We are slowly moving towards intelligent criticism (rather than, as used to be the case, discussion consisting only of praising old Infocom games to the skies, as though they were all equally good)...At this moment, for instance, people are debating 'isn't Jigsaw a rather patchy game?' and I'm pleased to see this: people are singling out what they like and dislike, in a way which didn't happen a few years ago with Curses, for example.
-- Graham Nelson (1996)
There is a bit of a paradox associated with modern IF. Even though vastly fewer people are now engaging in the genre compared to its commercial peek, the number of quality games released in any given year has actually increased considerably. Modern IF creators and players take the genre more seriously than ever, and the community as a whole has shockingly high standards. Much thought and writing has gone into working out a theory of IF, and determining just what constitutes a well-designed game. Graham Nelson’s widely quoted Bill of Player’s Rights demonstrates some of the tenets of good game design that are now embraced by the community as a whole, to the benefit of the genre and in marked contrast to the frequently unfair design philosophy of even many interesting and important commercial titles:
1. Not to be killed without warning.
2. Not to be given horribly unclear hints.
3. To be able to win without experience of past lives.
4. To be able to win without knowledge of future events.
5. Not to have the game closed off without warning.
6. Not to need to do unlikely things.
7. Not to need to do boring things for the sake of it.
8. Not to have to type exactly the right verb.
9. To be allowed reasonable synonyms.
10. To have a decent parser.
11. To have reasonable freedom of action.
12. Not to depend much on luck.
13. To be able to understand a problem once it is solved.
14. Not to be given too many red herrings.
15. To have a good reason why something is impossible.
16. Not to need to be American.
17. To know how the game is getting on.
Games that violate these rules can expect to have their infractions pointed out in detail and by number, unless of course they have a very good reason for doing what they do. (As always in art, a good creator knows the rules so as to know when it is appropriate to break them.) This has led some to call the community unfriendly or unwelcoming, and even pretentious, but it has paid off in a collective body of work that is of a much higher standard than that of any other group of hobbyist game developers. The best of modern IF is intelligent, literary, and innovative, and makes a fine claim to be taken seriously as not just an interesting and vital form of computer entertainment but as genuine literature.
The wealth of riches that has appeared over the last decade presents a problem for an essay such as this one, however, for there is simply too much of quality and interest for one reviewer to cover in any reasonable space. For this reason, I am not going to attempt anything like a comprehensive critical survey of modern IF, for that is a subject worthy of a complete book in itself. I will rather offer a summarized, chronological listing of modern IF works that are notable, whether for innovation, importance, literary quality, or that simple but ever-elusive fun factor. The results will necessarily by incomplete and quite possibly unfair to the many others who could make a justifiable case for inclusion here, but I hope will serve the reader as a beginning sampler of the fruits of the modern IF community that stand available for further exploration. Included herein are a wondrous variety of works, from old-school text adventures to avant-garde experiments, and every work included in this chapter is completely free. The reader is thus free to dive in anywhere, with whatever seems interesting. I hope that one thing will soon become abundantly clear: the golden age of IF is now.
Curses (Graham Nelson)
The difficult, fascinating, often infuriating epic that marked the beginning of the modern IF era. Even though it willfully violates many of Nelson’s own Bill of Player’s Rights, its sly English humor and some wonderfully satisfying puzzles make it worth playing for more than just historical interest even today.
The Legend Lives! (David Baggett)
The final effort from Adventions, released as freeware rather than shareware, set new standards of implementation depth. Virtually every object in its world is examinable and manipulatible by the player. It is also the first self-consciously literary work of modern IF, emphasizing story and setting over puzzles. Its story does not at first seem unusual for IF, taking place in a far-future, vaguely cyberpunkish milieu, but there is more going on than first appears. Legend is in fact religious allegory. It is no coincidence that a principal character has the initials J.C. The game is one of the few serious examinations of spirituality to be found in IF, where the subject is normally treated with either mocking scorn or uncritical evangelism.
Theatre (Brendon Wyber)
One of the first quality Inform games to appear not written by Graham Nelson was this evocative, atmospheric ghost story set in a beautiful, if now unused and rather down at the heels, theatre.
A Change in the Weather (Andrew Plotkin)
The winner of the Inform division of the first annual IF Competition was also the first game from one of the most prominent modern IF authors, Andrew Plotkin. Plotkin’s signature style is all over this short but cruel little effort, in which the picnicing player finds herself cut off from her companions by a sudden thunderstorm.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Presents “Detective” (C.E. Forman, Matt Derringer)
One of the first experiments with the formal possibilities of IF, this is an interactive take on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, a television show in which three commentators have fun at the expense of really bad movies as they are playing. For his effort, Forman chose a really bad IF game, Matt Derringer’s Detective, to re-implement in Inform. As the player struggles his way through this well-nigh incomprehensible game, the characters from the television show offer meta-textual commentary on the situation. The result is undeniably funny, but also rather mean-spirited. As Stefan Jokisch wrote, “We should not forget that Matt wrote this game with good intentions and he offered it for free, so who are we to mock at his efforts?”
Jigsaw (Graham Nelson)
Nelson’s second epic puzzlefest improved on its predecessor in every way. It seems that someone known only as Black has decided to improve the ugly, tragic history of the twentieth century by revisiting and altering the outcome of certain pivotal events with the aid of a time machine. The player, naturally, must stop him or her, and the chase is on through sixteen meticulously researched historical events. Apart from the pleasures of its settings and difficult but generally fair puzzles, Jigsaw also brings to the table an elegiac, mournful quality reminiscent of Trinity, a game that clearly served as an inspiration. Also of note is Nelson’s masterful, subtle handling of the relationship between the player and Black. Even as she opposes Black and attempts to undo the damage he or she causes to the timestream, the player is attracted to and fascinated by him or her. The game never reveals Black’s gender, thus allowing the player to build up whatever image she chooses in her mind.
