The perspective of today’s active community of IF authors and interactors is that interactive fiction didn’t really get going until after the commercial era. Stephen Granade’s timeline of interactive fiction’s history, for instance, in an odd reversal of Aarseth’s idea of interactive fiction, places about two-thirds of its events after 1991.
-- Nick Monfort, Twisty Little Passages (2003)
Chronicling the last decade of IF’s development presents a unique problem for an historical narrative such as this one. Most of the big events that have been our focus until now – company foundings and closings, sales successes and failures, etc. – no longer occur. Instead, we have a loosely organized group of individuals who share tools, techniques, and games among themselves. A handful have been pillars of the community since the beginning; while others come, go, and sometimes unexpectedly return. Change occurs, but at a slower pace. Yet if the events of the modern IF era are not so dramatically compelling as those of the halcyon days of the eighties, the actual work has suffered not a bit. On the contrary, in fact, IF has grown in directions Infocom and its contemporaries never anticipated. Ten years ago, the goal was to create games equal in quality to the Infocom classics; today, Infocom’s work is routinely equaled and not infrequently surpassed. Much of the IF groundbreaking that has occurred in recent years is likely because of, rather than in spite of, modern IF’s non-commercial status. Freed of commercial considerations, authors are now free to wildly experiment with the form, with the awareness that failure will cost them only time, and, indeed, that an interesting failure will garner respect and discussion to itself and may pave the way for future successes.
Before launching into a critical analysis of the some of the modern community’s important work, it seems prudent to look at the origins and current status of the institutions around which it is built. I will also offer practical advice to my reader on how to avail oneself of these resources and, should one have sufficient interest to do so, become an active participant in the community. The community’s institutions reflect the time of their founding, and in some cases may seem a trifle archaic to the contemporary surfer. What they lack in high-tech flash, though, they make up for in stolid reliability. I will also devote space to the current IF systems’ multimedia capabilities, and to several attempts to return IF to the commercial marketplace.
Usenet is one of the oldest components of the Internet, predating the World Wide Web by a decade. It is organized as a hierarchy of groups devoted to the discussion of many topics, ranging from literature to technical matters to sports. There is no central server that houses Usenet, it rather being an affiliation of nodes that together pass messages among themselves. Accessing Usenet has traditionally required an appropriate user id, but most groups are totally un-moderated and open to anyone with general Usenet access. The ids and the access necessary to use them were generally available from universities, government entities, and the occasional high-technology business in the era before the World Wide Web, but home accounts were somewhat expensive and therefore rather rare. When the invention of the World Wide Web led to the home Internet explosion in 1993 through 1995, most service providers began offering Usenet access along with email and the World Wide Web to their customers, and this tradition has for the most part continued to the present day. Usenet probably peaked in usage somewhere around this time, and my subjective impression is that it has shrunk considerably since then. Many Internet users are not even aware of its existence today, yet it continues to soldier on as one of the few areas of the Internet that still holds true to the non-commercial ideals behind the Internet’s founding. Today, Usenet remains home to a diverse band of techies, old-timers, and hardcore Internet users. Two of its discussion groups, rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction, are also ground central for news and discussion within the IF community.
The group rec.arts.int-fiction was founded by Adam Engst, a student at Cornell University, in 1987, with the intention of discussing the then-hot topic of hypertext fiction created with products such as Apple’s recently released Hypercard. Usenet being the un-moderated environment that it is, though, many took the new group’s definition of IF to match Infocom’s rather than Apple’s, and began initiating discussions of text adventures. Engst:
I fought the battles to keep the newsgroup talking about writing for some time, but at the time, there simply weren't enough people to back me up and slowly I lost interest in posting the same rebukes over and over again as new users appeared and wanted to know how to do X in Zork. I imagine this corresponded with the time that I become more busy with school and work and whatnot. In fact, given when I started the newsgroup and when I graduated, it probably didn't have very long discussing what I wanted discussed. And people were always more into the game aspects of things.
Thus rec.arts.int-fiction became a central gathering point for text adventure aficionados despite its founder’s best “serious” intentions.
By 1992, the decision had been made to form a second newsgroup, rec.games.int-fiction, in order to separate the discussion of playing games from writing them. This separation still holds today, as rec.arts.int-fiction focuses on coding questions and discussions of theoretical or technical interest to IF authors; while rec.games.int-fiction focuses on providing hints and game reviews to the community, as well a sort of community bulletin board for new game and contest announcements and the like.
There has been occasional discussion about moving IF discussion to some sort of more modern forum, but it has never gotten very far. While Usenet can be somewhat more daunting for the newbie to access than a simple web-based forum, its advantages are still considerable. Perhaps first among them is its decentralized nature, which leaves the community dependent on no single server for its communication. Google now provides an easy web-based interface to Usenet at http://groups.google.com for those who do not wish to configure their mail programs or download specialized newsreaders, and also maintains an archive of posts, thus providing the community with an ongoing history of its events and discussions that has certainly been invaluable for this author’s project as well as many others. Usenet’s un-moderated nature, on the other hand, can occasionally leave a bad taste. Both IF groups have their share of “trolls” who seemingly post just to stir up controversy, and flame wars, while not exactly common, are not unheard of either. Still, both groups are on the whole uniquely intelligent and civilized by Usenet standards, with a generally decent signal to noise ratio. On balance, the groups serve their purpose well, and things are unlikely to change.
