A Personal History of the Text Adventure

Voyaging through the cerebral world of interactive fiction, one of videogames’ most ancient and inventive forms

Text adventures are the poetry of videogames. They were there first, but they’ve been superseded by the flashier, the faster, the more showy forms. You’ll make no money at them – only a handful of people ever do. They require thinking; they won’t zone you out like Candy Crush. They don’t deliver the cheap, blood-splatter thrills of the first-person shooter or, in general, the sweaty anxiety of the timed challenge. Like a book, they take their time and they demand yours. In fact, text adventures remind me rather of Auden’s lines about poetry. He wrote that poetry:

‘cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be “done” like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored.’

The text adventure, like poetry, tends to attract a small band of devoted fans rather than hundreds of millions of casual players. And yet, those who care about writing know that they are where the form starts; and I can’t help feeling that videogames in general would be better if they took as much care over their words, and over their narratives, as text adventures do.

For those who might be confused at this juncture, a brief word of explanation about what a text adventure actually is. It is, essentially, a game made of words. There are only words on the screen, and the player communicates with the game by typing words. So you might have a description of what you’re looking at. ‘You’re in a wide, grassy meadow filled with buttercups.’ ‘You’re in a dank dungeon with water dripping down the walls, imprisoned by an iron gate.’ ‘You’re riding a dragon over a landscape of frozen castles.’ And then you can type words to say what you want to do next: ‘Pick buttercups.’ ‘Look at iron gate.’ ‘Defrost castles with dragonfire.’ Sometimes the game will understand what you’re asking it to do. Sometimes you’ll have to rephrase your request. If you keep going, a story will unfold based on the decisions you’ve made. It’s magical.

The first videogame I ever remember seeing was a text adventure. It was 1982. My mum had taken me and my brother to the Puffin Roadshow where, in amongst the people dressed up as our favourite book characters and the Actual Wardrobe From Narnia (allegedly), I spotted a bank of computer screens. Children were taking turns on them – you had to get a special token and put your name on a list to get access. I watched them for only a few moments before I could see immediately what this was: it was a kind of book that you could step into. A book that would talk back. That is where games begin, for me, with the dream of a book you can talk to.

For this piece, I’ve spoken to some of my text-adventure-writing heroes, people whose work I’ve admired for the quality of the prose and the thoughtfulness of the plot, or the magnificence of the character design. The text adventure may be an underappreciated form, but for me, it underpins so much of what is best in videogames.

Emily Short is a creator of some of the most innovative and exciting text adventures I’ve ever played – try out any of her games for an understanding of what the form is and can be. She also has strong memories of her first ever experience of interactive fiction (‘IF’):

‘My parents had Infocom’s Deadline on an Osborne 1 when I was six […] There were plot points to do with adultery and inheritance and corporate embezzlement that I didn’t have any context for at that age. So, needless to say, I didn’t solve it. But I did find traces of poisons, and listen in on a telephone call I wasn’t supposed to hear, and detect what seemed to be a hollow wall. Those hints were more than enough to keep me working on it.’

‘That sense that Deadline contained inscrutable clues reflected the way I felt about the adult world in general. From my child’s eye view, the world was full of locked doors and inscrutable dials, not to mention overheard telephone conversations I didn’t understand and emotional responses that didn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes you could get an adult explanation (“oh, yeah, that’s a gas meter”), but a lot of things in one’s everyday environment were permanently mysterious. IF worlds, by contrast, offered a mysterious environment that was designed to become transparent. If you could get through a piece, you were supposed to wind up knowing what everything was for and what it all meant.’

It seems to me that this ultimate explicability is a lot of what makes art attractive compared to life: from its earliest roots, storytelling like Greek drama has given a resolution to the kinds of situations and stories that often trail off aimlessly in real life – in this sense, a story is a simplification. And when I asked Short about her inspirations, she also went back to poetry, and the Greek tradition of epic verse:

‘I think there’s something for the IF author in the ancient trope of ekphrasis, where a poet would write an extended description of an object: Homer’s Shield of Achilles, or the Catullus poem that narrates at length the embroidery on a coverlet. IF requires a lot of description, and sometimes layered description, where the player can look at details on a previously described object […] Quite a few games do most of their storytelling through the description of objects, and looking back at the tradition of ekphrasis gives some guidance about how much can really be accomplished that way.’

Short recommended this review of Andrew Plotkin’s work Hunter, In Darkness for more discussion of ekphrasis. And Plotkin himself – an extremely influential and well-regarded text adventure author – goes back to classical roots to talk about where the text adventure begins, suggesting that it relates back to very ancient mystery games and puzzles, telling me: ‘there’s some influence from classical mazes and labyrinths…. plenty of influence from real-world cave exploration, and […] Nick Montfort has argued that classical riddle and riddle-games are an important precursor.’

