“All Roads” is a work of Interactive Fiction (sometimes called a Text Adventure game) created by Jon Ingold during undergraduate studies at Cambridge University. The game was written in the Inform language and is playable within a variety of z-machine interpreters on the PC or Mac, such as Gargoyle, Frotz or Zoom. It won first place in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition and also received that year’s XYZZY Award. The game is often found on lists of beginner-friendly Interactive Fiction, among other classics such as Andrew Plotkin’s “The Dreamhold” and Emily Short’s “Bronze.” Typing verb commands at a cursor prompt on the computer screen initiates a call and response exchange of text that leads the player deeper into the story. The play experience can be completed in about two hours, though the player might be tempted to replay more than once to gain more clues about the game’s central meta-puzzle.
With the descriptive quality of the prose, Ingold creates a vibrant story world, allowing the player to feel imaginative immersion. “All Roads” is set in an alternate-universe medieval Venice, plunging the player immediately into a world of byzantine deception and intrigue. At the beginning of the story, both the player and the player character experience some disorientation. Lacking history and context, actions are taken somewhat blindly in an amnesiac state. As the story progresses through several loosely connected scenes, the player’s understanding of the situation advances beyond that of the character, creating a sense of dramatic irony. Cause and effect relationships from one scene to the next are initially unclear to the player, but the repetition of events forms an enticing pattern to decipher.
Though the game begins with a life-threatening predicament for the player character, the gameplay is forgiving – most attempts to type verbs into the parser will result in some progress or guidance toward the desired outcome rather than a failure state. That said, the available player actions are constrained, and the dialogue options are limited to using “TALK” as a command, which invokes a pre-scripted exchange between the characters. For beginners, this curbs the overwhelming sense of having too many possible options; however, there is a strong sense of being an observer in the story rather than the director of what happens next. As its title implies, the narrative path leads the player around a city, but eventually converges in one central location. A replay allows the player to enjoy more detailed scrutiny of the environments and interaction with objects, but inevitably leads to the same narrative outcome. Though it differs from the causal agency afforded in other works of Interactive Fiction, this could be seen as a strength of the piece, highlighting the player’s role in unraveling the central mystery of relationship and betrayal between key characters.
The story provides some spatial exploration, but the player’s focus is really led to questions of chronology and identity. Drawing maps of the visited areas (as many Interactive Fiction players are accustomed to do) is not necessary, as the navigation of contiguous spaces is minimal. Puzzles relating to inventory are not emphasized in this game. Instead, the true puzzle-work for the player is to mentally reconstruct the real story as key plot events accumulate. By the end, greater clarity emerges about who the player character really is and what their role has been. Still, some questions may remain, fuelling another clue-gathering excursion through the text.