girl with sword

How to Play Interactive Fiction

The first part of this tutorial is loosely adapted from A Beginner's Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction. Well-known interactive fiction author Emily Short has written a downloadable PDF tutorial. At Brass Lantern you'll find a whole set of Beginner Resources. Also worth checking out: the introductory materials written by Dennis Jerz (especially the links under "Playing Interactive Fiction").

The Story Begins

In interactive fiction, you play the role of a character in a story. The story may be whimsical (in which case it will more obviously qualify as a game) or more serious. It may have well-developed characters and something resembling a plot, or it may be little more than a setting where you can wander around and pick up treasures.

In order to move the story forward, you'll type commands that cause your character to do things. The interpreter software will describe what the fictional world looks like. If your action causes a change in the world of the story, the software will usually tell you. Note the word "usually": On occasion, an action you take in one place may have effects in another place, which you won't be told about unless you go to the other place and look for them.

When you load a story into your interpreter software, you'll see an introduction. Usually the introduction consists of one or two screenfuls of text, which will give you some background on who and where you are. In some games you'll learn from the introduction what you're trying to accomplish during the story, but in others you may have to figure that out as you go along.

Whenever the software has printed a screenful of text, it will wait until you press a key before continuing. This will give you a chance to read everything before the text scrolls off the top of the screen.

Concerning Puzzles

To read a book, all you need to do is turn the pages: The author has pre-arranged the events of the story for you, and they almost always unfold in a simple linear order, from start to finish. Interactive fiction is quite different: In order to move the story forward, you'll have to figure out what to do next within the world of the story.

If it were always obvious what you need to do next, the story wouldn't be very interactive. It would unfold in a linear manner, perhaps prompting you from time to time for input that would amount to little more than turning the pages. Instead, most interactive fiction presents you, at any given moment, with a number of choices that may (or may not) move the story forward.

Finding the right action to take at a given point in the story is not always easy. Sometimes it's quite difficult indeed. The author can be expected to put roadblocks in your path -- some small, some large. These roadblocks and blind alleys are also known as puzzles.

Sometimes the solution to a puzzle will become clear if you examine nearby objects closely. (See below for more on how to do this.) Quite often a seemingly useless object found in one location will become useful in a different location entirely. On occasion you may need to find unlikely uses for objects, or try unlikely actions. Lateral thinking will often be useful.

How to Interact

After the introduction is printed, you'll get a prompt. It will probably look like this:


The prompt means that the software is waiting for you to tell it what you want to do. You do this by typing commands, as if you were giving orders to the character whose part you're playing. After typing a command, press the computer's Enter/Return key. For instance, the introduction might tell you that you're in a kitchen, and that you can see a closed glass jar standing on the kitchen counter. Commands you could try at this point would include TAKE THE JAR, OPEN THE JAR, and EXAMINE THE JAR. (Throughout this tutorial, things that are written in capital letters are commands that can be typed when you see the prompt. They don't have to be typed in capital letters, and in fact most interpreter software makes no distinction internally between capitals and lower-case).

If you want to, you can skip the articles: TAKE JAR will work just at well as TAKE THE JAR. If there are several different jars you could be referring to, the software will probably ask you which one you mean. If you're asked a question, you can usually respond by typing one or more words that uniquely identifies the specific item you want your command to be directed to. For instance, if the software says, "Which jar do you mean, the blue glass jar or the green glass jar?", you could reply BLUE to take (or examine, or open) the blue one. You can also choose to ignore the question altogether, just typing a new command.

If you're new to interactive fiction, the fact that you can type commands and have the computer respond to them may mislead you into thinking that the software is far more intelligent than is actually the case. Truth be told, the software's "parser" (the routine that interprets what you type) is not nearly as smart as a three-year-old child. It will respond to commands in only a few simple forms:

The last of the forms shown above is used when you want to give a command to a different character who is in the room with you. The point is, commands like WHAT DO I DO NOW? and commands that begin with words like PLEASE won't work at all.

