Playing, Studying and Writing Interactive Fiction (Text Adventure Games)

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What is Interactive Fiction?

Interactive fiction (IF) is computer-mediated narrative, resembling a very finely-grained “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. The interactor reads a short textual description (“You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.”), and types instructions to the computer (“enter building”). The plot can change based on what the interactor types. It has the potential to be more truly interactive than hypertext.

Cloak of Darkness Project

The “Cloak of Darkness” specification is a very simple pattern, designed to help programmers compare the strengths and weaknesses of various coding environments.

My contributions include:

On this page:

Playing Interactive Fiction

Read a few lines or paragraphs describing a simulated world. Type a command. The computer first tries to figure out what you want to do, and then checks to see whether you can do it. The computer prints out some more text, describing whether or to what extent your action has affected the simulated world. (See transcripts and examples of interactive fiction.)

Interactive fiction requires the text-analysis skills of a literary scholar and the relentless puzzle-solving drive of a computer hacker. People tend to love it or hate it. Those who hate it sometimes say it makes them think too much.

See Also:

Studying Interactive Fiction

History of Interactive Fiction
“In the mid 1970’s Will Crowther, a programmer and an amateur caver, having just gone through a divorce, was looking for a way to connect with his two young children. Over the course of a few weekends he slapped together a text based cave exploration game that featured a sort of guide/narrator who talked in full sentences and who understood simple two word commands that came really close to natural English…. Some time later Stanford graduate student Don Woods came along, and he came across an unfinished copy of this game on a mainframe computer. He expanded it and released it on the Internet.”

Annotated Bibliography of Interactive Fiction (TEXT Technology)
“Those scholars who consider IF as something more than an amusement often cast it as a form of postmodern narrative; yet unlike hypertext, IF does not neatly embody any pre-existing literary theories…

Foundations of IF
“[I]nteractive fiction has developed… from being a simulation of some other experience (namely, the exploration of an underground cave), to being a new way to present an experience that cannot be narrated in any other manner.”

Other Resources about Playing IF

Writing Interactive Fiction

Designing interactive fiction involves both computer programming and storytelling skill. Designers with any ambition must spend considerable time fiddling with the mundane technical details of coding objects and behaviors, while also creating characters, dialogue, and narrative elements that can be pieced together in multiple different ways.

A particularly exciting development in interactive fiction is the release of Inform 7, a complete package for writing, debugging, mapping, and publishing interative fiction games playable on a wide range of platforms, including PCs, Macs, and handhelds. Inform 7 code is designed to resemble ordinary English, and is thus an excellent choice for verbal thinkers who are not trained as programmers.

The pages that follow are intended to provide some sense of the challenges and rewards of writing interactive fiction.

Creating the Code

  • Inform 7
    An elegant, beautiful system that lets you use natural language to write your own text games, which can be played (for free) on a wide variety of machines, from PCs and Macs to PDAs and digital phones.
  • Older Resources for Inform 6
    • Inform Beginner’s Guide
      Step-by-step tutorial in the IF programming language Inform. Begins with a good analysis of the genre, and walks through the development of three increasingly complex IF games. (Roger Firth and Sonia Kesserich; edited by Dennis G. Jerz.)
    • Inform Designer’s Manual (free downloads)
      The definitive guide to Inform 6. (Graham Nelson; edited by Gareth Rees.)
  • Cloak of Darkness (Compares numerous other IF programming languages.)
Crafting the Experience


Elsewhere on this website…

02 Sep 2001; Matt Hoy and Dennis G. Jerz , eds.
Scott Adams: Storytelling in Computer Games

The author of the first commercial computer game (“Adventureland,” 1978) leads a lively discussion on narrative, copyright, and violence. He also describes his first night playing EverQuest.

posted 06 Mar 2001; by Emily Short
Galatea (2000)
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.”

06 Mar 2001; Dennis G. Jerz 
Eliza (1966)
Eliza was the first chatterbot — a computer program that mimics human conversation. In only about 200 lines of computer code, Eliza models the behavior of a psychiatrist (or, more specifically, the “active listening” strategies of a touchy-feely 1960s Rogerian therapist).

01 Feb 2001; by Emily Short
You wake to stillness. The hammering, banging, and shouting that kept you awake half the night are gone. The air is cold, and something smells burnt. Your master’s experiments must be finished, but with what result?

15 Sep 2000; by Dennis G. Jerz
PICK UP AX is a three-character stage play, set in Silicon Valley around 1980, in which the characters play an “Adventure” clone. Much as Shakespeare might allude to mythology or appeal to floral symbolism in order to make a point about human nature,playwright Anthony Clarvoe uses computer games as a vehicle to show the audience who his characters are and what they want out of life.

7 Feb 2000; by Dennis G. Jerz
Nelson’s Interactive “The Tempest” (Review)
The “interactor” takes on the role of the fairy spirit Ariel, who must perform tricks in order to win his freedom. In theory, it sounds like a great way to experience Shakespeare’s work in a new context. In practice, however…

Elsewhere on the Web…

6 May, 2000; Wagner James Au (
Will you tell me a story — please?
“Lured by the siren song of ever-improving graphics power, terrified by the risks involved with truly unique ideas in gaming, the industry is collectively stumbling along a path well-worn by Hollywood.”

26 Apr 2001; Laura L. Hogue (UWEC Spectator)
Text-based computer game lets players interact with story
“Imagine yourself creating a game with a world for other people to inhabit on your own computer. It is a world without sounds or visuals. Now, put yourself into the textual world and imagine yourself in that world and living through the game.”

See Also
Jerz’s Literacy Weblog
Games ArchiveBuy at Amazon
Twisty Little Passages
Nick Montfort’s study of riddles, Adventure, Zork, and beyond.

8 thoughts on “Playing, Studying and Writing Interactive Fiction (Text Adventure Games)

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  6. The original Cave game wasn’t released on the ‘Internet’ as the ‘internet’ didn’t exist at the time, It was shared via University mainframes which are nothing like the internet

    • Thanks for your comment. You are correct that the capital-I Internet did not exist at that time. That quote is from a speech I delivered to a group of English majors at a university English festival. I should probably have said something more general such as “released it online.” Whether ARPANET was “nothing” like the Internet is a matter of opinion. At any rate, if you’d like to read a much more detailed account of the source code (and source cave) for Colossal Cave Adventure, see

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