Interactive Fiction's Favorite Setting Is the Dungeon of the Mind
How the genre's earliest influences and limitations created a tradition of metaphorical imprisonment.
Header art by Sunless Design
At Play in the Carceral State is a week-long series investigating play in, around, and about prisons and prison culture. Learn more here.
The history of interactive fiction, as a genre, is a history of narratives of confinement and imprisonment. That history starts even before there was such a thing as interactive fiction or a text adventure; It starts with an idea ubiquitous in gaming. It starts with the dungeon, an endemic notion that has shown up in every corner of the medium.
It runs through the backbone of the genre's history, through the elaborate puzzles and mazes of classic text adventures, through shackles in interrogators' chambers and women immured by fairytale contracts. And it finds its rhetorical completion in howling dogs, a story of absolute isolation.
The usage of dungeon in games is idiosyncratic, different from what the word means in ordinary English. Dungeons & Dragons has its roots in tabletop wargaming "dungeon crawls," scenarios about assaulting a castle through its underground complex, its dungeon. The trope of the medieval dungeon, the Mines of Moria, the Minotaur's labyrinth; those underground spaces formed the basis of the settings for D&D adventures. A dungeon is underground, maze-like, and full of dangers and monsters. An abandoned temple can be a dungeon; a cave can be a dungeon. But the word that stuck wasn't mine, or cave, or labyrinth; it was dungeon. Prison.
We don't really examine this shift; we don't really think about it. But in gaming, the "dungeon" went from being a place that holds people to being a place that holds monsters. This space of imprisonment, and those imprisoned within, are beasts to be challenged, conquered, outsmarted.
Who builds dungeons? Nobody, or nobody that matters. Dungeons are both a distortion of a prison and an empty, "savage" territory waiting for to be taken, plundered, colonized. And these are the kinds of spaces that video games were first populated with.
Colossal Cave Adventure, often credited as the original text adventure, is based on a real place, the Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. But it already draws from Dungeons and Dragons. The cave is filled with fantasy creatures, traps, and monsters: there's a dwarf that attacks you with an axe, there are treasures to collect, there is a secret magic word. Those ideas out of fantasy fiction, and the archetype of the dungeon, impose themselves on a real-world space.
And the games that picked up after CCA are explicit dungeon games. Rogue, the game roguelikes are named after, cited CCA as one of its inspirations. Zork takes place in a much more literal dungeon; a vast, abandoned, underground space, once again populated by monsters but devoid of people. Here the "dungeon" is phrased as the remnant of an underground empire, drawing on already-established D&D tradition of the dungeon as an abandoned place.
An abandoned space filled with treasure and monsters: The idea doesn't originate in D&D. It starts with Columbus landing on what he would decide to call Hispaniola and seeing it, irrespective of people already living there, as territory to be conquered free of moral consequence. It's an idea with so much currency in Western culture that we barely notice it's there. There's a rhetorical violence to declaring that a place is morally empty, a place where all actions are justifiable because "no people" live there, because it's been abandoned due to some cataclysm we don't care about. The dungeon is this logic of colonialism applied to a space that resembles a prison; it is both a place of confinement and a supposedly empty place.
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Mechanics and narrative co-evolve, and so IF's traditional mechanics lean into building confining spaces. The way space works in a traditional parser game (like Adventure or Zork) is that the world is composed out of discrete "rooms," and you move between them in a single step. Rooms are connected through the cardinal directions: "the cold passage is north of the mirror room." Similarly, in early IF, spaces are empty of people by default; it would be some years before NPCs in these games could be built with enough detail to make them interesting as something other than trolls guarding bridges.
Those clearly separate rooms with defined thresholds between them suggest indoor space more than outdoor space, underground rather than aboveground, a designed environment rather than nature. In the 80s, when puzzle-laden interactive fiction thrived, dungeons were frequent. Even when those spaces became lively and populated with people, even when they stopped being an empty place to be conquered and plundered, the mechanics and construction inherited from the dungeon lingered on, persisting into the hobbyist community that kept IF alive through the 90s.
