Interactive fiction, from birth through precocious adolescence: a conversation with Jimmy Maher
The authors wish to acknowledge Tim Anderson, one of the authors of the original Zork, for his assistance in identifying the Infocom Imps in the photograph.
About the authors
Harry Kaplan did not discover the world of computer gaming until the mid 1990s, and only then because his wife Mary, a former Russian translator, insisted on playing the game Spycraft with him. Both of them were instantly hooked and played many graphic adventure games together for the rest of that decade. However, as the millennium turned, the pair were lured into the realm of IF, developing interest both in IF's commercial era of the 1980s as well as in the thriving contemporary IF community and its story games.
Harry wishes to thank Mary not only for luring him into gaming but also for continuing to share his obsession.
Jimmy Maher, like many in the IF community, was introduced to IF through the games of the IF giant Infocom in the 1980s. After drifting away following the demise of commercial IF, he discovered the existence of a thriving modern IF community around 2000, spending the next several years lurking and catching up on the great games he had missed during his decade in the wilderness.
Gradually he began to take a more active role in the community. He developed a Windows interpreter for IF games, Filfre; he began to write game reviews; and then, like a bolt from the blue, SPAG editor Paul O'Brian offered to hand the editorship of the magazine over to him. Soon after, he wrote a lengthy history of IF (Let's Tell a Story Together) as his honors thesis for the Bachelor's Degree at the University of Texas. He continued his studies there and recently received his Master's Degree.
His studies to date have encompassed the usual wide-ranging liberal arts smorgasbord, but he specializes in IF, interactive storytelling, and new media. He is planning to take a year off to catch up on various projects, and then hopes to pursue his doctoral studies in Europe. His extended bachelorhood finally ended August 2008 when he married Dorte, a wonderful woman who tolerates and even joins in some of his geeky pursuits.
Jimmy has spent much of the last year working on his first serious piece of IF, The King of Shreds and Patches, which is available for download from his website.
For more information, visit The King of Shreds and Patches.
SPAG (Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games), founded in 1994 by G. Kevin Wilson, is an online e-zine featuring reviews, interviews, and other articles about IF. It is published on a roughly quarterly basis. Its current editor is Jimmy Maher.
For more information, visit SPAG - Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games.
For a sample of modern IF, read a transcript excerpt of Jimmy's IF, The King of Shreds and Patches.
- Welcome, Jimmy! Since many gamers are unfamiliar with Interactive Fiction (IF), having come of age in the era of graphic adventures, we had better begin with an introduction. What exactly is IF? How is IF distinguished from graphic adventure?
- Thanks for having me!
If we were to just take the words "interactive fiction" literally, then graphic adventures (as well as hypertext fictions, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and many other forms) would actually qualify as IF. When we talk about interactive fiction in this context, though, we are actually talking about something much more specific. We could say that interactive fiction has become a single noun of its own, with a unique meaning separate from the meanings of the two words that constitute it.
IF relies upon text for both output and input. It works like this: You play the part of a person within a storyworld that is simulated by the computer. The computer describes the situation to you, and you type what you would like to do using a very simple imperative sentence in English (or Spanish, or Italian, or Russian, if you happen to be playing a game written in one of those languages). The computer updates the simulated world in response, describing to you the results of your action. Then you can type something else, and the cycle continues. Over the course of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of these "turns," you can experience an often surprisingly rich story interactively, with you in the role of the protagonist. (Figure 1)
- Apart from the centrality of the pure text interface, what is described sounds much like a graphic adventure. Does, or can, IF's reliance on text change the fundamental experience of the game?
- In a sense, IF is not THAT different from a typical graphic adventure. Like graphic adventures, most IF's present challenges to the player to be overcome, whether they be physical puzzles or mysteries to solve or characters to ally with or even monsters to fight. In practice, though, IF's tend to play out differently, as they have their own unique set of strengths and limitations, just like graphical adventures. The parser -- the bit of technology which translates your textual commands into something the computer can understand – may be both IF's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand, because IF presents an analog rather than digital interface to its player -- meaning that you cannot ever really know all of the possibilities for action -- it lends the player a sense of freedom, a feeling of not being bound to a handful of possibilities listed in a menu. On the other hand, a badly designed parser can be hell. Some gamers probably have memories of playing early text adventures (as we used to call IF's before our current slightly more pretentious age). They may recall trying to figure out the ONE verb and noun combination out of dozens of possibilities that the game would accept for carrying out a fairly straightforward action, and they may think that they never, ever want to even look at IF again. To them I say that our parsers have gotten much, much better, as has our sense of design craft. The Guess the Verb Syndrome (as we call it) is quite a rare occurrence now -- really.
Finally, although IF is distinguished by a PRIMARY reliance upon text for input and output, this does not preclude the inclusion of multimedia elements. Plenty of IF's have been released over the years featuring sound effects, musical scores, illustrations, even menus of verbs, nouns, and prepositions to allow those who would prefer not to type to construct commands for the parser using the mouse. These elements are however used as supplements to the basic model of textual input and output already described. And in fact, most IF's, even in this multimedia age, still consist only of plain text. Perhaps this has something to do with the general model of IF development. Whereas most graphic adventures of any complexity are produced by teams of people, most IF's are written by a single author, many of whom may not be skilled in illustration or musical composition.
- In 2006 you wrote a thoughtful and comprehensive history of IF entitled Let's Tell a Story Together (1).
Before we get into any detail, however, it may be helpful to formulate a simple timeline stretching from the inception of IF to the present, dividing it into what will of necessity be oversimplified periods (think Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age).
How do you characterize each period from IF's beginning through the end of IF's supernova commercial era? Also, how do you see IF's evolution from that time to the present? For now, I would like to defer any discussion devoted to IF's improbable artistic progress, community-building, and survival into the present, despite the lack of a commercial rationale. Instead, I would like to focus on each of the earlier periods in turn, attempting to go beyond the well-worn generalities concerning the history of IF that are endlessly cited.
- I find IF's history fascinating in itself and, thanks in large part to the efforts of the modern IF community, amazingly well-documented. I did try to emphasize even at the time I wrote the history, however, that I consider IF very much a living, evolving form whose best days are (hopefully) still to come, and so I share your hope that we can give the remarkable post-commercial history of IF its due at another time.
So, then, historical periods. There's been a tendency in the past to divide IF up into just two: the brief commercial era, when IF was for a few years commonly played by millions of people around the world and when it was possible to make a very good living as an IF author; and everything else. Jeremy Douglass in his recent PhD thesis and some of his other writings has done a really good job of re-examining that conventional time-line, however. While the commercial era was hugely important, other eras were as or more important for IF's artistic progress. Also, things haven't stood still since I wrote the history, and so, after giving it a bit of thought, I'm going to divide things up into the following periods -- likely different periods than I would have chosen in 2006.
