Gamer's Paradise: Why Text Games Are Poised To Make A Triumphant Return As Interactive Fiction

In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she’ll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.

We live in an age of incredible graphical fidelity, where the games we play in our living rooms offer fantastically-rendered vistas. But as a child, one of the first games I ever truly loved had no pictures at all. At the age of six, my neighborhood friend and I would escape the summer heat into the cool, dark basement of her house where her father owned a PC that was the size of a small refrigerator, with pizza-sized discs we’d carefully lift into its pull-out drawer of a drive.

The machine would sigh and rumble noisily, blinking its many luminous eyes. On the screen, in the black and green text display we’d load a file called ADVENT, and slip into a complex network of caverns and grottoes, with treasures to collect and mazes to chart. We’d draw maps by hand that sprawled across several pages of taped-together printer paper, discovering magical artifacts and puzzling over the nature of hollow voices that called to us from the dark.

The game was called Colossal Cave, and it was a text adventure by Will Crowther, supposedly developed when, in the midst of a divorce, he wanted to create a way to share the joy of spelunking with his daughters. It would describe an area in imaginative but clean prose, and players interacted with it by typing in commands, like TAKE ROD, or directions like N for north.

Some stills and a visual map from ADVENT’s Colossal Cave Adventure

Our childhood negotiations with those luminous green letters on that black screen would form an indelible impact on my life and the way I conceived of the world around me. Text-based adventure and roleplaying games may have sprung from the actual inability of machines at the time to render rich pictures—or any at all—and our pioneering relationship with the hand-typed call and response of programming, but in the absence of imagery one can form incredible relationships with interactive entertainment through the power of imagination.

Though the rise of graphical games and home consoles eventually relegated text-only gaming to a niche, it persists as an art form most practitioners and fans refer to as interactive fiction. Certainly the idea of “interactive fiction” makes its appeal much easier for non-gamers to understand. It’s reading that piques your brain, offering puzzles to solve, environments with which to interact, and characters to get to know.

A visual map of the interactive fiction game, Zork

There’s a developer community around pioneering ever-more sophisticated tools for writing rich text- based games, and beautiful applications for playing them that are a pleasure to look at and to use. The annual Interactive Fiction Competition is an amazing resource for curation and discovery of the best and most exciting work quietly occurring all the time in this field. Some of the games are even available to play online.

One of the things that’s historically prevented interactive fiction from reaching a wider audience was that the language they use and understand can be very specific. Let’s say the game describes a room with a book on a table, and the player wants to pick the book up from the table and read it. Typing “Pick up book” might result in the game telling you that you can’t—but typing “take book” or “read book” would lead to a success.

It’s impossible to design a game that can account for everything the player might want to write, or for every kind of phrasing they may want to use, so playing these games has traditionally been frustrating for those who aren’t fairly intimately acquainted with the standard forms of communication—and frustrating to create as well, since the writers and designers had to deal with the limitations that those traditional text parsers could place on their vision.

But interactive fiction has been getting ever more democratic, with recent years yielding a profusion of creation tools like Twine and Inklewriter, which are designed to put the tools for interactive writing into the hands of just about anyone who’d like to give it a shot. The games are getting easier for the uninitiated to play and understand, too.

Some of the more experienced text game designers actually now find themselves on the forefront of innovations in believable character behavior, as they’ve spent years applying themselves to the design challenge of making written characters react with in complex and plausible ways.

In that regard, the depth of experience and connection players can get from text games can be much more touching and sophisticated in games where most of the performance is visually-oriented and where the old “uncanny valley” concept still gets in the way.

Now, designers of text-based games and interactive fiction find themselves in an incredibly favorable climate alongside the smartphone, tablet and e-reader boom. There’s now an entire generation growing up accustomed to doing their reading and gaming alike on portable devices, and expect traditional book publishers to catch on to this ideal way to capture readers that are desirous of a little interactivity and engagement on these devices.

Books and games are near equal as the most popular download category on the iPhone’s App Store—a product that can capture that overlap could be huge. What once was a hobbyist niche at best, and a relic of a prior age at worst, is now poised to become a diverse, imagination-oriented medium that is increasingly accessible to players and creators alike and well-suited to today’s most popular platforms.


Previously: Analog Group Gaming Breaks Into The Digital Space