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5 of Infocom's Best Interactive Fiction Games

Recently, I wrote an article (here) that offered a brief look back at an early style of game called 'Interactive Fiction'. My point there was to argue that video games which tried to offer more than 'violent spectacle' have always been available - you just had to know where to look. In that article, though, I mentioned Infocom as the company commonly considered to have been the developers of the best Interactive Fiction games - and, the company most strongly associated with the style. Now, I'd like to take the opportunity to try to show exactly why that is, by discussing what I consider to be five of Infocom's best games.

Though, before I begin, I suppose I should clarify that these are just my own personal favourites. I'm not trying to make any objective claims here. If you happen to have fond memories of one which isn't on this list (which is quite likely, considering that I'm trying to pick five out of a list of over thirty), then feel free to mention it in the comments below.

1. Zork: The Great Underground Empire

There's no way anyone could write a list like this without including Zork.

The first game was a pretty straight-forward affair. You weren't a destined hero. There was no great evil to overcome. You were simply a treasure hunter, and your goal was to recover the lost treasures of a forgotten empire.

Of course, this wasn't as simple as poking around in some caves until you found them. Recovering these treasures was a process that required some good, old-fashioned, puzzle solving - and, it was these puzzles that were the true star of the game. Compared to later game's by Infocom, this first game in the Zork series was rather light on story - but, it was still able to show what Interactive Fiction games were capable of.

Of course, Zork wasn't just a single game. It was a franchise that continued throughout the period of popularity of Interactive Fiction game and even beyond it - unlike the many other game's created by Infocom, Zork was a series which was returned to years later in the form of a series of graphical adventure games.

2. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

You may remember The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy from the movie made a few years ago. Or, the series of books. Or, the low budget, but still entertaining, television series. Or, even, the radio play. Well, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a game, as well - and, not just same rushed tie-in, either. Like with every other product associated with his franchise, author Douglas Adams was heavily involved in the creation of the Interactive Fiction game - working closely with Infocom to ensure that the game offered a true Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy experience.

The game was notoriously difficult, too. Even getting our intrepid hero, 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. Worse still, the game was littered with seemingly innocent looking items which turned out to be important later on (and, which could be lost entirely if you did not grab them when you had the chance) - meaning that it was very possible to find yourself suddenly stuck.

Everyone who has ever played this game would have to remember the Babel Fish puzzle, in particular - though, whether their memories are one's of fond nostalgia or teeth-grinding frustration is another matter entirely.

No commercially released game would ever be allowed to get away with messing with the player as much as this one did (well, maybe an indie one would) - but, the difficulty here just ended up becoming a part of the game's charm.

3. Bureaucracy

It seems as though the working relationship between Douglas Adams and the employees of Infocom must have been a positive one - since it wasn't long after the release of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that Adams was given the opportunity to create a unique game of his own.

Of course, Douglas Adams had always been rather famous for seeing deadlines more as casual suggestions, rather than anything binding - and, the same was apparently true here. Still, the game was eventually released, and it was everything that fans of Douglas Adams' other work could have hoped for. Bureaucracy begins innocently enough, with an important letter delivered to the wrong address. But, as you set out on your quest to recover that letter, you are confronted by a seemingly ever increasing number of bureaucratic hurdles. But, is it simply bureaucratic incompetence? Or, is there something more sinister going on?

Bureaucracy was a game that took the absurd premise and ran with it. Everything from trying to access your back account to trying to order a meal from a fast food restaurant became a surreal bureaucratic nightmare. You even had to fill out a form before you could start playing - answering questions with details that the game itself would promptly get wrong.

4. 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. And, it was the first game to include Infocom's signature 'feelies' (items packaged with the game-disk).

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.

5. A Mind Forever Voyaging

A Mind Forever Voyaging doesn't just have a spot on my list of favourite Interactive Fiction games - but, it also counts as one of my favourite video games, in general. I might even go as far as listing it as one of best science fiction stories I have ever read. It is also a politically minded game with an overt (very overt) liberal bias.

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.

© 2013 Dallas Matier

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