The Institutional Computing Era (1966-1979): The groundwork is gradually laid for full-fledged IF through programs like Eliza (1966) and Hunt the Wumpus (1972). The first true work of IF, Adventure, is begun in 1976 and reaches a basically completed state by early 1978. Several more games follow, including Dungeon, written by some of the folks who would soon found Infocom. All of these works run on large mini- and mainframe computers installed in companies and universities, and are distributed over the forerunner of our modern Internet.
The High Commercial Era (1979-1986): IF comes to the first generation of home computers, beginning with Scott Adams's Adventureland, a port of the mainframe Adventure. Infocom is founded and releases its first game, Zork I, a scaled-down version of Dungeon, in 1980, and immediately becomes the IF gold standard that everyone else tries to emulate. IF is one of the most popular forms of computer entertainment during this era. At least one game, The Hobbit, sells over a million copies at $30 or $40 a pop (Figure 2). Entertainment software bestseller lists of this era frequently show IF titles holding down three, four, or even five of the top ten sales positions.
Commercial Decline and Fall (1986-1993): As the multimedia capabilities of computers improve, the public drifts away from parser-driven adventures to the graphical, point-and-click variety. Many of the best, most sophisticated games of the commercial era appear during this period, but the major IF companies are forced to fight over an ever-dwindling pie; the gaming public, perhaps turned off by the generally dismal quality of most IF released during the previous era and perhaps just not ready for the idea of electronic "literature," is increasingly uninterested. IF companies fail to cultivate other markets for their work, and gradually die off one by one. By 1991, only one company is still producing commercial IF. The text adventure is kept alive only through amateurs who network on pre-Internet services like CompuServe and GEnie, developing games mostly using the early IF programming language AGT. AGT, and most of the work produced with it, is fairly primitive, but a few gems do appear.
Rebirth (1993-2003): The release of Graham Nelson's Curses in 1993 marks the beginning of a new era. For the first time, IF authors have access in Inform 6 and TADS 2 to tools as good or better than those Infocom used, and the result is actually far more bona-fide classics than were produced during the commercial "golden age." The modern IF community institutions form one by one in the mid-1990s, but by the end of this era many are troubled by a certain ennui and community insularity.
New Blood and New Approaches (2003-present): MIT Press's release of Nick Montfort's book Twisty Little Passages in 2003 heralds new interest and respect for IF from outside the traditional community. New third-generation IF programming languages appear, and there is a much-needed new focus on making IF easier both to write and to pick up and play, especially by novices. Stellar outreach by community stalwarts like Emily Short gets IF onto portals and websites that have traditionally ignored the form. Some of the moldy-oldie atmosphere around IF is dispelled, and gamers who had barely heard of IF are coming to it fresh and enthusiastically.
I hope that the trends of the last few years will continue, and that the era to follow will be a return to at least a certain prominence, this time on IF's own terms rather than those of the video-game market.
- If it weren't for the IF community's vigorous outreach, you and I probably wouldn't be having a discussion here!
Historically there hasn't been an enormous number of IF articles appearing at websites geared toward graphic adventure games. However, writings related to IF published at such sites have been received with growing interest. Hopefully our discussion will provide an illuminating context that will encourage more gamers to take the IF plunge.
- I'm not quite sure I'd called the IF community's outreach "vigorous," but there is at least SOME outreach happening, which is a nice improvement on just a few years ago. Much more needs to be done, however... and hey, let's be honest, that's the main reason I'm here!
- Let's look more closely at each era in turn. Adventure has predecessors in the Institutional Computing Era, but you dub it the first true work of IF. Why do you deny those earlier also-rans the knighthood you bestow on Adventure?
- There certainly were important earlier works that hinted at what was ultimately "born" in Adventure. Two were perhaps most significant among these, and I'm going to describe both what they contributed and why they don't qualify as true IF. First we have Eliza (1966), which set up the basic model of IF interaction as a pseudo-natural language dialog between player and computer program; and second we have Hunt the Wumpus (1972), which was the first game to my knowledge to simulate a model storyworld and describe it in text.
Eliza is a chatbot, essentially an elaborate parlor trick designed to convince its player she is talking to a psychologist. Although it has what appears to function like a parser, Eliza doesn't really understand anything the user types in any meaningful sense. It rather just remembers and recombines the user's entries in such a way as to give the impression of understanding. Nor is there any simulated storyworld behind Eliza. It's really just a clever little hack, as its author Joseph Weizenbaum (a fascinating figure who just recently passed away) would be the first to admit. It is however important for us because of the greater possibilities it suggested.
Hunt the Wumpus is a much more sophisticated program. Its player must explore and map an underground cavern complex whilst avoiding the wumpus -- a nasty monster -- and dealing with various other obstacles as well. Eventually she can use her knowledge of the caverns to kill the wumpus and win the game. There is a simulated storyworld behind this game, albeit a simple one. This marks a huge leap toward true IF. However, Hunt the Wumpus still does not have a true parser. While Hunt the Wumpus superficially looks like IF, the user has just a few commands she is allowed to enter at the command line. The sense of possibility and the storytelling potential that go with a true natural-language parser are thus missing. It would be a few more years before everything would come together.
- What exactly was Adventure, and how did it come to be?
- Here's the Cliff's Notes answer to your question: in the mid-1970s a guy named Will Crowther was working for a technology company in Boston. In addition to taking major roles in a lot of important projects that would eventually lead to the modern Internet, Will had a couple of other obsessions: the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which had just come out a year or two before and which was still a very obscure little game at the time; and caving. These three sides of Will Crowther's personality came together in Adventure, a computer program that allowed its player to participate in a sort of single-player tabletop RPG session, in which she explored an underground geography largely based upon Crowther's favorite spot to go caving, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Crowther had recently divorced at the time he wrote Adventure, and wrote the game largely for two daughters with whom he didn't get to spend as much time as he might have liked. The first people ever to play a true work of IF were thus probably these two little girls (Figure 3).
This all took place just before the PC era began; Adventure ran on large institutional computers. In those days, there was no real commercial software market. Everyone simply shared their software creations with everyone else. Thus when Crowther lost interest in working on Adventure, he simply left the half-completed program's Fortran source code on a file repository on the ARPANET, the predecessor to our modern Internet. Here it was discovered by a California hacker named Don Wood. After checking with Crowther to make sure it would be okay, Wood expanded and polished Crowther's program, transforming it from a sort of proof-of-concept experiment into a real, complete game. It was this version that caught the computer world's collective imagination when Wood completed and released it in early 1978. Adventure's effects on productivity have become the stuff of legend; whole computer science departments allegedly shut down until their staff had managed to solve the game. Hackers being hackers, many set out to create a "better" Adventure immediately after doing so, among them a group of MIT students who would eventually found Infocom. Another fellow, Scott Adams, played the game and immediately began trying to port it to the first-generation home computers that were just beginning to arrive on the market by then.
