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An Introductory Invitation To Interactive Fiction
Simon P. Dainty email@example.com
Mentioning 'Adventure' to your average computer game player these days will
probably result in that all-too-familiar puzzled look of someone attempting
to grasp an unyielding memory of ages past.
Adventure - also known as Colossal Cave - sparked off a mini revolution
back in the old days, when powerful home computers were as common to the
man on the street as time machines are now. Written by both Willie
Crowther and Don Woods in 1977, Adventure quickly became something of a
behind-the-scenes phenomena with academics and computer professionals
alike. In fact, just about anyone with even the most limited access to a
mainframe or mini computer back in the late 70's would likely have heard of
and experienced Adventure at one time or another. It was something new,
something previously unheard of - something wonderful.
Something wonderful? Yes, indeed. "So, the graphics and sound effects
were well ahead of their time then?" Well, no - not quite. You see, back
in those long lost days of lore when a real computer more closely resembled
that ancient twin-tub washing machine your folks still keep hidden away at
the back of the basement, advanced graphic and sound potential wasn't
really an everyday requirement - let alone a commercial viability. The
research and development teams that brought you the likes of the pre-80's
Digital mainframe, and the growing number of establishments that employed
them, were not looking for a machine that could display feature-rich
texture-mapped graphics in 256 colours. Nor were they in search of CD
quality sound spread across multiple channels. The computers of that era
were designed for a commercial and academic role - and those roles didn't
require the employ of that which we take for granted today. No Sir, flash
graphics and stereo sound were not a factor.
"Okay," you may ask, "So, what was the big deal behind the graphically
challenged and soundless Adventure, then?"
A perfectly valid question if ever I saw one. Indeed, the game must have
held some kind of mass appeal for those early pioneers of the academic and
professional circuit, as opposed to being yet another chess or Tic Tac Toe
implementation that you played whilst waiting for your latest and greatest
to compile. The answer to your question, if indeed you ever asked it,
would be a single noun that is rarely ever used in common, everyday
You see, because Crowther and Woods weren't able to bury their offering
deep within a sea of high resolution graphics, they had to opt for a
totally different approach. One that was only too common in a time when
the closest most people got to a computer was a monochrome VDU and a well
used keyboard. Everything revolved around the text-based terminal. There
were no windows, no screens, no intuitive menu or gadget system, nothing.
Just plain, old fashioned text.
Unlike today, people didn't care that the machines they were using could
only display an ASCII character set; they were accustomed to it, and they
took advantage of any restrictions. The joint authors of Adventure wrote a
computer game that would open the floodgates of the gaming world to many
that would eventually follow in their footsteps, a game that would one day
be available for every computer platform in the world.
It required no joystick to play, because it relied on a limited verb-noun
parser in order to gain input from the user. There was no need to support
non-existent sound and graphics hardware because all of the audio and
visual cues you could possibly desire were etched in ASCII on the terminal
screen, just waiting for that mass of neural interconnectivity seated deep
within your head to interpret the world around you - in a level of detail
that only the human brain could ever hope to offer.
The idea of the game was as simple as it was brilliant: describe to the
player the location around her including any objects she may encounter on
her travels and, by issuing simple commands at a prompt, allow the player
to travel between locations within the game world, examine any game objects
more closely and generally interact with the environment that had been
detailed to her through the power of idyllic narrative. Or, in other
words, dump the player inside the pages of a book and give her enough
freedom of choice so as to enable her to effect the outcome of the story,
hopefully arriving at a successful and appreciable conclusion.
It was this obvious amalgamation with linear fiction that gave birth to
the name 'Interactive Fiction', and even though the words "Text Adventure"
were already deeply engraved in the psyche of all who had travelled a
wandering path through the genre, 'Interactive Fiction' remained as an
alternate reference for those wishing to confuse the ill-informed amongst
The whole concept of computerized Interactive Fiction was a revolutionary
step forward at that time, even though multi-participant, around-the-table
role playing systems such as Dungeons & Dragons were a popular and growing
movement. It didn't take very long before people other than Crowther and
Woods had experienced the magic of:
At End Of Road
You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.
Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and
down a gully.
> examine building
It's a small brick building. It seems to be a well house.
At Hill In Road
You have walked up a hill, still in the forest. The road slopes back
down the other side of the hill. There is a building in the distance.
And with that, Adventure gave birth to a flamboyant style of gaming that
would very soon become familiar to millions. A richly detailed genre of
entertainment that would eventually be written into the annals of computer
gaming history under the grossly misleading heading of "Text Adventures."
