The EXAMINE'd Life: Keeping Interactive Fiction Alive


As with my earlier column on the new vanguard and returning classic franchises that are keeping point and click adventures alive a decade or more past their prime, there's one other genre that all but the hardest-of-the-core and its tight-knit community itself seem to have forgotten: the text adventure.

It's a genre that — if you grew up gaming — probably makes up some of your earliest memories: my own definitely revolve around waiting impatiently for the TI99/4A's cassette deck to finish screeching its way through loading Scott Adams' Adventure series (now playable online here) and pondering the etymology of "pieces of eight", continuing through my teens to the unmistakably British worlds of Graham Cluely's Jacaranda Jim and Humbug (the games that first taught me the word 'whinge').

And it's a genre that certainly is flourishing deep in the underground at places like The IFDB, the IFWiki, the yearly IFComp(etition), and the tireless work of people like Emily Short, but it took an Indiecade finalist and an iPhone app to hook me back in, with a short-list of the top games to try included below the fold.

Everybody Dies [Jim Munroe]

It was the inclusion of Jim Munroe's Everybody Dies (pictured at top) as a 2009 Indiecade finalist that provided that first hook: a tale of life, death, suburban ennui and toilet-cleaning that inter-weaves the various employees of a remote Cost Cutters department store. Like most IF, it's a story and set of characters that you would be hard-pressed to find outside the text-only genre, and a setup that would be impossible to get through as neatly in almost any other way. Visit Munroe's post to play the game via Java (a necessary conceit to get the full impact of Michael Cho's interspersed artwork).

Playing Munroe's game, though, reminded me that there was a huge body of work at my fingertips that I'd long been neglecting, with the early App Store release of Frotz, an iPhone interpreter that lets you browse, download, and play a staggering number of IF games on the go.

It was with the reinstallation of Frotz that I went back to complete the one game that I'd heard repeatedly referred to as the new modern IF classic:

photopia.jpgPhotopia [Adam Cadre]

Now already more than a decade old, it doesn't take long to realize why the game's still only talked about in hushed, reverant tones: its own inter-woven tale is told so delicately and subtly, its emotional hooks and jabs hit you so softly you aren't even quite sure until minutes later that you've even been punched. Photopia's also unique in the way it utilizes color — that is, simply the background color over which the text is overlaid — as signifiers and symbols tied to the story itself. It's dream-like, sobering, and a struggle to recommend without giving away any information that would spoil the story.

Play it via Frotz, or play in your browser through the free App Engine interpreter Parchment by clicking this link.

violet.jpgViolet [Jeremy Freese]

And finally, the last game I've made my way through in recent weeks took top prize in the IFComp's 2008 competition, Jeremy Freese's Violet. Like both games above, it's a premise that seems virtually untranslatable to any other genre of games, but one universally recognizable: your goal is simply to write 1000 words of your grad school dissertation, hounded constantly by another thousand tiny distractions. What sets it apart, though, is how it plays with the narration of text adventures themselves, as it describes your surroundings and actions via the lovingly chiding and pet-name-calling mental-voice of the main character's (current? ex?) girlfriend, an omni-presence but a player never actually in the room.

Again, it's an essential play and perfect ambassador to the new guard of interactive fiction, playable again via Frotz or via Parchment by clicking this link.

Obviously by no means exhaustive, this article should whet your appetite for the hundreds more games available: please leave suggestions for least of all me as we dig down further via the comments below!