Adventure was a hugely important computer game -- easily one of the ten or even five most important EVER, in fact. As such, there's been a lot written about it. Dennis Jerz in particular has done some great computer archaeology on Adventure, even turning up Crowther's original version of the game, before Wood's modifications and expansions. I'd encourage your readers to have a look at some of Jerz's work if they are interested in exploring further (2).
For all of Adventure's importance, not just to IF but to computer gaming in general, it never made much of anything for its creators. Their decision to release the game for free meant that they never saw a dime from most of the versions that eventually appeared on home computers, even though many of these versions were sold commercially.
- If Adventure had not been written, would the eruption of true IF during this time period still have been inevitable? Feel free to go as far out on a limb as you like with this!
- Was something like Adventure inevitable? That's a tough question, but I think probably so. I'd say that the real wild-card here is not Adventure but rather Adventure's inspiration, Dungeons and Dragons. You just can't exaggerate the importance of D&D to all of the many storygames that have followed it. It really did revolutionize the way we look at stories and games and the combination of the two in a way totally out of proportion to the number of people who have ever actually played it. But then, we could make exactly the same statement about Adventure, couldn't we? Every story-oriented computer game today, including graphical adventures, can trace its roots straight back to Adventure -- and from Adventure, straight back to D&D.
I'm not omniscient, but yes, I think we'd have something like Adventure come along, probably sooner rather than later, absent Crowther and Wood. Would it have used such a flexible parser for interaction, though? I don't know, really. Certainly the many IF conventions that we still employ that have come down to us from Adventure would be a bit different. We can also say for sure that adventure games wouldn't be called adventure games -- that name is lifted straight from the original Adventure, which might perhaps begin to convey to your readers Adventure's importance in the scheme of things.
But what would the computer gaming landscape look like if Gygax and Arnenson had never invented D&D? Now that's an interesting question, and one I'm not even going to attempt to answer here!
- Indeed, Adventure laid the ground for the High Commercial Era, literally giving both Scott Adams and Infocom a springboard into the market for early PC games. In fact, many gamers would be astonished to know how many companies competed for the home gaming market during this period.
How did the High Commercial Era look and feel to pioneer players of text adventure games? How would they even know what games were available or where and how to buy them?
- In the very earliest days -- say, 1978 to 1981 -- there were very few organs of communication for the computer gamer. There were a couple of computer hobbyist magazines that would occasionally cover games, but no Internet, of course. Even computer bulletin board systems were not yet terribly common. Early gaming would therefore have been propagated by word of mouth. User groups were very prominent in these days. Most major cities would have a club devoted to each of the different viable brands of computers. These clubs would hold meetings, publish newsletters, and generally help one another out with hardware and software issues. Finally, there were always the people who worked at the local computer store, who were a great resource for questioning about the latest "hot" games. Computing in these years was a very esoteric hobby, akin to HAM radio or radio controlled aircraft. The people who were involved in it tended to share a certain bond that has been lost today, when virtually every household owns a computer and virtually everyone below a certain age games at least occasionally.
A bit later, things began to get a bit more "professional" as computer gaming became, if not quite mainstream, at least more common. Most of the viable computing platforms got one or (generally) several glossy professional magazines. The magazines dedicated to platforms that were commonly used for gaming tended -- not surprisingly -- to give game reviews and other game articles lots of space in their pages. Some, in fact, featured almost nothing but games. Computer Gaming World, the first platform-agnostic magazine dedicated only to computer games, began publishing in 1981 (Figure 4). Most people tended to get their news from platform-specific magazines in these days, though, because many games were available only on one or two platforms. Why buy a generic gaming magazine like CGW when half or more of the games it covers you can't play?
- With the current dichotomy of PC and Apple, it's easy to forget how many of those different viable brands of computers, each with a unique architecture, were fighting for market share. In North America, models (or families of models) such as the TRS-80, Apple II, Atari, and Commodore were all popular, with (believe it or not) the Commodore 64 still being the highest selling single model of personal computer ever! Europe offered brands not seen in North America, such as the very early Sinclair. Given the incompatibilities of these machines, how could an early gamer decide which brand would give her the most gaming versatility?
- As you point out, today's adventure gamers might not know (or might have forgotten) just how crazy the industry was in the early days. At one point Infocom was publishing its games for some thirty different mutually incompatible platforms. How to decide what was "best" in this environment? I suppose it depended largely on what you wanted to do with the computer and how much you were willing to spend. If the thing you mainly wanted to do was play text adventures, your choice wasn't perhaps as critical as it might be for playing other kinds of games that depended on just the right graphics and sound capabilities. Text adventures primarily rely upon text (obviously), and thus multimedia capabilities were not quite such an issue. A surprising number of publishers even developed virtual machine technology or other tools to allow them to quickly and easily port games from platform to platform without rewriting from scratch each time. That said, there were probably guaranteed to be at least a few cool-looking titles you couldn't play because they weren't available on your chosen machine -- no matter which machine you chose.
- Which machine did the future IF historian choose?
- Personally, I contributed to the sales record you cite by playing my text adventures first on a Commodore 64 and then (during the twilight of the commercial era) on an Amiga. The 64 probably wasn't the best platform for the purpose for several technical reasons -- screen size, disk drive speed, limited RAM. Ironically, a more "serious," business-oriented machine like the early IBM PC was probably a better choice for text adventuring that required no multimedia capabilities. On the other hand, the IBM was not really considered a game machine, and so many text adventures never even made it to that platform. And it was VERY expensive.
Let me be honest. Most IF in those days was very, very bad: terrible writing, terrible parsers, terrible and unfair puzzle design. As I mentioned earlier, the memory of how bad IF used to be probably still keeps many from wanting anything to do with it today.
- Okay, point taken. Still, there was some good IF during those days, right?
- Oh, of course! Infocom was quite literally operating in a league all its own. No one else came close, really, except perhaps Magnetic Scrolls (a British company) in the waning days of commercial IF. But there were others producing generally decent games – some, like Magnetic Scrolls, across the pond – and we can perhaps talk about some of their best games later. Even Scott Adams' games weren't always terrible, although they were terribly primitive. However, for every Mindwheel (a unique metaphysically-flavored "Electronic Novel" written by a future American Poet Laureate), there were dozens of Dallas Quest clones (I'll let you guess).
- That's quite a vivid picture of IF emerging from the primordial ooze of the home computer era, with Infocom ultimately playing the part of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
While not the only company to author IF of quality during the 1980s and early 1990s, Infocom has occupied such a unique niche that we must stop here and salute it... and, at the same time, perhaps bring a little reality to bear on the romantic haze of nostalgia that has come to surround it.
We couldn't recapitulate in full here the complex saga of Infocom. Instead, we could try to see in what ways it really was unique and in what ways it simply reflected the work of the entire commercial era. How did Infocom originate?
