CityLIS Writes: > Enter: the history, development and future of Interactive Fiction

***This essay was written by CityLIS student Adelaide Robinson in December 2016. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.

You can follow Ada on Twitter @adafrobinson***

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.

>>> east

YOU ARE INSIDE A BUILDING, A WELL HOUSE FOR A LARGE SPRING.

THERE ARE SOME KEYS ON THE GROUND HERE.

THERE IS A SHINY BRASS LAMP NEARBY.

THERE IS FOOD HERE.

THERE IS A BOTTLE OF WATER HERE.

>>> get(lamp)

OK

>>> leave

YOU’RE AT END OF ROAD AGAIN.[1]

The Beginning: Introduction to Interactive Fiction and its Origins

The above passage of text are the opening lines from Colossal Cave Adventure, a computer text adventure game developed in 1976. Text adventure games, which make up the genre of interactive fiction, can be loosely defined as stories which simulate a world in which readers, or “players”, can make choices through typed commands that affect the flow of the narrative. While this genre has spanned many mediums from print books (‘gamebooks’) to modern smartphone games, the term ‘interactive fiction’ is mostly used to refer to traditional computer text games such as Adventure. In a traditional text adventure game, the reader’s choices take them through the story until they reach an end scenario. The program will recognise certain typed commands, such as ‘enter’, ‘exit’, ‘go north/south/east/west’ or ‘get (object)’, and many now have complex vocabularies that will respond to a large variety of commands. In order to function cohesively, the game’s text must have clues that point to certain commands, such as the mentions of the keys and the lamp in the example above.

The history of interactive fiction, (henceforth referred to as IF), has roots in traditional fiction, poetry, riddles, and gamebooks, but true IF is a mix of computer programming and storytelling that brought fiction into the digital age. The first computer text adventure game, as mentioned above, was written by Will Crowther in 1975. Like Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, or AA Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, it was a story originally developed for the writer’s two children. It was written on the most sophisticated programming language at the time, FORTRAN, while Crowther was working at Bolt, Baranek and Newman (BNN).[2] It was then developed and modified by Don Woods in 1976. Adventure, later named The Colossal Cave Adventure, and often referred to as ADVENT, was a text-based adventure game that took the player on a quest through a series of different environments, (focusing on caves due to Crowther’s real-life hobby as a cave explorer). The opening scene of the modified game reads as follows:

host% /usr/games/Adventure
Welcome to Adventure!! Would you like instructions?
yes

Somewhere nearby is Colossal Cave, where others have found fortunes in treasure and gold, though it is rumored that some who enter are never seen again. Magic is said to work in the cave. I will be your eyes and hands. Direct me with commands of 1 or 2 words. I should warn you that I look at only the first five letters of each word, so you’ll have to enter “northeast” as “ne” to distinguish it from “north”. (Should you get stuck, type “help” for some general hints. For information on how to end your adventure, etc., type “info”.)

This program was originally developed by Will Crowther. Most of the features of the current program were added by Don Woods. Address complaints about the UNIX version to Jim Gillogly (jim@rand.org).[3]

The game slowly became a hit with university students and those who had sophisticated computer access, and the premier Adventure fan site proclaims that “the game spread like wildfire across the Internet, inspiring such obsessive efforts to solve the game that it is rumored numerous college seniors did not graduate that year as a result.”[4] While this is likely an exaggeration, it is true that Adventure sparked a new genre of storytelling for the computer age by inspiring people to not only play the game for themselves, but to create their own.