Christminster (Gareth Rees)
The player travels to Biblioll College, Christminster, a fictional stand-in for Christ's College, Cambridge, to visit her brother. She finds he has disappeared, however, under mysterious circumstances, and sets about unraveling the mystery. Christminster’s very English sense of place makes it notable even today, and the work as a whole is one of the most well-written and thoroughly realized of the early games of the modern era.
Lists and Lists (Andrew Plotkin)
This is not really a game at all, and arguably not even IF. It is in fact an interactive tutorial on an obscure artificial intelligence-oriented programming language known as Scheme. While definitely not what one normally thinks of IF, it does provide food for thought on the potential the community’s tools might have for creating interactive works that are not narrative-based at all.
A marvelous, affectionate tribute to Infocom’s Enchanter series of games, using the same magic system as was found there.
Ralph (Miron Schmidt)
A little charmer that casts the player in the role of an ordinary suburban dog on a quest for a lost bone.
Tapestry (Daniel Ravipinto)
An early attempt at puzzleless IF, this works casts the player as a recently deceased man who is given the opportunity by a being known as Morningstar to relive and alter three pivotal moments in his life, if he so chooses. The work is rich in allegory and symbolism, and offers multiple endings depending on the player’s choices. Heavily influenced by Neil Gaiman’s writings.
So Far (Andrew Plotkin)
A symbolic, dreamlike work that defies description. The player has apparently just broken up with his girlfriend, and finds himself roaming a bizarre fantasy landscape. Large, difficult, and open both to interpretation and to charges of pretension and profundity through obscurity, but also oddly compelling, with some marvelously evocative passages.
Lost New York (Neil de Mause)
Another time travel epic, this one centering on the history of New York City. Thoroughly researched by a native of the Big Apple, the game carries with it a sense of loss for the New Yorks that once were and that never will be. Special attention is given to the sad, pointless destruction of Grand Central Station in the early sixties.
The Space Under the Window (Andrew Plotkin)
An experimental work in which the player interacts not in the manner of conventional IF, but by entering words from the work’s output text at the command line. The results are interesting, albeit unpredictable and frustrating for the more goal-oriented among us. Play it long enough, however, and a story does emerge.
Babel (Ian Finley)
An unrelentingly grim work, but a fascinating one which uses the hoary old cliché of player-character amnesia to good effect. The player finds herself the only remaining inhabitant of an abandoned Artic research station, and spends the game trying to determine just what sort of tragedy has occurred there. Very evocative atmosphere and writing, a trademark of all Finley’s work. Shades of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”
A Bear’s Night Out (David Dyte)
An “interactive children’s story” in which the player takes the role of a teddy bear who comes to life as soon as everyone in the house is asleep. Too cute for words.
The Edifice (Lucian P. Smith)
A little game about a big subject: the evolution of man. The player must lead the way through three crucial steps on the road to becoming human.
She’s Got a Thing for a Spring (Brent van Fossen)
The player must meet her husband at a hot spring tucked away in the Rocky Mountains. Naturally, obstacles intervene. More notable than the gamelike elements, though, is the work’s lovingly detailed depiction of the beauty of the landscape in which it takes place. Also notable for its one non-player character, a relaxed and relaxing fellow named Bob who is implemented in remarkable detail.
Sins Against Mimesis (Adam Thornton)
A hopelessly in-jokey work, but a very entertaining one for those in the know. The player must overcome seven deadly game design sins of the sort that are discussed and complained about to death within the community.
Sunset Over Savannah (Ivan Cockrum)
A haunting, beautiful work. It is the last day of the player’s waterfront vacation in Savannah, Georgia, and he is attempting to find an answer to the malaise afflicting his life. One could argue that its conventional puzzles clash with the ethereal beauty of the setting, but writing this fine cannot be ignored.
The Tempest (Graham Nelson, William Shakespeare)
A brave attempt, albeit a failed one, to convert Shakespeare’s play to IF. Perhaps most interesting for its conversion of all interactions into Elizabethan English.
Zero Sum Game (Cody Sandifer)
The player has reached the end of a rather generic fantasy game, but his mother has found out, and ordered him to set everything back the way he found it. The player must thus restore the situation that existed at the beginning of the game, in the process losing the 75 points he has already acquired. Works as both a meta-textual send-up of IF conventions, and as a satire of the sort of uninteresting fantasy quests the community had by this point come to despise.
Zork: The Undiscovered Underground (Mike Berlyn, Marc Blank, G. Kevin Wilson)
Infocom implementers Berlyn and Blank were commissioned by Activision to create a short new text adventure set in the Zork universe as a promotion for Activision’s Zork: Grand Inquisitor graphical adventure. Wilson agreed to program the game in Inform, since all of Infocom’s old development tools were by this time long-gone. Thus the IF community came full circle, bestowing its modern tools upon their Infocom heroes of old. The game itself was an entertaining if hardly earth-shattering text adventure.
I-0: Jailbait on the Interstate (Adam Cadre)
Noted author Cadre’s first game was guaranteed to garner attention. The player takes the role Tracy Valencia, a rather spoiled young college student, whose car has just broken down on a trip home. The player can deal with her situation in a multitude of ways, including some that involve Tracy disrobing and relying on her, shall we say, core attributes. (To those who were offended, Cadre consistently replied that Tracy did not have to behave like a slut to complete the game, and that their choices were thus a reflection on their own personalities rather than his game.) Titillating content aside, the work is interesting for the sheer number of paths available to the player for its completion, and for Cadre’s soon to be trademark dark wit.
