I need to get into IF. I know basically nothing about it. Where should I start?
play Emily Short’s Metamorphoses. and then more of her work she’s great in general, but that one is a beautiful surreal puzzle adventure, it is basically a mystlike in IF form. Right up your alley
IF talk, huh?
I got carried away.
Before we talk about anything else: here’s Zarf’s card for reference. I recommend saving this image (or a larger copy) and keeping it handy. A lot of IF has gotten much more forgiving for newer players, but especially for older games, it’s helpful to know the most common conventionally-supported commands, with the caveat that pretty much every game is also going to implement new commands that you’ll need to intuit from the story.
As far as sleepysmiles and Tulpa’s recommendations are concerned, I definitely second Lost Pig and Metamorphoses, especially since Short’s work was some of my first—arguably Galatea is even more approachable, since it’s entirely conversational, but these are all really stellar works.
The Interactive Fiction Database (or just IFDB) has become the central repository of game info, and as such is the most valuable resource. Most games can be played directly in your browser through their listing on the IFDB. You can also browse games, lists, polls, etc. using various criteria; I recommend sorting games by whatever has most votes, as the highest-rated games tend to have fewer votes and therefore aren’t really as representative as you’d hope. Alternately, MathBrush’s list of games for folks new to the format is pretty accurate, and contains all of the games we’ve talked about so far.
You may not want to play games through your browser, though; it’s not optimal for games that make heavy use of multimedia, or in cases where you need to make robust use of the Save and Restore functions. Most IF games are compiled to a virtual machine like the Z-machine or TADS; interpreters are basically emulators for a particular VM. Some interpreters like Gargoyle are specifically designed to support the widest variety of VMs, so you don’t have to worry about what format the game’s in, but it does this at the expense of stripping out almost all multimedia altogether. If you’d rather get specific, the IFWiki’s dedicated page is probably your best starting point.
Once you’re ready to dive in:
- Emily Short is indeed among the best-regarded and most-prolific authors out there; I particularly like Counterfeit Monkey and Savoir-Faire. Note that Savoir-Faire is much more “traditional” in its scope, i.e. considerably longer and more demanding than most of its descendants.
- Adam Cadre’s Photopia is probably the single most popular game of the modern era, although the rest of his work is kind of all over the place. I really like his Varicella, but it’s dark and very difficult. You have to be comfortable with a tight time limit and learning by dying—sort of like the Outer Wilds, if it were about murderous palace intrigues rather than space exploration.
- I mentioned Zarf at the top of this post: that’s Andrew Plotkin, whose writing actually deserves a lot of credit for getting me into the Silent Hill games, among others. His Hadean Lands is one of the few modern commercial-only IF games that I’d recommend. He also developed the cruelty scale back in 1996 in a discussion about his game So Far, which is my favorite of his games—but the one I’d actually recommend to people despite its difficulty is Spider and Web, which has one of my favorite tricks in video gaming altogether.
- The IFComp is an annual competition that has been going on for 25 years; this page summarizes the history and links each year’s winner. The single most notable rule for the competition is that players must be able to complete each game within a 2-hour time limit, so this has had the effect of significantly driving the creation of short-length games. Every comp winner is worth playing.
- While the IFComp focuses on games which are specifically submitted and then played by judges, the XYZZY Awards consider all games from the previous year and celebrate the most outstanding achievements. Cragne Manor was actually nominated for three awards this year! Anyone can vote, and voting is going on now, but I wouldn’t actually recommend doing so unless you’ve played all of the candidates for a particular category. Nomination alone is remarkable.
- Finally, and most importantly: just… don’t play my games. They’re bad. I can’t even really recommend Cragne Manor if you haven’t already played through Anchorhead.
I love Hadean Lands so much, definitely seconding this one.
Anyway, I have more extensive recommendations I have to draw up too, but my knee jerk is cuba should play the pig game and emily short games and then check out adam cadre works.
Yes this is all v good
EDIT I’m already quite familiar with ultrabasic IF literacy as described by that helpful card you posted, but I don’t actually know why, because I have definitely never sat down and played an IF game to completion before. It’s something I just like… absorbed through contact with videogame culture or something? Or the tiny little text adventures that people sometimes inject into other games? How do I know these things, it’s weird
Well, a bunch of these commands also showed up in graphical adventures, since those were quite specifically an extension of the text adventures that had existed to this point. Look at The Secret of Monkey Island or Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. Alternately, did you ever play MUDs or MOOs? Because there’s a lot of overlap.
