Some Random Thoughts on Interactive Fiction

… now that I’m writing IF again.

Interactive Fiction was invented in the 1970s and was not called that at the time. ADVENT, the short file name for Adventure, which later became Collosal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther started it all. A fan of spelunking, he converted his exploration experiences into a computer program that let you explore the very caves he did, only in text on a computer.

Don Woods later added to this program, adding some Tolkienesque fantasy elements. This would later be adapted by the good folks at INFOCOM as Zork, one of the most popular and beloved computer games of all time and spawned several sequels.

Aside: Recently I attended a dinner party for several hundred under a tent in Hudson, to celebrate art and support the Hudson Armory Project, and we sat with a couple older than us. The wife of the couple said she loved Zork. And she was in her seventies and talked fondly of the game. It was also the introduction into computer games for millions of people.

Generally, in a typical IF game from that era, you would be placed in a world of rooms, connected by directions, so you started in one room, and that room revealed exits to other rooms. Throughout the flow of the game, you would explore all of the rooms, and examine and pick up many objects, some of which were useful, some not. Some were vital to gameplay, and the goal was, early on, to simply collect these as trophies, but as the games got more sophisticated, these objects presented as parts of puzzles you had to figure out. Often a broken machine, or some other thing, you had to repair using these parts.

Story elements featured strongly, even early on, but as the years and decades went by, Adventure Games, or Text Adventures, evolved into Interactive Fiction, a term coined by INFOCOM. And story elements would almost take over from puzzles and mazes to become real works of literary art.

But at the very heart of any IF game or story, is an object-oriented computer program that allows you, through use of language, to manipulate variables. That’s it. That’s all it does. You change the state of objects, and you “win” or “finish” the game/story by putting the variables of a list of objects in a very specific state.

When these states line up, game is over.

Literally –  the game is just changing states of objects, then comparing those states to desired states, and proceeding or stopping based on those states.

I work for a computer game company. My first game was a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. An MMORGP, often now shortened to an MMO. A 3D world, animated creatures, a fully mapped world that spanned 24km x 24km. And you could run across it seamlessly from one end to the other without any zoning, or loading of cordoned-off areas. It was a fully flowable world, and loaded landblock by landblock.

Even that RPG was a long set of objects with variable states, and all gameplay was geared to changing the states of these objects.

In its ultimately reduced state, any 3D RPG is just a graphical interface over a spreadsheet.

People play the game, but what they are actually doing is manipulating all of the cells in a spreadsheet, hoping to improve the variables, which relate directly to traits in the game.

An Interactive Fiction is a non-graphical text-based interface over a spreadsheet.

It is nothing more than that.

However, the objects and variables are dressed up in text, rooms, connections, puzzles, mood – story.

Anyone can write a game of manipulating variables. But it would be uninteresting.

No one who plays an RPG or IF game would do it if the graphical representation, or the textual representation, were not there.

It is how these objects are presented to the player that makes it a real game. Or story.

So let’s consider a hypothetical example of an Interactive Fiction game, or story:

Bottom line: You need to gather three items, combine them together into a single component part for a machine, then put that part into the machine, which, repaired, stops a disaster from happening that might kill millions of people.

What’s needed?

Obviously you need the parts. You need a machine. You need three separate parts that you combine together to repair the machine.

That’s literally it.

You may name the parts “PART_1”, “PART_2”, “PART_3” and “MACHINE”, and put them all in the same room, with commands that allow you to “>COMBINE PART_1 AND PART_2” (which then creates PART_4), and then “>COMBINE PART_3 AND PART_4”, which creates PART_5. Then you can “>PUT PART_5 INTO MACHINE” and it’s game over.

During each move, the computer is manipulating variables on these objects, and each turn, compares those variable states to a predetermined state pattern.

So only when “>PUT PART_5 INTO MACHINE” do the variables all line up, and the computer prints “YOU WIN”.

But that’s not a game. I mean… it could be a game. But it’s not that interesting, and it is certainly not much of a story.

So let’s first create some rooms.

Rooms are also just objects. Also the player is an object. Room objects are simply locations any object can be in because each object has a variable: Location which tells it which room it’s in. Rooms also have variables attached which tell it what other Rooms you can be transported to if you “>GO NORTH” or “>GO DOWN”, etc. Each room has a matrix of variables which determines which object the player’s location becomes when you make directional moves via text.