Zork: A Troll’s Eye View (Dylan O’Donnell)
A one room joke, but an amusing, well-implemented one. This work puts the player into the role of the troll from Zork I, guarding the entrance to the Great Underground Empire against those pesky adventurers. Obviously, only those who have played Infocom’s original will get the joke.
Losing Your Grip (Stephan Granade)
An epic work, heavy on the psychological symbolism. The player explores the consciousness of a man who is metaphorically coming apart at the seams. Perhaps a bit too heavy on the pop psychology for its own good, but fascinating nevertheless. Much discussion has taken place on “what it all means.” Also notable for its use of branching paths through the story. Shades of Mindwheel.
Spider and Web (Andrew Plotkin)
In my opinion, both Andrew Plotkin’s best game and one of the most interesting works to come out of the modern IF community. The work is superficially a Cold War spy story, with the player tasked to infiltrate an Eastern European complex. As the game goes on, though, an interesting new dimension comes to life: the person whose role the player is inhabiting knows more about what happened than the player does, and is in fact relaying past experiences. This split between the player’s identity and the person being played is of theoretical interest, but the game also succeeds artistically. There is a wonderful sense of discovery as the player finally works out what is really going on, and the climactic puzzle has frequently been called the best ever created. A modern masterpiece.
Firebird (Bonnie Montgomery)
A simple, gentle-hearted little game built from a pastiche of Russian fairy tales. A wonderful choice for beginners.
Once and Future (G. Kevin Wilson)
Wilson’s magnum opus, five years in the making and initially released commercially by the short-lived Cascade Mountain Publishing. Its history is covered in detail in Chapter 9 of this essay.
Arrival, or Attack of the B-Movie Cliches (Stephan Granade)
The first publicly released HTML TADS games was this silly, affectionate homage to 1950s science fiction B-movies. Granade uses amateurish, decidedly low-fidelity artwork and sound effects, but they suit the game perfectly, adding to the general Ed Wood feel.
Downtown Tokyo, Present Day (John Kean)
A fun spoof of Japanese monster movies that is notable for splitting the player character’s point of view between the “on-screen” hero of the piece and members of the “movie’s” audience. Also features perhaps the first animated ASCII graphics ever to grace a work of IF.
Four in One (J. Robinson Wheeler)
Wheeler has made his reputation from playing with and often subverting IF conventions, and this work is no exception. The player takes the role of a director working on a Marx Brothers movie, a task somewhat akin to herding cats. The gameplay is problematic, but the character interaction is ambitious and the writing consistently sparkles.
Informatory (William J. Shlaer)
Obviously inspired by Andrew Plotkin’s Lists and Lists, this work attempts to teach its player the rudiments of Graham Nelson’s Inform IF language. Interesting for all the same reasons as its predecessor, but perhaps a more practical tool for players of IF, most of whom seem to harbor a secret desire to create works of their own.
Little Blue Men (Michael Gentry)
A bizarre, darkly humorous game about life at the typical office. Things begin with everyday frustrations such as a malfunctioning vending machine, but eventually escalate to bloody murder. Funny but also chilling.
Mother Loose (Irene Callaci)
A children’s adventure set in a land of nursery rhymes. Another wonderful introduction to IF.
Muse: An Autumn Romance (Christopher Huang)
An ambitious attempt to tell a poignant love story in IF. The player takes the role of a middle-aged Victorian clergyman who is smitten with a young girl who notices from a distance. His love is of course never consummated, but the tale is no less touching for that. The work has its share of flaws, chief among them being the very limited character interaction and an over-abundance of fiddly puzzles that take away from the story at its heart. Nevertheless, a brave, even important work.
Photopia (Adam Cadre)
One of the most important works of the modern era, Photopia was in some senses the culmination of the previous few years’ steady drift toward the narrative at the expense of the crossword. Photopia eschewed puzzles and gamelike elements altogether to tell the touching story of Ally, a young girl who is killed by a drunk driver before she finishes high school. Cadre constructs his story cleverly, placing the player in various roles of those who knew and loved Ally to better tell her story. Some have complained that the work is barely interactive at all, and is in fact little more than a short story transcribed into IF. Others have complained about its emotional manipulativeness. These complaints have a certain truth, but it is also true that many hardened IFers were left in tears by the story. Simply put, a pivotal work in the evolution of IF toward a true form of literature.
Anchorhead (Michael Gentry)
A towering work in size, quality, and importance. The player has just moved with her husband to the little New England fishing village of the title, a place in which decidedly bad things are afoot. The story is an ambitious Lovecraft homage; the geography is sprawling and wonderfully described; and the game as a whole is a textbook illustration of how to integrate story and puzzles into a seamless whole. One of the most satisfying works of the modern era.
Guilty Bastards (Kent Tessman)
The first multimedia IF work of the modern era, and proof positive that Tessman’s Hugo language could stand shoulder to shoulder with Inform and TADS. See Chapter 9 for more details on its development.
