Could you hack IF?

These days a commercial computer or video game requires a battalion of programmers, graphic artists, animators, writers, actors, and miscellaneous other contributors - probably about as many people as a modest movie production. But thanks to tools like Inform and TADS Interactive Fiction is still within the scope of a single author, hence the enduring attraction of IF for “after-hours” programmers. A programmer with a creative bent or a writer willing to learn to program can turn out a decent Interactive Fiction story while holding down a “real” job or full time study.

The first tip for the prospective IF programmer is don’t start from scratch - don’t sit down and start cutting code in C or Visual Basic or whatever your favourite programming language is. You’ll be reinventing a wheel that’s been rolling nicely for decades: the IF authoring tools.

Of course the leading tools are Inform and TADS, but other possibilities include ADRIFT, Hugo, and ALAN.

And there’s plenty of advice as well. For a starter, you might want to look at “Choosing a Language for Interactive Fiction” at or Roger Firth’s “Cloak of Darkness”. The IF Language Comparison puts snippets of code side-by-side, which may help to clarify in choosing a programming language that suits your style.

The Interactive Fiction Wiki is a good stepping-off point and the Usenet group or “r.a.i.f.” is inhabited by IF authors and the developers of the programming languages.

Tutorials and manuals

If you’re the sort of personal who learns best by example, you might be interested in the various tutorials that are available. Alice is a tutorial for Inform 6 based on the opening scene of “Through the looking-glass”, Mark Engelberg has an extensive TADS Tutorial, or if ADRIFT sounds more like your thing you might want to flick through the ADRIFT Topic Tutorial System.

But there’s no substitute for a good manual and they are available for all systems. Of particular note is the Inform Designer’s Manual and the TADS Author’s Manual, both of which are practically required reading for IF authors regardless of their programming language of choice.

And there are plenty of helpful code snippets to be found all over the place and advice from experienced hands on r.a.i.f.

Oh yeah - and you should play IF. There are hundreds of stories available on the Interactive Fiction Archive, so download a few and give them a try. You wouldn’t expect to write a novel without knowing what a novel is, and neither should you expect to write good IF until you start to get a bit of a feel for it.

Please release me

After a while you might feel you’ve got an IF story that you’d like to share with others. But where do you take it to get it seen and played?

Since 1995 many of the authors of Interactive Fiction have sharpened their skills preparing entries for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. The rules are pretty simple and they boil down to this: entries must be a previously unreleased stories that can be completed in about two hours. And some really excellent games have come out of the competition. Another competition that specifically aims to produce excellent games is the Spring Thing, which has been running since 2002. The IF Competition happens in September-October, while the Spring Thing is in April.

However, not everyone thinks competition is the best way to foster good Interactive Fiction, and for games that haven’t been entered in a competition there is the Interactive Fiction Review Conspiracy.

Writing Interactive Fiction is a stimulating exercise in both programming and creative writing. And the IF community provides plenty of tools, documentation, and opportunities to share your work.

First published: PC Update June 2006