I will build myself a copper tower
With four ways out and no way in
But mine the glory, mine the power...

...Louis MacNeice (1907--1963), Flight of the Heart

Inform is a system for creating adventure games, and this is the book to read about it.

Infocom format 'story files' (adventure games, that is) can be played on almost any computer, from personal organisers to mainframes, with the aid of 'interpreter' programs. The task of the Inform 'compiler' is to translate a textual description of a game into a story file. The result will play identically on any machine of any model.

Inform is a suite of software, called the 'library', as well as a compiler. Without the library, it would be a major undertaking to write a description of even the smallest game. The library has two ingredients: the parser, a program for translating written English inputs into a form games can more easily understand, and the "world model'', a complex web of rules common to all adventure games. Given these, the designer only needs to describe things and give any exceptional rules that apply. ("There is a bird here, which is a normal item except that you can't pick it up.'')

The library is rich in detail. The parser recognises over 80 distinct verbs and a vocabulary of about 300 words even before any rooms or objects are created, and is programmable and highly flexible. It can handle ambiguities, clarify its input by asking questions ("Which key do you mean...?'') and can cope properly with plurals, vagueness, conversation, pronouns and the player becoming someone else in mid-game. It can be configured to languages other than English. The world-model includes rooms, items, vehicles, duplicates, containers, doors, things on top of other things, light and darkness, switching things on and off, opening, closing and locking things, looking up information in books, entering things, scoring and so forth.

Just as Inform has two strands -- compiler and library -- so this manual has two parts: Programming and Designing. In Book One, small computer programs are written to perform simple calculations, never using the library. Subsections listed in slanted text on the detailed contents page become technical but the rest is pitched at newcomers and can be skim-read by anyone with prior experience of a programming language such as C or Pascal. Book Two is entirely about making games.

Newcomers are invited to work through Section 1 and Section 7, the "getting started'' sections in Books One and Two, before reading much more of either.

In trying to be both a tutorial and reference work, this book aims itself in style halfway between the two extremes of manual, Tedium and Gnawfinger's Elements of Batch Processing in COBOL-66, third edition, and Mr Blobby's Blobby Book of Computer Fun. (This makes some sections both leaden and patronising.)

/\ Passages which divert the main story, usually to tell an unexpurgated truth which may confuse or bore a newcomer, are marked with a warning triangle /\ or two, and set in smaller type.

Examples of program are set in typewriter font. Mundane or irrelevant passages in longer examples are sometimes replaced with a line reading just "...''

To keep Book Two from clogging up with examples, many are set as "exercises'', with "answers'' given in full at the back of the book. Harder exercises are marked with triangles and some are very hard indeed. I emphasize that the exercises are often intended as a way of presenting answers to deliberately difficult questions, to assist experts: the curse of Adventure design-languages is the feature which is ideal for the simple but too inflexible to cope with the complicated. For a list of exercises with page references to question and answer, see under "exercises'' in the Index.

A better tutorial than attempting the exercises, then, is probably to make a simple game, as demonstrated in Chapter III, and then add an example of each new feature as you work through Chapters IV and V.

Many sections end with a 'References' paragraph referring to yet more examples which can be found in Inform's demonstration games. All of these have publically available source code (see the Inform home page): those most frequently referred to are 'Advent' (a full version of the original mainframe 'Adventure', which contains a good deal of "everyday Inform''), 'Adventureland' (a version of Scott Adams's primitive classic), 'Alice Through The Looking-Glass' (a heavily annotated game, developed in the course of Gareth Rees's WWW tutorial for Inform), 'Balances' (a short story consisting of puzzles which stretch the parser's abilities) and 'Toyshop' (hardly a game: more an incoherent collection of unusual objects). In addition, the little game 'Ruins' is developed in the course of Chapters III and IV of this manual.

Finally, the "game'' called 'Museum of Inform' simulates a museum whose exhibits are solutions to the exercises in this manual.

Copyright on Inform, the program and its source code, its example games and documentation (including this book) is retained by Graham Nelson, who asserts the moral right to be identified as the author under the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Having said this, I am happy for it to be freely distributed to anybody who wants a copy, provided that: (a) distributed copies are not substantially different from those archived by the author, (b) this and other copyright messages are always retained in full, and (c) no profit is involved. (Exceptions to these rules must be negotiated directly with the author.) However, a story file produced with the Inform compiler (and libraries) then belongs to its author, and may be sold for profit if desired, provided that its game banner contains the information that it was compiled by Inform, and the Inform version number.

The Internet source for Inform material (executables of the compiler for different machines, source code, the library files and example games) is the German National Research Centre for Computer Science, where Volker Blasius maintains an archive at the anonymous FTP site Inform can be found at:
Another useful resource is the Inform 6 home page on the 'World Wide Web', which includes Gareth Rees's 'Alice' tutorial, located at:
This manual describes Inform release 6.13 (or later), using library release 6/5 (or later). Earlier Inform 6 compilers and libraries are very similar but Inform 5.5 and 5/12 are very different.

This manual has evolved from seven earlier publications, once rather makeshift and sometimes defensive ("Inform is an easel, not a painting''). There were specifications of the run-time code format and literary critiques of games gone by: like an oven manual padded out with both a cookery book and a detailed plan of the gas mains. This book contains just the instructions for the oven.

So there are four 'companion volumes'. The Craft of Adventure is an essay on the design of adventure games; The Z-Machine Standards Document minutely covers the run-time format and Inform assembly language, its lowest level; and The Inform Technical Manual documents Inform's internal working in great detail, and includes a formal context-free grammar for the Inform language. The Inform Translator's Manual describes how to write a language definition file for games which speak languages other than English.

Some of the ideas of Inform came from an incremental multi-player game called Tera, on the Cambridge University mainframe, written by Dilip Sequeira and the author in 1990 (whose compiler was called Teraform); in turn, this stole a little from David Seal and Jonathan Thackray's game assembler; which dates back to the close of the 1970s and was written for 'Acheton', perhaps the first worthwhile game written outside America. Still, much of the Inform kernel derives ultimately from the IEEE Computer article 'Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game' by P. David Lebling, Marc S. Blank and Timothy A. Anderson; and more was suggested by Richard Tucker and Gareth Rees, among others.

The list of those who have helped the project along is legion: I should like to thank them all, porters, users and critics alike, but especially Volker Blasius, Paul David Doherty, Mark Howell, the ever avuncular Bob Newell, Robert Pelak, Gareth Rees, Jørund Rian, Dilip Sequeira, Richard Tucker, Christopher Wichura and John Wood.

One final word. I should like to dedicate this book, impertinently perhaps, to our illustrious predecessors: Will Crowther, Don Woods and the authors of Infocom, Inc.

Graham Nelson
April 1993 -- May 1997

And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs.

...John Donne (1571?--1631), The Canonization

Contents / Back / Forward
Chapter I / Chapter II / Chapter III / Chapter IV / Chapter V / Chapter VI / Appendix
Mechanically translated to HTML from third edition as revised 16 May 1997. Copyright © Graham Nelson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997: all rights reserved.