The Golden Age: Companies and Amateurs

On June 22, 1979, students and staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded the software company Infocom.[5] It would go on to become the industry leader of text adventure games after their first game, Zork I, was released for the TRS-80 Model I computer.[6] Although relatively short-lived as a software company, Infocom is described by Montfort as the ‘Shakespeare’ of IF, declaring that “Shakespeare wrote, remarkably, not just the greatest English-language play, by critical consensus, but almost all of the greatest English-language plays. Similarly, the interactive fiction creators at Infocom devised practically all of the best-loved IF works in the history of the form.”[7] Zork’s creators (Marc Blank and Dave Lebling) were heavily influenced by Adventure, in the sense that they had grown dissatisfied with the beloved and addictive text adventure game. Among many other issues, Adventure’s two-word input system was clumsy and had become outdated; players needed to be able to ‘input complex directives and extend the set of keywords’ to bring text adventures into a more sophisticated and marketable era. [8] This required Zork’s developers to create a much more sophisticated English parser. The example below demonstrates how Zork’s parser understood more complex commands, making for a better and more dynamic gameplay.

The Troll Room
You are in a small room with passages off in all directions. Bloodstains and deep scratches (perhaps made by an axe) mar the walls. A nasty-looking troll, brandishing a bloody axe, blocks all passages out of the room. Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.
> KILL TROLL WITH SWORD
A mighty blow, but it misses the troll by a mile. The axe gets you right in the side. Ouch!
> SWING BOTTLE AT TROLL
Trying to attack a troll with a glass bottle is suicidal. The axe crashes against the rock, throwing sparks![9]

Zork also came with new commands that made gameplay more immersive and better structured than before. For example, the command ‘diagnose’ would tell the player what kind of injuries they had sustained from the game, and how many ‘moves’ it would take for that injury to heal. Infocom continued to develop Zork onto different platforms, such as Apple, and through different versions, like the fully-Infocom developed game Zork II. From 1982 onwards Infocom moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and came out with games such as “Suspended,” Planetfall,” “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Infidel” and “Spellbreaker.”[10] Although some of these games proved immensely popular – especially Hitchhiker’s, which was produced in partnership with Douglas Adams and sold over 350,000 copies in 1984 – the evolution of video games with new ‘point and click’ software and modern graphics seemed to be killing the medium of IF at a worryingly rapid pace.[11] Infocom ceased operating in 1989, only ten years after its foundation.

However, text adventures had first and foremost been created by enthusiastic amateurs, and it was these people that kept the genre of interactive fiction alive. The IF community lived on through the sharing power of the Internet, and through ‘do it yourself’ software such as TADS. TADS, (‘The Adventure Development System’), was released as shareware in 1987, distributed through forums, and allowed a writer to create a text adventure game with a minimal knowledge of programming.[12] Some of the most beloved IF games to this day are those that have been created by independent writers. One such writer is Emily Short, described on the Interactive Fiction Wiki as “one of the most renowned authors in the IF community.”[13] Emily Short is best known for her first released work, Galatea (2000), which garnered several awards and nominations including Best of Show, Portrait at the 2000 IF Art Show, Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best NPCs; Winner, Best Individual NPC at the 2000 XYZZY Awards, and an Honorable Mention in Adventure Gamers ‘The Top Five IF Games’ in 2002.[14] Galatea is a literary, introspective game where the reader takes on the role of a guest at an art exhibition, and tries to convince a beautiful, living statue to descend from her plinth. Independent writers are honoured at competitions such as the ones mentioned above, and at the annual Interactive Fiction Competition (ifcomp.org), proving that the genre is still very much alive through the efforts of writers and hobbyists. Today, websites such as ‘playfic.com’ and ‘twinery.org’ allow people with all levels of programming knowledge to create their own text adventure games, and writers on these websites have produced cult classics such as the ten-second text adventure game, Queers in Love at the End of the World by Anna Anthropy, and Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler. Games such as these demonstrate how websites such as Twine have fostered “the development of game mechanics that capture personal and emotional experiences.”[15] Games such as Depression Quest and Galatea are a world away from the cave-hunting, magic-ridden worlds of Adventure and Zork; they are complex and highly literary explorations of mental health, current events, and human emotion, which are often ‘unwinnable’, such as the states of being they describe can be unwinnable. In the modern era, text adventure games are much more personal and literary-minded narratives than they ever were in the time of Infocom, leaving the traditional magic-and-fantasy adventures to the realm of modern video games.

