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.
“Why would anyone want to read a video game?” is a sentiment I see a rather often. Why waste time staring at a small box of text, typing commands, when you could be roaming gloriously rendered forests and wastelands, slaying monsters and saving the universe from the brink of destruction while staring at the best graphics technology can offer?
That’s a fair point; video game graphics these days are insanely gorgeous and immersive. But the “text adventure” is a huge genre unto itself, not instead of but in addition to Call of Duty and Halo and League of Legends and every other flashy blockbuster game. Text games are experiencing a renaissance thanks to contemporary hits like 80 Days and Depression Quest, as well as new game platforms like Twine, and they’re worth wasting time on. I want to try to explain why.
I like to think that modern gaming, particularly games featuring complex stories that invite their players to get lost in a world for days at a time, was born in the caves of Kentucky. In 1976, long before Baldur’s Gate or Diablo, programmer Will Crowther used his experiences exploring the Mammoth Caves to create what’s considered the original text adventure, Colossal Cave Adventure, as a game to play with his children. Adventure is understandably rough by today’s standards and a good amount of frustration awaits anyone who tries to play it (you can try it yourself by clicking that link—since text games are often so simple you can play many of them directly in your browser). You’ll spending long minutes trying to figure out the correct commands to type, like “grab lamp” instead of “take lamp” or “get lamp,” or “in” instead of “enter.”
But Colossal Cave Adventure features a lot of the rudimentary ideas that developers have spent the decades since trying to implement in more complex video games, power fantasies where the player is the protagonist in a story built on the tropes of classic literature. It might not be the most thrilling game to play, but its significance is undeniable. After all, without Crowther’s work, we wouldn’t have Zork, one of the most important games ever made.
Improving on Cave Adventure was easy: what makes Zork stand apart, and ultimately far more successful, is its expanded list of commands that players can use. The struggle to figure out which verb the game would recognize was significantly alleviated, which let the game’s genuinely interesting world emerge through its prose. Instead of Cave’s trolls and dwarves, Zork featured an impressive underground empire of original and amusing creatures, including the infamous Grue. And it did it all with words alone.
Zork players will eventually run into the following notice: “It is pitch black. You will likely be eaten by a grue.” Asking the game what a “grue” is results in this description, a witty combination of humor and horror that takes cues from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams (with whom Zork developer Infocom would later work): “The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers.”
The success of Zork and its sequels allowed Infocom to make text adventure games for nearly a decade, proving that large numbers of gamers were interested in games that require them—enable them, even—to use their imaginations. The developer spent those years not only developing traditional genre adventures—like murder mystery Suspect and sci-fi romp Planetfall—but also expanding the form of text adventures and taking creative risks with the likes of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, a sex farce adventure, and the ponderous A Mind Forever Voyaging.
That last is particularly interesting, probably the best work that Infocom published, because it’s so different from traditional text adventures. The genre was young, but already it was being subverted. A Mind cast you as an Artificial Intelligence running simulations for a nationwide revitalization plan and witnessing the consequences of that plan over a number of simulated decades. There are almost no puzzles, a rarity for this era of text games. You’re simply encouraged to explore the game and enjoy a daring, complex story about humanity’s grim future. It’s hardcore political sci-fi presented as interactive fiction, a tale that deftly channels the works of Frank Herbert (Dune) and Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey).
It raises a question: wouldn’t these “text games,” particularly story-heavy examples like A Mind Forever Voyaging, simply work better as books? Maybe, but that’s ultimately beside the point. A Mind was one of the first games to explore sci-fi tropes in a way that required players to actually engage with and think about tough concepts and truths—in other words, the actual point of science fiction, as opposed to the laser-shooting schlock of bad SyFy channel movies. This kind of sci-fi—the intellectual kind—in games is usually overshadowed by the shooty stuff, even in relatively smart blockbuster video games like Deus Ex and Mass Effect. A Mind remains one of the best counterpoints to that criticism, and it accomplished all it did—yet again—using mere text on a screen.
These games are the tip of the deftly described iceberg when it comes to the number of quality classic text adventures, most of which are available to play for free online. So shut down your Xboxes and PlayStations for a couple of hours and unsheathe your swords, friends. There’s treasure to be found in underground empires, and our list of 10 essential text adventures is a great place to start. Just don’t get eaten by a Grue (or do—it is your adventure, after all).
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