Definitions of Interactive Fiction

Without intention to derail, my impulse on that is craft involves the skill of reproducing and potentially interpreting an artwork or artisan useful object over and over by hand. A craftsperson is an artist following a template, like a chef can create a dish and then a recipe that others can follow, which is an adjacent specific art form. Crafting is creating objects of art that aren’t one of a kind and don’t belong in a museum?

That has the same venn-diagram issue: IF is a small tent that underlies the “written word” tent (also under the ginormous “art” tent) in one direction and “interactive media things” in the other in complicated ways. An artwork can be fiction but not interactive (like a book). An artwork can be interactive but not fiction (like a kinetic art sculpture that can have elements moved by the viewer). An artwork can include both fiction and interactivity (like Portal has a story experienced via narration and physical puzzles and world building but no written text). Then we have the tiny “IF” tent which is a narrative told through written text and explored via written text.

I almost wonder sometimes if “text adventure” (encompassing choice and parser altogether) might be a term with more clarity, but IF is preferred since not every work of IF is an “adventure” per genre and style. Similar to how Edith Finch is neither really an adventure nor really a game, but is a gated open world narrative - what people might refer to derisively as a “walking simulator” despite it being probably one of the best examples of that specific kind of graphical exploratory experience.

Again off topic, I find What Remains of Edith Finch an amazing example of genre-busting. I maintain it actually has a foot in the horror genre, being tragic but not scary, only using tropes ironically. It is actually structured like a haunted house tale without literal ghosts except the memories of the family and their fates in Edith’s head. Edith Finch to me actually most resembles an exploratory parser game with minimal puzzles and tons of lore, only presented visually instead of with text descriptions. That story would completely work as textual IF and is a stunning example of what a text parser IF realized graphically might look like - so much of the world and story building is conveyed by the player observing the fastidious set design that would utilize the EXAMINE command in parser.


It’s hard to say from this example, isn’t it? By the time Fallout released in 1997, 1980s IF would not be influencing commercial RPGs directly–if it ever did at all, of course. In fact, I think that the window for Infocom’s direct influence on commercial video game titles closed by the end of the 80s, perhaps even before Infocom had ceased to exist.

E: excepting rare cases like Legend Entertainment, of course

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Many articles and even more popular science books on evolutionary biology start with an explanation that the following text is full of incorrect, inappropriate and misleading intentionality metaphors. Then the author says -… but I’m going to use them anyway because it’s too frikkin’ damn hard and impossibly elaborate to get the point across without resorting to those metaphors. -

And that’s right. It is possible to use only technical non-intentional language, but our brains have so much trouble with that.


That’s a good point.
In addition to analysing the games in themselves, one would also want to establish the actual causal-genealogical chains, for example by means of interviews. Which games did the creators of the later games play? Did they play Deadline, or play games created by people who had played Deadline? Which games do they cite as direct influences, which do they mention as being general favourites, and so on.

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Probably no way to chase down the whole genealogy, but Deadline did sell 25K copies in eight months upon release—a massive hit in 1982 numbers.

I tweeted @ Richard Garriott. Why not? I’ll update if he replies.

EDIT: in 1985, Deadline was one of 14 games awarded Gold status (100K lifetime sold) by the Software Publishers Association.

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Coming back to this because it occurs to me that one interesting hidden variable here is the ongoing influence of tabletop RPGs which maybe has driven some convergence between CRPG and IF evolution over time. Like I just mentioned Fallout since it’s the first game by the ship-of-Theseus group of developers who became Black Isle and later Obsidian, who made PoE – but of course it was originally intended to be a GURPS game, and I’m guessing the design’s foregrounding of flexible non-combat solutions to problems (necessitating complex dialogue options in many cases) is probably linked to GURPS broad and flexible approach to character-building. And of course Torment is an adaptation of the talkiest of the D&D settings.

