Cindi Arteglier Asks:
Back in the 1980s, I remember a game on my MS-DOS computer that was played solely by reading directions or clues, and typing responses.
For example, “You are in a dark alley,” type: Turn left,” response: “You can’t turn left,” type: “Go straight,” response: “You find an axe,” type: “Pick up axe,” response: “There is a green monster about to attack you,” type: “Use axe,”… on and on.
No pictures, strictly in the player’s imagination. In retrospect, of course, it is ridiculously tedious and lame, but at the time it was quite addicting. Any ideas of its name? Is there a similar game out there now?
Wow. This question will likely bring back some fond memories for our older readers.
What you’re referring to is called “interactive fiction” (also known as “text adventure games”). This was a genre of computer game that was immensely popular in the 80’s.
Interactive fiction (IF) is precisely what it sounds like; a text-based, first-person narrative in which the player is the protagonist. Unlike visual video games – where the player traverses through the virtual world using the mouse – or the directional keys – interactive fiction requires the user to type what they want the character to do.
So, if the character needs to open a door, they’d type “Open door” and so on.
These games were particularly popular back when consumer computer technology was very much in its infancy. Back when hard drives were measured in mere megabytes, and screen resolutions were measured by how lines of text they could display. They had the advantage of being able to create enticing, enthralling worlds with stories that captivated, whilst working with the hardware limitations of the day.
The development of text adventures slowed, and virtually stopped as computer and display technologies improved, and the interests of gamers shifted. Now, they’re considered a relic of the past, although there’s still a burgeoning hobbyist community that still produces interactive fiction games. Some are even released commercially.
And that says nothing of the many who, to this day, choose to revisit the text-adventures they first played in the 1980s, for reasons of nostalgia.
Here’s how you can play these ancient games of yore, how you can play those released by hobbyist developers, and how you can make your own.
Finding and Playing Old Games
Many of these games are abandonware, existing in a legal grey area where they’re yet to lapse into the public domain, but the companies that built them no longer exist. InfoCom, for example, ceased operations in 1989. So, whilst it’s not exactly legal to download and share many of these games, nobody’s going to enforce the copyright on them.
Consequently, it’s not hard to find games online. This site, for example, has every single InfoCom game ever released.
One of the most promising interactive fiction websites I’ve came across whilst researching this article is textadventures.co.uk, which doesn’t just allow you to play interactive fiction games, but also build them.
I was impressed with the breadth and depth of the games on offer here. Not only did it boast some old classics, like the hilarious 9:05, but also an extensive collection of new, hobbyist-built games. They even took the trouble to curate some of the better ones, like the quirky and surreal The Lost Orb by Craig Dutton.
Another interactive fiction repository worthy of mention is iplayif.org. This site boasts thousands of games, both old and new. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into, from Colossal Cave Adventure (the first IF game ever written), to stuff written by interactive fiction wunderkind Emily Short, and more.
Interactive fiction games were often austere experiences, played in a distraction-free, graphics-free environment. For authenticity, why not play your favorite interactive fiction game on the command line?
Fellow MakeUseOf writer Justin Pot has previously written about how to install and use Frotz.
Mac users get Zoom, which not only supports classic InfoCom IF games, but also the majority of ones built by hobbyist. It supports those written using Gulux, TADS, and Hugo. These are programming languages specifically designed for building interactive fiction games.
For Windows, there’s Gargoyle. This freely available package not only supports a broad family of interactive fiction interpreters, but also looks the part, with an overwhelming emphasis on typography and design.
New Interactive Fiction Games
It may come as a surprise, but there are still developers who regularly churn out new interactive fiction games.
There’s even a number of annual interactive fiction contests, like the Interactive Fiction Awards, where prizes are awarded to those who are able to build the most captivating, interesting interactive stories. Suffice to say, this genre didn’t die when Commodore did.
TADS (which stands for The Text Adventure Development System) is perhaps the most popular tool used to build interactive fiction games. It consists of two separate components. The first is a player, used to run games. The second is a suite of developer tools, which we’ll discuss later.
Interestingly, the official TADS website has a near-comprehensive database of text adventure games that’ve been released in recent years. Called the Interactive Fiction Database, it not only lists the games that are available (all 7483 of them), it also features reviews and criticism.
Games can be found through the site’s search engine, and with its recommendations system, which allows enthusiasts to share ‘playlists’ of games.
No matter your taste, you should be able to find a compilation of games that satisfy it. From sci-fi, to horror, to comedy. There’s something for everyone.
Games are ranked using a five-star system, along with an Amazon-esque reviewing system. This helps identify the good from the bad.
The interactive fiction community is simultaneously massive and prolific. These nostalgic gamers have published thousands of impressive pieces, just in the past few years, and there’s no sign of them letting up.
If you want to join them, it’s never been easier to build your own games.
Make Your Own Games
Back in the 1980s, developers were hamstrung by the computers they used.
They had to be careful to work within the confines of the systems, and contend with relatively unsophisticated developer tools. Interactive fiction writers needed to be more than just storytellers. They had to be expert programmers.
That’s no longer the case. Now, there are tools that allow developers of every level to build interactive fiction games.
The easiest can be found on TextAdventures.co.uk, which allows developers to build games using two different frameworks. The simplest (but less customizable) is Squiffy, which allows you to focus on the words, whilst adding interactivity through a Markdown-like language.
The second framework offered by TextAdventures.co.uk is Quest. This is much more customizable than Squiffy, and only marginally more complicated. You don’t need to learn a programming language, or know how to code. Rather, you simply fill out a near-endless supply of webforms, building your story one room at a time.
Finally, there’s the aforementioned TADS. This could best be described as the most ‘professional’ interactive fiction platform out there. Some of the most significant IF games of the past 15 years have been built with it.
But TADS is a complex beast. Rather than simply letting you write your story, you’re first required to memorize a complex, C-like programing language and have a grounding in software development. However, this affords you a startling array of functionality to work with, including sound, graphics and animations.
TADS will probably take you a bit longer to learn, but the end result will be any games you make will look the part.
Why Stop There?
If you’ve still not satisfied your appetite for interactive fiction games, check out Justin Pot’s collection of free, retro adventure games.
iPad users looking to get their interactive fiction fix can also check out Hack RUN – a cyberpunk text adventure game first reviewed by Tim Brookes in 2013. There’s no shortage of interactive fictionemulators for iOS, either.
Finally, if you decide to write your own interactive fiction games, you can also look into getting them published. Writers who get published on the Choice of Games label can earn over $10,000 from a single game, as discovered by Robert Wiesehan last year.