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Twisty Little Passages 150

John Miles writes "It's been almost thirty years since young Laura and Sandy Crowther sat down at a Teletype and took their first steps into the mysterious subterranean world their father, Will, created for them. Now, if Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction is any indication, Crowther and Woods's pioneering computer game Adventure and its descendants are finally beginning to garner the critical recognition they deserve. At only 286 pages, Twisty Little Passages is a small, accessible book that addresses a deep and complex subject. The author's stated intention is to bring us the first book-length consideration of interactive fiction (IF) as a legitimate literary field, and he has certainly succeeded." Read on for the rest of Miles' review.
Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction
author Nick Montfort
pages 286
publisher The MIT Press
rating 4 out of 5 grues agree: Montfort's one of them!
reviewer John Miles
ISBN 0262134365
summary The definitive survey of interactive fiction for the literati... and the rest of us

Eight chapters, arranged in roughly-chronological order, detail the lineage of interactive fiction from its origins in Delphic riddles to its newest and most intriguing forms.

Passion and precision

Among Montfort's first statements is one that demonstrates a commitment to careful scholarship that recurs throughout the book: "Text adventure and interactive fiction do not mean exactly the same thing." Infocom's Deadline and Emily Short's Galatea are cited as examples of IF that are not "adventures" in the pop-fiction tradition of exotic settings and perilous situations. These titles, among others, demonstrate that IF isn't just a delivery vehicle for the stereotyped themes of juvenile fiction with which it's often associated. Montfort proceeds to explain why he found it necessary to write Twisty Little Passages:

To see why a solid treatment of (IF) needs to be written, one need only consider this selection from the single page that mentions IF in Ilana Snyder's
Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth (1996):
The precedent was
Adventure, developed in the 1960s at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). The program was conceived of as an experimental game. A computerised version of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Adventure comprises a series of descriptions of fictional locations inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1954), and set in the surrounding Californian mountains.
These three sentences state six specific things about Adventure - when, where, and why it was developed, that it is a computerized version of Dungeons and Dragons, that its fictional locations are inspired by Tolkien, and that it is set in California. At least four of these six statements are clearly false, and the remaining two are misleading. (pages 9-10)
Essentially, previous authors and critics writing about interactive fiction just didn't care. In Chapter 1, "The Pleasures of the Text Adventure," Montfort shows that he does. Here, and in the following chapter ("Riddles"), he suggests that the IF art form has a much deeper history than we might think:
... the combination of an explicit challenge and a verbal literary work has a clear precedent (:) the riddle. By presenting a metaphorical system that the listener or reader must inhabit and figure out in order to fully experience, and in order to answer correctly, the riddle offers its way of thinking and engages its audience as no other work of literature does. (pages 3-4)
Recognizing that his audience is likely to include technical geeks as well as literary theorists, Montfort defines some lit-crit terms as they apply to interactive-fiction analysis. Towards the end of the first chapter, we're presented with terminology like "story," "narrative," and "plot," but the definitions Montfort offers could have been fleshed out without sending us to the library to brush up on our Russian formalism. The distinction between "diegetic" and "extradiegetic" exchanges (communication with the game world and the game engine, respectively) appears next, illustrated by Zork 's first few interactions with the user. "Metalepsis" comes next, defined as an intrusion or transgression between levels of story and narration -- sometimes unintentional, sometimes with fatal results. (Portions of Floyd's commentary in Planetfall are cited as an example of the former; the protagonist's robot-assisted suicide in Suspended exemplifies the latter). Happily, none of these intimidating-looking terms are prerequisites to an understanding of the book as a whole.

Naming the game

Assuming the art of interactive fiction began with the riddle, what constitutes a work of IF today? After a brief excerpt from LookingGlass Technologies veteran Dan Schmidt's For A Change gives us an example of description, interaction and puzzle-solving, Montfort goes on to establish four requisite aspects of IF:

  • A text-accepting, text-generating computer program;
  • A potential narrative (a system that produces narrative during interaction);
  • A simulation of an environment or world; and
  • A structure of rules within which an outcome is sought, also known as a game.

Works which do not include each of these elements are deliberately excluded, among them "hypertext fiction," most graphical computer games, and numerous experimental titles. In this respect, Montfort perhaps misses an opportunity to reflect upon the true extent of IF's influence over the rest of the entertainment software world. With a reported 30,000 lines of text in Deus Ex 2 - more than any Infocom game ever boasted - I'd argue that the historical text-only criterion is becoming more questionable all the time.

The rise of the smart machines

Much more than a theoretical treatise on IF, Twisty Little Passages is also the most complete chronicle of important IF titles, authors, and publishers assembled to date. Its middle four chapters focus largely on academic and commercial efforts at crafting and publishing interactive fiction. Chapter 3 begins with an introduction of the concept of generative literary machines ("ergodic literature"). Montfort cites the Turing machine-like nature of the I Ching , followed by a mention of Jonathan Swift's satirical machine from Gulliver's Travels, "made of equal parts of irony, sarcasm, and mockery, that would automatically write books on all the arts and sciences." Advancing to the modern era, we encounter Theodor Nelson's early hypertext experiments in 1970; the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that appeared near the close of the decade; and the Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon that introduced a generation to the idea of participative fiction and inspired more IF and computer-game authors than even the most dedicated scholar could count.

The mother of all computer games, in Montfort's view, was Spanish engineer Leonardo Quevedo's 1912 chess-playing robot. Devised to attack a particular endgame problem on a vertically-oriented chessboard, Quevedo's machine was unique in that it represented the first so-called "chess automaton" that operated by legitimate electromechanical means rather than by fraudulently-concealed midgets. A subsequent refinement of Quevedo's machine would later catch the eye of famed computer scientist and AI researcher Norbert Wiener, achieving recognition as the first genuine attempt at artificial intelligence.