The IF MUD
While Usenet provides a forum for fairly formal discussion, the IF community also has a relaxed place to “hang out” and engage in real-time discussion of IF and many other topics as well: the IF MUD. A conventional MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) is a form of multi-player role-playing game that dates back to the early eighties. Users assume roles in the MUD’s virtual world, which is described to them through a textual interface that is superficially similar to IF. The goals of the two forms are very different, however. While IF focuses on providing a satisfying single-player narrative experience, MUDs revolve around social interaction, and, in most cases, the gaining of wealth and experience through the slaying of monsters and possibly even other player characters. They are in fact the direct ancestors of today’s hugely popular massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as Everquest.
The IF MUD, however, is not a traditional MUD. Game-like elements are non-existent. The environment rather serves as a social space for swapping hints, discussing works in progress, and of course just chatting about general topics with no bearing on IF. The IF MUD’s founder, Liza Daly, describes some of the thoughts that went into its 1997 creation, and its evolution since:
The MUD has definitely exceeded my expectations. I had sensed the potential for a community after lurking on r.*.i-f [the Usenet groups rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction. Ed.] for years. I also wondered what kind of people were so fond of a technology that's essentially been obsolete since the late 1980's.
So I created the MUD after a few attempts to get people on IRC. I expected an initial strong turn-out that would eventually decay as the novelty wore off. To some extent, the novelty of the MUD environment did wear off--in the first few months, people built extensive landscapes, and many features were added to the MUD code to increase its usefulness as a programming environment. These days, few new areas or complex new objects are created.
What people didn't tire of was each other. There are over 180 accounts on the system--I'd estimate that anywhere from 30-50 of those people log on regularly. The dialogue is international and therefore non-stop: there's a day shift and a night shift and lots of little shifts in-between. More new people are added every week. There's a web page of photos for those curious to breach the fourth wall. There's a culture and an etiquette. There is no good documentation (Granade, “MUD”).
The IF MUD contains a variety of rooms in which to gather, such as the Coder’s Tavern; the Adventurer’s Lounge; and the Auditorium, where the XYZZY Awards, the community’s equivalent of the Oscars, are presented in a ceremony each year. As noted above, inhabitants who are so inclined can modify the MUD environment itself. They can, for instance, build homes for their avatars. One can even play various IF games through the MUD just by speaking with the friendly robot Floyd. Virtually no role-playing takes place on the MUD, however. Its inhabitants more often than not go by their given names, and are content to simply be themselves in a friendly environment.
While by no means all, or even the majority of, the community participates, the IF MUD provides a wonderful way for members who are so inclined to bond and get to know one another. It is also a valuable networking resource for those in search of beta-testers, hands-on technical help, or co-authors. Information on accessing the MUD can be found at http://ifmud.port4000.com:4001.
The IF Archive
As IF made the transition from a commercial form to one driven by hobbyists, a need was seen for a central file repository, or central IF library of sorts, to house their work. Volker Blasius, an employee of the German National Research Center for Information Technology (abbreviated to GMD based on its German form), stepped in to fill this gap in November of 1992. Blasius:
Very soon I noticed that many good things were available on the Net but they were almost hopelessly distributed all over the world. I didn't like Unix very much at the time, so I thought I might get better acquainted with it if I had a reason for really using it. I thought building an archive with IF stuff might be such a reason. I asked our ftp administrator whether I could have some disk space and a directory of my own on the ftp server, and I asked Dave Baggett (whom I knew from playing the Unnkulian Unventures and a few discussions about them) for his opinion. He thought that a central interactive fiction archive would be a great idea and offered his help. We copied the files we had to GMD's ftp server (ftp.gmd.de) and announced the archive in November 1992, inviting everyone to upload whatever they would like to see there (Mullin, “Blasius”).
Other volunteers soon stepped in to ease the load on GMD’s server, establishing a network of mirror sites.
The Archive suffered its only real crisis to date in 2001, when Basius, after almost a decade of sterling service as its maintainer, included the following message with his regular list of recent updates to the Archive:
[T]his is probably my last post with this subject line. GMD is no more. The German federal government sold GMD to the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (FhG). The former GMD will be split up into separate FhG institutes; the central IT department that hosted the archive will probably disappear.
As usual, though, the community came through with a solution quickly enough. The Archive’s central server was moved to the more straightforward address of http://ifarchive.org, and business continued as usual under new maintainers David Kinder and Stephen Granade. Virtually every IF game, development platform, or article that legally can be has been uploaded to the Archive at this point, and the collection continually expands as new authors, programmers, and transcribers upload their work.
While the IF Archive is invaluable to the community, its sheer comprehensiveness can be daunting, and its no-frills all-text appearance and somewhat arcane organization do not encourage browsing by newbies. To ease this situation, Carl Muckenhoupt created a front-end site for the Archive, known as Baf’s Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive (http://www.wurb.com/if), in 1995. The Guide provides an easy way to search the games contained therein by title, subject matter, author, or other criteria, and includes capsule reviews of many as well.
IF Journals and Reviews
Any literary community needs to have forums for serious discussion and review of the work of its members of a more lasting, considered nature than exchanges on newsgroups. Reviews are particularly important to modern IF authors. Since the vast majority seek no financial reward for their work, feedback, and the accompanying knowledge that others are playing and thinking about the work they create, is precious. It is literally the only reward they will receive, and constructive criticism offers the only hope they have of improving their craft. To their credit, members of the community realized this quite early in its lifetime, and put appropriate organs of communication and criticism in place.