What Crowther and Woods unwittingly set in motion by releasing Adventure
was an area of computer gaming that relied more heavily on the imagination
of both the author and player, than it did on the level of technology
available at the time. And, because of the simplicity and flexibility of
the design, it didn't take very long before other developers adopted the
concept of Interactive Fiction - thus offering even more worlds for the
desk-top adventurer to explore.
One such team of early pioneers - more than any other - took the noble
art of interactive writing far further than even Crowther and Woods could
have imagined when they first put to authoring Adventure. Releasing over
thirty titles in the days when their fires burned strongest, Infocom
changed the face of the Interactive Fiction movement in ways that still
govern the majority of development today.
For Infocom, it was the release of 'Zork' back in the 1980's that started
their rise to interactive stardom, and it's not surprising to discover that
the original Zork drew several similarities toward Adventure. Even though
Infocom are credited for over thirty Interactive Fiction titles - the vast
majority of which are seen today as classics in their own right - they
often stayed well within the sprawling realms of the Zork universe, giving
it far greater coverage as each title passed. Of the thirty-five games
written by Infocom (formerly known as Interlogic Games in their early
publishing days) there were nine offerings directly related to the Zork
universe (Zork 0, Zork 1, Zork 2, Zork 3, Beyond Zork, Enchanter, Sorcerer,
Spellbreaker and finally Wishbringer) with a further three titles making
Zork-esque references (Starcross, Planetfall and Stationfall). As you can
no doubt tell, Infocom were proud of 'The Zork Universe', and they must
have been doing something right if it was selling and making a profit.
Taking the concept of Adventure's limited parser and game engine several
leaps further, Infocom was able to offer a complex level of detail and
world building that few aficionados of the art could ignore. By developing
and employing the flexibility and potential of a virtual 'machine' within a
machine, along with a powerful programming language to complement it (ZIL,
or Zork Implementation Language), Infocom released title after title where
the complexity and ingenuity between each successive offering grew at an
You may be prompted to ask yourself how Infocom was so very capable of
developing an impressive line of adventure games that had a mass market
appeal in such a short space of time, given the sizeable amount of planning
and writing that an area of interest like Interactive Fiction requires. It
is easy to understand the 'how' when you discover their secret...
Infocom's ace in the hole was to become the building block of all of
their future explorations. The 'Z-Machine', coupled with the complimentary
'Z-Code' file format layer (each 'Z' referring to Infocom's original Zork),
became the base mechanics from which they would grow their impressive line
of text-based interactive games.
You see, Infocom realised that writing their games from scratch each time
would prove to be a long and costly - if not tiresome - endeavour. So,
instead of taking that severely limiting route, they hit upon the idea of
developing an interactive game system that could be easily adapted for the
the number of different computer platforms that were available, and less
demanding to code under than the OS of each respective system. They
created the Z-Machine as mentioned above, an interpreter much like a BASIC
interpreter, that would run on the target machine but with with the design
goal of accepting 'adventure' games as its programs. The data format of
these individual game-files were given the name 'Z-Code', which is evident
in the file name extension that the titles Infocom released were given.
Each game-file name was appended with ".z" and a number, detailing the
version of the Z-Code game-file interpreter that the code was written to
take advantage of. Forthcoming versions of the interpreter offered far
greater advances at a programming level over previous releases, eventually
allowing for both graphics and sound effects to complement the text of any
game. All in all, the Z-Machine/Z-Code combination was a quantum leap in
the right direction.
Although it is plain to see that Infocom often based their works in
worlds outside of our norm - the numerous Zork offerings are especially
evident of this trend - there were several examples that took to genres
other than pure fantasy. Indeed, there were many noteworthy titles that
differed sufficiently from anything that had been previously experienced
before, and these became instantly recognisable classics of the era.
In Brian Moriarty's 'Trinity' you play the role of a modern day American
tourist pulled into the events surrounding the creation and detonation of
the worlds first atomic bomb; the 'Trinity' of the title referring to
Trinity Site where the atomic age began with a radioactive "BOOM!" As a
game, Trinity is a joy to experience, but it's the potential toward a truly
interactive educational journey that offers the greatest promise. Actually
witnessing the true horror of the events unfold for real it may not be, but
being drawn into the history surrounding the birth of The Bomb ignites the
hypothetical "What if...?" fires like nothing else.
Infocom also delved into the nightmarish realms of Lovecraftian horror
with the release of 'The Lurking Horror'. ('Lovecraftian' being the name
given to a gothic style of writing based on the worlds and utterly alien
monstrosities that were first brought to paper by the enviable, though
obviously deranged, pen of Howard Philip Lovecraft way back in the 1920's.)
