I started out on text adventures as a kid, so it was natural to introduce my daughter to them when she got to be about the same age. Coming back was like stepping into a favorite book I hadn’t opened in a long time, and I was surprised at how refreshing the contemplative style and pacing are in today’s world of sensory overload.
What are text adventures, and why is it time for this retro game style to return? They move you through a story, using text to describe what’s happening, with you typing in what to do next. Gameplay is relaxing and immersive, like a stepping into a good book. Learn how, what, and why to play.
Table of Contents
- An Antidote to Break the Curse of Hurry, and Everything-at-Once Overload
- Question the Standard Video Game Fun Formula, Break From the Stampede
- A Summary Description: What Text Adventure Games Are & How They Work
- 7 Aspects of the Text Adventure Game Experience That Make Them a Real Win
- A Very Different Sort of Gaming Experience, For a Different Kind of Enjoyment
- Smart Kids: Linguistic Savvy, Problem Solving, and Systematic Investigation
- Text Adventures as Literature
- Standard Conventions in Text Adventure Gameplay
- Text Adventure Gaming Resource List
- The History of Text Adventure Gaming
We have a tendency to fixate on one aspect of something, and use that as the measure of progress. With computer (and video) games, it quickly became the graphics. Text-based games, the natural first steps in the computer gaming world (see my article about early text-based computer gaming), reached an early and rich maturity, but then were quickly displaced by their graphical brothers. Since you’re here reading about retro gaming, you already get it that newer and snazzier doesn’t make the older and simpler obsolete. Let’s follow this line of reasoning to uncover some real treasures in our retro gaming exploration.
If you’re just too anxious, and need to jump right to the text-adventure gaming resources, go ahead. I still recommend you scroll back and read the rest of this, to get the most enjoyment out of your experience.
An Antidote to Break the Curse of Hurry, and Everything-at-Once Overload
Stop drinking from the firehose. No, really.
It’s an established fact that the always-on, hyper-connected existence most of us are grappling with leads to stress, irritability, and the blues. A big part of that is the way in which we are constantly plugged in, and task-switching, hopping around between things like a rock skipped across the surface of a pond.
Gaming is a nice respite, an oasis of fun that can create times of enjoyment, where we can take a break. But what if you found out that one of our earliest gaming types, one that has been largely lost today, is tailor-made to bring you to a place of serious, satisfying chill?
By stepping backward on the technology timeline, back beyond the start of the game graphics arms race, we can find something that is so different from today’s usual, that it’s like a kind of Shangri-La, a lost land of simple pleasure.
Question the Standard Video Game Fun Formula, Break From the Stampede
You’re here because you’re interested in retro-gaming - by definition, you’re wanting something different than the norm. You’ve already started throwing off the shackles that say newer-is-better, and old-is-outmoded. It’s time we distill a little theory of fun, though. If fun doesn’t necessarily depend on the new hotness, then where does it come from?
Before we dive into text adventures, let’s take a quick moment to ask important questions about what is required for a fun experience.
A simple recipe for fun would be engagement that includes the right amounts of novelty and challenge. A game like Warlords, on the Atari 2600 has extremely simple (and clunky-looking) graphics by today’s standards, yet we had friends over last Fourth of July, and had an absolute BLAST playing it. Their 14-year-old daughter became a retro-gaming convert on the spot (proving yet again that this retro thing is not just a nostalgia fix).
Your preferred proportions in this fun recipe may differ from mine, but sticking with the Atari for a moment, I think that Maze Craze is a ridiculously fun game that perfectly leverages what the system is good at. Great gameplay wrapped in primitive graphics that don’t at all detract from (in fact, add to) the fun. They didn’t even try to simulate little people running around in the maze, because the tech couldn’t pull it off. But play the game, and you don’t care. It doesn’t feel less enjoyable for it, at all. In fact, the whole simple package feels like a brilliantly crafted experience. It’s a lot of FUN.
The cult of immersive, realistic combat simulation (the mindset driving many contemporary games as of this writing in 2019) continues to double down on the increasingly movie-like visual depiction of believable people, physics, and situations. And, they’re very good at it. But considering what we just discussed about Warlords and Maze Craze, two games that abjectly fail at this formula, this cult does not represent the one true path to fun. So then let’s extend the argument about visual depiction out to its logical end - not just games with primitive graphics, but games with no graphics. Situations, challenges, and actions taken are all formed in the medium of text.