The first of these was the e-zine SPAG, which was at first an abbreviation for Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games, and later changed – when the conclusion was reached that adventure games were no longer particularly endangered – to Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games. Founded by one of the pillars of the early modern IF community, G. Kevin Wilson, in 1994, its format has remained basically the same ever since. Space is given to an editorial by the current editor, news of goings-on in the community, and occasional letters to the editor, feature articles, and interviews, but the magazine’s primary focus is on providing reviews, solicited from the community at large, of IF works. In addition to publishing reviews of contemporary games, SPAG has diligently mined the past, establishing a substantial archive of reviews of not only the works of the modern community but also those of Infocom and its competitors from the commercial era. The quality of the average SPAG review is surprisingly good, and the magazine has contributed immensely to the establishment of a real critical dialogue about IF. A new issue of SPAG currently appears each quarter. Each is “published” by being sent directly to the email accounts of all subscribers, as well as being made available on SPAG’s web site (http:www.sparkynet.com/spag), where an archive of all back issues can also be found, along with a comprehensive index of all reviews that the magazine has published over its now considerable lifetime. SPAG has gone through several editors since Wilson’s tenure, but is still going strong as of this writing.
Eileen Mullin founded XYZZY News, another online IF journal, in early 1995. (XYZZY is a famous “secret word” that is needed to solve a puzzle in the original Adventure. It has since become something of an IF in-joke. Many games, for instance, offer an amusing response when it is entered.) While Mullin did publish reviews, her magazine had a somewhat wider focus than SPAG, with a greater percentage of its space devoted to theoretical articles, articles of historical interest, and interviews with significant IF figures past and present. After twenty excellent issues, Mullin decided to stop publishing XYZZY as a regular magazine in 2001 due to other commitments. She has maintained its website (http://www.xyzzynews.com), though, which contains a complete archive of the magazine’s back issues and is occasionally updated with news and notes Mullin finds to be of interest. Mullin also continues to administrate her most lasting contribution of all to the IF community, the annual XYZZY Awards, held early each year for games released during the previous year. Voting for the XYZZYs take places in two stages. In the first round, the community is invited to write in their choices for nominees in each of the categories. In the second round, the community chooses the winners from the top five vote-getters in each category. The categories themselves consist of: Best Game, Best Writing, Best Story, Best Setting, Best Puzzles, Best Non-Player Characters, Best Individual Puzzle, Best Individual Non-Player Character, Best Individual Player Character, and Best Use of Medium.
Mark Musante founded his IF Review site in 2001 with the intention of providing long, serious reviews of works of IF that were deserving of same but were not entered into any of the community’s competitions, and so perhaps did not receive the coverage they deserved. Musante actually offers to pay his reviewers $20.00 for each quality article they submit to him. His site does not publish new reviews on any particular schedule, and covers only the barest fraction of games that see release, but when new reviews do appear on his site they are unfailingly thoughtful and detailed.
A relative newcomer to the IF review game is the Interactive Fiction Ratings Site (http://www.carouselchain.com/if), opened in 2003 by Chrysoula Tzavelas. While the other resources so far discussed concentrate on longer, in-depth reviews and articles, IF Ratings is an interactive website where users can quickly rate games on a scale of one to ten, and (if they choose) leave a brief comment. Players can also input the amount of time the game took to play, and the genre or genres within which it best fits. All of this compiled information can then be utilized by others. Statistics are also available showing the best ten and the worst ten games available on the Archive, according to the site’s users anyway. Such information is interesting, but should obviously be taken with a grain of salt, and not used as some final arbiter of quality. Still, the IF Ratings site serves a valuable function as a place for throwing out some quick thoughts on a piece of recently played IF, as well as a quick way to just find something interesting to play. It has proven to be quite a popular addition to the community’s resources.
The websites and journals described above are only the beginning of a veritable mountain of history, theory, and reviews that the community has generated over the past decade or so. Many prominent authors and reviewers maintain personal websites devoted to their hobby, and there are many other worthwhile shared resources as well.
After founding SPAG, G. Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson made his second lasting contribution to the IF community. Perhaps inspired by David Malmberg’s AGT Competitions, he decided in 1995 to organize a competition for new short works of IF, preferably playable in two hours or less. The concept was as simple as it was idealistic:
This competition is to inspire IF authors to write something, however small, and make it available for people to play. IF as a hobby cannot survive unless there are people out there writing and playing it. Hopefully, some of the people who enter the competition will enjoy it, and decide to write more on their own.
That first year the Competition was divided into two divisions, one for games written in Inform and one for games written in TADS. Anyone who chose to could participate in the judging process by playing all games in one or both divisions, and voting for their three favorites. After a one-month judging period, the game with the highest average ranking in each division would be declared the winner.
That first Competition, which concluded on October 1, 1995, was a rousing success. At least half of the authors who entered went on to do more important and interesting work in IF, including the winners of both the Inform and TADS divisions, Andrew Plotkin and Magnus Olsson respectively, who are today among the most respected of IF authors and elder statesman of sorts within the community. Perhaps feeling freed by having been given permission to not produce an epic, many Competition entrants submitted games that were frankly experimental, some of them trying things that had never before been seen in IF. As usual with such things, not all of the experiments worked, but the sense of freedom and artistic rebirth engendered by the Competition was palpable. Naturally, it was quickly decided to make the Competition an annual event.
