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Five of Infocom's Best Interactive Fiction Video Games

Beginning with the hours spent shoving coins into arcade machines as a child, Dallas has been a lifelong fan of video games.

Interactive Fiction Video Games

Also commonly known as text adventures, interactive fiction was a style of video game that I came to in a somewhat roundabout way. As a commercial product, they experienced the height of their popularity throughout the 1980s—but, I did not personally discover them until some point in the mid-1990s, when I came across a collected box-set of classic Infocom games. Despite the fact that there were plenty of recently released games I could have also been playing, at the time, I still found myself fascinated by the collection of games I found in that box-set. With little more than a block of text, and a command line to type in actions, these games were often able to create genuinely immersive experiences.

While there were other companies that also produced interactive fiction games, it was Infocom's that were the most well-known, and well-regarded. Infocom's games covered a wide variety of different styles and genres—including science fiction, fantasy, comedy, and horror. The five games listed below really only provide a small sample of what Infocom was able to produce before the company was forced to close its doors in 1989.

These are, essentially, five of my own personal favourites. Each of them is a game that I have very fond memories of playing, regardless of the fact that I initially discovered them years after their popularity had waned.

My Five Favourite Infocom Games

  1. Zork: The Great Underground Empire
  2. Deadline
  3. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  4. Bureaucracy
  5. A Mind Forever Voyaging

1. Zork: The Great Underground Empire

There is simply no way that a list like this could be put together without any mention of Zork. Released in 1980, Zork was Infocom's first game—as such, it is simply too important to Infocom's development as a company to be set aside.

While Zork does, admittedly, come across as a little simplistic, when compared to Infocom's later efforts, it is still very much the game that paved the way for everything that followed for the company. On top of that, the game also offered an entertaining little adventure, as players found themselves cast as a treasure hunter, setting off on a quest to recover the lost treasures of a forgotten empire.

It may have been a fairly simple and straightforward adventure, but Zork was still able to provide some genuinely challenging puzzles for the player to solve. It was these puzzles that provided the game with its true appeal—seeing the player attempting to make their way past a deadly cyclops, or contending with thief's efforts to hinder their progress, all while striving to avoid finding themselves stuck along, in the dark, with the deadly grue. It may have been fairly light on an actual story, but Infocom's first game still did a very impressive job of showing what interactive fiction was truly capable of.

Of course, Zork was not just a single game, either. This first game was also the starting point for a long-running franchise that became synonymous with both Infocom and interactive fiction, in general. It was a franchise which proved popular enough that it even managed to return, in a new form as a series of graphical adventure games, in the 1990s.


2. Deadline

Released in 1982, Deadline was something of a change of pace for Infocom. At this point, the Zork franchise had grown to include a trilogy of games, with the third game set to be released later that same year. Deadline, though, was Infocom's first attempt to create something entirely different

Deadline was unique in a variety of ways. While the Zork games had been puzzle-based adventures, Deadline was a murder mystery story intended to rely heavily on interaction with the game's cast of characters. It was also the first of Infocom's games to include their signature "feelies"—physical items packaged with the game that were intended to act as both a form of copy protection, and a way to provide the player with hints and additional information.

In Deadline, players found themselves cast as a detective called to the scene of the apparent suicide of a wealthy industrialist. Upon arrival, though, the player is given reason to suspect that there may be something more sinister going on. So, with the aid of the loyal and sensible Sgt. Duffy, the player is given just 12 hours to uncover the truth, before the case is officially closed.

While Infocom's previous games had been heavily puzzle-based, Deadline presented the player with a very different sort of challenge. Presenting the player with a series of clues to uncover, and a cast of characters to interact with, Deadline was a game that did a very impressive job of creating a sense of mystery and uncertainty as the player worked to solve the case. Each of the potential suspects had their own distinct personalities, and they would all move about the house according to their own schedules. They would also respond to the player's questions differently, depending on the context. They may respond differently at different times, for example, or they may prove to be reluctant to speak, at all, if they were questioned while other characters were nearby. Deadline was a game which also offered a much more open-ended experience—with the game only coming to an end either when time ran out, or when the player arrested a suspect.

This may not seem so impressive now, but for a text-based game released in 1982, it was very impressive.

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3. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a franchise that exists in multiple forms. Beginning as a radio play, the story was soon published as a series of novels. It was adapted into a low-budget, though still very entertaining, television series which aired in the early 1980s. It was also adapted into a film, released in 2005—a bigger budget, though somehow not quite as entertaining, effort that was not quite successful enough to launch a series of films.

