Chapter VIII: The Craft of Adventure

Designing is a craft as much as an art. Standards of workmanship, of “finish”, are valued and appreciated by players, and the craft of the adventure game has developed as it has been handed down. The embryonic ‘Zork’ (Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, Dave Lebling, 1977) – shambolic, improvised, frequently unfair – was thrown together in a fortnight of spare time. ‘Trinity’ (Brian Moriarty, 1986), plotted in synopsis in 1984, required thirteen months to design and test.

‘Spellbreaker’ (Dave Lebling, 1985) is a case in point. A first-rate game, it advanced the state of the art by allowing the player to name items. It brought a trilogy to a satisfying conclusion, while standing on its own merits. A dense game, with more content per location than ever before, it had a structure which succeeded both in being inexplicable at first yet inevitable later. With sly references to string theory and to Aristophanes' The Frogs, it was cleverer than it looked. But it was also difficult and, at first, bewildering, with the rewards some way off. What kept players at it were the “cyclopean blocks of stone”, the “voice of honey and ashes”, the characters who would unexpectedly say things like “You insult me, you insult even my dog!”. Polished, spare text is almost always more effective than a discursive ramble, and many of the room descriptions in ‘Spellbreaker’ are nicely judged:

Packed Earth
This is a small room crudely constructed of packed earth, mud, and sod. Crudely framed openings of wood tied with leather thongs lead off in each of the four cardinal directions, and a muddy hole leads down.

In short, it was masterly craftsmanship (in what was Lebling's seventh title) which made this exercise in pushing the boundaries of difficulty and connectedness possible.

Classics like ‘Spellbreaker’ cast long shadows and have endured beyond all expectation: ‘Zork II’, for instance, has been continuously on sale in the high street since 1981, a record matched by only about two dozen of that year's novels. But the story of interactive fiction is not the story of the production company Infocom, Inc., alone. Many hundreds of plays were performed in late sixteenth-century London, but today only Shakespeare's three dozen are familiar, even the weakest protected from neglect by the gilding of being canonical. The resulting attention may be justified on literary grounds, but perhaps not historical, since it gives a picture wholly unlike the regular diet of the contemporary audience. So with Infocom. Many 1980s adventure players seldom if ever played their works, or not until years later. Their real importance, besides quality and familiarity, is that they were foundational, in the same way that Hergé's pre-war Tintin albums evolved the visual grammar of the European graphic novel, from layout rules for speech bubbles and panels to how sudden motion should be depicted. Tintin and his dog Snowy began to walk from left to right (the direction of reading) when making progress, but from right to left after a setback. Snowy lost first the ability to speak, then the ability to understand Tintin's speech. Infocom had a similar effect in laying down the mechanics of interactive fiction, the conventions of which are subliminally accepted by players (and silently perpetuated by Inform). For instance, it was the Infocom games of 1986 which began the now familiar use of pop-up literary quotations as a stylish form of commentary or signposting, a development which might be compared to exclamation marks appearing over the heads of surprised characters in Tintin.

The mechanics of reading a novel are almost unconscious, but the mechanics of interactive fiction are far less familiar, and it is a uniquely unforgiving medium. A technical mistake by a novelist, say an alternating dialogue so long that it becomes unclear who is speaking, does not make it impossible for the reader to continue, as if the last hundred pages of the book had been glued together. The designer of an interactive fiction has continually to worry over the order in which things happen, the level of difficulty, the rate at which new material is fed out and so on. Meanwhile, even the designer's footing seems uncertain, for the form itself is a wavering compromise. An interactive fiction is not a child's puzzle-book, with a maze on one page and a rebus on the next, but nor is it a novel. Neither pure interaction nor pure fiction, it lies in a strange and still largely unexplored land in between.

In this chapter, a game is cited by designer and date when first mentioned but subsequently by title alone. Details of availability may be found in the bibliography of cited works.   Unattributed quotations from Infocom designers are all to be found in the archive of 1980s computing press articles. My choice has been skewed by availability: Lebling is quoted frequently not because he was a great designer (though he was) but because he often went on the record. Marc Blank, among other notable figures, spent less time entertaining the press.   Some thousands of internal Infocom email messages (1982–) have been quietly preserved. Except at the end the overall impression is of a sensible workplace with engagingly warm moments, and a number of unsung figures emerge from the shadows. Much of this material is unlikely to become public because of its personal nature. To respect this, I have quoted nothing directly from unpublished email and have avoided attributing specific opinions to named people. I do quote from the handful of relatively innocuous emails published on Activision's Masterpieces of Infocom compact disc, though note that these were stripped of all context. For instance the most interesting, a 1987 memo about which way to take text games now (discussed briefly in §49 below), is not as it seems a minute of a committee but was typed up as an apology to two people offended at being excluded from a low-key crisis meeting, held covertly off the premises.   A happier example is a sketch written by Stu Galley in response to an email circular asking for a job description: the so-called ‘Implementors' Creed’. Despite the style – fifty percent mission statement, fifty percent Martin Luther King – this manifesto is worth reading, because it is conscious of working in an experimental and artistic medium: “I am exploring a new medium for telling stories. My readers should become immersed in the story and forget where they are. They should forget about the keyboard and the screen, forget everything but the experience. My goal is to make the computer invisible. … None of my goals is easy. But all are worth hard work. Let no one doubt my dedication to my art.”   Another true believer was Cleveland M. Blakemore, in his treatise in issue 54 of Ahoy! magazine: “Every human being on earth is a natural dynamo of creative energy. Learning how to tap this energy and translate it to a book, a canvas, or a computer's memory, is a skill that can be learned.”

§46   A short history of interactive fiction

§47   Realities

§48   A triangle of identities

§49   Structure

§50   The design of puzzles

§51   The room description

§52   Finishing