Classical Studies




Living Room

You are in the living room. There is a door to the east, a wooden door with strange gothic lettering to the west, which appears to be nailed shut, and a large oriental rug in the center of the room.
There is a trophy case here. A battery-powered brass lantern is on the trophy case. Above the trophy case hangs an elvish sword of great antiquity.

Remember Zork, the text-based adventure game from Infocom and one of the best-selling computer games of the disco era? If you’re older than about 38, words and phrases like “frotz,” “xyzzy,” “maze of twisty passages all alike,” and “eaten by a grue” trigger sharp remembrance, like Marcel Proust eating a madeleine. You’ll instantly reminisce about text games like Infocom’s Deadline, Suspended, Infidel, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, and a zillion Scott Adams titles from Adventure International. You’ll grit your teeth recalling the hours it took to put the Babel fish in your ear in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you’re a male secure in your masculinity, you may even join the manly men who say the death of Floyd the robot in Planetfall was the only time a computer game ever made them cry.

If you’re under 38, you’re now saying, “Huh?” Text games (or, as some called them, “interactive fiction”) were once the most popular electronic games. Yet they vanished overnight from store shelves, driven into darkness by the IBM PC’s EGA and VGA graphics adapters.

But in obscure reaches of the field, text games survive to this day. Indeed, despite (or because of) no sales, they’re currently enjoying an artistic Silver Age. Just as traditional craftspeople even today use time-honored techniques to hand-tool birchbark canoes and embroider lace doilies and program the Commodore 64, devoted hobbyists still play and design text games.

“Results 1 – 10 of about 340,000 for ‘interactive fiction.'”
– Google

Interactive fiction (IF) fans maintain huge websites like the IF Archive and its loyal companion, Baf’s Guide. There’s XYZZY News (named for a magic word in Zork) and Interactive Fiction Ratings (“1141 of 2584 titles have been rated; 738 titles have multiple ratings; 351 users have entered 6374 opinions”). Fans hang out on a chat MUD, Liza Daly’s ifMUD (, which draws a small but friendly multinational tribe around the clock. They write scholarly books like Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, a 2004 treatise by Nick Montfort published by the MIT Press. The quarterly newsletter of the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games (SPAG) has reached issue #41. There’s even a non-worksafe AIF (“Adult Interactive Fiction”) community.

Two Usenet newsgroups, and, have bubbled along respectably for many years. Some recent topics:

  • Writing under PalmOS
  • Interactive Fiction ROMS for the Gameboy Advance
  • Best font to use while playing text games
  • TADS3: Using a self-made transitive verb without an object causes error
  • How to describe plainness in an attractive way?

On the interactive fiction newsgroups, users debate Z-machines. A Z-machine is a program that interprets and runs Infocom game data files, which were written in a cross-platform “Z-code” to run on 26 different platforms. For years IF fans dissected the Z-code format like Champollion cracking the Rosetta Stone. Now the fans know Z-code backward and forward and have implemented their own extensions to the standard. There are Z-machines for just about every operating system, from Windows XP and Mac OS X to PDAs down to ancient boxes even a NetBSD team wouldn’t touch. (Check out this list – At last, a use for your old Atari ST!)

But having already played Infocom’s three dozen titles, and maybe a few from other text game publishers of the time like Level 9, Topologica, and Adventure International, what were devoted IF fans to do? As the graphics-heavy titles dominating the market took over the professional sector of electronic gaming, inevitably some enthusiasts began writing their own games.

You come around a corner, away from the noise of the opening.
There is only one exhibit. She stands in the spotlight, with her back to you: a sweep of pale hair on paler skin, a column of emerald silk that ends in a pool at her feet. She might be the model in a perfume ad; the trophy wife at a formal gathering; one of the guests at this very opening, standing on an empty pedestal in some ironic act of artistic deconstruction – You hesitate, about to turn away. Her hand balls into a fist. “They told me you were coming.”

– Emily Short, Galatea (2000)

The annual Interactive Fiction Competition is now in its eleventh year. This, the best known of many IF contests, draws three to five dozen entries annually – 30 to 60 complete text games, each playable in two hours or less. (Or anyway, they’re only rated on how much the judges can complete in two hours.)

These games cover a stunning variety of subjects: genre adventures in the Infocom tradition, historical tales, mind-bending dream worlds – one recent entry, Aidan Doyle’s Bolivia by Night, is basically a tour of Bolivia. There’s even a text version of a first-person shooter, Jason Bergman’s IF Quake:

A Grunt is on patrol here, armed with a shotgun and looking rather surly. As you enter the room, he looks up and turns in your direction.