Mechanical curiosities aside, no discussion of human-computer interaction would be complete without inviting Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA (1966) to the party. As the first convincing conversation "bot", ELIZA accepted plain-English input from a human interlocutor, transforming it (albeit with no semantic understanding) into a sympathetic textual murmur geared to elicit further input:

Person: Men are all alike.
Computer: IN WHAT WAY?
Person: They're always bugging us about something or other.
Person: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
Person: He says I'm depressed much of the time.
Even more impressive than ELIZA was fellow MIT researcher Terry Winograd's SHRDLU, the first computer program capable of modelling, rendering, and allowing a human to interact verbally with objects in a virtual world:
Computer: OK (does it)
Computer: YES, THE BLUE BLOCK. (page 84)
Prior to reading the transcript above in Montfort's book, I'd heard of SHRDLU only in passing. It deserves a lot more attention than it's received. SHRDLU was one hell of an impressive hack in 1970, and it wouldn't be trivial today, judging by the capabilities suggested. Like the incredulous audiences that must have attended the early chess robot demonstrations, I'd have been prying panels off Winograd's PDP-6 with a screwdriver, looking for midgets ex machina.

Worlds from Adventure to Zork

After bestowing the title "the first work of interactive fiction" upon a deserving SHRDLU, Montfort summons the spiritual grandfather of them all: William Crowther's Adventure . Released in 1975 for the benefit of his five- and seven-year-old daughters and any interested lurkers on the nascent ARPANet, Adventure combined ELIZA and SHRDLU's human-interaction capabilities with a primitive fictional setting:


Crowther is a contemporary of Zork co-author Dave Lebling, who, coincidentally, was a member of the same Dungeons and Dragons group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In one of Montfort's many personal communications with IF luminaries, Lebling says:

Eric Roberts . . . started running a D&D group a year or so before
Adventure was written. Eric had his own ideas about how D&D should be done, emphasizing storytelling and de-emphasizing the mechanical aspects of the game such as die- rolling. He tried to create a Tolkien-inspired world that was fun and consistent with Middle Earth... I think one strong component that carried over into Zork was to try to keep the mechanical workings of the game as hidden as possible, which to me enhanced the fun and immersiveness of the experience. (page 86)
With such similar roots, it's no surprise that Zork and Adventure play like long-lost brothers. In Chapter 4, Montfort details the evolution of Zork and other important IF titles that were created by multitalented college students with free mainframe access and seemingly-limitless time on their hands. Much has been written about Zork and its legendary Implementers, but seldom have we been given such a well-documented survey of the personalities and motivations behind the game's creation. One tongue-in-cheek room description from the mainframe version of Zork didn't make the cut for the commercial releases:
Tomb of the Unknown Implementer
This is the Tomb of the Unknown Implementer. A hollow voice says: "That's not a bug, it's a feature!"
In the north wall of the room is the Crypt of the Implementers. It is made of the finest marble, and apparently large enough for four headless corpses.
The crypt is closed.
There are four heads here, mounted securely on poles.
There is a large pile of empty Coke bottles here, evidently produced by the implementers during their long struggle to win totality.
There is a gigantic pile of line-printer output here. Although the paper once contained useful information, almost nothing can be distinguished now. (pages 102-103)
Zork accepted complex sentences with indirect-object phrases, offered a much-larger vocabulary than its predecessors, and broke significant new ground in multiplatform software development, predating UCSD Pascal as the first commercial application for virtual-machine technology. But it also advanced at least one purely-literary aspect of computer gaming by introducing its first complex interactive character: the wily Thief. One of Montfort's references offers an insightful Joseph Campbell-esque definition of "villain": "the symbolic representation of forces working to seemingly hinder, but actually promoting, the hero's or heroine's development." (pages 112-113) Since Adventure's dwarves and pirate are not representations of anything else ("parental figures or psychological drives"), their deeds are destructive without being truly "wicked." Zork's thief, on the other hand, serves as a foil for the player character's combat skills, as a reflection of the player's own rapacious treasure-lust, and, ultimately, as an unwitting assistant in the quest.

Zork's innovations over the state of the art established by Adventure are too numerous to count, although Montfort explicitly avoids the common mistake of canonizing Zork and Infocom games in general while giving short shrift to other important IF efforts. In Chapter 5, we learn what became of the Zork implementers in their post-MIT lives at Infocom.

Alas, poor Infocom. . .

In Montfort's words, Infocom, which was founded June 22, 1979 by Lebling, Blank, Anderson, and seven other MIT alumni, "began work on the foundation of IF while the plot of ground that it was to be built upon had not been completely surveyed." Chapter 5's opening paragraph is revealing:

