Zarf’s Interactive Fiction (2017)

Interactive fiction was the first great computer-game craze. Through
the early 1980s, the most sophisticated, complex, involving games
available were the text adventures. Everyone agreed. Go look up
up old videogame rating charts; Infocom was always on the
list — with several games.

Of course, advancing graphics eventually washed away IF’s
supremacy. By 1990, all the text game companies were closed, or about
to be. But… the games didn’t go away. And a community of IF
fans — still interested in sophisticated, complex,
involving, literate gameplay — continued to create them.

I’ve been part of that community for a decade and a half. This
is what I’ve been doing.

You can play my games freely (and for free).
All of the games on this page run right in your web browser.
These are not demos or previews. They’re complete stories.

(Okay, except for Hadean Lands. That costs money.)


Everyone’s heard that IF is hard to play. You have to type exactly
the right command or you fail, right? Well — no. Modern IF
games are pretty easy! They understand a good range of commands, as
long as you stick to a familiar pattern. There are variations, but not
too many.

Furthermore, most situations in every game are amenable to a handful of
common commands. I’ve drawn up this handy reference card. It shows
all the common commands, and a selection of others, to give you a
feel for the overall pattern.

IF reference card
IF reference card

(Click for
PDF version,
HTML version,
print-quality bitmap,
Card design by Lea Albaugh;
text by me;

If you still feel overwhelmed, I recommend you start with
The Dreamhold,
listed below. I wrote it specifically as an IF tutorial game.
It will introduce the common IF commands and conventions,
step by step, as you play.


Hadean Lands cover image

An interactive alchemical interplanetary thriller.

I launched this game as a Kickstarter project in 2010. It took longer
than I expected. It’s done now.

Hadean Lands is my first fully commercial text-parser game.
Purchase it for iOS, MacOS, Windows, or Linux.
Now available on Steam!


Cragne Manor cover image

A collaborative tribute to Anchorhead by Michael Gentry

Eighty-four IF authors got together to write a game. I was one (just one!) of them. None of us knew what any of the others were doing.

Planned and organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna.


Nouns cover image

A riff on Nouns by They Might Be Giants

They’re running out of nouns.


BTYT cover image

Fanfic of
xkcd “Click and Drag,”
with a dash of Invisible Cities

Marco Polo tells the Khan of an unusual underground journey.
But what story will he tell next?


generic game image

Where’s that axe?

A small game about fairy tales and who believes them.

Cold Iron was part of a metapuzzle in the 2011 IFComp.
See the notes page for
an explanation.


blue sand

You defeated the monster, and it’s not even bedtime yet.

This is not traditional IF. It is a very small choice-based game,
created with
a Javascript CYOA framework.


Heliopause cover image

A far-future story of discovery.

“Myrmidal is the queen of the bright worlds, and you’ve
walked her million cities beneath her sky and beyond it. Myrmidal
laughs and Myrmidal dances; they say no one weeps on Myrmidal, except
for moments on the stage. But even on Myrmidal the sun rises and sets,
and the music grows tinny and harsh when you weary of dancing.”

Steer a ship to distant stars and see what you find,
in this compact science-fictional fairy tale.


Dual Transform cover image

An escape in a single room.

Dual Transform is my take on the room-escape subgenre. But the
room is virtual, and what you have to escape may not be what you think.

You play a programmer; but the game is not about programming. Rather,
your environment is based on physical forces — heat, light, weight —
and their natural interactions. See what their transformations entail.


purple wallpaper image

A cozy mansion mystery in the making.

“Grey gravel crunches in the drive. Grey windows retreat behind
wrought-iron balcony rails. Grey skies press down over the looming,
shadowy edifice…. You do enjoy your job, but the decor can
become a bit much sometimes.”

Delightful Wallpaper is a ghoulishly humorous take on the mannerly
(or manorly) murder mystery. You do not play the detective, however.
Your point of view is part of the mystery; but don’t worry, it will
all come clear in time.

(As you explore the game, you will automatically take notes about the
things you notice. Read the notes to remind yourself what is


Dreamhold cover image

The Dreamhold is my interactive fiction tutorial game. It’s
designed for people who have never played IF before. It introduces the
common commands and mindset of text adventures, one step at a time.
There’s an extensive help system describing standard IF commands,
as well as dynamic hints which pop up whenever you seem to be stuck.