- You're absolutely right about the "romantic haze of nostalgia" around Infocom today. I think we can unpack things a little bit to reveal a more pragmatic company than many starry-eyed IFers generally see, and that we can do so without belittling the very real artistic, formal, and technical innovations of the company.
First of all, Infocom was not founded with the intention of being the leading light in interactive fiction, nor even of being a game company at all. It was in fact founded in late 1979 by a dozen or so professors and recent graduates of MIT with the vague intention of making some money and building a company around the personal computer revolution which was at that time just beginning to take off. In other words, Infocom was not all that different from many other more "businesslike" companies that were being founded in these years, such as WordStar, CompuWare, and, yes, even Microsoft -- right down to the vaguely futuristic, vaguely compound, but essentially meaningless name chosen for the company. (If you ever wondered why Infocom had such a dull, un-IF-like name, now you know.)
It was only after founding the company that everyone sat down and started discussing what their first product should be. Even at this point, they had a definite long-range goal: to create a professional-quality relational database system that would be as powerful as the mainframe programs then in use, but that would run on desktop PCs. That was one heck of a project, though, one likely to require years of development, and so they wanted to try to get some other, more modest products into the market to generate cash flow before embarking upon it.
- Were those "modest products" text adventures?
- As a matter of fact, yes! It so happened that a few of the Infocommies had over the last couple of years been caught up by the Adventure craze that had swept the computing world, and had developed a game of their own designed to take the Adventure model to the next level -- and to show up MIT's West Coast rivals who had created Adventure. That game was called first Dungeon, and then the much catchier Zork, after a nonsense word that had been floating around the MIT campus, and which computer programmers were conventionally using as a name for temporary variables. In addition to being vastly larger and even more challenging than Adventure, Zork sported a major technical innovation: its parser was capable of understanding complex multi-word phrases, including prepositions and indirect objects. This marked a huge advance over Adventure's simple two-word parser.
By late 1979, the first few Scott Adams text adventures had already appeared, as had a few from Sierra (then still known as Online Systems), but these games were so primitive as to make even the mainframe Adventure look enormously advanced. Primitive or not, though, they were very popular. If Infocom could bring Zork to the home computer, it would literally be in a class all its own, and could generate the cash flow needed to fund the company's "serious" products. But could they port this mainframe program to the ridiculously primitive PCs of the day?
Luckily, Infocom had another card up its sleeve. Several of its staffers had been involved in research that could not only allow surprisingly large programs to run on machines with tiny amounts of RAM memory by reading most of their data from disk only when needed, and dumping it from RAM immediately thereafter; but that could also allow the same program to run on many different computers through a virtual machine that was implemented by an interpreter that had to be written just once for each target machine. These two technologies -- virtual memory and virtual machines, respectively -- are old-hat today. In 1979, however, they were new and breathtakingly innovative, at least in the primitive desktop PC world.
Even with this technical wizardry, Infocom still had to cut the mainframe version of Zork roughly in half to shoehorn it into the PCs of the day. No matter, though; this just left the door open for a sequel using the rest of that content. To make a long response hopefully not much longer, Zork I was released in 1980 and became a huge hit; two more Zork titles followed, in 1981 and 1982, partially made of the remaining bits of the mainframe Zork and partially original content, and did almost as well (3). Infocom very quickly became the dominant IF company; at least in North America, they were the standard everyone else was judged by -- and virtually always found wanting.
- Was Infocom more committed to making a new art form or to making a buck?
- I don't think that the game implementers (sometimes called "imps") necessarily saw these goals as mutually exclusive. After Zork, naturally, more works of IF followed, works which were made available -- thanks to the aforementioned virtual machine technology -- on virtually (sorry) every remotely viable machine of the time, thus maximizing the company's market. Some staffers were excited by the potential of IF so much that they would have gladly given up Infocom's business software aspirations to focus solely on IF (Figure 5).
Even these folks were hardly motivated purely by the artistic impulse, however. Between 1982 and 1985, its commercially best years, Infocom was releasing four or five games per year, selling many tens of thousands of copies of each at $30 to $50 a pop. Why argue with profits like that? The company would have been drowning in cash --- except that virtually all of the IF profits and then some were being put into Cornerstone, the relational database system that the more "serious" staffers believed would be Infocom's real ticket to endless wealth and computing fame.
- One well known study identifies this diversion of the IF profits as financial suicide for the company (4). Some students of Infocom simply perceive the basic decision to create Cornerstone as dismal business judgment, inevitably causing Infocom's implosion. Is the explanation really that simple, or is there an element of historical revisionism here?
- Yes, well... you've hit upon the Great Cornerstone Debate. It's certainly true that by 1984 or so there was little love lost between the "games people" and the "business people." The games people rolled into the office at ten or eleven in jeans and tee-shirts, and often worked well into the evening; the business people showed up at 8:00 sharp with suits and briefcases, and were gone by 5:00. The games people resented the business people for sucking up all of the profits they generated, profits that could have gone into more and better games or just a nicer raise or bonus for themselves; the business people looked at the games division as kiddie-ware, a stopgap means to an end. Infocom by 1984 was effectively two separate companies involved in a sort of Cold War with one another. Fundamentally dysfunctional.
On the other hand, and while Infocom would certainly have been better off if they had never developed Cornerstone, the idea was not really as aggressively stupid as it's sometimes portrayed. Had Cornerstone appeared in, say, 1983, the story might have been very different. By the time it did appear in 1985, however, the market had changed hugely. It wasn't a bad product; in many ways, it was in fact quite innovative, with features no one else could offer. However, those others had established a foothold in the marketplace already, and bore the imprint of more prestigious software firms than Infocom, now known universally as a games company. (In 1985, as now, no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft.) Further, one of Cornerstone's most prominent selling points no longer mattered so much. You see, Cornerstone leveraged Infocom's virtual machine technology to be portable to many different machines. By 1985, however, the business PC market was no longer so wild and wooly as it had been just a couple of years before. While the home market would sport quite a number of incompatible systems for another five years or so, businesses had largely settled upon the IBM PC running MS-DOS as a standard. Infocom's VM technology actually worked against it here -- the additional layer of abstraction caused it to run more slowly than its competition, and no one really cared if it could run on a "games machine" like the Atari ST in addition to their serious, stodgy IBM iron.
So, yeah, Cornerstone flopped, leaving Infocom high and dry, not only having pissed away millions and millions in profits but also saddled with debt it couldn't possibly repay. Faced with a choice between selling itself to the highest bidder and going under, Infocom became a part of Activision in 1986. Without the cash to aggressively promote its brand, improve its core technology, or seek new markets, its long, slow commercial decline and fall had already begun by that point, although some of its best and most innovative titles were still to come.
- Ironically, the game Trinity, which you and many other critics have described as the pinnacle of Infocom's achievement, was released immediately after Activision had swallowed up the company. Without the Cornerstone debacle, would Infocom have had a chance to continue to go onwards and upwards for years to come?
