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.

In 1993, Graham Nelson, part-time poet and mathematician, released Inform, a programming language reverse-engineered from the virtual machine Infocom had used for its games. Eventually, Inform would surpass its predecessors in popularity, becoming a kind of lingua franca for the text adventure world. But back then, Nelson’s language was just one of many lost in the mix. To showcase Inform’s power, Nelson released Curses (still considered one of the IF classics) in 1993, and the game met to wide critical acclaim. But Inform still needed greater exposure to gain acceptance.

A poster on RAIF suggested that Nelson hold a game writing competition to bring attention to his new language, but the idea languished on the boards for many months without effect. That is, until 1995, when Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson, himself a text adventure author, seized upon the idea and decided to organize the first Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. Wilson’s logic was clear. “IF as a hobby cannot survive,” he wrote in his original announcement, “unless there are people out there writing and playing it.”

Wilson instituted only one rule that first year: All entries had to be solvable in under two hours. The “One Rule,” as it later became called, was implemented to attract as many games for the contest as possible, as well as judges to manage it. To further entice authors, Wilson opened the contest up to TADS entries, too.

Just 12 entries were submitted that first year, many of which were clear knock-offs of the Infocom style. For example, Andrew Plotkin’s A Change in the Weather, the winning Inform entry, relied heavily on time-sensitive puzzles, which required the player to restart the game over and over again until she found the exact sequence of commands necessary to win.

However, the contest managed to attract the attention of Activision’s Laird Malamed, then technical director of Zork: Nemesis. Excited by the competition, Malamed arranged for Activision to include the top three games in both categories onto the 1996 text adventure compilation, Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom. (The company did get something in return: Many of the authors lent Activision their pristine, mint-condition Infocom feelies to scan for the game, since the corporate supply, suffering from heavy wear and tear, were mostly second- and even third-generation copies.)

Wilson administered the contest for two more years, before time considerations forced him to pass along management duties to David Dyte in 1998. Dyte also found the IF Comp to be too much work, so he handed it off to Stephen Granade, who has managed the contest ever since.

***

Response for the contest was overwhelming, and plans quickly solidified for next year’s event. Rules tightening judging and entry procedure were enacted, and the division between the two programming categories was dropped. In its second year, the IF Comp attracted more than double the number of entries than it had previously, and by 1999, that number had more than tripled. A new tradition had started, and people were taking notice.

Despite the IF Comp’s growing popularity, however, authors still struggled to reconcile the games they were writing with the legacy Infocom had left behind. Titles like Graham Nelson’s The Meteor, The Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet (the second year’s winner) were stylish and enjoyable, but they also borrowed heavily from Infocom games, mimicking their dungeon-crawling atmosphere and complicated puzzles.

Some experimentation with fancier prose and philosophical themes did occur, such as Lucian P. Smith’s 1997 winner, The Edifice, a monkey-makes-good tale about human evolution. But even Smith struggled with the idea that interactive fiction was a function of its puzzles, rather than the other way around.

It wasn’t until Photopia, the 1998 winner, came along that authors had the precedent they needed to break free of the this idea. Adam Cadre’s melancholy, beautiful story of a young girl as told by the people who loved her most was an obvious choice for first place. The writing alone surpassed most of what Infocom had ever released. But startlingly, Photopia offered no puzzles whatsoever. Instead, the game was essentially an interactive short story; Cadre’s extremely linear narrative carried the player along, like a twig unable to influence the stream in which it drifts. No one had ever written such an unapologetically linear game before and had it so highly regarded by the IF community. Photopia proved that interactive fiction didn’t need to rest on its puzzles to work.

However, despite the game’s warm reception, Photopia was still a little too linear and experimental. It’s no surprise that the next year’s winner, Winter Wonderland, was a return to the Infocom archetype: a lighthearted, epic adventure complete with fetch-quests and complicated maps.

Still, authors continued to experiment, and over time most of the community has agreed that the best games are the ones that strike an even balance between puzzles and prose. Titles like Slouching Toward Bedlam and Vespers skillfully mesh both action and words, gameplay and narrative. “There have been a lot more consciously literary games, but that’s not to say that every game is an exercise in high-art techniques,” explains Granade. “Some authors craft the best puzzle games they can. Some try to tell stories. Some play with the medium and try to push what can be done.”

***

These days, explains Granade, the IF Competition has blossomed. “[It] has become a center of gravity around which the community orbits,” he says. While other competitions like the XYZZY Awards and the Spring Thing exist, the IF Comp is undeniably the largest and most popular event of its kind. Regularly it attracts attention from Slashdot, Blues News, even the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

In fact, so much attention is lavished on the contest and its entries, says Granade, that games released outside the event are generally ignored. “That’s terribly disappointing, to spend all this time writing a game and then to have no one talk about it,” he says. Therefore, fewer people release games outside the competition, and many of the entries shoved through to the judges are nowhere near ready for public consumption.

In addition, the IF Comp’s popularity means authors have less incentive to create longer games, titles that might take 20, 30, even 40 hours to complete. Games longer than the two-hour, snack-sized contest limit have almost gone extinct. “Imagine writing an Infocom-length game and no one playing it or talking about it,” says Granade. “Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote an Infocom-length game. I wouldn’t dream of doing that today.”

Still, overall the competition’s popularity has been a boon for the small IF community. Granade estimates that these days, each contest entry gets downloaded between 1,000 and 2,000 times. That’s not much in Steam or Gametap terms, but for a genre that most gamers believe died 15 years ago, such a response is astronomical.

The community itself has evolved, and many of the newer gamers don’t struggle with the same Infocom-related hang-ups that older authors faced. “Infocom has been dead for 20 years. We’ve got young members of the community who weren’t alive when Infocom was a going concern,” explains Granade. “The community has matured.”

As I think back to Vespers, I believe him. Infocom never would have dreamt of making a game like this; after all, only so many possibilities were available for a company that needed to keep its lights on. But more importantly, the fans never would have thought of it either. It took almost 10 years for the community to break out of the Infocom way of thinking, but thankfully they did. Games like Vespers are the result.

Leaning back on the couch, I figure that now that I’ve finished Vespers, I ought to test out the 2006 winner, Floatpoint. I’m not sure what to expect, judging by how spectacularly wrong the description I found for the last game was. But one thing’s for sure, Toto: I know I’m not in Frobozz anymore.

Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes “Mind Over Matter” and “Searching for Gunpei Yokoi.” Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.

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