How many people would complain that their favorite book is hampered by a lack of pictures? A really good book tells a story in a way that only a book can. That’s why so many movie adaptations, excellent as they might be, often get met with “Yes, but the book was better.” Each medium, and approach has its strengths, and can do things that are unique.
A Summary Description: What Text Adventure Games Are & How They Work
Let’s do a quick run-down here.
A text adventure is a game that uses written narrative to put you, the player into a story. You read the short pieces of text the game feeds out, then type in what you want to do. Like so:
You stand on the stone threshold of an abandoned, overgrown tower built from large flagstones in the middle of a wheat field. The structure stands about thirty feet tall, and forty in diameter. The oaken entry door is weathered, and a fresh split down the middle is accompanied by the double-headed axe that seems to have been used to make it. The door stands slightly ajar. The sea of ripe wheat sways gently in the breeze, and the whole place is oddly quiet.
A silver ring, made for a finger roughly twice the thickness of yours, is slung on the nearest point of the axehead.
> Take the ring
In removing the ring, you are surprised at how heavy the thing is. It feels warm to the touch. Warmer than sun-warmed silver normally might. Somewhere behind you, within the forest, you hear the snort of a horse and the sound of hoofbeats. The faint sound of weeping comes from within the stone tower.
> Open the door
The standard convention is that text adventures break up their world into separate locations, such as this Stone Threshold above. Each location has a description, and may be populated with objects, characters, or challenges (such as a mechanism that must be figured out in order to open a secret passage). You move between locations using standard directions (N, S, E, W, up, down), manipulate objects (“Put the ring in the flagon of ale”), and generally work your way through the environment. Some stories have a completely non-linear exploration and puzzle solving model, and others have elements of a built-in time flow (such as needing to confront the Duke at noon in an empty valley). The common element is that you are the protagonist, and you make choices about what to do, discovering things, and changing the story as you do.
For more on the standard conventions of playing a text adventure, see the related section below.
7 Aspects of the Text Adventure Game Experience That Make Them a Real Win
When text adventures first appeared, it was almost by accident, and they took the form they did due to the technology of the time. Rather than us seeing this as a limitation to be transcended, it’s time to revisit, and rediscover the unique charms this format has to offer. With all of the realtime 3D simulation going on in the gaming world, we’ve pushed into a place where we’ve morphed a popular narrative form (movies), into a non-linear storytelling style in our video games. Text adventures did this same thing ages ago with books. Written stories can be brilliant. Written stories you can participate in? Genius.
I’m going to break out 7 key aspects of text adventure gaming that it does very well, culminating in the 8th aspect - our promised state of “satisfying chill.”
It’s important to make a point here. While the gaming world has become entranced with realistic visual simulation, it’s actually very limiting. You’re being served a literal, specific depiction of what was formed in the imaginations of a bunch of artists and art directors. I’m not knocking that - very talented people work on these games, and they can create real wonders. But the experience is a form of passive consumption. Here it is, take it.
Words on the other hand, are evocative. They are specific in some ways, open-ended in others, and leave a lot of room for personal interpretation. You participate in the narrative at the most basic level by turning the words into situations, people, and challenges that craft your own unique version of in your head. It’s stirring to let artfully written prose catch you up and take you on a journey. This process exercises your creative ability to color in details, and shape mental environments. It’s the opposite of being a mental couch-potato.
2) LOGICAL PROBLEM SOLVING
Well done text adventures present you with scenarios involving exploration, discovery, and problem solving. You begin your journey stepping into your new setting - an escape pod that drops you into the cold ocean at the edge of a rocky island on an abandoned world (Planetfall), or you are called to the home of a millionaire afraid he is going to be murdered (Witness). Then you are presented with a complication - a mysterious object, or a locked door. Now you must begin to formulate an understanding of how this world works, what is to be found, and how to systematically work through what’s available to you in order to continue. Maybe the mysterious object has delicate alien writing etched into it. Now you need to find a way to translate that alien script.
The worlds in text adventures are finite, with a specific amount of detail. When there’s a challenge that needs to be solved, some other element in the world will provide the solution. What place, or object, or combination, will piece together the answer to the mysterious challenge? Well done text adventures train you to be resourceful, and find ways to solve challenges (often in non-obvious ways) with what’s provided.
One of the fundamental activities in a text adventure is mapping. The worlds are often too involved for you to remember every location, every object, and every challenge. So you break out some paper, a pencil, and begin drawing little boxes with lines connecting them… making notes on where that mysterious object was found, and where the locked door was (And did it need a key? A combination? An alien hand-print?) Not only does this teach you basic map-making, but it teaches you how to organize your understanding of the virtual world you’re in, drawing conclusions based on how things relate to each other spatially, and keeping you aware of loose ends (we still haven’t gotten across that rickety bridge!).
