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What Is Interactive Fiction?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Some people use the term interactive fiction to describe almost any kind of fiction story where the reader has some way to alter the outcome. More commonly, it is generally used to describe a particular kind of text-based computer game that was fairly popular during the 1970s through the middle part of the 1980s. These text games gave players written descriptions of environments or situations and allowed the player to enter text-based commands that the computer would respond to in a seemingly intelligent way, as long as the commands were within certain perimeters. Some people also refer to readers' choice-style story books as interactive fiction, and others use it to describe almost any game computer game with interactive story elements.

During the mid 1970s, when interactive fiction computer games first hit the scene, computers weren’t generally capable of showing high-quality graphics. For this reason, text-based games often provided the best way for players to experience a full-featured world design. Since the imagination has no limits, writers of text games were free to create anything they could think of, and there were many games created during that time in numerous genres, including detective stories, horror stories, and fantasy adventures. As computer graphics gradually improved, text games became less popular, eventually reaching the point where major commercial companies weren’t making them anymore, leaving all the work to hobbyists who still had a love for text adventures and wanted to make games of their own.

Usually, the games were built around room and area descriptions. Inside each description, there would be certain words about details and items in the current room. The player would use commands like "open jar" or "light match" to perform actions, and the game would describe the results to the player. If the game didn’t understand one of the commands, there was usually some kind of clever phrase that would let the player know that he or she had ventured beyond the game’s command perimeters. The player generally progressed through the games by finding items in the game's world and using them to solve various puzzles.

There are a lot of different definitions for interactive fiction. The primary use of the term is for the text-based computer games from the 1970s and 80s, but some people also use it to describe readers' choice-based novels. These books let players make decisions at turning points in the story and then give them a page to turn to, showing the consequences of their actions. A lot of people also use the term for graphics-based computer games, which often share similar mechanics to the original text adventures.

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