Interactive Fiction Today: Impact and Nostalgia

Interactive fiction in its heyday influenced the creation of the popular genre of gamebooks, such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series. “Too late to influence the early stages of interactive fiction, and in fact likely to have been at least vaguely inspired by actual computer programs, including very early interactive fiction,” the CYOA series began with Edward Packard’s The Cave of Time and became phenomenally popular with younger readers and adolescents.[16] These books are typically written in second person and keep a gender-neutral tone so that the reader can insert themselves fully into the narrative.

“Stop!” someone shouts. “Stop!”
You spin around and aim the energy minimizer at them, but to your horror it slips from your grasp and clatters down the spiral staircase, thudding to a stop on the stone floor of the chamber.
“Give up!” they yell.
You look up toward the top of the stairs, feeling for the other two devices in your pocket.
“Rely on instinct,” you tell yourself. “That’s what Doctor Wogan would do in a case like this.”

If you run for it, turn to page 29.
If you use one of the other devices, turn to page 57.[17]

Choose Your Own Adventure books elicit a great deal of nostalgia today, and this nostalgia is a fundamental element in the recent popularity of smartphone text adventure games – the latest evolution of Interactive Fiction. Apple’s App Store now hosts U-Ventures; updated Choose Your Own Adventure stories updated for the medium of smartphones, and new developers such as ‘Tin Man Games’ and apps like ‘iStory’ are pushing IF into the smartphone era.[18] The latest craze in smartphone IF are ‘dating simulator’ games, which are especially popular in Japan, (although games from Japanese companies are starting to become popular in Western markets). One example is the supernatural romance Kisses and Curses from Voltage Entertainment USA Inc, (a subsiduary of the Japanese company Voltage Inc.) was released in 2016 to a generally positive reception from iOS users.[19]

Interactive fiction has had an important impact on modern readers, especially adolescents, and this is significant in the context of classrooms and libraries. In an article on the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks phenomenon and the development of interactive entertainment, David Lebling stated that “Computers push graphics, books push reading, but there was a brief shining moment when computers pushed reading.”[20] Interactive fiction has been used to foster reading appreciation in young people in classrooms with good results. In David F. Lancy and Bernard L. Hayes’ paper, Interactive Fiction and the Reluctant Reader, they state that ‘we believe that interactive fiction could offer students who are reluctant readers a new motivation and interest to use their reading ability for personal satisfaction.”[21] Likewise, during a study of a group of children who were introduced to IF through a summer computing workshop, Lancy and Hayes concluded that “it became clear that all students were deeply engrossed in their programs, so much so that students who had expressed little or average interest in reading spent as much as three hours a day for four weeks involved in reading activities”.[22] In a similar study by Kevin Kee, Tamara Vaughan, and Shawn Graham, IF was employed in a classroom to see if it could improve the literacy skills of 9-10 year olds. The researchers concluded that “the creation and playing of the game had enormous positive benefits for increased literacy skill amongst the class,” although they acknowledged that IF was not the sole element: the role of the teacher in supporting the class through the game was vital.[23]

It would be hyperbolic to state that IF is still a hugely popular storytelling medium, or that it fostered an entirely new generation of readers and writers. However, its influence on later mediums should not be underestimated. Arguably the most popular new medium for storytelling right now is the world of virtual reality. Once a staple of science fiction, virtual reality is now easily accessible through VR headsets that can be linked to smartphones. This type of storytelling was first available through interactive fiction. By giving the reader a choice, however limited, in directing the flow of a narrative, IF planted the seeds of immersive fiction, and by extension, virtual reality and its associated mediums. This is not to say that virtual reality is simply ‘interactive fiction with graphics’, as the actual reading of interactive fiction is the most important part of it. Text adventure games, by their very nature, must be literary, and their literary qualities have had the biggest impact on those that read them. As one author stated in a 1985 edition of Time, “by playing a literary game, people find out about literature along the way. When they’re all done with the game, I hope their next stop will be the library.”[24]

Bibliography

Adams, Rick. “A History of ‘Adventure.’” The Colossal Cave Adventure Page. Accessed December 29, 2016. http://rickadams.org/adventure/a_history.html.

