Author Highlights: Graham Nelson

(Brian Rushton) #1

I had forgotten about this series of essays until someone commented on an old one today.


Graham Nelson is responsible for much of the modern IF community. In 1993, Infocom had not made a purely text adventure for roughly 4 years. The main website for interactive fiction fans,, spent much of its time discussing and dissecting Infocom games and similar commercial text adventures. Sharing Infocom games with each other was popular, as almost every computer available at that time had some sort of interpreter for Infocom files.

An amateur author’s community had sprung up, first using systems like GAGS and AGT (resulting in a few excellent games such as Cosmoserve and Shades of Grey), and later using TADS. The most successful TADS games were the Unnkulia games, a series of Zork-like commercial-ish games that were mechanically sound but which have aged pretty poorly in terms of puzzle design and culture.

On May 9th of that year, Graham Nelson made an announcement:

By reverse-engineering the Infocom format, Graham Nelson had managed to find a way for people to create games exactly like the ones they most loved. Together with it, he released two sample games, and a large one: Curses!, a game which we will discuss lower down.

The rest is too long to go into detail here, but suffice it to say that Inform was enthusiastically adopted, due in no small part to the excellence of its headliner game. Three more big games were released: Jigsaw, Christminster, and Theatre. The desire to get more open-source games led to the creation of the first Interactive Fiction Competition, and the growing success of Inform led Michael Roberts to significantly improve the TADS language.

Later, Nelson worked with Emily Short to devise a natural-language version of Inform known as Inform 7, which is now the most commonly used text adventure writing system.

Selected Works

Curses! (1993)
This is my number one favorite IF game of all time. It was the first one that really reeled me in, and is one I’ve played over and over.

Unlike most amateur IF at the time, Curses! is both a game and a work of literature. The game is filled with quotes and allusions to well-known authors, including T.S. Elliot, Homer, Shakespeare, and others.

You play as a member of the Meldrew family, cursed (with the rest of your family) to a life of mediocrity. It is your job to find an old map of Paris before your family leaves on a trip. This extends into a deep quest through human history, myth, and thought, with what I suppose you could call environmental character building in the protagonist.

For a deeper analysis of Curses!, see my essay here: [url]]

The effect of this game on IF history can hardly be overstated. It led to the adoption of Inform in general, and most standard responses in the Inform rulebook were designed with this game in mind, making most Inform games ever made have a little bit of Curses! in them.

Deja Vu and Balances (1993/1994)

These two sample games, one released in 1993 and the other in 1994, were designed to showcase the abilities of Inform. Balances was the larger and more well-known game. It forms a sequel of sorts to Spellbreaker, and demonstrates a spell system, animals, a weighing system, a system involving thousands of identical items, a system that stores character input for an item and allows the character to reference it by that name, and so forth.

It also manages to have a charming story in its own right. As Magnus Olsson put it in SPAG magazine (the archives of which are an amazing resource!):

Jigsaw (1995)

While Curses! holds the highest honor in my heart, many regard Jigsaw as Nelson’s magnum opus. This is a huge, sprawling game involving time travel to sixteen different important events in human history, including the invention of the airplane, the sinking of the titanic, the use of the Enigma machine, and more.

This game is notable for its maturity, depth, and its literary quality. Again, its stands in striking contrast to the typical pre-1994 amateur fiction game.

The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet (1996)

Pleased by the success of the first Interactive Fiction Competition (which others organized), Graham Nelson decided to enter anonymously (as Angela M. Horns) with a Zork-like game. This game was a backdoor pilot of sorts, as he intended to show it to the former Infocom implementors to suggest that they build new games using this engine, a suggestion which indirectly contributed to Zork: The Undiscovered Underground.

This game adheres fairly closely to Zork tropes, and is less imaginative than some of his other works. It is one of the longest of all Infocom winners, and a must-play for Zork fans.

The Tempest (1997)

With his position as a master author firmly in place, Graham entered IFComp 1997 with a more experimental game. This game is an adaptation of The Tempest, with original text as much as possible and similar text otherwise.

For instance, trying to go the wrong way yields:

This game ended up suffering from the curse of almost all faithful adaptations: requiring players to flail around until they find the exact command to advance the story. This is one of many adaptations I studied before attempting to adapt Doyle in my game Sherlock Indomitable. I ended up falling into the same trap, though. To this day, the best adaptation I’ve seen of a pre-existing story is 80 Days, followed by Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The King of Shreds and Patches. The first two completely changed the story of the original, and the latter was already a game book of sorts.

Other Games

There are a few small games here and there. In 2007, Nelson wrote a sample RPG known as The Reliques of Tolti-Aph, which demoed a combat system.


Almost all of Nelson’s games end up honoring older games and stories. Curses!, Balances, and The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet all honor Infocom. Jigsaw deals with events in human history. The Tempest showcases Shakespeare.

In all of these instances, Nelson is respectful. He seems to take delight in sharing with others what he himself has taken pleasure in. While the works of many other authors (even ones I really enjoy) seem to say, “Look at me, see how clever I am!”, Nelson’s works seem to say, “Don’t mind me, I’m just the tour guide.”

Travel in space and time are another feature of Nelson’s games. Curses! involves several different time streams, with the most notable experience involving living inside a pyramid throughout its entire lifespan. Jigsaw is centered around time travel, while Sherbet uses spells that show the past or future.

Unlike the games in the Cadre/Plotkin/Short era, Nelson’s games still have the mishmash of eras and anachronisms common to the Zork series. Wizards rub elbows with futuristic quantum mechanics, and the same game can take you from Alexandria in Egypt to the Unreal City of T.S. Elliot. The coherent marriage between story and game was pioneered by others. What Nelson brought to the table was a story that was respectful, well-constructed, and artistic. This was in stark contrast with the Unnkulia games, which mostly centered around finding cheez keys made by the Acme company. Nelson showed that you could achieve Infocom quality as an independent author.


Nelson still spends a significant chunk of time on interactive fiction, but has turned to tools instead of authorship. Working on Inform 7 both for independent authors and in the classroom, he still has a large effect on the IF community today, but in a more subdued role.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my latest author essay!

(Andrew Plotkin) #2


A nitpick:

I don’t believe Graham was involved with the reverse-engineering work. That was done by an Internet group calling themselves the InfoTaskForce, in the late 1980s.

(The first version of the ITF interpreter was released in mid-1987, while Infocom was still active.)

Graham wrote, in 1997:

Curses and Inform were written to work with the Z-machine interpreters that existed on the Internet at the time (ITF and ZIP). Later, Graham led an effort to create a formal Z-machine standards document. (Which is where he wrote the quote above.)


I presume you meant to say “Infocom”?

That includes his juvenilia too, namely Galaxy’s Edge, which I will keep harping on about because I’m ridiculously pleased (and not a little surprised) to apparently be the owner of the only extant physical copy:

I have! Thanks for doing these.

(Brian Rushton) #4

@Zarf Wow, very interesting! That’s a piece of IF history that I was previously unaware of. I’ll make sure to add that to my ‘files’.

@ahope1 Thanks! I fixed that, and thanks for the additional information!