The Text Adventure: Relic of Gaming History, or Timeless Medium?
Once upon a time, in a world without diverse colour palettes, without Sony’s Playstation or WASD controls, there existed the video game in what was essentially its most basic form: the text adventure. As the name suggests, the interface in these games consisted primarily of nothing more than words – the player would read to get an idea of their surroundings, then type simple commands to interact with the game world. Kind of like a technologically advanced Fighting Fantasy gamebook. As the field of games development became increasingly advanced, text adventures were produced less and less, creators beginning to favour platformers, fighting games, and – the truest successor to the text adventure – the point-and-click.
It wasn’t long before the text adventure faded into obscurity, then obsoleteness. After all, why read a chunk of text when you can see the dungeon in all it’s technicolour glory before you? Why go through the tedious process of typing ‘examine object’, when you can simply click the visual representation of said object? It’s hardly surprising the genre died out: to play a text adventure in today’s world of Skyrim and Portal would be like playing a dusty game of checkers in a room full of arcade machines… wouldn’t it?
Well… maybe not. In fact, to claim that text adventures are entirely dead and gone would be to ignore two very special things: the age of the internet, and the creativity inherent in the production of a text adventure. Whilst it’s true that this particular breed of video game has likely vanished from the face of commercial titles forever, it lives on – and in many cases thrives – in the form of free, browser-based games.
The question is, of course, why? Who continues to produce these seemingly defunct interactive stories? What appeal continues to be held within these fascinating time-wasters? And what lies ahead for a medium that is thought to have died long ago?
Reliving the Glory Days: Classic Adventures
With programs and plugins like Adobe Flash and Unity becoming standard issue for most browsers, and the popularity of emulators growing by the day, the internet is no stranger to the revival of classic gaming titles. In the 1980s, Super Mario Bros could only be played through purchase or bootleg (or perhaps a visit to a friend’s), whereas today, a quick google search will bring up thousands upon thousands of flash and emulator versions of the original title, ready to be played at the click of a button.
Text adventures aren’t excluded from this phenomenon – dozens of classic titles can be found online. As is the case with a surprising number of retro games, many offer something genuinely entertaining, and, ironically, seem new and fresh. One of the most notable titles that can be played online is the 1982 game The Hobbit, based, of course, on J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy novel, restored through Java. You can play it here.
It’s safe to say it’s a faithful rendition of the original game. Indeed, some may say it’s a little too faithful, complete with excruciating ZX Spectrum loading times. The gameplay itself is often equally frustrating – Thorin consistently complains, the objective is incredibly unclear and death results in immediately being sent back to the beginning of the game. Perhaps this is just the effect of being a gamer of today exploring a creation of yesterday.
But there’s also an undeniable sense of fun (and, yes, adventure) in the game – unlike RPG successors to the text adventure, there’s a feeling of true choice in every action. The game doesn’t exclude the possibility that the player will not want to play by the rules, allowing for commands such as ‘attack Gandalf’ (although, inevitably, this never ends well). Sometimes it’s more like a text adventure Grand Theft Auto than a linear adventure game – the player can make Bilbo Baggins murder (or attempt to murder) key characters, drag around their corpses (if successful), and even become intoxicated on wood-elf wine (which alters the interface to a drunken slur in a stroke of comic genius). There is, obviously, a right way to do things – the game can hardly be beaten if the player has killed off characters that are vital to their success, and there are plenty of ways to die – but the programmers have included plenty of bizarre scenarios for the audience to have fun with.
What’s particularly interesting about this is that it couldn’t work in any other format – in a combination of Tolkien’s rich creations with the unique opportunities of player input, a text adventure is the perfect vessel. Because the text is so detailed in its description of events, a real-time, 3D game would pale in comparison. The text adventure establishes a unique dialogue between game and gamer, and in this case it’s a dialogue with a knowing wink – it spells nothing out, but when the player has come to understand its strange brilliance, there’s something fantastic about being in its company.
Intriguingly, another popular title from the 80s uploaded to the internet is also based on a British novel – the text adventure adaptation of Douglas Adams’ comedic science fiction masterwork The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy can be found here. Like The Hobbit, death comes quickly, unexpectedly and almost inevitably. Like The Hobbit, the interface makes little attempt to inform the player of how to avoid such deaths. And like The Hobbit, it’s tons of fun.
