When people think back to video games in the 80's, usually arcade games like Pac-Man or Galaga come to mind - simple hand-eye coordination skill tests which relied on high scores for replay value. Games with a linear progression through a series of levels weren't prevalent until later in the decade. Few of these sorts of games attempted to tell a story.
Today, video games are sometimes compared to movies. Many modern console / PC games have cutscenes, voice acting, motion capture acting, and some static dialogue. Segments of some games are referred to as 'scenes' or 'chapters' rather than levels. Over the course of the game, the player character meets several other characters who face some sort of conflict to resolve or obstacle to overcome, and they are developed as the game progresses. (Sometimes the player character is developed as well; occasionally the player is left to control most of the silent protagonist's actions.) Although the medium has certainly come a long way, video games still tend to rely on atmosphere, presentation and interactivity to entertain the audience; the story is merely there to loosely connect each encounter together, and usually that's all we ask of it.
However, there are some games that are centered around a well-written plot. They exist solely to tell a story. Most of them are written by professional authors, who make use of their interactive nature to convey ideas and emotions in ways that are difficult or impossible to pull off in books or movies. Even in the 80's, companies such as Telarium and Infocom were publishing these games to market; afterward, individual authors such as Graham Nelson, Stephen Granade, Andrew Plotkin and Adam Cadre continued to release games as freeware via the internet.
How to play
Much like a console ROM requires an emulator or the actual console, most IF games require an interpreter. Currently, the most popular interpreter is Gargoyle, which works in Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. Most of these games can also be played directly from your browser, without needing Java, Flash or any other plug-in.
All of the following games are played with simple text commands. The game won't understand every verb or noun, and may have trouble with complicated grammar, but usually it's not difficult to tell the game what you want to do. Each location in the game is called a 'room', and you move between them using compass directions like 'south' or 'northeast'. The image below shows some common commands to try in almost any game.
These games are recommended by many as good starting points, to give players an idea of what interactive fiction is all about.
The phone rings.
Oh, no — how long have you been asleep? Sure, it was a tough night, but— This is bad. This is very bad.
The phone rings.
The game has a familiar science fiction premise with excellent execution: you're exploring the ruins of an alien, but oddly familiar landscape, while trying to search for any remaining trace of life and figure out what happened to this once prosperous civilization.
Zork-style puzzle games
These games are better described as text adventures; they focus more on complex, challenging puzzles than on telling a story.
|Colossal Cave||Willie Crowther, Don Woods||1976||long||
The first text adventure game ever released, Colossal Cave (often referred to as Adventure 550) lets the player explore a massive cave system full of treasure, axe-wielding dwarves, toll bridge trolls, and mazes of twisty passages, all alike.
So many people played this game that it's estimated to have set back the computer industry an entire week.
|Windows executable, browser|
|The Hobbit||Philip Mitchell, Veronika Megler||1982||long||
Extremely charming text adventure based on the Tolkien book of the same name. First employed the Inglish vocabulary for text adventures, which let users put in descriptive actions as opposed to just 'open door' or 'look house'; for a famous example, one could type out 'ask Gandalf about the curious map then take sword and kill troll with it'.
This game also happens in real time, so make sure to pause the game if you plan on going pee or something.
|Downloads and Browser (see bottom of page)|
|Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy||Douglas Adams, Infocom||1985||long||
Adapted from the popular Douglas Adams novel series, and considered by many as one of the best comedy games ever made, the game starts out with your house being bulldozed, and then aliens demolish Earth to make way for an intergalactic superhighway.
The puzzles range from bizarre (avoid being killed by bad poetry) to ungodly complex (Babel fish).
|Flash BBC remake|
An epic literary adventure across space and time, involving Merlin the magician, Homer the blind poet, Zeus, a strange cult of druids, a complex family history, and a robotic mouse, and yet the game manages to stay focused in the attic of your British manor.
The puzzles are unbelievably difficult, although there are two in-game hint systems (heaven and hell).
You're a kid forced to spend Christmas break with your Granddad in his quirky, aging Victorian mansion. He's deeply in debt, but he believes there's a treasure buried somewhere on the grounds.
The game features a bunch of memorable characters, some rather clever puzzles, a bunch of subtle humor scattered throughout, and a helpful in-game hint system.
|Kissing the Buddha's Feet||Leon Lin||1993||short||
Your lazy roommate is trying to cram for a test so that he can finally graduate and get the hell out of your apartment. However, his annoying friends show up, get drunk and refuse to leave. Your job is to limit all the distractions and help your roommate study in peace so that you don't have to put up with him for another term.
The characters are not only well-implemented, they could easily be found in nearly any college dorm - including the fussy protagonist.
You start out at a New Years' Eve party in New York in 1999, and stumble onto a time machine that takes you back to various history-defining moments in the 20th century.
You assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, you prevent a nuclear launch during the Cold War, you help Alexander Fleming discover penicillin, you escape the Titanic as it sinks, and so on.
In every segment, you must prevent history from being altered while looking for puzzle pieces to collect, which lead to more segments. The game includes plenty of historical footnotes and is surprisingly accurate.
