What is interactive fiction?

Interactive fiction, or IF, is a type of storytelling in which the audience is an active participant. A piece of interactive fiction (generally referred to as a "game", even if there's nothing all that gamelike about it) typically begins by presenting the player with a brief scenario ("It's a narrow dead end here, with walls rising oppressively high in three directions. A plain metal door faces you to the east, near the alley's end. It's firmly shut.") Then the player decides what she wants her character in the game to do -- leave the alley, perhaps, or knock on the door. She finds out what happens, says what to do next, and so on, back and forth until the story reaches an ending (often involving the main character's gruesome death). It's fun!

Now, if the author were standing right there, like the dungeon master in a D&D game, the player could tell him what she wanted to do, and he could think about it for a moment, maybe rolling some dice in the interim, and tell her what the result was. But if the hundreds and hundreds of people who regularly visit the IF archive needed the authors to come to their houses before they could play the games, chances are they'd be in for quite a wait. Luckily, the medium isn't dependent on face-to-face contact. Instead, the author codes the whole shebang -- every room description, every possible response to player input -- into a computer file. Players copy the file to their own computers, read the text that scrolls onto their screens, wait for a prompt (usually an angled bracket: ">"), type in their command, read the response, get another prompt, type in another command, and so forth. The sections that follow will detail the process by which an IF game gets from an author's head onto a player's computer screen.

Next section: From idea to source code
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