The following year considerable changes were made to the Competition, as it adopted the format in which it still exists today. The divisions were eliminated. Any work of IF, written in any language, was now eligible, and would be judged and ranked alongside its peers regardless of origin. Judges were no longer required to play every single game, but were simply asked to play as many as possible, and to score each they were able to get to on a scale of one to ten. The entrants would then be ranked on the basis of their average score.
Twenty-six games were entered that year, followed by thirty-four the next. The Competition would eventually exceed fifty entrants in 2000 and 2001, before settling down to the thirty-five or so that usually enter today. (Most members of the community are not terribly concerned by this slippage. The general consensus is that fewer frivolous, half-implemented games are being entered today.) By this time, the Competition had become the central event in the community’s year. Wilson eventually stepped down as Competition organizer, passing the reins briefly to David Dyte, who in turn passed them to Stephen Granade, in whose able hands the Competition has rested for a goodly number of years now. In addition to providing a pivotal, exciting event for the community each fall, the Competition serves a number of other valuable purposes. It has introduced a very considerable number of new authors to the community, and provided a venue for many authors to release frankly experimental works with the assurance of getting solid feedback about what did and did not work, as many community members do not just score the Competition games, but also take the time to write up at least a brief review of each and every one they play. And by providing the lure of competition and a hard and fast submission deadline, the Competition has probably caused many works to be finished that would otherwise have languished away under their authors’ procrastination.
With the Competition being such a success, others naturally tried to duplicate its formula. For a time, the community was inundated with one-time “mini-competitions” that generally came with many different judging systems and often fairly esoteric entry requirements. For instance, there was the SmoochieComp, for games focusing on love and romance; the ArcadeComp, for games based on classic coin-op arcade games; and the C32Comp, for games that would be capable of running on an (imaginary) Commodore 32 computer with just 32K of memory. As the number of competitions increased, though, the number of entrants to each tended to decrease. Several competitions were started with the highest of hopes only to receive just one or two entrants, or none at all. Due to this, the community’s mania for competitions for the sake of competitions has to some extent abated. A few have survived the shakeout, however, and have become important annual events in themselves.
Perhaps the most significant of these is Marnie Parker’s annual IF Art Show, a competition for brief “games” that are not only puzzleless but also essentially plotless. The attention of the player is thus drawn completely to the environment and objects being simulated. Judges of the Art Show are a hand-picked panel of community veterans, and entrants are divided into four categories: Still Life, focusing on a single object; Landscape, focusing on the work’s environment as a whole; Portrait, focusing on a single non-player character; and Event, focusing on some sort of activity. The Art Show has generated a fair amount of interest each year it has been held, and has produced some fascinating, boundary-stretching works that leave traditional text adventures far behind. It was held regularly from 1999 to 2004, but never arrived in 2005. If it passes away into history, as it appears it may, the community will be worse off for its loss.
For all of their popularity, the IF Competition and its smaller siblings are not regarded as universally positive by the community as a whole. Fans of large, traditional epics have been particularly vocal in bemoaning the shift away from such works to smaller, “snack-sized” pieces. While there are doubtless other factors at work as well, it is hard to deny that the Competition’s emphasis on games completeable in two hours or less has been a major impetus behind the last decade’s shift from novel-length works to short stories. When long works are created, the rules of most of the competitions preclude their entry; and games released outside of competitions often fail to garner the attention and feedback they deserve. This probably tends to convince many authors who might be inclined to write IF novels to scale down their plans. The situation has become so disturbing, even among those who are generally fans of the Competition, that some have made efforts to counteract the trend. They have done so, naturally enough, by starting more competitions.
Authoring a large game requires a great deal of courage and self-confidence. One must spend months working in a vacuum, never sure if what is being created is worth the time and effort being poured into it. If one devotes a month to a small work that fails, that is one thing; to devote a year or more of one’s life to the IF equivalent of the great American novel, only to find that one’s game is trash, is quite another. Neil de Mause created the IntroComp in 2002 to address some of these anxieties. Authors are encouraged to submit the early portions of a larger game for judgment and review by the community as a whole, to get some valuable feedback on whether finishing the game is worthwhile. To further encourage authors who submit introductions with potential to finish what they have started, the first place finisher is awarded $100.00; the second $60.00; the third $40.00; and the fourth $20.00, subject to one very important stipulation. To claim the prize, each author must finish her game within one year of the end of the competition. Jacqueline Lott took over the administration of the IntroComp from de Mause in 2003, and it has been held every year since, with rather mixed results. The competition generally receives a fair number of entries, among which are always to be found some works of real promise, but none of its winners have ever been completed. The IntroComp is a brilliant idea, but has not really succeeded in producing more works of longer length. Lott continues to try, however. She will be running another iteration of the competition this summer. Perhaps the flood gates will eventually open.
Another recent competition with some similar goals to the IntroComp, albeit a very different approach, is the Spring Thing, founded by Adam Cadre in 2002. He designed the Spring Thing explicitly to address many of the complaints community members had voiced about the main IF Competition and the effect it had had on the community in proceeding years. Cadre:
The 2001 comp featured 52 games, many of them half-baked at best; discussion was limited, with a brief flurry of reviews and then not much conversation about the games, possibly because most judges only had time to play a small fraction of them. Furthermore, relatively few IF works of substance were released at other times of the year, which was not an aberration but a trend dating almost to the beginning of the comp. What to do? I figured the Spring Thing might help some.