On the other side of the ledger, it’s common knowledge that Adventure was Crowther’s attempt to create a D&D-like experience for his kids, but my suspicion is that there are many other influence points along the way that have been less examined. Like, I’m pretty sure Mike Gentry played tabletop games (I mean, you’d imagine he’d played some Call of Cthulhu, but from some random googling I did like 20 years ago [citation needed] I’m pretty sure he was in a college Amber game with a guy I knew in high school); Aaron Reed has shifted a lot of his writing over to the tabletop space; I dunno about Graham Nelson specifically but Reliques of Tolti-Aph is pretty D&D-y. More interestingly, the temporal overlap between the burst of short, experimental, LGBTQ+ friendly choice-based games in the early-mid teens and the burst of short, experimental, LGBTQ+ friendly indie RPGs seems like it could be more than a coincidence.

It makes sense that 1) there’d be substantial overlap between the kind of nerdy you need to be to make games, especially CRPGs and IF, and the kind of nerdy you need to be to play pen-and-paper RPGs; and 2) the responsiveness and narrative coherence you can get from a live game-master would be an ongoing goad to make digital games that are similarly responsive and narratively coherent. But I haven’t seen anyone really carry that thread of analysis much past the 80s.


[I initially began this reply with a riff on Gramsci but tone can be hard to get right online]

I think that people who enter into qualitative conversations in hopes of attaining inviolate certainty will always be disappointed. However, I’m not sure than many of us have done that here. In any case, I didn’t create this thread with that end in mind.

If I have been unclear: I haven’t and don’t expect(ed) anybody to arrive at a perfect and indisputable answer.

Right. I ran AD&D and Gamma World games, played Infocom stuff, played Ultima III, Pool of Radiance, etc etc. I didn’t separate out these experiences into discrete units. They all fell in a general category of cool stuff and they (and countless other things) informed my perceptions of media. We haven’t mentioned Enchanter yet, but that’s a great example of an AD&D mechanic becoming visible in IF. Perhaps rather than evolution we should be talking about a permeable barrier that permits traffic in multiple directions.

That better reflects my interest in intertextuality, anyway.


Not to derail or anything but this thread seems like the perfect place to ask this:

Do you differentiate between IF and a “text adventure”? In some spaces I’ve gotten the vibe that “text adventure” is an insult, but that’s what I’ve always used when describing my own stuff. Mostly because I focus more on mechanics than story immersion, so I lean more towards being a game than a book/story, even if I use story elements. Like, I make stuff that’s closer to a modern visual game, but convey it through text instead, because graphics take me too long to make.

Nobody has ever clarified yet if there’s a distinction or what it is, but I just remember seeing “text adventure” written in older games my dad gave me, and all the newer ones I find now use “interactive fiction”. Just making sure I use the right terms when pitching the stuff I make.


I think a text adventure is a type of IF, possibly the most venerable type. I tend to think of them as puzzly parser games, but a number of other formats have made inroads into text adventure territory, like last year’s Beneath Fenwick, and this year’s The Bones of Rosalinda.


I like “text game” myself. It’s what I said in the 80’s, and besides, it’s on the front of Aaron Reed’s book. I personally don’t think this terminology trivializes anything, since I believe that games are art.

However, it’s probably best just to go with the flow (my comments in this thread notwithstanding). Around here, I think the term “Interactive Fiction” would be the most widely used term, regardless of the game’s particulars. It applies to a very wide range of text adventure games, some with loads of story and some with very little. “Interactive Fiction” will work in most situations and meet very little resistance.


A text adventure is a piece of interactive fiction that you can’t ruin by looking under the bed. :wink:


Have you played Theatre? It’s one of my top 11 games of all time, and it directly influenced Anchorhead (both in theme and with one or two puzzles).

As for difference between Text Adventures and Interactive Fiction, I think that the terms inherently don’t have any differences between them, but that currently there’s a group of people who use the term specifically for games trying to emulate 1980s and early 90s text adventures without explicit literary aspirations (especially Scott Adams, many Spectrum/British games, and pixel-art edutainment text games). Among those that make this distinction, I’ve seen some say it’s freeing because they don’t have to worry about emotional story arcs or plot twists and can focus just on fun. I think many Infocom games would be more interactive fiction and less text adventure under this distinction. The adjective phrase “good old-fashioned” often proceeds this definition of text adventure.

