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More than a book, but not quite a video game, interactive fiction is making a virtual comeback.

Now, you may have never noticed it was gone. Or that it even existed in the first place. But for nearly 30 years, interactive fiction has fascinated tech-savvy bibliophiles not entirely satisfied to simply curl up with their paperbacks.

"You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. What now?"

No, this isn’t an excerpt from an Italo Calvino novel. It’s the beginning of Adventure – the world’s first truly interactive computer game. Written in 1972 on a refrigerator-sized mainframe by Boston-based programmer Will Crowther, the first interactive novel had neither the fancy 3-D graphics nor the floorboard-shaking sound effects that define modern video gaming. But it didn’t need that sort of embellishment. Adventure’s text-only world was imaginative, surprisingly addictive and – most of all – fun.

In today’s era of photo-realistic shoot-’em-ups such as Quake, it’s hard to imagine such a thing was possible. But it was.

The first time I played Adventure forever shaped my enthusiasm about the creative use of technology. It was 1977. I was 8 years old. My mother – a teacher – brought me along to a conference at Lawrence Tech.

At first, I found it all boring – room after room of adults chatting about school. But when I found the computer science department, I spent hours transfixed by a Teletype terminal running Adventure. I had never used a computer before.

Known today as interactive fiction – or the delightfully appropriate acronym IF – the original Adventure displayed simple prose to describe fictional settings in detail.

"You are in an open forest near both a valley and a road."

But it was more than a digitized book – Adventure was the first computer game you could talk back to. Players responded by typing plain English instructions, such as "Climb tree."

As the game progressed, a true story emerged, complete with characters, dialogue and – omigosh – a real plot.

Interesting, too, is the story behind Adventure. Author Crowther first wrote the game as a mere diversion. It combined his interest in programming with the then-new phenomena of pen and paper role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Notes Crowther (on the excellent Colossal Cave page at people.delphi.com/rickadams/Adventure), "My idea (was) a computer game that would not be intimidating to noncomputer people."

Nevertheless, Adventure’s initial following was among computer science students. After a copy was planted on a university mainframe, a handful of students spread the free program to other campuses using Arpanet – the network of institutional mainframes that eventually morphed into today’s Internet. Because of Arpanet, Adventure, which began as a solo effort, became a truly collaborative work.

In 1976, the game was discovered at Stanford University by Don Woods, who contacted Crowther and received permission to expand the game. Woods, a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, added Middle Earth touches such as trolls and elves to Adventure’s tale of subterranean exploration.

Woods’ expansion pack was exactly what ‘70s college gamers wanted. By the late ‘70s, according to IF author Graham Nelson, Adventure was "as redolent of late nights in the User Area as the soapy taste of Nestlé’s vending machine chocolate or floppy, rapidly yellowing line printer paper."

As it spread onto university computers across the globe, Adventure began to morph further. Computer science students tweaked the program, creating their own versions. Soon dozens of versions existed, all subtly different.

"As with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales," notes Nelson in his Inform Designer’s Manual, "the vast number of mutated versions (of Adventure) is evidence of popularity not just with the audience but with those who told the tale."

Eventually, interactive fiction games went public. In 1979, with the advent of home computers, a group of MIT students wrote an Adventure knock-off that sold thousands of copies. Soon interactive fiction companies were tapping up-and-coming print authors such as Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park), and throughout the ‘80s hundreds of titles were sold.

But as computer graphics got better (and user attention spans became more fickle), the interactive fiction business dried up. By 1990, IF was considered passé.

Now, with the rise of the Internet, IF fans have once again found each other. Newsgroups such as rec.arts.int-fiction are teeming with activity, and interactive fiction thrives on the Web. The Interactive Fiction Competition (www.textfire.com/comp00), now in its sixth year, has spurred a flurry of new writing.

Purists can even play the original Adventure online (members.home.net/townbradley/brad/if/advent/index.html). Or get a version for your Palm Pilot (www.fortunecity.com/underworld/rpg/22/) at no charge.

Interactive fiction has gone back to its roots – it’s collaborative, community-driven and free. IF enthusiasts say today’s works – an interactive version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, for example – are better than ever. And with a little patience, aspiring authors can write their own masterpieces with free, readily available Web tools (www.gnelson.demon.co.uk/inform).

True to its acronym, IF opens a world of new possibilities. A picture may be worth a thousand words. But sometimes, the reverse is true as well.

Adam Druckman writes about computers for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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