Bad Machine (Dan Shiovitz)
A work of IF that is not quite like anything else out there, with the possible exception of Infocom’s Suspended. The player is a “bad machine,” a robot in an automated factory who has due to some glitch developed free will. She must escape the mechanical wardens of the factory, who desire to reprogram her for obedience. Much of the initial challenge of the game comes in just working out the robot’s strange way of communicating via a sort of pseudo machine language. Much attention has been to this work by theorists such as Nick Montfort, some of whom have gone so far as to claim it to be a metaphor for life in a totalitarian society. Such assertions are of course debatable, but Bad Machine has an undeniable intellectual fascination and even beauty all its own.
Aisle (Sam Barlow)
There had been some experimentation in previous years with minimalist IF that is set in a single room. Aisle takes things one step further. The player is in a grocery store aisle in which a number of interesting things are going on, and has the opportunity to enter just one command. His choice here can lead to a multitude of different endings.
Varicella (Adam Cadre)
The player takes the role of a corrupt minister close to the throne of an equally corrupt Italian kingdom. A darkly twisted story with one of the most interesting, and unsavory, protagonists yet seen in IF. A nasty game, but a compelling one.
Chicks Dig Jerks (Robb Sherwin)
The inimitable Robb Sherwin’s first game casts the player as a player of another sort, attempting to pick up girls at a bar. The game design is a bit of a mess, but it introduces one of the most original voices in IF in a game which positively revels in its political incorrectness. Play it for the writing alone.
A Day for Soft Food (Tod Levi)
A cat lover’s answer to Ralph, Soft Food gives the player the persona of a housecat on a quest for the soft food of the title.
Exhibition (Ian Finley)
A fascinating and important work of puzzleless IF. The player is visiting an exhibition of work by an artist who has recently killed himself. She can view the exhibit from four different viewpoints: that of the artist’s mother, a critic, a young boy, and an art student. Only by piecing these perspectives together can some sense of objective truth, such as it is, be worked out.
For a Change (Dan Schmidt)
The first in a line of interesting IF linguistic experiments. The player explores a surreal landscape make even more confusing by the warped yet oddly beautiful diction with which it is described. Problematic as a game, yet a compelling experience nevertheless.
Hunter, in Darkness (Andrew Plotkin)
Plotkin’s homage to IF progenitor Hunt the Wumpus manages to succeed as a compelling game in its own right. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the caves is conveyed perfectly, and the sense of fear and dread is palpable, to the extent that final victory brings more a sense of relief than triumph.
Winter Wonderland (Laura K. Knauth)
A charming children’s story. The player is a little girl heading into town to buy a candle for her family’s solstice tree while also worrying over her sick little brother. Magical adventures ensue.
Common Ground (Stephen Granade)
The player takes three different roles over the course of this short work, in the process viewing a rather dysfunctional family from the standpoint of each of its members. Not entirely satisfying as fiction, but its heavy and generally competently done emphasis on character interaction makes it a notable work.
9:05 (Adam Cadre)
A tiny, banal-seeming little slice of everyday life, until the player probes a bit deeper. Really more of a “gotcha!” joke on the player than anything, but one that is cleverly done, and that would not work in any other medium.
Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina (Jim Aikin)
It is Christmas Eve, and the player has arrived at a deserted shopping mall on the edge of nowhere in search of that Sugar Toes Ballerina doll her daughter just has to have. Acquiring this elusive toy will require solving a staggering number and variety of puzzles. An epic treat for the puzzle lover, with a healthy dose of seasonal charm to boot.
Worlds Apart (Suzanne Britton)
A hugely ambitious and largely successful work of fantasy. This succeeds by abandoning the tropes of conventional fantasy for a fully fleshed-out, richly imagined world of its own. Stunning depth of implementation, and some of the finest writing to be found in IF.
Winchester’s Nightmare (Nick Montfort)
The player is Sarah Winchester, wife of a gun manufacturer. She is struggling with the legacy her family has left to the world. The two halves of Sarah’s psyche are personified as two very different landscapes. Most interesting, though, is the game’s format innovations. It is written entirely in the third person, and alters many traditional IF commands and abbreviations, presumably in the name of verisimilitude. Problematic in the extreme, but worth a look for the experimentalists among us.
The Mulldoon Legacy (Jon Ingold)
A huge puzzlefest, which stands alongside Jigsaw as perhaps the finest examples of their kind. The player begins by exploring a mysterious museum, but, predictably enough, her adventure will soon carry her to many other places in time and space. The game’s puzzles are as ingenious as they are difficult, but it always, always plays fair. Simply superb.
Shrapnel (Adam Cadre)
A small game that is also one of the strangest ever created. It initially seems to be a parody of Zork, but soon takes off willfully in about a dozen other directions. Even the parser in this one cannot be trusted. Violent, confusing, more than slightly crazed, and just possibly brilliant.
LASH (Paul O’Brian)
The Second American Civil War has recently ended, and the player is in control of a robot sifting through the rubble. While it does not quite resonate in the way its author seems to have intended, the work is interesting for its point of view and the novel way it tells an intricate story.
Augmented Fourth (Brian Uri)
A fine medium-sized work of light fantasy. The player is a musician who can cast spells by playing certain notes on his magical trumpet. The game does nothing particularly new, but does everything so well, and with such charm, that it is impossible not to like.
Galatea (Emily Short)
Emily Short’s first work of IF is also perhaps the most frequently mentioned and discussed of the community’s works in the wider field of “new media” criticism. Whether it deserves the hallowed place it has been given is perhaps debatable, but the work is certainly interesting and important on its own merits. Galatea is structured as a single extended conversation between the player and a suddenly animated statue of the titular character, a nymph from Greek mythology. The player is free to guide the conversation in many directions, which can lead to literally dozens of possible endings. The implementation is not perfect, and indeed seemingly nonsensical responses and even endings sometimes occur, but the whole still stands as the most concentrated attempt in IF to date at creating a truly believable character. What is remarkable is not Galatea’s failings, but the extent to which it often succeeds. An enormously important work.