Although not gothic in era, The Lurking Horror introduced a terrifying new
concept to the adventure game: play upon the reader's fear and morbid
curiosity as opposed to plunging them head-first into an all-too-obvious
fantasy world. True, Lovecraft's 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' or
Poe's 'The Pendulum and the Pit' it isn't, nor are you ever likely to
quiver before the towering forms of Azatoth, Nyarlathoptep or Cthulhu, but
The Lurking Horror has definitely had a dramatic effect on some of today's
Taking a somewhat surrealist approach (although perhaps not as surreal as
Buñuel and Dali's 1928 movie 'Un Chien andalou'), A Mind Forever Voyaging
places the player within the role of an Artificial Intelligent machine,
alongside a simulated wife and an equally simulated son - an obvious detour
from any of Infocom's previous experiences. Pegged as one of the best
adventure games in the history of the scene, it takes very little effort to
appreciate the awesome creative wealth that Infocom had at their disposal.
Coupled with other science fiction elements offered by the likes of both
Planetfall and Stationfall, the humble text adventure had fluidly evolved
from the initial treasure collecting cave romp, through modern day horror
and out into an unmapped future.
Even respected linear fiction and medieval legends were given the
interactive treatment when Adam's 'The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy',
Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes', and King Arthur's quest for Excalibur made their
way onto the game store shelves. As far as Infocom were concerned,
imagination really was the only limit.
Alas, in 1986, Activision - the renowned and wide-spread game publishing
house that had seen years of action under the 8 bit deck - finally acquired
everything that constituted the imaginative wealth which surrounded the
rise of Infocom, and set into motion the goal of establishing a global
True, Activision did indeed treat the player to several further games
that were based in the worlds of Old Infocom, but there was something very
fundamental missing from the interactive mix. The graphic adventure 'Zork
Nemesis' may have held more than a passing resemblance to those earlier
Zork games (including, surprisingly, The Lurking Horror, due to the former
game's somewhat gothic streak), but it failed to yield the feel and
immersability of the original Infocom works. On the other hand, 'Return to
Zork' had completely gone the way of the CD ROM, and was more closely
related to an interactive movie production than anything else. Having said
all that, though, Activision did attempt - in sparce fashion - to pander to
those who would not be directly attracted to their most recent offerings.
By strategically releasing 'themed' compilations of previously published
Infocom titles, Activision were in a prime position to make a little extra
revenue (which, no doubt, contributed greatly toward the sizeable budgets
taken up by their more recent graphical exploits) from the die-hard
Interactive Fiction fan. Of the two 'Lost Treasures' packages that were
released, each contained several Infocom original titles and were swiftly
followed by the 'Infocom Masterpieces' collection. Milking the magic of
Infocom for all it was worth, it was plain to see that Activision saw only
swelling dollars and the furthering of its movie production exploits.
Sadly, and probably completely to be expected, Activision finally closed
the Infocom offices in 1989, and, with that, an era which covered the early
days of the technological revolution came to an uneventful end.
If, after reading this far, you've come to the conclusion that the text
adventure had its greatest staring role back in the 80's, you wouldn't be
far from the truth. Adventure's appearance toward the end of the 1970's
sparked a fascination with the idea of Interactive Fiction, and it was the
following decade that really made the game style its home. Infocom, Scott
Adams, and Level 9 all played a dominant part in bringing us some of the
best works of Interactive Fiction ever, but it would probably never have
happened had the audio and visual capability of today been available when
the interactive ball first started rolling.
Technology has come so far since the end of the 1980's that the average
game player just isn't satisfied with reading their way through a product.
Commercial Interactive Fiction had given way to beat 'em ups, shoot 'em ups
and DOOM clones. The gamer wanted fast action, awesome graphics and neato
sound, whereas the original adventure games seemed far too laid back for
the modern action freak, even though the animated graphical adventures
offered by the likes of Lucas Arts, Activision and Sierra still proved
popular. It was a clear case of changing with the times.
...Or was it?
Although the mighty Infocom has effectively ceased to be an individual,
identifiable entity, and just about every other commercial text adventure
developer disappeared into the swirling void many, many moons ago, there is
still a fringe market that is hungry for both new and old products. It's
the mid-1990's, and Interactive Fiction is still a thriving scene between
those ancient ghouls that swim the ether worlds vacated by those who had
once trampled a colossal path; the enquiring 'newbie' who has but recently
discovered the art for the very first time and those who have once again
happened across the genre after years in exile.
The realm of freely distributable software has opened the arteries for
products deemed "off the beaten path", wide enough even for the adventure's
life blood to continue its ebb and flow; and it was the advent of four very
centralized focal points that helped keep the art healthy and growing long
after its alleged sell-by date.
