November 16

How to Play Interactive Fiction

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Table Of Contents

Knowing the standard commands and conventions of text adventures greatly helps players to play within the bounds of the interaction available in the game. In this article, let us discuss how one can play interactive fiction games.

Despite the prevalence of graphics-intensive, flashy eye-candy games these days, there still exists a small community of gamers who enjoy interacting with a world simulated entirely by text. This interactive fiction (IF) games are programmed to pretend to understand and respond to textual commands that the user gives. The success of the interaction hinges on how well the game responds to the commands that the player thinks to enter or visit site.

Most of the games involve playing out a story written in the second-person present tense by typing commands to carry out actions. Most of these commands are in a very abbreviated verb-noun form that makes it easier for the parser to understand what the player wants. Older games often are very focused on the simulation or manipulation aspects of the environment in order to provide puzzles for the player, but many modern games have a detailed plot that can be unveiled by taking various actions within the game. The community’s focus has shifted over the years to put more emphasis on the “fiction” part of interactive fiction to produce works that are more like short stories. There are plenty of excellent puzzle-heavy games in the community’s library of games, however.


  • Almost all the games involve the movement of one sort or another. It is generally understood for the sake of simplicity that the player character can intrinsically tell his direction and moves using compass directions (north, south, east, and west), which can be abbreviated to their first letters (n, s, e, or w).
  • Often, the diagonal directions, plus up and down (u and d), are implemented as well, depending on the specific map configuration, allowing a total of ten directions possible from any location.
  • Sometimes “in” and “out” are also used as a shortcut for entering a vehicle or other location within a location.
  • Occasionally a location name can itself be used as a command to move to that location.
  • A few games even bend the conventions by using ship directions (starboard, port, etc) or dispensing with directions altogether.

Gathering Information

  • The game will generally display the description of the surroundings whenever the location of the player change. The player can re-examine the location using the “look” command if he wishes to be reminded of the description after taking some actions which scroll it off the screen.
  • “Look at <item>” or “examine <item>” can also be used to look more closely at a particular item or object.
  • In some games, looking “under” or “behind” furniture or other objects is necessary to find more information or useful items.
  • Sometimes “search” can be used to search inside areas or objects as well.

Item Manipulation

  • To pick up an item, most games understand either “get <item name>” or “take <item name>”.
  • “Drop” is usually used to get rid of an item.
  • “Inventory”, which can be abbreviated as “inv” or just “i”, can be used to find out what the player is carrying at any time. Especially at the beginning of games, inventory is a useful command because starting items may not be obvious.
  • For doors, “open” and “unlock” are common actions found in most of the games.
  • Ropes can often be “tied,” liquids can be “drunk” or “poured,” foods can be “eaten,” clothes can be “worn” and “removed,” etc.
  • Most games attempt to simulate any reasonable and relevant action, and will prevent any unreasonable or irrelevant action with a message to the effect of “You can’t do that because…”

Character Interaction

  • NPC design is one of the hardest parts of IF to accomplish realistically. Many games do have NPCs that can communicate and respond in limited ways.
  • The most common ways to interact with an NPC are “talk to <name>” or “ask <name> about <topic>” in order to elicit information from the character, but many characters will only have a standard response to any topic that doesn’t have a programmed response.
    NPCs will sometimes also react to objects given them with the “give <object> to <name>” syntax.
  • More complex NPCs will move around and take actions on their own initiative, sometimes including initiating conversation with the player when they are encountered.


  • Almost all the developed games allow progress to be saved at any point using the “save” command.
  • Similarly, “restore” will return the player to an earlier saved state. This is mandatory while the game is being developed.
  • Games that keep track of a score will generally allow a “score” command to display the player’s progress in the game. Some games will put the score in the status bar at the top of the screen, however, so that the player does not need to use the score command unless he wants more detail.
  • “Help” or “hint” will sometimes allow the player to access general help for playing IF games, a list of commands specific to the game, or hints for various puzzles, depending on what the author has included.

These are certainly not all of the possible commands and conventions of texts. Many games will also have commands and conventions of texts specifically designed for the game’s intended interactions. For instance, some fantasy-based games have commands to allow spells to be memorized or cast. Other games might have commands for flying a ship, fixing a radio, cooking a meal, or any number of other scenarios. Often the player must figure out what actions might be reasonable in a given situation and try them to see what happens. Many times actions that are not “correct” or “successful” still yield an interesting or amusing response. The strength of the game lies in the way it can respond to anything the player attempts to input. The more the player believes he can enter any reasonable command and be understood, the better the game is at simulating its environment and providing an immersive and engaging experience.


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