It was a real pleasure creating this list of the best interactive fiction games of all time.
As a novelist and games journalist, I’m naturally inclined towards Interactive Fiction, which is why I write a lot about it here on FictionEarth.com.
Interactive Fiction is a unique challenge for a game developer. Creating a compelling experience with nothing more than words requires true artistry. And only the best developers can pull it off to great effect.
There have been so many good interactive fiction games through the years. It was not easy creating this list of the best. I had to play through a hundred games to remind myself which ones truly deserve the spot in this list.
And I have left some great games out.
When I was creating this list, I wanted to achieve two things. Firstly, I wanted to showcase the absolute best interactive fiction games. But I also wanted to show the full spectrum of the genre. Because interactive fiction is a truly versatile genre.
There are interactive fiction games about adventures, about domestic disputes, about love, about politics… the genres covers all subjects. And there are many different styles of interactive fiction games, too, some being pure text, others using visuals of varying styles.
In this list I have intentionally focused on games that:
- Cover a variety of subject matters.
- Come from all different eras (from the 1970s to today)
- Use different styles.
If you are a fan of interactive fiction, or a developer, I hope this list showcases the quality and breadth of the genre. And if you are a fan looking some great Interactive Fiction experiences, I hope it provides you with hours of gaming.
Let’s get started.
The Best Interactive Fiction Games of All Time
There’s a reason why Façade won the 2006 Slamdance Independent Games Festival. It shows how much can be accomplished in the interactive fiction genre.
Façade is a game in which you play as a character who has been invited to visit two friends, who are a couple, in their home in New York. There’s a domestic dispute taking place. And you can influence that dispute to either solve the problem or break the couple up.
What makes Façade one of the best interactive fiction games ever is its use of natural language processing. The speech here is so realistic you truly get engrossed in the lives of the characters. It shows just how much can be accomplished with only text and speech.
(I’ve written more about similar games to Facade here).
Written in 1977, Zork was one of the first interactive fiction games ever made and was heavily influenced by an even earlier game, Colossal Cave Adventure. Much like a movie, when the original game was written it was split into three titles:
- Zork: The Great Underground Empire
- Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz
- Zork III: The Dungeon Master
Zork is widely considered one of the most important games of all time because it was much deeper than other text games and it allowed for more complex use of language, including prepositions and conjunctions.
In Zork, you play as an adventurer who enters a dungeon in an ancient underground empire in search of wealth and adventure. Your mission is to survive and to escape with the treasure. Along the way you will use equipment, like a torch and candles, that will gradually expire.
Zork was one of the first games I ever played and partly responsible for both my career in games journalism and as a novelist. And it inspired millions of other gamers and adventurers too.
Gone Home features different game design to other titles on this list. It’s a first person exploration game by Fullbright Company.
Set in 1995, you play as Kaitlin and must explore a Portland mansion by examining objects around the home using mouse and keyboard. As you explore you gradually gain access to new parts of the house and you learn about a mystery involving a lesbian relationship and the disappearance of a girl. I won’t spoil the plot, because one of the keys to enjoying an interactive novel game like Gone Home is living through the story the first time with no idea what is going to happen (or, in this case, what has happened).
What makes Gone Home so exceptional is the quality of the story and the production. This is an interactive novel that could easily compete with actual novels. Everything from the music to the mutely lit and abandoned mansion creates a unique atmosphere that is utterly unforgettable.
What games like Gone Home achieve is a palpable atmosphere that truly brings the story to life. It’s a trademark of all the best interactive fiction games.
The Walking Dead
It seems amusing now to think that when The Walking Dead game was being made people questioned whether an interactive fiction game could truly evoke the same feelings as the TV show. Well, Telltale Games proved that yes, interactive fiction can definitely achieve the same feelings as the best TV shows.
The Walking Dead became an instant classic and a hallmark of the interactive fiction genre. And it also provides an alternative style of interactive fiction game, the horror game.
In The Walking Dead your mission is to survive the zombies that plague the world. The fictional world is the same as the comic, but occupied by all new characters. The relationship between the criminal Lee Everett and young girl Clementine is one of the many rich aspects of this drama.
The drama is at the very heart of the game. Telltale have focused keenly on the dialogue and the choices you make, and the result is a work of fiction that comes to life on the screen. Truly, this is one of the best interactive fiction games ever.
What this, and other games like The Walking Dead get right, is the sense of a living world. The drama truly grips you like the finest fiction.
Games like The Walking Dead prove that games can achieve stories on the level of novels. It’s games like The Walking Dead that shatter that nonsensical notion that games cannot be art. Everyone who played this games know that it is a true work of art.
