The IF thing
In the 1980s, a period whose pop-culture I completely missed owing to the internet being unheard of (there was also this small matter of me not existing through much of that decade), a bunch of programmers at MIT created and sold games- under the guise of a company named Infocom- that functioned as a novel sort of interactive medium. Roughly phrased as Text Adventures, these games were stories that the player was the central character of, and whose actions determined the course of the narrative. At the heart of this interaction was an advanced parser written in some LISP variant, a command line that accepted rather complex (but unambiguous) actions from the user and effected them in the game world. Despite commercial success this genre was always a niche thing, I’m told, and Infocom was purchased, then sidelined, and finally shutdown with the advent of modern day computer graphics. But you already know all this, don’t you?
Well, they’re still around. Text Adventures, that is. They’re around, they’re growing, and if you’ve played them, you’ll agree, they’re wonderful.
Text Adventures have evolved to an extent where the title no longer encapsulates what it is today- a near-art form. “Interactive Fiction” (IF) is more like it. IF comes in all varieties today, from acute puzzlers to moving stories to exercises in silliness, an ever increasing spectrum of content- this is the list of notable pieces of IF released in just the past year. The Internet is full of community released IF today, and virtually everyone (gamers, especially) have encountered instances at some point of time. Few stop to admire the sights though- a shame, because just like Plotkin’s Spider and Web, there is more to IF than meets the eye. Just so we’re clear about this, this is what meets the eye:
“On the whole, it was worth the trip. The plains really were broad and grain- gold, if scarred with fences and agricultural crawlers. The mountains were overwhelming. And however much of the capital city is crusted with squat brick and faceless concrete hulks, there are still flashes of its historic charm. You’ve seen spires above the streets — tiny green parks below tenements — hidden jewels of fountains beyond walls. Any bland alley can conceal balconies wrought into iron gardens, fiery mosaics, a tree or bed of flowers nurtured by who knows who.
This alley, however, is a total washout. It ends in flat bare dirty brick, and you’ve found nothing but a door which lacks even the courtesy of a handle. Maybe you should call it a day.”
That’s it. That’s the game that kept me occupied for nearly eight blissful hours, hours packed with startling, surprising, stomach knotting, dread inducing, wow-this-is-unbelievable moments, moments that make you go a-ha(!), and moments when I realized my hands had gotten really cold and I was fumbling when trying to type.
The typical piece of IF kicks off with a short description, and much like an interpreter, displays a ">" prompt, awaiting input. The introductions are often terse, sinking the player into the play one action at a time. (Exponents of the medium are masters at this, managing to avoid both info-dumping and alienating the player.) Soon you’re neck deep in the role of the protagonist, worrying about how you’re going to get into the vault, or why the pillowcase was bugged, or why the radio keeps switching itself on, or what your strange dreams mean, or what not to do with the damn phone booth- well, you get the idea. Commands are issued, somewhat surprisingly, in second person, often as a verb-noun combination ("go south", "take shovel", "read letter"), although more complex commands are common ("take all from barrel except lock-pick', "ask her about family"). The learning curve is fairly gentle, given that the syntax is fairly free-form and intuitive, and you’re all set by the time you’ve played through one typical game.
Which brings us to the game itself. Much like fiction, IF is about variety, and there’s enough of it today to make stereotyping impossible. Some pieces of IF are more stories than game, some more puzzles than story:
Spider and Web has you playing as a spy on an infiltration mission- with a mind-blowing twist down the line- a twist that is all the more fantastic because it would be impossible to execute in any other medium. It suffices to say that despite pretenses, the game is far from a simple cold-war adventure.
Shade is a stark psychological thriller that takes place entirely in one room. Or does it?
In The Edifice, you play as a prehistoric hunter-gatherer who encounters a strange edifice one morning. Huh?
Photopia, where the opening blurb is drawn from, is perhaps the most moving story driven IF ever written. You play as everyone but the main character at different stages of her life- and each stage of further endearment brings wonder, concern and fear. (Alley Dawson is also the only fictional character my unsappy self has ever come close to having a crush on.)
The Elysium Enigma sends you, an ambassador from the the Galactic Empire, to a remote backwater planet with natives who eschew your technology- a diplomacy mission that quickly turns suspicious.
Shrapnel is jarring on too many levels; another example of narrative that is possible only in IF. If anything, it convinces me that emoshrapnel and mentfract (mental fracture?) should be made official words. Mess with your head, it does.
Snowblind Aces : An ace daredevil fighter pilot in the Southern Territories, there isn’t much that scares you. But she is out there, and she does.
Lost Pig is a humorous little piece about searching for your boss’s hog; a search that takes you (Grunk) to unexpected places.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy : Written by Infocom with Douglas Adams himself. Need I say more? (Actually, I do. This game is hard.)
So why do so few people play them? Interactive fiction comes across as old-fashioned, slow and antiquated, media for the infinitely patient. People liken them to the closest analogue they find (in either pc games or fiction)- and list out shortcomings.
Oranges and Apples, I say. IF is no more quaint than the novel as an art form, and the novel as we know it today is about three hundred years old. Unsurprisingly, the demographic that play IF the most is that set of people who do both- play PC games and read fiction. If you’re one of them, you owe it to yourself to give IF a whirl.
If you’ve given up half way through your first IF (as many are wont to do), you probably wonder: Why does IF work? How can so many people pursue so passionately, with such vigor, this cryptic, crippled system of play?
After all, the software is not without caveats- complex commands like
“ask him why he won’t give her the answer in the rain”
simply won’t work; human interaction is weak, dialog is hard to pull off, and players often have too little control on their actions. Far worse than interpreter limitations are author follies- non-intuitive solutions to puzzles can be maddening, sending you hunting for a walkthrough. Sometimes things just don’t work the way they should, (why can’t I move the light table when I can move the heavy chest?) a jarring feeling in conventional pc games that carries over to IF. Opportunities for emergent gameplay a la Dwarf Fortress are virtually non-existent, and any puzzle the player solves, any story he lives through has already been envisaged by the author.
But this is precisely why it works- IF masterpieces are like intricately drafted novels, with threads of narrative tied together by deft fingers- threads of narrative that you get to explore firsthand. Remember the feeling immediately after reading a Harry Potter? (Bear with me, I’m trying to reach the LCD here) That hazy, glazed look in your eyes as your mind filled up with a little bit of rage, glee and calm all at once? Photopia takes the blissful vicariousness one step further, letting you live the lives of all around Alley Dawson, painfully ripping you away from your comfort zone, making you live yet another life, giving you a different window to gaze through. Spider and Web and Shade land epiphanies in your lap, Shrapnel distorts reality in inarticulable ways.
“IF is one of those things you either grok right away or never do”, I’m told- a notion I can’t disagree with enough. IF grows on you, like new slippers that ‘bite’ in the first week but feel like an extension of your foot an year later. Not that all new slippers bite, mind you.
Oh, and did I mention that Interactive Fiction, all of it- is Free? :)