I was a terrible speller in fourth grade, so terrible that once a day, I had to collect my things and go down to a third grade spelling group. I felt like a yellow-topped dandelion in a field of French lavender. I didn’t want to be a terrible speller, and I was aware that my inability to differentiate between “flower” and “flour” was possibly going to affect my chances of becoming the most famous writer ever.
To solve my spelling problem, my father brought home an Infocom game called Zork. He explained how it worked. I would be placed inside a story, much like my Choose Your Adventure Books, only this time, instead of being contained to two choices, I would have open possibilities. The only catch was that I needed to spell things correctly in order to have the game recognize my commands. It only took a single night to fall in love with the underground world of Zork; fall in love enough to learn how to spell in order to explore.
Along with learning how to spell correctly, I learned the importance of word choice. Not every word was created equal, and some did more than others. As I got better at the games, I began to want to win in as few moves as possible. I chose my words better. I got creative. In order to move quickly, I memorized the worlds of Zork and Wishbringer and Infidel’s Egypt, and I started to learn how writers kept both what they had written and where their stories were going in their heads.
I took the games with me to college and graduate school, though I played them less and less. I had all the Infocom games on floppy disc, and the computers I used relied on CD-ROMs. Finally, the disc drives disappeared altogether and the games landed in our storage room, into the land of Geek Hoarders, as my friend likes to say.
I still thought sometimes about Zork.
My twins are now eight years old, one obsessed with all things electronic and the other more hesitant with computers but deeply into stories. I looked up Infocom games online, learned about the app Frotz, and finally ended up with 20+ Infocom games downloaded to my iPad. With maps. And Invisiclues.
“Hey, Chickie,” I told my daughter. “Come play Wishbringer with me.”
She was doubtful about the promise of fun, especially because she first had to learn how to read a map. But she tentatively started exploring Festerton, starting with the graveyard. She took my advice and collected objects, finally exiting the cemetery and encountering her first problem: Miss Voss’s yapping dog.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“Kick the dog?” she answered. I wondered what sort of daughter I was raising.
She tried yelling at it, jumping over it, and running away. Frustrated, she told me to tell her the answer. “I’m not telling you the answer. I’ll only tell you to imagine what you would do if you were really there, trying to make friends with this dog.”
“I would have run,” she admitted. “I could give him the bone.”
I nodded and she typed in the instructions, delighted when the game allowed her to pass into the town. “That dog is nasty!” she exclaimed. “Does he know he’s eating a human bone I got out of a grave?”
Prior to the games, she was scared of trying new things and not getting them right. Where the games solved all my spelling problems, they are tackling her shyness and lack of certainty. She saves the game before she tries anything risky and knows she can always restore her prior place and learn from her mistakes. She’s suddenly taking chances — not just in the game, but leaving my side to go explore an international fun night with her friends or ask an adult a question.
It took my son about five minutes to get comfortable with the games and start racing all over Zork, collecting whatever he could lay his virtual hands on. He followed me around the kitchen repeating incessantly, “it is pitch dark, mum, you’re likely to be eaten by a Grue.”
He is a kid who doesn’t like loud noises, who becomes easily overwhelmed with intense graphics or vivid images. While he can happily cringe his way through a description of Voldemort drinking unicorn blood in the forest, he can’t bring himself to stay in the room when that scene comes on during the first Harry Potter movie. Interactive fiction games are a perfect fit since they are without sound, without images, and instead rely on imagination springing out of story telling. For my son, the games have become a safe space where he can play a video game without fear of seeing something scary that will give him nightmares.
Call it the Familyhood of the Traveling Interactive Fiction Pants. Even though we all have very different needs, the games fit each of us perfectly. It is not unusual to find all three of us sitting on the sofa, exploring a world and arguing over which direction to go. Every afternoon, it’s like getting to go on a really great family trip except with no laundry to do afterward.
I can’t say that I always dreamed of one day playing Infocom games with my children. I mean, procreation was sort of the last thing on my mind at nine years old. But I can tell you that it is emotional to be back in those worlds. When we encounter a character in a game, it’s like bringing your children back to see all your old elementary school teachers. I mentally hug Zork’s thief and pet the unicorn to say, “hey, guys, it’s me, Melissa. I’ve missed you guys so much, but I’m back and I’ve brought my kids with me.”
I like to think that the Grues missed me too, and they’re incredulously shaking their gelatinous heads, wondering how 30 years could have passed and they still find me doing the exact same thing. Just with two kids in tow.