As a creative person, remembering things has never been my strong suit. But playing text adventures builds memory - not by the dry route of rote memorization, but by stringing together a rich sense of story, setting, puzzles, and so forth - and then keeping them all in mind so I can evaluate as I go. Wait! - That triangular energy rod might fit in the triangular hole we found back in the engine room! You’re not just passively following a story, or wandering around a world where your interaction is limited to a small set of fixed options (Shoot it! Climb that! Jump!). You’re having to recall the details of places and things, because the way in which you originally perceived it may not be the way in which it’s needed. Hey! Go back and get the butter. Smear that on the door hinge so it doesn’t squeak!
As you explore, the story deepens, the plot thickens, the world grows more mysterious. Remember what your goal is (if you know it!), but deal with individual challenges and setbacks as they arise. Don’t let that detour take you completely off track. Keep contemplating solutions between gameplay sessions.
Not only must you stay focused within the world you’re exploring (there are lots of moving parts, and details matter), but text adventures are not normally solved in one session of play. You’ll find yourself mulling things over between play sessions, thinking about other ways to approach something. Did you remember to get that handwriting sample to compare with the note? Maybe there’s another way to charge the pulse rifle and get it to last more than one shot? Staying on task, over a prolonged duration during a play session, and across multiple sessions, takes focus.
As in real life, it can take time to work out answers. Text adventures teach patience, in that they get you to work incrementally over time toward a larger goal, while also using a mode of play that is filled with pauses to think. Instead of constant realtime action, a text adventure lets you sit and consider what you should do next. The story waits for you, like a book, but each move you make shapes the outcome. The key is that it’s not constantly coming at you. You are encouraged to pause and reflect. The whole style of play, and the challenges you meet revolve around that kind of thinky approach. It’s not about speed and agility, where play is skewed in favor of teenage reflexes.
Also, as with any good story, a well done text adventure takes its time in unfolding what it has in store. Take your time. See what happens. You might be surprised.
Text adventures don’t spoon feed you visual spectacle. Because you’re reading the unfolding narrative, and typing in your actions, you become intimately entwined with the language used. It’s not usually complicated, but it does train you to understand, and notice details. Why did the description of the room use that phrasing, and not another? - Oh! A secret passage! You exercise a whole different part of your brain - one used for abstract thought, logic, understanding based on words, and description.
THAT STATE OF SATISFYING CHILL
Human consciousness moves through different states, as we engage in different activities. The kind of scattered, distracted, task-switching state that has become increasingly normalized for many of us creates a pervasive feeling of stress and agitation. Prolonged focus on something that moves at a more meditative pace gets us out of that jangly mental/emotional state, and soothingly eases us into a state of relaxed focus.
Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined a state he refers to as “flow” in which a person is immersed, engaged, and enjoying what they are doing. It’s the classic “wow - time flies!” feeling. Becoming quietly immersed in an engaging story that requires your participation, is an excellent way to achieve this state, and plants you squarely at the other end of the spectrum from the kind of harried, frenetic activities that tend to get us amped up. When you finish playing a game, do you feel cranked up, tense, edgy? Or are you in a state of relaxed focus? Text adventuring, with its emphasis on imaginative thinking, and self-paced advancement through the story, regularly produces the latter.
A Very Different Sort of Gaming Experience, For a Different Kind of Enjoyment
Everything above was intended to challenge and rewire your, my dear reader’s, criteria for evaluating what makes a good gaming experience. I’m not proposing a THIS vs THAT, ONLY ONE CAN BE THE WINNER! kind of approach. Just highlighting a totally different space that is worth your time.
One of the things that was noteworthy during the era when text adventures were topping the retail computer game charts, is that they were very popular with everyone from little Jenny in 8th grade, to Professor Davis, aged 70. They provide an experience that is appealing to all kinds of people, and generally far broader than the rapid-fire online PWNAGE a lot of contemporary gaming is aimed at. Do you know someone who says they don’t like gaming? Maybe it’s just the kinds of game’s they’ve been presented with.
