Living Room

You are in the living room. There is a door to the east, a wooden door with strange gothic lettering to the west, which appears to be nailed shut, and a large oriental rug in the center of the room.
There is a trophy case here. A battery-powered brass lantern is on the trophy case. Above the trophy case hangs an elvish sword of great antiquity.

Remember Zork, the text-based adventure game from Infocom and one of the best-selling computer games of the disco era? If you're older than about 38, words and phrases like "frotz," "xyzzy," "maze of twisty passages all alike," and "eaten by a grue" trigger sharp remembrance, like Marcel Proust eating a madeleine. You'll instantly reminisce about text games like Infocom's Deadline, Suspended, Infidel, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, and a zillion Scott Adams titles from Adventure International. You'll grit your teeth recalling the hours it took to put the Babel fish in your ear in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If you're a male secure in your masculinity, you may even join the manly men who say the death of Floyd the robot in Planetfall was the only time a computer game ever made them cry.

If you're under 38, you're now saying, "Huh?" Text games (or, as some called them, "interactive fiction") were once the most popular electronic games. Yet they vanished overnight from store shelves, driven into darkness by the IBM PC's EGA and VGA graphics adapters.

But in obscure reaches of the field, text games survive to this day. Indeed, despite (or because of) no sales, they're currently enjoying an artistic Silver Age. Just as traditional craftspeople even today use time-honored techniques to hand-tool birchbark canoes and embroider lace doilies and program the Commodore 64, devoted hobbyists still play and design text games.

"Results 1 - 10 of about 340,000 for 'interactive fiction.'"
- Google

Interactive fiction (IF) fans maintain huge websites like the IF Archive and its loyal companion, Baf's Guide. There's XYZZY News (named for a magic word in Zork) and Interactive Fiction Ratings ("1141 of 2584 titles have been rated; 738 titles have multiple ratings; 351 users have entered 6374 opinions"). Fans hang out on a chat MUD, Liza Daly's ifMUD (ifmud.port4000.com:4001), which draws a small but friendly multinational tribe around the clock. They write scholarly books like Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, a 2004 treatise by Nick Montfort published by the MIT Press. The quarterly newsletter of the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games (SPAG) has reached issue #41. There's even a non-worksafe AIF ("Adult Interactive Fiction") community.

Two Usenet newsgroups, rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction, have bubbled along respectably for many years. Some recent topics:

  • Writing under PalmOS
  • Interactive Fiction ROMS for the Gameboy Advance
  • Best font to use while playing text games
  • TADS3: Using a self-made transitive verb without an object causes error
  • How to describe plainness in an attractive way?

On the interactive fiction newsgroups, users debate Z-machines. A Z-machine is a program that interprets and runs Infocom game data files, which were written in a cross-platform "Z-code" to run on 26 different platforms. For years IF fans dissected the Z-code format like Champollion cracking the Rosetta Stone. Now the fans know Z-code backward and forward and have implemented their own extensions to the standard. There are Z-machines for just about every operating system, from Windows XP and Mac OS X to PDAs down to ancient boxes even a NetBSD team wouldn't touch. (Check out this list - At last, a use for your old Atari ST!)

But having already played Infocom's three dozen titles, and maybe a few from other text game publishers of the time like Level 9, Topologica, and Adventure International, what were devoted IF fans to do? As the graphics-heavy titles dominating the market took over the professional sector of electronic gaming, inevitably some enthusiasts began writing their own games.

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