So when you are in ROOM_1, and you say “>GO NORTH”, the game checks what Room is pointed to by that direction, and sets the player’s location to that new Room object.

Similarly, an object has a location, and the location can be the player, which implies the player (you) is carrying the object now.

Objects have another property called Description, which is a text string that describes the object.

So PART_1 may have a Description: “A red cylinder with loose wires dangling from it.” Meanwhile PART_2 may have Description: “A blue box with holes for wires.”

This text is meaningless to the computer. It doesn’t care. The only thing it cares about is that when you “>COMBINE PART_1 AND PART_2” these are generally removed from play by setting their Locations to NULL and setting PART_4’s location as the player. PART_4’s Description might be “A long box with a cylinder in it, with wires now connected.”

See? So by combining parts together you give the player the illusion you are doing something real in the game world. You just partly repaired a machine’s component, when in reality you did no such thing. Now you have to continue until that part is fully repaired, then you use it to repair the machine.

But the only thing telling the player this is the text. Otherwise it’s changing the location of objects, the objects themselves, and nothing more.

What about Rooms? This can all happen in one room. But what would be the fun in that? (Notably, some very excellent games do take place in one room, but most happen in larger environments, some quite sprawling.)

So we make more rooms. We generally create a building or a complex, or an outside area, a forest, whatever. It doesn’t matter really. Inside the computer it’s still just a series of objects connected through variables.

Should each room have a purpose? For this game, should there be only four rooms? One holding the machine, and one holding each of the three parts you must combine together to repair the machine?

It would be more fun for sure. But is it fun enough? Why not create a dozen rooms and make the player hunt for the objects? Better.

Then you can hide the objects by putting them in Containers, which are simply objects that can hold other objects. And a property can say they are hidden when inside a Container object. So you may have to “>OPEN SAFE” to reveal what the SAFE object holds within it.

You can make it so that you must have an object to get another object. Like a key, which you may have to search for first, before you can >OPEN SAFE to find the item you really needed.

So it is important to have more rooms than you need, probably. You can get away with a minimalist approach, where every room holds something useful, or you can embellish the world by having intermediary rooms that have no purpose whatever except to provide the illusion of a more meaningful, fully fleshed-out world.

Perhaps to get from the Machine Room to the room that holds PART_1, you have to move through East Hallway, then Middle Hallway and finally West Hallway, before you can get to Dark Closet, where SAFE’s location is set to, and “>OPEN SAFE” which reveals the PART_1.

Some games do this to extremes, creating mazes you have to traverse before you can get to Dark Closet. Some mazes are so twisted that they can twist back on themselves, and can be completely non-linear and make no sense if you try to map it out on paper. These days, however, mazes are considered passe, or at the very least, unnecessary, and in many eyes, annoying.

It’s a fine balance to know how many rooms should have no purpose but to be an intervening space between rooms that do matter. 50 rooms when only 4 are important? Excessive! And highly frustrating. 50 rooms when 20 or 30 are important – may be a good balance.

Even if a room is unimportant, it is generous to give a player something to see or do in those rooms, both to distinguish them, to make a player remember them in a mental map, and just for world-building detail.

So you make a fully fleshed-out building with rooms with no purpose connecting rooms with purpose, within reason. (Reason being a highly arbitrary term.)

And objects? What if a game only had objects that finish the plot? Wouldn’t that also be less than ideal?

So we might create a number of pointless objects. Red Herrings that have no purpose other than to fill out the world. Some might even do cool things, even though they have no real effect on the outcome of the game.

Would you create a Kitchen without a Counter, Stove, Refrigerator, Sink? And would you not want plates, salt shakers, food, etc, to be present? Even if they do nothing?

But what of that? Should they do nothing?

At the very minimum they should have a description. “A half-full salt shaker.”

But what fun would that be if you couldn’t do things with these objects?

“>SHAKE SALT SHAKER” should give some kind of textual response, like maybe “You sprinkle some salt on the floor.”

“Mmmm, salty.”

Again the balance of useless but fun objects should be carefully weighed. When you encounter an object that matters, it should seem like just another thing, but in fact is actually important to the outcome of the game.

Ambient objects have variables that may mean nothing, but vital objects have variables that affect the outcome of the game when the game checks to see what variables line up with the desired end state.

So you want a series of rooms, only some of which are useful. And a list of objects that fill out the world’s story, but have no real purpose. And a list of objects that do have real purpose.