Adventure is considered the great original epic of interactive fiction. Infocom's works call for a grandiose comparison made on a slightly-different metaphorical ground. Whoever the "Shakespeare" playwright actually was - common or noble, working largely alone or in close collaboration with a theater company - Shakespeare wrote, remarkably, not just the greatest English-language play, by critical consensus, but almost all of the great English-language plays. Similarly, the interactive fiction creators at Infocom devised practically all of the best-loved IF works in the history of the form. (page 119)
Although Scott Adams (no relation to Dilbert's creator) and his company, Adventure International , were the first to sell IF commercially in 1978, Infocom was the most successful IF publisher of its era. The company reached US $10 million in sales in 1985 with over 100 employees on the payroll. A quoted excerpt from the New Zork Times , the company's newsletter, illustrates how Infocom's marketing focused on their games' puzzle-centric design:
Although our games are interactive fiction, they are more than just stories: they are also a series of puzzles. It is these puzzles that transform our text from an hour's worth of reading to many, many hours' worth of thinking. . . . The value of our games is that they will provide many hours of stimulating mental exercise. (page 120)
Montfort subsequently comments:
The company's ... belief in the centrality of problem solving should explain ... why Infocom did not focus on creating what might more easily be seen as artistic and literary works that favored exploration, communication with characters, or alternate plot progressions. Yet Infocom did make some progress along these lines, and advanced the state of the literary art by coupling the textually described worlds and situations with carefully crafted puzzles in ways that great riddlers might, in provocative and affecting ways. (page 120)
Of the thirty-five games that Infocom published before its US $7.5 million sale to Activision in 1986, their earlier releases receive some of the most detailed analyses in Twisty Little Passages. In addition to discussion of the Zork and Enchanter trilogies, Montfort offers us insights on the unconventional, revelation-driven structure of Deadline, the Reagan-era sociopolitical commentary found in Infidel , and the tragic end of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall:
As a character who is also a technological artifact, Floyd is more important than his immediate function in the IF world suggests. He is a figure for the sometimes emotional relationships that people have with computers, or that are mediated through computers. (page 150)
Many other games, from Trinity to A Mind Forever Voyaging and the Douglas Adams- assisted adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are discussed extensively in Chapters 5 and 6. Private communications between Montfort and Adams's collaborator at Infocom, Steve Meretzky, lend a glimpse of what it was like to work with the late, lamented author:
Adams's "world-class procrastination abilities," as Meretzky called them, did cause some problems for the (
Hitchhiker's Guide) project, which began in February 1984 and was slated (ambitiously) to be completed by the following Christmas. Meretzky said of Adams that "being a successful person with tons of interesting acquaintances, he had an extremely distracting life. Plus, he wasn't fond of the actual task of writing. He loved coming up with ideas, but hated wrestling them into a properly-formed work." (page 173)
Montfort's 35-page bibliography is a treasure trove in its own right, with online and printed references given equal weight. Academic grognards may question the long-term utility of online citations, but the omission of sources such as Briceno et al.'s comprehensive Down from the Top of its Game: The Story of Infocom would have been a serious shortcoming. Throughout the book, Montfort's goal of preserving and documenting the great IF works remains clear, with a scholarly ethos that's just as relevant to fans of today's games. He praises Infocom's relatively-lax copy protection schemes, compared to those used by other game publishers whose heavily-protected works may be lost to posterity:
If any examples of heavily-copy-protected computer games survive through another two decades for study and discussion, it will be thanks to the loose, widespread network of teenagers and college students who assiduously cracked these programs, allowing the crippled disks to run freely both on systems at the time and on compatible computers today. (page 159)
Activision, in particular, earns well-deserved props in the book for opening earlier Infocom works and encouraging independent development.

... and other commercial efforts

Although Infocom's oeuvre receives the lion's share of attention in Twisty Little Passages, the book does not neglect the many other commercial IF publishing efforts on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter 6 ("Different Visions Worldwide") opens with a quick drive-by tour of Roberta Williams's 1980 Mystery House , recognized as the first graphical adventure game. A number of IF book adaptations were undertaken in the early 1980s as well, among them The Hobbit from Melbourne House and the classics Fahrenheit 451, Rendezvous with Rama, and Nine Princes in Amber from Tellarium. Along with the aforementioned Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy released by Infocom in 1984, Montfort gives favorable attention to US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Mindwheel , published in the same year by Synapse Software.

Brief histories of British IF publishers Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls round out the chapter, along with an even-briefer mention of Legend Entertainment, written before Legend's shutdown in early 2004. The latter constitutes one of the few weak spots in Twisty Little Passages's coverage of the classics. Legend's integration of music, artwork, graphical navigation, and other interface enhancements in the Spellcasting 101 series went far beyond Infocom's efforts to modernize their own IF engines, and the company deserves more than a single paragraph.

At the end of Chapter 6, Montfort recounts the 2000 failure of former Infocom author Mike Berlyn's Cascade Mountain Publishing, one of the last commercial publishers of pure text-based IF. He proceeds to draw a sheet over the commercial market for interactive fiction in general, pronouncing it as dead as Graham Chapman's parrot:

A few individuals have since sought to sell their IF works, and the occasional company like Activision has re-released older works. The main market for interactive fiction today, however, is on eBay and other auction sites, where packaged disks from the 1980s are bought and sold by collectors and IF enthusiasts. Fortunately, the end of the interactive fiction market is not the end of the story for this form. (page 191)
I don't agree with this proclamation of commercial doom, which is a recurring theme in Twisty Little Passages. It's unreasonable to look at the failure of a single company which released two IF products in two years -- one of them a recycled effort from the mid-1980s -- and draw the conclusion that future IF games will only be offered for sale alongside Beanie Babies, assorted stolen laptops, and someone's spare kidney. Unlike modern PC and console games with multimillion-dollar budgets, a killer IF title can still be written by one guy or girl working the graveyard shift at home. Success is arguably a matter of recalibrating one's expectations -- and business model -- to match contemporary market conditions. (Did it ever make sense for Infocom to employ 100 people in some of the most expensive commercial real estate in Boston, working on a handful of all-text games that fit on 140KB floppies? Montfort stops short of considering this question, but in the post-Ion Storm era we live in, the answer should be pretty obvious.)

Fortunately, as the last two chapters reveal, a healthy independent IF community has sprung up to take the place of the commercial publishers who are no longer with us.

IF's independent authors: the once and future scene

In April 1993, at the culmination of a long reverse-engineering effort by "a group of programmers called the InfoTaskForce" (page 202), Graham Nelson released an object-oriented programming language capable of creating story files for the Infocom Z-machine interpreter. Along with a commercially-available text-adventure authoring system known as TADS, Nelson's language, Inform, sparked an indy IF revolution.

The (growing) community of IF authors really began to demonstrate the vitality of the form in the 1990s, innovating in ways that early hackers and later game companies did not. Their IF works are usually even more widely available today than the most successful commercial software of the 1980s, since they are typically free for download and, thanks to the Internet, widely available. ... A relevant FAQ notes that ... there were five IF games in the 1996 Year-End Download Top 40, making these games some of the most popular non-commercial computer games in the world. (page 193)
As Montfort writes, Nelson also fired the first shot of that revolution:
Nelson's most famous piece of interactive fiction - and likely the most well-known IF work since the demise of Infocom - is the first fruit of Inform, the 1993
Curses . This large, complex, and difficult adventure is set in an English country home and in certain other spaces that are linked in fantastic ways to it. Nelson (2002) said he "consciously wrote it in an Infocom-esque spirit, aiming at the same epigrammatic style of wit." (page 203)
Ten years after the first release of Inform, hundreds of independent IF authors and fans congregate on Web boards and Usenet newsgroups to discuss new titles released using Inform, TADS, and a host of other IF platforms. In particular, the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, begun by the denizens of and, celebrates its own tenth anniversary in 2004. Past Competitions have spawned groundbreaking titles like Adam Cadre's Photopia , released in 1998 and still much-discussed today, and Andrew Plotkin's unsettling Shade . These, and many other indy releases, are reviewed extensively in Chapter 7. It would have been good to see more pointers toward longstanding IF fan sites such as Eileen Mullin's XYZZYNews in this chapter, but for the most part, Montfort's latter two chapters do a great job of summarizing the state of interactive fiction's art and culture. His enthusiasm as an observer of the modern IF scene is infectious.

Two tentacles up

I can wholeheartedly recommend Twisty Little Passages not only to IF fans and amateur historians, but to anyone serious about the foundations and culture of computer gaming. Infocom and Legend Entertainment auteur Steve Meretzky's back-cover blurb says it all: "(Twisty Little Passages) is a thoroughly-researched history of interactive fiction, as well as a brilliant analysis of the genre. Reading it makes me itch to fire up that old DEC-20 and start writing interactive fiction again!" As a fan of Meretzky's many IF works, I should be so lucky. As a fan of the IF art form as a whole, I'm indeed lucky to have run across Nick Montfort's excellent book.

You can purchase Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page

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Twisty Little Passages

Comments Filter:
  • by Aardpig ( 622459 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:13PM (#8885659)

    ...could someone write one please; I want to see whether the review is worth reading.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:13PM (#8885661)
    You're reading Slashdot and you realize you have two choices:
    If you decide to read the next comments, scroll down.

    If you decide you've read enough already, hit the back button.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      > use sharp stick on slashdot
      > look
      > help
      > go north
      > quit
      > DIE!!!

      Woops, it wasn't interactive fiction, it was ed. Sorry about that.

  • It is dark (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    you are likely to be eaten by a grue
  • Why wasn't? (Score:4, Funny)

    by bravehamster ( 44836 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:18PM (#8885705) Homepage Journal
    I have to ask...why wasn't this review written in an interactive format?

    • Eliza says: Why do you ask why wasn't this review written in an interactive format?
      • Eliza says: Why do you ask why wasn't this review written in an interactive format?

        Eliza? Ha! I would appreciate it if you would continue.

        (Note: EMACS contains a version of Eliza which can be run usingM-x doctor. There is also a command that can be used to make Zippy mode converse with doctor mode, but I can't find it after a few moments of searching. It is really more interesting to think about than to see it run...).

      • Have you ever seen AOLiza on this [] web site? Funny stuff, I need a Trillian plugin for that.
    • I have to ask...why wasn't this review written in an interactive format?

      > read ye review


      ...and then you have to sit there, wondering why on earth you can't read ye review!!
  • by Neil Blender ( 555885 ) <> on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:28PM (#8885812)
    You have stumbled across a post on slashdot. After reading it, you need to decide what to do.

    If you are not a moderator, turn to page 19.
    To mod this post down, turn to page 27.
    To ignore this post, turn to page 329.
    To mod this post up, turn to page 123.
    • Page 329:

      After ignoring the post, you decide to click on a harmless looking link a few posts do-

      "Augh!! Goatse man!!" you scream as you fling yourself away from your desk.

      Landing on the ground, you notice a particulary nice pair of shoes underneath your nose. You look up slowly into the pale green face of a nauseous Vice President.

      ---You have been fired---
      Thank you for browsing slashdot at work. Please turn to page one of the want ads to start over.
    • Heh ... I read a computer book once ... can't remember the title - probably something about the Internet or something.

      It didn't dawn upon me until now, but there was actually no page 404. It jumped from page 403 to 405. Completely screwed everything up, as the even numbered pages are always on the left.
  • by Sargent1 ( 124354 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:30PM (#8885826)

    All of the reviews I've seen, including my own [], have been uniformly positive. You can see some of those reviews listed on the author's page about the books []. It's an extremely accessible book, which isn't easy to do, and the highest praise I can give it is that I wish I'd written it.

