When I was a youngster, I devoured a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure. Launched in the late 1970s, these books, geared toward middle-schoolers, literally put “you” at the center of the story, as a spy, detective, scientist, or the like. Every few pages, you, as the protagonist, would make choices leading you to specific pages and ultimately one of dozens of endings to the tale. Even though the choices were necessarily limited by the pre-written pages, the books were compelling and surprisingly immersive. Once I got my hands on my first personal computer, a Texas Instruments 99-4, it was a natural progression to the realm of text adventure games. I started with Pirate Adventure… Yoho!
A form of interactive fiction just like Choose Your Own Adventure, text adventure games were narratives where a set list of text commands were used to control your character and navigate the environment. The only graphics were those in my mind’s eye, which had, er, way better resolution than what the TI 99-4 could generate (especially compared to the arcade games I was accustomed to.) Playing a text adventure was fairly cutting-edge at the time.
The first text adventure game, titled Adventure (actually ADVENT, due to filename restrictions), wasn’t even written until 1975. Will Crowther, who had just gone through a divorce, came up with the code as a way to engage with his young children. Then in 1978, Scott Adams (no, not the Dilbert one), tweaked Advent and launched a text adventure gaming company. Infocom was the other hub of interaction fiction innovation.
Spun out of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, Infocom developed the Zork series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and A Mind Forever Voyaging. Besides churning out killer games, Infocom also developed a key technical spec called the Z-machine, a “virtual machine” that would allow many computer platforms from different manufacturers to all run the same format of interaction fiction files, called Z-code. Interpreters for Z-code files are ubiquitous these days, freely available online for in-browser play or as a local application for almost any computer you might own, from a vintage Apple II to a Windows box to Mac OS X to, yes, your smartphone. Indeed, the proliferation of smartphones have fueled the fire of text adventure lovers new and old. And the beauty is that you don’t need to buy anything other than the device to play them. Who needs a big, high-def screen when the real action is in the words. Start here:
• Frotz for iOS: Craig Smith ported Frotz, an open source interpreter for Z-machine games, for use on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. It’s loaded with a bunch of public domain interaction fiction titles and you can download thousands more from multiple online clearinghouses. The “warning” on the iTunes Preview page is perfect: “Playing Frotz involves reading, thinking, and typing. If you just want to blow stuff up, this is not the app for you!”
• JFrotz: A Java implementation of Frotz for Android and J2ME (Blackberry). Also free and open source!
• Interactive Fiction Archive: A massive clearinghouse of games, solutions, and Usenet discussions around interactive fiction. It’s all free.
• Inform: Once you’ve spent days (months, years) playing text adventures, you’ll almost certainly become inspired to write your own. Turns out, writing the code is the easy part. Well, fairly easy when you use the Inform programming language and development environment to do it. This tutorial will help. The first step though is up to you.
You are standing in a quiet room of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a blank screen in front of you.