Indie games are often noted for their simplistic graphics, but Plotkin’s game goes one step further: It has no graphical interface at all. Players explore a crashed starship, solve puzzles, and guide their characters through complex magical rituals using an interface based solely around the written word.
Hadean Lands is one of the latest examples of a nearly 40-year-old style of video game known as “interactive fiction,” where players read novel-like descriptions of in-game action and either type their characters’ actions or choose them from a written menu.
Until recently, interactive fiction seemed as though it had peaked in the 1980s, with new titles mostly made and played by a small but loyal group of fans. But in the last few years, new distribution channels and incredibly user-friendly development tools have not only revived the medium but brought in new players and developers who’ve pushed the genre far beyond its swords-and-sorcery roots.
“There’s a greater variety of not just types of game content, although there’s that too, but there’s a greater diversity in terms of creators,” says Jason McIntosh, a longtime player and creator of interactive fiction and the 2014 organizer of the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, now in its 20th year.
“When we’re talking about IF, we’re talking about games that are built entirely from text,” says McIntosh, using a common acronym for interactive fiction. “Text—more so than making 3-D models and figuring out pathfinding and collision detection and particle effects and such—text itself is the one of the most accessible ways that anybody can create.”
Fans trace the history of interactive fiction back to Colossal Cave Adventure, a game created in the 1970s by programmer, spelunker, and divorced dad William Crowther, partly as a way to bond with his young daughters. Crowther shared the game with friends and colleagues, and various clones and derivatives soon spread across the fledgling computer networks of the time.
Some of the MIT-based creators of Zork, one of the more polished games inspired by Crowther’s classic adventure, went on in the late ’70s to found a software company called Infocom, making interactive fiction games for early home computers.
By its mid-’80s heyday, Infocom’s titles ranged from an adaptation of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, co-created by the book’s author Douglas Adams, to The Witness, a 1930s Los Angeles noir-inspired detective game, to A Mind Forever Voyaging, a dystopian time-travel adventure.
“For the first time, you’re more than a passive reader,” said marketing materials for A Mind Forever Voyaging. “You can talk to the story, typing in full English sentences. And the story talks right back, communicating entirely in vividly descriptive prose.”
Selling cross-platform games in the era before Microsoft cornered the market on consumer operating systems, Infocom built its games to run on a virtual machine whose code could be interpreted on a variety of computers, just as Java would later enable programmers to write applications that ran on Windows, Mac, and Unix systems.
But by the end of the ’80s, Infocom and other interactive fiction publishers struggled to compete with increasingly sophisticated graphical video games. Adventure games featuring puzzles and exploration stayed popular—players snapped up installments from Sierra On-Line’s King’s Quest franchise, LucasArts’ madcap adventures like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, and CD-ROM-powered, graphically rich offerings like Myst, the best-selling PC game of the 1990s–but those games largely replaced text with animation, and typing full English sentences with pointing and clicking the mouse.
Still, fans remained committed to text adventures, and in 1993, developer Graham Nelson released Inform, an open source programming language designed for crafting interactive fiction and, crucially, capable of generating code that could run on Infocom’s virtual machine.
“Infocom game story files are as near to a universal format as we have for interactive fiction games, but until now it has been very difficult to construct them, and I am not aware that anyone has previously created them outside of Infocom itself,” he wrote in a post to Usenet, the premier pre-web network of Internet forums, announcing Inform.
And in 1995, members of the Usenet interactive fiction community launched what would become the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. They wanted both new games to play and a way for hobbyist developers to swap examples of quality code in Inform and a similar-purpose language called TADS.
“I LOVE IF and am glad there are people just like me!” said one post in response to the contest proposal. “Thank you, everyone, for keeping an underappreciated hobby alive!”
Plotkin, who’d launch Hadean Lands nearly 20 years later, won his division, and he, Nelson, and other developers continued work on better tools to power more sophisticated interactive fiction.
“Basically, the current movement has its roots in the mid-’90s with both the [competition] and Graham Nelson,” says McIntosh.
The genre continued to draw in players and creators who grew up playing Infocom’s games in the ’80s, then younger audiences who grew up on LucasArts graphical adventures and open source interactive fiction, he says. But game authoring systems still required authors know some programming, and the games’ commands parsers, usually expecting directives in a distinctively terse dialect of English, could be a barrier for new players.
“The reason the parser works the way it does is it came out of 1970s computer culture where, how did you interact with a computer? You typed things into the command line,” he says. “Unless you’re like a system administrator [nowadays], you’re not used to typing in commands on a command line.”
