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Something about Interactive Fiction

Once and Future

Some libraries in the 1980s recognized that playing interactive fiction was a legitimate form of reading. Professional literature of the time mentions ways to use IF to attract young readers, reluctant or otherwise. One article by Patrick R. Dewey mentions the benefit of providing the software needed to create one’s own adventures. Dewey lists four authoring titles (covering five platforms) and notes that authors using the software retained the rights to their games. It’s not readily apparent that any of these authors achieved Scott Adams’ level of success; marketing and distribution would have been obstacles to all but the most committed of authors.

Before IF made the transition to the home computer, distribution of games was aided by the ARPANET. The growth of the Internet and Internet technologies has had a similar effect for post-commercial IF. The Usenet group started in August 1987 and started in September 1992. The earlier group covers the technical side of IF authoring (“Why is this not compling?” and “Verb Taxonomy” are two active threads at the time of this article’s writing). is more of a discussion/appreciation group (e.g., “Infocom's A Mind Forever Voyaging Is An Amazing Game” and “Help with Pantomine [sic]”).The majority of what is being discussed are post-commercial IF games created by individuals using IF language compilers and interpreters, either for personal amusement, contest entries, or even some commercial gain.

TADS, Inform, and Hugo are three of the many languages available. TADS is a free, well supported language which saw its first release in 1987. One noteworthy TADS game is 1893: A World's Fair Mystery, by Peter Nepstad. 1893 is actually a very successful commercial game, due to guerilla marketing by Chicago historian Nepstad and the game’s connection to the popular nonfiction work, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. In addition to the text portion, Nepstad incorporated over 500 archival photographs of the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Inform (based on Infocom’s Z-machine) was created by the aforementioned Graham Nelson, following the release of his game Curses!. Montfort calls Curses!, a game which starts off with a seemingly innocuous search for a map, “probably the most widely-played post-commercial game.”

Games created with Hugo are often compared to Magnetic Scrolls’ level of multimedia presentation. Hugo was created by Kent Tessman, who continues to see commercial success from his game, Future Boy!. Future Boy!’s main character isn’t the eponymous superhero, but the hero’s roommate who quickly finds himself connected to his superpowered roommate’s world.

“As a commercial ‘market’, modern IF is certainly a niche. And although there are no solid number on how many new players Future Boy! attracted to the genre in general, a large number of comments were received from players who enjoyed the game and wanted more; they were referred to the IF Archive as a place to find similar (although not as multimedia-intensive) games. Plus both the game's documentation and website provide links to the IF Archive, so hopefully at least a few players have found more games to enjoy.

“As far as Hugo's multimedia goes, I think it does help in a particular kind of storytelling, or at least in a certain kind of game experience. Certainly the pacing and presentation of the story in Future Boy! were designed to take advantage of images, sound, animation, and music. The game is completely playable as a text-only game, either by choice or technical necessity, but it's at least a little bit of a different experience,” said Tessman.

While the titles mentioned above are representative of a portion of some post-commercial IF, other games are more experimental. “Infocom sold only big, puzzle-laden, 30-hour games, as did other commercial publishers. Now, people can create all sorts of IF and distribute one sort as easily as any other, whether it is large or small, set in a Zork-like fantasy world or in an everyday setting, literary or "adult." So people try a wide variety of interactive frameworks, writing styles, and so on,” said Montfort.

One example of modern IF’s creativity is the Mystery House Taken Over project sponsored by net art site After reverse engineering the original game, members of the Mystery House Advance Team created a kit for IF authors to modify the game. The experiment resulted in eleven variations of Mystery House including Daniel Garrido’s Casa Tomada, a Spanish language game transporting the game’s premise to “the disturbing world of a Julio Cortázar story,” [You wake up itching.] by Michael Gentry, a game similar to the original but with increasingly disturbing variations, and Glass Boxes by Yune Kyung Lee and Yoon Ha Lee, which redraws Mystery House as an Asian theatre.

One of the people behind the Mystery House Taken Over project is Emily Short. Short is the award winning creator of many notable IF games including, Galatea, Savoir-Faire (which had a limited commercial release that included feelies), and Metamorphoses. When asked about the relationship between writing an IF game and programming one Short said, “Both the writing and the programming are designed to present some specific experience to the player, and what I do with one affects what I do with the other.”

“I start by asking myself, ‘What does the player do in this game? What kind of interaction is he allowed? What influence do these actions have during crisis points in the plot?’

“Then I try to structure the exploration portions of the game to teach the player about the mode of interaction I've chosen for him. If it's a conversation game, I encourage him to talk to people; if it's a game about geography, I encourage him to wander; if it's a game about manipulating things physically, I give lots of incentive to play with objects and see how they interact.

“Then I present the player with crisis points at which that type of interaction becomes important. Sometimes this takes the form of solving a puzzle and moving the plot forward along a linear track; sometimes it takes the form of making a choice, and moving the plot forward along one of several conceivable branches.

“But the point is that I always try to design in such a way that I know what the player's going to be allowed to change, when, and how; and teach the player in advance what he needs to know in order to participate in the story.”

The Brass Lantern Timeline of Interactive Fiction dedicates half its length to the post-commercial period and ends in December of 2000. Much of the story is still unwritten, especially the contributions to IF from other countries. “Beyond the English language, there are IF communities in Spain, Germany, and Italy at least, and single examples of IF in probably at least a dozen languages,” said Montfort.

Montfort also points to the acceptance of interactive fiction apart from gamers. “What is growing is interest in IF beyond ‘the’ IF community—international interest, teachers using IF in the classroom, people interested in electronic literature and who are finding things to enjoy in IF,” said Montfort.

And some of the interest in IF comes from those rediscovering the past. Asked if he was surprised by the continued interest in Adventure, Don Woods said, “No, I'm not surprised. It spawned a large and active industry, and people in the areas of adventure games and interactive fiction keep looking back to see what else can be learned from the early successes. If anything, I'm occasionally surprised by the reverse: in the past few years I have begun encountering computer professionals who have NOT heard of Adventure. That used to be quite rare!”

Terrence Bosky is a long time MobyGames contributor and approver.

Continued: Acknowledgments

Table of Contents: Something about Interactive Fiction