When I try to remember how I developed such an affinity for Interactive Fiction, I find myself at a loss. Its hey-day was much before my time, the genre all but wiped out with the advent of new-fangled VGA graphics. I guess it happened a bit by circumstance. I spent much of my internet-browsing time scouring the internet for "game makers." After all, what could be cooler than making video games to a 13 year-old? These searches led me to various text adventure makers, and I guess that was really the start of it. The classics of the genre, Adventure and Zork, were readily available as examples of what these engines could do. I was hooked.
If you’ve ever played games like King’s Quest or Monkey Island, you have encountered the graphical children of this genre. They usually amount to navigating the game’s finite world in search of items you can stuff in your bottomless pockets; the sole purpose of their existance being to be used with other items to solve an endless tirade of puzzles.
But how text adventures differ is the sheer illusion of freedom. The world exists, every part of it. While graphical adventures would only allow you to click certain collections of pixels or take notice of certain objects, a text adventure allows you to examine details of the environment, smell the flowers, and run through the streets naked, if you so desired. Of course, this largely depended on the game. Earlier examples (like the previously mentioned Adventure and Zork) had comparatively limited vocabularies, but later adventures were exhaustive in their handling of the possibilities of creative players. I dug up one of the last examples of commericial text adventures, Eric the Unready, and had a ball putting the text parser to its limits.
Since the decline of the commercial viability of text adventures, fans have remained dedicated to this unique genre and bred new life into it with their own tales. The community collectively called their hobby Interactive Fiction. I never really understood the aversion to the term “text adventure” but as I explore more of the fan-made games available, I’ve come to understand why. While plenty follow the familiar “Go north. Pick up the item.” gameplay, others bear more in common with short fiction. Tightly woven stories hinging on a specific twist or unusual ideas. Experiments that push the envelope of what a text adventure should be are common. It's this sort of well-written ideas that explores some of the real strength of this genre. It delves into the imagination in much the same way books do.
But one stuck with me in particular. Galatea, the debut work of popular IF author Emily Short, contains none of the usual trappings. There is no exploring, the world consisting of one lone room in a museum. There are no puzzles in the traditional sense, either, and no bottomless bag to fill with items to solve them. You are alone with a modern-day version of the living statue of myth. The game consists of nothing but interacting with her.
It’s a unique experience. You learn about her as you would in real life, through conversation. Questions start out basic. Do you breathe? Do you eat? Her responses to these give clues to other topics. She may mention awakening for the first time, and you press her about that. Or you may spontaneously ask what it was like to be carved. Such inquiries invariable lead to questions of her creator, the Greek gods he believed in, and on and on in countless directions.
At times, it becomes a frustrating game of "guess the word," which I suppose counts as this game's version of puzzles. But when conversations flow, they are magical. When Galatea casually mentions her creator tipping a glass of wine to the Gods, it prompted me to ask her if she drank. The game already remembered I had asked her about eating, and neatly tied it into the prose, in a way that was subtly involving. Topics of conversation lead to others in a way that is delightfully mercurial, an organic an erratic flow of through that feels legitimate and unforced.
But the interaction is not limited to conversation alone. She starts the game facing away from you, but as you delve into her secrets and personality, she slowly gives in and turns towards you. You may catch a glimpse of her neck, or the hair by her ear. Despite myself, I couldn't help but try touching the hair. It's deeply engrossing, and even at times a little unsettling. You feel a bit of a dilemma, whether to treat her like a piece of art or as a person. For all its limitations, it's a truly affecting game that pushes of what this genre can do.
As time goes by, I can only imagine the number of fans who chance upon the genre will be greatly outnumbered by those who have forgotten it entirely. That is truly unfortunate. Interactive Fiction is a piece of the history of gaming, and more, a unique exploration of the written word that would be a shame to be left behind.