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Words Are Your Weapons in These 10 Retro Text Games

Words Are Your Weapons in These 10 Retro Text Games:

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.


Unable to offer the photorealistic graphics of their high budget brethren, text games usually have to rely on the power of language alone to conjure up entire universes—or single rooms, as sometimes is the case.

Masterfully written prose can harness the power of a player’s imagination to create worlds far more stunning and immersive than any piece of eye candy. There’s also a surprising amount of variety within the genre, some text adventures functioning as a series of puzzles while others are more similar to Edward Packard’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, allowing the player to pursue multiple storylines with various endings.

Here are 10 absolutely essential text adventures that demonstrate the strength of the genre and how it helped lay the foundation of modern gaming.


1

’COLOSSAL CAVE ADVENTURE’
Play it: here
Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) is considered by most to be the first adventure computer game. It was initially developed by Will Crowther to be something he could play with his kids. Crowther, a caving enthusiast, actually based the layout of the game on real caves in Kentucky. Eventually the game was expanded and revised across several versions, adding fantastical creatures for players to overcome and a scoring system.

Colossal Cave Adventure, unlike many other games on this list, has not aged that well, though. You’ll likely spend more time wrestling with how to issue the correct commands than solving puzzles (figuring out you must type “take lamp” instead of “grab lamp” is an early example). However, it is important to know one’s history and the beginning of games featuring any semblance of complex narrative lies with Crowther’s work.


2

’ZORK’
Play it: here
Zork (1980) is the most famous text adventure game of all time, and not without reason. Developer Infocom built the game on the solid ground that Colossal Cave Adventure provided, casting the player in the role of an adventurer searching for treasure in an “ancient empire lying far underground.” However, the quality of Zork’s writing, and the variety of commands available to the player to use, dwarf anything in its predecessor.

Zork holds up rather well surprisingly. The enchanting prose presented against a black background helps you settle into the fantasy that you are a treasure hunter whose very demise may be around the next corner. It’s difficult to find anything as simultaneously horrifying and amusing in games as reading the warning “It is pitch black. You will likely be eaten by a grue.”


3

’HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY’
Play it: here
Infocom’s adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984) is notorious for being rather difficult, with wacky puzzles that have their own infuriating and murky logic to them. There’s even one puzzle that will cause the game to become unwinnable if the player doesn’t solve it correctly.

Infocom balances that extreme difficulty level with a nice serving of wicked wit and humor courtesy of Douglas Adams. As a result, Galaxy is not just a fun challenge, it’s also one of the most faithful game adaptations of a popular franchise ever made.


4

‘A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING’
Look for it: here
A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985) is the last of Infocom’s truly great text adventure games and probably their crowning achievement. This a dark game that eschewed puzzles in favor of allowing the player to explore a complex story about humanity, religion, and the future.

You play as PRISM, a sentient computer who is awakened by its creator to run simulations on a nationwide revitalization plan proposed by a senator. As PRISM, you jump around in the simulation, which allows you to see the grim ramifications this plan has for civilization over several years. Of course, the truly disturbing part of all this is what if it’s not this particular plan that leads to humanity’s downfall but, instead, simply the inevitable conclusion of our species’ story? That we’re doomed no matter what we do? A Mind Forever Voyaging should not be missed by anyone who loves ponderous, uneasy science fiction.


5

’PHOTOPIA’
Play it: here
After Infocom was dissolved by Activision in 1989, text adventures essentially went into hibernation. They weren’t dead, per se, but there weren’t really any strides being made with the format of the genre until Adam Cadre’s Photopia (1998), a game that challenges the idea of what a text adventure should be thanks to its linear plot and low interactivity. Photopia is a story that surges ahead, offering the player only one path forward, which resulted in critics taking issue with the game’s classification as interactive fiction.

However, Photopia’s dreamlike scene transitions, innovative-for-the-time dialogue menu and focus on creating a gripping character drama in a realistic environment, as opposed to pure fantasy or sci-fi, were groundbreaking and continue to influence games.


6

’GALATEA’
Play it: here
The joy and delectable mystery of conversation: that is the adventure Emily Short’s Galatea (2000) provides. You play an art critic observing and chatting with an artificial intelligence at a gallery. There are no monsters to kill or villainous plots to foil. Instead, you’re interacting with a prickly statue that has a life of its own. The game works on several levels: not only do you learn about Galatea, you also learn about your character’s background as the conversation proceeds, mining the depths of their history.

Galatea, whether it’s being pitiful or humorous, is a beautiful gem that shouldn’t be missed.


7

’FALLEN LONDON’
Play it: here
Failbetter Games’ Fallen London (2009) is a text adventure where you’re a small fry navigating the dangerous mysteries of an underground Victorian-era London. It might sound like we’ve come full circle, returning to the caves of Zork, but Fallen London takes liberties with the genre and helps evolve it in an interesting way. Players do not type commands; instead, they’re presented with multiple-choice boxes where each decision leads down a different path. How does the player find a place to live and pay rent? Will they take up with a widow? Will they steal money from others?

There are a lot of choices to make in* Fallen London* and all of them come together to create not just an adventure, but an entire world that you can easily lose yourself in for days.


8

’DIGITAL: A LOVE STORY’
Play it: here
Digital: A Love Story (2010), developed by Christine Love, is another game that fiddles around with the format of text adventures, requiring the player click the right icons and input phone numbers instead of written commands.

You play as a silent protagonist investigating multiple message boards in 1988 until you eventually strike up a conversation with the mysterious “Emilia.” Though Digital is pretty linear, the story and the game’s aesthetic, a recreation of antiquated desktops, are more than enough to keep you navigating this labyrinth of private messages and phone numbers until the end.


9

’DEPRESSION QUEST’
Play it: here
Depression Quest (2013), a game that seeks to educate players about the nature of depression, is one of the most important games released in years. You play as someone having to navigate daily life while suffering from depression. Beyond the educational value, Depression Quest is also one of the most compelling games out there explicitly designed to not be fun, often robbing the player of control instead of making them the hero of their story.

Depression Quest also brought mass attention to the program used to develop it, Twine, which has gone on to inspire many people to make their own interactive fiction.


10

’80 DAYS’
Buy it: here
Quality text adventures are beginning to crop up on tablets and phones now, like Blood & Laurels and Lifeline. However, if you have a mobile device, Inkle’s 80 Days (2014) should be the first one you check out. Based on Jules Verne’s Around The World in Eighty Days, the game casts you as Passepartout, a servant to a man named Phileas Fogg, as the two men attempt to circumvent the world for the sake of a bet.

80 Days is a masterwork that makes great use of its classic source material and offers up a seemingly endless amount of branching paths, bouncing charm and a challenging but ultimately fair level of difficulty.


Watch for more coverage of text games (and some with graphics, too) at Playboy.com’s gaming hub, and don’t forget to check in with our Gamers Next Door.


Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.


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