Of course, you can turn off the hints and the tutorials, and play
The Dreamhold as a real game. The puzzles are not extremely
difficult, but they should offer some challenge to both experienced
players and newcomers. (If the challenge is insufficient, there’s an
“expert” mode which makes some of the puzzles harder.)
There are also many optional bits to explore beyond the main

I’ve tried to create a game which rewards many species of adventurer:
the inexperienced newcomer, the puzzle-hurdler, the casual tourist,
the meticulous explorer, the wild experimenter, the seeker after
nuances and implications.


This is not a game, but an entry in Emily Short’s
The challenge was to take a
list of
player commands

and write a transcript of a game (or even a complete game)
that made use of those commands.

I had some fun with the concept.



Shade cover image

A one-room game set in your apartment.

Shade is an experiment in surrealism and psychological fear.
It begins as a classic “room escape” scenario; but
that’s not how it ends.

Play Shade if you’re in the mood for a short trip into an
uncertain, shifting environment that might just be a nightmare.


generic game image

An interactive cave crawl.

This game is a tribute to certain early computer games. But if I said
which ones, it would be a spoiler. So I won’t.

Play Hunter, in Darkness if you’re in the mood for a tense
and harrowing chase in a claustrophobic cavern setting. You will be
hurt; you may be killed. “Undo” and keep trying. The
struggle is survivable.

(One helpful note: This game does not use the usual
“north”, “south”, “east”,
“west” compass directions. Try “ahead”,
“back”, “left”, “right”,
“up”, or “down”. You can also
“enter” a particular passage.)

(Despite this disorientation, no serious mapping is necessary, or even
useful, in playing this game. If you think you need to start drawing a
map, you have misunderstood.)


generic game image

“A vacation in our lovely country!
See the ethnic charms of the
countryside, the historic grandeur of the capital city. Taste our
traditional cuisine; smell the flowers of the Old Tree. And all
without leaving your own armchair!”

Spider And Web is not a game about a vacation. It is a game about
deception, incomplete knowledge, and the ways that stories in other
people’s heads can be the best lies. It is also about how the role of the
narrator works in interactive fiction — but you don’t have to worry
about that to play the game. (Well, not much.)

Play Spider And Web if you’re in the mood for a complex spy
intrigue, in several chapters.

It is possible to make a fatal mistake in this game, but you will
immediately know you have done so. You can always “undo”
after death, and then fix the mistake. Therefore, the game is best
played straight through. Accept any non-fatal mistakes that you may
make; you will have a second chance. If you back up and replay each
scene for maximum efficiency, avoiding all mistakes, certain aspects
of the game will be lost.

However — you will eventually reach a point where things become
dangerous. You’ll know when. Beyond that, you’re playing for keeps and
heartbeats count. Save early and often.


generic game image

This is not traditional IF. I sometimes describe it as “interactive

Verbs such as “take”, “drop”,
“open”, and “examine” are not relevant in
this work. They will not be understood. Instead, your part is to type
the names of objects (or attributes or aspects of objects) that you
see in the narrative. When you refer to an object, it will be brought
into greater prominence, changing the course of the narrative thread.
Or it might be reduced to lesser stature, or removed entirely.
You’ll have to experiment. Typing the same name second time may
cancel the effect of the first time, or the effect may be cumulative.
The order in which you type names may or may not be important.


generic game image

Perhaps you would enjoy a play?

An uncomfortable theatrical performance turns into a journey of discovery.
Step between worlds — dangerous worlds, strange ones, and beautiful ones —
until you learn what has brought them together.

Play So Far if you’re in the mood for a meandering
exploration of landscape and symbolism.

(The puzzles in this game are not forgiving.
It is possible to make mistakes which will prevent you from winning.
Sometimes common sense will serve to avoid such mistakes; sometimes
insight is necessary; sometimes neither will help. Save often, and
keep your old saved games.)


generic game image

A programming tutorial. No, really!

This was a programming exercise: could I implement a very small
Lisp interpreter inside the Z-machine? (Scheme interpreter, actually.)
Turns out I could. And I did. But I wanted to enter it in the IFComp as
a game, so I added a Scheme manual and a problem set. So it’s a little
self-paced lesson in Scheme programming.

I admit it’s still not a game.


generic game image

I guess it’s okay to spoil the joke at this point: I
implemented Tetris, in Inform 5, for Infocom’s Z-machine. It
wasn’t even very hard.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in Parchment (the web-app
interpreter I use for browser IF). So to get the full effect,
you’ll have to download the game file and an appropriate
interpreter. Or you can just imagine Tetris.



generic game image

The lost Zarf game. I wrote this as an exercise, just after
Weather. It was an IF-style re-interpretation of Andy Looney’s
arcade game
which I was porting to the Mac at that time.

