SPAG – The Interactive Fiction Magazine is back, putting out its 62nd issue at the beginning of this month after a seriously long hiatus. I assumed it died with issue 60 in 2011, which is why I only became aware of its resurrection today (the one-issue reappearance in 2013 notwithstanding). I loved reading this online magazine back in its heyday, and that love is rooted in a fascination with the mechanics of writing text-adventures that followed me out of high school.
This comes as no surprise if you’ve read my review of Twisty Little Passages, which I believe is still the only scholarly monograph about text-adventures out there—thankfully an excellent one. The mechanics of player-story interaction get boiled down to their purest form when the worlds and responses are entirely built from text, stripping away the other pieces of artwork inherent in creating a computer game to focus on how the presence of interactivity changes the way we experience a narrative or, as the case may be, an environment. Which doesn’t change the fact that text-adventures have mainly been a niche hobby for single game developers after the collapse of Infocom after the 1980s. They’re only now entering the commercial game marketplace again thanks to handheld devices and new game development tools for branching narratives like Twine. People in the hobby through the 90s/2000s did it either because they thought it was fun or as an intellectual exercise, often both. There certainly wasn’t any profit to be had. In this sphere, text-adventures, redubbed “interactive fiction” (IF), underwent its own series of revolutions and developments in isolation, ignored by gaming as a whole. That’s a shame, really, because as I argued in my review, the implications of the discoveries and articles that swirled around mid-period text-adventures, many of them collected in SPAG, had the potential of improving mainstream game narratives immensely.
A recent discovery has also shown that some alternative branches of IF were dreamed up back during the very inception of the form. Like it or not, Infocom text-adventures derived their form and boundaries from Crowther’s Adventure, long thought to be the first true text-adventure, and a huge chunk of text-adventures have followed that same basic format ever since. But a piece of IF predating Adventure has surfaced that took a different approach to its storytelling, and it’s fascinating to wonder how adventure games and other early computer games might have been affected had the French game Wander, from 1974, exerted as much influence as Adventure did on the games that followed.
My interest in reading articles of IF development never quite got around to realizing the ambition of writing my own game. I started developing my own text-adventures in high school using the crude free tools available—like Text-world, the Computer Novel Construction Set and even a brief foray in ADRIFT—but never got around to finishing one. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the project that came nearest to completion was a game based on The Lord of the Rings that got as far as Rivendell. These attempts weren’t so much inspired by the games I was downloading at school and taking home on floppy disks, but by two, well, “books” on text-adventure development that really fired up my imagination after I went ahead and wasted all my high school’s toner on printing them: The Craft of Adventure by Graham Nelson and Computer Adventures: The Secret Art by Gil Williamson. I don’t know how many times I read and re-read those two books in high school, and it was the latter especially that made me want to try my hand at the craft and fail multiple times to make something playable.
I think the appeal at that point was the tantalizing prospect that you could still design, write and program a complete game all on your lonesome without needing to join a development team. That is, while like every kid I’d had my own “dream games” I drew up in old notebooks, a text-adventure was achievable in a way that those other dream games weren’t.
Not that my text-adventure attempts were a complete waste of time; the research I did got me into reading SPAG and the various debates between IF enthusiasts about game-making that had the undercurrents made explicit in Twisty Little Passages—communications theory, building narrative through riddling (puzzles!) and the various prose and format experiments that play with how we interface with computer games.
I no longer have any desire to write my own text-adventures, and I rarely play them anymore. But I do greatly look forward to reading the new issues of SPAG and pondering the great questions raised by this often neglected form.