  • Nit-picking (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Erratio ( 570164 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:30PM (#8885828)
    From the review.."I'd argue that the historical text-only criterion is becoming more questionable all the time." I couldn't disagree more. The text-only games are a specific genre. Since they are a very influencial factor in modern games, that should definitely be addressed, but things are categorized for a reason. If you start lumping different types of games into the same category becasue of their influences, you'd end up with one big mass of gray. Deus Ex 2 was also influenced by games like Wing Commander & Wolfenstein 3d, but they don't fit in the same category. I also think that by bending the criteria you're also in some respect lessening the formats ability to stand on it's own, which it has proven itself more than capable of doing (obviously since there's a book about it).
  • by Strange_Attractor ( 160407 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:31PM (#8885849) Homepage
    The reviewer's memory of (Monty) Python's a little weak. It's John Cleese who rants about the dead parrot. Unless, of course, this is a rhetorical flourish, since Chapman's no longer with us (to say the least).
  • by vrTeach ( 37458 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:31PM (#8885850)
    Maybe too detailed, but thanks for the effort. Brings me back to adventure on a Prime 750, and I'll look forward to seeing (and buying) the book in a remainder bin in a year or so. I probably just missed it, but are the graphic mysteries such as Myst and such also to be considered IF as Montfort defines it? The game doesn't really react to what the player is doing, but then neither did adventure as I remember it. eks
    • Maybe too detailed, but thanks for the effort.

      Can't argue with that, really. I was surprised it wasn't posted to the Games section. If I thought it was going to make the front page, I'd have tried to exercise some editorial restraint. :)

      Brings me back to adventure on a Prime 750, and I'll look forward to seeing (and buying) the book in a remainder bin in a year or so. I probably just missed it, but are the graphic mysteries such as Myst and such also to be considered IF as Montfort defines it?

      Not a
  • "You are in a room. Your current options are North, South, Up, and Dennis."
    > Dennis
    "You walked off a cliff. You are now dead. Play again?"
  • request denied (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ( 745183 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:33PM (#8885879) Homepage
    The author's stated intention is to [present] interactive fiction (IF) as a legitimate literary field.

    Obviously, some of these games are better than others ...which makes them fair game (so to speak) for comparison and critique. But, trying to rank them alongside legitimate literature seems mighty presumptuous.

    Legitimate authors struggle to perfect their reader's experience, and would never deliberately abandon it to dice-throws. If it happens that some interactive game is found to harbor a deep and worthwhile intellectual point, then a "real" author, rather than writing that game, will tell the story of a character who plays it.

    • Re:request denied (Score:2, Interesting)

      by UrgleHoth ( 50415 )
      putting aside elitism of what is "real" authorship or not, consider definitive criteria for literature, games and toys:

      A piece of literature, fiction interpretive or escapist is a single state story. It can be in hypertext or not, but there is a single state.
      A toy is a multi state device. Either random effects or readers/players choice changes the state of the activity/interaction.
      A game is a toy with an end state built into the system that defines winners/losers (or draws).
      Let's hear the rebuttals...
      • Good point. Just because a masterpiece hasn't been written in "IF" doesn't mean it can't happen. It probably will knowing human nature to keep trying. There really aren't that many masterpieces that appeal to the broad OR high-brow markets anyway, so give the makers some time. Others, of course, may feel like such a masterpiece has been written.
    • Legitimate literary field doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to be in the same lot as classics of literature or works that hold great meaning. Romance and other formulaic "trash" are considered legitimate literature, along with, more relevantly, fantasy novels. I've read a decent amount of fantasy, and it seems there are some good authors and some good books, but the majority of them are more poorly written that a lot of IF. IF would also probably be best compared to short stories, so comparin
      • Re:request denied (Score:3, Informative)

        by PCM2 ( 4486 )
        Romance and other formulaic "trash" are considered legitimate literature, along with, more relevantly, fantasy novels.
        Errr, no. In publishing parlance, at least, those are what is known as "genre fiction." You have to aim a little higher to be considered "literature."
        • Genre fiction is a type of literature, and trying to actually seperate one from the other is a fool's errand. Some of the most influential writers in history (Stevenson, Dumas, Cooper...) were considered junk writers in their time, and some people still do, but their impact is still present on the higher forms of literature. This isn't about putting IF in a class equal to well written novels, it's simply about recognizing it as a form of writing, and a piece in the greater picture of literature. Seriou
        • A quick guide to genre fiction for people who think it isn't proper literature:

          Science Fiction, e.g. 1984 or Gulliver's Travels

          Fantasy, e.g. Gormenghast or Beowulf

          Horror, e.g. A Christmas Carol, Metamorphosis by Kafka, or most stuff by Poe.

          Romance, e.g. Madame Bovary or Doctor Zhivago

          Crime, e.g. The Name of the Rose, The Sherlock Holmes stories, and most stuff by Poe that wasn't horror.
    • Re:request denied (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Cosmicbandito ( 160658 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @05:16PM (#8886373)
      You claim that interactive fiction is not legitimate literature, but you say that "Legitimate authors struggle to perfect their reader's experience" . That is prescisely what the IF author has to focus on, perhaps more than a traditional author.

      What you fail to realize is that there are no "dice-throws" in interactive fiction. Every line of text you read was written by the author. The author not only had to write that text, s/he had to use fairly complex code to ensure that the text you're reading is appropriate to the current game state. I was fortunate enough to have a course in writing IF at my university. Taking that course was a real eye-opener. It made me realize that it's relatively easy to tell a story. It's much harder to anticipate and cope with the actions of people who are telling themselves the story.

    • I remember seeing a movie, I believe it was European, presented at the Spokane, Washington World's Fair in 1974. Each seat in the theater had a set of buttons that allowed the viewer to vote on which way the film should continue when it reached a branch point. The film would pause while the audience voted. After the votes were tabulated, the film would continue with the segment that the audience had selected.
      • I remember seeing a movie, I believe it was European, presented at the Spokane, Washington World's Fair in 1974. Each seat in the theater had a set of buttons that allowed the viewer to vote on which way the film should continue when it reached a branch point. The film would pause while the audience voted. After the votes were tabulated, the film would continue with the segment that the audience had selected.

        From what I have heard, these films are a sham. They can't be bother to film 2^N possible variatio
    • And frankly, I think the elitist insistence that the reader is not the author mirrors the chestnut that a bad reader is worse than no reader at all.

      The question is not, "who is a legitimate author?" as you imply. Instead, the questions are, "who is a legitimate reader?" and "what is a legitimate reading?" If you can't respond as a reader to IF, or William Gibson, or Stephen King, that's no skin off my nose. If you boil down all our readings to your ideas about literary forms and formats and ignore us, it'

    • Re:request denied (Score:5, Insightful)

      by iabervon ( 1971 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @06:52PM (#8887374) Homepage Journal
      There is, in fact, a substantial discussion in the interactive fiction community about whether games should be "simulationist" or not; the simulationist camp would like the world of the story to actually function completely correctly, which the non-simulationist camp prefers only those parts which fit with the story to be implemented. Of course, randomness is only a possibility with a simulationist approach (although it is not frequently used for anything important).

      There are examples of works which are definitely literary. In Photopia, for example, the ineractor cannot change the outcome of any of the scenes, but instead essentially delivers the lines of a series of characters. The interactor takes the part of an actor in a play, with the author as playwright. It functions like a book in that the plot is fixed and scripted, but the reader is not outside of the action, but is actually there choosing how characters' speeches are worded, and setting up the details of the experience. In fact, right at the beginning, you make a descision which is critical to what will happen, and the entire story hinges on making the wrong choice; you (as the character you play in that scene) would wish that you'd only been wiser. But, in fact, the game makes whichever choice you make be the wrong one, and the story does happen regardless. The interactivity doesn't actually let you make the right choice (and foil the author's attempt to have a story), but it make you (as the character) responsible for what happens. It wouldn't be an especially good static fiction story; it would be a paragraph in the newspaper at most. But as it is actually presented, the main character is your daughter, your classmate, your babysitter, because the game has put you in the shoes of a number of people with various relationships to her, and asked you to walk a mile.

      Modern IF is really about getting a reader to make an emotional investment in the outcome of the story by playing a role in it rather than simply providing a world in which any story (or, more likely, no story of interest) can happen. The trick is to hide the author's control while making it constantly effective.
    • But, trying to rank them alongside legitimate literature seems mighty presumptuous.

      I disagree. "Legitimate literature" is an inclusive category. It encompasses works by Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Shelley, and Pound: ancient epics, bawdy medieval tales, plays, novels, and poetry long and short.

      They all deal in the written or spoken word, but beyond that they diverge greatly. Epics are the written form of an ancient oral tradition. We perform plays. We read novels. Between poems that are pages l
    • Give Photopia or Metamorphoses a try. They both run on Infocom interpreters, and I'd say they are definitely literature. Metamorphoses even manages a great deal of depth despite an immense amount of work on being very simulationist and free form. No, neither of them are Notes from Underground, but they aren't Zork, either.

      Also, dice-throws aren't a major component of text adventures. Some of them use a random element, but I've mostly noticed that be for the activity of NPC's such as the thief in Zork.
    • I think what you may be getting at is the fact that writing a compelling IF world is literally NP hard. Every choice leads to a few new choices, and those each lead to a few new choices, etc., exponentially. Unless you have an artful way of constraining the user's choices and re-using scenarios that they otherwise would have chosen their way out of, you will have to do exponential work in relation to the depth of the user's experience in the game. Perhaps that application of subtle constraints and convincin
    • Re:request denied (Score:4, Informative)

      by pnot ( 96038 ) on Saturday April 17, 2004 @10:52PM (#8895173)
      Legitimate authors struggle to perfect their reader's experience, and would never deliberately abandon it to dice-throws.

      And indeed, neither do IF authors. IF is pretty much deterministic. But writing it well is arguably more difficult than writing traditional fiction well: giving the player/reader enough choice to maintain interest, while gently constraining them within the plot, and trying to avoid getting them stuck. As Graham Nelson puts it in The Craft of Adventure [] (required reading for anyone interested in IF, BTW):

      The author of a text adventure has to be schizophrenic in a way that the author of a novel does not. The novel-reader does not suffer as the player of a game does: she needs only to keep turning the pages, and can be trusted to do this by herself. The novelist may worry that the reader is getting bored and discouraged, but not that she will suddenly find pages 63 to the end have been glued together just as the plot is getting interesting.

      Thus, the game author has continually to worry about how the player is getting along, whether she is lost, confused, fed up, finding it too tedious to keep an accurate map: or, on the other hand, whether she is yawning through a sequence of easy puzzles without much exploration. Too difficult, too easy? Too much choice, too little? So this book will keep going back to the player's eye view.

      On the other hand, there is also a novel to be written: the player may get the chapters all out of order, the plot may go awry, but somehow the author has to rescue the situation and bind up the strings neatly. Our player should walk away thinking it was a well-thought out story: in fact, a novel, and not a child's puzzle-book.

      Nelson memorably characterizes an adventure game as "a crossword at war with a narrative". Anyone in doubt as to the possible literary merit of IF should withhold judgement until they have played, at the least, his Curses.

      (Incidentally, the abovementioned essay also echoes your contempt for "dice-throws": Article 12 in Nelson's "Player's Bill of Rights" is "not to depend much on luck".)
  • Played them, loved them, but goddam that transparent crystal 3D mze was a killer. Literally.
    • That must have been in Sorceror which I never ended up getting in to. The way I always handle mazes or rooms with the same descriptions in IF games is to drop an item in each room and then map it all out, using the items on the ground as a reference. It seems like most mazes are really only a handful of rooms that just loop around in odd ways.
    • He he! I've been playing my way through these games (bought the Enchanter trilogy on ebay recently) and solved the transparent crystal maze problem in Enchanter just a few days ago. But you say '3D'. Are you referring to yet another similar puzzle?
    • If I remember right, one way to avoid having to navigate your way back out of the Invisible Maze after solving it the first time was to

      (... spoiler space ...)

