Emily Short is one of the world's leading gurus on Interactive Fiction. We're delighted to tell you that IF Only will be a regular column about the myriad world of IF gaming.
Back in the late 90s, the name "interactive fiction" was applied mostly to parser-based text adventures descended from Zork, where all output was in text and the player had to type commands to proceed. The genre has opened up enormously in recent years, with Twine and other choice-based fiction now often included in IF competitions and databases, and with some players and journalists applying the term "interactive fiction" even to graphical games with 3D environments if they have enough of a focus on story. Contrary to common report, though, this doesn't mean that text adventures have either gone away or stopped innovating.
Some of those innovations have been technical: Andrew Plotkin's epic, massively intricate alchemy puzzler Hadean Lands includes a puzzle automation system in which the game learns the player's solutions to intricate problems and then executes them for you.
But there has also been a trend in the other direction, towards simplicity. Over the past few years, we've seen more and more parser games with limited verb sets, where you can make progress with just a handful of commands. Often they give the player a complete list of the verbs needed to finish right at the outset of play. If you like the idea of parser games but don't usually get along with the demands of the interface, you might find one of these more accessible.
Superluminal Vagrant Twin by C. E. J. Pacian.
Pacian's been writing parser games with restricted verb sets for a few years now, including Gun Mute in 2008, a tightly focused puzzle combat game with a western flavor, and Weird City Interloper, in which the protagonist follows a chain of conversational evidence through a fantasy city.
Superluminal Vagrant Twin is in the same style as these earlier projects, but more expansive. You're invited to explore the galaxy, accumulate resources, and eventually try to free your eponymous twin. Pacian's gift for strange allusive world-building is on full display here, and there are lots of surprises to find even after you've accomplished the main quest. Meanwhile the tight design keeps the game from getting overwhelming. Important things to interact with are marked in bold text, and verbs are listed with the ABOUT command.
Chandler Groover is a prolific new writer of interactive fiction who released nine games in 2015 alone. Midnight. Swordfight. is my favorite of his 2015 works: a game that allows the player to treat the story as a stage play. You can walk back and forth between past and future scenes, swap props around, and then return to the story's end to see how the outcome has changed. The setting is bizarre and fantastical, at turns reminding me of Baron Munchausen, Doctor Who, and Poe — so the scope of possible outcomes is very broad indeed. It's also worth spending some time with Dmitri, a character whose very extensive fund of conversation provides much of the game's characterization.
This design offers the player significant narrative agency with a minimum of distractions. The game is so streamlined that almost no moves are dedicated to storyless puzzle-solving or because-it's-there interactions. You can radically alter the outcome of the story with just a few steps. And there's always a play script in your inventory that will tell you which verbs are currently available, never a long list. (If this is likely to concern you, please note that there is some explicit sex in this game.)
In Caleb Wilson's curious story of hallucination and post-colonial decay, you make progress almost entirely by examining things. Look at one item and find a key detail in it; look at the detail to get another full description with another detail; repeat through multiple layers. Reading these descriptions feels like an endless zoom shot, descending deeper and deeper into the story's environment, and simultaneously losing any sense of where the protagonist is standing. It's a trick that would be hard to imagine in any medium but text.
Lime Ergot is a very short piece, but its elegantly simple design inspired imitators, among them Chandler Groover's Toby's Nose, in which you play Sherlock Holmes' dog and solve crimes by smelling things.
Arthur DiBianca's Variety Box is a small, tightly scoped puzzle game: there's just one object to play with, though it has a lot of sub-parts. In contrast with most of the other games on this list, Grandma Bethlinda isn't primarily telling a story; it's just a gentle, playful experiment with a weird interactive toy.
By Victor Gijsbers and his team, this is a text adventure-roguelike, which means the verb set is mostly about moving, spell-casting, and tactical combat options. It's been under continuous collaborative development since 2011. During that time, it's developed a fancier interface than usual for text adventures, as well as a large cast of possible characters and enemies. Kerkerkruip is challenging and highly replayable; you'll almost certainly die ignominiously on the first several attempts. At the same time, it's still enough a piece of interactive fiction that the prose descriptions do matter, and the environments contain hints of Kerkerkruip's world and culture.
This S. John Ross game has been around since 2007, and I still love it. You play a Conan-style barbarian of limited intellect, which may explain why you only ever want to REGARD (examine), SEIZE (take), USE, PARLEY WITH, or ASSAIL items and NPCs. The result is a wickedly-written send-up of science fiction and fantasy RPG tropes, where the challenge is typically about choosing which encounters to try first in order to level up.
Caelyn Sandel's Light My Way Home is a short atmospheric piece that can be played entirely with compass directions, EXAMINE, and the special verb POWER. There's an online version available, but if you play the downloadable version of the game, you'll be able to hear the accompanying music and sound effects; these do a lot to set the mood. (I rely on Gargoyle to play downloaded parser IF.)
Danse Nocturne by Joey Jones is interactive poetry set at the time of Charlemagne, concerning a woman entranced to dance against her will. It brings the total number of necessary verbs all the way down to zero: the protagonist is always dancing, and the only question is how. You can play this one by typing only adverbs describing the dance style — slyly? angrily? slowly? — and the story will unfold gradually, describing the protagonist's mood and attitude, interspersed with the major points of its story.
Finally, if you're in the mood for a meta take on this problem, check out Matt Sheridan Smith's You Can't See Any Such Thing, a limited-verb parser game that is partly about the frustrations of dealing with a parser. Whenever you give a command that the game doesn't understand — typically by referring to an object that isn't currently implemented — you'll get a specialized error message containing some of the game's backstory. In fact, the only way to get a full view of what's going on in this one is to issue at least a few commands that the parser doesn't recognize.
For still other recommendations, as well as a deeper dive into the craft considerations behind designing this kind of interactive fiction, you may like Sam Kabo Ashwell's article on Narrow Parsers.
[Disclosures: Emily Short has been to dinner with Caelyn Sandel and Andrew Plotkin; she has played RPGs with Victor Gijsbers. She runs an interactive fiction meetup group that Joey Jones sometimes attends. Sam Kabo Ashwell was a witness at her wedding. More generally, Emily is not a journalist by trade and works professionally with various interactive fiction publishers. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website.]