sounds, but most are based completely off text interaction.

The variety of games is as extensive as any other form of literature, and includes fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, historical, humor, and "slice of life." Games can take minutes or hours.

For example, a short game I recommend for beginners is A Day for Fresh Sushi, by Emily Short, which contains one room with one relatively easy puzzle, but packs a lot of character detail and some funny lines into 5-10 minutes of gameplay. A more elaborate game such as 1893: A World's Fair Mystery can take many hours.

Where to Find Interactive Fiction Games

The most complete source for interactive fiction is the Interactive Fiction Archive, which hosts not only games but also many other materials relating to interactive fiction.

However, the IF Archive is, in my opinion, rather confusingly laid out, especially for a newbie, and it doesn't include a lot of information about the games beyond the name, author, and format.

Two better sources are Baf's Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive, which includes reviews and summaries of games, as well as an extensive search engine that allows you to find games based on genre, rating, language, format, and many other factors, and the Interactive Fiction Database, which has some nice social networking features in addition to its collection of games and resources.

Interactive Fiction Time Lapse

Writing Interactive Fiction

If, like me, one of your first thoughts after discovering the world of interactive fiction was "Wow, that would be cool to write!" you have three main options and a number of lesser ones.

The three most popular interactive fiction writing software programs are Inform 7, TADS, and Hugo. (All are free, just like the games they create.) Personally, I write in Inform 7 and that's what I'm most familiar with, but all three have their own strengths and weaknesses. Roger Firth has an interesting exploration of these three and a number of lesser IF languages on his Cloak of Darkness pages.

Writing IF is nice because it uses a programming language based on the English language. To create a room in Inform 7, you type "The Bedroom is a room," not a bunch of incomprehensible symbols and punctuation. Things get more complicated the more complicated the game, but it's still written fundamentally in English. After years of picking up C++ books with a renewed determination to learn the stuff, only to have my eyes glaze over within five minutes of study, it's quite a relief!

Personally, I think the relative ease of writing interactive fiction games is part of the reason for its surge in popularity. Many creative and talented people who would be intimidated by the work of designing and coding a more elaborate game find interactive fiction to be both easy and relatively quick to learn, allowing a far wider base of authors. The disadvantage is that IF games may lack the professional polish one would expect from a commercial product; the advantage is that the games are not limited by anyone's beliefs about what may or may not be commercially viable. Feed your friend's evil, talking fish? Sure! Why not?


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    • profile image

      Chasuk 5 years ago

      I still adore these games. Is that you in the video?

    • deblipp profile image

      deblipp 6 years ago

      I loved these games in the 90s. I got into them when I was bedridden with an injury.

    • profile image

      Anon 7 years ago

      @hot dorkage

      There is nothing wrong with playing IF games if you have spare time.

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 8 years ago from Northern California

      Wow. I've actually never heard of this before, but as soon as I saw "Darcy" and "Elizabeth," I became instantly intrigued :D What a great idea!

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA

      Used to play these but I now play exclusively a multimedia one called REAL LIFE.

    • kerryg profile image

      kerryg 8 years ago from USA

      Yeah, I had some friends who were really into MUDs back in the day.

    • LyrialZander profile image

      LyrialZander 8 years ago

      Cool hub subject, I remember that MUD was popular when I was in High School.