Text adventures certainly involve a lot of ‘educated guessing’, in the way that riddle-answering does. ‘Is it this?’ No. ‘Is it this?’ No. ‘Is it this?’ No… but you’re getting closer. A problem in a text adventure will often become easier to solve after going for a walk, getting away from the puzzle for a while, letting one’s subconscious work on it and coming back with some new ideas to try. Plotkin remarks that he ‘grew up reading puzzle books (Martin Gardner, Raymond Smullyan),’ and is also influenced by ‘other game-like or interactive-ish books: the treasure-hunt books by Kit Williams and Christopher Manson. Anything with mazes in it.’ These games are cerebral, clever and mind-expanding. Possibly it’s because of my deep love for the text adventure and interactive fiction that I’ve never understood or sympathised with the position that ‘games are bad for you’. (Possibly I’ve never understood or sympathised with it because it’s simply wrong.)

Josh Nite is the writer of one of my favourite games of the past decade – and one which manages the trick, a rarity in gaming, of being genuinely laugh-out-loud funny – Kingdom of Loathing. It’s not ‘interactive fiction’ in the traditional sense, but is certainly more of a text-and-writing-based game than one based on action sequences, fast reflexes and good aim with an M-76 Revenant. Kingdom of Loathing is a satirical game, poking gentle fun at role-playing games – instead of being a wizard or a warrior, for example, you might choose from character classes like Pastamancer or Turtle Tamer. It’s full of puns, double-entendres and hilarious one-liners.

Nite agrees that many videogames could benefit from having more time and attention devoted to their writing: ‘You’ll get a million-dollar game with a five-dollar script, riddled with clichés and bad dialogue. It’s like, man, don’t just have one of your programmers bang out some dialogue! This is a learned skill! It’s a shame, because when the writing’s strong, it can really elevate a game. Bastion and Portal are two really good examples of that. Bastion especially – the writing and gameplay mechanics are so beautifully synced, it really shows the potential when you’re not just writing either an interactive movie or a game with an afterthought script.’

That’s the critical point, of course; combining writing and gameplay in this way, so that neither overshadows the other or has to ‘come first’ is extremely difficult. Take Plotkin’s description of a game he’s currently working on: ‘My current (unfinished) large work is tackling an old problem. It’s a game whose puzzles have many solutions, but each solution requires various scarce resources, so you have to figure out a plan for all the puzzles such that the resource requirements dovetail.’

Writing a good game narrative, it seems to me, is a bit like this. It’s so easy to start thinking that the gameplay is everything, and that the story can just be fitted into the edges, pushed like putty into the gaps between blowing stuff up with enormous rockets. Or, on the other hand, it’s easy to decide you’re just going to tell a linear story, and use the dreaded ‘minigames’ as blockers; you can’t get the next bit of story until you’ve solved this jigsaw puzzle almost identical to the jigsaw puzzles you’ve already solved 500 times. Truly great text adventure writing involves doing what Plotkin’s suggesting in his current game – holding a number of pieces in your head, keeping them all in play, not allowing either the gameplay or the story to fall away or be overshadowed – what you’re doing, at best, is creating a fully-rendered world, in which there’s no direction the player can turn that doesn’t have an interesting story to engage in or interesting gameplay to enjoy. Writing this, I start to wonder whether the kind of interactive fiction I dreamed of as a child – the kind where you can walk into the book – will only really exist when it can be written by artificially intelligent enormous Minds, as imagined by Iain M Banks in The Culture.

But, as we don’t have those Minds yet, the ones we have right now are well worth enjoying. I asked Short, Plotkin and Nite for their thoughts about where IF is heading, and whose work we should seek out today. Short recommended the work of Porpentine, who ‘writes interactive pieces that fall on the border between fiction and poetry’, Alan DeNiro’s longer stories in Twine (a software tool for writing IF in the form of web pages), including Solarium, Ryan Veeder’s games, which are both ‘sophisticated’ and ‘short, funny works’, Jon Ingold’s apps and his ‘massive mystery game’ Make It Good, Aaron Reed’s piece 18 Cadence and Failbetter’s Fallen London. Plotkin also pointed me towards the ‘new communities [which] are forming around various kinds of interactive text story – Twine, Choice of Games, etc’, and indeed these new kinds of text adventure are having a huge burst of creative energy at the moment. Josh Nite, meanwhile, is excited by the gleeful silliness of some indie games, including Guacamelee and Buritto Bison, as well as by the introduction of comedy and good writing into somewhat more traditional games. ‘[in] the two Portal games, the humour is just baked into the whole enterprise. The Lego games are really good at that, too … they get the pop culture references and twist them until they’re hilarious. I’ve been replaying Lego Indiana Jones with my son, and you can find Luke Skywalker frozen in the Wampa cave in there, and there’s a hidden Mos Eisley cantina where you can have a dance party.’ He also recommends Bastion and The Binding of Isaac – all of the writers I spoke to have been impressed and heartened by the burgeoning indie games scene.

Rather like movies, in fact, the creations with the big explosions aren’t generally where the greatest writing or artistry is to be found. And indie games, like indie movies, don’t tend to have the marketing budget of the big blockbusters. But with distribution of text adventures easier than ever over the internet, with new generations discovering them via apps like Frotz or The Lost Treasures of Infocom, and the growth of new interactive fiction platforms like Twine, Inform 7 and Choice of Games, there’s a lot to enjoy, while we’re waiting for those godlike Minds, or for the Actual Wardrobe into Actual Narnia.