What are the classics of interactive fiction?
November 4, 2010 9:34 AM   Subscribe

What are the classics of interactive fiction--the canon, if there is one?

I recently read/played/whatever "Galatea", by Emily Short, and thought it was fantastic. Now I want to read more interactive fiction, but don't know where to start. Specifically, I'm interested in IF that's less game-like--no adventure-game-style puzzles, please--and more of an interactive scene or story, like "Galatea".
posted by IjonTichy to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Photopia is a big title from early IF.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:43 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

You've given Emily Short's blog a good look, yes? She's very meta about the subject, and writes well to boot.
posted by MisterMo at 9:43 AM on November 4, 2010

Oops. Meant to say "later" instead of "early IF."
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:47 AM on November 4, 2010

A lot of IF canon pieces are quite puzzley (most of the Infocom stuff, Graham Nelson's work, most of Zarf's) but I think you'd really like Photopia by Adam Cadre.

Andrew Plotkin got himself into the canon partly by writing games with extremely cruel puzzles, but Shade is a well-regarded work of his that's almost puzzle-less.

The Infocom title A Mind Forever Voyaging is very light on puzzles and a bit of a classic.

Other, more puzzle-filled canonical pieces include Curses by Graham Nelson. All of Cadre's, Short's, and Plotkin's stuff is good, I particularly like Varicella (Cadre) and Spider and Web (Plotkin). A relative new writer who I wouldn't consider canonical yet but whose work I really liked is Jason Devlin, who has written a few games including, one comedy (The Sting of the Wasp) and one horror (Vespers).

A really good way to find great games is to look at the top placers from the annual Interactive Fiction Competition in previous years. The top three games or so from each year are inevitably awesome. (2008's winner, Violet, is another favorite of mine.) The IF comp is for short games (games are designed to be finished in 2 hours or less of playing time) but it's been running for about 15 years, so there's plenty there to keep you busy.
posted by phoenixy at 9:52 AM on November 4, 2010

>: "Specifically, I'm interested in IF that's less game-like--no adventure-game-style puzzles, please--"

This is mostly a "later IF" kind of thing, after the commercial days of it passed. From the early Infocom days, A Mind Forever Voyaging comes closest to fitting the bill; where there's some puzzley bits, they're not nearly on the magnitude on the other Infocom text adventures (there's no babel fish sequence!), and it's mostly exploration-based.
posted by Drastic at 9:53 AM on November 4, 2010

Galatea is sort of a special case -- there aren't many games like it in IF. I'd split the canon really into two parts -- the Infocom era and the, uh, post Infocom era?

Classics of Infocom: The Zorks. Hitchhiker's Guide. Really almost anything from their early-to-late-mid-80s catalogue up to their acquisition by Activision, when things sorta started to slide downhill.

As for the post Infocom era, to me the canon really consists not so much of individual works but of individual authors. Short you've already seen, but do you know Andrew Plotkin? Graham Nelson (both a great game author *AND* the inventor of the canonical IF programming language Inform)? Maybe Adam Cadre? Those are all prolific guys, but there are authors who have made basically one great game that shouldn't be ignored, like Anchorhead.

Basically for post-Infocom era goodies you could do a lot worse than read up on the XYZZY awards and play the top games.
posted by the dief at 9:55 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

But yeah, nthing the A Mind Forever Voyaging recommendation. It's basically the only classic canon game I can think of that comes close to stuff like Galatea.
posted by the dief at 9:56 AM on November 4, 2010

Oh, forgot to mention another well-regarded piece of pretty much puzzle-free IF is Daniel Ravipinto's Tapestry.

I also forgot to mention that looking over XYZZY award winner lists is another good way to find strong games, especially ones that weren't released as part of the IF Comp.
posted by phoenixy at 9:59 AM on November 4, 2010

Yeah, I was also going to say that the old tradition of interactive fiction is very game-focused, rather than fiction focused. Of the old games, you should seek out Amnesia (the text was largely written by Thomas Disch), Mindwheel, which had Robert Pinsky as a co-author, and the aforementioned A Mind Forever Voyaging. Of newer games, I can't but recommend Choice Of Games which are very much in the vein of an interactive, branching story. The old Lone Wolf books have been ported to the PC, and that's very much a computerized choose-your-own-adventure experience.
posted by Kattullus at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2010

