The Brief Wondrous Life of Interactive Fiction
Photo credit: Courtney Apple
Or, How Poets and Novelists Became Video Game Superstars
Originally published on Powells.com
One day in 1984, my father and I were walking through a K-mart, and we stopped to look at the video games. At the time, K-mart carried all the arcade hits that a 13-year-old boy might want – Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Asteroids – but the salesman at the counter asked if we’d seen Ray Bradbury’s new game.
“Ray Bradbury, the author?” my father asked. “He made a video game?”
“Not just any video game,” the salesman said. “It’s a sequel to Fahrenheit 451! One of the great masterpieces of science fiction!”
The salesman directed our attention to a computer monitor and there it was, the title of one of my favorite books rendered in clunky 8-bit graphics:
[VIdeo game still from Farenheit 451, Byro Preiss Video Productions, Inc. and Trillium Corp.]
The salesman gave us a quick demonstration, showing how players assumed the role of Fahrenheit 451 hero Guy Montag, exploring a dystopian Manhattan and conversing with other characters about literature. Within minutes, my father was reaching for his wallet. We both felt like we had witnessed the dawn of a new art form.
As it turns out, Ray Bradbury wasn’t the only author entering the software business in 1984. Within the next year or so, Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark, Douglas Adams, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie, and Dick Francis all had “electronic novels” or “interactive fiction” for sale in shopping malls throughout the United States. These games were all developed at a curious moment in computer history when the top-selling software titles consisted primarily of . . . well, words.
To understand how this happened, we need to back up to 1976. That’s the year computer programmer (and amateur spelunker) Will Crowther made history by inventing the first text adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure. The game presented a cave and forest with simple narrative sentences, and the opening lines are famous among gamers of a certain age:
[Text from Colossal Cave Adventure, Will Crowther]
Players typed commands like WALK SOUTH or ENTER BUILDING and the game responded accordingly, presenting new scenes, treasures, monsters, and puzzles. Colossal Cave Adventure was a smash sensation in college computer labs across the United States; the game inspired a group of M.I.T. programmers to create their own version – called Zork – which was bigger, more ambitious, and eventually a massive retail success. The creators of Zork formed their own company, Infocom, and started publishing interactive fiction in all different genres.
[Video game still from Zork I: The Great Underground Empire – Part I, Infocom and Activision]
At age 13, I loved the Infocom games for the same reasons I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. These stories turned me loose in imaginary worlds where I could do and try anything; they offered all the freedoms of adulthood without any real-life consequences. In Deadline, I was a police detective investigating a homicide. In Moonmist, I was a Nancy-Drew-ish heroine exploring a mysterious gothic estate. And with every new game, Infocom’s software seemed to get more and more intelligent. You could type sentences like TAKE THE BOTTLE OF WATER AND PUT IT IN THE SUITCASE and the computer knew exactly what you meant.
In the early 1980s, text adventures dominated the bestseller lists for computer software, so it’s no wonder tech-savvy novelists were attracted to the form. Michael Crichton was already a bestselling author (The Andromeda Strain) when he got hooked on programming and created his own game, Amazon. He reportedly started the game as an adaptation of his own bestselling novel Congo, until he realized he didn’t actually control the electronic rights (they’d been bundled with the movie rights to a studio). So Crichton changed a bunch of details until Amazon no longer resembled the novel that inspired it. He moved the story from Zaire to South America, and the novel’s talking gorilla became Paco, a chatty parrot who is front and center on the package:
[Photo of Amazon the video game, Telarium]
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was a fan of Infocom text adventures, and he partnered with my favorite Infocom author, Steve Meretzky, on the electronic adaptation of Hitchhiker’s. Players assume the role of Arthur Dent minutes before aliens destroy the Earth, and find themselves on a voyage through outer space. The game was a blockbuster success, despite the fact that it’s one of the most difficult text adventures ever written (supposedly Douglas Adams wanted it to be really hard). The BBC hosts a version of the game you can play online, along with articles detailing its history.
Stephen King’s The Mist may have been the most anticipated text adventure of 1985, at least for me, because this gorgeous advertisement set my expectations sky-high:
[Image of The Mist video game, Angelsoft, Inc.]
Alas, King himself had nothing to do with the adaptation, and the game doesn’t really capture the tension or eerie atmosphere of the original novella. Players spend a lot of time wandering around hardware stores and parking lots, and spraying giant bugs. I can’t honestly recommend the game, but if you’re a diehard Stephen King fan you’ll probably get a kick out of it, anyway. Give it a try here.
Perhaps the most prestigious of all the authors-turned-game-designers is the poet Robert Pinsky, who would go on to serve three terms as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. His electronic novel Mindwheel opens on the brink of epic catastrophe; to save civilization, players must “journey through the labyrinth of four linked minds” and enter the consciousness of a rock star, a dicatator, a poet, and a scientist. Clearly this was no simple KILL TROLL AND TAKE TREASURE quest game! Mindwheel is full of strange and surreal moments, and it’s easily the most “literary” text adventure you’ll ever play (one puzzle requires players to complete a sonnet). In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Pinsky said that he was still proud of the game: “I look on it as part of my life’s work in writing.” You can enter the trippy world of Mindwheel by clicking here.
By early 1985, with so many authors jumping into the software business, interactive fiction seemed poised for a long life. Home computers were destined to grow more powerful and affordable, so I just assumed that interactive fiction would evolve as well — that the stories and vocabularies would become richer and deeper and more complex.
Instead, over the next three years, sales fell off a cliff. Part of the blame goes to a slew of bad titles that were rushed to market. But the real problem was that gamers simply lost interest. As computer graphics improved, designers rushed to utilize them, and soon players had a choice: They could read about a magical landscape in a text adventure, or they could see a magical landscape presented with colorful and richly detailed illustrations. Gamers chose the pretty pictures, of course, and by 1989 Infocom and most other “bookware” companies were out of business.
The complete boom-and-bust history of interactive fiction is lovingly chronicled in Jason Scott’s terrific documentary GET LAMP (available on Youtube or in an extended edition here). Throughout the documentary, Scott interviews young designers still making text adventures for new generations to enjoy. You could easily kill a whole evening (and I have) sampling their various games at the Interactive Fiction Database.
As I watched the documentary, I couldn’t help but hope for a resurgence in text adventures — and perhaps a whole new era of bookware. It’s fun to imagine new electronic novels from today’s bestselling authors – people like J.K. Rowling, Gillian Flynn, George R.R. Martin, Walter Mosley, or Diana Gabaldon. How about a text adventure of The Martian? Or The Hunger Games? Or any novel featuring Jack Reacher? I’m not holding my breath – but if this day ever comes, I’ll be ready to play!
Jason Rekulak is the publisher of Quirk Books, an independent press based in Philadelphia. His debut novel, The Impossible Fortress, features numerous references to 8-bit computer programming and interactive fiction. You can play his Impossible Fortress game at JasonRekulak.com. The novel will be published on February 7, and Jason will be visiting Powell’s on February 15.