From the “whatever happened to” category I recently found myself looking for Infocom, a company that was on the cutting edge of computer gaming back when I was growing up in the 80’s. You might not remember Infocom, but if you were under the age of 30 (and above the age of 10), and/or particularly nerdy, around that time you might remember their popular “Zork” franchise of text-based adventure games for the Apple II, TRS-80, and later the Mac.
What was then a text-based game is now classified as a work of “interactive fiction.” The idea behind interactive fiction is that you inhabit the story as the main character, able to move through a fictional world and interact with it through simple typed commands like “turn key” and “open door.” Your adventure unfolds in front of you in rich written descriptions of the places you visit, and its progression depends on you solving puzzles and interacting with characters you encounter along the way.
Infocom was the pioneer of this genre of game, and had over 40 titles out at the peak of their success in 1987-88. I was a huge fan, and probably bought and played half of those. The interesting thing about Infocom is that they always thought of gaming as a side project – the initial purpose the MIT-grad founders had in founding the company was to develop cutting-edge database software. What led to the company’s demise was their decision, at the peak of their success in text-based games, to dump all of their resources into a database product named Cornerstone. It failed, and so they got into dire straits financially and eventually got acquired. Infocom titles continued to get published for a short time, but the founders were gone, and with them the magic of their storytelling.
The thing that I like about interactive fiction is that it lets you participate in the story like any game would, while still triggering your imagination the way reading a book does. Graphical games don’t make you create the sights, sounds, and smells of a game in your head, they put it all right in front of you – resulting in a very passive experience.
I wondered, as I rode a train into work this morning and saw at least 4 people reading the latest Harry Potter book, if there isn’t a hidden market there, waiting for resurgence. Was the popularity of Infocom’s games just because the computers of the time couldn’t handle anything more engaging than text (i.e. graphics)? Or was it something deeper, the human need to be engaged by a story that demands human imagination?
Is it time to try to bring the genre of interactive fiction back into the mainstream?