electric torch

Interactive fiction

Interactive fiction, often abbreviated IF, describes software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment. Works in this form can be understood as literary narratives and as computer games. In common usage, the word refers to text adventures, a type of adventure game with text-based input and output. The term is sometimes used to encompass the entirety of the medium, but is also sometimes used to distinguish games produced by the interactive fiction community from those created by games companies. It can also be used to distinguish the more modern style of such works, focusing on narrative and not necessarily falling into the adventure game genre at all, from the more traditional focus on puzzles. More expansive definitions of interactive fiction may refer to all adventure games, including wholly graphical adventures such as Myst.

As a commercial product, interactive fiction reached its peak in popularity in the 1980s, as a dominant software product marketed for home computers. Because their text-only nature sidestepped the problem of writing for the widely divergent graphics architectures of the day, interactive fiction games were easily ported across all the popular platforms, even those such as CP/M not known for gaming or strong graphics capabilities. Today, interactive fiction no longer appears to be commercially viable, but a steady stream of new works is produced by an online interactive fiction community, using freely available development systems. Most of these games can be downloaded for free from the Interactive Fiction Archive (see external links).

The term "interactive fiction" is also occasionally used to refer to hypertext fiction, collaborative fiction, or even a participatory novel, according to the New York Times. It is also used to refer to literary works that are not read in a linear fashion, but rather the reader is given choices at different points in the text; the reader's choice determines the flow and outcome of the story. The most famous example of this form of interactive fiction is the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. For others, see gamebooks.


Text adventures are one of the oldest types of computer games and form a subset of the adventure genre. The player uses text input to control the game, and the game state is relayed to the player via text output.

Input is usually provided by the player in the form of simple sentences such as "get key" or "go east", which are interpreted by a parser. Parsers may vary in sophistication; the first text adventure parsers could only handle two-word sentences in the form of verb-noun pairs. Later parsers, such as those built on Infocom's ZIL (Zork Implementation Language), could understand complete sentences. Later parsers could handle increasing levels of complexity parsing sentences such as "open the red box with the green key then go north". This level of complexity is the standard for works of interactive fiction today.

Interactive fiction shares much in common with Multi-User Dungeons ('MUDs'). MUDs, which became popular in the mid-1980s, rely on a textual exchange and accept similar commands from players as do works of IF; however, since interactive fiction is single player, and MUDs, by definition, have multiple players, they differ enormously in gameplay styles. MUDs often focus gameplay on activities that involve communities of players, simulated political systems, in-game trading, and other gameplay mechanics that aren't possible in a single player environment.

Interactive fiction usually relies on reading from a screen and on typing input, although speech synthesis allows blind and visually impaired users to play interactive fiction.

Writing style

Interactive fiction features two distinct modes of writing: the player input and the game output.

As described above, player input is expected to be in simple command form (imperative sentences). A typical command may be:

pull lever

The responses from the game are usually written from a second-person point of view, in present tense. This is because, unlike in most works of fiction, the main character is closely associated with the player, and the events are seen to be happening as the player plays. While older text adventures often identified the protagonist with the player directly, newer games tend to have specific, well-defined protagonists with separate identities from the player. The classic essay "Crimes Against Mimesis" discusses, among other IF issues, the nature of "You" in interactive fiction.

A typical response might look something like this, the response to "look in teachest" at the start of Curses:

That was the first place you tried, hours and hours ago now, and there's nothing there but that boring old book. You pick it up anyway, bored as you are.

Many text adventures, particularly those designed for humour (such as Zork, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Leather Goddesses of Phobos), address the player with an informal tone, sometimes including sarcastic remarks (see the transcript from Curses, below, for an example).



Around 1975, Will Crowther wrote the first text adventure game, Adventure (originally called ADVENT because a filename could only be six characters long in its operating system, and later Colossal Cave). It was programmed in Fortran for the PDP-10. Stanford University graduate student Don Woods discovered Adventure while working at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and in 1977 obtained and expanded Crowther's source code (with Crowther's permission). Crowther's original version was an accurate simulation of the real Colossal Cave, but also included fantasy elements (such as axe-wielding dwarves and a magic bridge); Woods's changes were reminiscent of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and included a troll, elves, and a volcano some claim is based on Mount Doom, but Woods says was not.

In early 1977, Adventure spread across ARPAnet, and has survived on the Internet to this day. The game has since been ported to many other operating systems.

