As anyone who’s played a modern video game can attest, better graphics don’t necessarily make for a better game. What happens when you remove the graphics entirely? Word Games is Playboy.com’s column on text adventures both classic and contemporary.
Text adventures blazed a bright but brief light in the ‘80s, enjoying a healthy dose of popularity right up until 1989 when Infocom, who developed most of the classic text adventure games from that era, shut its doors. To say that the genre died would be inaccurate, as a strong community continued to create fantastic games, like Galatea and Photopia. But it certainly lost its place as a mainstream genre—at least until recently.
In the last few years, text adventures have enjoyed a surge in popularity, catching the attention of countless gamers looking to spend a few hours lost in a labyrinth built with words. Some of this can be attributed to Twine, a free tool that allows people with little to no coding experience to create their own text-based games and share them online. However, equally—if not more—important has been the rise of mobile gaming platforms.
Phones and tablets, which have carried our music and book collections for years now, seem like a natural fit for text-based games, allowing the player to access and pause word-heavy games at will. The pick up and play expectation of these devices, and games that have wisely incorporated that expectation into their designs, have played an instrumental part in bringing about a renaissance for word games.
AROUND THE WORLD
Designers Jon Ingold and Joseph Humfrey worked for Sony before leaving to found their own company, Inkle, which began as an interactive content producer for book publishers before going on to develop mobile text adventures like Sorcery! and 80 Days.
“We found that [book] publishing wasn’t exactly that receptive to what we were doing but that gaming was, so we sort of slowly headed back to making more and more gaming products,” Ingold told me. “It’s funny,” Humfrey added, chuckling, “we left the gaming industry and just…returned home.”
That the creators of 80 Days have a background in book publishing shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s played the game. Beyond being an adaption of a work of classic literature, Verne’s Around The World in Eighty Days, the game’s presentation is colorful and polished in a way reminiscent of extravagant old hardcover books, from back when publishers could afford to produce such things.
The game itself is essentially a portable epic adventure, with you playing the role of a manservant tailing his master as the man attempts to circumvent the globe in 80 days for the sake of a bet. “The idea of going anywhere in the world—the real world, not some arbitrarily sci-fi planet—is a seductive one, I think,” Ingold said.
The reception of the game has more or less proven his notion. It sold well and received critical acclaim from festivals and publications, including Time’s Game of the Year award. Loads of people love playing 80 Days and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s beautiful to look at, with a clutter-free user interface, and writer Meg Jayanth’s prose crackles with wit and humor. But there’s more to it than either of those things.
The best adventure games let you lose yourself in them, falling in love with your characters and feeling at home in their worlds. 80 Days is one of those rare games that manages to capture that fleeting sensation and hold on to it for dear life, allowing you to take a trip around the world in a fantastical version of the late 19th century and letting your choices determine the path you take. The game is massive, with so many branches shooting off in every direction. Maybe one trip will find you in Istanbul, another in Venice or Moscow, with each city having its own unique descriptors and situations that you, as the servant Passepartout, can discover.
Games with branching paths that feature cutscenes and animations and meticulously modeled characters are expensive, which is a large part of why choices in more modern adventure games, like The Walking Dead and Mass Effect, actually don’t branch that much. More often than not you end up at the same point, just maybe with different characters at your side or some slight variations in the ending. This is not the case with 80 Days. There are so many scenario combinations available for you to pursue that each playthrough feels like your own personal adventure, one that no one else in the world could have.
The game’s portability is more than just a nice perk; it’s also been instrumental in making its sea of words digestible for a large audience, allowing them to play at their leisure and, amusingly enough, often on modes of public transportation while Passepartout and his master are traveling on trains and planes in the game. I’m curious to see if the upcoming PC version will hold up nearly as well as its mobile sibling. I’ve played about five hours of a preview version and it’s almost as fun but there’s something that’s been lost in translation. Maybe I’m just finding it a bit strange that I’m playing a game about traveling the world while sitting at home and staring at a computer screen.
PHONE A FRIEND
Lifeline, a mobile branching text adventure by 3 Minute Games, is also a game where its portability feels necessary to its experience. You play as someone in contact with a lone astronaut named Taylor, the survivor of a deadly crash on the moon, and attempt to help them get through the situation. It’s essentially a thriller presented as a tense conversation. You are Taylor’s only form of support, the person who will lead them to their survival or their death. Lifeline is personal in a way that most games aren’t, with the game often taking forced breaks after you give Taylor some advice where to go in order heighten the tension.
I played Lifeline on a trip back home through the mountains and I’d listen to Taylor’s fears and anxieties, and then give them a direction to wander in or reassure them before having to put away the iPad for an hour, during which I’d occasionally wonder if the next time I opened up the game my astronaut they’d be dead because of some bad advice I gave. It’s a unique experience that can’t be recreated on anything other than a mobile device, which essentially serves as your radio between you and this person you’re trying to save, with an intensity and a surprising level of pathos often unseen in most games.
These two text adventures, as well as others like Emily Short’s Blood & Laurels, excel not just because mobile devices are a natural fit for the genre but because these are games that explicitly take advantage of the platform in interesting ways, purposely designed to benefit those who are playing on the go in some way. That developers are exploiting this kind of design is what might cement text adventures as a mainstream stay rather than something brought back from quiet solitude as a loud, brief fad. After years of being stupidly derided for their supposed casualness by self-professed hardcore gamers, mobile games might be the only thing keeping one of the most significant and fascinating genres of video games from slipping back into the shadows of obscurity once again.
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