ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Informed —

This is a product endorsement, but don’t worry, the product is free. I’m also endorsing it on my own initiative and have not even communicated with the creator of the product.

One progression I have encountered many times in researching GET LAMP, is the following:

  • See your first text adventure game (Adventure, Zork, or the later modern games). Play them.
  • You are immediately blown away with them.
  • You are inspired to make one of your own.
  • You start hacking together an absolutely unplayable one.
  • You give up.
  • You keep playing text adventures until you stop. Or you never stop.

For me, this all happened in the early 1980s. I definitely came into contact with adventure in the 1979-1980 period, playing it on an IBM 3279 terminal (which had color!) and meandering throughout the outside portions of the game. For extra nerdishness, this all took place at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown. If I may say so myself, that is one incredible fucking building. It’s a large semi-circle, and when you walk the hallways, they all curve, giving a sort of strange feeling to the proceedings of wandering past door after door, unknown crazy things inside. And throughout this place were terminals. This was during that great time in the divorce when you have a dad who’s taking the kids on visitation but his life is not quite free enough to allow him to just blow the day off. So we’d go to work, which was this research building, and he’d drop me in front of a 3279 terminal, and I was one astoundingly happy bastard.

I’ll probably go into those times with more detail later, but the point is that I encountered Adventure under ideal conditions, and I loved this game and the ones past it.

Later, I played Adventure at my cousin’s house with the whole family and completed it. A different experience altogether, but memorable along its own lines. I also purchased, for a reason lost to time (likely it was the only game available at the store I was at), Zork II, bypassing that silly “Zork I” game that couldn’t possibly have assisted just a little bit in playing the game.

So I had an IBM PC and I decided I should make one of these here text adventures, my own self.

Let’s just stop for a moment and declare this clearly: I am a horrible programmer. My code works, but it tends to be very, very inefficient and since I am mathematically retarded, I avoid all those crazy “algorithms” and anything math-oriented and instead make stuff that approaches a situation artistically or lyrically. This does not translate to a great program. But it works!

I could program in BASICA on the IBM PC so I wrote my programs in that. As I recall, I made two text adventures.

One was called “The Slipped Disk’s Castle” and had you wandering around just the kind of fine real estate you would expect from a 12 year old, or a top-charting rapper. Time has faded this a bit, but I’m sure it was just an endless barrage of rooms and crazy out-of-my-mind puzzles of the sort that the Interactive Fiction community files under “Read the Author’s Mind Puzzles”. It was a two word parser (meaning all commands were things like GO NORTH, UNLOCK DOOR, GET LAMP) and I’ll bet it was really really hard to deal with.

Around this time, PC Magazine announced they were making a magazine that would come on disk, called PC DISK Magazine. They had a way for people to apply as authors to get on. I applied with The Slipped Disk’s Castle.

I did not get accepted.

But I did get a great rejection letter, which I’m sure is located around this fine home of mine.

The other’s title is completely lost to me. In this monster, I was going crazy trying to implement geographic relation. This is very hard to do when you’re 13 and there’s no programming mentors in your life of any major stripe. I recall, specifically, a hand grenade. You would put this hand grenade somewhere, pull the pin, and then you could walk around. Depending on where you were when it would go off 3 turns later, it would print a different message. If you stuck around, you died. If you were nearby, it was deafening. And if you jammed away as fast as you could, it would be a distant “boom”.

This was an enormous pain in the ass to program. It was also not implemented well. I eventually gave up. I’m sure that thing’s on a dying floppy somewhere as well. Maybe.

What I’m saying here is I had dreams and I had stories but I knew shit from shit about programming and I was suddenly finding myself spending 99% of the time trying to implement my ideas, and 1% of the time telling a story. It didn’t take long to wear even my young enthusiasm to the nub and the little project died. Would either of these have been better? Maybe. Probably not something Nick Montfort would have been raving about in his book but probably something I’d have looked back on with fondness and maybe redone in my later years. As it were, the results probably weren’t even solid enough to do a remake.

So, maybe you’re reading this, and you’re young (and giggling at my profanity) or older (and giggling at my haplessness of youth), and maybe you have an idea inside your head and you’d like to make a text adventure of your own.

Your problem is solved.

While you weren’t looking, this program came out, called Inform, version 7 (usually called simply Inform 7). It makes Infocom-style adventures, with the full sentence parser and the advanced interaction with a virtual text world and the whole hoo-ha. It is available for Windows, for OSX, for Linux, and for Solaris. You cannot easily complain that you don’t have a machine that can run this program. The program is free. You pay nothing to download it and use it.

Now, here’s the critical thing.

It’s a natural language parser.

No, not the resulting game.. the programming language.

Here’s an example of how the code looks:

"Midsummer Day"

East of the Garden is the Gazebo. Above is the Treehouse.
A billiards table is in the Gazebo. On it is a trophy cup.
A starting pistol is in the cup.
In the Treehouse is a container called a cardboard box.

I am not playing games with you. I am not being exaggerating, or making things up. That is actual code written in Inform 7. Did you feel that little pop? That was your brain no longer concerning itself with how to build a vehicle from scratch, but instead trying to decide if you want to drive to the mountains and then the beach, or through the woods and across the desert. With the mass of documentation, examples, and written works accompanying this program, your bar to making a game has been dropped so far out of sight that you lost the bar in the darkness and heard a distant clang and a “ow”.

The program includes an editor, a debugger, a compiler, and enough tweaky-knobs to make anyone happy. It will output your work into a variety of forms, including one that works with standard Infocom interpreters, meaning your work has the potential to instantaneously work on a dozen platforms.

If the documentary does nothing else, I hope it energizes a set of people who had dreams of making such games in their youth, or maybe a week ago, and who might not have been aware of the advances made, the hard work done.

The Inform program is waiting for you. Have fun.

Categorised as: Uncategorized

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. Josh Renaud says:

    I was in love with text adventures, too, but didn’t get around to trying my hand at writing one until high school. It was the mid-1990s, and games on graphing calculators were all the rage at my school. I wrote several text adventures in the TI-BASIC, but they were more like choose-your-own-adventure stories with multiple choice rather than a word parser. Since you could connect these calculators with a special cable, the games soon spread around the school. That was my brief moment of “programming” fame.

  2. Another friendly alternative is Adventure Book. It’s also free and, when I screwed up the adventure I was working on, the author gladly helped me troubleshoot my adventure. Again, for free.

  3. Chris Orcutt says:

    Jay is absolutely right. I downloaded Inform 7, and within a day, I had written 1/3 of a small text adventure. Once you get started, it’s extremely addictive.

    Make no mistake, though, you’ve got to read the manual. Print the sucker out and sit down with it, though; it’s too long and detailed to read on-screen.

    Chris Orcutt