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Something about Interactive Fiction

Beyond Infocom

Adventure aka Mystery House. Extremely lo-rez by today’s standards, Mystery House used convincing line-drawings to illustrate the action of an interactive fiction game. Written by Roberta Williams and programmed by Ken Williams, Mystery House presented another stage in the evolution of gaming. After a series of Hi-Res Adventures, the pair would release King’s Quest (with On-Line Systems now using the name Sierra On-Line, pairing color graphics with a parser. Later Quest games dropped the parser altogether, letting players create sentence structures with mouse clicks.

LucasArts’ SCUMM interface followed the point-and-click model used by Sierra, but allowed for more variations in sentence creation by allowing players a choice of icons representing such IF mainstays as “give,” “look at,” and “use with.” In a reflective article on computer gaming, Computer Gaming World pointed out an incongruity between Sierra’s success with graphical adventures compared to Infocom’s “short-lived devotion to the text-only adventure.” However, Infocom was not the only maker of interactive fiction and other companies combined interactive fiction with graphics (as would some later Infocom games).

Melbourne House, an Australian company, released 1983’s The Hobbit, a Philip Mitchell game based on Tolkien’s classic. Like Mystery House, The Hobbit had a graphical component, although in color and more detailed. Trillium/Telarium combined text with graphics and, unlike Infocom’s mostly original releases, actively released titles based on classic works of fiction. Fahrenheit 451, Alice in Wonderland, and other titles let the player be the main character in their favorite books. Merchandising magazine quoted former marketing director Jay Mixter, "By using recognized popular fiction, the game is more than just solving a puzzle. It has a real plot, a beginning and an end. The player becomes his favorite character and controls the action."

Alice also made her way into a Virgin Mastertronic release created by Magnetic Scrolls. Called Wonderland, this game used the famous Magnetic Scrolls parser with a GUI featuring, “multiple windows, pull-down menus, icons, on-line help, dynamic mapping, and even the ability to enter command lines without typing a word.” The same article, a review of Wonderland by a 1991 PC Magazine, mentions that Wonderland’s price was $59.99 (US), roughly the same price as a Collector’s Edition of one of today’s games. Magnetic Scrolls, also the acclaimed developer of The Pawn and The Guild of Thieves, was a UK company which started in 1985. Montfort notes that Magnetic Scrolls games followed the British interactive fiction tradition of having “demanding and sometimes even cruel requirements.”

Level 9 was another British IF company which peaked with its 1987 release, The Knight Orc. A cult classic among IF players, Knight Orc put the player in control of Grindleguts, an orc in a human land. Modern IF author Robb Sherwin notes that, “[it was] one of the first games to give voice to a villain.” The game also populated the world with mobile NPCs and presented the game world in real-time.

At some point in the early 1990s, commercial interactive fiction was no longer a sustainable business model. One major factor comes to mind: Improvements in technology favored CD-ROM-based gaming and fostered the creation of immersive (and often photorealistic) 3D worlds, simulated (Myst) or otherwise (Doom). However, there is no single, unified theory to explain the apparent death of commercial IF. “The answer for Infocom is not the same as for Legend, Magnetic Scrolls, Level 9, or Melbourne House,” said Montfort. It is compelling though, that four of the five companies Montfort mentions met their end during the 1987-1992 period. Legend Entertainment’s final IF game was 1993’s Gateway II: Homeworld, though the company continued on.

Continued: Once and Future

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