If you’d like to know more about IFTF itself, please see our separate FAQ on that topic.
The IFTF defines interactive fiction—IF, for short—as a kind of video game where the player’s interactions primarily involve text. Under this broad definition, we can find decades of IF work taking many interesting and innovative forms.
Parser-based IF, also known as the “text adventure” genre, represents one of the oldest and best-known forms of interactive fiction. Some early examples are digital games from the 70s and 80s like Zork and Enchanter. In a parser game, players type natural-language commands into a simulated world, and the game interprets them as actions for the story’s main character to carry out. Parser games often involve puzzles that the player must solve to move forward in the story.
Choice-based games are another well-known form of interactive fiction. In choice-based interactive fiction, players choose among a number of options to advance the story. These options are presented either as an explicit multiple-choice menu, or as hyperlinks within the story text. Compared to parser IF, choice-based games tend to focus more on navigating branching narratives and multiple endings than on puzzles to solve or secrets to find. Choice-based games can be digital, like Depression Quest, or physical, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Parser games are traditionally (but not exclusively) in second person. The player controls the story’s main character by entering short, imperative commands, such as “GO SOUTH” or “OPEN STRONGBOX”, and the game processes those commands to produce a logical response.
Here’s a small transcript from Zork.
West of House
This is an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
> OPEN DOOR
The door cannot be opened.
> EXAMINE MAILBOX
I see nothing special about the mailbox.
> OPEN MAILBOX
You open the mailbox, revealing a small leaflet.
> GET LEAFLET
> READ LEAFLET
WELCOME TO ZORK
Interactive fiction traces its roots before the digital era. We can find an early example in 1941, when Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges described a fictional novel with nine possible endings in his story “Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain” (“An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”). But his story isn’t actually interactive fiction—it just talks about it!
Another early example comes from experimental French author Raymond Queneau, who wrote the branching short story “Un conte á votre façon” in 1960. (The title has been translated as variously “Yours For The Telling” or “Story As You Like It”.)
Interactive fiction became a digital medium in 1975, when Will Crowther wrote the first text adventure, Adventure (also known as Colossal Cave Adventure), as a gift for his children.
Anyone who wants to! And a lot of people want to. The game engine Twine has been downloaded over 150,000 times from the official website, and the “Use Online” button, which allows people to build a Twine game online, has been clicked over 200,000 times.
Interactive fiction is the easiest form of digital game development, and most English-language interactive fiction is created through the use of free software, the most popular being Twine (for choice-based games) and Inform 7 (for text adventures). These two factors make interactive fiction attractive to novices, hobbyists, and people without a formal programming background. At the same time, there exists a thriving community of experienced interactive fiction authors, some of whom have been making text adventures since the 90s.
In the 80s, interactive fiction was a major industry. The forerunning company sold over 1.5 million copies of its flagship game Zork I between 1983 and 1987. But as graphical games became more prevalent, text-based games faded away. By 1990, interactive fiction had become a niche genre with essentially no commercial market.
With the increase of digital game distribution, it’s increasingly easy for people to find and play interactive fiction games, and there’s a large overlap between interactive fiction fans and the indie video game audience. Today, interactive fiction is on the rebound, with 19,526 people downloading or playing games during the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition.
Interactive fiction games are also reemerging into the commercial and critical limelight. For example, the interactive fiction game 80 Days (a digital reimagination of the 1873 novel by Jules Verne) was named as TIME magazine’s 2014 Game of the Year.
Digital interactive fiction is a kind of video game. Video games can have many different focuses, but interactive fiction always focuses on telling a story, and it tells that story primarily with text rather than sound or graphics.
Interactive fiction is a kind of literature, but the reader takes an active role rather than a passive role. The story can only move forward in response to the reader’s actions, and those actions change the experience of the story.
Interactive fiction is important because it blends the digital revolution with the age-old human tradition of writing and telling stories. For the first time in the history of the world, interactive fiction makes it possible for stories to respond to their reader’s intentions without the author’s presence. And since this revolutionary art form is rapidly evolving, each new experiment today may spawn entire genres tomorrow.