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Friday, April 30, 2010

Inform 7's Birthday

Long, long ago, some of my first programs were interactive fictions. Really simple stuff, "go north", "kill rat", that kind of thing. While I was hacking that kind of thing together in Basic, others had gone much further: the masters of Infocom. This system, written way back in the late 70's and early 80's, predates Java but has many similar features; including a bytecode-based runtime portable across different operating system and hardware platforms.

Sure games have gone in a different direction with incredible 3d graphics, but there's still a certain joy in playing interactive fiction games; it really is like playing a short story. The games have evolved from classic dungeon crawls into something more, with many of the best games eschewing puzzles and focusing on interaction between the player and the non-player characters.

The modern way to write these games, if you are so inclined, is in the Inform 7 environment. The Inform team try to come up with new releases every year, on the "birthday"; this month is the 17th birthday of the original Inform language (Inform was originally a more C-like objected oriented language that's evolved over the years into its current state).

Here's a getting started screencast:

Inform 7 Introductory Screencast from Aaron Reed on Vimeo.

I've gone a bit deep with Inform in the past, and hope to do more in the future. It's a truly amazing piece of software ... the language is generally a natural language (I call it "the mother of all DSLs") with features combining object oriented, rules based and even aspect oriented programming. In fact, the next release, due shortly, even includes map and reduce operations! The language is very powerful, allowing for concise ways to deal with deep cross-cutting concerns, allowing for human ambiguity

More than that, the IDE is truly full and integrated. It has extensive documentation (both a front to back manual and a cookbook), and error messages include hyperlinks to your code and to the manual pages. It includes hundreds of short examples that can be pasted directly into the editor with a single click. It has built in testing features (shown in the screen cast above). It provides an incredible cross-reference of your project (integrated with the built-in libraries) ... even an automatic map of your game world. It's truly a labor of love, and I wish any of the tools I work with day to day showed so much innovation and usefulness.

If you've ever wanted to write interactive fiction, or just want to play with a really fascinating alternative language, give Inform a try.


sicklittlemonkey said...

Agree with every word you said, Howard. Good Infocom adventures are even better than many modern graphical games. Inform is on my backburner/wishlist. What platform did you start on with Basic?


Nels said...

Inform has meant the answer to some questions I had when playing Zork as a youngster.

That answer meant more questions, and that eventually led to my bachelor degree in computer science.

All because of Zork and Infocom, Inform, and a friend comprehensively teaching me ANSI C in 1994.

Nice blog, Mr. Lewis!

Howard said...

How do you look at a name like "Howard Lewis Ship' and pick out "Lewis" as the last name? I think you text parser may need a little tweak :-)

My last name is actually "Lewis Ship" (two words, uncommon in the US, but there you go).

Call me neurotic, but it also used to infuriate me that people called my IoC project "Hivemind", not "HiveMind".