Smart Kids: Linguistic Savvy, Problem Solving, and Systematic Investigation
Back in the text adventure heyday, there was a definite mystique around Infocom’s text adventures (more on Infocom below). They presented smart gameplay, via smart scenarios, puzzles, and writing. For kids getting involved, it provided a break from the twitchy hand-eye coordination required at the arcade, and was more akin to keeping up with an adventure story - or trying to follow along with Sherlock Holmes. The 7 aspects of text adventure gaming listed above, culminating in that state of “satisfying chill” provide a counterpoint to other experiences, and a creative oasis in which to have fun and stretch some creative muscles. If you’re the kind of adult who is actively involved in a child’s upbringing, consider bringing text adventures into the mix. All of the 7 benefits accrue to the kid who is fortunate enough to engage with this kind of experience.
Text Adventures as Literature
While originally viewed as a cool way to have some fun playing computer games, the form began to be taken more seriously by some aficionados, with Mary Ann Buckles being the first to write a scholarly paper arguing for their status as literature: Interactive Fiction : The Computer Storygame “Adventure” was Buckles’ 1985 PhD dissertation at UCSD.
As is the case with many pioneers, Ms. Buckles’ idea was met with resistance, but her contribution was important in insisting that there was something more serious and lasting than “just games” in text adventures, and to place them in the history of Western literary forms. It seems that at one point she had thrown out her copy of the dissertation, and it appears to be known more by reputation than people actually having read it. Interestingly, I only got my hands on a copy of Ms. Buckles’ work after I had already written this article, and was pleasantly surprised to see that we had thought along similar lines on some key ideas. There was some direct overlap in our thinking about the benefits of text adventures, as I listed above in my 7 points. Clearly, these are aspects people should be considering.
After reading her dissertation, I reached out to Ms. Buckles, and asked if I could share the PDF copy I had dug out of the archives at a local university. She was tickled at the fact that people continue to show interest in it, and was so kind as to grant me permission to share it. You can find it in the Resources section below.
On this topic of text adventures as literature, Infocom’s games (I keep mentioning them, and promise to explain them soon) represent the high-water mark, and make the most clear case for the text adventure being a serious artform (even when it’s funny). One oft-cited example of how their work transcended the standard game tropes of the time to exist on a whole new plane, is the climactic scene in 1983’s Planetfall, which many note as emotionally moving. I’m being intentionally vague, so as not to ruin it. Don’t Google it, just play the game and see for yourself.
Spend some time playing well-made text adventures, and you’ll see why, for all of their seeming simplicity, they can be much more than you’d think at first introduction, much like a good book. It’s no wonder some prefer the term Interactive Fiction.
Standard Conventions in Text Adventure Gameplay
This is designed to be an expansion on the Summary Description of What Text Adventure Games Are, above. Please read that first.
Earlier text adventures were pretty simple in what kinds of commands they could understand. Playing the classic Colossal Cave Adventure requires working with two-word-maximum commands, like “get lamp,” or “kill dragon.” Later games had a more sophisticated ability to understand English, and allowed you to say things like “put the glowing orb inside the rusty can,” or “attach the metal plate with the green bolt.” You can also perform compound actions by typing things like “drop the sword, the ram horn, and the carved stone.” You can also shortcut things by typing “take all,” or “drop all,” to handle getting or leaving a bunch of items at once.
In order to make the game flow, once you have been in a location, returning there does not trigger the full location description. If you want to see it again, type “look.”
Games with characters you can talk to typically let you address them with commands such as “Captain Blunthook, move aside.”
Use “inventory” to see a list of everything you are carrying. “Wait” makes time pass in some games. “Save” and “Restore” let you save out your current game status, and bring it back. This is very useful if you need to end your play session for restarting later, or else you want to try something dangerous and be able to undo by restoring if it turns out badly. Save and restore are prime reasons to to play a game directly on your computer or device. Some games can be played online, but you can’t save… so when you need to take a break, you’ll have no way to save your status. Play it on your own system, and use the save function.
Text Adventure Gaming Resource List
Text adventures span from the early days of computer gaming (Colossal Cave) up to the present day (contemporary “interactive fiction” being produced, usually non-commercially). Just trying to play the games can be a puzzle in itself. While you can find some that are playable online, being unable to save your progress creates a real problem, since you are unable to break off and come back properly. That being the case, the optimal way to play them is on your computer or device, so that’s what the focus will be on here.
Please read The History of Text Adventure Gaming below to get a better sense of what these games are, if you are at all unfamiliar with them.
How to Play: Infocom’s Adventures
This is where I recommend everyone new to text adventures starts. Infocom’s work represents the pinnacle of the form, showcasing excellent writing, gameplay & puzzle design, as well as overall execution. You need to play Colossal Cave at some point, but it’s an earlier, less polished example of the form that Infocom perfected.
