Sustainable Pace

September 11th, 2022

Infocom text adventures (1980-1989)

When I first had a microcomputer as a kid, I was fascinated by text adventures. These games had no graphics - they were interactive stories. They turned you into a character in a fictional world described by short paragraphs of text. That was followed by a prompt - now it was your turn! You could enter simple commands like "get lamp" or "go north" to interact with and learn about the fictional world, and slowly, a story would unfold.

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Text adventures were about the only thing you could code without learning how to write machine code. At home, we had a C64, and it came with its own Basic dialect, and I remember learning it from the official manual when I was about 10 years old. I also had a 64er magazine that helped you code your own text adventure games, and I had a lot of fun thinking up short, simple stories.

About Infocom

The cream of the crop of text adventures back then were the games by Infocom. First, they marketed them as interactive fiction, this exciting, unprecedented art form, mixing literature and games. Then, computer magazines unanimously raved about them. Their ability to process text input, the parser, was hailed as incredibly advanced, interacting with the game was supposed to feel like talking to a real person.

The only problem was, these games were impossible to find for a kid in Germany back then. Almost every game ever released for the C64 made it into our household through a distribution network of school yards, where home-made copies were exchanged nonchalantly during breaks. But sadly, no Infocom games. Buying them was not an option, they were unavailable in stores, and mail order prices were astronomically high.

My first Infocom games

It must have been in 1988 when I was lucky to find a few of them in a sale bin in a Massa department store in Koblenz. I got the grey box releases of Sherlock, Plundered Hearts, Stationfall and Border Zone, plus the budget releases of Zork II and Starcross. They cost me 10 DM each, and I'm glad my mother lent me the money to get them all. I was in heaven!

What I didn't know that these games were really hard to play for a kid who had just started learning english. I sat in front of the screen with a dictionary and had to look up almost every second word. I tried hard, but not made it far in any of these games. But I adored the atmosphere conveyed by the unique packaging - these games contained items, called feelies, that were needed to solve the game, like a hand-written letter or an actual matchbook with an address on it.

A few years later I got a PC, and a friend had the Lost Treasures of Infocom collection. I looked into a few games, but as I grew up and finished school, I kind of lost interest and forgot about them. As a student, I wanted to buy a guitar and sold my humble Infocom collection on eBay, for a ridiculously high price.

Revisiting Infocom games

A few years back I realized how much I missed playing Infocom games, and how they made me feel. So I started to revisit them, hoping to finish all of them at some point in the future. The experience is truly unique, and hasn't aged a bit. You need laser-sharp focus to appreciate and ultimately solve them. You need to draw your own maps and make lots of notes. Solving a puzzle and in general making progress feels so rewarding. You spend a lot of time away from the game thinking about the puzzles, which makes it a personal and creative, slow and deep experience, which feels totally out-of-time.

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How to play Infocom games today

All games are available for free, and nothing is stopping me from delving back into this treasure of interactive fiction. I used to play the games with Zoom on my Mac, but after an OS upgrade it stopped working, so I switched to Frotz, which can be installed easily via homebrew.

I guess it will take several years more to finish them all, but I think I'm getting better at it over time!

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