?Text adventures have a lot in common with radio drama: both overcome the limits of their medium by appealing to the imagination. And like radio (though more like, well, text), text-based game developers eventually realized they could get away with things that would be impossible to render visually. These days, interactive fiction exists in a somewhat closed but fervent community, and free engines, interpreters, and games abound for the budding enthusiast. We IF fans are lucky in that a lot of quality material is still being written today by amateurs, storied pros, and latter-day visionaries like Andrew Plotkin and Adam Cadre.
Something else about text-based games, for those of you not in the know: they can get very strange. The simplified nature of the form allows developers an intimate relationship with the player, and things often become metaphysical, psychedelic and/or bizarre in a way that is unique to the genre: to suddenly have something random and weird happen to you is one of the pleasures of interactive fiction. Because it is a commonly observed thing, this list is by no means a complete catalog of interactive oddness: think of these as some of the most notable examples of a parser fucking with your head, from both the glory days of the ’70s and ’80s and more recent years (many of these can be played online or downloaded for free here if you’re interested). Oh, and sorry for the lack of visuals, but if you clicked on this link you must have known what you were getting into.
10) Leather Goddesses of Phobos
?We’ll start with the crowd-pleaser. This is often cited as a classic, a smutty spoof of pulp sci-fi filled with cheerful equal-opportunity sex (you get to choose your gender at the beginning), exotic outer space locations and goofy verbal humor. What people don’t always remember, however, is how hard it can be at times, even with the included “feelies”, springing as it does from the mind of Steve “No Second Chances” Meretzky. And even though it contains a coherent storyline about preventing the titular evil beings from enslaving the Earth population, there’s a great deal of zaniness on display here, particularly in the insane climactic sequence, where you have to assemble your secret weapon amidst barely describable chaos.
9) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
?Speaking of which, here’s another legendary Meretzky title, co-authored with Douglas Adams and much-adored by IF fans everywhere. This 1986 Infocom masterpiece was well-received upon its initial release despite also being known for considerable difficulty and the general way it dicked around with the player (like checking your inventory and finding items like “that thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is” and “no tea”). This game also had a more sophisticated verb list than most contemporary games, allowing you to ENJOY, RELAX, DANGLE and, of course, PANIC (though you could type DON’T PANIC too). Fans of course treasure it not just for all this high-concept mischief but for the chance to play as multiple characters from the book in multiple scenarios, including one in which you play through once as Arthur and then again as Ford. The game has since been remade a few times with graphics, including once as a point-and-click, which just seems kinda pointless.
8) For a Change
The fucked-upedness of this 1999 game is a little less aggressive, stemming not as much from its content (although that’s pretty strange too) as from the style of its prose, as if Dylan Thomas and Bill Watterson had a love child and it decided to become a GM. The game itself, once you get past all of its palaver and what you can get out of it, turns out to be relatively simple, but it makes up for this by also being perhaps one of the most quotable games in existence: “It is clear, after a time, that all things are shaded, everywhere. Thus the Wall.” “A few scraps of wood lie without pride on the floor”. “Inscribed on the brown grass is a toolman.” It’s a nice change of pace for the jaded gamer so used to boring descriptions, especially when it comes to your inventory (“a guidebook, loquacious and proud”).
?If you can successfully complete this 1994 game without hints, clairvoyance, or outside help of any kind, you have my vote for the presidency. You start as a member of a storied English family hunting for a map of Paris in the attic, and from there you stumble across all of time and space in a mythical journey. This is often considered Nelson’s masterpiece and a cornerstone of IF as a genre, but that’s not to say that it isn’t extremely hard (one puzzle requires you to die several times). I’m trying to avoid writing about these games without simply listing what’s in them, but it’s sort of impossible for me to convey the sheer scope of Curses! otherwise (elements include Greek and Egyptian mythology, T. S. Eliot, a magical slide projector, Tarot imagery, monsters, demons, Aunt Jemima and a robot mouse). Just trust me when I say it’s really long, really complex, and genuinely epic in scope. Not to mention very, very confusing.
