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Interactive Fiction for Beginners
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.
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:
>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?
More Useful IF Links
An interactive fiction magazine
- Brass Lantern Adventure Games Information
Information for beginners, players, and writers of adventure games
- Main Page - IFWiki
The interactive fiction wiki
- Interactive Fiction Reviews
Reviews and ratings of thousands of games
- A MUD Forever Voyaging
The popular ifMUD
An interactive fiction forum
- Interactive fiction - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia