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.
Games have an issue when it comes to being funny and fun at the same time. Even games by Lucasarts (now defunct) and Double Fine, considered the best of the best when it comes to developing humorous adventure games, have this problem. But text games—games that focus on words, often with no graphics at all—are great at beating these odds and being both funny and fun.
Take Escape From The Man-Sized Cabinet, a browser game released last month by comedian and host Stephen Colbert. The image above, hilarious and to the point, is its opening screen. There isn’t a huge description telling us what we’re doing at the office or how we’re about to launch into a goofy tirade about current events, as Colbert often did on his show, The Colbert Report. It’s a simple statement that captures the lovable self-obsessed traits of this popular character and sets the mood for the adventure.
Modern adventure games like Grim Fandango and The Cave are filled with irksome puzzles that players have to overcome to get to their real appeal—more time with the madcap characters who inhabit those worlds and the zany things they say. Portal 2, Jazzpunk and Saints Row IV are all great exceptions to this rule, but still, most funny games just don’t have gameplay that’s nearly as interesting as their writing. The truly funny stuff is in the writing and the cutscenes instead of the parts you’re actually playing. Considering that games are a medium celebrated for their interactivity, this is a bit troublesome to me.
A large part of why text games don’t have the same problem is tied into audience expectations and the inherently minimalist design of the genre. You read words. You make choices. The end. There’s not much to distract in a text game since they don’t have to juggle around the expected features of most modern video games. When someone sits down to play a text game, they probably know they’re in for a tighter, more focused experience, a series of tunnels to explore instead of giant worlds, which makes it that much easier for the developer to succeed. It doesn’t hurt that the creators of text adventures also have the player’s imagination to assist them in bringing their vision to life.
Consider the infamous grue from Zork, one of the earliest text adventures. Instead of a lengthy description we’re given this simple sentence: “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” If the game were to portray the grue as a fully 3D modeled character fleshed out with textures and polygons, horns and teeth and tails, it would probably look like a generic fantasy monster. Instead, the short sentence’s matter of fact tone and the game’s brilliant use of its own darkness—the black backgrounds that help instill the sense we’re in the underground, these words the only light we have—let us create the grue in our minds and make him as silly or terrifying as we deem appropriate. It’s often through this kind of terse writing and the power of suggestion that text adventures make their humor work.
Escape From The Man-Sized Cabinet, essentially a Stephen Colbert simulator, employs the same technique. If you enter the closest and continue to just stand in there instead of exiting even though the game tells you to leave several times, you eventually reach a screen informing you that you have died from dehydration and “cabinet fever.”
This doesn’t just reinforce Colbert’s infamously stubborn character. It’s also a celebration of the wacky experimentation that’s possible text adventure games, like cursing in Zork only to have the game chide you for having a dirty mouth. And players who die of Cabinet Fever can’t help but recall falling to dysentery in The Oregon Trail, a game that, unbeknownst to many, actually began life in 1971 as a text-only game for early school computers.
Good text games make the most of their concept without being overbearing or needlessly verbose. The worst thing a text adventure can do is have long, winding passages that might build a world or situation that’s halfway interesting but then offer the player no way to interact with it. The best text adventures often get around that by being designed as a kind of conversation.
Another recent well-made text game centered on a celebrity’s persona is Merritt Kopas’s Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You. Like Man-sized Cabinet, the game takes the reputation of its subject and couches it in an amusing context. Instead of actually being Diesel, we’re a player having a conversation with the actor during a game of Dungeons & Dragons, with this caricature of Diesel living up to his reputation as a sweet person, guiding us through the basics of the game. The combination of encouraging text and pictures of Diesel smiling or laughing entertains and constantly asks you to be part of forming the game, making sure you’re interacting instead of just reading a slideshow of someone else’s interpretation of Diesel.
Of course, text adventures aren’t funnier than other games just by the nature of them being text adventures (there have been some real, uh, flops over the past 30 years). But games like Man-sized Cabinet and Vin Diesel DMing showcase just how funny text adventures can be.
A proper text adventure is an intricately crafted series of scenes and branching paths that take you on the type of odyssey that can’t be replicated in a book or graphical game. That these games are finally becoming mainstream enough that figures like Colbert are getting involved in making them is hopefully a sign that even more hilarious games are on the way.
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