The popularity of Adventure led to the wide success of interactive fiction during the late 1970s and the 1980s, when home computers had little, if any, graphics capability. Many elements of the original game have survived into the present, such as the command 'xyzzy', which is now included as an Easter Egg in games such as Minesweeper.

Adventure was also directly responsible for the founding of Sierra Online (later Sierra Entertainment); Ken and Roberta Williams played the game when it first appeared, and when unable to find any other games of similar quality, decided to design one of their own.

Commercial era

Adventure International

Adventure International was founded by Scott Adams (not to be confused with the creator of Dilbert).

In 1978, Adams wrote Adventureland, which was loosely patterned after the original Advent. He took out a small ad in a computer magazine in order to promote and sell Adventureland, thus creating the first commercial adventure game. In 1979 he founded Adventure International, the first commercial publisher of interactive fiction. The company went bankrupt in 1985.


The largest company producing works of interactive fiction was Infocom, which created the Zork series and many other titles, among them Trinity, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and A Mind Forever Voyaging.

In June 1977, Marc Blank, Bruce K. Daniels, Tim Anderson, and Dave Lebling began writing the mainframe version of Zork (also known as Dungeon), at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. The game was programmed in a computer language called MDL, a variant of LISP. In early 1979, the game was completed. Ten members of the MIT Dynamics Modelling Group went on to join Infocom when it was incorporated later that year.

In order to make its games as portable as possible, Infocom developed the Z-machine, a custom virtual machine which could be implemented on a large number of platforms, and which took standardized "story files" as input.

The Infocom parser was widely regarded as the best of its era. It accepted complex, complete sentence commands like "put the blue book on the writing desk" at a time when most of its competitors parsers were restricted to simple two word verb-noun combinations such as "put book". The parser was actively upgraded with new features like undo and error correction, and later games would 'understand' multiple sentence input: 'pick up the gem and put it in my bag. take the newspaper clipping out of my bag then burn it with the book of matches'.

In a non-technical sense, Infocom was responsible for developing the interactive style that would be emulated by many later interpreters. The Curses excerpt below, for example, is recognizably in the 'Infocom style'.

The company was bought by Activision in 1986 after the failure of Cornerstone, its database software program, and stopped producing text adventures a few years later.

In 1991 and 1992, Activision released volumes one and two of The Lost Treasures of Infocom, a collection containing most of Infocom's games, followed in 1996 by Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom.

Legend Entertainment

Legend Entertainment was founded by Bob Bates and Mike Verdu in 1989. It started out from the ashes of Infocom.

The text adventures produced by Legend used (high-resolution) graphics as well as sound. Some of their titles include Eric the Unready, the Spellcasting series and Gateway (based on Frederik Pohl's novels).

The last text adventure created by Legend was Gateway II, while the last game ever was Unreal 2 (the well-known first-person shooter action game). Legend was acquired in 2004 by Atari.

Other companies

Probably the first commercial work of interactive fiction produced outside the U.S. was the dungeon crawl game of Acheton, produced in Cambridge, England, and first commercially released by Acornsoft (later expanded and reissued by Topologika). Other leading companies in the U.K. were Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 Computing. Also worthy of mention are Delta 4, Melbourne House, and the homebrew company Zenobi.

In Japan, companies such as Data West developed limited interactive fiction games, such as the seven-volume murder mystery series Misty. Later, interactive fiction became more popular in Japan in the form of visual novels.

In Italy, interactive fiction games were mainly published and distributed through various magazines in included tapes. The largest number of games was published in the two magazines Viking and Explorer, with versions for the main 8-bit home computers (ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and MSX). The software house producing those games was Brainstorm Enterprise, and the most prolific IF author was Bonaventura Di Bello, who produced 70 games in the Italian language. The wave of interactive fiction in Italy lasted for a couple of years thanks to the various magazines promoting the genre, then faded and remains still today a topic of interest for a small group of fans and less known developers, celebrated on Web sites and in related newsgroups.

Modern era

After the demise of the commercial interactive fiction market in the 1990s, an online community eventually formed around the medium. In 1987, the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction was created, and was soon followed by rec.games.int-fiction. By custom, the topic of rec.arts.int-fiction is interactive fiction authorship and programming, while rec.games.int-fiction encompasses topics related to playing interactive fiction games, such as hint requests and game reviews.

