Interactive Fiction Suggestions, Fall 2009

People who are interested in interactive fiction but who haven’t played much or any of it ask me for suggestions from time to time — not as often as I’d like, of course, but, luckily, once in a while. I’ve had a page of recommendations up on my site since 2005. The games on that list remain good ones, but I’m now updating those recommendations to take into account games from recent years. I’m posting the new recommendations here. Note that many of the people who ask me about IF are of a literary bent, as am I, and my suggestions reflect that.

A good introduction to interactive fiction does not have to be easy or simple. A game that you have to restart several times, and that you can only scratch the surface of after a few hours of effort, may show you, by being intricate and compelling, why it’s really worthwhile to try to meet the challenges of IF. It seems most important to me that a piece of IF quickly gives a sense of the powerful, interesting play of simulation and language. Such a game might happen to be hard or easy. On the other hand, some good games rely on a player knowing about IF conventions and even particular earlier games, characters, or puzzles. These often aren’t good places for someone just starting. There are many good commercial games from the 1980s and some from more recent times, but in my main list, I’ve limited myself to games that authors have made available for free download.

Although it’s possible to play some IF on the Web, it’s really best to use an interpreter to run all of this interactive fiction; the interpreter is to IF as the Flash player is to Flash and the Web browser is to the Web. There are good interpreters for Windows (Gargoyle) and Mac OS X (Spatterlight) that run IF in all of the major formats; you can also find interpreters for Linux and for smartphones. There are plenty of things you can read to help you play interactive fiction — one that I’d particularly suggest is Emily Short’s PDF introducing interactive fiction — but if you have the chance to play together with someone who knows the conventions of IF and has played a few games before, that will surely be the best way to get into IF.

These are my suggestions for eager first-time IF players, organized by year of release:

Anchorhead by Michael Gentry, 1998

A sprawling horror based on the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, with exquisite attention to detail and compelling characters and places.

Bad Machine by Dan Shiovitz, 1999

The surface of this game seems to be a confusion of code, error messages, and a small bit of English, but its strange science fiction world is deeply systematic.

For a Change by Dan Schmidt, 1999

Schmidt’s game programming is better known thanks to Guitar Hero but before he coded that up he was inspired by Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and wrote this piece of interactive fiction, which features an odd lexicon and curious, magical assemblages.

Varicella by Adam Cadre, 1999

A sort of revenge-play, difficult, complex, and worth several attempts. A strange palace holds intrigues, surprises, an array of excellent characters who wander and plot against the player character, the palace minister.

Shade by Andrew Plotkin, 2000

The most famous “one room game in your apartment.” What seems to be a sleepless night undergoes a disturbing transformation as the character, undertaking ordinary actions, uncovers a different reality.

Slouching towards Bedlam by Daniel Ravipinto and Star C. Foster, 2003

An intricate steampunk piece with that deals with insanity and language and offer several different concluding threads.

Whom the Telling Changed by Aaron Reed, 2005

A reframing and reworking of Gilgamesh, the first known epic, which combines elements of hypertext-like word selection with the usual command-based IF interface.

Bronze by Emily Short, 2006

Reworks the beauty and the beast legend, embedding memories in an architectural space in compelling ways. It has a special “novice mode” and a status-line compass that will aid players in understanding and navigating IF locations.

Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground) by Admiral Jota, 2007

A hilarious underground romp that brings every major type of puzzle together in miniature form. The really wonderful aspect is the orcish, semi-literate narration that is used throughout.

Violet by Jeremy Freese, 2008

A graduate student locks himself in his office to try to make progress on his dissertation. The puzzles, as the player seeks to overcome distraction, are amusing, but the atmosphere and the voice of the character’s absent, imagined girlfriend are extraordinary.

I still like all of the pieces I originally suggested, but, in the interests of bringing in some newer games while making only ten main suggestions, I’m moving these here: Aisle, by Sam Barlow, 1999; Dangerous Curves, by Irene Callaci. 2000; The Edifice, by Lucian Paul Smith, 1999. Savoir-Faire, by Emily Short, 2002. And, in case you feel comfortable obtaining (previously) commercial games from abandonware sites or want to quest for them on eBay, I’ll also mention A Mind Forever Voyaging, by Steven Meretzky, Infocom, 1985; Mindwheel, by Robert Pinsky, Brøderbund/Synapse, 1984; Suspended, by Michael Berlyn, Infocom, 1983; Trinity, by Brian Moriarty, Infocom, 1986; and Wishbringer, by Brian Moriarty, Infocom, 1985. Note that reading or at least looking over the documentation to these commercial games is often very useful, and sometimes essential, in getting started with them.