Rematch (Andrew D. Pontious)
Another one-move game obviously inspired by Aisle. Rematch has a decidedly different focus than that earlier experiment, however. It is in fact an adventure game, with a single puzzle that must (obviously) be solved in the one move the player is allowed. Of course, many re-playings will likely be required to get it right.
Ad Verbum (Nick Montfort)
A game of wordplay obviously inspired by Infocom’s Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. While it does not quite offer the freshness or delight of that work, Ad Verbum is enjoyable in its own right, and refreshingly different.
Being Andrew Plotkin (J. Robinson Wheeler)
Another colossal community in-joke, but a fun one for those in the know, this work is an homage to the eccentricities of Andrew Plotkin, done as an extended riff on the movie Being John Malkovich. On the one hand, this insular sort of work is vaguely disturbing, and definitely not the way to get IF noticed by the larger literary establishment; on the other, though, at least in small doses it sure is funny.
Guess the Verb! (Leonard Richardson)
Several satirical vignettes that poke fun at various IF sins and clichés. It is a bit in-jokey, but cleverly done. Shades of Sins Against Mimesis.
Kaged (Ian Finley)
A despairing, atmospheric work set in an Orwellian dystopia. Owes perhaps a bit too much to 1984 – certainly the ending will come as no surprise – but well-written and well-designed. Makes excellent use of music and the occasional graphic.
Masquerade (Kathleen M. Fischer)
A Civil War-era historical romance with a clear debt to the Infocom classic Plundered Hearts. Wonderful period detail, a well-characterized and memorable protagonist, and a multitude of possible endings make for a satisfying whole.
Metamorphoses (Emily Short)
The player is a slave girl in a fantasy world, sent on a mission by her master. Beyond that, it is hard to say for sure just what is going on in this imagistic work.
My Angel (Jon Ingold)
The most noticeable thing about this work initially is its odd approach to screen formatting, which Ingold calls “novel mode.” The player’s input as well as trivial messages appear on the status line, separately from the main text of the story being told. The idea is that the text in this main window will, if saved at the end of the work, read like a novel. The work is written in first person to further accommodate this. As the reader may guess from its formatting, My Angel is story-oriented work of largely puzzleless IF. More surprisingly, the haunting story it tells of a relationship between two telepaths is ultimately more memorable than its technical gimmicks.
Rameses (Stephen Bond)
The player takes the role of the titular character, an unhappy teenager trapped in boarding school. There are no puzzles to solve, and in fact very little to be done at all. Virtually everything the player attempts is in vain, squashed by the malaise that surrounds Rameses. The odd thing is that this utter lack of interactivity works perfectly to convey Rameses’ hopeless state of mind. The work is in fact among the most moving works of IF I have played.
Shade (Andrew Plotkin)
A deeply disturbing work. The player is alone in his apartment, and then…
Yes, Another Game with a Dragon! (John Kean)
A parody of the sort of generic fantasy effort that the community has come to despise that actually turns into quite a fun little old-school romp in its own right.
Dangerous Curves (Irene Callaci)
A huge Raymond Chandler-esque mystery that absolutely bleeds noirish atmosphere.
Failsafe (Jon Ingold)
A bizarre experiment that plays with the joint identities of the player and the game’s protagonist in a fascinating way. The whole game is literally played through a haze of static for reasons that become only somewhat clear. Inscrutable, confusing, and very, very compelling.
A Crimson Spring (Robb Sherwin)
A superhero story done Sherwin style, which means plenty of sex and violence and a great heaping dose of fractured, brilliant prose. Includes some very nicely done multimedia elements.
Heroine’s Mantle (Andy Phillips)
Andy Phillips released several huge puzzlefests during the late nineties, which were greeted with a combination of awe at their ambition and despair at their often well-nigh insolvable puzzles and sometimes purple prose. With this game, though, he finally got it right. Mantle is a superhero epic of enormous proportions. It is difficult, but rarely unfair, as for the first time Philips’ grasp is equal to his reach.
Textfire Golf (Adam Cadre)
A clever little gem that not only tells an amusing story but wraps it around a surprisingly well-done textual simulation of golf. One of those incredible Z-Machine hacks that has to be seen to be believed.
Bugged (Anssi Raisanen)
The player’s cousin has just written a terrible, amateurish text adventure, and asked her to give it a try. Completing the game will require thinking outside the box and exploiting the game’s many bugs in situations where the designed solutions do not work. A game guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of beta-testers everywhere.
The Weapon (Sean Barrett)
The player must attempt to puzzle out a recently recovered alien weapon system of awesome power while also dealing with a raft of treacherous colleagues. Short, but tough as nails, in more ways than one.
All Roads (Jon Ingold)
A largely puzzleless, story-driven work set in what seems to be an alternate version of medieval Venice, one in which magic exists. The game is somewhat railroaded, but more interactive than many similar efforts, and the story it tells is undeniably interesting and exciting.
Best of Three (Emily Short)
Another fascinating conversational experiment from Short. The player meets an old flame, and through her dialogue with him can guide the story in many different directions. Does not work quite as well as Galatea, and has in fact been largely disowned by Short as an abject failure, but it is better than its author gives it credit for.
Carma (Marnie Parker)
A work after the heart of English teachers everywhere, Carma is basically an extended ode to the importance of good grammar, particularly good punctuation. While hardly a narrative at all, the work’s format experiments are interesting, and it boosts some of the finest multimedia effects yet seen in modern IF.