The king is dead, and Palace Minister Primo Varicella, last in line for the throne (that's you), must weasel his way to the top by any nefarious means necessary.
Varicella is a tale of political assassination, plotting, and conspiracy from all sides. The story is incredibly well written, and has a large cast of believable characters, most of whom you'll probably have to kill, and typically before they end up killing you (and all without getting caught of course.)
The road to the top is no easy task, however. You're hit with a semi-strict time limit and a multitude of ways to die, though the game is so entertaining and legitimately funny that getting yourself killed is almost as fun as figuring out how to hit that next rung on the political ladder. If you're interested in filling the shoes of the cleverest socialite cutthroat of them all, look no further.
|download or browser|
|A Change in the Weather||Andrew Plotkin||1995||short||
At a picnic, you decide to explore the nearby park. Shortly, a thunderstorm hits and you're left by yourself to figure out how to get across a rapidly deteriorating bridge across a flooded, dangerous creek.
Timing is crucial; the puzzles are less traditional, but they require careful planning.
Interactive story-driven games
These interactive fiction games focus primarily on telling a story. Some of them have few puzzles, if any.
|Slouching Towards Bedlam||Star Foster, Daniel Ravipinto||2003||moderate||
In a dystopic Victorian steampunk setting, in an alternate timeline, you play as the new head of the local insane asylum. When the game starts out, you're listening to a recording by your predecessor, who rambles about why he committed suicide.
This sparks a chain of events that lead you to explore the asylum and the surrounding city and discover the big secret behind everything, at which point you are absolutely, completely free to choose how to respond, with almost no prompting whatsoever aside from the in-game hints system. The writing is heavily atmospheric.
|Spider and Web||Andrew Plotkin||1998||moderate||
You're a highly trained spy with a wide variety of high-tech gadgetry, and you've been taken captive by your enemies and are being forced against your will to re-live the last hour of your intrusion into their secret compound.
This game has quite a few traditional puzzles, but most of them focus entirely on perspective, on the relationship between the player and the protagonist, and require plenty of lateral thinking to solve. You're also given a wide variety of choices on how to respond to your captors, and the dialogue is rather interesting.
|All Alone||Ian Finley||2000||short||
A classic horror premise: you're by yourself in your house at night, waiting for your husband to get back, it's raining, and there's a serial killer on the loose.
Most of the atmosphere from this game comes from your own imagination of how the scene plays out, which is supplemented rather well by the suspenseful writing.
This game ends after one command. The command you give will determine the character's entire backstory. There are several different versions of the story, but they all involve a woman named Clare, a package of gnocchi, and a man (the protagonist) living in quiet desperation.
You're given a description of a grocery store aisle and are asked to fill in the details. Subtle changes in the way your command is phrased can have a large impact on the story. Although the game is so short, several hours can be spent trying all sorts of different commands; over a hundred are supported.
|So Far||Andrew Plotkin||1996||moderate||
After watching a play in a crowded, warm theater, you explore behind the stage and are led to a variety of strange new worlds, some familiar, some alien.
The experience is rather surreal; you're not always expected to know exactly what is happening in order to progress. The tone is always perfectly matched by the detailed, fantasy-styled prose; if the setting should be desolate, it feels desolate, and likewise with heavily populated, bustling areas. The puzzles are rarely conventional; you're expected to experiment.
|Shades of Grey||Judith Pintar et. al.||1992||long||
You start off with no idea of who you are or what you're doing, wandering aimlessly at night in some city, with repeated hallucinations of Camelot. After you manage to come to your senses, you meet a fortune teller who shows you some tarot cards, each with their own unique sequence with a common underlying theme. It's up to you to piece together your identity, your role in this affair, and your ultimate decision on how to handle it.
This game was actually written by seven different authors collaborating entirely over the internet. The game as a whole seems as if it were written by one person.
|Losing Your Grip||Stephen Granade||1998||moderate||
You play as a man addicted to nicotine and in rehab, and you must resolve your own internal conflicts. The game is heavily symbolic and surreal, it's almost indescribable, but well worth playing.
Arguably one of the most introspective, haunting IF games ever created. The story revolves around the life and development of a precocious twelve-year-old girl. However, you never play as her. Instead, you play as several different characters who care for her in different ways.
Along with these perspective shifts, you're also playing through vivid, dreamlike fantasy sequences. There's a common but subtle underlying theme that is made clear as the game progresses, and one of the last scenes is open to interpretation.
|Windows executable, browser|
|Whom The Telling Changed||Aaron Reed||2005||short||Set in ancient mesopotamia, this story-within-a-story has your fellow villagers gathering around a bonfire to hear The Epic of Gilgamesh. You play by pointing out different parts of the story, which subtly change the mood, ultimately effecting the fate of your village.|
IF Archive - hosts nearly every freely-available IF game ever made, along with walkthroughs and hints.
IF Archive Mirror - in case the main IF Archive server is unresponsive.
Baf's Guide to the IF Archive - reviews, links and more for every game in the IF Archive.
Emily Short's IF Reading List - excellent list of further suggestions, sorted by thematic elements. pawcg
ADRIFT Adventures List - List of Text Adventures on the ADRIFT website