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Text + Imagination: Now that’s a video game

Science & Technology

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Nerdcore hiphop artist MC Frontalot plays interactive fiction, or text adventures, in a music video. In Infocom’s “Zork,” you had to get out of dark places fast before you were eaten by a creature of the shadows known as a grue.

Let’s say you want to create an immersive, realistic video game. Unfortunately, you don’t have a multi-million dollar budget.

This means you’ll have to think out of the box — or at least inspect one of its dark, all-but-forgotten corners. You’re going to have to find a way to bypass state-of-the-art 3D graphics entirely.

In the 1980s, text adventures, or interactive fiction (IF for short) competed with mainstream games. It wasn’t a difficult feat when competitors’ games featured blobs that were supposed to be people and spaceships. Indeed, the major IF publisher, Infocom, said its lack of graphics was a virtue.

“We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination – a technology so powerful, it makes any picture that’s ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison,” the company bragged in an ad:

From the Infocom Advertisements Flickr page.

Interactive fiction didn’t fall into obscurity only because computer graphics got better, however. At least, that wasn’t the only reason.

Go ahead and give this game a try. (You can actually play it inside the frame below. Click anywhere in it, and you’ll see a blinking cursor. Type something and press ENTER! If the game isn’t working for you, you can also play it here.)
Mini-Zork” is a condensed version of “Zork,”Infocom’s best-known game, and fits on a cassette tape.

But there’s a problem here. You see the “>” symbol? That’s the command prompt, where you’re supposed to type something. You type, and the game responds.

But what do you type?

“The command prompt is a lie,” writes modern IF author Emily Short. “It tells the player, ‘Type something, and I’ll understand you.’ Which it won’t.”


You can’t CHECK OUT WHAT’S INSIDE THE MAILBOX. You can, however, OPEN MAILBOX. And once you know how to talk to the game, you need to figure out what do. Your thoughts might go like this: “So there’s this house. I guess I go inside. But it’s all boarded up. What now? Should I wander? Am I missing something here?”

In other words, the command prompt presents both an alluring sense of freedom and an endless source of frustration.

Many interaction fiction authors nowadays try to minimize this frustration by being more helpful to players than Infocom was. They often distribute instructions for common text commands, or they use the game text itself to make it obvious what users to type.

“Blue Lacuna” by Aaron A. Reed uses keywords, highlighting and hints, for example:


And, because walls of text aren’t exactly attractive, some modern IF games make graphics an important part of the gameplay, such as Emily Short’s “City of Secrets”:


Note: The numbers I entered into the command prompt are conversation choices presented in the bottom pane. W means WEST as in GO WEST.

Other works of interactive fiction toss the parser out altogether.

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? Instead of turning to, say, page 32 to enter the cave, hyperlink IF players click on the link to “Enter the cave.” There is never any doubt about what your options are. No typing needed. My favorite is a “Hardy Boys” parody, “The Mysterious Shadows of Skullshadow Island.”

But hyperlink IF has its own challenges. It’s easy to just click and not read carefully, and some of the excitement of exploration can be lost when all your options are in a list in front of you.

Next in Creative Tech, we’ll be taking a look at two systems to get you started – Inform 7 for parser IF, and Twine for hyperlink IF. The learning curve isn’t too steep, as the intended audience for both are writers, not programmers.

Until then, I invite you to explore the depths of a website called Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB), where you can find thousands of these games for free in every genre you can imagine. Plus, if you want to know what people are producing right now, you can judge new IF games until Nov. 15.

Enjoy the graphics.

You can follow Robert Patten on Facebook and Twitter.