Thursday, 29 June 2017

Five of Infocom's Best Interactive Fiction Games

The fact that Interactive Fiction, as a genre, would reach the height of its popularity back in the 1980s probably makes perfect sense, on reflection. This was, after all, a point at which the graphical capabilities of even the best personal computers could be described as rudimentary, at best.

In that sort of environment, it is actually perfectly understandable that a style of game based entirely around the written word, and the player's own ability to visualize the action, would become popular. The fact that many of these old games actually were genuinely entertaining was really just a nice bonus.

While Infocom was not the only company to develop Interactive Fiction games, they were definitely the company best known for producing them - and, the ones most strongly associated with the genre, even today. The five games listed below, for example, are among my own personal favourites - games which I feel do the best job of showing exactly why Infocom became so popular.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire 


There's simply no way that a list like this could be put together without any mention of Zork. It is, quite simply, much too important to Infocom's development to be set aside - even if  the game, itself, might seem a little simplistic when compared to their later efforts.

It was the success of Zork: The Great Underground Empire which paved the way for everything that followed - which would be reason enough to include it, here. Fortunately, the game, itself, also offered up a genuinely entertaining little adventure, as you found yourself cast as a simple treasure hunter on a quest to recover the lost treasures of a forgotten empire.

It may have been a fairly simple game, but Zork was still able to offer up some genuinely challenging puzzles for the player to solve. These puzzles are the true star of the game - seeing you attempting to make your way past a deadly cyclops and contending with a thief's efforts to hinder your progress, among other things, all while striving to avoid finding yourself stuck alone, in the dark, with the deadly grue. It may have been somewhat light on story, but Infocom's first game still did a great job of showing exactly what Interactive Fiction was capable of.

Of course, Zork wasn't just a single game. This first game was also the starting point for a long-running franchise which became synonymous with both Infocom, and Interactive Fiction - and, which even managed to reinvent itself as a series of graphical adventure games, throughout the 1990s.

Deadline


Deadline was a first for Infocom in a variety of ways. It was their first game not connected to the Zork franchise. It was the first in a small selection of murder/mystery games - which, naturally, provided an entirely different sort of game-play experience to what had been offered, previously. And, it was the first game to include Infocom's signature 'feelies' - items included in the game's packaging

In Deadline, you were placed in the role of detective sent to investigate the apparent suicide of wealthy industrialist, Marshell Robner. Of course, it wouldn't have been much of a game if it actually was suicide, would it? No, you are quickly given reason to suspect that there is something more sinister going on. So, with the aid of the loyal and sensible Sgt. Duffy, you are given 12 hours to solve the case, and arrest the murderer, before the case was closed and the ruling of suicide was made official.

Unlike the heavily puzzle-based game-play of Infocom's games up until this point, Deadline was a game all about interaction. There was just you, a series of clues to find, and a house full of suspects - any one of which could be the murderer. The cast of characters you were required to interact with each had their own distinct personalities, and each moved about at their own schedule. These characters would also respond to your questions in different ways, based on the context. Asking them the same questions at different times may earn you a different response - or, they may be reluctant to speak to you if you try to question them while others are around.

This may not sound so impressive now, but try to remember that this was a text-based game released in 1982.

The process of identifying the murderer was left entirely up to the player - and, each play-through ended either with the arrest of one of the suspects, or with the case being filed away unsolved as time ran out. Of course, it was also quite possible for the game to end with the arrest of the wrong person.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been a widely popular series for years, now - even since the release of the first book back in 1979. If you don't actually know it from the series of novels written by Douglas Adams, then you may not it from the radio play. Or, you might know it from the low budget, though very entertaining, television series. You might even know of it from the 2005 film - a higher budget, though somehow not quite as entertaining, effort that wasn't quite successful enough to launch a film series.