Debate rages on about unnecessary rooms. Some people think they are superfluous and no room should exist that has no purpose. But there are many reasons to have these rooms. Let’s say for example you have a hub room that leads to many rooms in the 8 cardinal directions, but each of the other rooms you may want to put a door. If you try to put 8 doors in the hub room, and you ask “>EXAMINE DOOR”, you will confuse the game. Which door? There are eight doors in this room.

A common solution is to make RED DOOR, BLUE DOOR, GREEN DOOR, YELLOW DOOR, etc, and since the parser can understand both words as the object, >OPEN DOOR will elicit a question “Which door, the Red Door, the Blue Door, The Green Door” etc. Or you can type >OPEN GREEN and it will just work.

Do you know many buildings whose doors in a common hallway are different colors? (I capitulate there may be a few…)

How about DOOR ONE, DOOR TWO, DOOR THREE, etc? More common in real world scenarios, sure, but it does tend to make you lose track in your mental map as you play. Without a physical map in front of you (most games would provide this, or you map as you go) then you would quickly lose track, I think.

To alleviate this, you can make an intervening room in each direction, each of which leads to the 8 vital rooms. Then, if you go NE towards the NE room, you can be in a hallway between the hub and the room. That hallway can have one door, and if you say “>EXAMINE DOOR” which now would have no problems disambiguating the door, since there is only one in the room.

So this is all pretty dry stuff. Objects, Variables, Manipulating variables via text, comparing variables to desired settings, and then printing out a “Win” message.


Then there’s STORY. The heart of the matter.

We can add People. Characters. Interactions. Hidden rooms. Hidden objects. Objects that do nothing until you “>SEARCH THEM” which may reveal more about them. Perhaps PART_3 has a screw hidden inside it that is vital to attach PART_5 to MACHINE, which is not obvious on “>EXAMINE PART_3” but is revealed on “>SEARCH PART_3”.

>EXAMINE can generally be thought of as a cursory glance, while >SEARCH means a detailed look, and may include peering closely at it, which may reveal details not noticeable on a cursory glance. This is of course contextual as chosen by the Implementer.

The story comes when you begin describing your Rooms, your Objects, and any text that is printed out when you make a move which changes the variables of these rooms or objects.


You have PART_4 (the result of combining 1 and 2) and PART_3. When you type “>COMBINE PART_4 WITH PART_3)”, the code checks that you have the two objects, but also interprets your command and can respond in text. It could simply remove PART_3 and PART_4 from play and make the location of PART_5 (the fully-repaired component) the player, and provide no feedback whatever. The internal state change would be the same.

But it is not smart in a game to do this silently. The output could simply say “Done.” and when you examine the object, you would maybe see “The fully repaired component.”

But where’s the story in that? Better, when you combine the objects, the response to the command can be:

“You push and twist, and finally the partly repaired part fits into the Spring-Loaded Box. Lights flash and the repaired component begins to get warm.”

This is what makes Interactive Fiction a game or story. Not just what’s going on underneath, what happens in the spreadsheet, but much more importantly, how the changing of the variables is presented in text to the player who does the manipulation.

Also adding non-game-important properties to an object can add to the story. Like let’s say each part can have IS COLD, IS WARM, IS HOT as properties, and as you combine parts, you set these properties in the same command statement.

So you could have:



You Win.

Fun right?

Not so much.

Instead try:

You push the parts together and notice that they almost fit, but the wires are in the way. You twist the wires and push them through the holes in the blue box until they snap to connect, and you hear a high-pitched whine and a click. Lights on the partially repaired part begin to glow.

The partially repaired part is getting warm.

Though it doesn’t look like it should work, with enough effort and persistence, the parts mesh together and begin to glow brightly to form a fully repaired part. The heat is getting intense.

The fully repaired part is getting a bit hot to handle.

Gently sliding the repaired part into the machine causes a series of sparks, a loud noise, until you hear gears meshing and a growing hum of what can only be described as engine efficiency. A loud hum begins to decrease, settling into a nice low-key sub-aural vibration. The lights around the complex begin to fire up, a few at first, but more and more until the whole place is lit like daylight.

Soon doors begin to open, and people, groggy at first, begin to walk out into the open space. They notice you and are confused, but slowly they come to understand that you are the hero they’ve been waiting for all this time. Suspended in cryo-sleep, these men and women may have never been revived if you had not come along and stumbled upon their plight.