- People in IF circles have debated this very question for many years. Undoubtedly, Infocom would have been in vastly better shape if they had never begun the project. Would a healthy Infocom still be around and pumping out new IF titles today, though? That's a very problematic assumption. The fact is that Infocom was not the only IF company to go under; every single one of its competitors did as well, and roughly in the same time frame. There were thus obviously market forces at work beyond the bad decisions of one company. By the mid-1980s, a new generation of 16-bit machines was beginning to appear, sporting vastly improved graphics and sound capabilities as well as hugely more powerful processors and vastly more RAM and permanent storage space. For many gamers, the works of companies like Infocom seemed hopelessly dull and primitive when set against the multimedia extravaganzas of new companies like Cinemaware. When one brought one's shiny new Amiga or Atari ST home, one did not want to demonstrate it to one's friends with a text adventure. Gamers then wanted flash and immediate, visceral thrills, just as they largely do now. They were willing to accept text adventures when there were few other options, but once that changed the proverbial writing was on the wall.
- So, were Infocom's days inevitably numbered?
- Hard to really say, of course, but I don't absolutely think so. I think that Infocom's failure – and the failure of commercial IF as a whole -- was not just a failure of business priorities but a failure of vision. IF in my view is something other than conventional computer gaming, something with its own appeal. I think it appeals to many people who are in fact turned off by the ultra-violent videogame standard of both then and now, who crave something more thoughtful, cerebral, even meaningful. Not only did Infocom fail to reach beyond videogamers after the Activision acquisition, but it even stepped back in some ways. Infocom had in its early years always made an effort to have its titles available in bookshops. It also had a book publisher's rather than a videogame publisher's attitude toward its work, keeping all of its catalog titles in print and as much as possible in stock at the various retail outlets. It even continued updating its catalog titles for years past their initial release, swatting obscure bugs as they popped up. This whole methodology was dropped with the Activision acquisition, as Infocom's titles were suddenly and rudely dumped into the unforgiving mainstream videogame sales stream, where they largely foundered.
A healthy independent Infocom could have aggressively pushed its products as something other than the typical videogame or even the typical graphical adventure, emphasizing their literary qualities and advertising them not as computer games but as a new form of interactive literature, a whole new way to experience a story. Right up to the end, Infocom had a core of perhaps 30,000 loyal customers who often played virtually no other computer games, who were much older than the gamer norm (average age something like 34), and who seemed to appreciate the company's work for its thoughtful, literary qualities. In the quickly expanding videogame marketplace of the late 1980s, though, 30,000 fans just weren't enough to be worth a giant like Activision's time, and neither Infocom nor Activision found a way to grow this base -- unsurprisingly, as what limited advertising Infocom did in those years appeared in computer game magazines catering to people who were fundamentally interested in something different than anything Infocom could offer them (5-6).
- I wonder if, even today, the proper "marketing" of IF to those who might fully enjoy it still remains an unsolved problem. I raise this question because, of course, most modern IF is non-commercial and therefore can't even repeat Activision or Infocom's error of buying advertising in the wrong magazine! Still, there is a desire within the IF community for outreach, a kind of marketing in the sense of getting the attention of potentially appreciative players. That, as you've remarked, is why you're here.
You have described the loss of IF's commercial clout with the advent of multimedia games. Most adventure gamers will assuredly be familiar with Sierra On-Line, a major developer and publisher of such games, cofounded by Roberta and Ken Williams. However, it is not as well-known that the earliest games published by them under Sierra On-Line's predecessor label, On-Line Systems, actually qualify as IF. On-Line Systems' catalog includes the crudely illustrated Mystery House and Softporn Adventure (yes, you hear right – Leisure Suit Larry's spiritual progenitor).
Later, when Sierra On-Line turned to focus on developing graphical games exclusively, Infocom ran advertisements mocking what the company regarded as their primitive quality. Ken Williams found these ads so vicious that he telephoned Infocom to complain (Figure 6). Ultimately, Infocom went under, not with a bang but a whimper; Sierra On-Line, by contrast, was so successful that Roberta and Ken Williams were able to sell the company for big-time bucks. They retired at quite a young age, having, I would suppose, the last laugh.
Besides adding eye and ear candy, did the games created by companies like Sierra On-Line advance the art of interactive storytelling in their own ways?
- There's an old saying that sometimes goes around in IF and adventure game circles: there were two kinds of adventurers in the 1980s -- those who liked Infocom and those who liked Sierra. I of course belonged and belong firmly to the Infocom camp. Nonetheless, I'm hoping that the choice is not quite so starkly binary as that line would make it appear, considering that many readers will doubtless have very fond memories of Sierra. But still, having declared my preferences, I am obliged to justify them.
First of all, Infocom told much richer, more varied, and (at least in some cases) more serious stories than Sierra. Whereas most every Sierra adventure of the era, with only a few exceptions (Police Quest, Manhunter, possibly Gold Rush!) was a light-hearted cartoon comedy, Infocom tried its hand at fantasies (serious and playful), science fiction (serious and playful), mystery stories (hard-boiled and gentle), social satires, swashbuckling romances, Modernist literary prose puzzlers, political thrillers, etc. That doesn't mean that I consider anything by Infocom to be truly great literature, although Trinity might come close, but it does show a more serious approach to interactive storytelling than the typical "pile of goofy puzzles with lots of jokes and funny ways to die" that marked the typical Sierra effort.
Secondly, and I think this point goes hand in hand with my first, Infocom had remarkably fair game designs for the era. A reasonably intelligent person could approach an Infocom game under the expectation that she had a pretty good shot at solving it on her own. In other words, the game would be tested, polished, and (in general) would play fair with her. Sierra, not so much. (I'm thinking here of stuff like the Rumplestiltskin "puzzle" in King's Quest I.) One often had the disconcerting feeling that Sierra made their games unfair on purpose in order to sell their overpriced hint books. (Infocom, of course, had overpriced hint books too, but at least you had a chance of not needing them.)
In short, I get a feel of craft (both literary and technical), attention to detail, and a generally serious striving toward quality at all costs from Infocom that I don't get from Sierra. And then some is also doubtless personal taste – for instance, I find Dave Lebling's subtle humor much funnier than Al Lowe's, shall we say, broader strokes. Infocom's overall aesthetic is just much more refined and mature in my view. Can anyone really imagine something like Trinity or A Mind Forever Voyaging (or even Bureaucracy or Nord and Bert) coming out of Sierra?
- Okay, but wait just a moment! Surely other games from Sierra On-Line like the Gabriel Knight series deserve a bit more respect.
- Oh, yes, they certainly do. Sorry! I'm comparing here only Sierra's games that were contemporaneous with Infocom's. Infocom folded in 1989, when Sierra was just retiring the old AGI engine. As for the later games... I have opinions there too, but that would be getting rather far afield.
- So far, Adventure is the single piece of IF that has merited any detailed discussion. Since we'd both like to see other gamers try IF on for size, we'd better start pointing them in the right direction.