Anyway, that was one of the main complaints IF snobs used to dismiss graphical adventure games and the wider realm of mainstream gaming—if the entire extent of the player’s verb-set is established in advance, it constrains the possibility space the game occupies and reduces play to the mechanical task of using each command in turn on each game object in sequence until success is achieved. For players like this, there was a particular segment in Photopia that was the ultimate demonstration of the text adventure’s superiority over all other game forms—the player is trapped in a maze of chasms and valleys, unable to find a way out, until they notice that the periodic environmental descriptions mention the fact that the wind is ruffling your wings. Your character has wings?! And so the solution, obviously enough, is to >FLY; but this would never occur to you to attempt until you realize what an erroneous assumption you’ve made about the player-character in this section. It’s a neat trick, but I don’t think it’s quite the moment of sublime transcendence some folks would make it out to be. I definitely can’t figure out how you’d reproduce that in a more conventional game, though.
I’m trying to imagine any situation where you would have wings on your back, notice wind on them, be trapped in a maze, and never conceive of trying to use them.
You would have to be incapable of considering more than one sensory organ at a time, such as a tiny man driving a giant numb body, for it to work outside of IF.
Maybe if you were locked in a diving suit, needing to open your helmet with an action to >look or >smell, you would experience the world like you do in IF.
The trick to this situation is that it’s one kid telling a story to the other, and the storyteller conveniently omits the fact that you even have wings until you’ve already been lost in the maze for a while. Then, she tells you the wind is ruffling your wings, and it’s like, what? Ohhhhh. It sounds like kind of a bullshit move laid out like this, but even knowing how it works, it’s worth experiencing in the context of the larger story. But yeah, it feels like the only way to do that in conventional gaming is with some sort of abstract art style or deliberate costuming choices, as you suggest.
Visual games are full of similar ‘unknown affordances’, where the rules players assume on interactivity, from culturization by other games, and the rules laid out in this game, are broken in favor of one specific interaction.
It’s generally considered frustrating because the visual presentation of games and the ruleset are so literal; it’s similarly hard to do a lot of metaphorical play in games because the player’s understanding of the bounds of play is so fragile.
IF is one of my blind spots, but the reasons text parsers were jumped past originally were that they exacerbated this problem of brittle affordances, with non-displayed commands and unclear interactions.
It’s really interesting to read that interaction as a triumphal moment because it structurally reads as any one of a number of ‘you didn’t realize you could interact with the lever’ puzzles in visual games.
That later note, though, about detail getting sketched in later – that, the ability to hold off description and render it invisible until needed – that’s a true strength of non-visual games that even I can see.
This is exactly what I’m hungry for, though. I’ve been saying for a long time that one of the few things in games that really excites me is mystery, and the dramatic black hole of “any word might could work” is the kind of false depth I want right now.
In general, I think game industry best practices on teaching and notifying players are a dramatic and deleterious drain on the potential of games. Although I get that vaguness pisses most people off and the games industry has to sell games.
I asked for IF recommendations because I’ve been playing another one of those free Epic games called Stories Untold. It’s a series of vignettes that 100% trade on the popularity of Stranger Things including stealing the soundtrack and logo. Each of them take place in a 3D-modeled space in which there is a physical computer monitor on which you play a text adventure, which is contextualized in different ways for each story. It’s extremely interesting in theory and kind of flat in practice because the text adventures are so bone dumb basic and easy. I was like, “what if this, but minus the 3D graphics and plus a whole lot of depth in the actual text adventure part” and then I was like “wait that’s literally just a regular text adventure, I need to learn about these because I never have” and then I posted.
I think there are very subtle lines between ‘explorable space’ and ‘unknowable affordances’; it’s absolutely the case that even for interesting designs it’s one of the most critical responsibilities to be clear about these things. All of design is a process of cutting away unnecessary things, of trying to decide if the past hour you’ve spent discussing how people decide to sit in chairs to eat is pointless in the end.
