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A History Of Interactive Fiction

Gather round while I tell you a story of the old time videogames before your internet connections and hi-def displays and even random-file access. Things were simpler back then, you had 32kb of memory (64 if you were lucky – how much memory does a modern computer have?)

It was tough to squeeze a game into that space; you didn’t have any useful storage (like a DVD or HDD), so you couldn’t play video – you could barely hold the graphics for a game. The processors were slow, and couldn’t do the maths quickly enough to generate 3d graphics. You’d need two people just to move your monitor! So, games were pretty rubbish back in the early 80s; they’d take 30 minutes to load, then you’d have a chunky, slow game to play, until you knocked your power adapter or RAM expansion.

While the home computer people continued playing poor quality arcade games that were re-written for home use, academics and computer scientists were busy working on their own types of game. With most computers in universities were more powerful, they were also – in many ways – more limited. Graphics, while built-in to many home computers, were often not a priority at universities.

People had often used teleprinters instead of screens, which were enormously expensive at the time, right up to the late 70s. One person, unperturbed by the lack of graphics, decided to write their own game. It wasn’t about reflexes, or speed, the sound design, or the graphics; it was all text. They game would print out where you were in it’s game world, and you’d type in what you’d do in response – it was mind-blowing at the time. It was 1975’s version of The Matrix, as realistic as 1970’s hardware could muster. It sent people to another place, where they could explore, read, and contemplate at their leisure; log in, spend some time in the game, then log out.

Will Crowther was a cave explorer. His game was called ADVENT (later Colossal Cave). He had based the game around his experiences caving, and made the game in his spare time at Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory for his daughters to play when they visited. Will was also part of the team developing the nascent internet; as a result, his game spread far and wide amongst early programmers. The game was passed over to Don Woods who injected new puzzles, fantasy elements, and whole chunks of J. R. R. Tolkien into Colossal Cave Adventure. This rode on fantasy-genre fandom into popularity amongst the early internet developers, and was made available by others for the limited home computers of the time on tape and floppy disk.

King of all the home versions was a version called Zork by a company called Infocom. Zork was followed by Zork II, Zork III and Zork Zero, and some others . Infocom was set up by students at MIT who had all been fans of Colossal Cave Adventure and felt they could do something bigger. They did, selling over 2,000,000 units in five years – this at a time when there were less than 6,000,000 computers sold in total. Infocom released about 40 titles, around 6 a year for their 7 year history, but those games developed a fierce reputation for imaginative storylines, Great puzzles, good writing and best-in-the-business parser.

Wait, what’s a parser?

Computers and games machines don’t do nothing unless you tell them what to do. Your game programmers build the game engine, which tells the hardware how to put pixels on the screen, where to get input from, even what kind of data the game will be using (and how to understand it). These days, console hardware is incredibly powerful, with fancy dedicated chips and boards to make 3d graphics and complex sound, but back in the 80s, your computer would have little more power than you have in your joypads and keyboards, let alone computer. The more your game concentrated on graphics, the less it could concentrate on game complexity or interactivity. The Infocom team decided to ignore graphics completely, and focus on a very particular type of game engine, a parser. Parsers were already familiar to the kind of computer boffins at Infocom – they used them all the time to control their computers. Infocom invested effort into making their parser particularly natural, so you could use words like “it” and not resort to computer instructions to play their games. They improved compression techniques, to allow larger stories with bigger vocabularies (remember, computers do not have an innate ability to understand human language, something that was a surprise to many in the 1980s), as well as handle more nuanced English, such as plant pot plant in plant pot, one of Magnetic Scrolls’ triumphs.

Infocom, and others (like Adventure International [1] [2] [3] [4] [5], Magnetic Scrolls [1] [2] and Level 9 [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] ) competed with arcade-style action games, but took quite a different direction in their approach, with their slower keyboard-based play style, and lack of graphics. At the same time, they had a huge audience who preferred text-based gaming – the same way some people prefer a story as a book rather than a film. They felt different, too – you could take the puzzles away and think about them at school or work, and talk about them with other people. Dextral skill was trumped by lateral thinking. Others spent time drawing meticulous maps of the games – often a necessary step to be able to play a game effectively.

Infocom, and the others, lost their edge, though. Console games were becoming the standard in video games, and Infocom made some bad business moves. It looked like the end of text adventure games, even though programmes like The Quill[1] made it possible for hobbyists to make their own games and keep the dream alive. And it pretty much was, commercially.

In Australia, a group formed calling themselves the InfoTaskForce, who – almost by accident – ended up working out how Infocom’s parser and game engine worked. This lead to Graham Nelson’s Inform, an English-like language used to create interactive fiction for Infocom’s platforms. Chris Klimas took a different route again, building on browser technology to create Twine, a less technology-driven tool allowing authors to create Interactive Fictions more easily on their own. This has opened Interactive Fiction up beyond academia into whole new areas – for example, Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest [1] is almost an anti-game (written with Twine) designed to share the experiences of depression with non-sufferers.

Since then, there’s been an explosion of interest in making Text Adventure Games; some people fascinated by the literary form, by playing with words and language in a new way; others finding it a fast and easy tool to create experiences and tell stories. In many ways, the collapse of the business has allowed the games to take on a new life where previously they’d hit a dead end.

More Reading

Online

A Brief History of Interactive Fiction
The Digital Antiquarian
The Story of Infocom
The Magic Era of Infocom
The Xyzzy Awards
The Interactive Fiction Database
How to Make Games with Twine

Books

Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort

Documentaries

Get Lamp [1]

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