2015 Interactive Fiction Top 50 - the Results

Reason for that would be lack of good tools. I’m not sure how it is possible to write a decent IF using Quill, PAW, or similar system.

The problem is not even a bad design of those tools, but memory restrictions: there are only 64 or 128 Kb of RAM available for the program on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, or similar system. Memory is divided to 16 Kb pages, and if there is more than 64 Kb RAM total, then only some of those pages are available at any given point of time. To access those pages, programmers had to use technique known as bank switching, to dynamically map pages to address space. Here is example of how it can be implemented: all data or code which can’t fit to 48 Kb have to be divided to 16 Kb chunks, then programmer write memory manager which will dynamically load that data to address space #C000-#FFFF. Let’s say, player typed “n”. Parser identifies that north is leading to location X, which is located at page 7, offset #1ABC. If currently that page is not available, memory manager have to switch to it, and only then access the data at address #C000+#1ABC=#DABC.

This is very restricting environment. Program itself and all data which is always needed immediately (e.g. vocabulary) have to fit to 48 Kb, and rest of 80 Kb of RAM is divided to pieces and accessed when needed. There are many things to consider: where to place program stack, how to keep data addresses and offsets, etc. But biggest problem is how to fit good game in 64 or 128 Kb considering all that.

That’s why Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls games were quite impressive back in the days.

So you are effectively saying that if there were tools as good as the modern ones back then we would automatically have had better games?

I’m not sure I can get behind that, though you seem to know a lot more about what you’re talking about than I do. I cannot imagine that present IF design could ever have existed without having started off somewhere else, without having worked through something else. In this case the “something else” was the legacy of Crowther and Woods’ baby, which is why we have a history of mazes and limits and all those things we all know about - but I’m pretty sure we needed an overload of those gimmicks for there to be the backlash there eventually was, to the point where, today, those things need a very good reason to exist in a game or they’re automatically panned.

Sure, I’ll grant you, L9 and MS and Infocom’s wizardry at getting all that content into the available hardware was magic, but L9 in particular, in some early games, are very much a showcase for the sort of design to be abandoned. Snowball’s gigantic room count, the vast majority of them completely empty and generic, springs to mind… Of course, L9 got better! Over time. I’m thinking that’s more likely what happened to IF.

Sure, the advent of the best tools plays a huge part. But consider that were wouldn’t be those better tools if there wasn’t a demand, or rather a desire, for better games. Or slightly different games. Surely, the tools come out of a desire to achieve something, rather than randomly creating a tool and then going around to see what use it is.

Generally. I mean, I’m sure there’s loads of exceptions, and people finding a solution and then going around looking for the problem it solves. But I think it can be agreed that those are exceptions.

Well, your general point may be right, but I think that “infamous” example of Snowball’s gigantic room count is really badly chosen! The huge “maze” in that game was actually just a pretty easy puzzle where you had to understand a not too complicated coordinate system (and you had to visit only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the rooms before you could understand the logic).

But Jimmy Maher said it better than I can in his article about Snowball:

Thank you for the correction. I will, however, re-quote a bit of Maher’s great article:

My point is that it was a time when marketing a huge number of rooms was the most important thing - and that time has changed, and it has nothing to do with the tools available, and we probably needed a Snowball to stop counting greatness by the number of rooms.

Similarly, nowadays that same gigantic size and scope would be done in different ways, ways that do not actually implement the whole 7000 rooms. And we would not have come to the way we do that now if Snowball hadn’t existed. Which is why I use Snowball in the context “design which has been abandoned” - it has! There are many other better ways to do what Snowball did, to look for that sense of immense space and atmosphere, and maybe no one would have thought to look for them if L9 hadn’t actually done it the obvious way and everyone saw how lacking it was.

Heh, if anything, I’m arguing that Snowball’s excess of rooms was very much a necessity. It taught everyone involved many things.

PS - In Zork Zero there’s a building with 400 floors. I don’t think there’s anything in any floor, except maybe there’s a single floor that has something special about it noted elsewhere. I visited every single floor because my expectations of a game like Zork Zero are that it’s quite possible something was hidden away in some random floor. Similarly, if the game hypes 7000 rooms, I’m not going to play it with the mindset that I only have to visit a handful - I am assuming that there’s a reason for them to be there, and I’ll have to make use of them.

DIfferent expectations, but also, different mindsets. We have a different mindset today, inevitably. And we couldn’t get to this mindset without getting past the older one, and in a few years time we’ll be thinking in totally different ways I’m sure, and while I acknowledge that better tools were a huge part of this, I find it more plausible that the tools were created out of the desire to explore that new, different, emerging mindset. :slight_smile: I mean, Counterfeit Monkey, or Hadean Lands’ complex mechanics, resetting, shortcutting lots of stuff - even if there had been an I7 back then, you couldn’t get to these titles without going past the decades of games we’ve had so far!

(EDIT - When I say “Counterfeit Monkey” I don’t just mean because of wordplay - Nord and Bert springs immediately to mind. I mean such a degree of word manipulation as CM achieves, and such a complexity. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, myself)

The late 90s to early 00s were the peak years of Inform 6 and TADS 2. There, at least, you can’t say that tools were lacking.

It’s also true that “A Change in the Weather” and “Shade” could have been produced by Infocom, using their early tools, had they had the design and the interest in producing them. (“Photopia” would have required the later Z5 technology.) So there’s a question of goals, which is at least as important as tools.

(For an obvious example, Infocom wanted to write longer games than “Shade” or “Photopia”. So they had to spread their resources more thinly across their objects and rooms.)

Nobody said that.

Most definitely, yes.