They surround you and sway, cheers and cries of joy begin low and slow, but soon are a raucous noise of celebration as they begin to understand what happened, and how you must have been the one to free them.

They lift you onto their shoulders and carry you through the complex, telling everyone they encounter just what you did to save their entire civilization.



It’s really that simple. You are no longer just manipulating variables on computer objects, but affecting a world.

Great, right?

But that’s not all there is either.


What happens if you try to put PART_7 into PART_1? It should fail. But not silently. Generally in IF, when you do something to an object that has no in-game effect, you get a message telling you that it can’t be done. It might be pointless to put PART_7 into PART_1 because there is no game benefit. And if you did, it would not help win the game. So we’d need some kind of response that helps you figure out not only that it didn’t work, but provide some hint as to why.

You try to force the red cylinder into the coffee maker, but there just does not seem to be a way to do it.

This is a gentle way the game has of telling you this is not intended to do anything.

Error messages are intended to prod, not slam you with a sledgehammer. If you “>GO NORTH” in a place that has no North exit, you will see “You can’t go that way.” Fine. The computer has told you what you need to know. This is clearly a generic error response when you try to go in a direction that has no destination location.

(It would be an awful cheat, on a Douglas Adams level, to say “You can’t go that way.” only to find that if you >PUSH NORTH that it lets you go there Or if you >GO NORTH three times, and the third time lets you. Mis-use of a generic error message may be seen as cruel, or at the very least heartless.)

(NOTE TO SELF: Write that game! The game where every default response actually is hiding the fact that you CAN do the thing, if you do it in a special way.)

(NOTE TO SELF: Don’t. People would carry pitchforks and torches to your door.)

The same would go for any command that does nothing useful in the game.

That’s not edible.

This command checks PART_1 for a property IS_EDIBLE and if it is not, it spits out the default error response message. If IS_EDIBLE is true, then it will do something meaningful, responding with a different message, one of success. But even that may have a default. If it is edible, it may simply say “You eat PART_1.” and removes it from play. Which may not be desirable either, so in a case where a game/story requires eating PART_1 to do somethin game-useful, then the Implmenter has to code that specifically.

An IF Parser is filled with these default responses for commands that could do something with the right objects, but fails to do something to the wrong objects. Sometimes these responses are very … uninteresting. But they are soon easily recognized as the game telling you that this is not something that could work in the course of play.

But perhaps you want PART_7 to fit into PART_9. So if you put it into PART_3, and you don’t want that to happen, it should not just respond with a default response, if at all possible, it should inform the player that putting PART_7 can fit into something, just not PART_3:

The aperture in the yellow laptop is not the right shape for the Blue Box to fit in.

This is a way of saying this is not a generic error which might mean the very action of combining is not designed to work with any of these objects, but instead tell you that the action would work if you had the correct objects.

You might even get more direct with the message:

The aperture in the yellow laptop is not the right shape for the Blue Box to fit in. The aperture is too large.

Hinting that a smaller object might indeed fit.

So what is the point of all of these default responses? Don’t they, too, hint that perhaps the command would work in the right situation? Sometimes these default responses seem less than informative.

I mean at which point should an error response just reduce to:




Would you not get the point? Why add to that direct refusal?

I sometimes think one day I will write an IF story where I change all default responses to simply “No.” and then code my own specific responses for good tries, and efforts that could work with the right objects.

Wouldn’t that be fun?


Piracy 2.0 – An Interactive Pirate Adventure (2008)

In 1983 I encountered my first INFOCOM game. A text adventure that changed my life. It was Infidel, by Michael Berlyn and Patricia Fogleman.

It was not the first INFOCOM game I played – that would be Suspended, also by Michael Berlyn.

While Suspended was a bit esoteric (you had to move five robots around, each with limited sense ability, but complementary to each other, so you might have to use multiple robots to fully understand a problem, and then figure out how to solve it.

While that game had the best packaging of any computer game ever, the game itself was… difficult. A friend of mine solved it on his own, and I, to this day, have no idea how.

However, I solved Infidel on my own, and still consider the atmosphere to be wonderful. It really immersed me into an ancient Egyptian pyramid, which I had to loot to win the game. And the end was… surprisingly delightful. And controversial to this day.