Appleby, Bruce C., and Barbara Harris. “Mask of the Sun.” The English Journal 76, no. 4 (April 1987): 91. doi:10.2307/818480.

Briceno, Hector, Wesley Chao, Andrew Glenn, Stanley Hu, Ashwin Krishnamurthy, and Bruce Tsuchida. “Down From the Top of Its Game,” 2000.

Graphic Novel Romance Apps. “FAQ | Kisses & Curses,” 2016. http://kissesandcurses.voltage-ent.com/index.php/faq/.

Hendrix, Grady. “Choose Your Own Adventure Books: How The Cave of Time Taught Us to Love Interactive Entertainment.” Slate, February 2011. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/02/choose_your_own_adventure.single.html#pagebreak_anchor_2.

Hudson, Laura. “Twine, the Video-Game Technology for All.” The New York Times Magazine, November 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/magazine/twine-the-video-game-technology-for-all.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1.

IF Wiki. “Emily Short.” The Interactive Fiction Wiki. Accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.ifwiki.org/index.php/Emily_Short.

Inc, Douglas Adams. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Infocom Adventure.” Douglas Adams (Website). Accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.douglasadams.com/creations/infocomjava.html.

Infocom. “History of Infocom.” Accessed December 29, 2016. https://www.infocom-if.org/company/company.html.

Jerz, Dennis G., “Somewhere Nearby Is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original Adventure in Code and in Kentucky.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 1, no. 2 (2007).

Kee, Kevin, Tamara Vaughan, and Shawn Graham. “‘Sometimes, Graphics Get in the Way’; A Case Study of Interactive Fiction in an Elementary Classroom,” n.d.

Lancy, David F., and Bernard L. Hayes. “Interactive Fiction and the Reluctant Reader.” The English Journal 77, no. 7 (November 1988): 42. doi:10.2307/818936.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.

Montgomery, R.A. The Brilliant Dr Wogan. Warren, Vermont: Chooseco LLC, 1987.

Short, Emily. “Galatea (Details).” Interactive Fiction Database, 2000. http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=urxrv27t7qtu52lb.

Stuart, Keith. “Interactive Fiction in the Ebook Era | Technology | The Guardian.” The Guardian, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2011/jan/11/interactive-fiction-ebooks-apple-kindle.

Appendix

The text adventure games described in this article are presented here below, in chronological order, with links to playable versions included where possible.

Adventure, or Colossal Cave Adventure, originally created by Will Crowther and modified by Don Woods (1976).
“Before there was Doom, Ultima, Rogue, or even Zork, there was… Adventure.”
History and downloadable versions available on Rick Adam’s ‘Colossal Cave Adventure Page’:
http://rickadams.org/adventure/

Zork (and sequels), developed by InfoCom (1980).
“The game that started it all. Discover the “Great Underground Empire” and find out how gruesome a “Grue” is!”
https://www.infocom-if.org/downloads/downloads.html

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, developed by InfoCom (1984).
“> inventory
You have:
– a splitting headache
– no tea”
http://www.douglasadams.com/creations/infocomjava.html
BBC 30th Anniversary Edition: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1g84m0sXpnNCv84GpN2PLZG/the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-game-30th-anniversary-edition

Galatea, by Emily Short (2000).
A conversation with a work of art. “47. Galatea. White Thasos marble. Non-commissioned work by the late Pygmalion of Cyprus. (The artist has since committed suicide.) Originally not an animate. The waking of this piece from its natural state remains unexplained.”
http://pr-if.org/play/galatea/