I brought it in to the office and showed it around, and everyone
thought it was cute enough to include on the final Icebreaker
CD. (Both Mac and PC versions, I believe. But not the 3DO version; that
came much earlier.)

That was pretty cool. (My first IF publication!)
However, Icebreaker was an impressive flop;
barely anyone has a copy. And since my IF version was based on the
arcade game, which is owned by Magnet Interactive Studios, I can’t
distribute it.

So if you see a copy of Icebreaker sitting in a bargain bin
somewhere, pick it up. It’s a treasure and a rarity. Or something.
Plus it’s got this pyramid-shooting arcade game on the CD, as a sort
of bonus find, and that’s pretty entertaining too. 🙂


generic game image

A night in the wilderness.

A Change in the Weather was my first serious work of
interactive fiction. I was trying to evoke mood and place in a way
that IF had not really tried, in those early years.

I think I succeeded at the mood and place. However, I blatantly failed
at puzzle balance. This is a very difficult game to finish. Any
choice you make may be a wrong choice, and you may not discover it was
wrong until later; and not choosing is always a choice. Timing may be
critical. Save often and keep your old saved games.


generic game image

Wander around. Puzzles will be posed.
Eventually you win.

The Fifth Praser Maze was a sort of logic-puzzle, word-puzzle…
thing that I created in 1989. It has existed in many forms, but now
I’ve implemented it as a Z-machine game.

This is not traditional IF; the usual parser commands will not
work. Instead, you need to type single words or short phrases. See the
game notes,
or type “about”, for instructions.


generic game image

Not to put too fine a point on it, I wrote this when I was about
fifteen. In BASIC. Inhumane is shoddy and I will make no
apologies. (This is a re-implementation in Inform 6, but I have carefully
avoided improving it.)

It is, of course, a parody of Infocom’s Infidel.
But the game abounds with in-jokes so obscure that even I
probably don’t recognize all of them any more. Some of them are
publically accessible; some less so. (Let’s just say that a certain
friend of mine was deeply, er, moved by eighth-grade geometry class.)


My earlier IF games were written in
Inform 6.
(Actually I started with Inform 5, but 6 was an incremental update to
the language.) Inform 6 is a traditional C-style compiled language,
invented by Graham Nelson. It generates games in Infocom’s
Z-machine format.

Building an I6 game is familiar territory for a programmer (although the
language has some IF-specific features and an excellent standard parser
library). However, if you are a writer interested in IF, but you have
no programming background, I6 can be a challenge.

Inform 7
tries to cater to both writers and programmers. It is a completely new
language (despite the name), with two significant innovations:
a natural (English-like) syntax, and a rule-based programming model.
The natural syntax makes I7 code easy to understand and maintain.
The rule-based model makes I7 code easy to extend. (In other words,
it’s easy to customize the standard parser library, and
it’s also easy to build a large game in small pieces.)

I’ve used I7 for all my games since 2006, and I’m very
pleased with it. However, both languages are available: take your

All of these games are playable in your browser thanks to
a Z-machine interpreter written in pure Javascript.
I7 automates the process of building playable Parchment web sites
for your game.

(If you find the Z-machine game format too limited, you can also use
Glulx, an updated game format that I
designed. Both I6 and I7 can generate Glulx games. Glulx games can
also be played in a web browser; the corresponding Javascript interpreter
is called


Find more IF games

The Interactive Fiction Database
is a comprehensive index of text adventures. You can
search IFDB,
browse competition winners,
or just trawl around for something good.

(All my games listed above have IFDB links; you can follow them to read
reviews and find similar games.)

Community sites

web forums are a popular discussion site.

Brass Lantern
is an IF news site. It also hosts some great introductory
articles and IF tutorials.

The Interactive Fiction Wiki
is just what you think — a repository of articles on IF-related topics.

Planet IF
is a blog aggregator which collects many IF news feeds and blogs.

The IF Archive
is the memory of the IF community. All the games and associated software
is stored here. It’s not really meant for casual browsing, though.
(I only mention it here because the Archive is important, and because I help
maintain it.)
IFDB is the Archive’s search function.

There are several real-life IF meetup groups now. The one
I hang out with is the
People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction,
the Boston-area IF fan club.

Learn about IF

Get Lamp is a devastatingly
comprehensive documentary on IF — history, theory, and practice —
by veteran documentarian Jason Scott. It’s a two-DVD set.

Gameshelf Episode #8: Modern Interactive Fiction

is a more tightly focussed video by Jason McIntosh. It shows how IF
has persisted in the present. It’s only ten minutes long, and you can
watch it on Youtube.

(I am interviewed in both of the above videos.)


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