Author Guest Post, “IF in pop culture and back again” by Andrew Plotkin

2018-06-26 · by Andrew Plotkin
tagged Blog / Interviews

I just noticed an amusing synchrony. In the late 1970s, when Crowther and then Woods were writing the first parser game, a New Wave SF writer named George R. R. Martin was writing short stories about far-future humanity among the Thousand Worlds. I, very young, was a fan of both. (Nightflyers, 1980, is still a favorite story of mine.) Heliopause was inspired, in part, by Martin’s sense of unbounded human potential set against even vaster, time-swallowing depths of space.

Colossal Cave may not have been the first parser game, and Martin may later have become more famous for other work. I just wanted to point out the coincidence of dates.

In the late ’70s, parser IF was a fad among people who worked with mainframe computers, because Adventure and then Zork ran on mainframes. In the early ’80s, Infocom injected those games into the home computer revolution. That’s where I came in — playing Zork on the family Apple 2.

And after that… what? The place of IF in popular culture is strange. It’s a familiar trope. Everybody recognizes it. The movie Big portrayed a (nonexistent) illustrated parser game in 1988. The audience might not have been able to judge its design (timed input, oh boy) but they knew what it was.

Year after year, you can find magazine articles written in the style of text games; text games portrayed in movies; comic strips making fun of “I didn’t understand that” errors. Mostly the latter! The popular portrayal of IF doesn’t come from fans who solved every Infocom game. It comes from people who tried one once, bounced off the parser, and went back to playing games they enjoyed. Which is to say, nearly everybody who tried a parser game.

That’s fine. I’m not writing a lament. The New Golden Age of 90s IF happened; I was there. We joked that every news article about us was titled “Text adventures aren’t dead!” But they weren’t dead — that was what mattered.

And after that… what?

Here’s a notion: the history of modern IF is not driven by IF enthusiasts. Not by what I thought of as IF, back in the ’90s, at least. I used to go on about how CYOA books weren’t really IF — because the original series (#2, Journey Under the Sea, bought in a airport bookstore to placate fussy child-me) wasn’t as interactive as Zork.

But those books, too, are a living presence in our culture. That cover design, that font, form an inexhaustible well of nostalgia. (I’m told ChooseCo is releasing a card game soon.) It’s not the simplistic branching mechanic that people remember, any more than they remember the exact behavior of Infocom’s parser. People remember the idea, because the idea was magic: a book which changes each time you read it. A second-person world which you read and enact in at the same time. You become the protagonist, who is you.

CYOA’s form was not parser IF, but the magic bubbles from the same spring. (In a well house, I’m sure, with a lamp and some tasty food on the floor.)

Those who drank from that spring were forever changed. My community analyzed Infocom’s game files in obsessive detail, and then created fan Infocom works. But the ’80s left plenty of other IF fans, and people with fond memories of IF. They pushed gaming in other directions. Warren Robinett famously created Atari Adventure as a “port” of Colossal Cave. CYOA books begat more complex gamebooks, like the Sorcery series — which begat their video game ports, and then 80 Days and the upcoming Heaven’s Vault.

IF as a field begat dynamic storytelling in all sorts of games, from Myst to Mass Effect to Lifeline. Yes, I’m handing IF credit for all of it. Not the particulars of parser IF, but the magic that designers remember. They try to recreate it in many forms; the successful forms get to be called “genres”, not all of which are traditionally called IF-related or even adventure-like. Shooters are narrative too. But we see the magic.

(Credit is always a commons, of course. Both Colossal Cave and the CYOA series directly followed the roleplaying revolution of D&D. Before that: wargaming, Oulipo, and a myriad other influences. But it is the nature of interactive narrative to choose the past as well as the future. I will lay the lines this way.)

And after this… what?

I see gaming from the peripheries of the indie world, which looks (to me) like a fermenting halo of experimentation. Most experiments fail. Some narrative ideas work their way into the mainstream — even unto shooters and brawlers — and perhaps become new genres.

Nearly every designer, I think, sees IF (or something called IF) somewhere in their history. Maybe I’m projecting. That’s fine too. We don’t all have to be talking about the same IF.

I was talking to a younger gamer last week and mentioned playing narrative games. “I loved Fable!” she said. I guess Fable is a historic narrative game now. I never played it. Is it “IF”? Ask gamers, then ask them again in another ten years. IF isn’t defined by IF enthusiasts, either. The definitions keep working their way in from the outside — from popular culture and popular conceptions, from everyone who’s tasted the spring. We have to keep updating what it looks like. That’s how we know IF is still alive.


Andrew Plotkin has been working on interactive fiction and narrative games for an awfully long time. He is currently part of the Character Engine team at SpiritAI.

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