So in 1985 with my Commodore 64, I wrote a simple two-word parser game in BASIC, called Piracy, based around a captain of a space ship tasked with bringing an infamous space pirate to justice, only to have your secret course intercepted by his men, your ship boarded, your crew killed, and you tossed into the brig.

You wake up in the brig, have to escape, and get your ship and your prisoner back to headquarters for trial.

You can see my web page on this project here.

It was a fun exercise. While INFOCOM’s parser was quite robust, and could interpret full sentences, even multiple sentences, (“>put the glass onion inside the puzzle box, then twist the puzzle box to the right. get the umbrella. open it”), mine was literally two words, like some Scott Adams text adventures: >cut pipe; >insert battery.

Inform 6 opened up the possibility that I could re-write, or even re-invent that old 1985 story with a full, robust parser, and a much, much richer story, and a much, much richer game.

So I did.

In 2008, I entered the IF Comp, the big annual IF competition.

Who the heck was I? A newcomer to the field of indy Interactive Fiction stories, which had evolved beyond INFOCOM to some wonderful games (or more accurately in more modern times, stories), to think I could walk among the big IF writers like Emily Short or Andrew Plotkin?

But I entered, nonetheless. Arrogant me entered the contest with my 1985 game modernized with a new parser and a fully robust story and game that I was able to expand into a game I quite liked.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked my 1985 effort too, but it was a much more simplistic game.

The 2008 version was so fully rounded, with details on the ship so thoroughly implemented that even the toilets worked – a rebuke of the idea that in Star Trek, we never saw toilets. (But if you had the blueprints of the Enterprise like I did, pinned to my wall for most of my teen years, you knew they existed, and exactly where.)

Hey. Guess what?

I came in fifth! Out of a field of 35!

Not bad!

Emily Short’s review was quite humbling. She really seemed to like it. Even if she couldn’t quite figure out how to finish it during the limited judging time for the competition. I read a later addendum that she wrote that she had figured it out and actually enjoyed playing it through multiple times.

This review by her at IFDB was also a good read.

Anyway, I often forget what achievements this game made.

Fifth Place in the 2008 Interactive Fiction competition (IF Comp 2008).

But it also got nominated for several categories in the 2008 XYZZY Awards:

Nominee, Best Game
Nominee, Best Setting
Nominee, Best Puzzles

I didn’t win any of those, but to be nominated, as they say… high praise indeed, for a first-timer among people who had been keeping Interactive Fiction alive and thriving for decades.

It got some good ratings, and a few good reviews at IFDB:

You can read the reviews here:


But what really inspired me was reading so many people who, during the course of the competition wrote blog posts about the various games they played during the competition that compared my game to INFOCOM games. It seemed one of the prevalent feelings about Piracy 2.0 was that it was one of the most old-school INFOCOM-like games in the competition.

And you’d really have to know how much I adore INFOCOM games to fully appreciate how much of a compliment that was to me.

Even if sometimes that comparison was made by people who had moved on from the INFOCOM style of games, which might include insta-death, getting stuck if you made a bad move that left you with no win scenario, to things like having to eat, keep a light source fresh, mazes and things that today seem passe and out-dated. The idea that in 2008 I was compared to the games that I loved so much was beyond praise.

Hell, I didn’t even care I came in fifth, after finding out who many people thought my game was the most like an INFOCOM game.

That was my original goal in 1985, even though I was hamstrung by a two-word >verb noun parser.

Here are some categories my game was mentioned in in IFDB polls:

Games that most resemble an INFOCOM work.

Best Sci Fi Games.

Once More, With Feelies. (This one based on the feelies I made for Piracy 2.0, which include a map, but also a hand-dyed purple data cube. I found a source online that made 1″ (roughly) acrylic cubes. I bought a couple dozen and used RIT Purple Dye, heated, in a bath I dropped the cubes in. They turned into a quite nice purple. I also bought a rubber stamp with my United Worlds logo on it that I hand-stamped on these cubes, and handed them out as Feelies. Data cubes turn out to be quite vital to the plot of my game/story.

I also made a nice map available to anyone who wanted one.

During a meetup I gave out these data cubes to people.

The coolest thing is that you can actually play Piracy 2.0 online in a browser!

IFWiki also had some things to say about Piracy 2.0:

Notable Features

  • Detailed, functioning space ship complete with computers you can control. (Yes, including toilets.)
  • Multiple, detailed endings, with varying degrees of success, including the perfect score ending.
  • Fairly faithful INFOCOM-like feel. Old-school gameplay.
  • Feelies available. Maps downloadable from web site. Purple Datacube available through author.