The first of the 'focal points' that we shall discuss is widely regarded
as the heart of Interactive Fiction today - the reason why, you'll soon
discover. The second, third and forth elements that contribute to the
modern movement can equally be seen as both the central nervous system and
the vocal capacity of our hypothetical gaming 'body'. Without these extra
'anatomical appendages', the end of the text adventure as a whole may very
well have passed us by in the night without our even knowing that it was in
The Interactive Fiction Archive at ftp.gmd.de stands testament to the
foresight and unfailing dedication of but one man, and his desire to see
the adventure game movement of past years flourish in this day and age of
fast-paced arcade action.
Employed at GMD in Germany as a man of many talents, Volker Blasius' very
first experience of Interactive Fiction was a surprising and captivating
little title named Advent, that he found lurking amongst the hierarchal
clutter of an IBM mainframe. This single encounter held a fascination with
Volker that was difficult to ignore, and it would eventually lead him into
his own respected and unenviable role within the genre. What's more, it
doesn't take a genius to realise that Advent was none other than a simple
port of Adventure itself; in fact, since Adventure first reared its very
formidable head all those years ago, there have been innumerable variations
of the original 1970's title - all with their own subtle, yet appreciable,
differences. Believe it or not, Adventure is one of the most updated games
in the history of the computer.
Alas, for reasons best left for Volker himself to reveal, his days of
adventure gaming were somewhat limited. Missing all of the middle period
of Interactive Fiction (most notably the Old Infocom era), he wasn't
re-introduced to the genre until years later when he accidently happened
across several related Usenet news groups (more of which we'll read about
later), and that's when the concept of a central archive of Interactive
Fiction initially took root.
Volker first announced the opening of the original central archive way
back in 1992 and, with the unhesitant help of Interactive Fiction veteran
Dave Baggett (who we'll hear more of later), set in motion the monolithic
task of maintaining and expanding a core reservoir of artistic talent both
ancient and new.
The popularity of the Interactive Fiction Archive at ftp.gmd.de continued
to grow and grow as more fans of the genre either gained Internet access or
discovered the archive for the very first time. It was this growth in
popularity that prompted Volker to contact Chris Myers of Washington's
wuarchive, with the intent of spawning a mirror of the original ftp.gmd.de
site. Myer's agreed at once, and the American mirror opened its welcome
doors in January 1993 with an appreciable twelve megabyte of server space
dedicated to the cause. It wasn't until a short time later that both
collaborators realised the initially invested twelve megabyte file store
limit would prove to be a very conservative offering.
Within the space of a year the Interactive Fiction Archive had not only
grown to unforeseen proportions, but its global popularity had demanded,
and gained, the need for a mirror image of the original - and that turn of
events was only the beginning... In October 1994, Finland's nic.funet.fi
also joined in the celebration of what once was by opening a second archive
mirror on its own FTP server - offering an even greater distributability of
all things adventure. It sure seemed that the initial dream of Volker
Blasius had, from its humble beginnings, taken to the world like a fish to
Since the archive's original conception, Volker has been seen as some-
thing of a saviour in the Interactive Fiction scene. Because the archive
has witnessed a dramatic increase in activity over the years - due to it
being very well received by the unconstrained masses of adventure game
aficionados the world over - Volker has had to volunteer more and more of
his time to maintaining and expanding the archive, cataloguing all incoming
files, notifying the public as to availability and generally playing care-
taker to what is widely regarded as the Hub of Interactive Fiction on the
Sadly, this need to distribute all of his time between his work, personal
life (yes, some people do have them) and the archive means he has very
little time for playing many of those titles that have appeared over the
course of the site's steadily evolving life. That shows true dedication to
the cause which is appreciated by all who have trodden within the halls of
'ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/', but it is only the story of one element which
makes up the whole of Interactive Fiction today...
It's all very well having a central repository where today's adventure game
developer may distribute the hard earned results of his labour, but without
a means to learn the tricks of the trade and exercise those creative skills
we are likely to witness very little action and a lot of homeless ideas.
That is where Usenet comes into play.
I should have no need to explain the design and globe-spanning potential
of Usenet, as everyone with Internet access will have crossed its myriad
paths at one time or another. Indeed, other than e-mail and Internet Relay
Chat, it's very likely that a significant part of your own on-line time is
spent browsing the news groups and threads that you find of particular
interest. It could never be doubted that Usenet is a very advantageous
hunting ground, offering topics of conversion for subjects as diverse and
mundane as you're ever likely to envisage, and it's hardly surprising to
discover that Interactive Fiction, too, is just as well represented as any
other area of interest.
