Roughly eight years ago a small Polish company launched what was then called “Good Old Games” — gog.com. Their initial catalogue was small, but included such classics as Beneath a Steel Sky, Freespace, Fallout, and the game that is the reason for this very experiment, article, and indeed my interest in and fascination with the whole genre of Interactive Fiction: Zork: The Great Underground Empire. Back then I was a newcomer to the form of text adventures. I had heard of them, had decided that they were quite quaint, but I had never played one. I decided that it was time to give one of them a try…
As someone that grew up playing 3D titles like The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and (released the same year) Half-Life, text adventures were a far cry from what I was used to. They came from a bygone era, one in which there was no graphics processor. It was a time in which information had to be displayed in text form - neither audio or visual representations were feasible. Indeed, the first piece of Interactive Fiction to see the light of day was Colossal Cave Adventure (originally titled Adventure), written in 1976 on a PDP-10. Apart from the obvious connection to authorship, IF also has roots in the role-playing games of the mid-70s. The original Dungeons & Dragons game was released one year prior, in 1974.
With the advent of Infocom in 1979, IF quickly became a commercial success. Their first three games, the Zork series, sold just about 700,000 copies through the mid-80s. A few other companies followed in Infocom’s success and dominated the video game market in the late 70s and early 80s. Text adventures quickly became a staple of the personal computer, being sold to customers alongside new machines. However, sales declined as technology progressed through the late 80s. By the 1990s there were no more notable releases for the IF genre. Text had been supplanted by graphics, then a novel and exciting new aspect to video gaming.
Sierra (King’s Quest), LucasArts (Grim Fandango, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis) and Cyan Worlds (Myst, Riven) should go on to dominate the graphical adventure market for the next 10 years. Progress in 3D processing and the advent of the first-person shooter with Doom in 1993 and Half-Life in 1998 was the death knell of the classic adventure game. After the millennium, both developers and publishers realised that the genre of adventure games had become unfeasible in a market dominated by fast-paced action.
A Maze of Twisty Little Passages
While graphical adventures are currently experiencing a renaissance, there is no such revival for the genre of Interactive Fiction. It seems as if the graphical aspect has all but displaced the more simple text form in the mainstream. Why is it, though, that people come back to play text adventures and indeed look back nostalgically at games like Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure? Why is it that there exists a small community devoted to keeping Interactive Fiction alive? Where does the fascination come from?
Perhaps it is just an obsession with the old and obscure, stemming from that very nostalgia. But perhaps there is something else, something that lies at the very core of Interactive Fiction: text. Ask yourself, are you still reading books? If so, why are you reading books when you could instead watch a movie? In many ways watching a movie is simpler, but one tends to lose one very important thing - imagination. Maybe it is this core concept that keeps Interactive Fiction alive, that keeps books alive, poetry, and short stories. In essence, text can build a much more vast world in your mind that any movie or visual game. For me, text feels so much more personal as I actually immerse myself in the world instead of just experiencing it looking at a screen.
Of course the same thing can be said of many role-playing games today, but there will always be the issue of the disconnect between what is displayed on screen and what one actually pictures (or would picture) in one’s imagination. Text is a much more subtle and volatile way of describing things. Today’s advances in technology allow computer-generated graphics to look surprisingly realistic. When one sees an exact representation of a forest in a movie or game, there is no margin for imagination. The forests exists only as that exact forest, with those exact features. Describing that very forest in meticulous detail in text form would not be feasible. Thus, it becomes a thing of imagination to make up a forest in one’s mind, maybe leaving room for more than just a simple forest.
The further back in video game history we go, the more imagination — and, in case of 3D rendering, suspension of disbelief — we need. A single sprite drawn by the Atari 2600 might not look much like a spaceship, but in the minds of players at that time it certainly was one. A collection of polygons in Ocarina of Time might make up a sword that today would need a multitude of distinct processing and rendering systems. One of them might look more realistic, but both versions still only show one thing: a sword. Why does the world need remakes that are only done for the sake of improving graphics? Have we lost our imagination?
Why I Write
It is to keep alive, refine and cultivate my imagination that I have begun to write. I want to create worlds, think and philosophise about problems, describe my emotions, and maybe — just maybe — inspire people to do the same. Simply put, I want to express myself. Coming from a very technical background, I have always felt like there was something missing in coding. I did not feel like expressing myself. Designing programs and writing code is very much akin to architecture if you take out the more human aspects. People don’t have to live in code, they have to use it. There is a greater purpose to programs than there is to the spaces we live in. People can live in very simple spaces, but it is the living in the space that makes it a human one. Wall decorations, items lying around, drawers that contain a multitude of unsorted things. All of this has no place in writing and designing code.
After dropping out of University I realised that this may have been one of the reasons for quitting. I had thought that by studying computer science I would find some new sort of inspiration, that I would find interesting things and build complex and intricate systems. Instead what I found was drabness. Dry algorithms, theoretical aspects too unrealistic for real world applications, and useless exam after useless exam. What I found was not what I wanted.
After spending time reading lots of books, essays and collections of poetry I began to write myself. Ever since I have been trying to work on one bigger project instead of just writing short stories and fragments of unfinished poems.
The World is a Room.
Last year in October I lost one of my bigger clients, which gave me a lot of free time. About that time I had also come across something called Inform 7, a programming language designed for interactive fiction. I started reading the documentation and wrote a few test stories, but never got very far. Still, the idea of writing my own text adventure persisted, which brings us to the present day.
For the last month I have been preparing notes, collecting ideas, and reading the Inform 7 documentation to create what I hope will be my first big writing project: a text adventure. I have a dangerous habit of not finishing what I have begun, but I still feel quite motivated, which is generally a good sign. A few days ago I finally finished working through the Inform 7 documentation, meaning that I can finally begin writing proper.
The Lamp Maze
While working on understanding Inform 7 I created a small test adventure that employs common features of the programming language. It was also an experiment to see what kind of scale the main project will have. This test story underwent several revisions, but the latest (seventh) one I feel is worth releasing. Keep in mind — of course — that this is a very short story containing only one main puzzle. It is released along with the complete source text.
What now remains to be seen is whether I can keep writing. Previously there were no stories or poems of mine available publicly. With the advent of this project and the conviction that not releasing my work would be a shame, I decided to change this. For now, I will release one (very) short story and one poem, written around November/December of 2015. More is to come.