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IF Week Part 2: A History of Interactive Fiction

Remember when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were college rivals? When Mary Tyler Moore ruled the Emmys annually? When Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain were the most unstoppable force in pro sports?

I sure don't; I was still a few years away from being born. But another, lesser-known event took place in 1976. It began not with a boom and a display of fireworks, but with a slow word-of-mouth that would lead to a revolution the designers could never have conceived.

The game was called ADVENT, also known as Colossal Cave. It was written by a man named Will Crowther, as a gift for his two daughters. It was written in an archaic language (archaic today, at least) called FORTRAN. It was a simulation of an actual cave in Kentucky called Bedquilt Cave.

This phenomenally simple game was discovered by one Don Woods, working at the Stanford AI Lab. With Crowther's permission, Woods borrowed heavily on his Tolkien influences and expanded the game into the form that we have come to know it today.

Adventure spread like wildfire among mainframes. Inspired by this new idea of interactive fiction, five men working at the MIT Computer Science Lab in 1977 began work on their text adventure masterpiece, Dungeon...or as we now know it, Zork.

As Zork was being finished and circulated in 1979, another man was hard at work fulfilling his vision of text adventures. This man was Scott Adams, possibly the single greatest text adventure author ever (not to be confused with the equally brilliant Dilbert author), and his first game was called Adventureland. Scott chose to take a different route with his creation; he took out an ad and began selling it. Thus Adventureland became the first commercial adventure game.

Then on June 22nd, 1979, Infocom was incorporated, founded by ten members of the MIT Dynamics Modelling Group. 1980 saw the release of Roberta William's Mystery House, the first commercial graphic adventure, and later in the year, the commercial release of Zork I. The mainframe phenom was becoming a viable commercial endeavor. It is around this point that the Infocom designers christened their product "interactive fiction."

The second and third chapters of the Zork trilogy sold like wildfire, and Infocom began to pump out a steady stream of classic text adventures, many of which were comparable in size and scope to modern-day classics such as The Longest Journey. Suspended, Planetfall, Deadline...all generated mass amounts of cash for the company. 1984 brought Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which became Infocom's best-selling game besides the Zork trilogy.

Unfortunately, all this cash was being poured into one of the most infamous products in the history of computing. Infocom decided in 1982 that they wanted to expand themselves beyond gaming, and since text adventures were so low-cost and the profits being reaped were so extensive, Infocom began developing Cornerstone, the so-called "first database system designed specifically for the non-programmer." Through more than two years of messy development, the project was finally completed in 1984 and released in 1985 - for the unreal price of $495.

The idea of a database system that accepted natural language input was not a very exciting one, apparently. Takers were few, and the product lay dormant on store shelves everywhere. Less than a year later, the price was slashed to just under $100. Infocom had released the very successful A Mind Forever Voyaging and Bureaucracy, but it wasn't enough to stop the bleeding. Infocom had poured every last cent and then more into their disastrous database software, and on June 13th, 1986, just days after Trinity was released, Infocom was purchased by Activision for $7.5 million.

The text adventure game was thought to be dead at this point, and commercially, it was. But some hardcore fans were unwilling to let their genre die with such a whimper. In 1987, Michael J. Roberts released the first version of TADS, his Text Adventure Development System. Later that year, the Usenet group rec.arts.int-fiction (also known as RAIF and r*if) was created. Also in 1987, David Malmberg expanded on an idea by Mark Welch and released AGT, the Adventure Game Toolkit. Though deceased as a commercial genre, interactive fiction was finding its legs as a community.

The major shot in the arm for the interactive fiction community came in 1993, when Graham Nelson released the first version of his text adventure development language, called Inform. After some major revisions, version 5 of the system was released in June of 1994, and all of a sudden it was easier than ever for the average joe to develop his own adventure. The Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games, a zine devoted to text adventures, was established in 1994, and XYZZYnews (another online IF zine) was born in January of 1995.

With Inform growing in popularity, the loyal community of r*if decided that a competition would help improve the quality of the freeware IF games. The competition was originally announced as an Inform competition; after complaints by some loyal TADS authors, a TADS division was added. The competition was held in September of 1995, with separate Inform and TADS winners.

The idea worked so well, the competition was held again the next fall. This time, any engine could be used in one all-inclusive division. Twenty-six games were entered, more than twice the amount of the first competition.

Which brings us to today. The rec.arts.int-fiction competition is still a yearly event, with more and more games entered every year. This year there were ninety-three intents at the deadline, and while some of those are sure to drop out (this author, unfortunately, was already among the withdrawal casualties), there will still likely be more than sixty text adventures entered. The interactive fiction community is growing, and even if the idea of a text adventure game will never be commercially viable again, its fans are fiercely loyal, and as long as that is the case the idea will never truly be dead.

This is by no means a complete and authoritative history; it is simply intended as an overview for those who do not know much about the subject. I borrowed a great deal of information from the excellent Brass Lantern timeline as well as bits and pieces from other sites.

I hope you have enjoyed this read. Tomorrow I will count down my choices for the five best IF games to spring out of the community since 1995. Hope to see you there!

 

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