Regardless of which style of adventure game we are drawn toward, there
will always be a time in our explorations when the path ahead is well and
truly blocked, by some seemingly impossible puzzle or quest. Indeed, the
very thread of Interactive Fiction both past and present is based around an
involvement within a story that is made ever more difficult to complete by
the, often, vast number of puzzles inherent. Of course, your simple 'put
the iron key in the rusted lock to open the door' type of problems often
speak for themselves, but when you can't get the iron key because the
starving Ogre won't make a trade unless you give him the peanut butter and
jelly sandwich that the wicked old witch of the north-northwest keeps
locked away in her candy cottage, you can appreciate where the need for
help may arise. (Even more so if you didn't find the parchment hidden
within the secret compartment in the bed of King Valoosifus IV, explaining,
in cryptic prose, how to locate said cottage in the first place.)
Luckily, for the hapless adventurer that we all sometimes tend to become,
Usenet rides to the rescue with a news group dedicated to the goal of
answering just about any game related question our prying mind could
possibly hope to conjure. 'rec.games.int-fiction' is a veritable bee's
hive of constant begging, pleading, hair-pulling, game selling and general
informing, inhabited by some of the most prominent players in post-Infocom
Without a doubt, if you're hopelessly stuck within one of the hundreds of
games both commercial and freely distributable, rec.games.int-fiction can
appear to be a God-send, offering all the help you could possibly ask for;
and, what's more, if you've got your own self-styled wisdom to impart, you
can guarantee your words will fall upon at least one receptive hear.
But what of the other side of the coin? Where should all those talented
beings who wish to pursue a more creative role in Interactive Fiction take
up residence? Simple... Let me take the time to introduce you to our
previously mentioned news group's twin brother: 'rec.arts.int-fiction' (or
'raif' as it is more commonly known)...
From its creation by Adam Engst way back in 1987 as an open forum for the
discussion of hypertext-based literary fiction, rec.arts.int-fiction has
gone a long way to fulfilling the needs of almost a decade of adventure
game development. When Engst first set the wheels of 'raif' in motion as
he worked in the computer room at Cornell University (which would have been
a sprawling mass of restless students if it was anything like the computer
room at WVU's Mountain Lair), he could never have imagined the impact it
would eventually come to have.
Initially only a sideline topic, the discussion of Interactive Fiction
and the problems encountered whilst writing such challenging media have
become the soul residential habitat of 'raif' - and the growing amount of
traffic passing through its quarters on a daily basis bares witness to the
many and varied on-going developments in the genre. When there's an idea
for a new game just waiting to take form, a complex or simple programming
design that needs a little functional help or the prospect for futhering
the already impressive possibilities and lists of specifications that have
come to surround modern Interactive Fiction, rec.arts.int-fiction is where
all the action is most likely to happen. If it is the development of
interactive text-based titles that strikes a chord within, the knowledge
base at play in 'raif' is both extensive and far reaching...
As of this writing, there are currently two primary adventure development
packages available for those creative types who wish to engage in the
magical aspects of the art. 'Inform' by Graham Nelson is an unrestricted,
freely distributable, multi-platform compiler that accepts hand-written
adventure game source code and generates Infocom standard Z-Code game-files
for later playing via one of the many versatile freeware Z-Machines. Often
touted by many as the ultimate Interactive Fiction development suit, it is
not overly difficult to appreciate its staggering potential after you
discover the impressive number and quality of games that have previously
been written under the environment. Its somewhat modular library structure
and Object Oriented approach fits perfectly within the current trend in
development system design, and with the recent release of Inform version 6
offering even greater flexibility and world building functionality, you
can't help but praise Mr Nelson for such a damn fine contribution to the
furthering of our interactive cause - even if the supplied programming
documentation does leave the reader a little confused and grasping for
purchase from a higher force every now and again.
Travelling in a vaguely opposite direction from Inform - for reasons that
I will explain shortly - we happen across the undeniably impressive form of
Michael J. Roberts' 'Text Adventure Development System' (or 'TADS', for
those wishing to save on those all-important syllables). Holding an equal
popularity against Inform within the adventure development community, TADS
may prove to be responsible for some of the most playable Interactive
Fiction titles written since those extremely memorable days when Old
Infocom roamed the non-linear circuit. Although offering a world building
system that is all-too-often claimed to be significantly more powerful than
that of Graham Nelson's already enviable masterpiece, TADS takes to the
role of adventure development in very much the same way. Comprising of
both an impressive Object Orientated compilation suit and a separate run-
time interpreter executable, TADS is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a truly
magnificent authoring system. Alas, the seemingly proprietary way in which
Roberts' decided upon going about crafting TADS (along with the current -
but very close to changing - Shareware status of the package) may initially
pull the potential developer a little off of balance... You see, unlike
Nelson's contribution, TADS employs its very own adventure game-file format
as opposed to following the highly evolved Infocom Z-Code mechanism, and
with that it denies the budding game player the option of using one of the
many advanced Z-Machine interpreters that have been so painstakingly
written over the years. It should be stressed, however, that this reliance
on a "non-Infocom standard" format in no way, shape or form, impairs the
true power and scope of Roberts' Text Adventure Development System.
