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Interactive Fiction – An introduction (updated)

August 5th, 2010 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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And now for something completely different. As followers of my Twitter stream will know, in the last few weeks I’ve been getting into Interactive Fiction (or IF). It allows me to combine two of my great passions – writing and gaming (and reading, I guess – three)! Honestly, I don’t know how I managed to miss it for so long! So, I’m writing a series of blog posts to share what I’ve discovered. First off is a bit of background, and a guide to what you need to get playing.

This blog post also coincides, kinda sorta, with the release of GET LAMP, a brand new documentary about text adventures. The release date was 2nd August. You can order GET LAMP here.

What’s this interactive fiction lark anyway?


Direction in IF is often referenced with compass points. Image courtesy of ocean.flynn

Interactive Fiction is played on a computer. Instead of simply reading the text, “players” are given brief descriptions of their surroundings and what items are available to them. They then control the action by deciding where to go, what to look at, what to pick up, and what to do with those items. This is done by typing in commands, such as “examine door”, “move rug”, “get lamp”. There is normally some puzzle solving involved, and IF has gained something of a reputation for being difficult (although, I should stress that given the variety of games/stories now available, this needn’t be the case at all – there are plenty of stories that don’t require puzzle solving at all if you want them).

The result is a form that will suck you right in one minute, and chuck you right back out again the next. The immersion comes from the written word. By utilising the reader’s imagination in the same way that a regular piece of fiction would, it is very easy for a player to become involved. Because of its roots as a gaming form, much comparison is made between the blockbuster gaming titles of today and interactive fiction. Today though, the difference between the forms is so great that there is little to be gained from such comparisons. Try comparing darts with football for similar results.

The other side of this coin is that IF will frequently shatter your suspension of disbelief at a few key strokes. Although the blinking cursor gives you the impression that you can type anything, the reality is that these games can only take a limited number of commands. Type anything else and you’ll be presented with, “I don’t understand that” or similar. Jarring. This false promise is something IF has not yet been able to solve, but it’s not a huge problem. Think of it as the price to entry. Besides, typing something obscure can occasionally surprise you with an amusing line or a useful piece of interaction.

A bit of history

Zork image

A screen grab of Zork I running on Zoom

Interactive fiction started out in the gaming arena. The first “text adventure game” was Colossal Cave Adventure, or simply Adventure in 1976. It’s a simple treasure hunt in a network of caves, and formed the basis from which others would create their text adventures. Infocom are the company most well known for producing these games, most famous among them being the Zork trilogy. Other notable examples include Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Hobbit, both based on novels, of course.

Sadly, as graphical technology began producing more whizz-bang results, the popularity of the form waned and soon became unviable for business. After all, it’s far easier to sell the latest graphics on your television ad or the back of the box than it is to sell text. That hasn’t stopped people producing their own interactive fiction for free though, and there is now an ever-increasing number of IF authors and readers finding a home on the internet. The Interactive Fiction Database has over 3600 games available to download, including all the classics mentioned above.

With such a community, it is not surprising that the variety of the work has also increased. it’s not just about hunting in caves for treasure any more. Take a look at the short list of stories below for a clue as to what’s out there. Many of these stories are prize winners. In the interests of full disclosure, many of them are mentioned in this excellent video introduction to interactive fiction, which I suggest you check out (only ten minutes of your time).

  • Bad Machine. You are a robot. You are broken.
  • Glass. By Emily Short (a great contributor to IF). Takes place around a single, and familiar conversation, from a unique perspective.
  • Lost Pig. You are an ork, chasing a pig on your farm. Hilarity ensues!
  • Violet. You’re tasked with avoiding distraction and doing your dissertation.

So, how can I play these games?

I’m glad you asked! Games can either be played on applications that you download and install on your computer, or they can be played in a web browser. Look for the “play online” button on game pages at the IFDB.
As far as applications go, try the following:

  • Zoom, for Macs
  • Gargoyle, or Frotz for Windows computers
  • Zoom is also available for Linux
  • Frotz for iPhone! Also available on the app store for free.

And as a special treat for Linux and Mac users, did you know that you might have a text adventure on your computer already? Open the command prompt (Terminal program on Macs) and type the following:

emacs -batch -l dunnet

This gives you a text adventure game called dunnet, written in Emacs. Cool, huh?

So that should be enough for you to get going if you’ve not come across the modern IF scene before. I know that there is quite a hardcore following out there, so if there is anything I should have included, or any false information, please let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Next week, I’ll be showing you tools you can use to write your own interactive fiction (this is a writing site after all)!


I have just finished playing Lost Pig on my iPod Touch. It’s a great story and kept me thoroughly entertained (although I missed out on one lousy point! Grr!) But the point is that I played it using Frotz for iphone (mentioned above). It’s true that paying IF on your iPhone or iPod Touch is a little fiddly. I often typed things wrongly. But there are features that mitigate this problem somewhat – you can double tap on a word in the text to put it on the command line, and you can double tap on the command line to bring up your command history. There is also autocomplete on commands, though not on object names (presumably because it could unintentionally provide clues).

Overall, a great app that I heartily recommend!

Further Reading

Books on Interactive Fiction*

There’s not a lot of literature on IF, but there are a couple of seminal works. If you like the sound of this medium, you should really read these

  • Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction
  • Creative Interactive Fiction With Inform 7
  • Get Lamp is a documentary by Jason Scott chronicling the history of the text adventure
  • Or you could always search on Amazon

*Note that all Amazon links go through my associates account, to help out Getmewriting.com. If that bothers you, don’t click!

Further reading on Getmewriting.com

There’s a bunch of coverage on here. Here are the highlights: