What is interactive fiction?

It works like this: you read the beginning a story, and then suddenly there's an angle bracket and a blinking cursor. That means it's your turn to type. For in interactive fiction (IF for short), you don't just read the story — you get to shape it.

So are these "choose your own adventure" stories?

No — you're not just picking from a menu, but can type anything you can think of. You do need to have an idea of what the programs will be able to understand: I hope to have a short tutorial up in the not too distant future, but in the meantime, here's an introduction I wrote lo these many years ago.

So these things are games, then?

Some are, in that you have to solve puzzles in order to "win." Others are like the more traditional stories you'll find on other pages of my site, with the twist that you get to participate in the telling. You'll be able to see which are more game-like and which are more story-like by reading the descriptions below.


Endless, Nameless

"Look, the game's brilliant. Go play it. […] Beyond the superb, brain-aching premise, and a fantastically interesting way to explore the foibles of classic adventures, it's also superbly written."
—rockpapershotgun.com

The first time I ever saw someone play a text adventure was in fifth grade. One of the sixth-graders didn't go to outdoor ed, and therefore spent the week in my fifth-grade classroom, playing Scott Adams's Impossible Mission on a TRS-80 while the rest of us did our schoolwork. At recess we crowded around him and shouted out commands to try. I really wanted a turn at the keyboard, but this guy wouldn't let anyone else near it. It would be another couple of years before I played a text adventure myself.

My big chance came when my father signed up for the Dow Jones online service, which offered not just stock listings but sports scores, movie reviews, Grolier's Encyclopedia, and a small selection of games, among which was Adventure. A bargain at a mere $144/hour! (In 1984 dollars!) Fortunately for my father's bank account, I eventually learned about Orange County's free BBSes, most of which were WWIV boards written in Pascal. Borland's Turbo Pascal let you swap in external modules called "door games," some of which were text adventures, and I've had the code to a few of these kicking around for (ulp!) a quarter of a century now. For a long time I've thought that it might be kind of fun to port one over to Inform, and I finally found the time to do so. Warning! These things were not exactly up to Infocom standards, let alone those of the modern day. This is a nostalgia project. Swords, trolls, magic spells, hit points. But no acoustic coupler necessary!

Game or story? This is a game in the olden style.

Easy or difficult? Moderately difficult. (The testers did convince me to add some modern features like pronouns so less of the difficulty would come from the parser.)

Good for newcomers? Nope. This one's for the old-timers.

How much of the above isn't actually true? About 23%.

Can you dry yourself off with a towel? Yes!

first release: 2012.04; current version: 1.07



Narcolepsy

Game or story? Story; almost no gamelike elements.

Easy or difficult? Easy; if stuck, just keep exploring.

Good for newcomers? I hope so!

first release: 2003.12; current version: 1.07



Varicella

Winner of four Xyzzy Awards, including Best Game of 1999.

"It's like juggling 24 things, eight of them being axes, and eight being live kittens."
—Jennifer Earl

You are Primo Varicella, Palace Minister at the Palazzo del Piemonte. This title is unlikely to impress anyone. Piedmont is the laughingstock of the Carolingian League, and the Palace Ministry has devolved into little more than a glorified (and not even especially glorified) butlership: your duties include organizing banquets, overseeing the servants, and greeting visitors. It is safe to assume that the War Minister and the Coffers Minister lose little sleep over your presence in the King's Cabinet.

But Charles Martel was a Palace Minister, and he turned back the Moors at Tours lo these many years ago. His son Pepin was a Palace Minister, and he became King of the Franks. It is not unprecedented for Palace Ministers to make something of themselves. One might even say it is tradition. All you need is an opportunity.

That opportunity has arrived.

King Charles was not an old king. Indeed, he had a good forty years left in him. Perhaps even fifty. But an assassin's bullet or a well-placed icepick can steal fifty years in less time than it takes to say the words. And a sudden illness? An illness such as the one King Charles contracted two days ago? Perhaps not as quick, but just as effective. For if this letter you've just received is correct, just such a disease has claimed the life of the King. This leaves the principality in the hands of his son, Prince Charles. Prince Charles is five years old. Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself.

Of course, you shall scarcely be alone in seeking the position. The King's Cabinet is not a small body. And your fellow ministers will no doubt try all sorts of unseemly tactics in their quest for the throne. Some will try bribery. Others will employ treachery. A few may even resort to brute force. But would Primo Varicella stoop to using one of these methods? Perish the thought! You're better than that. You shall employ all three.

It will be an uphill struggle, to say the least. Of those soon to be clamoring for the regency, you are among the lowest in rank. But you are not without a number of advantages. The drama to unfold will play out in the palace — your palace. Time is also on your side: at present, only you and the Queen know of the King's demise. And you've known of his illness for a couple of days now, days in which you've hatched a flawless plan. There should be little to stand in the way of your ascent to power so long as you put your plan into action immediately.

Or at least as soon as this manicure is finished. One must have one's priorities.

Game or story? Elements of both.

Easy or difficult? Difficult (and long).

