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Something about Interactive Fiction

Adventure Comes Home

In 1978, Scott Adams (Not Dilbert, Adventure! according to his sig file) played Adventure (the Colossal Cave version) on a DEC mainframe at his job and thought he would like to have something similar on his home computer. “It was a TRS-80 with 16k bytes of memory. I was told by friends at work there was no way I could get a game like CC to run in such a small system. I decided to write my own adventure gaming language and then wrote an interpreter for the language. The game's database could then be fairly small. This proved to work well,” said Adams.

Very well, actually. Adventure International started in Adams’ spare bedroom. The initial release of Adventureland was advertised in magazines and distributed by mail. “I remember our very first wholesale order. It was to Manny Garcia the manager of a Radio Shack in the Chicago area. He was actually the one who taught us all about packaging and wholesale prices. Up to the time of his order we simply mailed out cassettes with a printed page of instructions and no other packaging,” said Adams. Adventure International moved five times, growing bigger and ultimately doing $3 million in annual sales in America. “[Including] distribution via separate licensing to companies in the UK and Japan, we also had licenses with Commodore Computer and Texas Instruments for certain games,” said Adams. Scott Adams’ successful marketing of his homebrewed games led other independent programmers to write their own games and price them from $15 to $100(US).

Though Adams was the first to bring interactive fiction to the home computer and his Adventure International the first to use a commercial business model, the company which created the dominant commercial interactive fiction paradigm was formed by ten members from MIT’s Dynamic Modeling group. Infocom was the name of the company and their first product was a port of Zork to home computers. Zork had been playtested and revised from 1977 to 1979 and its final form was too large to fit on a floppy disk and required more power than a home computer could provide.

The creation of an interactive fiction-specific virtual machine called Z-machine allowed the game to work with a 32k computer and floppy drive. This virtual memory manager could leave most of the information on the disk and buffer the parts needed at the time. Zork was still too large for a floppy disk, so the game was divided into three sections and Zork I was released for the TRS-80 Model I in 1980.

The three Zork games (Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981), and Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982)) represent three of the thirty-five interactive fiction games released by Infocom. Infocom was the industry leader and, as Montfort points out, the creators of “practically all the best-loved IF works.” In addition to adventure games, Infocom also released games in the comedy, mystery, science fiction, and romance genres. Infocom’s level of productivity was the result of an efficient system, Briceno, et al. quoting Lebling, “a team consisted of one author, one interpreter, and some QA. And we could bring a game to market in nine months, for under $500,000.”

Being prolific helped establish Infocom as a powerhouse, but Infocom had other attributes which contributed to their success. Infocom games were well-written, contained interesting characters, and had challenging puzzles—often with alternate solutions. Infocom created much of the terminology used in interactive fiction games including: again (repeat the previous input), script (print a transcript of the game), and oops (corrects a typo). And who could forget feelies, those tangible extras in a game’s packaging that gave the player a physical connection to a virtual world (and often performed double duty as a subtle anti-piracy measure)? Despite Infocom’s highly polished offerings, The Miami Herald found some amusing bugs in a 1987 article: in the first Zork game, players attempting to enter the river find that they “have bumped their head,” in Zork II, “aquarium, west” tells the aquarium to leave the room, and in The Witness, Veronica is more than willing to answer questions even though she’s dead.

Continued: Beyond Infocom

Table of Contents: Something about Interactive Fiction