One of the most important early developments was the reverse-engineering of Infocom's Z-Code format and Z-Machine virtual machine in 1987 by a group of enthusiasts called the InfoTaskForce and the subsequent development of an interpreter for Z-Code story files. As a result, it became possible to play Infocom's work on modern computers.

For years amateurs formed a small community producing interactive fiction works of relatively limited scope using the Adventure Game Toolkit and similar tools. The breakthrough that allowed the interactive fiction community to truly prosper, however, was the creation and distribution of two sophisticated development systems. In 1987, Michael J. Roberts released TADS, a programming language designed to produce works of interactive fiction. In 1993, Graham Nelson released Inform, a programming language and set of libraries which compiled to a Z-Code story file. Each of these systems allowed anyone with sufficient time and dedication to create a game, and caused a growth boom in the online interactive fiction community.

Despite the lack of commercial support, the availability of high quality tools allowed enthusiasts of the genre to develop new high quality games. Competitions such as the annual Interactive Fiction Competition for short works, the newer Spring Thing for longer works, and the XYZZY Awards, further helped to improve the quality and complexity of the games. Modern games go much further than the original "Adventure" style, improving upon Infocom games, which relied extensively on puzzle solving, and to a lesser extent on communication with non player characters, to include experimentation with writing and story-telling techniques.

While the majority of modern interactive fiction developed is distributed for free, there are some commercial endeavors, including Peter Nepstad's 1893: A World's Fair Mystery, several games by Howard Sherman published as Malinche Entertainment, and The General Coffee Company's Future Boy!. Emily Short was commissioned to develop the game City of Secrets but the project fell through and she ended up releasing it herself. Some authors offer optional commercial "feelies" (physical props associated with a game) through feelies.org or similar services.

Notable works

Sample transcript

This is a brief transcript from one of many possible ways to not win the game Curses, by Graham Nelson. The player has entered instructions on the lines beginning with '>' (shown here in italic); the rest of the text is printed by the computer. The computer begins with a printed introduction giving a little context to the game (much more would become apparent as the game progressed):

It's become a matter of pride now not to give up. That tourist map of Paris must be up here somewhere in all this clutter, even if it has been five years since your last trip. And it's your own fault. It looks as if your great-grandfather was the last person to tidy up these lofts...

An Interactive Diversion
Copyright (c) 1993 by Graham Nelson. New players should type "help".
Release 8 / Serial number 930603 (Compiled by Inform v634)


The attics, full of low beams and awkward angles, begin here in a relatively tidy area which extends north, south and east. The wooden floorboards seem fairly sound, just as well considering how heavy all these teachests are. But the old wiring went years ago, and there's no electric light.

A hinged trapdoor in the floor stands open, and light streams in from below.

You are carrying:
a chocolate biscuit
an electric torch (providing light and closed)
a crumpled piece of paper

>read paper
Things to do:

1. Find map
2. Phone airport to check parking
3. Health forms...
and so on. Let's face it, 1. is more enticing than the rest put together.

>enter trapdoor
Yes, probably just as well to give up looking, and heaven knows there's enough packing to do, what with the rest of the family in uproar. Oh well.
*** You have missed the point entirely ***

In that game you scored 0 out of a possible 550, in 3 turns, giving you the rank of hapless Tourist.

Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, give the FULL score for that game or QUIT?

Development systems

A number of systems are available today to write interactive fiction. Among them are ADRIFT, Inform, Hugo, and TADS. The majority of current IF development is implemented in Inform, TADS, or ADRIFT. In the 2006 IFComp, the majority of the games were written for Inform, with a strong minority of games for TADS and ADRIFT, followed by a smattering of games for other systems.

While familiarity with a programming language leads many new authors to attempt to produce their own complete IF application, most established IF authors recommend use of a specialised IF language, arguing that such systems allow authors to avoid the technicalities of producing a full featured parser, while allowing broad community support. The choice of authoring system usually depends on the author's desired balance of ease of use versus power, and the portability of the final product.

Older development Systems

See also

Related Concepts

Specific Related Fiction


Further reading

  • Montfort, Nick (2005). Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-63318-5.
  • Daniel Keller, "Reading and playing: what makes interactive fiction unique" p.276-298. in Williams, J. P., & Smith, J. H. (2007). The players' realm: studies on the culture of video games and gaming. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. ISBN 9780786428328

External links

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