Good for newcomers? Probably not, but if they're looking for a challenge…

You can also read a scholarly essay about Varicella.

first release: 1999.08; current version: 1.14



Photopia

1st Place, 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

  • "This is a work so hugely influential to IF development that anyone interested in the history of the form should try it." —Emily Short

  • "Photopia is important to video games as a whole, to the advancement of our understanding of the interactive medium." —necessarygames.com

  • "I don't think any other work of art has ever affected me to the extent that Photopia has." —playthisthing.com

The fifteen people who think I'm famous think so because of Photopia. It's not my best work — and I should certainly hope not, given how long ago I wrote it — but sometimes you have the right idea at the right time, and I happened to hit upon a new approach to interactive fiction right when people were ready for it. I have since developed this story for other media, and so to me this original version reads like a primitive ancestor of those adaptations… but if you landed at my site following some other link, and wondered "who is this guy?", most people would probably point you to Photopia to answer your question.

Game or story? Story; almost no gamelike elements.

Easy or difficult? Easy to make progress, but may be confusing at first.

Good for newcomers? Yes.

You can also read about the making of Photopia.

first release: 1998.10; current version: 2.01



Lock & Key

Winner of three Xyzzy Awards, including Best Puzzle of 2002.

You are locked in a cell.

This in and of itself is not a new thing: spending a little time behind bars every now and again is one of the hazards of the job. But up until now it's been for little 50-crown and 100-crown jobs out in the countryside, and you've ended up in decrepit little gaols that managed to hold you for, what, a minute? Possibly two? This, though, this is different. You thought you'd try one last job, land one big score: five thousand crowns. And now you're the newest resident of King Tyrak II's deepest, darkest dungeon. Scream all you like: no one will be coming to rescue you. No one will even be coming to feed you. If you ever want to see the sun again, you will have to pull off an audacious escape — and soon.

Game or story? Game, with some story elements.

Easy or difficult? Somewhat difficult.

Good for newcomers? Maybe, if they like puzzles.

first release: 2002.01; current version: 1.12



Textfire Golf

Stand steady at the tee… head down… slow backswing. Now, drive your tee shot 220 yards down the fairway, splitting a pair of sandtraps. Loft a five iron onto the green. And sink a twenty foot putt for a birdie!

You control the swing and aim throughout 9 championship quality holes. The fairways and greens are beautifully manicured, but the sand traps are deep… and the rough is… rough!

Game or story? Game, with a few story elements.

Easy or difficult? Depends on your hand-eye coordination.

Good for newcomers? I suppose, but not as an introduction to IF.

first release: 2001.01; current version: 1.01



Shrapnel

Xyzzy winner, Best Use of Medium 2000

  • "Unsettling. Brilliant. Damn you." —Ian Finley

  • "Really good game, but REALLY CREEPY. I honestly woke up with nightmares after playing it." —Sean Gaffney

  • "This was the most unsettling piece of IF I've ever had the pleasure to play." —Oren Ronen

  • "I think I'm now warped for life." —Alan Monroe

Game or story? Story; almost no gamelike elements.

Easy or difficult? Easy to make progress, but confusing.

Good for newcomers? No way.

You can also read about the making of Shrapnel.

first release: 2000.02; current version: 1.01



9:05

The phone rings.

Oh, no — how long have you been asleep? Sure, it was a tough night, but… This is bad. This is very bad.

The phone rings.

Game or story? Story.

Easy or difficult? Easy, and very short.

Good for newcomers? Sure. This has actually become a standard intro-to-IF piece.

first release: 2000.01; current version: 1.11



I-0 (Interstate Zero)

Winner of two Xyzzy Awards, including Best Game of 1997.

You're Tracy Valencia, first-year student at the reasonably prestigious University of Dorado. Sure, it's not Berkeley — hell, it isn't even Stanford — but it's light-years better than Dorado State, where your older brother Trevor goes. Dorado State's just a party school. Trevor makes a point of rubbing this in every time he calls.

He'll be able to rub it in in person soon enough: it's Thanksgiving Day, and you're driving home. Daddy was perfectly willing to buy you a plane ticket, but like you told him on the phone, there are much better things to spend the money on. Birthday presents, for instance — you turn eighteen tomorrow. Besides, it's only a four-hour drive.

Two and a half hours into said drive, the car starts making a noise no piece of machinery should ever make. It's the sort of sound a rhesus monkey might make being forced down a garbage disposal. Now, Dorado is nothing but scorching desert from the time you cross the coastal mountains until you reach the river; true, it's the scorching desert in which you grew up, but sentimentality aside, it's not exactly the best place in the world to find yourself stranded. But you've got to do something about this noise, if only because it's drowning out the stereo. So you pull over. You're just about to switch off the ignition when the car goes dead of its own accord. You try to start it up again, but absolutely nothing happens.

Guess what, Tracy? You're stuck on the loneliest stretch of Interstate Zero miles away from the last sign of civilization. It's twenty minutes to noon and the temperature's well over a hundred and twenty. You already miss the air conditioning. It's beginning to look like Ed and Sandy Valencia's only daughter might not make it for Thanksgiving dinner...

Game or story? Story, with some gamelike elements.

Easy or difficult? Easy, but some paths are harder than others.

Good for newcomers? So I've been told.

first release: 1997.01; current version: 1.21



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