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You’re the Hero with Interactive Fiction

Zork I cover art
Zork I cover art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
July 6, 2015 Deadline
August 2015 Issue

“This is an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here. A rubber mat saying ‘Welcome to Zork!’ lies by the door.”

These familiar words, which I once read on the blue screen of a Commodore 64, now appeared on my iPhone. Considered one of the first dozen computer games ever developed, Zork has a special place in computing history. Zork launched what is known as interactive fiction or text adventures.

In 1977, four programmers working in the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science created the interactive fiction story “Zork.” Some of these friends would go on to create one of the earliest video game publishers, Infocom. From 1979 through 1986, Infocom was one of the leading game publishers, marketing games for every major home computer. Purchased by Activision in 1986, the Infocom brand and its classic games live on, available for iOS and Android devices. Despite its age, Zork remains popular with a 9.5 rating on the Apple iOS App Store.

Several of my students want to develop video games. When I asked a recent class what they enjoy playing, I expected them to name various console hits, such as the HALO or Gears of War series. Imagine my surprise when they explained the latest popular games for iOS: Counterfeit Monkey, 80 Days, Lifeline, Hollywood Visionary, Creatures Such as We and the hit Hadean Lands. The students described these games as “choose your adventure” stories. I instantly recognized the genre of interactive fiction.

The Interactive Fiction Wiki ( has a history of the genre and information about the works, authors and tools used to create games.

The earliest interactive fiction games were text only, without any images or sound, reflecting the limited capabilities of minicomputers and mainframes. The games parse simple “verb-object” commands to continue the action. After reading a description of the current setting, a player would type an action, such as the “open mailbox” that begins Zork. Other commands return the status of play, including the character’s current “inventory” and “score.”

Text adventures require excellent writing, because the text must create vivid images and emotions in the minds of players. As home computers gained popularity, developers added still-images and simple sounds to the original text-based games. Today’s text games feature animation, video clips and original soundtracks, without attempting to be like other video games.

My students can name authors of interactive fiction, including Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Andrew Plotkin, Emily Short and the great Douglas Adams. Infocom games based on scripts by Adams include Bureaucracy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Starship Titanic.
Plotkin and Short dominate interactive fiction competitions. According to Short, games need to have a mix of humor and difficult puzzles. Her games feature a dry wit, similar to the detectives of 1950s film noir mysteries. Short writes about game development and storytelling on her blog (

There are hundreds of free interactive fiction games, available on the Interactive Fiction Archive ( and the Interactive Fiction Database ( To play the games, you also need to download a “Z-machine” engine (named for Zork, of course). The most popular Z-machine engine for iOS, Android and Windows is Frotz ( Frotz is available in the iOS App Store and via Google Play. Interactive fiction on Apple computers requires the Zoom engine (

Once installed on iOS or Android, Frotz can connect to the IFDB repository to download games. One downside is that Frotz requires typing to play the games. Typing isn’t convenient on phones and tablets, so Activision and other publishers have added touch interfaces to the classic games. Instead of typing “Move North” you touch an on-screen compass to move. The games, however, remain unchanged.

Better graphics and sound capabilities led developers away from purely text-based games towards “point-and-click” puzzle stories. These stories were popular before the rise of first-person shooters. Thankfully, point-and-click games are also rising in popularity again. The authors, artists and programmers behind these games describe them as interactive fiction told visually.

The beautiful story-driven click games Machinarium, Limbo and The Room Two are top-selling games on Google Play and the Apple App Store. Other popular games include familiar titles from the past, such as King’s Quest, Myst, Riven, The 7th Guest and Monkey Island. Some of these games retain text feedback, while others are almost text-free.

Developing interactive fiction has changed little since Will Crowther coded Adventure in the Fortran programming language in 1975. Although authors don’t use Fortran or the Zork Implementation Language (ZIL) anymore, the concepts of interactive storytelling haven’t changed.

During the 1980s, I wrote text adventures in BASIC for Commodore, Atari, Apple and IBM computers. Writing the games forced me to master important computing concepts, like multi-dimensional arrays, text parsing and writing saved games to storage devices. When I added graphics to games, I had to learn that pixels on the screen corresponded to memory locations. Game programming includes the most difficult computing concepts, yet the concrete results helped a generation master coding.

I created maps on graph paper and then encoded the data as numeric arrays. For a maze adventure I wrote as a project for high school Spanish III, I had to learn how to virtually move walls based on a randomly generated maze. I also had to ensure the maze was solvable. Such tasks improve logic and analytical thinking skills.

Starting with simple “make a choice” hypertext stories, I introduce students to Twine ( I could teach hand-coding Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to create basic texts, but Twine allows new authors to focus on writing instead of coding. For more complex stories, ADRIFT (Adventure Development and Runner, Interactive Fiction Toolkit) for Windows offers a good, flowchart-based composing environment. ADRIFT ( is a Windows-only application, unfortunately.

Advanced interactive fiction authors seem to favor the cross-platform Inform (, which was developed by a team lead by author Graham Nelson. According to Nelson, fellow interactive fiction authors Plotkin and Short provided suggestions during the development of Inform 7.

If you love great stories, download Frotz and some interactive fiction. Be the hero of a great adventure.


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