If you were marooned on a desert island and could take with you only a half dozen games from IF's commercial era, with no more than a single game from any single IF company, which games would you take? Why?
- Ah, the desert island question. To be honest, if I were really going to be marooned on an island, I think that a bunch of IF games would not be anything I'd care to have with me. Always assuming of course that I couldn't ask for a boat, I'd trade the IF in on a copy of Shakespeare's Complete Works. If you were generous, maybe you'd let me take a few mix CDs with me as well and a stereo with an endless power supply to play them on.
Why so contrary? Well, IF games are not exactly the most re-playable. There are plenty of IF titles that I love and remember, but that are now useless to me as objects of pleasure. Once I play an IF game, I'm pretty much done with it. Even my all-time favorite, Trinity, I've played just three times, with approximately a decade between each playing. I'm sure I could count on my fingers those I've played even twice. Some of this may be an idiosyncrasy of mine -- I seldom reread books either, with the exception of the plays of my main man Will Shakespeare -- but still, I think most people in this situation would be better served with an infinitely replayable game like Civilization or Master of Orion than a bunch of IF. Always assuming that I also get to have a computer and a way to power it on my desert island. Sitting there with a cool box and manual to stare at and no way to play would be a cruel fate indeed.
- You took me rather literally! In my defense, I wasn't really investigating the cultural needs of a modern Robinson Crusoe.
Let me rephrase my inquiry. Cutting across companies, what commercial IF games do you regard as the most exceptional? Why?
- Not to be willfully perverse, I confess I find another problem with your question: Infocom was simply so much better than everyone else of the era that I want to just choose five of their best and be done with it. But that's exactly what you were trying to force me not to do, isn't it, you tricky dude, you? Sigh... okay, I'll play within your rules on this.
- Let's compromise. You've made it clear that you consider Trinity to be Infocom's finest hour. What are your other personal favorite Infocom games? Be as idiosyncratic as you like. Don't worry about historical significance.
Enchanter (by David Lebling and Marc Blank) -- I've always enjoyed solving puzzles through magic spells, a mechanic Enchanter introduced. Add to that some great (generally) light-hearted writing, some of the best puzzles Infocom ever put together, a difficulty level that is just about perfect (for me, anyway), and a certain impossibly cute little turtle and you have a recipe for FUN! FUN! FUN! I don't even mind the hunger and sleep puzzles.
Ballyhoo (by Jeff O'Neill) -- This game rarely gets mentioned in discussions of Infocom's best, but I've always loved the atmosphere of its run-down, seedy circus, and the smile-through-tears quality that oozes from every line of its writing. No one else in computer games was writing in such a sophisticated way in 1985 -- and for the most part no one is today either.
Bureaucracy (by just about everyone at Infocom, with a little help from Douglas Adams) -- The story of this game's making is an epic in itself. More remarkable is that it came out so well. This is Infocom's only contemporary social satire, loaded with great jabs at the inanities of everyday life in the era of Reagan and Thatcher.
Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Heads or Tails of It (by Jeff O'Neill) -- O'Neill wrote just two games for Infocom, and they both appear on this list, qualifying him easily for the title of Most Underrated IF Author (at least in my eyes). Nord and Bert is a collection of mini-games that all revolve around wordplay. The player's interactions with the parser are the focus of the game, rather than just a means to communicate actions within the storyworld. Nord and Bert is of immense theoretical interest, totally unique in Infocom's catalog, and most of all just great fun. Perhaps more than any other, this is the game that makes me think that Infocom was selling to the wrong market entirely, and to wonder where they could have gone if they could have found a way to draw the attention of readers as opposed to the conventional gamers who just shrugged at Nord and Bert and returned to killing virtual orcs.
With exception of Enchanter, these games are all rather idiosyncratic favorites that seldom appear on lists of the "Best of Infocom." I hope this list begins to illustrate the depth and richness of the Infocom catalog beyond the half-dozen or so huge sellers they are commonly remembered for.
- Now let's see if I can get you to answer my original desert island question and name some of the era's best IF, no more than a single game from any single IF company.
- First up, everyone who knows me (at least in the context of IF) knows that I worship Infocom's 1986 release Trinity (Figure 7), written by Brian Moriarty. Even though I think the best of the current IF community's work far surpasses that of Infocom in general, Trinity remains my all-time favorite IF game. It's a work that could only have been written during its time, a true zeitgeist-defining work not just for nerd or IF culture but for the broader feel of the times -- the only IF work I can think of to which I would grant that distinction.
Trinity came out during the last era of nuclear paranoia, when Ronald Reagan was calling the Soviet Union an evil empire, when The Day After was shattering television viewing records, and when adolescents like myself all over the US were going to bed wondering if tonight the missiles would come. The game begins with you on the last day of your $399 London vacation, when the missiles do in fact come. A magical portal opens at the last moment, and you escape to a world out of Alice in Wonderland. From there, you can visit a half-dozen or so historical scenes which chronicle the history of nuclear weapons. Finally you arrive at the site of the very first atomic test in New Mexico in 1945. All through the game up to now, your can-do adventurer spirit has led you to believe that you can save the world. After all, that's what adventurers do, right? That makes the subversive ending, which I won't fully reveal here, feel all the more futile and shattering.
Trinity PLAYS like a typical adventure game. You solve puzzles (luckily, good ones), score points, etc. But the writing is so evocative and mournful, so understated but full of weariness at the eternal folly of mankind... And overcoming the game's challenges involves doing some very unpleasant things. You do it without thinking about it, looking for that next addition to your score. Then the score does increase, and you read the description of your actions, and you ask yourself what on earth you just did, and why? (The parallels with a certain group of elite scientists working during and immediately after World War II could not have been unintentional.) Trinity is a tragedy, perhaps the only successful tragedy I've ever played (as opposed to read). And it's brilliant, and it's powerful. BUT, it's powerful in the way of a subtle film like Lost in Translation -- if you're not paying close attention, or just not on its wavelength, you'll probably dismiss it (as many do) as just another solidly designed text adventure from the masters of such things. But if you are listening to what it is saying to you, really listening, and approaching it as an aesthetic object instead of just a box of puzzles... wow.
But by all means, PLAY IT! My dream is that someday the core of Infocom's historical legacy will not be Zork but Trinity. We shall see...
- Let me throw in my recommendation here: PLAY IT, but not as your very first IF. Without having experienced more typical IF games beforehand, it may be hard to see why Trinity is so special. I speak from experience. Only now, having played my fair share of IF's since Trinity, do I grasp how masterfully it captures the era commonly known as the Age of Anxiety.
- Yes, I think that's very good advice.
