Val Grimm; Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of this year’s Second Annual Interactive Fiction Mini-Convention, we are publishing two articles from Interactive Fiction Theory Reader, a newly released collection of essays including work by Nick Montfort, Andrew Plotkin, Emily Short, and many more.
In my view, just as science fiction has continued to change since its first period of widespread popularity in the pulps of the 1920s, so too IF (which I was introduced to only recently thanks to the good offices of several in the community) today appears to be a somewhat different creature than it was in its infancy. Its authors often have literary as well as ludic goals, and academics including Nick Montfort at MIT have used it as a platform in which to explore narrative theory.
“The best thing would be a parser with just one word:
Barman: A beer for you.
Barman: Five bucks.
So, this series of sentences seems perfect to me, maybe I’ll use it to write a game.”
The man who said this is Enrico Colombini, a programmer from Brescia (northern Italy) and the pioneer of adventure games in Italy—the Will Crowther of the Mediterrean, just to be clear. He has a curious aversion to the sophisticated parser invented by Infocom, and that’s why he proposed such a bizarre idea: the one-word parser. Fun, fantasy, and easy, straightforward work: no complicated sentences and no NPCs to ask “What’s wrong?” It’s certainly provocative, but it’s a way to focus mainly on the story and to create an “interactive fiction” for the modern era in Italy, where this genre seems dead: less puzzles, more story.
The First Game
An outburst from the man who, in 1982, wrote the first text adventure in Italian history, for Apple II computers: Avventura nel castello (Castle Adventure). “I didn’t know Infocom games yet and, certainly, that was a good thing”, he says. “Had I played them, I would have tried to emulate their parser: put the red sheet and the green one in the big drawer, then close it with the strange key. Things would have gotten really complicated. I would have lost a lot of time, and maybe I would have given up. “At the time, I hadn’t yet discovered that easy things are, often, the best way to gain victory. I needed a lot of years to understand this, but that’s another story.” Twenty years later, Avventura nel castello, the story of a blank hero (a man with neither a story nor a past) trapped in a magic castle, can still compete with most Italian adventure games. At the time, without exaggeration, the game—for its sheer quality—would have turned Scott Adams pale. Avventura nel castello was at first sold only in a shop owned by a friend of Colombini, and later it was distributed by Gruppo Editoriale Jackson. In 1985 the MS-DOS version of the game was released (the last edition is dated 1996). “The sales were never high, but the satisfaction was great because a lot of players wrote to know more about the game. . . . I earned, if I remember right, three or four million. The same as Scott Adams—but my millions were in lire, his in dollars.” (Three or four million lire were equivalent to six or eight thousand dollars at the time.) The game didn’t have a large distribution because it ran on the Apple and then on MS-DOS, when the most common home computers were the Commodore 64 and the Spectrum. On the shelves of computer shops, it was easier to find “games from abroad”: Infocom, Level 9, Adventure International by Scott Adams. The problem was that text adventures were still games for a small audience, young people able to understand English (at the time, in Italy, only young people plaed videogames). For this, the most appreciated games were those of Scott Adams: not much text to translate, an easy parser, speed, and, in some cases, graphics (and graphics, whatever you might think, means audience). That is, until someone realized that adventure games could have a larger market in Italy, as well.