In 1984, Infocom took on the task of adapting the story of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy into an interactive fiction game—though, this was far from the sort of rushed tie-in that eventually became the norm for video game adaptations of popular stories. Just as with just about every other project associated with his franchise, Douglas Adams was actually heavily involved in the creation of Infocom's game—working closely with the company, in order to ensure that it provided players with a true The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy experience. By this, of course, I mean that it was a very strange game.

It was also a notoriously difficult one, too. In many ways, it was a game that truly seemed intent on testing the player's patience. Even the seemingly simple task of getting the story's central protagonist, Arthur Dent, out of his house before it is demolished in the game's opening moments proved to be a strange case of trial-and-error—one which could easily end in an early "game over", if the player took too long. There were also times where the game clearly expected the player to be already familiar with the story, in its other forms, in order to know how to progress.

This might all seem like horrible game design in any other context. Oddly enough, though, this borderline unfair level of difficulty actually proved to be part of the game's odd charm. For anyone familiar with the franchise, it made perfect sense that a game based on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would be strange, difficult, and occasionally incomprehensible.

While, at this point, it can difficult to find a way to legally access any of Infocom's old games, this is not an issue with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A 30th Anniversary edition of the game can be found here (link).


4. Bureaucracy

It seems as though the working relationship between Douglas Adams and Infocom must have been a fairly positive one, for both parties. With the success of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams had another opportunity to work with the company once more. Of course, Douglas Adams was notorious for viewing such things as deadlines and release dates more as vague suggestions than anything binding—so, there were some notable delays in the game's development. Still, when their next collaboration was eventually released, in 1987, it quickly proved to be everything that fans of both Douglas Adams and Infocom could have hoped for.

Bureaucracy starts innocently, enough—with something as simple and innocuous as an important letter being delivered to the wrong address. Finding themselves in possession of a neighbour's mail, players are confronted by an increasingly bizarre series of events, as they attempt to recover the letter that was meant for them. Everything from trying to withdraw money from the back, to trying to order food from a fast-food restaurant, becomes a challenge as players find themselves stuck inside a surreal bureaucratic nightmare. The game even goes as requiring players to fill out a form before the game even begins—requesting details which the game, itself, will promptly get wrong. Through it all, players will be left with the lingering question of whether everything that is happening is the simple result of straight-forward bureaucratic incompetence, or whether there are more sinister forces at work.

Much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Bureaucracy is a game that frequently managed to be genuinely hilarious—and, just as often, incredibly frustrating.


5. A Mind Forever Voyaging

A Mind Forever Voyaging does not just hold a spot on my list of favourite Infocom games. Even today, it would still hold a spot on my personal list of favourite video games, of all time. The experience of playing through this game, following the story, and eventually making my way to the end is something that I have very fond memories of.

Perry Simm is an ordinary 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 are not quite what they seem. Perry, it turns out, is far from ordinary—his entire world is actually an elaborate computer simulation, hand-crafted just for him. Perry, it turns out, is actually a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence called PRISM—and, the simulated reality he has lived in was carefully constructed in order to encourage his growth into a truly sentient being.

Released in 1985, A Mind Forever Voyaging places players in the role of Perry Simm, or PRISM, just as he is brought out of the simulated environment in which he "grew". What makes all of this particularly interesting, though, is that none of this information was included in the game, itself. Instead, Perry's experiences growing and developing within the simulation is covered in a very engaging and well-written short story that came packaged with the game.

Drawn out of the simulation in the year 2031, players take on the role of PRISM just as he learns that the highly detailed simulated reality constructed for him is due to be repurposed. By entering new data into the simulated environment, PRISM's creators intend to use the simulation as a means of, essentially, forming predictions about possible future trends. In particular, the simulation is to be used as a means of testing and analysing the long-term ramifications of the sweeping reforms put forward by Senator Richard Ryder's Plan for Renewed National Purpose.

The game is divided into two halves. As PRISM, players will be able to access security cameras and various computer systems in order to be able to communicate. Within the simulation, though, players will take on the role of Perry Simm, exploring the simulated environment in a way that would be more immediately familiar to fans of interactive fiction games.

Another interesting aspect of A Mind Forever Voyaging is that, unlike the majority of Infocom's projects, it is actually a very politically-minded game—one with a strong left-leaning bias that could come across as heavy-handed. Richard Ryder, for example, was obviously intended as a broad caricature of former United States President, Ronald Reagan—while the far-right conservative nature of Ryder's reforms could be taken as an exaggeration of Reagan-era politics, in general.

This was all entirely deliberate, of course. While this is an interesting aspect of the game, though, it was not really what drew me to it, initially. For me, A Mind Forever Voyaging was simply a genuinely entertaining science fiction story told in a very clever way.

© 2019 Dallas Matier

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