Moving on... Magnetic Scrolls was often referred to as the British Infocom (7). While I don't think they ever quite reached Infocom's level, they did have a pretty good parser and produced a few excellent titles during the latter part of the commercial era, titles which were distinguished by some lovely graphics that for once didn't detract from the quality of their text and storyworld modeling. My favorite of their games is their 1987 release Guild of Thieves. It doesn't sound like anything special -- you play an apprentice thief hoping to attain full membership to the eponymous Guild, which you do by infiltrating an island and stealing everything not nailed down. Its "plot" is no more sophisticated than Zork's or Adventure's, in other words. But it's great fun because it gives you a LARGE area to explore with tons of amusing and clever puzzles to solve.
Every adventurer knows the thrill of opening up a new area at last, of solving a stubborn multi-part puzzle that has been stumping you for days or weeks. Guild of Thieves delivers those thrills in spades, accompanied by a nice smattering of sly British wit. It literally "out-zorks" Zork -- a masterpiece of puzzle design.
- In 2008, Andy Baio, who had obtained access to Infocom's system drive, caused a real IF hullaballoo by piecing together the story of the aborted sequel to the game The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (8). The email exchanges among the principles revealed a company in complete internal conflict which was moving in far too many directions at once. Apparently, Infocom actually considered subcontracting the development of the whole game to Magnetic Scrolls.
- Yes. And for a time, they actually did employ Michael Bywater, a Brit who had done work with Magnetic Scrolls, to work on that sequel, commonly nicknamed HH2.
A company called Synapse Software took perhaps the most high-brow approach of anyone to IF, producing a (very short-lived) line that they called "Electronic Novels." Only three of said novels were ever released, two of which were thematically ambitious but deeply flawed, but the most interesting one is called Mindwheel, written by none other than America's Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, Robert Pinsky. Pinsky is the most respected literary figure ever to work in IF, and while the game is not perfect by any means, it's a fascinating play. You are tasked with retrieving a mysterious artifact known as the Wheel of Wisdom, which you do by entering into the minds of four different people. It's a very metaphysical game, with (unsurprisingly considering the author) many of its puzzles involving ideas, words, and poetry rather than the usual locked doors and mechanical contraptions. And, of course, the prose is among the best you'll ever find in a work of IF.
- Robert Pinsky, I might add, was among a handful of well-known writers who tried their hands at IF during this period. Douglas Adams collaborated with Infocom; Michael Crichton worked with Legend; and Thomas M. Disch, a science and speculative fiction writer, created Electronic Arts' single IF, Amnesia. Thomas M. Disch was an extremely talented and original writer, making it a rather sad fact that Amnesia, while having at its core a good story, had such bad game design that it was painful to play.
- I'm with you on Amnesia.
Also worth checking out are the games of Trillium / Telarium. (The company changed its name from the former to the latter quite early in its life, apparently due to a trademark or copyright issue.) Telarium's games were mostly based, to one degree or another, on famous science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novels. (The two exceptions were original works written by established authors Alan Dean Foster of Star Wars novel fame and the late Michael Crichton, most famous for Jurassic Park.) All of their games are quite interesting, and unique for a certain independent sense of experimentation that distinguished them from the pack of companies chasing after Infocom. A special favorite of mine is Nine Princes in Amber, based on Roger Zelazny's very fun series of fantasy novels.
If you're familiar with the novels at all, you know that they largely revolve around negotiation and intrigue among the nine princes -- and a few princesses to boot. Telarium's adaptation doesn't shirk this aspect, but approaches it full-on, with a whole repertoire of negotiation and conversation verbs of considerable subtlety placed at your disposal. There are many paths through the game, depending on which characters become your allies and which your enemies. NPC interactions do not always work perfectly -- or at all -- but what's being attempted here -- and with at least some success -- is really quite remarkable for the time. Even Infocom never attempted anything quite like this. And when words break down, there's always a dandy little swordfight simulation to engage in, one of the few examples of an IF combat engine that is actually fun. (Telarium also attempted similarly ambitious and subtle NPC interactions in their game based upon Earl Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, but with less success.)
Finally, a nod to the last IF publisher of the commercial age: Legend Entertainment. Founded by Bob Bates, who had authored a couple of late games for Infocom, shortly after Infocom's demise, and numbering Infocom legend Steve Meretzky among its design team, Legend added the works to the basic model of IF interaction: graphics, animated cut-scenes, full music scores, sound effects, auto-maps, mousable verb and noun menus for the typing-averse, etc. The pressures of the marketplace eventually led them to ditch the parser entirely, but before they did so they produced some fine end-of-an-era classics. My favorite is Timequest (Figure 8). It's an insanely ambitious time travel epic which sends you skittering over a whole host of locations all over the world, each of which must be visited in several epochs, all on the trail of a rogue who has decided to destroy the universe by tangling up the threads of history. This game is more a romp than a serious attempt at coming to grips with history like Trinity, but it is great fun to take in its huge kaleidoscope of historical events and cultures, to view the changes in each location over time, and of course to actually solve its puzzles. On the one hand, the game is no intellectual picnic -- you must make connections and use objects across vast swathes of distance and time -- but on the other, Bob Bates (the game's designer) is one of the great advocates for fairness in adventure gaming, and never violates his players' trust here. And hey, it's even educational!
- I believe Graham Nelson's modern IF Jigsaw has a premise similar to Timequest's, though I'm told his work is serious in tone.
- Yes, but as you say the tone of Nelson's game is much, much darker. I'm actually a huge fan of Jigsaw as well.
I'm afraid this list is completely Anglocentric -- four came from America, one from Britain. I can only plead that as an American I must write of what I know. Readers interested in IF written in languages other than English might want to take a look at the last few years of SPAG magazine back issues, where we've featured folks from the Russian, French, Spanish, and Italian communities describing the history and current practice of IF in their countries. IF in Spanish has a particularly rich and interesting history, but as a non-Spanish speaker I can't really say much about the actual games.
Gamers looking for more IF with the distinct British spirit of Magnetic Scrolls might also want to look at the British companies Level 9 and Topologika, both of which produced worthwhile, entertaining games. One interesting thing one discovers in looking back at this era is how much less interconnected the world was only twenty years ago. Even in the Anglosphere, Britain and America largely had their own game cultures, with hugely popular games in Britain not even available in America and vice versa. Infocom's games, for example, were only available as pricey custom-ordered imports in Britain for most of the company's existence. Thus Briton Graham Nelson has spoken of how his view of IF was first shaped by Level 9, Topologika, and Magnetic Scrolls, with Infocom only coming strongly into the picture with the release of the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundles in 1991 or so, when the company was already gone. Similarly, IF to me in the 1980s was defined by Infocom and to a lesser extent the other American game companies I mentioned, although Magnetic Scrolls was available in the later years (with a slightly exotic flavor emphasized by their distributor's marketing department -- Union Jacks on the boxes, etc.). Level 9 and Topologika games were mostly available only from international pirate BBS systems.
- Now the rubber hits the road: can any or all of these games be acquired and played today, legally and not so legally?