Does anyone else have other good IF starting points to suggest? Or, does anyone want to report experiences of delight or frustration with one of these ten games?

17 Replies to “Interactive Fiction Suggestions, Fall 2009”

  1. All fantastic suggestions that I have no objections to.

    My three proposed additions are Worlds Apart, Hunter in Darkness and (especially designed for beginners) The Dreamhold.

  2. I’d propose Jon Ingold’s ‘Failsafe’. It’s an interesting game, because it addresses the problem of ‘who the player is’ more directly, and so tells its story and builds a relationship with the player in an unusual way. It’s not completely a success, but at least it’s short!

  3. I miss Stephen Bond’s The Cabal, and your own Ad Verbum on the list. I would also recommend Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye of Wossname, even though it seems that nobody likes it but me. I’m still hoping that some day people will recognize this small game as the masterpiece it really is.

    Oh, and now that I’m at it, I’ll recommend two Spanish games: El archipiélago, by Depresiv, and La cara oculta de la luna, by someone whose name I can’t remember. (He was such a nice guy, so I’m doubly sorry for my forgetfulness.)

  4. Surely, this list cannot be without Aaron Reed’s Blue Lacuna, which is incredibly ambitious, very succesful and very accessible to beginners.

    Jimmy Maher’s recent The King of Shreds and Patches is also good, long and accessible.

  5. Thanks for the list, this is very useful.

    I just had my students read “Aisle”, “Dead Reckoning” and “Shade”, and got the usual complaints that they have no idea what to do, that IF in general is inaccessible, etc. (And of course some complained that there were no graphics, but I tend to ignore that one…) Any suggestions for more accessible works that a student being “forced” to go through an IF work might find easy to get into? Victor mentioned Blue Lacuna – any suggestions for something a bit shorter? :)

  6. I’ll second Sam Barlow’s Aisle, especially as an introduction for students. The one-turn aspect of the game makes it far less daunting than many other games geared towards exploration and puzzle-solving. Yet the very nature of Aisle reinforces a key skill required for playing IF: trying multiple solutions to a problem.

    I also teach fellow commentator Victor Gijsber’s The Baron, which really highlights the powerful emotional impact of the best interactive fiction.

  7. Aisle is a very nice piece and good for students — my students have liked it a lot — but I don’t show it as a first example of what interactive fiction is like. I think it works well after people learn the basic IF interface and conventions, even after only a game or two, and after they’ve also read some hypertext to see how it in some ways sits between the hypertext fiction and IF. Aisle is a limit case of interactive fiction, intriguing because of that and very well done, but I feel that it’s hard to guess from it what IF really is like at its core (that there’s a simulation of world, with state) based on playing it.

    Alex, I think one possibility might be to simply not expect students to play though an entire game and win. Many people are horrified when they hear that I show IF novices Varicella, a huge, complex, and very difficult game. But after having more than 50 people play the game in small groups, I’ve seen the understanding of and interest in IF that it’s awakened again and again. There’s witty writing, and the responses to almost every input (including the “you can’t do that” ones) are funny. The game has a strange setting that isn’t what it seems to be at first, showing you the importance of close reading. If you get three groups of four people each playing the game, they’ll each do different things and can compare notes afterwards, learning that many different directions and options are available. Players can have Primo killed in a variety of ways rather quickly — amusing players, showing them that you do need to restart and try again, and giving everyone insight into what a violent world this is. And you can see there there are objects, characters, and systems of different sorts, and that, even if don’t know how to solve or how to start solving the game, it’s going to involve a lot of discussion, searching, scheming, and so on. Even if you don’t play for 20 hours and solve the game, you can see why you might want to.

    (Without my requiring it, or grading students on any further play, some of my students, new to interactive fiction, have gone off after class and managed to defeat one of the rivals in Varicella. No mean first for someone playing their first interactive fiction!)

    Shade is a game that, if you play through it, is tremendously rewarding, but it doesn’t really have any of these properties. It’s not clear to me that it even really has puzzles, as opposed to tasks. If you have two groups playing Shade, one is just going to get farther along than in the other; they’re not going to meet different characters and learn different things. Instead, Shade does something else that’s radical, striking, and, in a different way, very interesting to experience and discuss.

  8. I restarted playing IF with Plotkin’s “Spider and Web”, and for me it’s a great introduction to the genre as well. It’s reasonably forgiving, very well written (classic Plotkin) and actually works to introduce IF concepts at a steady enough pace.

    At least, it did for me. I haven’t suggested it to large numbers of people, so I don’t know how it would work as an introduction for others..

  9. I feel like this list needs some Photopia (aka one of the best games ever made as far as emotional value goes)

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