The Spring Thing was thus designed to provide some balance to the IF calendar year, by setting up a second major general interest competition in opposition to the existing fall Competition. It was also designed to address a concern which had been increasingly raised about the main Competition, namely that one-third or more of the entrants were half-baked, half-finished works that served to do little more than waste time that the judges could otherwise devote to more serious works. To encourage only those with serious intentions to participate, entering the Spring Thing would require an entry fee -- albeit a modest one of just $5.00 -- from each entrant, all of which would be given back to the winner as prize money. Cadre also stipulated that each entry must be previewed by him first to assure that it was basically complete and playable before it was released to the community as a whole to judge. And finally, in an effort to promote longer works of IF, the two-hour time limit of the main Competition would be removed entirely, and entrants encouraged to submit games of any length they chose.
Cadre administrated his Spring Thing in 2002 and 2003, but then ceased due to lack of time. After a year’s hiatus, the banner was taken up by Greg Boettcher in 2005, and the competition has now seeped into the community’s consciousness as one of its regular annual events. Despite this, response has never been overwhelming, and certainly nothing to compare with the fall Competition. This year’s event, for instance, has just begun as of this writing, and its field consists of just four entrants. Still, several excellent games have resulted from past events, and the Spring Thing is generally regarded as an endeavor well worth continuing.
As discussed in earlier chapters, a large percentage of the IF produced during the commercial era used multimedia of some sort to enhance the text, a trend that climaxed with the late creations of Magnetic Scrolls and Legend. This was not true of early hobbyist IF, whether we speak of the early days of our modern community or the AGT era that proceeded it. The reasons for this are not hard to discover. While some people were (and still are) opposed to any sort of enhancements beyond straight text as a sort of corruption of the form, for most it was simply a matter of practicality. A work of hobbyist IF work was generally produced by one person who must already combine the talents of writer and programmer. Adding artist into that mix seems to raise the bar high indeed. Also, none of the early programming languages offered any support for graphics or sound. The community in those days was working simply to keep IF alive in some form, preferably with a general quality level that would not compare too unfavorably to Infocom’s. Since that company, their model, had not used multimedia in its most significant work, it seemed a distant concern to most in the community.
Once the modern community was established and IF no longer seemed in immediate danger of extinction, however, some began looking into multimedia again. The first language to offer support for graphics was not one of the big two, but rather a well-respected but less commonly used entry known as Hugo. Hugo had been developed by Kent Tessman and released in 1995. Much of its syntax was based on that of Inform, but the language did not target the Z-Machine, and corrected many of the flaws and shortcomings Tessman thought to be present in Nelson’s work. Whatever its merits (and they were considerable), Hugo remained an obscurity next to Inform and TADS until 1997, when version 2.4 arrived with graphics support added to the language. Soon afterward, Tessman released a very impressive murder mystery game entitled Guilty Bastards which demonstrated many of Hugo’s new multimedia capabilities, including not only graphics but music and interface features such as a clickable compass rose for navigation that had not been seen since the commercial era.
Guilty Bastards (1998)
Perhaps inspired by Hugo’s advances, efforts were soon made to add multimedia capabilities to both TADS and Inform. First to arrive was HTML TADS, developed, like virtually everything TADS-related, by Mike Roberts and released in 1998. As its name implies, HTML TADS offers a unique approach to multimedia IF in allowing its author to essentially format her games as she would web pages, using the standard HTML tags to control the page layout, colors, and fonts, and of course to imbed graphics. Mouse support is also included. Authors can include buttons in separate frames, and can even add clickable hot-links within the main text to ease the strain of typing.
The situation with Inform was somewhat more complicated, for here Graham Nelson’s decision to target Infocom’s aged (albeit robust) Z-Machine was problematic. The only Z-Machine version to support graphics is version 6, introduced during Infocom’s twilight. While acceptable enough in its time, version 6 left much to be desired a decade later, supporting as it did only low-resolution pictures with very limited color palettes, and having an extremely unintuitive method of formatting its screens. The sound situation was even worse. While limited support was available, only very low fidelity samples saved in a non-standard format could be used. Deciding that the venerable Z-Machine had finally reached its practical limits, Andrew Plotkin stepped in to design a new virtual machine, which he called Glulx, to offer proper, modern graphics and sound to Inform programmers who wished them, and also to erase the Z-Machine’s restrictions on maximum story file size which a very few epics had recently butted up against. The Inform compiler itself was patched to allow it to target either the traditional Z-Machine or Glulx at the programmer’s discretion. Glulx and the patched compiler were released in 1999, and suddenly programmers using any of the major development systems had the option of adding multimedia elements to their works.
This is not to imply, however, that most exercise that option. Although the technology to do multimedia is now readily available, the artistic talent necessary cannot be manufactured so easily. Producing a work of quality IF is difficult enough for a single person without also adding the complications of designing graphics, sound, and/or music. Thus the vast majority of IF released today continues to be in the traditional text-only format, and many of the multimedia games that do appear are the work of small teams rather than individuals. The Z-Machine in fact remains much more widely used by Inform authors than Glulx. It requires far fewer resources than its younger sibling, and for this reason can be emulated on a much greater range of computing devices. For the benefit of those who prefer to play IF on their PDAs or on older, more obscure desktop systems, Inform programmers are encouraged to continue to target the Z-Machine by default, making use of Glulx only if they have need of its capabilities.