Episode Choose Your Story
When I started writing this list I promised that I would include interactive fiction in all its forms.
So far, we’ve looked at some classic interactive fiction games, like Zork, and innovative modern games like Façade. But there is another very important type of interactive fiction game: what I call the “easy reading” fiction games, like Episode Choose Your Story.
Episode Choose Your Story is more of an interactive comic style game, and is not just one game but an entire series. The best Episode Choose Your Story game is Campus Crush, which is great for younger gamers.
Now, I know that some readers will think “Yuck” and will not agree with my inclusion of Episode in this list. Because Episode doesn’t have the deep drama of Gone Home, the technical innovation of Façade, or the classic text adventure style of Zork. But one of the best things about interactive fiction is that it caters to so many types of gamers, and to so many demographics. One of the biggest demographics for the genre right now is teenagers. And teenagers don’t want high drama. They want interactive comic games like Episode Choose Your Story.
What Episode Choose Your Story does so very well is that it provides an immediately accessible experience that absolutely anyone can play. And the stories, while not being on the level of Shakespeare, are very enjoyable.
If you like this type of game, take a look at my list of games like Episode.
High School Story
Pixelberry Studio’s High School Story is a mobile game that was released in September 2013. It’s the sister title to Surviving High School.
Another game that is like Episode Choose Your Story, High School Story is a choice-based simulation.
You play as a student who is trying to build their very own high school. In order to do this you’ll need to get land plots, find classmates, complete various quests, and do everything necessary to create your own school. Your motivation for doing this is Autumn Brooks, a character who has confided in you that she is absolutely miserable at school.
What this and other games like High School Story get right is that they bring story, choice, and simulation together very well. That trinity (story, choice, and simulation) come together to create a captivating experience that is great for kids and teens.
Games like Katawa Shoujo (bishoujo games) are not for every body. They definitely have a unique place in the market. However, done right they can create truly captivating gaming experiences. One of the best bishoujo games ever is Katawa Shoujo.
This visual novel by Four Leaf Studios tells the story of a young man and five young women who have disabilities and who are attending the fictional Yamaku High School. The gameplay is classic text and sprite style. You play as Hisao Nakai, a boy who became disabled after a heart attack. As you play through the game, Hisao Nakai gradually comes to terms with his disability and learns to move on with his life.
Immediately, from that brief introduction, it’s obvious that Katawa Shoujo could have gone horribly wrong. It’s not easy for any storyteller to realistically portray the challenges of living with disabilities, but Katawa Shoujo has been critically acclaimed for showing respect to its subject matter.
What this and other games like Katawa Shoujo get right is that they produce a compelling insight into their lead characters. Games like Katawa Shoujo create unforgettable characters that truly get you involved in their stories.
Photobia is one of the most minimalist games on this list. Games like Photopia are not concerned with graphics or with complex gameplay. Their entire purpose is to tell a story through text alone.
Photopia is a game written in Inform, which is a design system for creative fiction. It is widely regarded as one of the best games using Inform, and it won first place in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition. The game is actually linear and there is no way that you can influence the ending. However, thanks to excellent writing, you will believe that it is non-linear.
The plot is constantly changing. One moment you’re a bombed-out guy in a car, then you’re on Mars, then it shifts again. And for a while it seems like these events are completely disparate. Then Pow!, they come together, and oh boy what a moment it is when the plot reveals itself.
A Mind Forever Voyaging
Steve Meretzky’s 1985 interactive fiction game A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the absolute classics of the genre. It was inspired by The Prelude by William Wordsworth.
A Mind Forever Voyaging is an Infocom game (the developer who made Zork and Planetfall) but with a twist. Unlike other Infocom games, A Mind Forever Voyaging only has one single puzzle, at the very end, and it features a very serious story with political overtones.
A Mind Forever Voyaging was a commercial flop, mostly because of its serious tone. But it was a pivotal moment in the development of the interactive fiction genre. It showed the sort of serious story interactive fiction could tell. And it did not shy away from politics, with mentions of an arms race, nuclear war, and questions of the purpose of society.
A Mind Forever Voyaging will always be remembered as a title that changed interactive fiction forever.
Slouching Towards Bedlam
Slouching Towards Bedlam is another game on this list to have received critical acclaim and to be rewarded with numerous prizes. It won first place in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition.
You awaken in Bedlam Asylum and have no memory, though it appears you are a doctor. A deceased patient has infected you with a mental virus, which is spread (ingeniously) through spoken language. Amazingly, the virus gives you the ability to control time and also gives you cryptic messages. As you investigate you learn that the virus was created by a secret society experimenting on language.
