A (Very) Short History of Text Adventure Games

I first played this on a super deluxe Windows 3.1 version with real buttons. No command prompts for me!

Text adventures (Also known as interactive fiction) were a product of the mid 1970s, beginning with William Crowther’s Adventure (Sometimes called Colossal Cave Adventure or ADVENT). Restricted by relatively primitive computer technology, on-screen graphics were not really feasible. The solution? Text! Born of necessity, text adventures were interactive stories that allowed the player to manually enter commands to solve puzzles and explore new areas. They could vary in settings from fantasy to 1920s noir to modern urban sprawls. The only limit was computer hardware and the creator’s imagination.

Adventure and its magic word “xyzzy” were the foundation on which an entire genre formed. Its affected prose offered claustrophobic environments that accurately portrayed the author’s love of real-life spelunking. The beloved ~*immersion*~ that gamers and movie-goers are always rambling about can be fantastically strong in text adventures. Stripped off all aesthetics—even graphics—the ideal text adventure carries this feeling to the player. Adventure was quickly followed by the venerable and beloved Zork series.

Early text adventure games suffered from serious issues in two areas: word recognition and hacking through the brick wall of the programmer’s internal logic. As adventure game creator Al Lowe says, in the 1980s (And earlier) you had to already be a problem-solver just to use computers, so it’s natural that adventure games would thrive in that environment. You were expected to sit there for hours, pondering how exactly you could get ye flask, and enjoy yourself. Similarly, solutions to puzzles that may be obvious and intuitive to the game’s programmer might be maddeningly obtuse and ridiculous to the average player. Even if you disregard the difficulty of puzzling out the game’s grammar, you may be faced with ridiculous cat syrup mustache solutions.

One work of interactive fiction that I particularly enjoyed was a 1986 piece titled Survival in New York City. The writing and plot aren’t that special, but it offers a level of non-linearity (including multiple endings) that is absent from most other games of its genre. I’ve never beaten it because I’ve never found a walkthrough until I did some research for this article. I know I’m always going on about how nostalgia is misleading and useless, but I have to admit that Survival in New York City remains stronger in my mind if I think of it as unbeaten, with me getting killed by gangs for being outside when the sun is down even though I was cowering in the gun store until sunrise.

The nonlinear nature of Survival in New York City is only matched by Galatea, the masterwork of Emily Short, who is undoubtedly a major reason the artform is sill alive today.

Next time I’ll pick a genre with more exciting screenshots, alright?

But when the topic of adventure games comes up, I always think of one game in particular. Douglas Adams, author of nerd favorite Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, worked with programmer Steve Meretzky of Infocom to create a text adventure based on his sci-fi comedy novels in 1984. What makes this noteworthy is the hilarious cruelty they instilled into the game. This is a game so unimaginably unfair and antagonistic towards the player that it makes I Wanna Be the Guy look like Kirby. It is fraught with dead ends, false hints, unwinnable situations that necessitate a restart, illogical solutions, and it even punishes the player for dutifully following the events of the books. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy may be an extreme example, but it is emblematic of what text adventures were about: they were brutal and unjust, and—before the age of GameFAQs—frequently unbeatable by the average person.

The reason people liked text adventures yet they fell out of favor is that they were not only for problem-solvers but also for people that got enjoyment from problem solving itself, not just a treadmill of serotonin-metering rewards, happy sounds and congratulations and achievements. In other words, a rat gets more enjoyment from running through a maze to get a food pellet than it does pressing a level with the hopes of randomly getting a food pellet. Modern games are primarily Skinner Boxes giving out shiny crap in exchange for button pressing; interactive fiction, when good, tried to be enriching and literate.

As I said in my ongoing Video Game Vocabulary Guide, there is still an active community of people working hard at new text adventures. They hold contests and the games are usually free. Interestingly enough, the interactive fiction field is heavily populated by women, perhaps because women read more than men and hence seem to be better represented in the text adventure world.

The technology is not obsolete. The Kindle e-reader and even plain ol’ HTML offer new possibilities and divergent evolution for the genre. Interactive fiction may be clumsy, but it can offer unique exercises and phenomenal challenges.

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mesarphelous even though Twitter sucks.
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3 Responses to A (Very) Short History of Text Adventure Games

  1. MetroidFantasy says:

    I know you wrote this article years ago now, but it led me to find Survival in New York City, which I’ve been enjoying. Any idea where you found that walkthrough? I’ve had trouble finding a guide anywhere.

    • Lee says:

      I Googled for a few minutes and couldn’t find it again. I really should have saved the URL. Sorry about that.

      • Kyle says:

        I’ve gone so far as to hack into the game – I think it’s broken and can’t be beaten. If you open the game in a hex-editor, you can read what the ending is suppose to be.

        I’d love to find people to collaborate with, to try and actually beat the game.

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