Wednesday, 27 July 2011

[IF] For A Change / Twisty Little Passages

Reading Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, a book on interactive fiction, or Text Adventure games as they were known back in the 80's. Alongside classics such as Zork and A Mind Forever Voyaging, Montford throws in some reasonably obscure titles. Perhaps not obscure to the IF community, but obscure to me.

Playing through For A Change, (Winner in multiple Xyzzy Awards categories) by Dan Scmidt, one example text that the author brings up, I was struck by some similarity to the work of illustrator Dave McKean.

Tree | Dave Mckean | Via 7 impossible things
"The toolman is inscribed upon the grass". FaC uses odd language, it sets up animate objects as inanimate, the toolman is a person, a quiet friendly one at that. There is an item called a songlantern, which lights up using words, and is a major clue to the classic "light lamp" of dungeon exploration IF. It's that sense of play that gives FaC it's peculiar literary quality, it riffs in a surreal way on tropes that should be familiar to anyone with a passing remembrance of the genre, and creates a symbolism which is graspable.

Dave McKean | Charm | The Particle Tarot: Major Arcana
Whilst not actually breaking the formal codes of interaction (north is still north, east is still east, you still 'get items') - it's world is mediated in a way that makes simple things like daylight, fish, truth and lies look new. It's a kind of surrealism, where ideas have become tangible,  it's something like a half-dream in the morning, the works own internal logic isn't tightly closed, not everything fits neatly, but there are clues to how things work as well as open ended mysteries (just what is the Spinster anyway?).

Dave McKean  | The Particle Tarot: Minor Arcana
For A Change evokes a Macro/microcosm, there's a surreal puzzle involving a model of the world, and an awesome endgame that echoes biblical flood, making the whole thing seem like a mythic, dreamlike and Jungian text-automata.

You can download For A Change from Dan Schmidt's site , but you'll need something called a  "zcode interpreter" to play it. I used , but there is a long long list at inform-fiction for all sorts of computers. but I used Zoom for Mac.

I'm up to Chapter 4 in Twisty Little Passages, it's reasonably easy going academic text. After eloquently setting up the initial groundwork of the medium - defining the parser, the world, the interactor Montford goes on to draw parallels to the Riddle as a 'text-to-be-solved' - a framework that could, perhaps, be usefully applied to gamebooks and RPG texts. However the literary-riddle and I expect the high points of IF literature are those that help us look at the world afresh - which reminds me of the Neil Gaiman / DaveMcKean Hellraiser story Wordsworth , where the solution to a crossword puzzle that asks intimate questions opens the gateway to Hell.

Dave Mckean Wordsworth

Speaking of RPGS - Montford also rather succinctly shows that whilst  D&D was an influence on early IF writers, it is generally overstated by commentators (Colossal Cave was already done by the time D&D was published) - the only real visible influence being the puzzle solving and rather than action resolution, combat and experience mechanics that RPGs excel at.

There are exits, North, East and Up.


  1. Nice post! I used to play Colossal Cave adventure but never got that far. I kept on getting attacked by bigger and bigger gangs of dwarves. I've got it on the Android now, so I might give it another shot.

  2. Good read Zhu! Keep meaning to buy this book as a long time fan of Zork, and your post has certainly nudged me into ordering it soon.



  3. Andy, I'm almost done with the book - if you want a second hand copy (good condition, one careful owner) I'd be happy to swap for PayPal or something missing from my Fighting Fantasy wants list! zhu(at)

  4. Hi Zhu, just sent you an email.