As an author, I’ve written a lot about creating premises for stories. And let me tell you, that is one hell of a premise. And the game builds on it to create a fabulous story that is utterly unforgettable.
Colossal Cave Adventure
Released in 1976, Colossal Cave Adventure was one of the first interactive fiction games. It is considered one of the most influential games of all time and is one of the godfathers of interactive fiction game design. Many also say that Roguelike games would not be around today had it not been for this and other games like Colossal Cave Adventure.
Today, Colossal Cave Adventure seems incredibly minimal, but at the time it was a genuine piece of innovation. The text system, though primitive, allowed for fluid gameplay, and it gave us one of the first real stories in a game.
Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be
I couldn’t write a list of interactive fiction without referencing the world’s best storyteller of all time: William Shakespeare. Ryan North gave me the opportunity to do just that thanks to his sublime game, To Be Or Not To Be; named after Hamlet’s soliloquy.
Despite being based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is far from a comedy, To Be Or Not To Be is full of jokes and gameplay choices and ends with a list of stats, like the number of times you killed someone with poison. North does not mind taking Hamlet in all new directions and veering off on all kinds of tangents. You are able to make the story end in different ways, even giving Hamlet and damsel-in-distress Ophelia a happy ending.
To Be Or Not To Be is a highly subjective experience, and your enjoyment of it will be dependent on your appreciation of Ryan North’s humor. But either way, there can be little argument that this is one of the most endearing and creative interactive fiction games ever. There aren’t many games like To Be Or Not To Be. So I highly recommend you enjoy this one.
To Be Or Not To Be is available on iPad and iPhone, so be sure to check it out.
We’ve already covered many awarding winning interactive fiction games in this list. But very few games won quite as many awards as 80 Days (partly because there weren’t so many awards around in the time of Zork as there are now).
80 Days was nominated for 4 BAFTAs, won the Time Games Of The Year for 2014, was one of Mashable’s Best Games of 2014… I could go on. The number of awards this game won is staggering, and warranted.
Available on iOS, Mac and Windows, 80 Days uses narrative storytelling to let you make choices that heavily influence the development of the plot, which is based on Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days.
What makes 80 Days one of the best interactive fiction games of all time is the brilliance of its story and the nuances of its branching narrative. Never have you felt more involved in the development of a story. There are very few games like 80 Days, and next to no interactive fiction games achieve such a level of depth.
Released in 2013 Sorcery! is available on iOS, Android, Windows and MAC. It’s based on Steve Jackson’s fighting fantasy gamebook novel Sorcery! and tells the same story. But it also innovates. There are visuals and interactive elements that are not present in the original adventure game book, and there are turn-by-turn energy, spirit animals, and the spelling out of different spells.
When the first title in the series was released, IGN called it one of the best examples of “what can happen when traditional storytelling gets along with contemporary game design.”
Rock Paper Shotgun called it “one of the finest RPGs ever made,” and it was a Game Of The year finalist for TouchArcade and Mashable.
Games like Sorcery! prove just how much potential this genre has.
Heavy Metal Thunder
I promised that in this list I would include lots of highly unique games. Heavy Metal Thunder is one of the most unique games on this list. There truly are not many games like Heavy Metal Thunder
Available on Android, iPad and iPhone, Heavy Metal Thunder is an interactive fiction game that plays out like a hardcore action movie told through text. Technically speaking, the writing is not perfect and can in fact be crass at time, but it shows how high-octane an interactive fiction game can be.
This is also one of the harder games on this list. The first time you solve it you will feel as though you’ve truly accomplished something as it does pack quite the challenge.
If you’re looking for an interactive fiction game on Android or iOS, and you like high-octane experiences, you really cannot go wrong with Heavy Metal Thunder.
City of Secrets
One of the best works of Emily Short, who is herself one of the best creators of Interactive Fiction games, City Of Secrets is a masterpiece. The game is set in a city that features high technology and magic. You play a traveller who gets swept to the center of a power struggle that will change the future of the city.
What makes City of Secrets so incredible is the world building. You can almost feel the city streets as you play through this game. The details are staggering and the overall design of the world is inspired.
The gameplay uses a combination of menus and ask/tell that is context sensitive. It lets you change topics at will. Overall, the gameplay is solid, but what makes this game such a masterpiece is the fiction. Games like City of Secrets do not come along very often.
These Interactive Fiction games show how much can be achieved in the genre. They are all absolute masterpieces.
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