Earth and Sky (Paul O’Brian)
The first of O’Brian’s very popular trilogy focusing on the adventures of superhero siblings Austin and Emily in their search for their lost parents. Such a fine example of well-implemented yet fairly traditional IF that I chose it as my example game to introduce IF to my reader in Chapter 1.
The Gostak (Carl Muckenhoupt)
Another in the increasingly long line of IF experiments with language, and perhaps the most ingenious example of same yet seen. The Gostok is written in a made-up language, which the player may slowly deduce over the course of her interactions with the work. The process is not easy, but when the pieces fall into place and understanding dawns the feeling is magical. Linguists, amateur and otherwise, will have a field day.
Heroes (Sean Barrett)
Five intertwining stories are told here, each with a different hero representing a different Dungeons and Dragons type. In spite of its somewhat bland fantasy setting, the game’s writing is solid and its construction unique. The player can play through the five chapters in any order, and can even switch freely between them in midstream. Only after completing all of the individual stories does the game’s larger narrative arc become clear.
Moments Out of Time (L. Ross Raszewski)
The only released modern IF game to use Infocom’s short-lived graphical version 6 Z-Machine, Moments casts the player as a time traveler conducting historical research. It is structured to allow for multiple re-playings. Indeed, this will be required to see any reasonable percentage of what the game has to offer.
Fallacy of Dawn (Robb Sherwin)
A dystopian game that casts the player in the role of a violent loser with an obsession for eighties arcade games. As usual with Sherwin’s work, the implementation is sometimes problematic, but the setting explodes with (evil) imagination, and the writing positively crackles. Also as usual with Sherwin’s work, worth playing for those reasons alone.
Fine Tuned (Dennis Jerz)
A wonderfully charming period piece set at the dawn of the automobile. A true pleasure to play.
Pytho’s Mask (Emily Short)
A fantastical tale of courtly intrigue with a dash of romance. As usual, Short’s character interactions are second to none.
Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country (Adam Thornton)
This elaborate spoof of the work of the adult interactive fiction community is something of a monument to bad taste. Most famous for one particular picture of the player copulating with a moose. Generally provokes either huge gales of outrage or huge gales of laughter.
Lock and Key (Adam Cadre)
A work that owes as much to Peter Molyneux’s classic Dungeon Keeper simulation games as it does to IF. In an interesting inversion of roles, the player is in charge of a dungeon, and must keep the brave and resourceful adventurer from escaping. Heavily dependent on its graphical elements, and oozing Cadre’s trademark black humor from every pore.
The Mulldoon Murders (Jon Ingold)
Ingold’s sequel to The Mulldoon Legacy follows the puzzle-oriented gameplay model of its predecessor, but is both much smaller and somewhat less satisfying on the whole. It is, however, a fine work in its own right, well worth a play by fans of the first game.
Savoir Faire (Emily Short)
Short billed this game as a straightforward tribute to the Infocom puzzlers of her youth, and this is indeed probably the most traditional of her works. It is also among the most satisfying. The player is a rather down at the heels man about town living in an alternate version of rococo France in which magic exists. He has returned to the house where he was raised in search of, in his own words, “loot.” An ingenious puzzlefest follows, with yet another clever and original IF magic system on offer.
Another Earth, Another Sky (Paul O’Brian)
The second of O’Brian’s superhero trilogy uses the multimedia capabilities of the new Glulx virtual machine to offer sound effects and appropriately lurid comic book-style visual flourishes.
The Granite Book (James Mitchelhill)
A strange, surrealistic work in which it is never quite certain just what is really going on. The parser interacts in the first-person plural for inscrutable reasons of its own. Interesting as an exercise in imagery, and for snatches of writing that approach poetry.
Jane (Joseph Grzesiak)
An earnest look at the problem of domestic abuse whose heart is in the right place, but that is rather heavy-handed in its approach and unimaginative in its design. Still worth looking at as an attempt to bring IF to bear on a real social problem.
The Moonlit Tower (Yoon Ha Lee)
A beautiful piece of work that reads and plays like poetry. Its setting and plot, such as it is, are based upon Asian mythology, a corner of culture almost never explored in IF. Sparkling and evocative, and a must play.
Photograph (Steve Evans)
A linear, puzzleless narrative obviously influenced by Photopia, but one which tells an affecting story in its own right.
The PK Girl (Robert Goodwin)
Perhaps the most ambitious Adrift game ever created, The PK Girl is also a thoroughly unique piece of IF in its own right. It is basically a textual version of the interactive dating simulators that are very popular in Japan. There are multiple endings galore, as the player is free to woo whichever of half-a-dozen girls strike his fancy. Hopelessly sexist, of course, but in being so it is at least being true to the games from which it takes its inspiration. Features nicely done graphics, and (thankfully) no actual sex.
Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me! (Jon Ingold, Mike Sousa)
A great old-school puzzle-oriented game. The player has the ability to jump into the bodies of others for brief periods of time. Ingold and Sousa seem to have spent considerable time with Magnetic Scrolls’ Fish!
TOOKiE’S SONG (Jessica Knoch)
A game that by all rights should not succeed, but does. It seems to be intended as a good-natured parody of games of the “my first adventure” style, but ends up charming so much with its air of playful innocence that it works even if the player lacks knowledge of the material it parodies. The player must pursue her beloved dog, who it appears has been abducted by aliens, or something.