In order to help the parser understand what you want to do, you need to be as specific and detailed as possible. For example, let's say you've encountered a broken pocket watch in the course of the game. Typing REPAIR THE WATCH is very unlikely to work. Instead, you would need to EXAMINE WATCH to learn, perhaps, that its back can be pried open. Depending on how the particular object has been defined, you might need to EXAMINE BACK OF WATCH or TURN WATCH OVER to see the back. Next you would PICK UP SCREWDRIVER, then PRY BACK WITH SCREWDRIVER, then EXAMINE WATCH or possibly LOOK IN WATCH to read a description of the broken innards, and then determine and carry out an appropriate course of action. For instance, if you discover that the watch's mainspring is broken, and if there's a replacement spring handy, you would REMOVE BROKEN SPRING, TAKE NEW SPRING, PUT NEW SPRING IN WATCH, and finally CLOSE THE WATCH.

That's a difficult, fiddly puzzle. Most of the puzzles you'll encounter in IF are not quite that complicated. The point is, learning to think in this step-by-step fashion is essential to playing interactive fiction.


In most interactive fiction, you're free to wander around an environment that contains a number of discrete locations. To move from where you are now to another location, all you need to do is type the direction you want to go. Other methods of navigating from place to place have been tried, but the least obtrusive method (which is used in most games) is to use compass directions to indicate the direction of movement. For instance, you can type GO SOUTH. But simply typing SOUTH will also do the trick, as will the abbreviation S. Other directions and their abbreviations are NORTH (N), EAST (E), WEST (W), NORTHEAST (NE), SOUTHEAST (SE), NORTHWEST (NW), SOUTHWEST (SW), UP (U), and DOWN (D).

If you're outside of a location, typing IN or ENTER will often allow you to enter it. If you're in an interior location that has one obvious exit, typing OUT or EXIT will usually take you out. If you're sitting in a chair or lying on a bed, the command STAND UP (which can be entered simply as STAND) will probably be needed before you can travel to another location. In specific situations, you might also be able to use movement words like CLIMB or CRAWL (CLIMB INTO CAR, for instance, or CRAWL OUT OF BOX). In most locations, these commands would have no meaning. In some interactive fiction, they're not needed at all.

You'll probably find it helpful to draw a map of the area in which you find yourself. You may also want to make notes on the map about which objects or people are found in which places.

Common Verbs (Commands)

The interpreter software for interactive fiction tries to present a "natural language" interface to the reader/user/player, but its ability to understand your commands is, as noted earlier, very limited. In general, you should always try to express yourself as simply as possible. If you have tried several ways of giving a command and the software refuses to understand what you want to do, you are most probably on the wrong track; it's time to try something completely different. (Either that, or the game is just badly written.)

You can use the verb TAKE to pick up items in the story world -- TAKE KNIFE or TAKE STICK. The verb GET is a synonym for TAKE. In most cases, the object that you're wanting to manipulate needs to be physically present. If your character is in the dining room and the jar of honey is in the pantry, typing GET JAR OF HONEY won't do anything.

Of course, you can also use the DROP command to drop items (DROP KNIFE, for example). In interactive fiction, objects can almost always be dropped safely on the floor; there's no penalty for littering. Some of the most used verbs can be directed toward multiple items, like this: TAKE GREEN BALL AND SCREWDRIVER, or DROP ALL, or PUT ALL BUT HAMMER IN BAG. You may find that ALL is a useful word, although it only works with a few verbs, primarily TAKE and DROP. Here are some other important verbs and their abbreviations, with examples of how to use them:

LOOK (abbreviated L): If you don't say what you want to look at, LOOK will show you your surroundings. The command LOOK AT SHOVEL has the same effect as EXAMINE SHOVEL.

EXAMINE (X): You can often learn more details about an object by typing (for example) X SHOVEL. The detailed description will sometimes mention further details that can then be examined in turn. (Note that in a few of the very earliest games, X is not understood as an abbreviation.)

LOOK BEHIND and LOOK UNDER are occasionally useful (LOOK UNDER BED, for instance). LOOK IN is likely to produce the same result as SEARCH.

SEARCH is useful with containers, such as a dresser drawer or suitcase. If the description of something that looks as if it might be a container doesn't inform you as to its contents, SEARCH the item.

TAKE (or GET) can be used for picking things up. You'll find that you can only carry a certain number of things at any given time, however. After deciding what you don't have an immediate need for, you can use the DROP command (for instance, DROP SHOVEL). In some games, dropping things prematurely can get the game into an unwinnable state, because the place where you dropped it may later be closed off. Trying to guess what you may need later and what can safely be jettisoned is one of the uncertainties IF players have to get used to.

INVENTORY (abbreviated INV or I) is an extremely useful command: It provides a list of what you're carrying and wearing.

OPEN and CLOSE (or SHUT) can be used with objects such as doors and suitcases (for example, OPEN GREEN DOOR).

A few items -- again, doors and suitcases are good examples -- can be locked or unlocked. Generally a key is required. UNLOCK GREEN DOOR WITH RUSTY KEY, for example, will work, provided the rusty key is in your possession (that is, in the inventory) and provided it fits the lock. If it doesn't, you'll read an error message explaining the problem. If you don't specify a key, the software may try to guess what you were planning to use.

AGAIN (abbreviated G) can be used to repeat your most recent command.

UNDO can be used if your most recent command seems to be producing results you don't like. In some games, UNDO doesn't work, so it's advisable to save your current game state (see below for how to do this) before trying anything drastic, such as jumping off of a cliff.

WAIT (abbreviated Z) can be used if for some reason you don't want to do anything. This might be a useful command for a few turns after KNOCK ON DOOR, for instance. The butler might be moving slowly today.

If the software doesn't understand your command, it will produce a simple error message explaining the problem. Sometimes the error is the result of a misspelled word in your input. In this situation, simply type the command OOPS followed by the correct spelling. Modern interpreters understand OOPS.

Other verbs you may need from time to time include POUR, FILL, KNOCK, LISTEN, MOVE, PULL, PUSH, PUT IN (for instance, PUT COIN IN BOX), TAKE OUT, READ, THROW, TIE, UNTIE, TOUCH, and TURN. This is not a complete list of the commands found in games, however. Many games include a few special commands of their own. Hopefully you'll be able to think of the right command when you need it.

You'll need to type commands that say specifically what actions you want to take. The all-purpose verb USE is not understood by most IF software, and for a very good reason: It makes the game too easy.

Interacting with People

While exploring the world of the game, you may meet other people. Modeling the complexities of real human interactions is, for better or worse, beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced computer software. When interacting with the characters in interactive fiction, you'll be limited to a small number of verbs.

Several systems are in common use. Some include conversation menus. Another common approach is the ASK/TELL system. When this is implemented by the game designer, you can ASK a character about a subject of your own choosing, or TELL the character about something. To do this, you'll almost always need to specify the subject with a single noun. For instance, ASK JOHN ABOUT MARY would likely be understood by the software (if there were characters named John and Mary in the game), but ASK JOHN WHY MARY WON'T GIVE ME THE PITCHER OF MILK would not be understood. If you think John might know something about this, your choices will almost certainly be limited to ASK JOHN ABOUT MARY and ASK JOHN ABOUT MILK.

Instead of asking, you can TELL a character about something. Sometimes the result will be the same whether you ask or tell. Sometimes, there will be a difference.

You may be able to GIVE an object to a character, or SHOW it to the character, but only if you're holding the object. (When you ASK or TELL about something, the topic you're bringing up doesn't have to be present.) In some games it's possible to give a character an order. To do this, you type the character's name, then a comma, then the order. As usual, the order should be a simple verb, possibly followed by an object. For instance, JOHN, DRINK THE MILK might cause John to drink the milk ... or John might refuse.

If you want an object that the character is holding or has access to, you can try two different forms: ASK JOHN FOR THE BOTTLE or JOHN, GIVE ME THE BOTTLE. Either or both may be implemented by the game designer.

Special Commands

Most games include some verbs that don't do anything in the world of the story, but instead tell the software something about how you want it to behave, or some special task you want it to peform. These verbs include:

UNDO -- takes back the most recent move you made. Some interpreter software provides multiple levels of undo.

QUIT (Q) -- ends your current session. (You may be asked whether you want to save the game so as to resume it later.)

RESTART -- starts the story over from the beginning.

SAVE -- saves your current position to a file on disk. Before you undertake a complex or difficult series of moves, you may want to save a file. Multiple files with different names can be saved, allowing you to return to various points in the story and try different actions.

RESTORE -- loads a previously saved position. (Note that it's likely to be necessary to use this text command when you see the prompt. The interpreter's file menu probably won't allow you to restore a saved game. Primitive, but that's the way it works.)

VERBOSE -- tells the software you want the full description of every location you enter, even if you've been there before.

BRIEF -- tells the software you want a long description the first time you enter a location, and only the name of the location when you come back. This is the default mode, but even if you're in BRIEF mode you can use LOOK to see your surroudings.

What's the Point of All This, Then?

Have fun!