The reviews on this page can also make for good reading. A mixed bag, but some people clearly enjoyed my game.

I wrote another game in 2010 but while I wrote a sprawling epic game, it was not well-received.

But if you want to read about it: IFDB The Promise.

My web site about it is here: The Promise.

Thing is, my motto is Put Something Out There.

It is not Put Something Out There People Are Guaranteed To Love.

I put it out there. If people like it, lovely. If not, it’s still out there.

This year, because I listened to a podcast that mentioned a spooky Halloween-themed IF competition (EctoComp), I decided to write my third fully-featured IF game based around a silly game we played at my office some years ago:


More on that later as things develop.

My Interactive Fiction

Something I have not used this blog to talk much about yet is Interactive Fiction. Games like the INFOCOM line were one of my first starts in computer gaming. I bought my Commodore 64 after much research so I could make arcade games on it in BASIC without having to burden myself with learning too much about Assembler and the minute details of the operating systems involved.

I bought it so I could code a game in BASIC with movable sprites, that played like Q*Bert. If I could do that, I would buy it. My research eventually narrowed down between the Atari 800 and Commodore 64, but the 64 won out due to its more robust sprite system and an audio chip that was ground-breaking at the time, and is still in use today in many machines.

And ironically, the first game I ever played on my own C64 was one I bought with it – Suspended. At the time, I bought it partly because it had this amazing box with a vacu-molded face staring out at you with eyes that were cut out, and the manual behind it had eyes printed on it so it looked like it was staring right at you.

Cool, right? And I had heard of INFOCOM’s other early games and thought this will be awesome.

However, what I got was the Commodore re-packaging, which, while absolutely identical to the contents of the cool box, was inside a simple folder:

UGH! What a disappointment. Oh well, it’s not like having that box would be valuable, right? WHAAAAAT???

While this is top-end, it’s not unusual to see this for sale above the $1000 mark, and I haven’t seen it down below $500 in more than a decade.

Anyway, I find it still ironic that my first real game on my Commodore 64 was a text adventure, given why I bought it in the first place – to make arcade games, which were dear to my heart.

My first indication that the Interactive Fiction (as it is now called, but was then referred to as Text Adventure) games were so popular and engaging was when a friend called me up in a panic and said “Sean, I can’t get the chest open!” and I asked what the heck he was talking about. He said he was playing INFOCOM’s Infidel! and was trying to get – anywhere with it – and was stuck. I went over to his place (I had helped him set up his new system earlier in the week) and I saw what he was talking about. He was playing Infidel and was in the tent and didn’t know how to proceed. There was a chest with a padlock, and he couldn’t open it. So I looked around the game world a bit, found a shovel, and >hit the padlock with the shovel, and lo and behold, it broke the lock and he could open it.

That started a long love affair with INFOCOM games. A bunch of us would regularly get together and play these games, which I would say was probably more than the gaming world expected – that the interaction would not confine itself to the single player and the parser, but many friends getting together to bang their heads about trying to bludgeon their way through the many puzzles presented, except the genre kind of started out that way on campus mainframes, written and found by avid enthusiasts who loved to get together and pound their way through these games.

Then I bought game after game from INFOCOM until you can now see SOME of my collection here. (Some are missing, and I HOPE are in storage bins in my garage, but I am worried I may have lost them along the way, which would be particularly tragic because the only reason they are separated from this lot is that I had them all autographed by their Implementors. Mainly Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams.

In 1984 or 1985 I started to write my own Text Adventure. I set it aboard a ship that resembled in layout the Klingon Bird of Prey, with two decks and wings with pods at the ends for weapons. A neck, and a bridge section like the head of a vulture. You were tasked with taking an infamous space pirate to court when his crew in their attack vessel found you and boarded you, killed your entire crew, and threw you into the brig, lest you prove useful. They then took over your ship, and the game begins when you wake up in the brig. You must escape and get your ship and prisoner safely to a starbase in order to win.

I called it Piracy. And you can read all about it here:

It was a two-word parser written in BASIC using the (then) INFOCOM screen view of a light gray background with black text for the game, and white text for the input line, and I implemented my own input routine, as the BASIC INPUT command allowed you to move the cursor off the command line.