Unraveling God (Todd Watson)
A puzzleless work that grapples seriously with questions of faith and spirituality. Many in the community initially took it to be a work of outright evangelism, and criticized it appropriately. In doing so, though, they did not do the work justice, for its message is much more subtle and open-ended than it first appears.
When Help Collides (J.D. Berry)
A confusing but sometimes compelling work that parodies IF conventions and restrictions, the self-help culture, and many other things. Enough ideas for half-a-dozen games, which is perhaps its greatest weakness, but interesting nevertheless.
Words of Power (Stark Springs)
A light-hearted fantasy game based around spell-casting, somewhat reminiscent of Infocom’s Enchanter trilogy. Most notable for its host of graphical embellishments and interface enhancements, which almost rival Legend’s games in their baroque complexity.
Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage (Harry Hol)
An homage to Douglas Adams’ work, particularly Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s game. While it is perhaps too dependent on Adams at times, to the point of lacking a real identity of its own, the whole is so big-hearted that even when the jokes do not work it is hard to be too critical. There was no Dutch Dapper I, II, or III, incidentally. This fact perhaps gives some idea of the type of humor the player can expect.
ASCII and the Argonauts (J. Robinson Wheeler)
A perfectly implemented, perfectly charming homage to the Scott Adams games of old, two-word parser and minimalist descriptions included.
Rat in Control (Michael J. Roberts)
The primary purpose of this work is not to entertain. It is rather an interactive experiment of sorts, although Roberts invests it with enough of a story and setting to sustain a certain interest. The player is (literally) a rat in a maze, which she has the option of navigating using traditional IF compass directions or relative directions such as forward, left, etc. Roberts hoped to use this work to gain insight into possible alternative direction-finding systems. As such, it is probably of most interest to IF authors, theorists, and researchers, although others will find an at least moderately interesting little game here.
The Erudition Chamber (Daniel Freas)
Something of an IF psychology experiment. The player is presented with a series of puzzles, each with multiple solutions. This is not so unusual. After the game is over, though, the player is presented with a brief psychological profile of herself, based on the methods she used to solve the puzzles.
Gourmet (Aaron A. Reed)
In this little charmer, the player is the owner and manager of new restaurant, and an important reviewer has just arrived for dinner. As problem piles upon problem, slapstick hilarity ensues. Truly a pleasure.
Risorgimento Represso (Michael J. Coyne)
A large game built around a premise that has been seen many times before. The player has been pulled out of our world and cast, alone and helpless, into a fantasy landscape. Represso uses its premise better than one might expect, however, and will likely win over even the most cynical with its clever puzzles and polished implementation.
Scavenger (Quentin Stone)
A post-apocalyptic adventure inspired by the classic computer role-playing game Wasteland. The setting may not be terribly original, but Scavenger plays it to the hilt while also offering a multitude of solutions to its puzzles and many pathways through the story.
Slouching Towards Bedlam (Daniel Ravipinto, Star Foster)
The story involves a mysterious sort of mind-virus that has been unleashed into an alternate, “steampunk” version of London. Most interesting, though, is the game’s design. Multiple endings exist, all carefully worked out and logical, and virtually any solution the player deduces to deal, or (if she chooses) not deal, with the virus is accommodated. A brave attempt at truly interactive storytelling that largely succeeds, and that has deservedly become one of the most discussed games of the last few years. Not a happy story, however, and not for the faint of heart.
Insight (Jon Ingold)
A twisted tale told through character interaction. The player is interrogating a murder suspect, but as the conversation continues a much more complicated tale begins to emerge.
Shadowgate (David Griffith, based on the original by ICOM Simulations)
A slavishly accurate port of the early graphical adventure Shadowgate to an IF context. Interesting as one of the few adaptations of its type, but its gameplay is very dated. Probably of most interest to nostalgic fans of the original.
To Hell in a Hamper (J.J. Guest)
The player is in a hot air balloon that is drifting dangerously close to an erupting volcano. Can he shed enough weight to pass safely overhead? Short, sweet, and clever.
City of Secrets (Emily Short)
One of the more ambitious works from a generally ambitious author, City of Secrets sets the player loose in a richly detailed near-future metropolis. The plot is almost secondary to the setting and the many characters that can be spoken with.
Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus (Emily Short, Dan Shiovitz, J. Robinson Wheeler)
Golden age space opera, with just enough modern irony layered over the top. The plot is somewhat linear and the range of possible actions constrained, but with writing this good and some period-perfect illustrations from Wheeler to boot, it is hard to really complain.
Narcolepsy (Adam Cadre)
A largely puzzleless work which places the player in the role of a wandering narcoleptic. Does not always succeed. In fact, it is not always clear just what it is attempting to do, but interesting nevertheless.
The Act of Misdirection (Callico Harrison)
The player takes the role of a rather down-at-the-heels magician. The first part of the work, in which the player must improvise his act for the audience, is probably the best, but the work as a whole, and the complex, sinister plot at its heart, are worthy.
Necrotic Drift (Robb Sherwin)
Another glorious, gonzo mess from the inimitable Sherwin. This time, there is a randomized, RPG-style combat system to complement the writing and multimedia. Waves of zombies are attacking the mall, and the player is the only gaming store employee with a chance of stopping them.
All Things Devours (“half sick of shadows”)
A game built around a single puzzle, but an amazing puzzle it is, involving high technology and time travel. Virtually any way the player works out to solve the central problem works. An incredibly rich implementation, and an immensely rewarding experience for the player.