Modern Commercial Efforts
For all of the freeing artistic effects that have come from IF’s non-commercial status in recent years, there are drawbacks to be considered as well. The fact that IF is now created as a hobby rather than a full-time vocation brings with it its own set of limitations. The size and scope of most works are necessarily limited; graphical and sound enhancements are out of the question for many; and literally years elapse between games from even many well-known authors, due to sheer lack of time to devote to the work. Many have fondly imagined just what a company of the size and talent of Infocom might be able to accomplish today with modern hardware and our modern suite of development tools. For many, also, just the idea of bringing home a shiny, shrink-wrapped box containing not only a game disc but handsomely packaged background information and feelies holds an intrinsic, if perhaps slightly irrational, appeal. For all of these reasons, the dream of a commercial comeback for IF has never died. Discussions periodically flare up on the newsgroups about how this might be accomplished. While few see IF ever making inroads into the conventional computer game marketplace again, some see potential in selling IF at inexpensive price points in book shops, marketed as interactive stories rather than computer games; some feel such schemes are nice fodder for dreams but utterly unrealistic; and some claim that the benefits of IF’s freeware status outweigh the drawbacks, and that everyone should stop pining for the past. Amidst all this discussion, some have actually made attempts to realize some of the community’s collective dreams, at least on a modest scale. Results have been somewhat mixed.
The earliest serious attempt at a commercial revival, and ultimately the most heartbreaking, was that of Mike Berlyn and Cascade Mountain Publishing. Readers may recall Berlyn’s name from much earlier in this essay, for he spent considerable time as an implementer for Infocom, where he authored Suspended, Infidel, and Cutthroats, before going on to create Tass Times in Tonetown with Interplay Productions. Berlyn dropped back into the IF community in the spring of 1998 with grand plans to start a company to sell IF games again. The name would be Cascade Mountain Publishing, and, while it would also offer conventional books and e-books for sale, its “flagship product” would be IF. The community normally tends to be a fairly skeptical lot when it comes to newcomers with bold new plans, but it is also, of course, filled to the gills with worshippers at the altar of Infocom. Berlyn was greeted warmly and enthusiastically as a returning hero, and Cascade quickly became something of a joint community project, with members pitching in to help with its website design and so on. What Berlyn really wanted, though, was new games from the community’s best authors. He scored an early coup on that front when Kevin Wilson signed on to market his epic Avalon through Cascade. Avalon was an absolutely massive game, and had become something of a running joke in the community, having been (in Wilson’s words) just weeks away from release for something like five years now. Wilson simply could not leave well enough alone, and continued to add and add to the game, until many wondered if it would ever see release. Berlyn’s marketing plans, meanwhile, were as ambitious as Wilson’s game:
plans for selling IF are briefly outlined for your edification:
1. Work out the kinks in website ordering and the 800 order line. In addition, insure the packages are being built properly and shipped properly.
2. Expand possible customer base by posting the game's availability outside of raif and rgif.
3. Advertise in major magazines, e.g.: Games and Ultimate PC to start. First ads should appear on-street in December in Games (Feb. issue).
4. List CMP site with major search engines. This would also include PR releases to all major game sites.
5. Get reviews in major publications to heighten awareness of the product's availability.
6. Product listings with Amazon.com, etc.
7. Find a European partner for European manufacturing and distribution.
8. Distribute into the retail channel by cutting a reasonable deal with a distributor, with primary focus on bookstores.
Avalon, retitled at the last minute Once and Future for legal reasons, duly appeared for ordering on Cascade’s website in late 1998 amidst great excitement. An entire issue of SPAG was devoted to reviews of just this game, something that has never been done before or since. Yet, while Once and Future was undoubtedly huge and undoubtedly ambitious, it was not quite the marvel everyone wanted to find. It quite simply reads and plays like exactly what it is, a game put together in patchwork fashion over a period of years while its author learned his craft. Parts are quite impressive; others much less so; and all its sprawling bulk, which leaps from the Vietnam War to Arthurian fantasy to a fair number of points in between, does not always hold together cohesively, or even at times coherently. If it had been released for free, everyone would have appreciated it for what it is and enjoyed it; at $29.95 and with the future of commercial IF resting on its shoulders, things were more problematic. Next to Infocom’s work, not to mention the best work of the modern community, much of Once and Future is simply amateurish. There is an odd overtone to that special issue of SPAG, with most of the commentators aware at some level of its flaws and yet, having pinned their hopes to its success, trying their best to overlook or excuse them. Adam Thorton, however, after much prevarication, finally began to tell it like it is:
After all of these games, parts of OaF seem strangely dated. There are puzzles that are simply too much tedious monkey-manipulation: the Crown of Earth and the flaming braziers come to mind. There, thankfully, are no mazes (there is one place that looks like a maze, but isn't). However, some of the puzzles seem to exist for the sake of having puzzles: fundamentally, the whole underground scene with Snookums exists to get the necklace; now, there's nothing wrong with that, exactly, but Snookums is a wonderful character, and I wish there had been some way to meet her such that it didn't feel like she was a tool of the problem-solving process; I think removing the gratuitous plank puzzle would have helped a lot here. Mordred, too, feels less like a character than like an obstacle; a door with a multi-part key, as it were.
In short, OaF suffers from having been conceived at a time when it was assumed that the puzzles were the point of the game.