Michael Joyce's Afternoon: a story is frequently cited as an early piece of hypertext fiction; not a game at all, but specifically created as a work of literature. Gorgeous work.
posted by mammary16 at 10:15 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not so much classics, but worth checking out:
1) The Baron and Fate by Victor Gijsbers
2) Whom the Telling Changed and Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed
Warning: Without getting into spoiler territory, note that The Baron can be...disturbing.
posted by juv3nal at 10:29 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't call it part of the "canon", but Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Hear or Tail of It" is fantastic. It's basically a long series of puns and word plays. Very entertaining if you're a language nerd.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:10 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Geoff Ryman's 253 is an interactive hypertext novel based on the 253 passengers and seats on a London Underground subway train.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:32 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of Infocom titles, AMFV is a good pick for sure, but don't miss Trinity either.
posted by RogerB at 11:50 AM on November 4, 2010

Shade is the best of this sort I've played.

Look to Emily Short's recommendations and the XYZZY Awards (in the categories on character and setting, and not the ones on puzzles, of course.) And you can browse the IFDB for things like lists recommending IF for its setting.

Any list of classics or canonical games, per se, will almost invariably contain lots of puzzle-ish things, given how much that's historically dominated the genre.
posted by Zed at 11:51 AM on November 4, 2010

Nthing Photopia.
Seconding The Baron.

phoenixy suggested Vespers, which I also enjoyed, but it does contain a fair amount of puzzles.
posted by Qberting at 2:57 PM on November 4, 2010

It's not really what you're looking for, but if you were to assemble a list of canonical works, it'd be worth mentioning that Raymond Queneau's very simple piece A Story as You Like It was probably the first choose-your-own-adventure story.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:04 PM on November 4, 2010

Response by poster: Woah, many great recommendations here. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have used the word "canon"--I didn't realize that, historically, interactive fiction has leaned towards being a puzzle game rather than fiction first and foremost. Anyway, sounds like there are more examples of what I'm looking for, which is exciting.
posted by IjonTichy at 5:55 PM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: I'll point out that Emily Short's page, which MisterMo linked, has several excellent lists of noteworthy and innovative I.F., with a little commentary for each entry:

Notable for interface
Notable for plot structure
Notable for narration and player characters
Notable for non-player characters
Notable for setting
Notable for world modeling and simulation
Notable for puzzles

Some of the links in those lists are defunct. If you're having trouble finding a game, try either the Interactive Fiction Database or the Interactive Fiction Archive.

And here are some striking narrative/artistic pieces that haven't been mentioned yet. (Many of these incorporate at least a few puzzles. Asterisks mark those games in which puzzles are particularly prominent.)

*, by Emily Short
Pytho's Mask, by Emily Short
Savoir-Faire*, by Emily Short
City of Secrets, by Emily Short
Floatpoint, by Emily Short.
(getting the rest of the grandmasters out of the way...)
I-0, by Adam Cadre
Shrapnel, by Adam Cadre
Varicella*, by Adam Cadre
9:05, by Adam Cadre
Narcolepsy, by Adam Cadre
All Roads*, by Jon Ingold
Fail-Safe*, by Jon Ingold
Insight*, by Jon Ingold
Make It Good*, by Jon Ingold
My Angel
, by Jon Ingold
Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, by Andrew Plotkin
So Far*******, by Andrew Plotkin
Hunter, in Darkness*, by Andrew Plotkin
Dreamhold*, by Andrew Plotkin
Slouching Towards Bedlam, by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto
Dead Like Ants, by C.E.J. Pacian
The Moonlit Tower*, by Yoon Ha Lee
Worlds Apart, by Suzanne Britton
Little Blue Men*, by Michael Gentry
The King of Shreds and Patches*, by Jimmy Maher
The Fire Tower, by Jacqueline Lott
Nightfall, by Eric Eve
The Primrose Path*, by Nolan Bonvouloir
Blue Chairs, by Chris Klimas
Mercy, by Chris Klimas
Muse: An Autumn Romance, by Christopher Huang
Whom the Telling Changed, by Aaron Reed
All Alone, by Ian Finley
Exhibition, by Ian Finley
Moments Out of Time*, by L. Ross Raszewski
Common Ground, by Stephen Grenade
Shadows on the Mirror, by Chrysoula Tzavelas
posted by Iridic at 11:45 PM on November 4, 2010 [11 favorites]

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