But someone else could use the phrase to mean whatever they want. I think text adventure usually refers more to genre (exploration and actual adventure) with a secondary emphasis on parser input (so Robin Johnson games are definitely text adventures and some early sierra or Lucas art games just barely are on the edge) while interactive fiction generally seems to designate form first (is it text based?) with a secondary emphasis on plot-based storytelling.


The line of distinction between text adventures and IF is defined by the number of keys found in birds’ nests.


The line of distinction between text adventures and IF is defined by the number of keys found in birds’ nests.

69105 keys in birds’ nests, 69104 locks, result happiness. 69105 keys in birds’ nests, 69106 locks, result misery.

(“It’s not like they grow on trees, you know!”)


I actually just played it last year – my son was born a couple days after his due date but I’d already started my parental leave, so had some time to blast through some stuff on my backlog (I think I actually got turned onto it by its inclusion on Jimmy Maher’s post about “neo-classical” IF, which has a bunch of other all-time greats on it). Though I have to confess, playing it so long after it was released, and after I’d played Anchorhead, I wasn’t really attuned to the lines of influence though of course now that you mention them, they’re very clear!

Which is funny when you consider the analogy to static fiction, because of course you can’t get through a literary classic like Anna Karenina without at least one or two key-in-bird’s-nest setpieces.


I personally don’t think it’s an insult - I posted above that it’s more descriptive of a certain type of game. I get the impression that during the text fiction renaissance (that sort of coincides with Inform 7 and was bolstered by Twine) people wanted to write narratives that weren’t just puzzle adventure games where you progress by finding a key to unlock a chest to find a sword to kill a troll. Games like Violet and Galatea and Aisle and Birdland which are less genre-defined by the word “adventure”.


Tolstoy intended it as a CYOA, but the bottom inch of the pages where the choices were got omitted in a printing press malfunction.


Warning: boring sales data of dubious value ahead.

This isn’t an argument for or against anything, but I was bothered by my anemic statements about sales and cultural reach.

As a bit more on the footprint of Infocom games, the Software Publishers Association granted the following Gold and Platinum designations to Infocom games during the mid to late 1980s (M/D/Y format).

Platinum (250k sales):

  • Zork I (2/26/1987)
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2/26/1987)

Gold (100k):

  • Deadline (9/14/1985)
  • Leather Goddesses of Phobos (2/26/1987)
  • Suspended (2/26/1987)
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (9/14/1985)
  • Wishbringer (1/27/1989)
  • Zork I (9/14/1985)
  • Zork II (9/14/1985)
  • Zork III (9/14/1985)

1985 was the first year that the SPA granted these designations. Zork I would undoubtedly have hit 100k sooner. Note that I have omitted Silver games, though they can be viewed at the source linked below.

For benchmarking purposes, the SPA handed out 14 Gold designations total to games in 1985, of which Infocom would claim five (!). The other nine are:

  • Alphabet Zoo, Spinnaker Software (9/14/1985)
  • Choplifter, Broderbund (9/14/1985)
  • F-15 Strike Eagle, MicroProse Software (10/25/1985)
  • Fraction Fever, Spinnaker Software (9/14/1985)
  • Frogger, Sierra On-Line, Inc. (9/14/1985)
  • Ghostbusters, Activision (9/14/1985)
  • Kids on Keys, Spinnaker Software (9/14/1985)
  • Lode Runner, Broderbund (9/14/1985)
  • Math Blaster, Davidson & Associates (11/5/1985)

Note that the first platinum designations were conferred in 1986 to the Print Shop and to a Print Shop add-on. In fact, Zork I and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy received the second and third plats ever granted to video games by the SPA. The first, F-15 Strike Eagle, met this milestone only nine days earlier.

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