Cascade followed up Once and Future a few months later with Dr. Dumont’s Wild P.A.R.T.I., a reworking and expansion (with the help of community member Mark Musante) of a game that Berlyn had originally written back in 1988. Plans were announced for a third game, to be entitled Chameleon and written by Berlyn and his wife, but it would never materialize. Cascade did indeed advertise in the publications Berlyn mentions in his action plan above, but the spots were tiny and amateurish. Beyond this, Berlyn’s primary marketing tactic seemed to be to spam random sections of Usenet every few days. Many loyal community members bought copies of both games, but the sales to the wider world that Berlyn had counted on never materialized. He disappeared abruptly in August of 1999, never to be heard from again within the community that had done so much to help him. The Cascade Mountain site, meanwhile, stayed up until of April of 2000, when it also quietly disappeared. It was later discovered that Berlyn was spending a great deal of time in another area of Usenet, one devoted to casino gambling. And so another hero was proven to have feet of clay.
Probably the greatest victim of this whole fiasco was the relentlessly upbeat and likable Kevin Wilson, who saw his five-year masterwork condemned to a sort of Purgatory from which it was not finally freed until April of 2001, when its was uploaded to the Archive as freeware. By that time, Wilson had retired from community participation and IF authorship. It is tempting, but perhaps overdramatic, to speculate that the Cascade Mountain adventure was an impetus behind that decision. Regardless, though, his presence is missed by old-timers to this day, even as his legacy is carried on by the IF Competition and by SPAG.
The most recent attempt at reviving commercial IF has left an equally bad taste in the community’s mouth. In early 2003, Howard Sherman, an occasional IF community participant with two less than well-received Competition entries to his credit, announced that he had formed a company called Malinche Entertainment to market IF commercially. Its first game would be (yet another) Zorkian fantasy adventure entitled Pentari: First Light. Even more so than Cascade Mountain, Sherman based his market upon the Infocom model, in some case lifting whole sentences virtually unchanged from the older company’s marketing materials. Even as some were perhaps wondering where tributes end and plagiarism begins, Sherman started a brouhaha with community member Jessica Knoch over an unflattering review she gave to a demo of Pentari. From here, the bad blood just got worse. Sherman embroiled himself in several protracted flame wars on the newsgroups, and threatened to sue SPAG for libel when he got wind that it intended to publish an unfavorable review of the full version of Pentari. In addition to their irritation with Sherman’s rather abrasive personality and, shall we say, sensitivity to criticism, many community members were angered that Sherman made no mention of the free IF community on his website or in any of his marketing materials, even as he wrote his games in Inform and distributed to his customers a wide variety of community-written Z-Code interpreters to play them with. Things eventually settled into an uneasy standoff, Sherman having declared the community a group of petty souls beneath contempt and taken his leave of them in no uncertain terms, while the community as a whole largely did its level best to ignore Malinche’s existence.
Malinche has continued to soldier on on its own, and as of this writing four games are available from its website (http://www.malinche.net), with two more listed as in production. This represents the most sustained effort at publishing IF commercially since the days of Legend Entertainment, and one wishes one could feel better about the whole enterprise. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do so for reasons beyond Sherman’s rather unlikable persona. Firstly, its games are by most accounts of decidedly substandard quality, hardly ideal standard bearers for modern IF; secondly, Sherman not only fails to credit the people whose tools he takes advantage of, but he often seems to be deliberately trying to hide the free community’s existence, and even denigrates its work as just amateur efforts when innocents on the adventure gaming forums he frequents mention it; and thirdly, there is a distinct whiff of dishonesty about his whole enterprise. Malinche’s home page, for instance, sports a quote from Time magazine, declaring IF “part of the latest craze in home computing.” The quote is accurate. Unfortunately, it is also from 1983, and from an article about Infocom rather than Malinche. As far as Malinche’s sales figures, no one really knows but Sherman.
Commercial IF in the modern era has not, however, been a complete disappointment. Two more modest but focused efforts have actually met with relative success.
In October of 2002, Peter Nepstad began selling his massive HTML TADS game 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery for $19.95. 1893 is an astonishingly detailed reconstruction of the Chicago World’s Fair of that year, described not only through text but through over 500 period photographs, painstakingly located by Nepstad and scanned in one by one. The whole represents an astounding piece of research, and is also almost certainly the largest single IF game ever created. To give the player some sort of direction and motivation to explore this massive environment, Nepstad grafted on a plot involving the theft of some precious jewels. To solve the mystery and locate the jewels, the player must painstakingly explore the Fair. It is hard not to be in awe of the game as a whole. The amount of sheer effort it represents on its lone author’s part is staggering, and its overall look is thoroughly polished and professional. Actually playing this monster is somewhat daunting, however. Its environment is so huge as to be overwhelming, and the mystery plot feels tacked-on and superficial when set against all of this lovingly recreated historical detail. If anyone was still asking whether it was possible to make an IF game too big, 1893 provided the answer. It was received with awe in the community, but very few finished it. 1893 is a must play due to its sheer ambition, but it is perhaps best to ignore the central plot and just enjoy it as a virtual landscape, an IF Art Show entry blown up to staggering proportions.
Nepstad is himself a resident of Chicago, and was able to work out an arrangement to sell 1893 in the museum gift shop located on the remnants of the Fair’s grounds. 1893 has been a modest success, selling several thousand copies online and through the shop. It remains for sale today at http://www.illuminatedlantern.com/1893/.
In late 2004, Kent Tessman (creator of the Hugo IF language) released the colorful super-hero spoof Future Boy! for online sale through his film production company, General Coffee Productions. Future Boy! is the most multimedia-intensive piece of IF yet released in the modern era. It pushes the capabilities of Hugo to the limit, featuring not only pictures, sounds, and music, but even “cut scenes” illustrating important events. It is sold through an animated Flash website, and a nicely designed trailer is available. The actual game to be found underneath all this flash is warm-hearted, amusing, and well-designed, not a visionary work but perfectly respectable. Tessman has not published sales figures for Future Boy!, but the game has received considerable coverage outside the IF community in sites devoted to graphical adventures and even in the general-interest computer gaming media. It remains available today at http://www.generalcoffee.com/futureboy.
