Anne’s Picks for Totally Awesome Interactive Fiction

Posted on 3 February, 2009 at 12:11am

Being a computer nerd growing up in the 80s, I was lucky enough to have first-hand exposure to some of the greatest interactive fiction games of all time. My parents played Colossal Cave together on our Apple ][ and it was my mom who figured out the answer to the insidious final puzzle. Our basement was (and probably still is) full of Zork maps, notes, and drawings from a time before FAQs were plentiful and free on the internet. Some of those games took us six months or more to solve (Suspended, I’m looking at you) and required collective effort from our entire family. It was awesome.

Many computer folk were IF players back in the day. But what you may not know is that there is still an active community of people writing and distributing these games. And best of all, both the games and the interpreters are free! I don’t think the quality of these “amateur” games is any lower than the Infocom games I played in my youth. If anything, I think the genre has grown in incredible ways, and you can find some truly unique stories and play experiences in the IF archive.

So, let’s dig. I’ll tell you about a few of my favorites, and you’ll go play them. All you need is an interpreter (I recommend Spatterlight for the Mac).

Christminster
1995, Gareth Rees – Download

When I was younger I spent an entire summer vacation playing Christminster on my Mac Plus. The basic story is that you visit your brother at college only to find he has gone missing. Your investigations lead you to a curious and sometimes mystical conspiracy. The game is incredibly rich, featuring memorable NPCs and some of the best descriptive writing I have seen. Bonus points for having a (likable) female lead.

Shade
2000, Andrew Plotkin – Download

A true mind-fuck, and one of the most renowned one-room games. You start out in your apartment, looking for your tickets as you get ready to leave for desert retreat. You can’t find them, but you do notice a slow trickle of sand into the room… seemingly coming from nowhere. There is not much you can do in this game but wait for the inevitable, but you’ll do it anyway, out of hope or perhaps morbid curiosity. Truly frightening and difficult to forget.

Worlds Apart
1999, Suzanne Briton – Download

The only IF that has ever made me cry. You wake up in a strange world with no memory of yourself, and you end up on an inter- and intra-personal journey to unlock your blocked-off memories. The author has a remarkable ability to create a world both dreamlike and incredibly real, complete with specific species of plants and animals. A long game, but the ending is beautiful and satisfying. Worth playing through.

Spider and Web
1998, Andrew Plotkin – Download

This game has won a million awards and deserves all of them. On the surface, it’s a futuristic spy thriller, but the gameplay is what makes this game so unique and entertaining. The narrative is “told” entirely through flashbacks – which means it is, in a way, fatalistic. You can’t do something that didn’t actually happen, can you? It may sound strange, but play just a few puzzles and you’ll see how subtle and brilliant it is (while still being quite challenging). It also culminates in one of the most spectacular twist endings in any IF game. Probably one of the more original games you’ll find anywhere.

Lost Pig! And Place Under Ground
2007, Grunk via Admiral Jota – Download

The 2007 IF Competition winner. I wasn’t expecting to like this at all, but it won me over immediately. You play a simple orc named Grunk caught up in an underground adventure to find his lost pig. The writing and dialogue are incredibly funny, as everything is done in oafish Grunk-speak. You can also set your pants on fire. What’s not to love? Charming and amusing with memorable puzzles and an impressive array of destructive actions you can try.

…and more

So hopefully now you’re hooked and desperate for more. Don’t worry, it’s out there. Start with Baf’s guide to the IF archive (now slightly out of date), and after that try browsing through the IFDB. And there are always more great titles emerging every year for the IF Comp and the XYZZY awards. Go forth!

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The Discussion

5 Comments on “Anne’s Picks for Totally Awesome Interactive Fiction”
  • Hmm… I installed Frotz on my iPhone but haven’t really delved into anything yet. Maybe I’ll start with Spider and Web seeing as how you gave it such a good rap.

  • I can’t believe Beyond Zork didn’t even get a random mention here.

  • @Sarah

    I’m guessing that’s the game that with all the notes filling her basement. I could be wrong…

  • @Steven Sarah is my sister, and she knows we spent many ages playing Beyond Zork. :) But I didn’t mention it because these are reviews of amateur games. Everyone knows the Infocom games are awesome!

  • I know it wasnt going to make the list, but you could have mentioned it in the *article*, you mentioned Colossal Cave! Way to not give props to the pterodactyl, the baby hungus, the cruel puppet, and the singing Christmas trees!

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