- I just mentioned piracy... and that is, sadly, the only way that most gamers are going to be able to acquire the games I've mentioned, unless they want to pay big bucks for copies that may or may not work from eBay. I could go off on a long rant here about the videogame industry's disdain for its own history and the evils of a copyright law that makes criminals out of videogame scholars who just want to understand the medium's history, but that's not the subject of this discussion. Suffice to say that all of these games are out there on various abandonware sites. Downloading them bothers my conscience not at all, but the morality of doing so is something gamers can decide for themselves. I don't think posting direct links would be a good idea, but I'm open to emails from anyone looking for something, seeking advice on the best version to hunt down or how to get it working on a modern PC, etc. I can be contacted through my personal website. Just to be clear, though -- I don't engage in or condone piracy of software that is still in print, only software that is no longer sold. (I think copyright and other intellectual property laws need to be overhauled, not repealed.)
- I think we've reached the end of the period of IF history that we want to cover here, coincidentally the same period being explored in the documentary film Get Lamp (9). There's far more to the story, though, as the demise of commercial IF by no means put an end to the writing and playing of IF. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Chapters 1 through 7 of Let's Tell a Story Together (1), for any gamer wanting to learn more about events we've only briefly touched on here.
It's clear that you don't have simply a keen interest in IF but a passion for it. Can you tell us about your personal history with IF? What inspires you to be so involved in the form that you not only edit the popular IF e-zine SPAG but have also written a Master's thesis entitled Blending the Crossword with the Narrative: An Examination of the Storygame?
- I came of age in the 1980s, growing up when Infocom had its games on shelves all over. As a young nerd interested in all things escapist, I was caught and reeled in easily by Infocom's box blurbs in my local mall's B. Dalton bookstore. The idea of "waking up inside a story" that played on the computer and then taking the role of the main character there was immensely appealing for a kid reared on Dungeons and Dragons, science fiction, and comic books. Finally my parents bought me a Commodore 64 for Christmas in 1984, and along with it Infocom's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and a war game my dad picked out, called Crusade in Europe. I had fun with the war game, but, as you have probably guessed, Hitchhiker's made the bigger impression.
I bought Infocom games on a fairly regular basis through the remainder of that decade, along with many other games -- and, I confess, pirated many more. After finishing high school I drifted away from computers and IF for a while. I got interested in other things -- travel, literature without rockets and ray guns, music that didn't feature twenty-minute suites based on Tolkien and keyboardists dressed in wizards' capes -- and IF was commercially dead by then anyway. It wasn't until perhaps 1999 or 2000 that I idly, motivated more by nostalgia than any burning interest in interactive storytelling, typed INFOCOM into an Internet search engine. I found more information that I ever would have imagined, and, through the magic of eBay, soon secured a copy of Activision's Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces, a collection of virtually all Infocom's games (having bought Infocom back in 1986, Activision still controls legal rights to its games). I also, almost by accident, discovered that there was a thriving modern community of authors and players, creating IF not simply in the tradition of Infocom but also pushing the boundaries of the form far beyond what even Infocom had ever imagined.
Still, my interest in IF at this phase was more of idle curiosity and nostalgia than passion. Much of the appeal of the games at the beginning, I must confess, was that I could play them during idle moments at work and, since they were all text, look like I was hard at work at a Unix terminal session! My involvement in the community was nil for a few years, other than to download and play their games on occasion.
Gradually, though, a greater passion started to awaken for the form. I started to get beyond nostalgia and begin to think more seriously about its literary potential. Starting in perhaps 2002 or 2003 I began to participate somewhat more actively in IF -- writing reviews, etc. I wrote an interpreter -- a tool to play IF games -- which I named Filfre after a spell in Infocom's old Enchanter game (some things never change). When Paul O'Brian decided it was time to step down as editor of SPAG magazine and, much to my shock, offered me the job, my profile of course increased dramatically. At around the same time, I began to seriously focus on IF and interactive storytelling in general from an academic perspective. One fruit of this labor was my book-length history of IF, which I completed in 2006 as my honors thesis for my Bachelors Degree. I've spent a lot of time writing about IF, talking about it at academic conferences, etc., during the last few years.
- You've just released your first IF, the novel length The King of Shreds and Patches. Do you intend to continue to lead two parallel lives, becoming, in Oscar Wilde's words, "The Critic As Artist"?
- I certainly hope to. That said, I also hope to begin working on my PhD next year, and have a few long-neglected other projects screaming out for attention right now, and time and energy are not unlimited. So, and while I hope you'll see more IF from me, I don't have any definite plans in place, just plenty of ideas. Right now I just want to not look at Inform 7 for at least a few months. After that... we'll see. I do have a potential sequel to King in mind, which is even to some extent set up by King's ending text...
- Jimmy, you've come a long way since that your first exposure to IF, and I have an intuition that you'll be going much farther with this form. What drives you?
- Here I have told the story of IF's origins and taken it to a point that I would call a lively adolescence. However, while respecting IF's rich and fascinating history, at this point my agenda is to keep the form out of the retro-gaming ghetto. My vision of IF is not of a trite form still practiced solely by aging 1980s nerds, even though I personally fit into just that category. I rather see it as an important and vital form of expression, a brand new way of telling stories that we have only just begun to really explore. I want to attract people to IF who are NOT thirty-something nostalgics. Signs are encouraging that we are at last succeeding to some extent, and that's very exciting.
You’re giving me license to shine a spotlight on Infocom’s most under-appreciated games, and I’m not going to pass up the chance.
1. http://maher.filfre.net/if-book/index.html (Jimmy Maher's 2006 IF history)
2. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/001/2/000009.html (Dennis Jerz's descent into both the caves that Will Crowther explored and the game Adventure inspired by Crowther's exploration)
3. http://www.infocom-if.org/downloads/downloads.html (Download links to Infocom's Zork trilogy, released free in the public domain but, paradoxically, difficult enough to be a bad place to begin a life in IF)
4. http://infocom.elsewhere.org/mit-class-history/infocom-paper.pdf (A detailed history of the rise and fall of Infocom, written years ago by a group of MIT students who still had access to the principal players)
5. http://www.csd.uwo.ca/Infocom/ (Peter Scheyen's Infocom fan site, not updated since 2000 but still a superb repository of articles, press clippings, and other information)
6. http://www.infocom-if.org/ (Marco Thorek's Infocom fan site, perhaps unique in his continuing effort to report relevant news and to update the biographies of the Infocom Imps)
7. http://msmemorial.if-legends.org/memorial.php (Stefan Meier's fan site for the British IF company, Magnetic Scrolls)
8. http://waxy.org/2008/04/ milliways_infocoms_unreleased_sequel_to_hitchhikers_guide_to_the_galax/ (Andy Baio's blog entry about the sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that never happened, including myriad comments by those who were in the middle of the storm)
9. http://www.getlamp.com/ (Jason Scott's site on the making of his text adventure documentary Get Lamp)