Sunday, 4 June 2017

A Very Brief History of Interactive Fiction

Despite considering myself to be a life-long gamer, I have to admit that it actually took quite a while before I came to consider video games as a legitimate medium for telling good stories.

It was the arcade influence, I suppose. My first experiences with gaming all seemed to revolve around begging my mother for whatever loose change she happened to have on her, then feeding those coins into whatever arcade machine happened to be nearby (Double Dragon had been a personal favourite).

As much fun as these games had been, though, it had always been pretty clear that they weren't there to tell a compelling story. As a result, very few of those old arcade games had been able to make any sort of lasting impression on me (with Double Dragon only really standing out due to that one time I was able to beat the game, on a single credit, while a small group of older kids watched). They certainly didn't come to mean as much to me as many of the films I remember seeing, at around the same time.

My earliest experiences with console gaming were pretty much the same. The first console to be brought into the house (an Atari 2600, bought cheap as the rest of the world was moving on to Sega and Nintendo's first consoles) had, after all, only ever managed to offer a somewhat inferior version of many of those same arcade games. The second console (a NES, bought cheap as the rest of the world was moving on to the SNES and the Sega Megadrive) did seem to offer a little more, though – and, it was at about this point that my attitude toward gaming, and the games that I played, began to change.

It had still been a few more years until I had to opportunity to finally enter the world of PC gaming, though – but, at that point, I was very eager to begin catching up on everything that I had missed.

It was at around this point, for example, that I first came across the Ultima franchise – and, it was at around this point when I discovered the great 'point-and-click' adventure games being released by Sierra and LucasArts. It was, also, at this point when I first had the opportunity to look further into the past – when a chance purchase of a collection of games led me to discover a genre of game which had, unfortunately, already fallen out of favour, by that point. Interactive fiction.

Interactive fiction games were deceptively simple affairs. They were games with no graphics, and no fiddly controls to master – and, indeed, seemed to possess very little that would be familiar to modern gamers (they even struck me as being somewhat unusual, even back in the mid 1990s). The entirety of an interactive fiction game consisted of blocks of text to set the scene, and a command line with which the player could type in their actions.

Of course, while they may appear simple, at a glance, the best of these games actually proved to have quite a bit of depth. For one thing, as you might expect from something based entirely in text, the quality of the writing was often quite impressive – with many of the best interactive fiction games having the same ability to fully immerse the player as any other work of fiction. Then, there was the complexity of the parser – that big of programming that gave the game its ability to recognise, and respond to, the commands type in by the player. Early games may have required the player to type in commands that seemed stilted, and a bit unnatural (since early parsers could only understand simple 'verb' + 'noun' commands), but constant development eventually allowed for longer, and more complex, commands – which, in some cases, even allowed for the player to engage characters in direct conversation.

Then, of course, there were the 'feelies' that Infocom released with its own games – and, which were certain to have become a large part of the appeal to early players. These items, shipped with the disk, were often intended to be a part of the play experience – and, could include such things as a physical map, or a copy of a pamphlet or newspaper article which also existed within the story. It was also fairly common for the player to actually need to refer to these 'feelies', as a part of the experience – both as a way of solving puzzles and also, occasionally, as an early form of copy protection. The 'feelies' included with Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy interactive fiction game, for example, were suitably weird.

The very first example of a text-based interactive fiction game would have to be Adventure, developed in 1975, for PDP-10 mainframe computer, by programmer Will Crowther. Drawing on his own love of cave exploration, Adventure was intended primarily for the enjoyment of his own children. Later, the game was discovered by Don Woods – who, after receiving permission from Crowther, expanded on the basic cave exploration and puzzle solving of the original, while also adding fantasy elements inspired by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. In its expanded form, Colossal Cave Adventure became increasingly popular – eventually being adapted to run on other systems.

The first truly commercial release of an interactive fiction game came in 1978, with Adventureland, developed by Scott Adams. Following the example set by Colossal Cave Adventure, Adventureland proved to be successful enough that it led to the formation of Adventure International, which went on to develop twelve follow-up games before, unfortunately, going bankrupt in 1985.

With the commercial release of Zork: The Great Underground Empire in 1980, though, Infocom quickly established itself as the best known developers of interactive fiction – to such an extent that they have practically become synonymous with the genre. Formed by a collection of staff and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1979, Infocom went on to develop 35 titles, covering a wide variety of styles and genres – with the Zork franchise even proving popular enough to re-emerge, in the 1990s, with a couple of graphical adventure games.

Infocom remained an independent company until it was bought by Activision, in 1986. In 1989, the Infocom offices were officially shut down – and, 'Infocom', itself, became little more than a label that Activision sometimes attached to its own games.

It was likely a combination of factors that contributed to the gradual decline of popularity of interactive fiction games. The collapse of Infocom, following a period of poor management after it had been bought by Activision, would have been a factor, certainly – since Infocom had, after all, been the main driving force behind this style of game for much of the 1980s. It is quite likely that it was something as simple as the general improvement in hardware, and the improvement of the graphical capabilities of games that followed, which had the biggest impact, though.

Of course, when I say that interactive fiction has fallen out of style, I really only mean that it is no longer truly viable as a commercial product. As with so many other things that are old, and almost forgotten, it seems that there are still plenty out there who are willing to carry the torch for something that they love. The Interactive Fiction Competition (Click Me!), for example, is exactly what it sounds like – an annual competition for creators of interactive fiction games, which has been running for 22 years. Interactive fiction may be an increasingly niche style of game at this point, of course – but, really, that just makes the devotion of those who still make these games even more remarkable.

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