Unlike The Hobbit, however, the creator of the source material actually had a hand in the development of this. Seriously – in addition to the radio play and the series of books, Douglas Adams wrote the text adventure of The Hitchhiker’s Guide. To anyone who’s familiar with Adams’ style, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when playing the game. His trademark wit and slightly surreal sense of humour are present from the offset, and it’s his voice that makes the narrative feel warm and compelling (even, hilariously, in game over screens).
The game also differs from The Hobbit in that it isn’t quite as open – there’s no opportunity to assault your favourite characters here, and the world exploration is much more limited. What it lacks in this field, however, it more than compensates for in its employment of Adams’ writing. The prose is noticeably more sophisticated than the text in the aforementioned game, and the dry humour and vividly engaging descriptions lend the adventure a feeling of great authenticity (at the risk of sounding cliché, it’s as if you are actually in the novel). Even repeatedly dying rarely deters from the sense of fun, thanks to the game’s sharp handling of its interactions with the player. It’s worth a look, particularly for fans of the original books, with a smart, quirky edge that makes it a genuinely enjoyable experience.
So what can be taken away from this look at the original wave of text adventures? Well, for one thing, the significance of that word ‘adventure’. Providing players with vast, sweeping storylines and what could be seen as some of gaming’s first open-world environments, it’s no wonder they were popular. It’s also apparent that these kind of games did – and in many ways continue to – offer a completely different kind of experience. The presence of text and written narration is not simply a tedious part of a tutorial or cutscene, it comprises a core part of the game itself. This allows for a unique kind of relationship between player and game, one with all the intrigue and excitement of a large-scale RPG, yet also all the warmth and personality of a traditional written story. It seems that the text adventure was much more than a primitive predecessor to larger genres.
Something Old, Something New – A Slice of Life
With this in mind, then, it’s no surprise that these games still live, albeit in a much less mainstream form. No more ZX Spectrums or Commodore 64s: all that’s needed to access the latest text adventures is an internet connection, a browser, and maybe a plugin or two. It’s even become common practice for enthusiasts to produce and publish their own text adventures on sharing sites such as TextAdventures.co.uk using free code engines like Quest.
So, what exactly has this phenomenon produced? What kind of games are now appearing in the new generation of text adventures?
In terms of genre, it seems very little has changed. According to the aforementioned site, the largest, most popular categories are fantasy and comedy – interesting when considering that The Hobbit and The Hitchhiker’s Guide fit perfectly into these respectively. However, it can also be seen that new areas have emerged, notably the ‘Slice of Life’ category, a strange phenomenon of a genre portraying everyday life. You could be forgiven for expecting this kind of game to be mundane in the extreme – how can an ordinary train journey or monotonous daily routine possibly provide an interesting backdrop for a work of fiction? Well, you’d be surprised.
Typical characteristics of ‘Slice of Life’ text adventures include a protagonist bound by societal constraints, usually relating to the life of the employee or a singularly mundane setting (a coffee shop or a park bench, for instance). This protagonist often possesses a cynical outlook on their dull existence, encapsulated once again by the use of text and narrative. Think Breaking Bad’s Walter White pre-criminal stage, or 1984′s Winston Smith, minus the terrifying totalitarian state and with a dosage of thin, pessimistic humour. The overall directions of the stories vary hugely – from an effective recreation of a normal day to a depiction of one in which everything falls apart, the seemingly limiting setting of reality is no boundary for the creativity of many text adventure developers.
A good place to start with this obscure breed of video game is Alex Warren’s Moquette, a strange little story about love, hangovers and the London Underground.
Told in the first person from the perspective of one Zoran Tharp, Moquette captures the monotony of the train journey coupled with the spontaneity of the human mind brilliantly, bringing an unexpected flair to something so seemingly colourless. Keep exploring and you may find extra appeal within the surprising visual tricks and plot twists, too.
Despite its repetitive and unremarkable nature, Tharp’s narration is rarely ever dull, his bitterness, wit and temper bringing life and humanity to the character. And there’s more to him than meets the eye – a lack of patience in stressful situations that can be both amusing and uncomfortably familiar, a wandering and lonely nature that makes his story both entertaining and soulful, and beneath it all, deep, conflicting desires. His internal monologue reveals a being like every one of us on some level, his predicament symptomatic of the human condition and the constant search for place and identity among a vast, seemingly alien collective.
You may leave this one feeling unsatisfied. Hell, you may not even want to finish it – it’s not for everyone, and it can certainly drag on at times – but if it is your thing, you may be in for a treat. It’s a strange, comedic, introspective look at ourselves and an examination of what we’ve become. In terms of an introduction to the ‘Slice of Life’ genre, there are few games more appropriate than this: for all its quirks and eccentricities, it’s arguably a fantastic representation not just of a man’s daily Underground journey, but also of the deeper concerns lying beneath the human psyche.
