Do You Want to Play a Game?

A Portland website reawakens a lost gaming genre—and its fans.

By Will Lambeth June 15, 2012 Published in the July 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Michael Novak

VIDEO GAMES ENJOY a roomy spot at today’s pop culture table, with revenues topping Hollywood box offices and Mario elbowing aside Mickey as a childhood icon. But when PCs were exotic and flashy graphics unknown, computer gaming belonged to “interactive fiction,” a text-only format in which players explored worlds by typing commands like “get key” and “unlock door.”

Zork, considered interactive fiction’s landmark, debuted back in 1977—its bizarrely comic storyline, set in an underground labyrinth, gave it cult status among the computer world’s earliest adopters. In 2012, a new website created by one of Portland’s best-known tech thinkers aims to rekindle this retro fun. “Most good geeks have heard of interactive fiction but consider it dead,” says Andy Baio, who advises Kickstarter and writes for Wired, the New York Times, and his own influential blog., the site Baio built with his teenage nephew Cooper McHatton, allows users to create, share, and play their own text-based games. (McHatton built his first game in an hour.)

The 35-year-old Baio says he hopes the site will become the “social glue” for the small but resurgent subculture that keeps the genre alive. Since it debuted in February, almost 300 games have been created, with a total of nearly 90,000 games played. The new works include a jargon-filled adventure aimed at the weightlifting community, guides to real-life museums, and even an interactive thesis proposal. The genre lends itself to creative ambition: Baio cites game writer Andrew Plotkin, who toys with players in “claustrophobic, oppressive” brainteasers. With the mainstream video game industry laboring to create more complex narratives—like recent best sellers Heavy Rain and Mass Effect—Playfic may help the world of electronic entertainment to “get clue.”

From Playfic User Jason Westley’s Game Half-Dead:

>box You seem to be lying down inside a box. It’s not much bigger than you are, but there is some room to move your arms and legs …

>open box There’s no handle, and none of the walls move …

>break box You give the top of the box a mighty thump. The wood is fairly flimsy, and gives slightly under your attack.

>break box You give the top of the box one final smash. The wood splinters and you burst out of your wooden prison! … The box you were in was a coffin … There is a little church to the north … A large crowd of people are fleeing in panic—there is much screaming, wailing and waving of arms …

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