Interactive Fiction is something I rave about periodically, and most people eventually promise to give it a go (if only to end the rant). In turn, I usually promise to send them a list of good places to get started, then forget about it entirely, and everyone goes away happy. Hence this page, a getting-started guide to my favourite IF works.
Playing the games
The easiest way to get started is to play a few games online, with parchment or at ifiction. I've added direct links wherever possible. (These online interpreters aren't necessarily the most stable implementations -- for instance parchment seems to have trouble displaying HELP instructions in several games, which is definitely a problem for the beginner.)
Depending on how adventurous you feel, you might want to just load 'em up and see how you make out, or you might like instructions for the beginner. Eventually you're going to go looking for more good stuff.
Some games you should try
The point of this page, more or less, is to list some games I think are particularly well-written and/or suitable for beginners. They're games I love, so they share certain features: relatively easy (I'm not good at puzzles, and I tend to get frustrated and turn to a walkthrough if they're too hard), relatively short, emphasis on the "fiction" (quality of writing and storytelling). It's not any sort of objective Greatist Hits list, and lots of other people have their own lists of favourites you might like to try.
The following links are ganked from Emily Short's website, which is well worth investigating itself: Nick Montfort has suggestions for newcomers; Sam Kabo Ashwell has a favourites list; Stephen Bond has lists of most and least favourite works; Jimmy Maher's book on IF history has an enormous list making up chapter 10; Yoon Ha Lee has a list. You'll notice the same titles cropping up again and again (and on this page also), and even more so the same authors.
Without further ado, to my own list.
Adam Cadre's Photopia
Photopia is a perfect beginners game for two reasons: it's almost completely puzzleless, so it's a safe frustration-free sandpit to get used to the way IF works, and it's absolutely beautiful and superbly written.
If you're reading reviews before playing be careful: it's an easy work to spoil. I won't, don't worry.
You should know in advance, though, that Photopia isn't a totally representative IF work. It's a story you interact with, rather than a game you win or a series of puzzles you solve; and as far as interactive narrative goes it keeps you pretty tightly constrained. That's in no measure criticism, and indeed I think it makes it particularly suitable for beginning players, but you should know that the next game you try won't work quite the same.
I expect you can play through it comfortably in a couple of hours, with some time to go back and replay after you've reached the end (you will want to, if it's managed to touch you at all). Download it from Baf's (includes online play links for ifiction) or play with parchment (colour works, which is a plus for this story).
Andrew Plotkin's Shade
Another short game, Shade has more puzzle-like content but is still basically an easy game. It's more about the atmosphere, which builds magnificently as the game progresses. Plotkin (aka Zarf) is one of those folk you see all over favourites lists, and I'd recommend anything of his, but not necessarily for beginners. Some of his works are famously difficult, while others are famously symbolic and opaque, but basically everything he's written is famous. Baf's has it, with ifiction online play links, and so does parchment.
Emily Short's Savoir Faire
Emily Short is another ubiquitous name in the IF world. She's written games, developement libraries, criticism, design hints, and a substantial portion of the manual for the IF developement language Inform 7. Her works tend to comtain very detailed implementations (so you can closely examine everything mentioned in the scene descriptions down to very fine levels of detail), technical innovations as well as good writing, and (for some reason) cheese.
Savoir Faire is a longer game that the first two, and much more conventionally puzzley. Still the quality of Short's writing and her attention to detail provide a rich reward for the puzzle-solving. Baf's has it, but there's no online play link; parchment does have it, but HELP gives a blank screen.
Slouching Towards Bedlam, by David Ravapinto and Star Foster
Slouching Towards Bedlam is a tricky self-referential work, and not really for beginners. If you've played a few other games though, including some more puzzle-oriented ones, I recommend giving it a try. You'll be baffled, early on, and perhaps irritated. I used the help system early on and it told me to do something so blatantly inappropriate that I became quite angry at the designers. On replaying the game the second time I knew why that answer was perfectly appropriate, and my third time through I knew a completely different way around that particular puzzle.
This is a meta-game as well as the game itself: find out what's going on and decide what to think about it. There are many possible endings, and once you know a bit about what they are it's up to you to decide which one you consider "winning". As well as that it's a steampunk mystery set in a madhouse, which in itself is reason to give it a look. Get it at Baf's, but without online play.
Carl Muckenhoupt's The Gostak
Written by the maintainer of Baf's guide, The Gostak is decidedly not for everyone. If you love Riddley Walker then you'll love The Gostak, but some people just don't get it. And if you're not yet completely comfortable with IF, you haven't a hope. Here's the introduction text:
Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave. But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds. Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them. But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud will vorl them from you.
There are puzzles, but they're as much linguistic as conventional: you have to mine the text you're given for verbs, then try those verbs on your surroundings and figure out what you've just done based on the reactions you get. That's where the familiarity with conventional IF comes in: the notions of directions and inventory and suchlike are all represented, just with different names. It's on Baf's of course, but there's no online link; sadly for my productivity, it's on parchment but again JALLON (the HELP-equivalent) gives a blank screen.