The Newspaper Stands
Things changed when games arrived at the newspaper stands. Yes: the newsstands became gold mines for adventurers. In April 1985, the first issue of a monthly publication called Next Strategy was released: on the tape were three graphic adventures for the Commodore 64, written by Roberto Tabacco and Hans Piu. The games were Le avventure di Jack Byteson: Il tesoro di Yumak (Adventures of Jack Byteson: The Treasure of Yumak), Il segreto della Fenice: Tempio delle Illusioni (The Secret of the Phoenix: Temple of Illusions), and Dust Hanter. The names of the characters were Anglophone instead of Italian because they sounded more fascinating to the audience: Jack Byteson, Rex Wright, and Dust Hanter, a detective that became the hero of text adventures at the time, the star of a series. If you play them today, a great pleasure comes from satisfying your nostalgia. The games are fascinating because they were the first interactive text games in Italy, but most everything else about them is frustrating. It’s impossible to say that these games have a parser. The game understands only the precise sequence of commands that lead to victory—nothing outside the solution scheme, no provision made for responses (even silly ones) for wrong actions. We are far from Avventura nel castello and also from Scott Adams. Regression? Maybe. To win, it was not enough to solve the puzzles; you also had to guess the exact words in the mind of the author. Eventually, this reaches an extreme, like a game that doesn’t understand the word “follow” but only the word “track.” Certainly there were reasons for this. At the time, this was more or less the standard (as it was in other countries, too). Games like that were easier to write and easier to play. For this historical reason, Italian players, especially those who don’t know English (and there are many), are not used to a complex parser. It sounds bad to their ears. At the time, nobody dreamed of emulating Infocom. The magazine was sold every month, and you could not expect that the editor would hire a team of programmers and beta-testers. And everyone was happy with the results because the players were enthusiastic—and that was enough to continue without increasing the budget (which was already very high for such games). For the same “market reasons,” the games were very difficult. In fact, the magazine had a high price: eight or nine thousand lire (roughly 16 or 18 dollars at the time). Had the games been very easy, the line of people requesting a refund would have been longer than the line of people ready to buy the next issue with new games and the solutions of the old ones. The strategy, instead, was to insert a very difficult puzzle in one of the games so that the players had to buy the next issue. More or less at the same level were the games of the Dream series in Editions Fermont The first issue was in November 1985, and every issue had three games for the Commodore 64. They had black-and-white graphics, a retro style, and good oneiric plots. In every issue there was a game without graphics, to make the most of the memory of the Commodore 64 and offer more text and more puzzles. The publisher, Arscom, launched a new series, Epic 3000, with three games every month. The first issue was sold in April 1986. Roberto Tabacco was the author of the ones for Commodore 64, and Bonaventura Di Bello wrote the ones for Spectrum (with the programs The Quill and The Illustrator). Here, the influence of the Level 9 games was clear. In December 1986, the last issue of the magazine was published; it then became Viking (first issue: January 1987), with a new publisher, Edizioni Hobby. Tabacco was no longer working there, and the games (three, the same for Commodore 64 and Spectrum) were all written by Di Bello. Two months earlier, in November 1986, Edizioni Hobby had launched the series Explorer (three games, the same for CBM and MSX); here, Di Bello ported to the Commodore the Spectrum games from the Epic 3000 series. Sometimes, a game continued in two or more episodes.
The Quill and Higher Quality
The quality of the games got better with Di Bello. The games did not only understand the actions that lead to victory, but many others as well. The stories were well written and had a good variety of genres: horror, thriller, science fiction. At the time, it was a pleasure to play a game written by Di Bello. He wrote good games because he had a good background as a player. It all began when, in his 20s, he bought by chance Adventure A: Planet of Death by Artic Computing (while the other Italian pioneer, Colombini, was hypnotized by Crowther and Woods, authors of Adventure). A little time later, Di Bello discovered Infocom games. Then he found a tool to write games by himself, the “adventure games generator” The Quill (an illegal copy, of course, but then he later bought an original one from England), and wrote a game on his Spectrum. He sent it to a magazine called Load’n’Run and, in that moment, began his fortune. “I was paid 200 thousand lire (100 dollars at the time),” he said. “Another two and I would have been able to buy a new Spectrum!” Di Bello wrote a total of 74 adventure games. He was able to write a game every week and was paid 500 thousand lire (250 dollars) per game. “It would have been wonderful,” he said, “to live writing those games; it would have been the same as living as a writer, or maybe better, because the audience of text games was superb.”