Well, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a video game, as well - though, not the sort of rushed tie-in you might expect today. Like with every other product associated with his franchise, Douglas Adams was actually heavily involved in the creation of Infocom's Interactive Fiction game - working closely with the company, in order to ensure that the game offered a true Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy experience. By this, of course, I mean that it was a very strange game.

It was a notoriously difficult on, too - one that seemed to revel in testing the player's patience. Even getting central protagonist, Arthur Dent, out of his house before it is demolished in the game's opening moments can be a frustrating case of trial-and-error. The game was also littered with deceptively innocent looking items which, later, turned out to be extremely important (and, which could be lost entirely if you did not grab them when you had the chance) - meaning that it was always quite possible to find yourself stuck in an unwinnable situation.

It's the sort of thing that would be considered to be bad game design now, of course - but, oddly enough, this borderline unfair level of difficulty actually became a part of the game's charm. Anyone who has ever played the game, for example, would have to remember the Babel Fish puzzle with a mix of fond nostalgia and teeth-grinding frustration.

Bureacracy


It seems as though the working relationship between Douglas Adams and Infocom had been a positive one for both parties - as, it wasn't long after the release of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that Adams was given the opportunity of taking the lead on a unique game of his own.

Of course, Douglas Adams was an author quite well-known for viewing such things as deadlines and release dates more as vague suggestions than as anything binding - and, the same was apparently true here. Still, after any number of delays, Bureaucracy was released - and, it quickly proved to be everything that fans of Douglas Adams could have hoped for.

The game begins innocently enough - with something as simple as an important letter delivered to the wrong address acting as the catalyst of an incredibly bizarre adventure, as you find yourself confronted by an ever-increasing number of bureaucratic hurdles. Everything from trying to withdraw some money from your bank account, to trying to order a meal at a fast-food restaurant, begins to take on the form of a surreal bureaucratic nightmare. The game even went as far as forcing you to fill out a form before you could begin playing - requesting details which the game, itself, would promptly get wrong.

Through it all, you were left to ponder the question of whether everything that was happening was simply the result of bureaucratic incompetence, or whether there was something more sinister going on.

Much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Bureaucracy was a game that was often genuinely hilarious - and, just as often highly frustrating. The game even measured your 'health' in the form of blood pressure - which got higher as you grew increasingly frustrated by the bureaucratic mess you found yourself caught up in.

A Mind Forever Voyaging


A Mind Forever Voyaging doesn't just hold a spot on my list of favourite Interactive Fiction games - it would also have to hold a spot on my own personal list of favourite video-games, of all time.

Perry Simm is an ordinary young man, living an ordinary life. He is recently married, and hoping to start a family. However, it is when he is called in for a job interview that it is revealed that things aren't quite what they seem. Perry's entire world is actually an elaborate simulation of the real world. Perry Simm is actually PRISM, and his entire life up to this point has been carefully crafted for him in order to nurture his development into the world's first truly sentient AI program.

Most interesting is that none of details of PRISM's creation, or the life of 'Perry Simm' is referenced in the game itself. Instead, it was covered in a short story that was included with the game, that was very much required reading before you began play - not just because of its importance to understanding the game, either. It was just a damn good story.

As the game begins, PRISM is informed that the elaborate simulation that he was 'grown' in is being re-purposed to serve as a test for a new revitalization plan being put forward by Senator Richard Ryder.

As PRISM, you are able to interact with our creators, and access different computer systems. As "Perry Simm", you will be required to re-enter the simulation at different points in time, in order to observe the long-term consequences of Senator Ryder's 'Renewed Plan for National Purpose'. Of course, it should go without saying that things don't exactly go according to plan.

A Mind Forever Voyaging is not only a very politically-minded game - but, it is one that comes with a left-leaning bias that borders on heavy-handed. Richard Ryder, for example, was obviously intended as a caricature of Ronald Reagan - and, his Plan could be viewed as something of an exaggeration of Reagan-era politics. This could either be fascinating, or highly frustrating, depending on your own political leanings - though, either way, it is also a genuinely entertaining story told in a clever way.

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