Extra Life

Extra Life
Textual Pleasure: Parsing the Annual IF Competition

Lara Crigger | 1 May 2007 12:01
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It's 3:00 on a particularly bright, sun-dappled afternoon. Outside, a few birds chatter amongst themselves, and at my feet, my dog snoozes lightly. The coffeepot gurgles tunelessly in the kitchen. All in all, it's a cheerful, peaceful, quiet Tuesday; the kind best spent napping in the sun, where nothing bad or unpleasant will ever happen.

As I stare at my laptop, I think I'm going to throw up.

I've just finished playing Vespers, a text-based adventure written by Jason Devlin that won the 11th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (affectionately known as the IF Comp). From the description I found online, the game sounded fun: A story about a monastery like The Name of the Rose, except with fewer gay monks and exploding libraries. Boy, was that reviewer wrong.

Set in a 15th century monastery beset by the plague, Vespers follows an abbot driven increasingly insane as he watches his feverish monks perish one by one. It's a nauseating, deeply frightening game, like survival/horror without the survival part, and it clings to me like a bad nightmare I can't shake. I'm thoroughly grossed out by it, physically, emotionally and morally.

Vespers is one of the best games I've ever played, text-based or no.

But I should have expected that. The IF Comp, an annual contest to see who can write the best text-based game, offers a vast treasury of interactive fiction, and many of the entries over the past 13 years are truly fantastic. Some, like Vespers, are lit-geek works of art, putting the bulk of commercial games to shame.

Over the years, the IF Comp has transformed from a small Usenet-based competition to the largest event in interactive fiction circles. It's easy to see why: The contest has breathed new life into the community, giving it definition and a collective purpose. No longer are IF fans simply survivors from the Infocom days. The contest has helped to establish a community independent - or, at least, separate - from its Zork-infused past.

That makes sense to Stephen Granade, founder of adventure gaming website The Brass Lantern and organizer of the IF Comp since 1999. "Back in 1995, when the competition started, people were still saying, 'Do you think we'll ever be able to write a game as good as Infocom?'" he says. "That's just not a criterion anymore."

***

Once upon a time, as the story goes, a little gaming company called Infocom hit it big. In the days before 3-D modeling or sprites or anti-aliasing effects, Infocom made games solely in text-based form. Their titles were famously addictive, and their library covered every genre imaginable: hard sci-fi, swords & sorcery, romantic fantasy, detective noir, even sex farce. Some of these titles, like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, are still considered among the best games ever written.

For a few short years, Infocom had it all, perched atop the infant gaming industry, distributing grues and zorkmids to the masses. But one failed business venture - a database package named Cornerstone - sowed the seeds for the company's financial ruin, leading to an eventual buyout by Activision. By 1989, within 10 years of its founding, Infocom had shuttered its doors for good.

The end. Or was it?

After Infocom's demise, text-based gaming itself seemed to face the same quiet, forgotten death. The gaming landscape had changed irrevocably. Consumers, appetites whetted by games with sexy graphics like those offered by Sierra and LucasArts, finally lost their patience with text adventures. The genre also seemed hopelessly old-fashioned to younger gamers, who were lured by the burgeoning home console market.

But fans of the genre refused to let it die. Text-based gaming went underground via the internet, where, in those days, textual environments like MUDs and BBSes still reigned supreme. In 1987, David Malmberg and Michael J. Roberts respectively released AGT and TADS, two programming languages designed specifically for text adventure creation. Those tools allowed enthusiasts to continue writing games, independent of any commercial venture. Additionally, later that year, fans formed the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction (RAIF), dedicated solely to the discussion of playing and writing text adventures. An infant interactive fiction community was solidifying, slowly but surely.

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