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The Art of 'Interactive Fiction'

Updated on February 25, 2016

With the way that some people seem to be talking about the current video game industry, and the style of games made today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the concern for 'story' is something new and exciting. People seem to act as though video games are finally 'growing up', and achieving a maturity that they have never had before. Now, the gradual maturity of games is something I agree with, and whole-heartedly support. But, the idea that this is some new development is something that I can't really agree with - because it simply isn't true.

It seems to me that there was always been something of a split here. The games that have tended to attract the most attention over the years have always been those that held a 'lowest common denominator' sort of appeal. Not necessarily bad games, by any stretch - but simple and straight-forward affairs designed to have a broad appeal.

Pac-Man and Space Invaders were among the first of these sorts of games - and they are, quite rightly, still remembered fondly. There was no need for an elaborate story in either of these games, or in any similar ones - that would have just got in the way. Even as the arcade machines evolved, and the games you could play grew more complicated, there was only ever enough story to give a vague sense of context - and, what was there often felt largely superfluous.

When I used to spend so much of my time feeding coins into a Double Dragon machine as a kid I never actually knew, or even cared, whether I was playing as Billy or Jimmy Lee. I didn't know the name of the woman I was supposed to be rescuing (Marion, apparently). And, the first time I made it to the end of the game with another player, I was caught by surprise by the fact that the two brothers were suddenly expected to fight it out - for reasons I'm still not entirely clear on. And, to be honest, it never really felt important.

It was the arcade influence, really. Beating the game was the point of the experience. Or, beating the current high-score, even if it was your own. Anything beyond that was just colour. This same attitude eventually made its way into the home with the increasing popularity of console-based gaming - and, finally, worked its way onto the personal computer. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were responsible for popularizing the first-person shooter genre of games in the early 90s (the very definition of 'simple' and 'straight-forward'). I enjoyed Doom as much as anyone - but, for a long time, I had no idea that I was actually supposed to be killing demons on a moon of Mars. The game itself didn't go out of its way to make this clear. And, it never really felt important.

There have always been games that were deliberately light on story, and focused solely on action and spectacle. For many, though, this is all that video games are - so, it makes sense that they would have a low opinion of the hobby. Like with many others, I'm sure, I grew up thinking that this was all that gaming was - a temporary diversion lacking any real depth. Even as a life-long gamer, it still took a few years before I began to realize the potential of video-games as a story-telling medium.

I was wrong, of course. There's always been another side to gaming. And, that other side seems to have always been heavily associated with the personal computer (does that mean that PC gamers actually have a point when they argue for the superiority of their chosen platform? Well... let's not get into that).

At the same time as this obsession with violent spectacle has been attracting public attention (and, lowering the general population's opinion of our hobby, as a result), there have also always been games available that have had a greater focus on telling a story. If you go back as fair back as the early origins of gaming as a serious hobby (a whole 30-40 years ago - it's a long and proud tradition we're all part of), you can find a genre of game that has, sadly, largely fallen out of style - Interactive Fiction.

Interactive Fiction games were deceptively simple affairs. No graphics. No fiddly controls to master. All you had were blocks of text to set the scene, and describe what was happening, and a command line to type in your actions. Of course, there was a lot more going on than that. You had the actual writing, for a start. It was a style of game based solely on text - so, naturally, the writing needed to be good. And, thankfully, the quality of the writing in the best games was as good as any other work of fiction.

And then, there was the complexity of the parser - that bit of software that gave the game its ability to recognize, and respond to, the player's commands. Early games may have required the player to type commands that seemed stilted and unnatural, since they could only understand short 'verb' + 'noun' commands ('open door', etc.), but constant development eventually allowed for longer and more complicated sentences, containing multiple actions.

You can probably clearly see that Interactive Fiction was a style of game that had its origins in simple necessity - after all, it's difficult to imagine that everyone was satisfied with the crude and simple graphics of the 80s. But, the developers of Interactive Fiction took that apparent 'limitation' and ran with it - creating games that covered a variety of genres, including science fiction and fantasy, horror and the occasional detective story.

'Feelies!' What was included was always appropriate to the game. The 'feelies' included with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game were suitably weird.
'Feelies!' What was included was always appropriate to the game. The 'feelies' included with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game were suitably weird.

Then, of course, there were the 'feelies' - items shipped with the game that were often a part of the play experience. A map was the classic choice, of course. But, it was also common for other items describe within the game, such as a pamphlet or a newspaper article, to be included as a physical item that the player could handle. It was also common for the player to, occasionally, need to refer to these 'feelies' as a part of the game - both as a way of creating a greater sense of immersion, and as an early form of (subtle and unobtrusive) copy-protection.

The best known developer of Interactive Fiction was, of course, Infocom - while this company didn't have any monopoly on the style (and, there were others making games of their own) it was, and still is, the company most strongly associated with this type of game. Its games are among those typically considered to be the best on offer. Infocom gave the world Zork, for example - I'm sure I'm not the only life-long gamer who feels a slight twinge of nostalgia at the seemingly simple line 'you are standing in an open field west of a white house' (and, I didn't even the opportunity to play it until the mid-90s). And, of course, there's also the threat of being eaten by a Grue.

Infocom was first founded in 1979 - formed by a collection of staff and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It remained as an independent company until it was bought by Activision in 1986. In 1989, the Infocom offices were officially shut down, and 'Infocom' became little more than a label which Activision sometimes attached to its own games.

Only 10 years of activity, then - but, in that 10 years, Infocom developed and released 35 Interactive Fiction games. Zork was Infocom's first commercially released product - and, the name went on to become an important part of whatever amounts to 'gaming culture'. But, while Zork went on to spawn a long-running franchise of games, many of their other games gave them ample opportunity to expand into other genres.

'Interactive Fiction' game-play. Exciting, huh? They were a lot more fun than they look.
'Interactive Fiction' game-play. Exciting, huh? They were a lot more fun than they look.

It was likely a combination of factors that contributed to Interactive Fiction's loss of popularity. The gradual improvement of the graphical capability of games would have been a main factor, of course - but, the eventual collapse of Infocom as an independent developer, following a period of poor management after it had been bought by Activision, could not have helped matters. Infocom was, after all, the main driving force behind this style of game.

Of course, when I said that Interactive Fiction had largely fallen out of style years ago, I really meant that it was no longer profitable as a commercial product. It's really one of the simple wonders of the Internet that fans of even the most obscure things can find each other, and establish their own communities. The same is true of Interactive Fiction games - though, here, you can find people who aren't content to simply indulge in nostalgia and replay old games. Instead, there are those out there who have devoted their time to making new Interactive Fiction games. They are a very niche style of game at this point, of course - simple too far removed from what most of us are used to. Though, really, that just makes the devotion of those who still make Interactive Fiction games more remarkable.

© 2013 Dallas Matier


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    • Geekdom profile image

      Geekdom 3 years ago

      A nice brief look at a part of video game history.

    • Sarah Christina profile image

      Sarah C Nason 3 years ago from Fresno, CA

      I've heard of interactive fiction games, but never actually played one. I've been a life-long gamer but didn't have access to a PC at home and therefore didn't enter the world of PC gaming until 2003 (I had saved up for my own laptop). So I missed this genre of gaming entirely, which disappoints me because I'm sure I would have enjoyed it. If people are still making them, though, maybe I'll try it out just for fun. Thanks for the Hub, interesting and informative!

    • Dallas Matier profile image

      Dallas Matier 3 years ago from Australia

      @Geekdom - Thanks.

      @Sarah Christina - They were before my time, too. I only had the chance to play any of them because they released a couple of box set collections ('Lost Treasures of Infocom') at some point in the 90s

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