Another personal favourite is Sam Barlow’s Aisle, a game taking place – as the title suggests – entirely in a single part of a supermarket. It tells the tale of a man struggling with the past, the future, and a difficult decision involving pasta.
In an innovative stroke of creativity, the story is only ever a moment long. The interface is minimal, the player is only able to give one command per playthrough. This command, however, decides the outcome of events every time. Though this may seem restricting at first, it quickly becomes apparent that there are hundreds of potential commands, and therefore hundreds of different potential endings, thoughts, memories and plot twists that can occur. As the game itself puts it, each action decides ‘The end of a story. But not the only story…’ It’s difficult to go into detail here without spoiling the experience – but it’s a hell of an experience, delivering in nearly every area. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s shocking, it’s one of the most unique, intriguing, and poignant works of art ever created, and it must be played to be believed.
‘Unmissable’ is a word thrown around a lot in most forms of media, but when it comes to browser games it’s somewhat less common. This, however, is exactly the term for Nicky Case’s Coming Out Simulator 2014.
Of all the ‘Slice of Life’ games mentioned here, this one best fits the category. As the title implies, it tells the true story of the creator’s experiences in coming out to strict, highly intolerant parents. You may expect such a plot to be dull, or just plain depressing – and yes, in many places it’s grim – but it’s handled with style, personality, and poignancy that makes it so much more. It’s innovative, using the device of a straight conversation between the player and the creator’s in-game incarnation to make the experience extremely personal. It’s striking, utilising simple artwork and visual style to evoke the strongest of emotions within the player. And above all else, it’s honest: despite labelling itself as ‘a half-true game about half-truths’, the scenarios explored are at once hugely relevant to Case himself and to thousands of others struggling with sexual identity, and it’s plain to see the passion he poured in to the project – a passion that can only come from experience. It’s a moving, memorable, and, yes, unmissable masterpiece. Words, ironically, cannot quite do it justice. Seriously. Play it.
A Quietly Thriving Medium
The games cited in this article are among the rarest gifts on the internet – funny, thoughtful, stirring and strange – and yet, the list is by no means exhaustive. There’s so much more out there – the hilarious ‘survival horror’ Don’t Shit Your Pants, the deceptively simple 9:05 with its blackly comic twist, and the excruciatingly awkward yet masterfully scripted The Writer Will Do Something, to name just a few of the thousands out there.
So what does all this mean?
Well, it defies the idea that the text adventure was only ever the foundation for larger, more complex games to be built upon. It demonstrates that in spite of the rise of consoles, the sheer scale of Grand Theft Auto V, and even the appearance of virtual reality with devices such as the Oculus Rift, there is still something to be said for a format that first appeared way back in the earliest decades of video gaming. The richness and simplicity of the written narrative, the uniquely intimate player interface, the depth, the humour, the sheer personality of the text adventure still holds power, still captivates players – albeit in a smaller, less commercial, more independent environment.
And this is something we often seem to overlook. The debate over whether video games can truly be considered art is ever ongoing, and will likely never actually stop. So maybe – just maybe – there’s even more to the text adventure. A legitimate and relevant form of video game? The examples cited in this article certainly seem to support the idea. But can a text adventure be considered more than that? Is it possible that these games fall distinctly into the category of art?
The answer, of course, is both yes and no. The reason for the complexity and divisiveness of the argument lies within the subjectivity of art – the perception of artistic value changes with every individual, and so the debate will never reach a definitive conclusion.
That doesn’t, however, mean that it’s pointless to talk about games as art – after all, the right kind of discussion can widen perspectives, constructively challenge what was once thought to be correct, change a single mind and the view of the world alike. We’re not going to find the meaning of life by talking about video games, of course (well, probably not), but the constant exchanging of views and ideas can only serve to help us reflect, therefore broadening our own minds and the minds of others.
Like the most popularly cited ‘art games’ of recent years such as The Last of Us and Braid, the listed games offer something nothing else can – powerful, well-told and satisfying stories, often over the course of no longer than half an hour. So whether or not they really are art (or even games – a point some members of the community may be adamant about), they certainly have the capacity to evoke strong emotion, from thrill, to joy, to poignant sadness.
Once upon a time, in a world without diverse colour palettes, without Sony’s Playstation or WASD controls, there existed the video game in what was essentially its most basic form: the text adventure. But it was more than that. And it still is.
What do you think? Leave a comment.