The Rottweiler sniffs you immediately and runs in your direction.
You can also see a Medkit here.


You hit the Grunt, taking off 12 from his health.

The Grunt’s shotgun nicks your leg, hitting you for five points. It won’t kill you, but you’d really rather it not happen again.

Interactive fiction fans range widely, and some of them write well. Chris Klimas’ Blue Chairs, which swept the major Xyzzy Awards for 2004, leads the player through a stylish, symbolic second-person hallucination/dream full of sad recollections:

Beatrice’s Room

The first time you saw this room, you were laughing. It was Christmas, after dinner, and you were flush with the wine her parents insisted you drink – maybe because you seemed so nervous – and there you saw them: all those paper cranes hanging from the ceiling. She made them, one by one, to remember things worth remembering. Her sixteenth birthday. When she stopped taking ballet classes. You caught her reaching for a piece of origami paper on her bureau that night. She thought you had fallen asleep.

(Klimas has posted a Blue Chairs walkthrough. Playing any IF walkthrough makes you part actor, part stenographer, part observer. It’s like watching a really good Dance Dance Revolution player: entertaining, but the experience is completely different from actual play.)

For newcomers, one good introduction to IF is Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin’s fantasy game Dreamhold, an amnesiac’s exploration of a wizard’s high house. It has a tutorial mode that helps the newbie along with hints and encouragement.


This is the weathered front porch of the house. A closed screen door leads westward into the house. You can leave the porch to the east.

Mr. Martin is standing in the doorway.

There is a particularly yummy bone here.

“What! Timmy’s fallen down and broken his leg! Where?”

“In the old Johnson barn! Let’s go!”

– a joke contest example from the Winter 1986 Infocom newsletter, “The New Zork Times”

These interactive fiction games range so widely because their cost of entry is so low. Using free special-purpose compilers like Inform, TADS, or the more recent Hugo, any IF enthusiast can make a complete computer game in days instead of years, alone instead of on a huge team, with minimal programming knowledge. No, there’s no money in it – but then again, if there were, the games would probably look a lot more alike, slick mass-market clones.

Well, there is a little money in text games. Though fans of text games now number barely in the thousands, if not hundreds, the form still finds markets. As steaming atolls, newly formed from the ocean depths, soon grow green with moss and lichens, so are some new gadgets instantly colonized by text adventurers, gaming’s hardy pioneers. A few early mobile phone games were text, and now you can buy text games for your iPod. (You read the text on the display and make choices even while you listen to your songs.)

But some IF fans seek a higher destiny. They foster ongoing discussion of whether and how text games qualify as a genuine art form, a branch of literature. Stephen Granade, who runs the popular IF site The Brass Lantern, has argued IF fans must become “literate gamers“:

“I think that IF can be more than entertainment. It is an art form, and at its best it does what all good art does: It sheds light on the human condition. But for IF to be art, IF must have its cadre of literate critics and creators. […] One problem which plagued science fiction criticism for the longest time was that works of SF were compared only to other works of SF. Little attempt was made to connect SF to the larger realm of fiction. We can fall prey to the same mistakes when critiquing IF. It’s not enough to say that a game was good ‘for an adventure game.’ We need to be willing to subject works of IF to the harsher standards of literature in general.”

Granade’s writings show the devotion of not only a literate gamer, but a hardcore fan – the uncompromising commitment you’d encounter in a crafter of birchbark canoes, lace doilies, or Commodore code. “As you grow in experience, it becomes harder and harder to just ‘enjoy a game,'” he writes. “Bad games seem ten times worse than they are; reasonably good games become disappointments. The reward, though, is a heightened enjoyment of IF when it works. You’ll be playing a game, going through the motions, when you’ll hit a scene which works. All the drudgery of playing IF, all the time you’ve spent suddenly becomes unimportant. For a brief moment a glow will surround you, and you’ll marvel at the craftsmanship and artistry of the author.”

This glow, however brief, shows little sign of dying.

A brilliant flash of green light seems less unusual when followed by the appearance of tentacled aliens, as is the case with the current flash of green light. The tentacles wrap roughly around you as you faint.

After an unknown amount of time … Well, let’s cut the crap. 7.3 hours later, you wake. Your head feels as if it’s been run over by several locomotives, or at least one very large locomotive, and your clothes are now unrecognizable …

– Steve Meretzky, Leather Goddesses of Phobos

Allen Varney is a freelance writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. His published work includes six books, three board games, and nearly two dozen role-playing game supplements.

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