Not Only Verb/Noun
The parser was still predominately verb/noun, but there were some exceptions, above all in single games or in short series such as the mystery stories published by Systems (Gialli Commodore, just one game per issue). These games were well written and, among the games of the time, are the most similar to interactive stories. Consider Il mistero di Zambesi Waters (The Mystery of Zambesi Waters) by Sandro Certi and Franco Todi. The location is Africa, and in the opening screen there is a promise: “This game accepts sentences with one or two words, with a maximum of NINE.” It is possible to type something like “jump down from the bus.” However, those are predefined sentences that are good only for one event, one puzzle. If, in another and not predefined situation, you type “jump down,” inevitably the game says “I don’t understand” (and not “Jump down from what?”). A trick, sure, an illusion . . . but also an experiment.
The System Inside and Out
The popularity of text adventures prompted Italian software houses to create writing tools. To write a good adventure game, with an elementary parser, is undeniably easier than writing a good shoot-’em-up. So the market was open to this kind of experiment.
To do so, you could find in newsstands (of course) an illegal Italian version of The Quill. But there were also legal ways to write games.
The Systems company produced a series of lessons to write text adventures published by the magazines Personal Computer and Commodore Computer Club. The lessons were very good, and in them appeared, for the first time to Italian players, the concept of a library and a world model, with chapters covering the theory of locations and inventory and suggestions for an “intelligent” parser.
In 1986, Enrico Colombini, the pioneer author of Avventura nel castello, wrote the book Scrivere un gioco di avventura sul personal computer (How to Write an Adventure Game), which had great success. With the book came a tape with some adventure games and the famous Modulo Base, a system, a standard library of verbs to enlarge to create your own game using BASIC.
Many less-than-brilliant games were written using Modulo Base; the memorable exceptions are by Colombini, among them L’Anello di Lucrezia Borgia (The Ring of Lucrezia Borgia), L’Apprendista Stregone (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and L’astronave condannata (The Damned Starship). Di Bello, too, used Modulo Base, and here his history as an author of text adventures meets that of Colombini.
“I used Modulo Base to realize a sort of The Quill for MSX,” he said. “I used it to create a dark/light routine (with timers for lamps or other light objects), and other things offered by The Quill. Then I tried to do the same with Amiga’s Amos Basic, but it was too late to launch text adventures again and the project never took life. But I’m sure Enrico remembers that night when I woke him to ask a suggestion—I hope he forgave me!”
The “adventure toolkits” opened the market to new authors, but the truth is that only one game was destined to be remembered: Avventura nel castello by Colombini, the first one, the best one. None of the others excelled. In Italy, at the time, none wrote a new masterpiece after Avventura nel castello.
The Dark Age
The lack of masterpieces and a market made of games that were all similar contributed to reduce the Italian audience’s interest in text adventures. So, as in the rest of the world, at the end of 80s Italian IF entered the dark age. The age of games sold in newspapers stands came to a close with the series Epyx 3001 (published by Arscom, first issue January 1988). Every issue had five or six games only for the Commodore 64, but the sales were poor, and the series closed after six months. There were few games written at the end of the 80s and at the beginning of the 90s, and almost none that sold . There were, however, some bad attempts to realize games using well-known comic characters like Diabolik and Dylan Dog, but the results were generic action adventures with many lows and nearly no highs.
One of the most interesting turns of events happens in 1990, when the magazine Amiga Byte published Demo Adventure, an adventure toolkit (written by Maurizio Giunti) that enabled you to create games with a good parser (“attack orc with the sword”) but that, curiously, didn’t allow synonyms for the nouns (while it did for verbs).
With this system, Marco Vallarino, a man from Imperia (northwestern Italy), wrote nearly 20 text adventures, among them Dracula—notable because it offers a lot of locations (84). At the same time, there was an innovative experiment by Alessandro Uber and Fabrizio Venerandi. They created a text adventure for Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), Necronomicom, played via Videotel—a system of connected computers used by pubs and restaurants to attract guests—until 1994 and via telnet since 2001.
