Voyaging into Interactive Fiction

I have only just recently started to engage with interactive fiction works.1 I grew up playing video games of all kinds (starting with the Sega Genesis!) and I have been a reader and writer of e-lit for the last 10 years, but I just never intersected with interactive fiction until I played Emily Short’s Counterfeit Monkey about 18 months ago (I wrote about that on my old blog, here). I immensely enjoyed that work, and I was looking forward to delving further into interactive fiction…but then I had to defend and complete a dissertation, get a job, start that job, wrap up some previous research projects, raise a 2 year old and welcome a newborn into the world…It’s been a busy 18 months.

Now that I’m starting a new strain of research in earnest — thinking about digital curation approaches and challenges for e-lit (I’ll hopefully be ready to share some more details on the specifics of my next big research effort soon…) — I’m jumping back into my interactive fiction initiation. From the perspective of community-driven preservation efforts, interactive fiction offers many insights and potential digital curation strategies as communities of readers and writers have actively maintained a history of the form as an integral part of stoking new creative efforts for decades now.2

I’ll likely write and think more about some of those community-driven digital curation efforts (like the IF Archive or Inform, the free and well-documented authoring system) in the future, but in this post I want to touch on the experience of being a newcomer to the interactive fiction world. The key to maintaining a cultural tradition is for a community of people to vivify that heritage — and so the renewal of the community itself, through both new members and new ideas is fundamental to preserving the objects and artifacts of that heritage. Bringing beginners on board, then, is a crucial digital curation process. Members of the interactive fiction community have prepared introductions to the form, with details on game play mechanics and how to actually get a work up and running in an interpreter, as well as lists of recommended games for starters. These guides get newcomers into reading interactive fiction — and it’s through engaging with the works (which includes then discussing those works with others, and maybe writing new works) that a newcomer like myself can build up a repertoire and be part of the community and its heritage.

Of course, keeping the data itself around is pretty important too, and the interactive fiction community has done this in a variety of ways. In 2019, Jason Scott made a major contribution to preserving significant historical works of interactive fiction by uploading the source code for all Infocom games to GitHub. As a major commercial producer of some of the most influential early interactive fiction works, Infocom’s back catalog is indeed an essential cornerstone of IF heritage, though abandoned by Activision not too long after they acquired Infocom in 1986. With these source files, a trusty Gargoyle IF interpreter (and with the additional inspiration and spiritual guidance of the Eaten by a Grue podcast, in which hosts Kay Savetz and Carrington Vanston have endeavored to play through all Infocom games), I have started an exploration into IF games with some selections from Infocom.

I chose A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985) by Steve Meretzky as my first foray. A work heralded for its literary merits as a speculative fiction political satire, I was really excited to play this game. You play as Perry Simm (aka PRISM), an AI avatar ‘woken up’ from a simulated version of Rockvil, South Dakota into a near-future USA in the midst of political turmoil. A conservative US Senator is pushing through a Plan to deregulate and privatize social services and infrastructure (not-so-subtly modeled after the Reagan-era political program contemporaneous to the game’s development and release). A team of scientists headed by one Dr. Abraham Perelman has developed PRISM and the simulated Everytown to test the merits and long-term effects of the Plan. Rather than solving puzzles to open up new areas of a map or to progress through a story (i.e. the typical structure for an interactive fiction work), the player explores the simulated version of Rockvil and records observations of things like newspapers, restaurants, court houses, public transportation, houses of worship, etc. As you gather this data, Perelman & co. feed this back into the system and derive simulations further and further out — starting from 10 years hence and up to 50 years in the future. Without spoiling much of the story, society crumbles over succeeding decades as a result of the Plan.

This work is certainly an outlier from what I understand of interactive fiction works more generally: there are essentially no puzzles in the game (save one at the very end) and there is little in the way of a linear story (save the main conflict of assessing the Plan’s long-term effects) or much character development. Perhaps in its uniqueness, though, it makes for a great introduction to IF. Indeed, the work overall could even be read as a meta-poetics of interactive fiction, as the game plays out inside of a simulated world that the avatar interacts with through a text-based interface — Perelman and the Plan are a frame story for an IF game that the player plays vicariously through Simm. Along with a structure that calls attention to the mechanics of IF, the world of Rockvil becomes increasingly more perilous — and more like an adventure game — the further into the future Simm travels. By 50 years out from the Plan, Rockvil is nigh uninhabitable with Simm bludgeoned, starved, or maimed in, at most, a handful of moves. Many IF works require the player to ‘learn by death,’ sussing out the correct solution to a puzzle or pathway through a maze by repeatedly failing, restoring, failing again, etc.. This final simulation of Rockvil is, then, an extreme version of the hardest possible IF text: perpetual death without the possibility of learning.

In particular, AMFV really shines in the breadth, scope, and detail of the simulated Rockville. I especially appreciated how the description of specific locations change both slightly and dramatically over time. Compare, for instance, the descriptions of Bodanski Square, a centrally-located public space, from 10 years out to 40 years out:

This is a large plaza formed by the intersection of Bodanski Boulevard from the east, Centre Street from the southwest,
and River Street from the north and south. There is a car lot on the western side of the square. On the northeastern corner is a restaurant, and the old train station can be entered to the southeast. A covered stairway leads down to the Tubes. There is a newspaper dispenser chained to a lamp post on the corner.

This is a large plaza formed by the intersection of Bodanski Boulevard from the east, Centre Street from the southwest, and River Street from the north and south. There is an abandoned car lot on the western side of the square. On the northeastern corner is a restaurant, and the Church of God’s Word can be entered to the southeast. A sealed-off stairway indicates a former entrance to the Tubes.

Though both texts are quite similar, you can register the changes to the cityscape and society more broadly through slight changes in the descriptions: the train station turning into the magisterial home of a cultish religion, the Tube station getting sealed off, the newspaper dispenser disappearing. This is another important lesson for playing IF games, it seems — attending to the details and nuances of how the world is described for clues and hints as to how to proceed. This isn’t done in service of puzzles in AMFV; rather, honing the skills of observing and analyzing the world model (a kind of in-game critical bibliography) is the objective.

While AMFV is certainly not the prototypical IF work, it may serve as a great introduction to the form, or at least I feel the work has served this function in my playthrough. I not only grasped the basics of how to fire up a salvaged Z-machine file on a modern machine, but I also developed an understanding of the poetics of the form — the significance and aesthetic potential of interacting with a simulated world through the interface of a parser, agonistically negotiating challenging (even deadly) obstacles. Through AMFV, I’ve started to learn both how to play these games (from a mechanical or logistical perspective) but also how to understand and appreciate them. More than an introduction to the form, AMFV is brilliant work in its own right (even if the political satire is a bit overwrought and heavy-handed). Just having a great reading/playing experience is, of course, another important part of initiating a newcomer like me.

Notes

  1. I am using ‘interactive fiction’ in the sense provided by Nick Montfort: texts driven by natural language input (a parser) within a simulated world (a world model). See Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), viii.
  2. For a great discussion of this, see: Nick Montfort and Emily Short, “Interactive Fiction Communities: From Preservation through Promotion and Beyond,” Dichtung Digital 41 (2012), http://www.dichtung-digital.de/en/journal/archiv/?postID=326.
  3. Read more here https://www.vice.com/en/article/a3xdk8/long-lost-zork-source-code-uploaded-to-github-but-few-people-understand-it or here https://www.z-machine-matter.com/2019/05/infocom-source-code.html.

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