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How about a nice game of Zork?

(Updated Oct. 8 with iPhone notes and minor text revisions.)

So I’ve been playing some interactive fiction lately. Text adventures. Remember that stuff? Zork, Planetfall, even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Good times.

Turns out things have changed since Infocom was the alpha and omega of interactive fiction. There’s something of a renaissance in interactive fiction that’s been going on quietly for more than a decade now, with many works of varying length (and, of course, quality) released for free. If you enjoyed playing it back in the Day, or if you thought you would but never ended up getting into it, you might want to try one of these.

(If you already know and love Anchorhead, you might want to skip ahead to read about things that are not Anchorhead.)

Anchorhead

Mike Gentry’s opus, from 1998, has a great reputation, and I think it’s well-deserved. It’s a mystery/horror story, very much Lovecraftian1. I literally shuddered in revulsion twice while playing it. Its setting, pace, and use of characters all helped immerse me in the story.

The game is not perfect. It suffers from the same affliction that older Infocom games did, where nearly every object that’s not nailed down is needed at some other point in the story. (At least the game shows a bit of self-awareness here: Of the protagonist’s trenchcoat, it says “it has several deep pockets in which you can fit just about anything.” And that is quite true.) Though most puzzles could be solved by attempting the actions you yourself might try in the protagonist’s shoes, there were some that were obscure. And there was one bit near the end where I needed an object I’d left behind, and which was now inaccessible to me, and none of the very similar objects I was carrying would do.

That looks like a long list, but it turns out they are mostly quibbles. Most importantly, I think, the game was very effective at ramping up the tension, starting with a vague sense of unease and ending with a race against the clock to prevent Bad Things from Happening. Another very important aspect is the writing, spare and evocative:

The road carries you across a desolate heath of gray, windswept grass. To the south, the black, jagged outline of Anchorhead’s steep roofs and sharp, leaning gables cuts across the horizon.

The game can be downloaded for free (get anchor.z8); I spent perhaps a dozen hours playing it. That page also has a walkthrough, which I resorted to several times over the course of the game. (I don’t feel the slightest bit of guilt for having done so.) As suggested earlier, don’t hesitate to pick up every item in the game (placing them in your trenchcoat pockets). Also, any keys you find should go on your keyring; when you try to unlock something, the game automatically tries everything on the keyring.

Things that are not Anchorhead

Spider and Web

This spy thriller, by Andrew Plotkin, also from 1998, drops the protagonist in media res. The protagonist also turns out (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler) to be an unreliable narrator, a bit of a trick in interactive fiction. I won’t say much more, other than that if you try it, stick with it through the first couple of interrogation scenes.

Download the game from Plotkin’s web site. I spent a few hours, and again I used a walkthrough at several points.

Common Ground

This is a shorter work by Stephen Granade, from 1999. It is less game and more story, focusing on interactions between the three characters (who take turns as the protagonist character). It was subtle and touching, and shows how the medium can be used for something other than puzzle games.

Get the game file from Granade’s Common Ground page. I took only an hour or so to finish it, and required no help (there were no puzzles).

Child’s Play

This one, also by Granade (from 2007), is cute: The protagonist is a baby, whose goal is to get her2 favorite toy and (more importantly) keep her arch-nemesis Zoe from getting it.

You eye your favorite toy and the mom sees you doing it and scoops it up. “No, no, we’re going to try pulling up!” She is all the time trying to build your character or something. She waves the toy at you. “Look! Look where I’m putting it!” She drops the toy on the footstool where you can’t see it unless you’re all pulled up, that is just no fair.

The writing is fun, and the characterizations seem well-done, but I have to say that I didn’t complete this one: it is more puzzle-centric than I like. That said, if you are a parent and like puzzles, you’ll probably enjoy it; get it from Granade’s site.

Photopia

Apparently 1998 was a banner year for interactive fiction, because here’s another, this one by Adam Cadre. It is even less of a game than Common Ground; it provides the player a veneer of control, but only a thin one. That said, I found it far more moving than Common Ground, and highly recommend it.

Download it from Cadre’s site. This one, too, is a quick play, taking no more than an hour or two.

What I’m going to play next

I gather that Blue Lacuna, by Aaron Reed from early 2009, is a major step forward in the state of the art; it is said to revisit assumptions about the text parser interface, have in-depth interactions with a computer character, provide hints if it notices you’re having trouble, and even adjust the style of play away from puzzles if the player has trouble with the first one.

Galatea, by Emily Short from 2000, is entirely a character interaction piece, which sounds interesting.

Make It Good, by Jon Ingold and also from 2009, is a noir mystery, and apparently is another game with an unreliable narrator. I’ve gotten the sense that this is difficult, which makes me hesitate a bit.

Administrivia: interpreters

The downloads I’ve linked have all been “story files”, which are not in themselves sufficient to play the games. For that, you’ll need an interpreter. Under OS X, I’ve used the Zoom interpreter, to satisfactory result. I haven’t tried interpreters on any other platform. If I ran Windows, I’d probably look at Gargoyle first. Running some kind of Unixy thing? Your guess is as good as mine; search for unix "interactive fiction" interpreter and try your luck.

Update, Oct. 8: Thanks to Jon (and, in hindsight, Jeff) for reminding me that there is an interactive fiction app for iPhone OS, Frotz (App Store). Though Apple’s rules forbid interpreters running downloaded code, the app comes bundled with several games, including Anchorhead, Child’s Play, Photopia, and Spider and Web. The interface seems about as good as one can hope, but I can’t recommend playing Anchorhead on the bus (for example); it should be done at night, in a dark house, when everybody else is asleep.

Look, some footnotes

1 Lots of stuff claims to be Lovecraftian, but only catches one or two of its hallmarks, or (worse yet) just the prose style. Not that I consider Wikipedia to be the canonical source of Lovecraft scholarship, but for a quick exercise, let’s see how many of the themes listed there make an appearance in this game: forbidden knowledge, non-human influences on humanity, inherited guilt, civilization under threat, race/ethnicity/class, risks of a scientific era, and religion, all yes. (The only one it may miss is fate, and I need to think about that one a bit more.)

2 I don’t know why I assume the character is a girl; I don’t think the game ever states that.