At the other end of the spectrum there exist several development systems
that either lack the finesse of both Inform and TADS because of their
present early state of development, or being viewed by the vocal masses as
restricting the full potential of the author in ways deemed inappropriate.
The 'Adventure Game Toolkit' (currently available in both 'classic' and
'Master' editions), by David Malmberg and Mark Welch, has been around since
the 1980's and can be held partly responsible for many of those interactive
titles available today. But, because of the relatively low quality and
stability of the majority of those products that were released, it is often
viewed by many as being far too easy for the prospective author to create a
working game before having fully gain a suitable grasp of the Toolkit's
mechanics. Whether or not this argument is true should ultimately be
decided by anyone wishing to use AGT in developing Interactive Fiction
comparable to those titles offered by Inform or TADS. What's more, it is
also worth noting than many of those games written by via AGT were first
released in the late 80's, and that could hold to being a deciding factor
in any defence of their quality.
Thomas Nilsson and Gran Forslund's 'ALAN' (or the 'Adventure LANguage'),
on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the world of the adventure and
has seen very little third-party development in recent times. Although the
vast majority of present day authoring takes place under the watchful eyes
of Inform and TADS, ALAN offers the potential to create moderately sized
projects offering competent mechanical potential with only a minimal of
programming effort. Whether or not this approach should be seen as a
distinct advantage and prove to yield a future crop is a question best left
to time itself, but its apparent ease of use, coupled with the fact that it
is a free and unrestricted package, may prove popular amongst those budding
authors who see the likes of Inform and TADS as too overbearing a system to
code under. Similarly, Kent Tessman's 'HUGO' has also seen very little
third-party activity since it was initially release, even though it is
widely claimed to be far more accessible than several of its rivals, whilst
still maintaining a decidedly comfortable state of flexibility.
Whatever the future holds for any of the above packages, it's plain to
see the desire that programmers hold when it comes to offering the common
man a relatively simple entry into the Interactive Fiction authoring arena.
This degree of development is equally evident on the other side of the
programming fence, where we are delighted to discover that never before in
the history of Interactive Fiction as there been the enormous scale of
game-file interpreter development than has been witnessed over the course
of recent years. Not wishing to stand still in light of the current
advances in authoring system complexity, the Infocom Z-Code compatible
interpreter of yesterday is undergoing a transformation in functionality
and world building integrity at a phenomenal rate.
Not content with letting the interpreter lay dormant after the advent of
the likes of Zip, ZorkMachine, PInfocom and ITF, the developer's insatiable
lust for progress and multi-platform coverage has brought life to several
recent additions to the interpreter's family tree - the most distributed of
which must surely be Stephan Jokisch's 'Frotz'. As a Z-Code client, Frotz
has stood the conclusive test of time making itself available on every
computer ranging from the commendable old Amiga of Commodore past, through
Apple Macintosh and on to the PC before finally coming to rest at the feet
of the mighty UNIX box.
Not wishing leave all the hard work of managing the bulk of Interactive
Fiction to the likes of the formidable Frotz, the perpetual might of the
hive-like developing community have answered the call for faster and more
full-featured interpreters by presenting the would-be adventurer with an
impressive gathering of titles. MaxZip, JZip and XZip are but three Z-Code
clients that live in a constantly developing state of flux, and when you
add to those numbers the recently released Level 9 game-file interpreter,
'Level9', along with the 'AGiliTy' Adventure Game Toolkit client, you can
clearly see the scale of development that is currently taking form. Even
the infamous World Wide Web has seen its own fare share of interpreter
action with the admirable creation of Z-Plet - the Java-base Z-Machine
applet - meaning that, in more ways than one, the capable Web browser is
indeed a multi-faceted window onto the on-line world.
Having now firmly introduced ourselves to three of the most fundamental
mechanisms involved within the realm of modern Interactive Fiction (the
Interactive Fiction Archive based at ftp.gmd.de, rec.games.int-fiction and
rec.arts.int-fiction), the final stop in our exploration of the genre's far
reaching hypothetical body leads us now to the role that the electronic
magazine has taken under its wing.
