Follow TV Tropes


Interactive Fiction

Go To


Interactive fiction games are adventure games in which the interaction is almost entirely text-based. Early games, and games from purist companies like Infocom, were nothing more than bare text, but some later offerings added pictures, sound and limited mouse input (one game, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, even included plot-relevant scratch-and-sniff cards as Feelies) — but the primary form of interaction was still through descriptive text and typed commands. The genre began with the original adventure game, Colossal Cave, and really took off in the early 1980s, with offerings such as the Zork trilogy and later, more literary works, such as Trinity and A Mind Forever Voyaging. During this period such games were almost universally known as "text adventures". Interactive Fiction is a term originally introduced by the seminal Adventure Game company Infocom to describe its line of more "serious" long-form text adventures back in the Golden Era, and has become the dominant term in the 21st century as the genre became an increasingly specialised market aimed at an increasingly "literary" audience.

The obvious reason why they were in text form is that was the only means of output available. Original Adventure was written in the programming language FORTRAN and was designed to run on the Mainframes and Minicomputers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Graphics output wasn't possible because most places had no systems available for on-screen graphics. It was only when computers that could display color graphics became affordable in the early 1980s that the text adventure started to be replaced by various programs that used graphics capability; a few text adventures were remade in graphical form at this time. (In non-English-speaking countries, graphical adventures had far more success in the 1980s than text-only adventures, which were rarely translated and thus posed a formidable language barrier.) Many text adventures were promoted with the concept that the player's imagination was capable of producing far more extravagant and realistic images than were possible on computers of the day. And even when graphical adventure games and RPGs began to appear, text adventures were allowed to be more complex and wide-ranging than the graphical versions due to text taking up far less limited disk space and memory than graphics and sound.

Interactive Fiction was once the industry standard for long-form narratives now implemented in computer Role Playing Games, but fell out of commercial viability during the late 1980s as text parsers were rapidly displaced by icon-and-menu and Point-and-Click interfaces. Shortly after the major players disappeared from the market, a lively amateur scene sprung up on the Internet, centred around the Interactive Fiction Archive ( ) and the Usenet newsgroups and, thanks to the appearance of good-quality programming tools that have allowed recent amateur efforts to equal or exceed the quality of commercial games from the heyday of the genre. An annual contest sponsored by the community typically draws more than 20 entries per year, and the hobby continues to evolve and improve.

The Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), the MUCK and the MUSH or Multi User Shared Hallucination are related games with very early origins, which emphasize the roleplaying aspect of user-generated online environments. The Adventure Game progressed directly from early text-based adventures, and is graphic-intensive but similarly story-oriented. This evolution kicked off by Interactive Fiction (also known as Text Adventure) is what eventually led to the MMORPG.

Arguably the most modern form of Interactive Fiction is the "Visual Novel" derived from Romance Games, but in general, these stories tend to be much less interactive than the classics were, since they don't have a Text Parser, or even much of an interface. If you're thinking of 3D story-driven adventure games with very little challenge or gameplay, that's Environmental Narrative Game.

This is a "video" game genre. Contrast Gamebooks, which may be the "tabletop / literary" version, or Interactive Comic, which extends this trope to Webcomics.

Common tropes in interactive fiction:

  • Chekhov's Gun
  • Dialogue Tree
  • Easter Egg: Typically in the form of a Shout-Out to classics of the genre.
  • Easy Amnesia: Sometimes justified by plot, sometimes not.
  • Empty Room Psych: The unintentional version is far more common. Knowing which author wrote the game you're playing helps a lot (good authors are probably really pulling a psych, new or bad authors probably just didn't bother to code the furniture).
  • Exposition Break
  • Featureless Protagonist
  • Feelies
  • Have a Nice Death: Usually Played for Laughs, again the horror genre is an exception.
  • Informing the Fourth Wall
  • Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence: Typically enforced by a player character who doesn't want to climb over the fence, for some reason.
  • Inventory Management Puzzle: Sometimes averted; a player's holdall or infinite inventory is common in newer games, as a courtesy to players.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: Well, it wouldn't be very interactive if all the story took place at once, now would it?
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: Even worse than in video games, since item interaction is the basis for most IF puzzles.
  • Last Lousy Point: Originating in the ur-IF game Colossal Cave.
  • Late to the Tragedy
  • Locked Door: Though many subversions exist — the door may require a password, or there might be another way through, or you might just have to destroy the door.
  • The Many Deaths of You: Popularized in the Zork games, still common in later works. "Serious" games tend not to have a million ways to kill you, except in the horror genre.
  • The Maze: A Discredited Trope in Interactive Fiction.
  • Multiple Endings: Mostly in recent games.
  • Nintendo Hard: Part of the genre's charm for many players, though games do range in difficulty and some of them can't be gotten into an Unwinnable state. Many games are notorious for being this at the very beginning of the game, where either through intent or poor writing, there is little information given as to how to get out of the very first area. The text adventure adaptation of Goldfinger is one notorious example as it begins in the middle of an action sequence with little clue given to the player as to how to get out of it.
  • NPC
  • Room Escape Game: Somewhat discredited. However, recent IF authors have done plenty to subvert, invert, or otherwise play with the trope.
    • As per Nintendo Hard, above, there are many IF games both vintage and recent that begin with this scenario, even if the game as a whole isn't part of the genre.
  • Schr÷dinger's Gun
  • Scrolling Text
  • Second-Person Narration: Ubiquitous, to the point where not using it is experimental.
    • Specifically, second-person present tense.
    • Averted by all the Scott Adams / Adventure International games, and others inspired by them, which all used first person: "I'm in a forest clearing. What shall I do now?"
  • Strategy Guide
  • Take Your Time: Virtually all text games are turn-based, so timing doesn't matter. However, some games avert it with "timed" (turn-sensitive) puzzles to increase the difficulty. (A Change in the Weather is one of the hardest; make ONE wrong move and the game is lost.)
  • Talk to Everyone: If it's possible to TALK or ASK or TELL or SHOW at all.
  • Text Parser: Originated the concept.
  • Timed Mission: A number of games, including the original Colossal Cave, have some element of this, usually by way of a torch or lamp that has only a finite amount of fuel or battery power. Once it gives out and you're left in the dark, you're done. For seasoned players, "LAMP OFF" (or equivalent) became a default command the moment they entered an area where illumination wasn't required, to preserve the resource as much as possible. Made rather cruel in some versions of Colossal Cave (such as the version made for Apple II which was titled Microsoft Adventure) where the only way to extend the lamp's life was to spend one of the game's treasures on new batteries at a vending machine hidden in the game's maze area, making it impossible to get a perfect treasure-collection score on the game.
  • Unwinnable by Design: Used to be standard. Generally somewhat frowned upon in modern games, though there are some much-praised exceptions. Zarf's cruelty scale, quoted on the Unwinnable by Design trope page, was designed for interactive fiction.
    • For example, "Broken Legs," the second-place game in the 2009 IFComp, was cruel, but "Rover's Day Out" and "Snowquest," the first- and third-place games, were both polite in that any death could be undone. In fact, most of the latter two games are merciful, in that you can't do anything to prevent yourself from being able to reach the ending.
  • Vaporware: Plenty of old ones, since graphics killed the text-game stars. Production of vaporware is ongoing, since text games can be produced by single artists, and coding is a huge project. The IF archives are full of half-finished orphans.
  • Walkthrough: Optional. Some games come with, some don't. Lack of walkthroughs contributes to some of the mystery in old Vaporware games. Some of the earliest "game guide" books to be published were walkthroughs of text adventures.
  • Welcome to Corneria: Common with NPCs, especially in early games, but becoming used less and less. (Galatea might be the strongest single-author aversion out there.)
  • With This Herring: Best intro ever: "The sun is gone. It must be brought. You have a rock." (from Dan Schmidt's For A Change)
  • You Can't Get Ye Flask: A genre-specific trope in which once having worked out the best action to take, the player has difficulty in finding the right form of words to express it and have it understood by the text parser. Traditionally seen as a flaw, but some later games deliberately used it in a lampshaded way as an open challenge to the player.

The IFWiki has its own page on IF Tropes.

List of works of interactive fiction:




Other related pages

Alternative Title(s): Text Adventure