But everything in any medium that is forcibly literal and physical eventually becomes metaphorical or indirect. In Andrew Plotkin's Spider and Web (1998), you spend the entire game tied to a chair; all of the game's "action" consists of the protagonist reliving his immediate memory in a sort of interrogation—and the eventual solution hinges on what you say in that interrogation. You escape by describing how you got trapped in the first place; each retelling of the story is an opportunity for the player to understand what is going on, so that, eventually, they can be armed of knowledge that the player character had all along, and use it to escape.
Here, physical confinement becomes a platform to have a game all about what's going on inside the protagonist's head. Previously, imprisonment in interactive fiction had been about a tidy, self-contained space that would eventually be conquered by the player. But also, conquest here means not the retrieval of plunder but escape; as in the ubiquitous escape room genre, common in both IF and graphical adventures, the "prize" to be earned from this environment is freedom; narratives of escape follow naturally from spaces meant to imprison.
Because far from subverting it, narratives of escape are, paradoxically, part of the ideological scaffolding of the carceral state. Prison Break was on the air at the same time as the American state continued to ramp up the numbers of incarcerated people in the US. How many times have you heard the phrase "escaping poverty?" Why is poverty phrased as something to be escaped, rather than simply remedied? Carceral society promotes fantasies of escape to make itself seem more tolerable; to make it seem like imprisonment is something to be overcome by its own victims.
Bronze, Emily Short's version of the Beauty and the Beast story, is another story of confinement. The Beauty is, of course, trapped in the Beast's castle, with no way to leave. But, as much as you can in parser IF, the environment here tries not to be claustrophobic but vast and sparse. It's not really about the physical content of the rooms; it's about a mental geography of Beauty's confinement. Almost every object or locale in Bronze sparks a miniature flashback or digression.
In Bronze, the confinement isn't phrased as physical: "A curious object, a broken shackle," the parser reads, "Nowhere else in the castle are there any chains or ropes or devices of torture; there has never been a need for such physical coercion…"
Spider and Web used extreme physical confinement to highlight a mental process; Bronze used an expansive physical world to demonstrate the other, more subtle forces that bind people. Where those seemingly opposing ideas crash into each other is with Porpentine's howling dogs.
Developed in Twine, howling dogs doesn't have to tie itself to the conventions of parser IF. Yet it still does—somewhat—partitioning its space into discrete, connected rooms. You're trapped in extremely confining surroundings, little more than a metal box with bathroom fixtures and a dispenser that spits out food bars. It could be a prison, or a slow-travelling spaceship, or both of those things.
It demands you follow your routine. You wake up. You eat your nutrient bar and drink your water. You take a two-minute rationed-water shower. This daily routine is broken up only by slipping on a VR device, and the experiences within VR are always surreal and often disturbing. Frequently, they're about coercion and imprisonment themselves: a victim of long-term sexual abuse; a Joan of Arc-like figure awaiting trial; a child empress whose only role in life is to learn how to die gracefully when assassins come for her.
In howling dogs, our story comes full circle: We start out looking for physical solutions to the physical constraints of the dungeon. We branch out into finding confinement that's not physical, and escapes that aren't physical either. And then Porpentine's work brings us all back to ground; there is a prison of the body, perfectly mirrored by a prison of the mind.
In howling dogs, the escape of virtual reality is only an escape into more fantastical and grandiose forms of imprisonment.
With characteristic Porpentine bleakness, in howling dogs, you're only ever escaping physical imprisonment into emotional or spiritual imprisonment; the fantasy of escape, and thus the fantasy of just imprisonment, is repeatedly annihilated. If anything in IF can stand in for the carceral state, as opposed to the physical concrete body of a prison, it's an image of perpetual escape into another form of confinement; a dungeon of the body, mind, and spirit
But critical fantasies of escape are essential to resistance against this carceral rhetoric. If the dungeon equates the imprisoned to the monstrous, then pieces like howling dogs, Begscape and With Those We Love Alive ask us to inhabit the skin of the monstrous, the grotesque, the pitiable. The empathy is with the kobolds hiding and scurrying, the gelatinous cubes crawling the corridors. This is not to "humanize" the monsters, but to show how "humanity" can be a petty, conditional notion, something to be taken away at a moment's notice to create an empty space full of monsters, left behind for those who feel entitled to inherit it.