Interactive Fiction: What Is It, And where To Start

If you’re an old enough gamer to remember Infocom (now Activision), Scott-Adams,Level9, or Magnetic Scrolls, you’re already familiar with interactive fiction. What you might not have realized is that text adventures weren’t killed off by graphics; they just improved and went underground. Every year, a vast collection of text adventures is released for free, on a fairly wide variety of systems. Read on to find out how to play, and where to start.
If you’ve ever played a MUD, you also have a basic idea of the drill. Interactive fiction games are just single player MUDs that can generally understand more commands, and focus more on story and puzzles than killing and points.
If you still have no idea what I’m talking about, you obviously have a life; that could be a problem if you intend to read my weblog for any length of time. Anyway, the brief explanation of interactive fiction is as follows: the computer prints descriptions of a game world from the point of view of a single character. You type commands for that character to perform, and the computer prints the results. A brief example should clarify things. Lines prefixed with a greater than symbol (>) are things I typed, and the rest was printed by the computer. This example was taken from the game Interstate Zero, a harmless, short, and stress free game.
>look.
In your car

You’re sitting in your lifeless car on a desolate roadside, a good half-hour drive away from the last gas station you passed. It’s at least a hundred and twenty degrees outside — not uncommon in the Doradan desert, even in November — and the heat is quickly becoming unbearable. The key is in the ignition, if you care.
You can see your purse (which is closed) here.
>look at me.
Well, Tracy, you’re five-foot-seven, a hundred and seventeen pounds, with brown eyes, long dark hair and golden-bronze skin. More to the point, you’ve got the kind of face people write poems about, a smile that makes grown men weep, and the kind of body every girl would love to have and every guy would love to, y’know, HAVE. You’re carrying nothing. You’re wearing your T-shirt and a pair of cut-offs.
>get my purse.
Taken.
>get out.
You’ll have to unbuckle your seatbelt first.
>unbuckle the seatbelt.
You unbuckle your seatbelt.
>get out.
Roadside

You’d like to be able to say you’re in the middle of nowhere, but that would be wishful thinking. You’re stranded at least fifty miles away from the middle of nowhere.
The entire landscape is nothing but barren desert dotted with scrub. Being a desert kid, you’re well aware of how much danger you’re in. The scenery may be beautiful in its own way, but the sun is beating down like it’s got a personal mission to melt you into goo, and you’re well aware that out in the desert everything is either poisonous or covered with spikes. Not to mention what could happen to a pretty girl all alone on a deserted highway…
As for this particular spot, well, a barbed-wire fence lines the roadside, and Interstate Zero itself stretches endlessly to the east and west. There’s a sign here, too, and its twin is on the other side of the freeway directly to your north.
Your lifeless car is here, mocking you.
A beige coupe roars past, oblivious to your plight.
>go north.
You dash across the street and are quite taken by surprise when a white Ford Bronco ploughs into you, sending your limp, shattered body flying through the air. You are equally surprised when you wake up in the hospital the next day in traction from head to toe. All in all, not the greatest way to spend your eighteenth birthday. Next time, you might want to consider looking both ways before you cross the street.
*** Thanks for playing! ***
That’s the basic idea…well, except for the getting killed part. You generally want to avoid that. You can find a more detailed introduction to various commands you can use at this link.
If this kind of thing interests you, the first thing you’re going to need is some free software. Most interactive fiction games are written to be read by software called interpreters; to play any particular game, you’ll need software that can interpret it. This saves game authors lots of time, as once they’ve written the game for a particular interpreter, anyone who can run software that can read that type of game can play it. This saves every game author from having to write a Windows version of the game, a Mac version of the game, and a Linux version of the game.
Inform: Inform is by far the most popular platform games are written for, and lots of software is available that can open these games. Inform games end in file extensions like .z5, .z6, and .z8, and are sometimes called z-code or z-machine games. The easiest software to use for playing this type of game is WinFrotz. If you’re not on windows, you can find a large list of interpreters for every kind of platform you can think of at this website.
TADS: TADS (Text Adventure Development System) is the second most popular system for interactive fiction, nearly in a tie with inform. You can get everything you need to play TADS games on Windows from this link.
Adrift: another popular system, though it only officially runs on Windows. You can get the Adrift Runner from this link.
Those are the three major platforms. While playing, you’re also likely to run into Glulxe and Hugo, though not all that often. You can find software to deal with them at the above links.
Now that you have the software, you need the games. The best place to start is this website: it has hundreds and hundreds of games that you can browse by genre, rating, or system. You can also read and submit reviews. I’d start with the five-star games and work downward, if I were you. If you’re into artwork, you can get artwork for some of the best interactive fiction at this site.
Enjoy the games!

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