      ...cast the GASPAR spell, and then kill yourself after dropping your inventory down the chimney.

      It's been many years since I played Sorcerer, though -- I could be mis-remembering it entirely.

  • Montfort (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ectoman ( 594315 )
    I saw Montfort speak at the Princeton ludology conference on March 6. If his lecture there about the Combat can be considered any indicator, his book must be fabulous.
  • by teamhasnoi ( 554944 ) <> on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:43PM (#8885980) Journal
    >Post inciteful comment

    You post a long-winded rant that calls interactive fiction the 'worst episode evar!', and derides Slashdotters for not showering. You feel the might of thousands of negative comments weighing you down and the heat of flames licking your feet. You have fallen prey to the vicious Homonym!

    >Run away

    You can't, as your feet are on fire.

    >Put fire out with funny post

    It's too late. The bloodthirsty Slashdotters have beaten you to -1 Troll, and the vicious Homonym has picked your bones clean! You're banned for the day!

    Do you want to try again?


  • by snStarter ( 212765 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:50PM (#8886066)
    The first place I ran into Adventure was on a floppy disk based LSI-11/03 (maybe a /23) running RT-11 down in the plasma physics lab. The version of Adventure was a HEAVILY overlayed FORTRAN version.

    And I was totally hooked.

    The worlds built by these games make them a hot medium. They exist in your mind. The Hall of the Mountain King is still there.

    I guess everyone wants to blast car-jackers or aliens. I'd rather play a great Adventure game.
    • _Were_ wonderful? They actually still are... the joy of IF games is that they haven't been outdated like so many games today. The graphics are fine, nearly any system can run them, you don't need the latest $500 nvidia/ati offering, etc. And as they are as complex or as simplistic as the author makes them, they don't lose charm even a decade or two later.
    • The floppy disk is lost in the dustbin of time, but I remember playing Zork on a PDP-11/03 running RT-11. It had 56kB of memory and two 8" floppy disks. Infocom was the only games publisher that I can think of that released games on such a wide variety of systems.
    • They exist in your mind.

      Exactly. What better technology than that between your ears? Alas, I tried showing some of my old text adventure games to some young (10-12) cousins of mine, and of course, they just did NOT "get it."

      "What?! No pictures? The horror!"

  • by SmackCrackandPot ( 641205 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:58PM (#8886157)
    You are in a maze of witty little comments. You can move NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST or REPLY.
    You are in a maze of witty little comments. You can move SOUTH, EAST, WEST or REPLY.
    You are in a maze of witty little comments. There is a joke here.
    You can move WEST, NORTH or REPLY
    You try and comprehend the joke, but it is written by somebody with a completely different sense of humour
    from you. You decide to leave the joke for someone else.
    You can move WEST or NORTH or REPLY
    You are in a maze of witty little comments. There are some karma points here.
    You can move SOUTH, WEST or REPLY
    Ouch! Those karma points are really sharp. Perhaps you should wear some hand protection before
    trying to pick them up? You decide to leave the karma points where they are for the time being.
    You can move SOUTH, WEST or REPLY
    You are in a maze of witty little comments. There is a slashdot moderator here.
    You can move SOUTH, EAST or REPLY
    The slashdot moderator is busy reading slashdot on his laptop.
    Perhaps you should try attracting his attention some other way?
    You can move SOUTH, EAST or REPLY
    >REPLY>br> You begin to post a message on slashdot about being in a maze of witty little comments.
    Upon posting the message, the slashdot moderator notices your presence, picks up the karma points,
    gives them to you before leading you out of the maze.
  • by __aammuz5019 ( 678894 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @05:08PM (#8886273)
    FYI, the Adventure game is available to try online at:
    • by ben_matthews ( 772000 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @07:08PM (#8887518)
      Try sending a message on AOL-IM to infocombot

      [18:05] infocombot: Welcome back!
      To continue your saved game, choose your game and type 'restore' after it starts.
      For help and more info, go to

      Type a game to play: adventure, deadline, enchanter, hitchhikers_guide, leather_goddesses, lurking_horror, planetfall, quake, shade, wishbringer, zork1, zork2, zork3

    • Or, as an alternative, you can type:

      $ sudo apt-get install bsdgames
      $ /usr/games/adventure

  • Would "Interactive fiction" be anything new? Isn't that exactly what RPGs have been doing for ages now?
  • by Skjellifetti ( 561341 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @05:19PM (#8886401) Journal
    First ran into Adventure on a DEC-10 while a Freshman at the Univ of Tennessee. The author had a fine sense of humor. I managed to figure out most of it except for the damned dragon. No matter what I did it killed me. One day, I ran into the dragon and typed


    With what? Your bare hands?


    Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands! Unbelievable, isn't it?
    • >Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands! Unbelievable, isn't it?

      If you don't have the source, then you have a great memory...

      $ search/match=or advdat.dat vanquished,unbelievable
      1000 Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare
      1000 hands! (Unbelievable, isn't it?)
  • by drivers ( 45076 )
    The precedent was Adventure, developed in the 1960s at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). The program was conceived of as an experimental game. A computerised version of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Adventure comprises a series of descriptions of fictional locations inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1954), and set in the surrounding Californian mountains.

    Hold on a second... it was a computerized version of D&D developed in the 60
    • You'll not that in the next paragraph the alltogether incorrect content of what you quoted is addressed.