Game authors in commercial era were living on money they were making selling games, and they had to compete with each other on everything: amount of rooms, quality of text, quality and quantity of illustrations, puzzles, etc. For example, if they were able to create something similar to Inform and squeeze in same amount of quality text that Emily Short used in her games, I’m sure they would do that. It alone would give us better games.

What you probably meant to say is that L9 and MS back in ~1986 were not able to create same games that are being created nowadays even if they had the modern tools. I agree with you on that. There is a generation between us and them, and it require no further explanation.

I see what you’re trying to say. Yes, now we have much more theory behind IF than back in those days. We have authors exchanging information and writing articles, we have magazines, blogs, free pieces of code, etc.

What you’re explaining was especially noticeable with arcade games. Back in 1980’s there was no idea of balance or casual gaming, and many of the arcade games were so hardcore that it was practically impossible to go through first few screens, not mentioning finishing the game. After years, things changed. But if you check the strategy games of same era, you’ll see that idea of balance is definitely there, actually, it was there long before people started to play strategy games on computers. The more mature game genre is, the more ideas were applied to it by gamers and developers.

By the time L9, MS, and Infocom entered game industry, adventure game genre was already there. Their first games were designed after previous works of same genre (of course I mean Adventure), but later they had to develop and apply new ideas in order to compete and stay in business. The idea of literary text as a medium between game logic and player gives a lot of room for creative developer (which is why now we’re talking about IF, not adventure games.) However, developers back then had restrictions which they were not able to overcome. I explained one of the biggest restrictions in my previous message. This was the main reason to choose puzzle-driven design or create procedurally generated rooms.

Actually, I’ve played many L9 games, and I finished Snowball with only one hint from walkthrough. I can say that it is a well designed game, even for today’s standards, not to mention that it’s a masterpiece from programmer’s point of view. L9 actually did a decent job with procedurally generated rooms. Those rooms not just “completely empty and generic”, they are part of puzzle. Rooms and corridors have unique color codes and numbers, and only way to get to your destination is to use those color codes. This technique was used in many more games since, and only reason those rooms are completely empty and generic in Snowball is 48 Kb limit, otherwise L9 would use procedurally generated room descriptions.

There are very remarkable examples of questionable design from that era. If we’re talking of L9, I would say it’s Return to Eden. I’ve tried it many times, but just can’t stand it. There is no way this software can be called ‘interactive fiction’, because there is almost no connections to literature. But I completely understand why L9 went puzzle way, it’s just because they were unable to go literature way.

Mentioning “7000 rooms” on tape cover was just marketing. Back then many adventure games had very little amount of rooms, and many people considered bigger games as better games.

I’ve never said that Infocom would write “Photopia” or any other modern game if they had better tools. What I meant is that 1980’s games would be much better with better tools, definitely more closer to IF than to adventure genre. With nowadays computers one can write IF of any possible size and complexity. It was not the case back then.

I wrote: “Nobody said that.”

Obviously that turns out not to be the case. :slight_smile:

…my objection here is to any claim like “…X would automatically have produced better games.” That’s never going to be true, not without heaps of qualifiers.

Yes, I was aware that I was generalising somewhat, but it was only because I distinctly felt that was what that poster was saying. I don’t feel too bad about it because it turns out that it was. :slight_smile:

Ok, I see what you mean and I see where we parted ways - you were talking about better games and I started talking about different games (mea culpa).

I am not comfortable using an adjective like “better” because that’s so subjective, but if we take it for granted that the games of now are necessarily different from yesteryear and that we needed to go through the yesteryear games to get to today and get that out of the equation entirely… then I guess I would agree! Infocom is the example I know best, and I know that they kept pushing and pushing the ZMachine, forcing it to do what they wanted to do. Certainly it wasn’t the lack of technology that stopped them from dreaming up, and coding, Suspended, Nord and Bert, AMFV, Trinity, Deadline. They had the creativity, they had the imagination, and maybe if they weren’t constrained by some inescapable hardware limitations they’d have soared even higher.


…or maybe that need for everything to fit in a small place was part of what made them great. It enforced economy of resources. When you’ve got limits like this, your creative processe is affected, but it’s not always adversely; it doesn’t necessarily constrain you, it might instead help you focus. I wonder whether the mish-mash that was the original Zork/Dungeon might not have been the Infocom norm if they had the Glulx machine to play it. I do think the limitations of the hardware enforced a discipline and a structure that only benefitted the games.

But obviously this is pure conjecture. :slight_smile:

Yes, I agree.

The only reason I started this conversation is because back in the days I myself tried to write IF for an 8-bit machine, so I know very well what was possible in 1986.

Infocom is a little bit different than Level 9 or any other commercial era developer. They were able to compete for much longer than anyone else. You are correct, it’s not the lack of technology that stopped them. By the time they had to quit the business there was nothing stopping them from producing Photopia. But technology definitely affected them before that. If you check their 1986 titles, you’ll see that they were published on wide range of platforms, up to ten different systems. However, 1989 titles were published on three or four platforms. They were dropping such platforms as ZX Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad CPC, and MSX in favor of IBM PC, Amiga, and Atari ST. Commercial market on 8-bit machines still existed until 1992, so the main reason to drop those platforms is because those machines were just not able to handle new ZMachine and amount of data in new games.

Actually, it’s a very popular idea in a community of fans of retro computers. There are hundreds of people still producing software for machines such as Commodore or ZX Spectrum, all stating that memory and speed restrictions are good for developer. For example, I know of at least one adventure game produced for ZX Spectrum in last couple of years. Considering that the platform is dead for more than twenty years, it’s a lot.

I think Infocom might have produced -larger- games, if not better. I’ve read a few articles where they talk about scaling back descriptions and verbs due to memory limitations…AMFV wasn’t doable until 128k…