Brass Lantern
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Magic Words: Interactive Fiction in the 21st Century

by Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos. Illustrations by Erin Mehlos.

How to Play

In the technical sense, interactive fiction is not difficult to play; if you can hunt and peck, you can type commands, and since the games aren't in real time, there's no frantic pace to worry about. What we mean by "how to play IF" is how to get in the correct mindset - IF is pretty different from just about any other videogame out there.

Most IF input is relatively intuitive and simple; the games don't exactly recognize natural language input. You can't, for example, tell the game you want to "scope out that girl over there." For the most part, articles are unnecessary, and the grammar you'll use is short and simple sentences like "look at girl," or "take sword." Adapting to simplified IF grammar is often the hardest task for an absolute beginner, but it won't take long to get the hang of it.

How to Play Every IF game is, by its nature, an exploratory one. Nothing will simply put itself in your path for you to find – you'll have to search and hunt for each item and clue. The "look" command is your most valuable tool here. Type "look" by itself and you'll get a general description of your surroundings, if something in that description jumps out at you or seems important, type "look at X" to examine it more closely.

Looking at things is as important in IF as talking to NPCs is in RPGs – you should do it, often, at every opportunity. Modern graphical adventure games make clues obvious by having the character's head turn toward everything you can interact with; a well-written IF description serves the same function by telling you what's important in the room and omitting what's useless.

By looking at everything, you'll naturally discover objects you can interact with, pick up and carry, or both. To grab something, type "take X," and if you need to put is down, the proper command is "drop X." If you want to put it somewhere specific, "put X on/in Y" usually works. To see what you're carrying, type "inventory" or "i."

One thing that will never work is the command "use X." The implementation (or lack thereof) of the "use" command has been a hot debate in the IF community for years, but the reigning argument is that "use" is too non-specific and makes games less challenging. It's not as pesky an issue in practice as it seems – if you have or encounter an object that can be used in some way, the specific verb you need ("turn X on" or "glue X to Y" or whatever) should be available.

Looking around and interacting with objects pretty much covers what you can do within a room, but eventually you'll have to leave one. The commands for moving from room to room come in the form of cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west, and just typing the direction you want to go in is sufficient to move to that place. (Some games use slightly different directional systems, like right and left in place of east and west, but movement is handled in the same way. The room's description will tip you off where the exits are.)

The last major commands you're likely to need are related to conversation. Some games only support "talk to X," while others will allow you to "ask X about Y" as well as "tell X about Y."

The most important tip for playing IF is to try everything. All IF games allow you to save at any time, so feel free to save your progress if you think what you're about to do is dangerous. Then do it! No matter how frustrated or stumped you may get, keep in mind that you have a limited number of options, commands, and objects at your disposal in any given situation, so just keep on trying things until you figure it out.

This article copyright © 2004, Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos. Illustrations copyright © 2004, Erin Mehlos. This article originally published at Reprinted with permission.

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