Blue Chairs (Chris Klimas)
An excellent demonstration of the power of modern IF. Klimas seems to have internalized the previous decade’s prodigious output of theory and experimentation, and out of it all synthesized an amazing work. Blue Chairs does nothing really new, but does everything very well, then adds a dash of soul to produce an affecting contemporary exploration of love and growing up that succeeds as both narrative and crossword. Works like this may be a sign that IF is just now maturing as an art-form, and that the real golden age of the genre is just beginning.
Goose, Egg, Badger (Brian Rapp)
A seemingly simple work about life on a farm that is in fact a journey through multiple layers of reality. There is much, much more going on here than is initially apparent. Only careful, thoughtful players will peel back all of the layers, and one of the main lynchpins of the game is so subtle that even many of them will miss it entirely.
Luminous Horizon (Paul O’Brian)
The final game in O’Brian’s superhero trilogy finally reunites Austin and Emily with their parents while upholding the previous releases’ tradition of quality.
Mingsheng (Deane Saunders)
A contemplative exploration of an Eastern landscape, complete with Zenlike puzzles.
Square Circle (Eric Eve)
A thematically ambitious exploration of free will and the roots of faith. Its dystopian setting is perhaps a bit clichéd, but it is used here to good effect. Notable also for being one of the first works to really harness the power of the TADS 3 conversation system.
Sting of the Wasp (Jason Devlin)
A wicked little piece of black comedy. The player is a country club wife who has been photographed in a, shall we say, compromising position with one of the hired help. She must use all of her cynical wiles to make sure her husband, not to mention the neighbors, do not find out.
Isle of the Cult (Rube Berg)
A puzzle game in the classic style, albeit without the annoyances. Notable not for its originality or for any particular aspect, but rather for internalizing all of the community’s accumulated wisdom about game design and getting just about everything right.
The Dreamhold (Andrew Plotkin)
Plotkin’s first work of IF in several years is notable for its tutorial mode, designed to help the new player along by offering gentle guidance when she appears to be stuck. The game itself is a fairly large work of fantasy, reminiscent of So Far in both its settings and its inscrutability. Like So Far, some regard The Dreamhold as a work of genius, while some find it overly obscure and tedious.
The Fire Tower (Jacqueline A. Lott)
An interactive hike through the Appalachians. A completely puzzleless and almost completely plotless work that rewards those willing to take the time to explore its richly detailed world. The author’s love of the game’s setting shines through in every line, and can easily infect the player.
Wumpus 2000 (Muffy St. Bernard)
Another tribute to Hunt the Wumpus, albeit very different from Plotkin’s effort. Wumpus 2000 is basically an IF implementation of a randomized computer RPG ala Rogue. Features a detailed combat model and simulationist interactions which arise from the environment, rather than set-piece puzzles. Probably not the sort of game most members of the community are interested in playing, but the ideas found herein may be applicable to more story-focused works.
Return to Ditch Day (Michael J. Roberts)
A fine demonstration of TADS 3 in the guise of a compelling adventure that mixes a strong narrative and considerable character interaction with plenty of clever but solvable puzzles. The story focuses on the “ditch day” tradition at California Tech, thus in turn continuing the long tradition of collegiate IF.
Bolivia by Night (Aidan Doyle)
A mystery notable for its strong sense of place. A rather incongruous supernatural element crops up toward the end, but until that point the game manages to be educational about Bolivia’s culture and history while also offering an interesting story to explore. The pictures that begin each chapter contribute to the atmosphere.
Conan Kill Everything (Ian Haberkorn)
A one-joke work, but the joke is a funny one with an extra satirical bite for those who see it in a certain way. The player is Conan as realized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he must, as the title says, kill everything.
Distress (Mike Snyder)
A minimalist gem notable both for the clever series of puzzles it throws at the player and for the taut atmosphere in which it does so.
Tough Beans (Sara Dee)
A wonderful slide-of-life enlivened by one of the most charming protagonists in recent history.
Beyond (Roberto Grassi, Paolo Lucchesi, Alessandro Peretti)
A well-done tale of magical realism, written in English by members of the Italian IF community. An ambitious work that succeeds for the most part. Features very well done graphics.
Vespers (Jason Devlin)
A despairing work set in a medieval monastery during a time of plague. Another perfect balancing of the narrative and the crossword that succeeds as literature as well as game.
Book and Volume (Nick Montfort)
Noted IF theorist Monfort’s latest casts the player as a system administrator with a problem. Breaks many of the community’s sacred rules of design for reasons that are not always clear, but has rewards of its own to offer in return.
Building (Mike Tulloch)
An ambitious work of psychological horror that brings with it a strong whiff of Poe and plenty of purple prose. It will particularly resonate with cubical workers and victims of bureaucracy everywhere.
Whom the Telling Changed (Aaron A. Reed)
The player is given the opportunity to devise a tale of his own based upon the epic of Gilgamesh. Eschews not only puzzles but also most other conventional IF elements to give the player control of the form and substance of a story being told around a campfire. Nothing else in IF is quite like it.
All Hope Abandon (Eric Eve)
An exploration of the meaning of spirituality and, more specifically, the nature of Hell. Eve seems to subscribe to the view of Hell as not a tortured land of fire and brimstone, but rather anyplace removed from God. Not a difficult work to play, but one which offers plenty of food for thought.
Finding Martin (Gayla Wennstrom)
The sort of huge puzzlefest that rarely seems to appear anymore in our increasingly literary age of IF. Wennstrom’s epic begins in a vanished friends house in the present day, but soon flies off in a dozen directions at once. It is confusing, rambling, and more than a little overwhelming, but its ambition and charm make it a delight for the old-school nostalgic. As a throwback to Curses, it also brings things full circle, and is the perfect game with which to close this chapter.