As is clearly the case in every area of interest, there will always be an
alliance of minds that are only too willing to share their valuable time
and expertise with those who offer a similar topical appreciation. Both
Volker Blasius and Dave Baggett are already familiar characters to the
reader due to their unfailing dedication in keeping the spirit of today's
Interactive Fiction alive, but without an alternative method of spreading
further word of the cause other than the previously mentioned news groups,
there will always be as many people left out in the cold as there are in on
Kevin Wilson had gone some way to bridging that gap when issue #1 of
'SPAG' (otherwise known as the 'Society for the Preservation of Adventure
Games') first made a welcome appearance in May 1994, and since then he has
strived to mould the quality and scale of the freely available e-zine in an
attempt to offer an alternative source of information that is as easily
available as a regular FTP or World Wide Web session. By undertaking a
periodical approach to Interactive Fiction, SPAG allows the frequent reader
with little real 'net access to keep ahead of the latest news, reviews,
gossip and offerings that many of us take for granted.
Similarly, Eileen Mullin's 'XYZZYnews' - which first saw the light of day
in January 1995 - has contributed immensely to the awareness and furthering
of Interactive Fiction since the very first issue. Generally taking a more
positive stance toward the genre than Wilson's SPAG (which often tends to
deal more with reviewing past and present developments as opposed to
discussing the application of the art), XYZZYnews is constantly in the face
of topical discussions like interactive design and future presentation, as
well as regularly pointing the proverbial spotlight at those individuals
within the genre who have had the greatest influence on the current state
of development. And it is that which makes it a truly indispensable read.
As a final word on the subject of e-zines, it's worth keeping well in
mind that both SPAG and XYZZYnews are freely available from the Interactive
Fiction Archive at ftp.gmd.de, as well as the religiously compiled digests
of postings from Usenet's rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction
(along with the impressive number of freely distributable titles that are
presently available for the taking - but that's only to be expected).
Reading this far you may be curious to know as to exactly where our beloved
Amiga stands in all of this. After all, you're reading this article in
Amiga Report, so you would expect our challenged platform to have some say
in the matter at hand.
Well, if the truth be known where Interactive Fiction is an issue, the
Amiga is sitting right there at the top of the text adventure heap - along
with just about every other computer system available today. There is
surprisingly little difference between the state of the text adventure on
the Amiga, PC, Apple Macintosh, Acorn Archimedes, PSION Personal Organizer
(that's correct), or the several free and proprietary variations of UNIX
that are doing the rounds. In actual fact, the vast majority of those
freely distributable Interactive Fiction products that are now available
tend to be completely interchangeable between different and incompatible
Operating Systems. And why would that be? For once, a simple and common
answer: some painstakingly documented standards and a imposing library of
highly portable source code.
As we have already discovered, companies like Infocom wrote the bulk of
their titles in such a way so as to be easily portable between any
individual Operating System; it would not have been in their best interest
to develop each game separately for every available computer whenever the
need arose. By offering a system dependant interpreter program (Infocom's
'Z-Machine' is one example, as you may recall) the only other element
required to play the adventure games would be the individual game-files
themselves. These game-files constitute nothing more than an encoded ASCII
text file, which contains all of the important information needed by an
interpreter in order to easily reconstruct each individual game world.
And, as we should already be aware, ASCII text files can be passed easily
from computer to computer, requiring practically zero technological know-
With the above information firmly in our grasp, it takes very little
effort to imagine the awesome scale of adventure now open to us. If the
individual game-files can be had so easily, the only other element required
before we may play them is the actual interpreter program itself - and that
is where the art of portable programming comes into effect...
Because standardized programming languages such as C, C++ and Pascal are
common amongst many modern computer systems, writing software on one
machine with the general intention of applying it under any other brand of
Operating System becomes an everyday reality. As long as the author takes
special care so as not to encode any system specific elements within his
program, porting it to a non-native platform constitutes little more than
simply copying the source code onto the desired target computer and then
recompiling it from there. It is with this method of multi-platform
development in mind that allows today's Interactive Fiction such a wide-
Impressive Z-Code interpreters such as Stefan Jokisch's Frotz, the
proprietary TADS run-time executable; Robert Masenten's Adventure Game
Toolkit interpreter, AGiliTy; Alan Cox's 'ScottFree' Scott Adams game-file
interpreter and the Level 9 format interpreter, 'Level9' (which was written
by Glen Summers and ported to the Amiga by David Kinder) have all made an
appearance on practically every viable platform imaginable - along with the
formidable porting of Graham Nelson's Inform by Stephan van Egmond, and
Michael J. Roberts' TADS. (And all of that is without even bothering to
make mention of the relatively new ALAN and HUGO systems).