I finished the game to my satisfaction, but it was very limited due to the parser limitations and memory space. I completely filled the 38+K of RAM in my C64. I literally could not add another sentence of text memory.

When I bought my Commodore 128 with double the memory (and actually more than double the BASIC space) I began to rewrite it more robustly, but never finished that project.

In the modern era, with the advent of INFORM, a great object-oriented language that compiles to the INFOCOM file format, in 2008 I took on the task of re-writing this old BASIC game in INFORM 6.0 which gave me the ability to use a very robust parser and implement many commands that would allow me to flesh out the world I had created and let people explore and play the game much better. I also enlarged the ship a bit (but not by much) and implemented all sorts of details I would never have been able to before. Yes, even toilets that work.

The project took about 9 months, and I had outside testers I found on the newsgroup for IF. They helped find bugs I fixed, but even today, it has some weird bugs. A lesson: When creating a raft of characters you intertwine into the back story through their belongings, don’t change their names in the last few weeks, because you will forget all of the mentions and leave the old names on some objects…. sigh…

I brought with me the combat system which players these days aren’t really all that fond of. You can encounter pirates as you wander your ship trying to repair damage and give it commands to get you to safety. They could shoot at you, and you could shoot at them. There was a damage stat, so if you got hit X times, you died. But there was also heal over time, and a med bay where you could also heal yourself. Once you hit a pirate, however, they are dead, and their body stays in the room you killed them. There were 10 in total, so it wasn’t completely random. Kill all 10 and you never encounter another one.

You could also fall ill and die of radiation poisoning if you’re not careful.Another thing modern gamers don’t much appreciate.

I entered the game in the 14th Interactive Fiction Competition, and the game came 5th in a field of 35, which was very impressive for my first effort, and even garnered some very positive reviews by the judges and players, not least of which was Emily Short, famed ground-breaking game writer herself, who has really been one of the key people keeping Interactive Fiction alive and fresh with innovative games no one would have thought to write before.

I took my game, and some “feelies” I made (an acrylic cube dyed purple with a logo painted on) to PAX East that year and met up with the IF writers in the area, and met Emily as well as several other prominent members of the group that was keeping the genre alive, though they did not know me then, and I had not yet entered that contest.

PIRACY 2.0 is available to play, and you can read all about it on my page here.

What prompted this post?

A year or two ago I backed a Kickstarter for a book called 50 Years Of Text Games.

I got the book about a month ago and I’m reading through it now.

Lo and behold, what do I see on page 378?

Oh hey!

A year or so later, I wanted to try out INFORM 7, which was a hugely different programming paradigm, and spent another 9 months writing a second game.

The Promise

… which I entered into a competition and also came in 5th.

Out of a field of 6.

Oh well, you “win” some and you definitely lose some.

I also created “feelies” for the game, a wax-sealed letter in runes (which actually translate into English correctly, well, into English words which is not how translation works, maps, and a stone wolf-head amulet I carved with a Dremel and strung with a thin leather thong. For others, I created a FIMO replica of the amulet, but otherwise player “feelies” were identical to the one I made for myself, which you can see in the above shelf picture, in the white shadow box.

People did not like my forced game dynamic, and I think in the short time allotted for judges to play the game, they did not necessarily explore the people enough. I imbued each person with stories, memories, even jokes that you can uncover by talking to them. You could also REMEMBER people and gain insight and story through your memories.

But this NPC interaction was not overly emphasized, you kinda had to discover it, but I did lead people with clues and hints, and there is a robust HELP system that even talks about how to do this. The story is so much more than the tasks you have to perform.

However, what really irked many players was that in Act III your village is invaded by sea-going barbarians, and you have to run for your life.

The game then goes on a rail that people hated. It forces you into the forest, along a singular path with an enemy on your heels. You would die if you lingered.

Then you get to a clearing which you are not allowed to enter. That is, earlier in the game you made a promise to a forest fairy not to ever come back to her clearing, but you see no choice. You stand and fight futilely or you break your promise. What do you do?

And people hated hated hated that.


I kinda still like it.

And that’s the lesson for today, and it relates to any creative activity from writing, art, music, games, dance. Any form of creation:

Write what you want to read, and who cares if anyone else likes it? If they do, that’s a bonus, but not in itself a reason to write.

You can see both of my IF games at the Interactive Fiction Data Base, here.