An intro to interactive fiction

Last weekend I attended PAX East in Boston. It was a lot of fun to play games with friends and talk about gaming and the culture and issues surrounding it, but there was one thing in particular that really got me excited about bringing back to the library world: interactive fiction.

It depends on whom you ask, but interactive fiction is, generally, a game where you give text commands to influence your environment, the story unfolding only as you solve puzzles, interact with other characters, or move through the world of the story. More liberal definitions of interactive fiction may also include games like Myst or actual printed stories like Choose Your Own Adventure Books, but mostly interactive fiction (or IF) refers to text-based story-games. If you’ve ever played a text-based adventure game, you’ve played interactive fiction. The most famous piece of interactive fiction is Zork, in which you explore a great underground labyrinth, looking for treasure, and hoping to make it back to the surface alive.

Interactive fiction saw its heyday in the late 70s and early 80s, but while gaming culture has moved on to graphical games on computers, consoles, and handhelds, there’s still a strong community around interactive fiction being created today, and IF itself has evolved in leaps and bounds. One of the events people in the IF community (the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, to be specific) organize is a mini-con that’s held in Boston on the same weekend as PAX East, and since one of my husband’s friends was going to be showing off his newest project, we went to a few of the events. We first watched a speed demonstration of Inform 7, a language and development environment for creating IF, and then got to sample some different IF titles at the demo fair.

I want to talk about the demo fair first because it totally blew my mind. I hadn’t really thought about IF since I’d played a little of it as a kid, so when I got to play some of these games, it was like suddenly being cannoned 20 years into the future. There were games that incorporated sound into the player’s experience. There was a graphical adventure game. There was even a game you played by typing commands on a typewriter.

And not only were the games I played awesome and innovative and interesting, it turns out that writing them is easier than ever before, and this is where Inform 7 comes in. Inform 7 is the latest version of a programming language and operating environment for creating interactive fiction, and the big improvement this version brings is an update to the language. Instead of writing what looks like code to create rooms, people, and objects, Inform 7 lets you describe the world you’re creating in much more natural language–which makes writing IF a lot easier and a lot more accessible.

I put together a tiny little example game that you can play to get a sense for how interactive fiction works. If you’ve never played before, check out How to Play Interactive Fiction (An entire strategy guide on a single postcard.) or Emily Short’s longer guide to getting started. You interact with the game by issuing commands like “ask doctor about funnybone” or “take bagel” or “east”. (Here’s a solution to my mini-game if you need it.)

But to demonstrate how easy it is to do the actual “programming” part of writing IF, I’ve also made the source code available. Here’s a little snippet to show off how natural the language feels:

The clipboard is an object. The clipboard is carried by the library assistant. The description is “You peek around the library assistant’s shoulder and look at the clipboard. It seems to be a checklist of things that are needed for the Battle of the Bands contest. Everything on the list is checked off except for the microphone.”

Anyway, let’s bring this back to libraries. Since writing interactive fiction is a lot easier with the natural language feel of Inform 7, I thought it’d be really awesome to organize an interactive fiction competition for library teens. They could write their own stories–or adapt their favorite YA novel into a game–and then play each other’s games and vote on which one was the best.

Even if there aren’t enough teens interested in interactive fiction at your library to organize your own competition, there are plenty of interactive fiction competitions online. One that’s especially good for beginners is the IntroComp, where applicants create a playable introduction to their game. Everyone then votes on which intro sounds the most interesting, and the top three winners win a cash prize if they finish writing the rest of their game. (There’s also an honorable mention prize for the first non-winner who finishes his or her game.) If your kids want to jump right in to full IF competitions, the 17th annual Interactive Fiction Competition should be beginning in a few months.

At the very least, play a couple of IF games yourself and see if your teens might be interested in this alternative form of storytelling. Here are some recommendations, including notes on which titles are good (and not so good) for new players. (If you click on the IFDB link below the game description, you can then play online without having to download an interpreter by clicking on the “Play Online” button on the right side of the game listing in IFDB.) I’m in the middle of Lost Pig right now and it’s got some great unexpected humor.

So go! Play some games! And then bring IF to your teens.

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