Neil deMause

What Is Interactive Fiction?

Back in 1977, Will Crowther and Don Woods set off a craze amongst computer gamers (the few that then existed) with their game Adventure, which featured an enormous cave to explore, magic words that teleported you from room to room, and a two-word parser that could understand English commands. Immediately, programmers set out to do Adventure one better.

Among those were a group of MIT computer science students who designed a more powerful parser and a more intricate game by the name of Zork. The game proved so popular that it enabled the students to start their own company, Infocom, which created over 30 renowned games such as Planetfall, Trinity, and several Zork sequels before its untimely demise in 1989.

The corporate gaming industry has long since moved on to multiple-CD full-motion-video games starring the likes of Mark Hamill, or "adventures" where the interactivity is limited to seeing how many aliens you can kill. But the idea of computer games that use the written word to create a more truly interactive story is far from dead -- today, dozens of individuals continue to write and distribute interactive fiction, primarily via the internet FTP site at, which maintains a huge i-f archive (including a version of the original pre-Infocom Zork.). The Usenet groups and maintain a healthy community of i-f players who sponsors their own yearly competition in short i-f writing; the field even has its own newsletter, XYZZYnews.

(For help getting started playing the games listed at right, see Neil K. Guy's guide to TADS games. For games written in languages other than TADS, see the How To Play These Games FAQ.)

Interactive fiction games like the ones available on this page don't have computer-generated graphics or sound effects, but then again, neither does a novel. Both rely, as Infocom put it in one of their most famous ads, on "the world's most powerful graphics technology" -- your brain. If you have one of your own, you should enjoy putting it to work exploring the world of interactive fiction.


I-F by Neil deMause:

Lost New York: When you got on that ferry to the Statue of Liberty, you never thought you'd end up here... 
"*****"--Baf's Guide to Interactive Fiction 
"Ambitious and richly detailed." --Roger Giner-Sorolla 
"One of the best games I've played in recent years, period." --Dave Seybert 
"A highly detailed little gem of a game." --Colm McCarthy  The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm und Drang: The madcap superhero adventure that would have won the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition, except for the 12 other games that finished ahead of it. It did walk away with a Xyzzy Award for Best NPCs, though (and with any luck, no one will notice it's missing).
"Probably the greatest superhero adventure game ever made." --Robb, Trotting Krips
"Rather annoying. ... On the flipside, I did not die while playing this game." --Bryan, Trotting Krips The Frenetic Five vs. Mr. Redundancy Man: The laugh-a-minute (if you type really fast) sequel to the award-winning superhero adventure Frenetic Five vs. Sturm und Drang. In Redund-o-rama!
"Smaller and tighter than the first entry in the series, and funnier as well. ... An immensely amusing half hour or so." --Baf's Guide to Interactive Fiction The Frenetic Five vs. The Seven Deadly Dwarves: The heroic fivesome face their biggest (or is it their smallest?) challenge yet, in the thrilling finale to the Frenetic Five trilogy.
"The maze is horrific." --a beta-tester Spyder and Jeb: More fun with a barometer than a barrel of meteorologists. Undo: A frog, a duck, a hole, Panama? Finished dead last in the 1995 Interactive Fiction Competition. 
"A tiny little weird game." --Baf's Guide to Interactive Fiction MacWesleyan (aka PC University): It's said that everyone's first game either starts in the author's own bedroom, or is set at the author's alma mater. This one is both. (You do get to meet God, though.)

Other I-F links:

XyzzyNews: The unofficial magazine of interactive fiction. Featuring a great many articles by yours truly.

Baf's Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive: Not every recent I-F game is reviewed here, but darn near close to it.

Brass Lantern: Hosted by the inimitable Stephen Granade, author of the inimitable "Losing Your Grip." Honest-to-goodness real-life maps and manuals and other goodies for a whole mess of recent I-F games, all at reasonable prices.