Commercial interactive fiction practically disappeared by 1989 with the demise of Infocom. In retrospect, it was probably good for the new medium. Let’s see why.
See also the first part describing the beginnings and the commercial era.
Amateur programmers were trying their hands at producing text adventures of their own already during the commercial era. Writing a game from scratch in a general-purpose programming language is a daunting task though, with most of the effort spent on the ‘backbones.’ Soon, specialized authoring systems started to appear, and the online services (and later Internet) allowed enthusiasts to connect with each other.
- 75-77 Crowther writes Adventure (Colossal Cave Adventure was written by Will Crowther in 1975-76 academic year, and expanded by Don Woods in 1977.)
- 77-79 Mainframe Zork (The mainframe version was written by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels and Dave Lebling; and released for microcomputers as a trilogy by Infocom in 1980-82.) developed
- 78 Adventure International (The first game, Adventureland, was the first adventure for home microcomputers.) founded by Scott Adams
- 79 Infocom (Infocom produced over 30 interactive fiction titles in 20 years of existence. Some of their best known authors are Bob Bates, Michael Berlyn, Marc Blank, Amy Briggs, Stuart Galley, David Lebling, Steven Meretzky and Brian Moriarty.) company founded
- 80 On-Line Systems (Founded by Ken and Roberta Williams, the company was renamed to Sierra On-Line in 1982 and concentrated on graphic adventures.) founded
- 82 Level 9 (Level 9 Computing was formed by brothers Pete, Mike and Nick Austin in England.) founded
- 83-86 First authoring systems: The Quill (Written by Graeme Yeandle in 1983, The Quill was a menu-driven system capable of creating simple text adventures.), gags (Generic Adventure Game System was written by Mark J. Welch in 1985.), AdvSys (AdvSys was written by David Betz in 1986.)
- 84 Magnetic Scrolls (Founded by Anita Sinclair and Ken Gordon in London, the company was famous for producing imaginative titles with beautiful in-game artworks.) founded
- 87 agt (David Malmberg expanded gags and created Adventure Game Toolkit. It was the first full-featured programming language for text adventures, sparkling an online community and an annual contest.) by David Malmberg, and tads (Text Adventure Development System—a complex, object-oriented language with customizable ‘libraries’—started gaining popularity by 1992 with the release of version 2 and more games. An html multimedia version was created in 1998.) by Michael J. Roberts;
rec.arts.int-fiction (raif is a Usenet newsgroup founded by Adam Engst to discuss hypertext narratives. This soon shifted to interactive fiction as represented by text adventures. rec.games.int-fiction was created in 1992 to keep raif focused on creative aspects.) newsgroup
- 89 Legend Entertainment (Legend Entertainment Company was formed by Bob Bates and Mike Verdu and joined by Steve Meretzky. (Another ex-Infocom employee, Brian Moriarty, created Loom for Lucasfilm Games in 1990.)) founded
- 92 alan (Public release of version 2.3 of the high-level programming language by Thomas Nilsson and Göran Forslund. (It had been under development since 1988.)) released; if ftp (Volker Blasius opens the interactive fiction ftp archive.) archive
- 93 Graham Nelson releases Inform (A language that produces Infocom’s Z-machine format games was announced: “It is not a marvellously well-written program, but it does work, and it is documented.” In 1996, when version 6 was published, it had already become the the most popular development language.)
- 94-97 Rise of the community (spag e-zine is founded by G. Kevin Wilson in 1994. In 1995, Eileen Mullin announces the first issue of xyzzynews, Carl Muckenhoupt opens Baf’s Guide to the IF Archive (a catalogue with reviews), and the first interactive fiction competition is held. Eileen also organizes the first xyzzy Awards in 1997 (similar to the Academy Awards).)
- 95-98 Hugo (Written by Kent Tessman in 1995, it is a programming language with strong multimedia capabilities.) and adrift (Originally released as “Adventure Generator” in 1998, adrift is an Adventure Developer & Runner – Interactive Fiction Toolkit written by Campbell Wild, it is a menu-based authoring system for Windows.) released
- 99 Glulx (A new virtual machine designed by Andrew Plotkin with the aim to remove the limitations of the Z-machine while preserving the compatibility with Inform.) virtual machine
- 01-04 IF-Review (“The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site” maintained by Mark J. Musante since 2001), IF Ratings (“Interactive Fiction Ratings” created by Chrysoula Tzavelas in 2003) and ifr (“Interactive Fiction Reviews Organization” started in 2004 and focused also on non-English language entries.) review sites
- 03 Nick Monfort publishes Twisty Little Passages (“This is a thoroughly researched history of interactive fiction, as well as a brilliant analysis of the genre,” wrote Steve Meretzky about the book.)
- 06 Inform 7 (Released by Graham Nelson as a beta version, it is a revolutionary departure combining a pseudo-natural programming language with a rule-based approach.) and tads 3 (Michael J. Roberts rewrote the system and introduced a complex conversation framework and the ability to modify parsing of the player’s commands.) released
- 07 IFDb (The Interactive Fiction Database was created by Michael J. Roberts and is an interactive fiction equivalent of IMDb.) founded
The difference was that soon the fans had to cater for themselves, and they mostly did so for free. This allowed the authors of the modern works to experiment with the characteristics of the medium. What makes it different from novels or movies? What are the unique strengths or weaknesses? The emphasis was shifted away from solving puzzles (which was the pinnacle of the era when games were written by the programmers for the programmers) to the narrative and emotional impact.
A critical discussion of interactive fiction (and its development as the new media and art form) required some terminology and framework. Drawing parallels with novels and movies is insufficient (The medium is inherently interactive and non-linear. It has aspects of a simulation and a game, and features different ‘voices’ and identities (the protagonist, controlled by the player, usually has his own character, and sometimes even goals).), so the community gradually invented bits and pieces of the theory of interactive fiction. To create a memorable experience, the author needs not only good writing skills but also game design and programming abilities. Interactive fiction also requires more writing than a comparable ‘static’ piece.
But when the media characteristics meet the right talent, the result is a tight, polished and interesting story. Some of the free modern works are at least on par with the best Infocom adventures, so no wonder that the current community cherishes those who stand out (To name but two: Andrew Plotkin for his masterful explorations of the possibilities of the new medium, and Emily Short whose work on conversation systems and “simulationist” approach advanced the state-of-the-art.). Against all odds, the ‘text adventures’ continue to be published long after the fall of the commercial era, they have become the subject of academic studies, and they seem to be getting even better.
The best way to learn more is to try one of these stories out. A good place to start is IFDb. Most of the works can be played on almost any device, including phones. Here are some handy playing instructions. And if you’d like to continue the story of interactive fiction by writing one yourself, I would recommend either tads 3 (If you have a solid object-oriented programming background, tads 3 is arguably the most robust system available.) or Inform 7. Writing in Inform 7 uses sentences such as “Hercule Poirot is wearing a bowler hat.” It is surprisingly efficient in dealing with complex concepts: “If Poirot suspects someone who is incriminated by something carried by the player…” — which would actually be the source code.