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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Friday, May 16, 2003 - 08:53 am:   

I need to give some love (and links) here to interactive fiction. Not to be confused with hyperfiction or (in most cases) multimedia fiction, IF uses the programming languages carried over from text-only adventure games popular in the late 70s and 80s (beginning with Collosal Cave, the Zork Trilogy, Scott Adams' games, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, etc. etc.).

What has been cool in the last dozen years or so, after the collapse of text-only gaming as a COMMERCIAL enterprise, is that a community of writers and programmers have picked up the gauntlet, so to speak, and started writing games of their own. Some of which have trandescended the label of 'games' into a truly unique art form -- one that is highly immersive. Not only does a lot of contemporary IF offer far more 'gaming' pleasure than most slick computer games on the market today, the sophistication of the writing and world building has been very high as well. You can pretty much find everything under the sun in terms of genre, style, narrative techniques... one of the reasons I love it so much is that, coming from writing 'regular' fiction, it provides a totally different relationship between reader (or 'player') and writer. When writing IF, you have to think of EVERY possible path a player might take. So you get these little clusters of narrative that you write, which are only put into motion by the actions of the player. It's true collaborative storytelling.

And I've always thought that there would be some good crossover between the IF community and SF/F writers. Douglas Adams comes to mind, of course, but Thomas Disch, believe it or not, wrote an IF game in the 80s for Broderbund called Amnesia. Yoon Ha Lee, who is a regular F&SF contributor, released this last year a beautiful little game called Moonlit Tower. Perhaps because of historical precedent, about 90% of IF has some speculative or fantastic element involved. Some of it very weird. Some with a great deal of puzzles (which are not really my forte!), and some with no puzzles at all.

If any of this sounds vaguely interesting, let me give some recommendations. 99% of contemporary games happen to be free and downloadable online. There's a bit of a learning curve to get started (you kind of have to jiggle the key to unlock the door, so to speak), but it's worth it.

What you need to start is an interpreter and (obviously) some games. The interpreter is a 'virtual machine'--think of it as a VCR player (the games being the tapes). Since there is no one single universal IF programming language, there are a variety of interpreters. Most IF, however, is written in either Inform (also known as z-code) or TADS. Downloading an Inform interpreter is a good place to start...if you have a PC, you can download WinFrotz at

http://www.cris.com/~Twist/WinFrotz/WinFrotzR53.zip

If you have a Mac, you can download MaxZip

http://www.eblong.com/zarf/ftp/MaxZip-178.hqx

Now to download some IF! Nearly all can be downloaded from the IF Archive (www.ifarchive.org). A user-friendly interface to this is at http://www.wurb.com/if, which separates games by genre, author, awards, etc. A good place to start on this front is a page which lists "5 star games", which are more or less canonical in the post-Infocom era:

http://wurb.com/if/rating/5

Here are my recommendations on that front.

"For a Change," by Dan Schmidt (the author's two major influences for this, he admitted, were Gene Wolfe and Ben Marcus)

http://wurb.com/if/game/605

"Photopia" by Adam Cadre

http://wurb.com/if/game/255

"Hunter, in Darkness" by Andrew Plotkin

http://wurb.com/if/game/483

"Pytho's Mask" by Emily Short

http://wurb.com/if/game/1180

The aforementioned "Moonlit Tower" by Yoon Ha Lee

http://wurb.com/if/game/1925

And "Halothane" by Quentin Thompson

http://wurb.com/if/game/608

Download the file that has a .z5 or .z8 suffix (you might have to fiddle with your preferences to make sure it downloads it as data, not text).

Load the interpreter and it should be self explanatory from there (you load the game from within the interpreter). Most of these games have detailed help instructions for absolute beginners with how to navigate the game world.

Although I know this isn't for everybody, I hope a few people reading this become as addicted to IF as I am. :-) Let me know if you have any questions; I'd be glad to help out as much as I can.

A.
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Friday, May 16, 2003 - 12:25 pm:   

This recent blog post by Nick Monfort as well as the comments are illuminating in terms of design questions for all types of fiction, interactive and otherwise

http://steel.lcc.gatech.edu/grandtextauto/archives/000008.html#more
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Mike
Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2003 - 12:52 pm:   

I have fond memories of "Zork" and even moreso of "Wishbringer" and the "Enchanter" series.

Though I'm afraid to download these games now, and lose what little free time I have...
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Mike Jasper
Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2003 - 12:57 pm:   

Uh, that was me, there, previously. With a Jasper missing...
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Thursday, May 29, 2003 - 11:30 am:   

Hey Michael,

Agreed--as if we all need other distractions. Although most of the games listed above are playable in 2 hours of length. The short game has seen its own renaissance--they have very different feels and pacing than the (admittedly fun) sprawling epics of the Infocom era. Just something else to throw out there!
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Thursday, July 10, 2003 - 08:11 pm:   

This new little IF ratings site has been...highly...addicting:

http://www.carouselchain.com/if/statistics.php

(you can do searches by genre, the highest/lowest ratings, etc).

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