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Interactive fiction games: More than retro fun

(Read on for the article, or you can jump to a Quick and Dirty Start for the Impatient.)

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.

Those words begin one of the best known text adventure games of all time: Zork. For those who haven’t heard of it, I'm talking about the wildly popular game that saw popular release around 1982, far before the proliferation of home PCs. To put this era in perspective, I'm talking about when Michael Jackson sold 20 million copies of “Thriller”, “Late Night with David Letterman” first aired, and filming began on “Return of the Jedi”.

Text adventures, also called “interactive fiction” or “IF”, are video games you play (get ready for this) without any graphics or sound. In its simplest form, you play the protagonist in a game, and the story is presented as an interactive narrative. For example, if you walk into a dark place, you read “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” Though we’re concerned with this “grue” creature, there’s no problem, earlier in the game we picked up a lantern. Just type: “turn on lantern”, and we can see and continue the game.

Most IF games consist of nothing more than reading and typing. But the games are much more fun than that boring sentence implies. This is evidenced by the widespread legal and free IF communities available on the Internet. Spend about 20 minutes online, and you can download and play thousands of IF games, including the original Zork series I mentioned above. (The previously commercial games have been re-released as free software.)

Granted, to play and appreciate these games you’ve got to be more than just an arcade-shoot-em-up player. You need patience, as many IF games incorporate puzzles and narratives as complex as a Grisham novel. You need imagination, both to appreciate the game on an artistic level as well as being able to think creatively to get through the plot.

A great bonus is that the games are designed to run on multiple platforms. PC, Mac, Palm, iPAC, Game Boy and even some cellphones have interpreters available, so the entire library of games is yours to play anywhere. (With the small screen of my Palm being too small for quality arcade games or videos, I find it’s perfect for IF.)

Finally, one of my favorite parts about this: Do It Yourself. There are powerful tools available (again, free and legal), that allow you to create your own games and share them with others. If you’re really ambitious, try entering your game in one of the many annual IF competitions.

There are a lot of quality games available for free on the Internet. A surprising number have been around far longer than we thought, and are still going strong today!

There are many resources available for those interested in IF games, and I've included some of the more popular ones below.

A Quick and Dirty Start for the Impatient

1) Download an "interpreter". This is the software that runs the game you want to play. Think of it like your console video games: The interpreter is the Playstation, and the IF games are the individual Playstation games. To keep this quick start easy, I'm recommending a "Z-code" interpreter. A Z-code interpreter can play Z-code games. Download pages are here for PC, here for Mac, here for Palm, or see this page for other formats.

(If you don't want to download anything, and want an even faster introduction to what IF is all about, there are online interactive games. Play online versions of Zork 1: The Great Underground Empire, Zork 2: The Wizard of Frobozz , Zork 3: The Dungeon Master, Zork: The Undiscovered Underground, or visit ForkExec.com for more telnet-based games, or web-adventures.org for HTML text adventures.)

2) Download the games you want to play. Top rated Z-code games are here and here. Other massive collections of Z-code games are here and here.

3) Run the interpreter. You'll be prompted or have the ability to load a new game. Load a game you downloaded in step 2. (If you've never played an IF game before, make sure you know the standard commands.)

4) Enjoy.

The IF Archive is the one ultimate master site for all your IF needs. It contains old and new games as well as interpreters for playing them. However, the interface is sometimes confusing for first-timers. You can go here to find beginner's instructions for navigating the archive, courtesy of BrassLantern.org.

You can also read XYZZY News, an events newsletter about IF.

So you're disappointed with a game? You think you can do better? Prove it - create your own!

The Inform Designer's Manual is the ultimate source for learning about the IF creation tool called Inform. It's available free as PDF or for purchase.

The Inform Beginners Guide is a companion to the Inform Designer's Manual. It's a faster (and in my opinion easier) introduction to the Inform environment, giving specific links and setup instructions for downloading the game creation tools. If you're interested about IF game creation, read this first, then use the Inform Designer's Manual for in-depth work. The book is available free as PDF or for purchase.

When you've created the best Interactive Fiction game ever seen, see what others think. Enter it for competition.

If you'd like some history and analysis on IF, as well as insight from legends of IF's golden age, try this book: "Twisty Little Passages". Also read "Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction".

Readers Respond

David asks:

I am trying to get some IF games working on my Palm m105 and I ran into some problems. First, I am using Frobnitz and I can't get the converter to work. Also, I can't figure out how to actually enter the text.

Andy replies:

Okay, two issues:

First, let's get Frobnitz converting properly. This is a Z-code converter for the Palm OS. As input, it takes a Z-code text adventure file, and outputs a Palm-compatible PDB file.

To use the converter, download and expand the Frobnitz files from the link above. The converter is z2pdb.exe. Get a Z-code game you want to play. Drag and drop the Z-code game onto the z2pdb.exe file. You'll see a window asking you to "Please name this story". (Whatever you type doesn't matter here, as the story name will actually be set by the file you just dragged-and-dropped.) Just type anything and hit Enter. In the same directory as z2pdb.exe, you'll see a new PDB file, with the same name as the original Z-code file. Import this PDB to the Palm. This is the game file that will be used by Frobnitz.

Next, Frobnitz data entry: It's done in two ways. One is the row of buttons on the bottom of the Frobnitz screen, reading as "... N S W E", etc. These represent directions North, South, West, East, etc. Click them to have your character walk in a particular direction. Or click the '...' button to enter extended commands.

You have a Palm m105, though, so keyboard data entry isn't possible. Use the Palm stylus to enter "Graffiti" characters, and spell out your commands next to the '>' prompt, like "open door" or "hit man with sword". At the end of the line, you may have to hit "Enter". To do this in Graffiti, use the "Return" character: Draw from the upper right of the letter box to the lower left. See this article for more detail on Graffiti characters.