6) Deadline Enchanter
Like I said, the nature of the text adventure allows for ample opportunities to experiment and the recent (as in ’07) Deadline Enchanter announces its premise right from the start: you are in a fantasy adventure, and your eccentric narrator is also the creator of the scenarios you face. In addition, your every step of the way is guided by walkthroughs and your every action commented upon by this narrator. But what may seem like a pointless exercise becomes more involved the further you go, as you get more glimpses into the thoughts behind your narrator’s ramblings. It also works as a statement on text games and why we bother with them in the first place: how many times have you secretly wished for a narrator like this? Especially when playing, say, Curses?
5) Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It
?“Lewis Carroll-esque” doesn’t begin to describe the linguistic madness inherent in this 1987 textual puzzle-box as you must traverse several mixed-up realms using the power of figures of speech and spoonerisms to inject some sense in your surroundings. It usually boils down to you finding out what turn of phrase is being referred to in any given situation and then typing it (like, you see a molehill, so you MAKE A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLEHILL). The whole thing gets very Phantom Tollbooth, especially in the spoonerism section (took me forever to figure out what “riddle while foam burns” was supposed to mean when I first played), but it’s a clever use of language and a good way for English nerds and grad students to pass the time when we’re not busy weeping openly at our horrible lack of prospects for the future.
A Plotkin joint from ’00, this is a short game that begins in the mundane then gets pretty krezzy pretty fast. You are sitting in your apartment, waiting for a taxi to take you to the airport. You start to realize that you are thirsty, and that certain little tasks like cleaning the apartment and watering the plant need to be done. Let’s just say things slowly unravel from there. A tight little concoction that builds up paranoia and tensions masterfully all the way to the bizarre ending. Kind of like an interactive Twilight Zone episode, but with more sand.
Another short but very disturbing game, this from Mr. Cadre, Shrapnel takes all of maybe 20-30 minutes to complete but is somehow still a veritable potpourri of madness and other horrible things. It all begins with an obvious homage to Zork as you are, of course, standing in a field west of white house. As you try to explore, you are killed. Then you are standing in front of the house again — watching vicious attack dogs feast on your dead body. The more you venture in and around the area, the more you die, but every time you come back, and every time you learn something new and unsettling about where you are and whom you might be. Eventually things are explained (perhaps a little too much), but the best part of this game is the atmosphere of dread, as well as creative use of the timing between messages. If you’re at all curious, get yourself a snack and go check it out as I won’t say anymore. Suffice it to say it’s not called Shrapnel for nothing…
?Authored by Robert Pinsky in 1984, this fast-paced surreal metaphorical odyssey takes place in an apocalyptic near-future world. As the subject of a desperate experiment, you must enter a gestalt representation of the minds of four characters in order to save the human race: a famous protest singer, “The Generalissimo”, a tragic poet, and a brilliant physicist. I’ll admit I didn’t really read the 93-page novella that came with this one, but I get the feeling that even that wouldn’t have completely prepared me for (here we go again) giant horny insects, children with animal-heads, ghosts, riddles, sonnets, the Brooklyn Dodgers and a frustrating climactic human chess-match. I apologize for giving you another list of things in the game, but trust me, it’s much easier than describing exactly what happens.
1) The Gostak
“Something glakes you in the tophthage! You have been zanked! In that halpock, there were five glauds crenned in the loff lutt of the delcot.” If you thought Mindwheel was nigh-incomprehensible, wait until you get a load of this baby. You’ll recall (or maybe you won’t) the famous sentence “The gostak distims the doshes”. The point of that is to illustrate that you don’t need to understand every part of speech in a sentence in order to get the overall meaning. Gostak is both a mercilessly nerdy valentine to and continuation of this notion, plunking you into an entire game worded in this enticing half-gibberish. A first playthrough results in a quick zank, but you’d be surprised how fast you pick up some of these words, and how some of them indeed don’t matter as long as you remember the proper context. The ultimate test of patience, you’ll soon find yourself either slowly becoming schooled in its otherworldly vocabulary or running away from your emulator screaming. Which is just the way the gritches frike, I suppose. As a side note, maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help reading some of these sentences as incredibly dirty, especially that first one (and yes, before you ask, there is such a thing as Interactive Fan Fiction, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect).