Interactive fiction has been around a looooong time.  I’m just getting into it now, but I thought I’d write about how cool it is.  I know, I’m a tad late to the party.

If you’ve never played interactive fiction, let me put it to you this way: you type commands or click on things, and it changes the setting you are in (or not).  Then you type or click on more stuff, and things change again.  Eventually, you accomplish a goal.  But that really doesn’t even begin to sum up the experience.

Interactive fiction covers a lot of ground.  Myst and, more recently, Machinarium are two games that, I would argue, have pushed the IF envelope a bit (using graphics, for one thing) and have garnered serious attention.  When most people hear IF, though, they think of text adventures.

You’ve probably heard of Zork.  If you’re a Chuck fan (and you should be), you’ve definitely heard of Zork.  Zork has, for a lot of reasons, entered the public awareness like few other text adventures.  It sort of hides out in the corner at the party, occasionally waving and getting recognized by a couple of celebrities who have fond memories from childhood, but is soon forgotten when the flashbulbs have faded.  But no matter how often it is forgotten, Zork sticks around and inspires greatness.

That’s the thing about text adventures is that they stay with you.  I’ve become a pretty avid Minecraft player in the last month or so (in case you’ve been wondering if I died) but even Minecraft doesn’t stick with me in my walk to the dining hall quite the way Andrew Plotkin‘s excellent The Dreamhold does.  It’s the sort of thing that begins to consume you, all puzzles and tantalizing descriptions, and you begin to see what you’re not told.

That’s the pull of IF.  It takes root in your soul, to use a pseudo-spiritual term.  I can see why you would, in the words of the fabulous Mr. Plotkin, “spend fifteen years working hard on projects with no reward but community good-will.”  In fact, after much work by dedicated IF players and writers, Inform is available to help you do just that.  It’s really a fantastic, easy-to-use piece of software and it runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

With Inform and a great starter tutorial from Brass Lantern, I’m starting to work on my own short, exploratory piece of IF based on my current residence hall.  Why?  Because it sounds like fun.  Also, I’m hoping to learn a lot about playing IF from trying to write it myself.  They sort of go hand in hand.

If you’re still with me, you’re probably considering trying out some IF, or maybe you already have.  Here are some excellent works that I’ve been enjoying (though I have finished none):

  • The Dreamhold: written as an IF tutorial by the aforementioned Andrew Plotkin, I’m working through this one before I seriously play anything else, just to get a handle on how IF works.  The system is pretty intuitive once you get used to it, but The Dreamhold is a great way to wrap your head around what is sometimes a steep learning curve.
  • Everybody Dies: This was actually the first piece of IF that I played.  I am indebted to some now-forgotten blog (probably Boing Boing) for pointing me to it.  I can’t wait to come back to it once I’ve finished The Dreamhold.  Who doesn’t love hijinks at Cost Cutters?
  • Zork: A classic.  I started playing this one because of Chuck.  I also have it on Frotz, the IF interpretor for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

I happen to use Spatterlight as my primary IF interpreter, but I’ve also played with Zoom and find them about equivalent.  No reason to be picky—they’re all pretty much the same.  I definitely recommend Frotz for iOS, though.  For more IF, check out the IFDB.  There’s a lot, and it’s free.

Speaking of iOS, I recommend checking out Andrew Plotkin’s Hadean Lands project on Kickstarter, too.  I know I sound like some sort of religious fanatic by this point, but Plotkin really writes some excellent IF.  I hear similarly good things about Emily Short, but I haven’t gotten around to her games, yet.  Kickstarter is a great way to fund projects, and Hadean Lands looks friggin’ amazing.  The demo was what convinced me—do yourself a favor and try it out with Parchment (in-browser IF interpreter).  I’m a sponsor, and I can’t wait to get both the iOS and desktop versions…

Go out there and download some IF.  Play around and find your feet.  It’ll be worth the investment.