It's been more than two decades since Will Crowther and Don Woods wrote Colossal Cave, the first computer adventure game. Things have gotten complicated since then, what with the proliferation of web sites and the growing number of people using computers.
This article is a brief overview of the specific brand of interactive fiction covered by this site, namely, computer adventure games. If you're new to the adventure game scene or want a review of what resources are available for the adventure game player, then read on.
Interactive fiction (IF) is a broad term. Strictly speaking, interactive fiction is anything in which you influence the outcome of a story, like continuous stories you can add to or those old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books with their branching stories. But there is a more specialized meaning of interactive fiction which I use on this site: computer adventure games.
In general, computer adventure games are computer programs which tell you a story. In them you play a character in the story, and you move the story along through your actions. In many pieces of IF you have to solve puzzles to keep the story going, puzzles like "How do I open the locked door?" or "How can I get the bridle off the alpaca so I can return it to Barry?" In some games you also have to interact with non-player characters (NPCs) to keep the plot unfolding.
Because IF involves storytelling and puzzle-solving, it tends to emphasize thought over action, a boon for people who like to play computer games but don't like reflex-dependent ones like Quake. If you do like a little action with your thinking, try hybrid games like Tomb Raider, where puzzle solving is blended with jumping and shooting.
IF comes in two flavors: graphic and text. Text adventures came first. Playing them is like reading a book in which you have to type commands to tell the protagonist what to do. Famous text adventures include Zork and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is based on the book by Douglas Adams. Graphic adventures tell their stories through pictures rather than words. You may be familiar with graphic adventures like Myst, in which you view the world through your character's eyes, or Monkey Island, in which you move your character around on-screen.
If you want to play a graphic adventure, you'll most likely have to pay for it. Most graphic adventures are sold by companies like LucasArts and Cyan, so you'll have to order them from the companies or visit your local software store. Text adventures, on the other hand, tend to be free. If you're looking for a text adventure, chances are you'll find it on the Interactive Fiction Archive. The IF Archive is the world-wide repository for text adventures, and should be the first place you look for new ones. (If you're new to the IF Archive, you'd best read through this guide before going there.)
Regardless of whether you want to play graphic or text IF, you should be sure to see what reviewers have to say about the game you've picked. Many commercial game sites review graphic adventures, while the main site for text adventure reviews is Baf's Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive.
If you play IF, sooner or later you're going to get stuck on a puzzle you can't solve. When that happens, there are places you can go for help. Most adventure game sites provide walkthroughs, which are series of step-by-step instructions explicitly leading you through games.
However, your best resource for help is other people who have already played the game you're playing. You can talk to other fans of IF on bulletin boards or on Usenet newsgroups. If you're unfamiliar with newsgroups, you can learn more about them at Google Groups, which gives you access to Usenet through the web.
There's a lot more out there than what I've talked about here, some of it listed on this site. Don't be afraid to go exploring. After all, playing IF can be entertaining and educational; sometimes, it even aspires to be art.