In 1995, there were a few other “flames” in the dark age. Vallarino wrote Sfida all’ignoto (Battle against the Unknown), an MS-DOS game with an Infocom-like status line, whose first scene is similar to the opening scene of Avventura nel castello: an airplane crash. Robero Barabino wrote a very nice but underrated game, Alieni per sempre (Aliens Forever), a text adventure with graphics that is a parody of the TV series Star Trek and that bears structural similarities to the post–Magnetic Scrolls game Wonderland.
In any case, these games didn’t have much audience: the Internet was just beginning in Italy, and they were mostly distributed by word of mouth.
Everything changed with the arrival of Inform in the late 90s. (Today, there still don’t exist games written with TADS or Hugo, because of the lack of Italian libraries.) Ilario Nardinocchi wrote the first Italian Inform libraries, while Luca Melchionna and Barabino write the first Italian Inform games: Zazie, inspired by the book of French writer Raymond Queneau, and Non sarà un avventura (This Is Not an Adventure), a funny game that takes place on a beach full of people and girls to catch. The year is 1999, and thus begins a new era for text adventures in Italy, thanks also to word of mouth via it.comp.giochi.avventure.testuali, the Italian IF newsgroup.
There were still not so many fans of these kind of games, but the Italian IF community was strong, and it launched an award for the Best Adventure of the Year: the first winner was Barabino with Non sarà un’avventura.
In the meantime, Giovanni Riccardi rewrote the Italian libraries, opened an Italian website for Inform, and translated, for didactical purposes, Adventure and Toyshop. On the scene then arrived Tommaso Caldarola, who wrote the first game using the Riccardi libraries: Uno zombie a Deadville (A Zombie in Deadville), horror splatter winner of the 2001 Italian Adventure of the Year award. Caldarola also wrote another interesting game, the western Pecos Bill.
But the most prolific year was 2002. Vallarino gained much more success with the game Enigma, very popular among Italian players, winner of the Italian Adventure of the Year, while my mystery game Flamel, runner-up, was also much appreciated by the Italian scene. At the same time, for the first time an Italian author entered international IF Comp. Daniele Gewurz entered his game Ramon and Jonathan (36th place out of 38).
Since then, the Italian scene has experienced ups and downs. One month, on the newsgroup it.comp.giochi.avventure-testuali, there would be a lot of people discussing games, theories, and puzzles, and the next month, nothing. Most of discussions revolved around a central question: is it better to write interactive fiction (more story than puzzles) or text adventures (more puzzles than story)?
In the end, the best results were obtained with “interactive fiction” games, like the ones of Roberto Grassi. He, with his team Mondi Confinanti, founded also by Paolo Lucchesi and Alessandro Peretti, developed solid and interesting graphic adventure games like Little Falls and Beyond, which won second place in IF Comp 2005.
Another good example of an interactive fiction game, mostly story-oriented, was Natalie, a horror-thriller by Fabrizio Venerandi.
But it is hard to maintain the interest of the audience, which is
very poor in Italy. I tried to revitalize the scene, organizing, with the
help of Giovanni Riccardi, the One Room Game Competition (http://www.avventuretestuali.com/orgc), which revelead a “rising star” like Massimo Stella, author of well-written games such as Sotto la pioggia (In the Rain). The problem is that, in the last two or three years, not many games were produced, and the audience vanished.
So, the question is: is interactive fiction dead in Italy? Maybe. Anyone can find most Italian games on http://www.ifitalia.info, but the question is how to resuscitate the interest in these games and to gain a young audience. One solution is offered by Fabrizio Venerandi, who now produces interactive stories without a parser and involved the legend Colombini in his project (http://www.quintadicopertina.com/).
Another solution is offered by Marco Vallarino, who just recently released a new game, Darkiss, an “old school” text adventure about a vampire trapped in a dungeon, which has been quite successful and has revived some interest in these kind of games.
But maybe the big solution is to remember the lesson of the pioneer Enrico Colombini: to restart, writing easy games with one-word parsers, which might also be good for new technology such as smartphones.