Perhaps the best lesson that can be derived from all this is that IF can have a certain commercial viability as a niche genre if it consists of more than plain text, and if its sellers keep their expectations modest. The days of purely textual IF fetching buyers seem to belong to the past, however, much as many would love to see this bit of wisdom proved wrong. To some extent, the IF community works against itself here. With a wide array of freeware games of often remarkable quality already available, what is to motivate the prospective buyer to pay for a new work? Multimedia elements, on the other hand, are much less common in free IF, and seem to provide that necessary something extra to entice buyers to pay.
The Other IF Communities
I have so far discussed in this chapter only the mainstream English language IF community. However, my reader should be aware that its output does not represent all of the IF still being produced. There are at least two other communities creating IF in English.
One is known as the adult interactive fiction (AIF) community, and its focus is on the production of interactive erotica, a style of IF with a history dating back to Sierra’s SoftPorn. Its work is regarded with a certain disdain within the mainstream community, not so much out of prudishness as in response to the generally poor quality of its games. Most are of frankly horrid quality in both their prose and their technical merits, often still being written in the hopelessly outdated AGT. Their plots generally revolve around copulating with as many females as possible, the AIF community being overwhelmingly male, and disturbing elements like incest and sexual violence all too often creep into the narratives. Most women are implemented not as human beings but as collections of body parts to be manipulated. In this, AIF games perhaps represent a decent simulation of the average porno film, but this seems a low goal to reach for. The AIF community is evidently happy with its status quo, though, for it has so far shown little motivation to improve its work. The best that can be said for it is that its work is sometimes entertaining in an accidental way. One game with the charming title of Stiffy Makane, for instance, features a protagonist who can, due to a programming oversight, drop and pick up his penis like any other object. For those who wish to explore AIF further, a central portal to all things AIF resides at http://aif.emsai.net.
Somewhat more wholesome is the work of the ADRIFT community. ADRIFT is a shareware development system designed to allow an author to create works of IF with little or no programming through the use of a point-and-click interface. Although good work can and has been done with the system, the very ease of use that makes creating a simple game so quick and easy actually makes it harder to create more complex interactions. ADRIFT’s parser and world model are also no rival for the likes of Inform, TADS, and Hugo. For this reason, ADRIFT is generally looked upon with decided skepticism by the mainstream community. The fact that ADRIFT’s creator, Campbell Wild, alone among his contemporaries charges a fee for his system has also probably contributed to ADRIFT’s fairly cool reception. Perhaps in response to this situation, a largely separate community has sprung up around ADRIFT, centered around the ADRIFT homepage at http://www.adrift.org.uk and with a newsletter of its own similar to SPAG located at http://insideadrift.org.uk. There is, however, a fair amount of overlap between the mainstream community and the ADRIFT community, certainly much more so than between the mainstream community and the AIF community. At least a few ADRIFT games generally get entered into each year’s IF Competition, and some individuals maintain a presence in both communities. The consensus of the mainstream community, however, continues to be that, while some interesting work has come out of the ADRIFT community, it is ultimately limited by the tool which it has chosen to embrace. Serious IF development, at least at the moment, continues to require real programming.
One of the nicest benefits of the IF renaissance has been the internationalization of the genre. Bilingual members of the English community have worked long and hard to ports its tools to other languages, and new communities have sprung up in response. Today, annual competitions are held for IF written in Italian, French, and German; while at least a few works each have been written in Swedish, Dutch, and Russian. Most active of all is the Spanish IF Community, which sports a thriving competition of its own and a sister newsletter to the English SPAG, known as SPAC. I encourage my readers who have familiarity with one or more of the above languages to investigate further. With its emphasis on engagement and interaction, IF is actually an excellent tool for improving one’s fluency in a language not one’s own.
In the next chapter, we will take a look at the most interesting and important free English works of the IF renaissance.
1893: A World’s Fair Mystery. 2002. Peter Nepstad; Illuminated Lantern.
Future Boy!. 2004. Kent Tessman; General Coffee.
Guilty Bastards. 1998. Kent Tessman.
Pentari: First Light. 2003. Howard Sherman; Malinche.
Berlyn, Mike. “Once and Future ships.” Usenet post to rec.games.int-fiction, October 23, 1998.
Blasius, Volker. “recent additions to the Interactive Fiction Archive.” Usenet post to rec.games.int-fiction, July 18, 2001.
Cadre, Adam. “A Timeline of Cascade Mountain Publishing.”
Cadre, Adam. “Spring Thing Background.”
Engst, Adam C. “Adam C. Engst on rec.arts.int-fiction.” Usenet post to rec.arts.int-fiction, April 5, 1998.
Granade, Stephen. “IF and a MUD.”
Granade, Stephen. “A Timeline of Interactive Fiction.”
Guy, Neil K. “A Brief History of Amateur IF.”
Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages. MIT Press: Cambridge, 2003.
Mullin, Eileen. “Interview with Volker Blasius.” XYZZY News #3.
Thorton, Adam. Review of Once and Future. Spag #16, October 3, 1998.
Wilson, Gerry Kevin. “The IF Gates are Closed. Let the Voting Begin!!!” Usenet post to rec.games.int-fiction, September 1, 1995.