In the pantheon of game developers specialising in text adventures back in the golden age of the genre, Infocom’s name looms large, and with good reason. By heavily pushing the line that their products are “Interactive Fiction” – and going out of their way to cover a range of genres from classic videogame fare like SF/fantasy to less traditional subject matter for games, they not only presented their products as refined pursuits for elite gamers who are too good for games which involve hand/eye co-ordination or actual game mechanics, but they arguably also set the tone for the IF fan community who beaver away producing new games to this day.
The “Interactive Fiction” label is still used by those who want to hype up the artistic potential of the medium or who otherwise find “text adventure” to be an embarrassing term – something which rather bugs me, since I think the more effort you put in to make the things you like seem less embarrassing to others, the more obvious it is that you are a bit embarrassed of them, and therefore the more embarrassing it seems. (To take an example from a very different field, the famed Gimp Man of Essex seems to be mostly regarded as a national treasure rather than a weird pervert, largely because he’s very casual about it and doesn’t go out of his way to make it weird; if he acted all embarrassed about his activities then I think he’d have a much more negative reception.)
Another beef I have with the term “Interactive Fiction” is that it’s horribly imprecise. Any videogame with a plot is interactive fiction. A gamebook is interactive fiction. A pantomime is arguably interactive fiction, at least in the sense that the characters acknowledge the audience and respond to their calls. Lots of stuff is a) clearly presenting fiction and b) clearly offering interactivity of some form. “Text adventure” pins down the medium far more precisely, and if it’s got some embarrassing and unfortunate associations you do the work to decouple it from those associations and promote text adventures which don’t go there, you don’t make up a new word for the stuff you are doing to try and set up some sort of elite divide between the text adventures you approve of and the ones you disapprove of.
More positively, the Inform family of languages, which are probably the most common ones used in the field, were developed to let home coders produce games that would run on Infocom’s Z-machine – a virtual machine which lets Infocom games be played on any computer system with a suitable interpreter.
Infocom’s development of the Z-machine is a happy historical accident which has been a real boon to the modern-day text adventure community. Infocom, it should be remembered, were operating at a time before personal computer architectures and operating systems had ossified into the major standards we have these days. By writing their games for the Z-machine, Infocom effectively only had to write each game once – then all they had to do was make a Z-machine interpreter for whichever computer platform they wanted to publish for, and then they could put out all of their games on that platform, which is obviously massively cheaper than having to rewrite each game for each operating system you want to adapt it to. (It even led to major price savings when it came to the packaging – Infocom games of the classic era came out in the same box with the same handouts and inserts for all platforms, and they’d just stick the appropriate disk or cassette tape in the box and put a sticker on the front specifying which operating system the contents worked on.)
This, of course, has also been very helpful when it comes to running classic Infocom text adventures and brand new Inform-based homebrews on modern computers, because the exact same task applies: simply write a Z-machine interpreter for whatever new platform comes out, and then once you have that working everything written in Inform or by Infocom can be played on that platform.
The fan community has also followed Infocom’s lead in recognising that there’s two things which are really key to a good text adventure: an interpreter which is easy to engage with and can understand a broad range of commands, and really solid writing. (After all, if the sole means a game has of delivering content consists of text, it may as well be really nicely polished text that is a pleasure to read.)
It’s fair to say, then, that whilst the homebrew adventure game scene has made some very important contributions to the genre – making a range of interpreters for running new and old text adventures on modern computers, smartphones, and more or less anything with a computer chip in it, as well as expanding the versatility and hence the user-friendliness of interpreters by widely expanding the range of verbs understood – they’re very much standing on the shoulders of giants, and Infocom is by far the largest giant. Usually, I would say that this position is well-earned; of the 1980s-era text adventures I have played, Infocom ones have almost always had the richest and most flavourful prose, the most forgiving and user-friendly parsers, and the most interesting stories and puzzles.
There are, of course, exceptions…
Continue reading “A (Moon)Missed Opportunity”