Another way to look at this is through the difference between the elegant interactions in Myst and Riven and the problems more complex contemporary adventure games ran into. Cyan games rely on simple physical interactions, exposed in a spartan, abstracted world; Gabriel Knight’s fake ID puzzle is a twenty-car pileup of unknown possibilities in a real world. In fact, Gabriel Knight’s use of film elements is of a piece with its problems with affordances, in trying to put the entire complexity of the real world into a simple computer box.
I think a better way of approaching the problem is through simulationism. A complex, reactive world simulation encourages players to experiment in a way that static, prebaked Unreal levels doesn’t; it is much more clear about the bounds of the experience, and when done well, it’s capable of beautifully expressive discoveries.
And looked at through that lens, systemic puzzle games that explore a specific mechanic to their utmost are a closed-box implementation of this approach.
The problem with Gabriel Knight’s puzzle isn’t that it’s an attempt to recreate the real world, it’s that it wants an insane abstract solution that bears no resemblance to reality while presenting a reality-seeming aesthetic and narrative. It’s neither hiding things from the player nor merely offering no assistance to the player; it’s lying to the player. On the one hand, Full Throttle has great puzzles because it grounds them in the gritty realistic world it presents to you; on the other hand, it would be missing the point to complain about the airy, bizarre puzzle solutions in Drowned God because it presents itself as a compressed crystal of compounded conspiracy theory. Both these games are doing it right, neither are simulationist.
I’m of course not opposed to simulationism, I’ve written actual essays about how much I like it, but there are many ways to skin this cat and it’s kind of orthogonal to what I’m saying I want in the above post, which is just: for the game to shut the fuck up and let me figure it out.
Here’s a frinstance. In that Stories Untold game one of the vignettes has you in some kind of science lab. There’s a voice on a radio telling you to do things. You shift between a computer screen giving you instructions and a bank of chunky 80’s tech-equipment on which you execute those instructions. Cool so far.
On the computer, there’s a separate screen for each instrument telling you how it operates. There’s a one-to-one translation between what the experiment demands and the instructions (so like the experiment will say “use a red laser,” and then the laser instructions say “red is x nm” with no interpretation or thinking required). This is bad enough, but then there’s ALSO a help screen that gives you a map of the instruments and tells you exactly which one each is! Like you couldn’t just pick that up from context clues like the labels or the gauges on each instrument! SHUT UP GAME
Honestly, yeah, I’d argue that Full Throttle’s puzzles are a best-case scenario of a limited type of design. They’re great (especially in how grounded in character they are) but that doesn’t prevent things like dropping the reflectors for the molemen or a good handful of other unclear possibilities.
I’m 100% there with you on games assuming an audience broader than I am. Without a protected niche of a PC audience that grew up in the '90s, nobody seems to have a good sense of what their audience will be and designs based on Nintendo’s broadest denominator.
Here’s another easy culprit: the misapplication of playtesting, which encourages you to fix pain points, heedless of whether they’re problems with the interface or legitimate moments of downtime.
People are poorly trained on how to apply playtests and the feedback from them is so coarse they can be easily misapplied. They remain absolutely essential but I think it’s of a piece with a lot of data-gathering in corporate institutions, which invest a lot in attempting to gather information that nobody can properly make decisions upon.
Based on this exchange, I’d like to double-down on my recommendation of Spider and Web, and I’d like to nominate Chandler Groover’s Eat Me as an example of how pure text can excel even with a much more constrained set of implemented verbs.
my favorite text game is sabbat. calories by jonas krysatses (i can’t spell im sorry hes a narrative indie game guy) wife was really fucking amazing but its gone from the internet now
the spend jeff bezos money game was great too. these arent text parser games, the only recommendation id have for that is gemstone
i still cant find the ranma game i was asking about haha
gabriel knight 3 had the fake id puzzle and was 3d, gabriel knight 2 was the film one and it only had one bad puzzle, the cuckoo clock one, and otherwise was sierra’s full throttle
I’ve had a bit of experience with Twine. A Dark Room was wonderful, and Universal Paperclips is the only clicker worth playing
i dont think either of those were made in twine, also they count as incremental/clickers not IF
yes to them being good
AH that reminds me idling to rule the gods is on mobile