      It was illustrative of the need for a better accounting of IF's history.

    • Wow, really? Good point! It's a shame no one seems to have noticed that error, except the reviewer and the author and most everyone else:

      ... At least four of these six statements are clearly false, and the remaining two are misleading.

  • The ``Literate Programming'' ( ) re-written source to the the original Colossal Caves Adventure re-written for CWEB by Dr. Donald E. Knuth (the guy who wrote my word processor ;) see for what I mean):

    or get the source from l

  • Going Dark (Score:4, Funny)

    by jmoriarty ( 179788 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @05:24PM (#8886461)
    Your wit has just gone out.
    The topic is pitch black.
    You are likely to be moderated by a grue.
  • I remember booting Microsoft Adventure (v 1.00 copyright IBM 1981 & Softwin Assoc 1979 implemented by Gordon Letwin - 5 1/4" floppy w/ manual and plastic cover - sweet) and I would get so engrossed that my father would have to hit the circuit breaker to get me off the the system (still have the system).

    Now here is this review of a book about IF, and it is all coming back. Guess nothing to do but dig out both sets of the lost treasures of infocom and get lost for a few months. Ahhhhh.....
  • by clacour ( 621903 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @06:27PM (#8887181)
    I found a copy of the Fortran code for Adventure where I worked in the early 80s. I was learning PL/1 at the time, and needed a project of some sort to learn it with, so I ported Adventure over to it.

    Time went by (about 8 years) and I changed jobs a couple of times. One day, I was talking with a daughter site in Boston, and somehow the subject of Adventure came up. He was trying to do something with it, and happened to mention the name of the userid that created it.

    It was DTSO403, which was my old userid at the original company.

    I have no CLUE how it made its way from Dallas to Boston...

  • SHRDLU (Score:3, Informative)

    by td ( 46763 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @06:45PM (#8887336) Homepage
    Prior to reading the transcript above in Montfort's book, I'd heard of SHRDLU only in passing. It deserves a lot more attention than it's received.

    SHRDLU received plenty of attention at the time. Modern AI is pretty much based on Winograd's work. SHRDLU was the first of the expert systems, programs with relatively simple pattern/action reasoning systems mated to large databases of expert domain knowledge. They were the basis of the great commercial AI scare of the 1980s, into which many zillions of venture capital was poured, and from which sprang, well, not much.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    but they were all alike, so I kept dropping them to find my way out of the library.
  • when computer games didn't require a half gig of video memory and a terahertz processor.

    I first played Adventure in 1981 on a Xerox CP-V system from the early 60's; the code would have been a highly-tweaked Fortran IV. The game was unmistakably written for an old-fashioned CRT: Most of the room descriptions were two or three lines long, but when you first came to the "Volcano View" the screen flooded with text, a description exactly 80 chars wide by 23 lines long, leaving just one line at the bottom of t

  • in the past, people have always asked me the significance of my .sig, but now, people will actually understand it (for a few weeks at least)
  • I'm thinking of reading the book but I'm still playing a few old Infocom games (!!!). Are there many spoilers in the book?
  • Adam Cadre's Photopia [] is one of only two works (the other is Kipling's The Light That Failed []) which has ever made me cry when first I read it. An absolutely amazing example of art: it is a must for anyone who considers himself a student.
  • One great piece of self-referential humour that did make it into a commercial release is the following, from Enchanter:

    >read legend of the great implementers
    This legend, written in an ancient tongue, speaks of the creation of the world.
    A more absurd account can hardly be imagined. The universe, it seems, was
    created by "Implementers" who directed the running of great engines. These
    engines produced this world and others, strange and wondrous, as a test or
    puzzle for others of their kind. It goes on to sta

  • True story: I set up my first FreeBSD system a few years ago when I found Dungeon (the non-Infocom predecessor to Zork) in the ports.

    And no, I never did make it all the way through the game without cheats, dammit!

  • I remember playing Adventure on a TI Silent 700, a "portable" dumb terminal with a phone coupler that printed on thermal paper, that dialled in to a System 370-168 running MVT, away back in 1978. Our resident genius posted his "carried off in victory by little elves" winning solution on the bulletin board after an all-night session.

    There was a quaintness about The Colossal Cave that has been lost in the hyper-realism of today's games. It was that quaintness, I think, that allowed us to both be absorbed by
  • I was born during a time when the text-based adventure had immediately been superceded by graphical adventure games a la Sierra Online for the personal computer. I had grown up without playing any, but developed an interest some years later. My experience is very limited, but I have played all of the Zork games, not having beaten any.

    One particularly funny story I would like to relate was my mastering of the adventure game included with GNU emacs (yes, there is one among other things). I managed to make

  • IF Theory []. From the website:

    The intention of this work is to address matters of Interactive Fiction's craft and theory; to review where IF has recently been, and offer some thoughts as to where it may go; to pull together some of the seminal discussion on Interactive Fiction, and to commission new material to advance our understanding.

    As far as craft is concerned, it will take up more or less where Graham Nelson's Inform Designer's Manual (4th edition) leaves off: the content of this work should be access
  • This book sounds great and I love a lot of the old text only games, but I think the few really great graphical adventure games, especially the work of art that is Grim Fandango, deserve more respect from a book like this.
  • I read this book as I was encouraged to look at it by the article, and concur with the reviewer. A very worthwhile book that incorporates theory with IF history and annecdotal trivia quite elegantly. It would be a very good book for academic work too.

    My sole mild criticism is that the book somewhat skirts towards the fallacy that the fantasy genre is by definition derived from Tolkien. This is incorrect, as Tolkien for the most part reworked Celtic and Norse myth.

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