Interactive fiction (better known by many as the “text adventure”) is one of the oldest, purest forms of gaming. There’s something indescribable about how it feels to control a game so directly. No graphics, no music, no other forms of presentation, just you, the screen, and your imagination.
Despite its age and the fact that few non-indie releases have come out of the genre since the death of Infocom (we’ll get to them later), there are still pieces of interactive fiction coming out regularly, though all of them nowadays are indie (generally free) releases. Even then, it’s kind of dead. It’s sad, but one would expect that from a genre that hinges on such a degree of minimalism.
I’d like this article to serve as a basic introduction to the genre, showing how you can play these games and what games excel in showing the genre’s potential. While it may look intimidating at first, this genre has produced some of the greatest narratives I’ve ever seen that can only be told through games, and they’re more than worth experiencing.
The text adventure started in 1975 with Adventure, a simple text-based fantasy game programmer Will Crowther made for his kids. Around 1977 it got onto ARPAnet (the precursor to the Internet), and people added onto it, changed elements of it, etc. It’s still readily available (in many different forms) today. In 1979, Infocom (the most well-known text adventure/interactive fiction developer of the time) started up, and their first game, Zork (a descendant of Adventure), was released, which became a major commercial success. Infocom went on to make several other classic text adventures, such as Trinity (a parable on the atomic age), Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (a humorous but brutally difficult adaption of the books, written by Douglas Adams himself), and A Mind Forever Voyaging (a politically-charged sci-fi adventure). Other groups like Edu-Ware and Legend Entertainment also made excellent interactive fictions.
Since the ’90’s, interest in the genre dropped, resulting in the shuttering of most companies that made text adventures; the few that didn’t close went on to make games in other genres, like how Legend made Unreal II. However, a significant fan community for the genre stuck around, and they eventually reverse engineered Infocom’s text adventure engine (Z-Code and the Z-machine running it, named after Zork, of course), allowing independent developers to make their own interactive fictions. The release of Inform in 1993 further enhanced their toolset, allowing them to make more complex games with more… unique features. (We’ll get to some examples of that later.)
Most text adventures run on z-code, and in order to play them, you’ll want a z-machine interpreter. If you’re familiar with emulation (which we do not support), it’s basically the emulator, and the z-code files are the games you plug into it. If you’re on Windows, you’ll want Frotz (recommended if you want a clean interface) or Glulxe (used for z-code games with minimal graphics). Mac players should use Zoom (which also runs on Linux/Unix) or Spatterlight. An iOS version of Frotz is also available on the app store, but I’ve yet to try it.
As for the games, you can find most of those at the Interactive Fiction Database. They have pretty much all of the old Infocom games (all of which are public domain now) along with the independent releases that came out after the death of the genre’s commercial appeal. There are some releases that didn’t come out in z-code, so those aren’t as widely available/easily playable, but most of the games you’d want are available there.
So, now that you have access to such a large supply of games, what should you play?
A good starting point is Adam Cadre’s Photopia. Cadre is one of the best IF writers since the death of Infocom, and Photopia is his least-gamey work. It’s very linear in terms of gameplay and non-linear in terms of plot, and the parser (your textual input) it uses isn’t very complex. As long as you know “go north/south/east/west” and “talk to X” you can make it through. It’s a good way to get used to inputting commands. The plot itself is excellent. It’s much better if you go into it not knowing anything about that, so I won’t say anymore. It only has one thing close to a puzzle, and it’s one of the most clever ever used in an IF. Highly recommended.
Cadre has made several other excellent IFs, a few of which are also good for beginners. 9:05 is short and simple, and it gives you a good idea of some of the more complex input trees other IFs make you go through. Shrapnel is more complicated, and it makes use of the tropes of the genre in a really interesting way. After that, if you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you might be ready for his Renaissance-based, semi-sci-fi adventure, Varicella.
If you want to see how difficult and complex the genre can get, I’d recommend finding a walkthrough and some maps and trying Curses!, a fiendishly hard text adventure about a guy looking for a map of Paris who stumbles upon some dark secrets about his family. It’s horribly, horribly complex, but the plot and the puzzles are mostly very well-made, and the humor is great.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy game is in much the same vein; it’s brilliantly funny, but the complexity makes it near-impossible without a guide. Like you’d expect from Adams’ universes, the logic makes no sense, and realizing that makes the game much more bearable. I can’t recommend it enough for the writing, but bring a guide, unless you’re really into getting frustrated.
Anchorhead is also very good if you’re a fan of Lovecraftian horror. It has some of the best writing in an IF, with lovely, intricate item and setting descriptions and a plot just as well-rendered.
Galatea is one of the more unique IFs ever made. Written by Emily Short (another well-known and talented IF writer), it’s based around one mechanic: speaking to an NPC. There are many subjects to discuss, and many, many possible endings. I’d recommend not looking at a guide for it; much of the game’s value comes from discovering the endings and possible subjects of discussion yourself.
I believe the height of the IF genre can be found in one game: A Mind Forever Voyaging. Developed by Infocom and written by Steve Meretzky, it’s probably the most serious game Infocom ever published. You play as PRISM, the world’s first sentient computer, designed to run simulations for the government’s political plans. It’s marvelously well-written, and it’s a brilliant critique of conservative policies of the time. (The game was released in 1985, so, yeah.) I can’t recommend it enough.
While these games do lack graphics and many things modern gamers are used to, they offer so much that we don’t see often nowadays. From brilliant humor to political critique, from the craters of Mars to the roads of rural Maine, there are so many unique games in the genre that should be experienced by more people. I hope that you’re willing to give them a chance so that you can join in those experiences.