As can be clearly seen, if you've got an Amiga with the minimal resources
necessary to take advantage of the basic requirements that adventure games
demand, you can guarantee the possibility of being capable of experiencing
and enjoying any of the vast number and genre of titles that are currently
in circulation. Couple that with opportunities now open to you for
actually authoring your own imaginative works of art, and you will discover
that the myriad worlds made available to you are uncountable in number and
fantastic in design. Sound like Heaven? It is.
Incidently, before I continue, I would like to take this opportunity to
offer my very special thanks to an individual who, in recent years, has
contributed more to the state of Interactive Fiction on the Amiga than any
other. Dave Kinder's Amiga ports of Michael J. Roberts' TADS and both the
ITF and Frotz Z-Code interpreters, coupled with Glen Summer's Level 9 game
interpreter, has truly opened the way for more people to experience and
develop adventure games on our ailing but ever-so-capable choice of
computer. I doubt very much that I would ever have undertaken my own
little renaissance tour of Interactive Fiction had I failed to notice and
download an early copy of David's ITF port from Aminet. Thanks David, your
effort and support is greatly appreciated by myself and, no doubt, many
many others whose lives you have helped enrich - including Amiga Report's
very own Jason Compton, who is himself an aficionado of the art.
At the outset of this article I was predominantly more inclined to detail,
albeit briefly, the historically significant aspects of Interactive Fiction
in an effort to illuminate some of its already established accomplishments.
I also attempted, in a fashion, to draw the attention toward but a few of
the more diverse Infocom offerings of previous years, hoping - as you very
often tend to do - that added enlightenment may help give birth to an even
greater curiosity in the reader. After all, whilst I'm sitting here at the
keyboard of my A1200 typing this article, it would be nice to know that
someone, somewhere is actually taking heed of my predictable choice of
words, and possibly even contemplating delving into the veritable treasure
chest of exotic delights that sit quietly in wait at ftp.gmd.de (or one of
its more geographically advantageous mirrors).
You see, because Interactive Fiction relies primarily on the ability of
the author to competently project the game world he has created, coupled
with the imagination of the player who will eventually interpret and inter-
act with those events bestowed upon him, the realms of possibility now open
to every individual for exploration are infinite. Whether you ultimately
decide upon a leisurely stroll through the numerous fantasy lands of David
Baggett (the respected co-caretaker of the Interactive Fiction Archive) and
L. A. Leary's somewhat Zork-esque 'Unnkulian' [TADS] genre of titles, or
opt for the more relatively sombre distractions offered by Leon Lin's 'The
One That Got Away' [TADS] and Andrew Plotkin's impressive 'A Change In The
Weather' [Inform], you can pretty much guarantee that your curiosity will
be pleasantly rewarded.
Indeed, the morbid mass appeal of wandering around the shadow infested
hallways and haunted back rooms of Brendon Wyber's 'Theatre' [Inform] in an
attempt to uncover the abominable secret that lies therein, may initially
seem more like a fitting scenario for the pages of a best seller by Clive
Barker or James Herbert, but the overall atmosphere of Wyber's well-crafted
gothic tale should not be scoffed at. Equally, the story and turn of
events surrounding D. A. Leary's 'The Horror of Rylvania' [TADS] would
not have appeared out of place in a Saturday night Hammer double feature.
When presented with a library of highly acclaimed themes such as Thomas
Shelby's conspiratorial exploits through author C. A. McCarthy's
impressive multi-dimensional catastrophe, 'The Light: Shelby's Addendum'
[TADS], and Graham Nelson's stunning turn-of-the-millennium epic 'Jigsaw'
[Inform], it is plain to see that Interactive Fiction can offer an escape
from reality that very few of today's commercial products could ever hope
to match. The final immersion of the player into the world put before him
need only take the reading of a short paragraph of text and a few seconds
visualization before the spell is complete.
Alas, we are coming to the close of this introductory article, and I hope
that it has proven to be as interesting to read as it was for me to write.
The whole exercise of putting finger to keyboard was to help bring a
greater understanding toward the world of Interactive Fiction with,
perhaps, the intention of tempting those readers - who have not previously
experienced the cream of the imaginative crop - into investigating the
genre a little further.
As you have no doubt inferred by now, there is a lot more to both the
history and current scene of Interactive Fiction than I could have possibly
detailed in such a brief introduction. If I was to hold the bag open and
let the cats escape of their own free will, this article would be closer to
five times its present length, and Amiga Report would surely attain the
(temporary) title of 'Interactive Fiction Monthly'. You now already know
that the Interactive Fiction Archive located at 'ftp.gmd.de/int-fiction/'
contains a veritable library of multi-platform games, interpreters and
development systems just waiting to be downloaded. They can all be had for
very little personal cost, and the entertainment value to you could be
enormous. Why not drop by sometime? You may even surprise yourself.