Queers in Love at the End of the World, by Anna Anthropy (2013).
“Why the hell not? You have all the time in the world.”
auntiepixelante.com/endoftheworld/

Depression Quest, by Zoe Quinn (2013).
“Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment. This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.”
http://www.depressionquest.com/

Kisses and Curses, part of the Graphic Novel Romance App series, developed by Voltage Inc (2016).
“Start your journey as a young Witch in the peaceful but uneventful town of Werbury. As the Stargazer, it is your role to absorb infrequent bursts of Wild Magic known as Starfall.”
http://kissesandcurses.voltage-ent.com/index.php/faq/

 

[1] Dennis G. Jerz, “Somewhere Nearby Is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original Adventure in Code and in Kentucky,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 1, no. 2 (2007). para 55.

[2] Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003) 86-87.

[3] Jerz and Jerz, “Somewhere Nearby Is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original Adventure in Code and in Kentucky.” Para 55.

[4] Rick Adams, “A History of ‘Adventure,’” The Colossal Cave Adventure Page, accessed December 29, 2016, http://rickadams.org/adventure/a_history.html.

[5] Infocom, “History of Infocom,” accessed December 29, 2016, https://www.infocom-if.org/company/company.html.

[6] Hector Briceno et al., “Down From the Top of Its Game,” 2000. (Timeline).

[7] Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, 119.

[8] Hector Briceno et al., “Down From the Top of Its Game,” 2000, 6.

[9] Hector Briceno et al., “Down From the Top of Its Game,” 2000, 7.

[10] Infocom, “History of Infocom.”

[11] Douglas Adams Inc, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Infocom Adventure,” Douglas Adams (Website), accessed December 29, 2016, http://www.douglasadams.com/creations/infocomjava.html.

[12] Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. 197.

[13] IF Wiki, “Emily Short,” The Interactive Fiction Wiki, accessed December 29, 2016, http://www.ifwiki.org/index.php/Emily_Short.

[14] Emily Short, “Galatea (Details),” Interactive Fiction Database, 2000, http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=urxrv27t7qtu52lb.

[15] Laura Hudson, “Twine, the Video-Game Technology for All,” The New York Times Magazine, November 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/magazine/twine-the-video-game-technology-for-all.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1.

[16]Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. 71.

[17] R.A. Montgomery, The Brilliant Dr Wogan (Warren, Vermont: Chooseco LLC, 1987). 42.

[18] Keith Stuart, “Interactive Fiction in the Ebook Era | Technology | The Guardian,” The Guardian, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2011/jan/11/interactive-fiction-ebooks-apple-kindle.

[19] Graphic Novel Romance Apps, “FAQ | Kisses & Curses,” 2016, http://kissesandcurses.voltage-ent.com/index.php/faq/.

[20] Grady Hendrix, “Choose Your Own Adventure Books: How The Cave of Time Taught Us to Love Interactive Entertainment.,” Slate, February 2011, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/02/choose_your_own_adventure.single.html#pagebreak_anchor_2.

[21] David F. Lancy and Bernard L. Hayes, “Interactive Fiction and the Reluctant Reader,” The English Journal 77, no. 7 (November 1988): 42, doi:10.2307/818936.

[22] Ibid. 44.

[23] Kevin Kee, Tamara Vaughan, and Shawn Graham, “‘Sometimes, Graphics Get in the Way’; A Case Study of Interactive Fiction in an Elementary Classroom,” n.d.

[24] Bruce C. Appleby and Barbara Harris, “Mask of the Sun,” The English Journal 76, no. 4 (April 1987): 91, doi:10.2307/818480.

About lyn

Dr Lyn Robinson is Head of Library & Information Science at City, University of London. She established and directs the London Library School known as CityLIS. Contact: lyn@city.ac.uk
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