IF, what’s lost

All through the process of researching and writing Interactive Fiction: Text Adventures, I was continually confronted by what I didn’t know. Not just in the case of trying to figure out how all the tools I wrote about worked and what might be the simplest way to convey a game, but in the history of the tools and that of the categories themselves. There just isn’t much out there to read about the history and the establishment of interactive fiction as a genre.

I read through Twisty Little Passages, sure. But other than that book, what others cover IF? There are a couple of chapters in Cybertext I found helpful. Various websites have timelines and material about how to play text adventures. There is a fantastic collection of essays called IF Theory Reader (PDF). Second Person, I’ve heard, covers IF theory and response. And the Inform documentation does a good job of conveying information, but it’s not exactly convenient to point people at the internal documentation of a tool.

That’s just for what I would consider text adventures too, games where your primary input is typed responses.

When it comes to hypertext-based games (Gamebooks? CYOA? Something new, something old, something borrowed, something blue?), the thread gets even harder to follow. I had to turn to history about the Internet itself to try and find projects I could start to point out as precursors to how games made in Twine work. For a genre I have made dozens of projects in, even I find it hard to pin down where fiction and interactivity begins — or ends. It’s an issue I know (from experience) that continues to drive discussions (not always useful) about the nature of games.

And then it comes to visual novels.

I knew I wanted to write about them, but I actually found it hard to find some type of history for them. The cross over between text adventures and those which mix in images is hard to follow. As soon as the functionality existed, visual novels as a genre could be said to exist too. Yet, the term is not one used much outside of East Asia and, if it hadn’t been for Christine Love‘s games, I doubt I personally would have ever heard about them. (And then there is the usage of the term visual novels to often mean interactive fiction as a whole in some circles too.)

Everywhere I turned, there was tremendous room for excavation of history and some partial paths to go down. There were spaces many others had cleared and signs about tunnels to follow. Yet, for the most part, it was lost to me — and to many others who did not grow up with the technology and access to those games.

Coming to A Mind Forever Voyaging and Planetfall two decades after they initially came out brought me into worlds much more well-written than many current AAA games. Even Zork, with its (annoying!) thief and underground empire has a story about on par with many other games I’ve played. Its puzzles might be much more eccentric, but the world complexity is greater than say Super Mario Bros. (And there is a great argument as to if Adventure (1976-77) or Adventure (1979) did more to codify what an “adventure” game really is too.)

More than anything else, I kept coming back to the feeling that if I hadn’t taken on this project, I would not have learned about all the games I did. Without some external pressure to go dig into the archives, play older games, and then try to write about them in some small way, I would never have gone there and visited all these amazing virtual worlds. There was simply no reason to do that and, more importantly, much more social pressure not to think about past games at all.