Ever wanted to read something where you control the plot?
|Have you ever experienced Another Earth, Another Sky by Paul O’Brian or Till Death Makes a Monkfish Out of Me by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold? Perhaps you haven’t heard of these artworks of text before. Likely, you have not unless you were paying attention to the annual International Interactive Fiction Competition 2002. These were the top two winners last year, out of a field of 38 entries.
Most writers and readers are unaware of a different medium that exists, which makes use of text prose to immerse a reader into a truly interactive story that has the ability to change with how the reader wants to experience it. Perhaps many have simply forgotten about this medium during the relatively short history of programming and computers.
What exactly is interactive fiction? The definition has changed slightly over the years with the increased ability of computers and technology. Although the medium originated in text form, some graphical interfaces, such as first person shooter games and role-playing computer games, often lean strongly toward story immersion. It is the text variety, though, that is most interesting because of its refusal to bow to new technologies, much as books have refused to bow to movies and go the way of the dinosaur. Interactive fiction is simply a story that allows the reader or game player to have direct influence on the plot. The core quality is its immersiveness.
Interactive fiction (known often simply as IF) was born out the minds of early computer programmers trying to test their abilities of getting computers to push the envelope to new mediums. The first known work of IF was created by Will Crowther in the mid-70’s for the large IBM supercomputers of the day. The reader/player of the game, called simply Adventure, could enter two word phrases on a command line that would instruct the game as to how to advance the plot. For example, a player might type in the command “Go north” and the program would respond something like, “You are in a dark cave. Exits are to the East and to the West.”
The element of the programming that enables the software to read the players’ commands is called a parser. It breaks down the commands the player enters into each separate word and then attempts to interpret them according to the rules the programmer has specified. As time went on, parsers became more advanced, allowing for entire sentences and even multiple sentences to be commanded. And, as computers advanced and allowed smaller and smaller devices to store larger and larger amounts of information, IF was eventually brought to the common owner of a personal computer.
The first work of IF to make it from the large supercomputers and into PCs, was a very expansive text game called Zork. At the time, PCs were to limited to carry the entire game all at once and so the game was broken down into three parts, Zork I, Zork II, and Zork III. The game remains a favorite of IF fans today.
In the very early 80’s a company named Infocom purchased the rights to Zork and began distributing it in retail outlets. The game’s huge success ushered in the pinnacle of the golden years of IF. Throughout the 80’s many of the most popular games on PCs were IF, and most of those games were created by Infocom. The company went on to create some 36 titles during this era, including Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, Infidel, etc.
However, Infocom’s days were numbered as graphical interfaces and the appetite for graphical action progressed to overtake text fiction in the computer world. The company was absorbed into Activision in early 90’s and simply died away. For nostalgia’s sake, fans of the company have erected a web site devoted to Infocom and its games, all of which are still available for download right from the Web at http://www.csd.uwo.ca/~pete/Infocom/.
IF in the modern day has changed slightly. No longer commercially viable as a profit enterprise, IF has moved to an audience of cultish followers that number a few hundred and still create the games and play them as a sort of hobby. Most IF is becoming less game-like and more about good fiction writing. The audiences look for immersive experiences in enjoying stories. It has become less about getting points and winning, and more about effective story telling.
Modern IF offers writers an opportunity to tell a story from multiple angles and with a variety of outcomes. If creates a different medium that allows the story to develop in a way that lets the writer express action as it occurs and can reveal a slightly different story each time it is read. It offers to the reader an opportunity to directly affect the plot of the story. People often say they are disappointed when they’ve seen a movie after reading a book because the mind’s eye is so much more vivid. IF lets the reader image the author’s world more vividly than a graphical story, yet still more interactive.
What’s nice about modern IF is that one doesn’t have to be a programmer anymore to create it. There are a number of different ways to create IF. The most popular way is by use of what many refer to as the big three IF programming languages. Don’t let the word ”programming” fool you, though. Most would say that it is more like coding than programming, similar to the way HTML allows laypersons to create web pages without programming experience. The big three are comprised of Inform (an adaptation of the original language used by Infocom), TADS, and ALAN. There are others, but the others have very little following.
There a re also a few pieces of software that allow interested authors to write their own IF with a graphical user interface (GUI), just like what you see in almost all Windows programs. You can create IF by using pull-down menus and adding your text without having any knowledge whatsoever about programming or coding. The most popular of these is by far a software written by a fan of IF called Adrift. http://www.adrift.uk.org
Modern IF is written and enjoyed not for its wide audience appeal, but for the simple enjoyment of reading fiction that allows the reader to influence the plot. Writers interested in having their work enjoyed purely for its artistic and basic fun values are encouraged to take a look into creating good works of IF. Readers that are interested in free entertainment that allows influence over the story you read, are encouraged to drop by this years ongoing IF Competition at http://www.ifcomp.org/comp03/ to enjoy the various entries.