But in 2009, developer Chris Klimas released a tool called Twine, which made it possible for non-programmers to create interactive fiction by drawing flowcharts showing game scenes and the player choices that propel the game in different possible directions.
“It only started blowing up just in the last two years,” says McIntosh. “Twine is definitely the [area] where there is the most community attention, and there is the most innovation happening right now.”
Twine compiles its flowcharts to HTML, with transitions represented as ordinary web links, meaning IF newbies no longer had to worry about downloading virtual machines and compilers. Twine games are simply web pages, able to be uploaded to any old hosting site, or Twine-specific repositories, and played in an ordinary browser.
“This isn’t just about about different game *interfaces*,” Plotkin said in an email. “These are different communities, different audiences, different artistic conventions.”
One game listed on the Twine site, called You Are Invited, sympathetically portrays a character’s struggles with anxiety. Another, called Violet, drew critical acclaim for its story of a 30-year-old graduate student struggling to finish his dissertation. The story’s narrated in the second person by the student’s exasperated girlfriend, determined to leave him if he can’t get his act together.
“[Twine] games tend to be intensely personal and direct,” wrote Plotkin. “Not *all* of them — but the ‘archetypical’ Twine game is short, expressive, meant to convey one experience directly from the author to the player.”
The tool has let people who would have never previously thought to make video games, or even to search for video games with characters they can relate to, enter the field and express themselves, says game developer and writer Anna Anthropy.
“I’ve played hundreds of Twine games by people who never made games before, maybe didn’t play games before,” says Anthropy. Her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, discusses how Twine and other new authoring tools let would-be game creators without programming training or a traditional game-developer background create games, just as zine culture created an outlet for lo-fi, homemade print publications.
“There are a lot of people who I would like to see making games, like a lot of marginalized people who I think would use the form and are using the form in amazing ways,” says Anthropy. “I think that games, or interactive work in general, lends really well to telling stories that are about systems or struggling with or engaging with those systems.”
Anthropy’s own games range from Star Court, a piece of Choose Your Own Adventure-type interactive fiction with a style of humor reminiscent of Douglas Adams, to Dys4ia, based on Anthropy’s own experiences as a trans woman, to Encyclopedia Fuckme and the Case of the Missing Entree.
In the latter game, the player guides a female character, loosely inspired by Donald Sobol’s classic boy detective Encyclopedia Brown, as she tries to escape from her lover, who she discovers is a cannibalistic serial killer. Using text lets Anthropy explore the character’s complex and changing blend of attraction and fear as she uses a mixture of seduction, deception, and brute force to make her escape.
Another of Anthropy’s interactive fiction games, Queers in Love at the End of the World, portrays a character with just 10 seconds to say goodbye to a beloved partner. It deliberately bombards players with an overwhelming array of choices, thoughts, and sensations as a timer ticks away Earth’s last seconds—a sensation she says it would be hard to express through another medium.
“You have exactly 10 seconds and an enormous swath of different options—of all branching, different options, that are completely unnavigable in 10 seconds,” she says. “I don’t know how, that sense of urgency, how I would be able to create that in a more static form.”
Some of Anthropy’s games are available online for free, which is something she says is made economically viable by her supporters on the crowdfunding site Patreon.
“Patreon has been a big help to me,” she says of the site, which emphasizes letting backers make steady contributions to artists regularly producing work they enjoy. “At this point, Patreon basically pays my rent.”
Others are sold through indie game markets like Itch.io, where she says some fans are willing to pay more than the base price to support game makers they like.
Online markets, from indie sites to the big mobile app stores, are a boon to independent developers, as are more flexible crowdfunding models like Patreon’s, says Plotkin.
“In 2010, Apple’s App Store was an incredible deal — a way for a solo developer to offer a game worldwide, no contract negotiation, all payments and distribution taken care of,” he wrote in an email. “Today I can do the same on desktop OSes using the Humble and Itch.IO platforms.”
Plotkin’s built open source tools to turn traditional virtual-machine IF games into iOS apps, and, he says, the mobile versions of Hadean Lands include features like a tappable directory of frequently used commands, to minimize typing, and a built-in virtual scratch pad.
And just as tools evolve to take advantage of new technologies, games will continue to evolve as long as their creators continue to be willing to experiment, says game developer Mark Musante.
“There’s still plenty of things to try, even though we’ve been at this for around 40 years,” he wrote in an email. “Compared to, say, writing books, this style of storytelling is still in its infancy.”