GAME WRITING: Adventures in Interactive Fiction

Confession: before this week, I didn’t know much about video games or their history. Shameful for someone who now has “game writer” on her resume. So I decided to fix this before anybody found out, and started reading a book called GAME ON! And what I began learning led me down a rabbit hole of writer discoveries…

As the cover tagline says, this book is a “Video Game History from Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft, and more.” It starts at the beginning with the original arcade games, moves to home gaming consoles, and then onto the first text adventure games, and… wait! Text adventure? What’s that? For those of you who are as out-of-the-loop as I was, a text adventure game is just words on a computer screen — no pictures, no graphics, just text and a blinking cursor where the player types what to do next.

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure loving side of me was like, “That’s awesome! How come I didn’t know about these text adventure games when I was a kid?”

Because my family didn’t get a computer until 1991. I completely missed the text adventure game craze of the 1980s! Tragic, I know, especially since writers should always be familiar with the history of the medium they write, whether movies, novels, musicals, sitcoms or games. So I headed to the Internet to rectify this situation…

I wanted to play Zork because, according to the author of GAME ON!, this is the text adventure game that popularized the genre. It wasn’t the first (that credit goes to Colossal Cave Adventure from 1976), but Zork had the advantage of being released in 1980 during the advent of the home PC. (Personal computers existed before the 80s, but they were so damn big that pretty much no one had one, so I’m not counting them.) However, I couldn’t find a playable version of Zork, so I played another of Infocom’s big text adventure games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Here we go:

Damn, this game is hard! Unlike the games I work on, the player doesn’t get choices. But eventually I figure out that I just need to type: turn on light. Now the game describes what’s in the room:

I type in a bunch of stuff and hope the computer recognizes the words. At least when I’m wrong, it often writes something funny back. But it can also be super frustrating. Especially when I can’t figure out how to get out of the first room!

And I die. I have since learned that there were specific commands and cheat sheets for this game, which would probably have helped me immensely! But finally I figured it out by considering the contents of the room — what’s here that can help me? Hmm, I have buffered analgesic in my pocket. I have no idea what that is, but let’s try it…

With my headache gone I no longer “miss the doorway by a good eighteen inches” and can exit the bedroom. Success! Of course, I die again in the very next scene, but at least it’s funny:

So, as a writer, what did I learn from playing my first text adventure game?

1) STAKES are key. In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you can die in the very first scene! Talk about getting right into the action!

2) ENTERTAIN the player in every scene, or they won’t come back and play again and again and again. This is especially necessary because the player will often have to replay a scene before they figure out how to move on. So use jokes and hidden messages and easter eggs to make a replayed scene more fun.

3) REWARDS, both big and small, are necessities. What does the player get out of this? This question seems easier to answer with games because the main character is YOU the player and you’re on a quest to win through small victories (rewards) throughout the game and a big victory at the end. But rewards are important in all forms of storytelling. Playing Hitchhiker’s Guide reminded me to always think about what the audience/reader/player gets out of the story.

That said, my Adventures in Interactive Fiction do not end with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Oh no. Once I started, I found more games to play, and then my friends shared their favourites games, and I started learning all kinds of stuff about narrative games. There is so much out there! But that’s a post for next time. Until then, if you’re interested in learning more about interactive fiction, here are a couple places to start: Winners of the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition and The Interactive Fiction Database.

Do you have experience writing or playing interactive fiction? If so, what are your favourite games? Let me know in the comments.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

6 thoughts on “GAME WRITING: Adventures in Interactive Fiction”

  1. Having played and programmed interactive fiction like Zork (1,2&3), plus Hitchhiker’s, I consider the epitome of the genre to be the tabletop and now virtual tabletop games, such as Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. A leader, game master, leads other players through the adventure using a written text description. See D&D on the Wizards of the Coast Web site and virtual tabletop on Fantasy Grounds .com. I am now just dipping my toe into writing my first vitual table top adventure.

We love comments and questions.