Infocom’s heyday was 1979-1986, but unfortunately, their amazing work is not readily available anymore via commercial outlets. There is an exception though, and I’d like to bring that up, since it’s easy and inexpensive, and can get you playing the sci-fi great, Planetfall, along with their fan faves - the Zork series.
You can inexpensively buy the Zork Anthology (which tucks in Planetfall) from both GOG, and Steam, if you are a Windows user. I’ll take a moment to talk up GOG, because of their active involvement in the rescue and preservation of historic games, and because they provide games free of DRM (Digital Rights Management). Please note that if you search either site for “Planetfall,” there is a recent game that is completely unrelated.
Unfortunately, that’s the only way you can currently buy any of the Infocom games commercially at the time of this writing.
On another front, there has been a very interesting development. A copy of the development hard drive from Infocom, including all of the original source files was given by a key Infocom person to Jason Scott of Archive.org, who has organized them, and placed them on GitHub, a site where programmers share and collaborate. Combining this source code with modern compiling tools means that people wanting to preserve this important chunk of retro gaming history have stepped up, and are making playable games freely available. You just need to grab a Z-Machine interpreter for your operating system or device, and then grab the compiled Z-Code file for the game you want.
Infocom games always came with “feelies” - printed materials that helped provide background information, in-story items, and other elements to round out gameplay. Some games are playable without them, but all benefit from taking a moment to look through them and add context. Infidel, for instance, is playable, but gives you none of the setup that explains what’s going on unless you read the feelies. Scroll down below the game file listing to find links to online versions of the feelies.
The GitHub Infocom game files. If you want to dive right in and look around, you can jump right to the repositories where you can find the games.
Click the repository name for the game you want, and then click the COMPILED folder you should find there. If there is no COMPILED folder, then those working on the games have not yet made them ready. While you could try compiling the source yourself, that is very specialized stuff, and beyond the scope of this post. Note that the “Gold” versions do not have compiled files, as of this writing. No problem - just grab the regular version.
The file you want is the game name with an extension like .z3, or .z[whatever] for the version number. Most you’ll see are .z3. So for Planetfall, you want the planetfall.z3 in Planetfall’s COMPILED folder in the repository on GitHub.
Click the file name, then click the “Download” button to get it.
BEWARE ONLINE GAME DESCRIPTIONS (like Wikipedia) THAT MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!
Here are some recommended games. For the complete list, go to the GitHub repository list.
Infocom Text Adventures: Science Fiction
PLANETFALL (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
I’m starting with this one, because it’s so classic, and so well done. You play a lowly ensign, who quickly finds himself crash landing in an escape pod on an abandoned planet. Where is everyone? What happened? How do you get home? Partner with Floyd, a childlike robot, to sort through this mysterious scenario. Planetfall blends drama and humor in a sci-fi setting to create a highly engaging game with a great story.
STATIONFALL (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
The sequel to Planetfall, Stationfall has you making a delivery to a space station, only to find it mysteriously empty, and not very welcoming. You must unravel what’s going on to fix things, and save yourself!
STARCROSS (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
This was Infocom’s first foray into science fiction. You are exploring space, looking for black holes to do energy mining, when you discover a mysterious alien craft floating in space. You must dock and explore it - sifting through completely alien technology, plants, and animal life.
SUSPENDED (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
You are in suspended animation, intended to unconsciously control the vital systems on a colonized planet with your mind. But something has gone wrong, and you are awakened to find that the systems are going haywire. You must remotely control a handful of robots with different capabilities in order to set things right before the planetary colonists terminate and replace you.
Infocom Text Adventures: Mystery
DEADLINE (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
This was Infocom’s first breakout from the underground cave/fantasy approach inspired by Colossal Cave. You play a police detective who is brought in to investigate the apparent suicide of a wealthy industrialist. Something is amiss though, and you need to unravel what’s really going on. This game departed from the standard exploration & adventure model, to bring in characters who act independently, and a natural flow of time, where you must accomplish things in a timely manner to stay on track. This game is one of their hardest, sports a number of sophisticated innovations such as talking to people, and having to collect evidence, to establish a motive, opportunity, and method. The feelies are a must on this one to get yourself properly situated in how to play.
THE WITNESS (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
Once again, you play a detective. This time, you are called out to check on a millionaire who is afraid someone is going to kill him. Before you can finish your discussion with him, he is shot through the window. You’re now the only witness to the murder, and must solve the case before sunrise. The same expansions in gameplay sophistication from Deadline apply, and again, the feelies are needed.
SUSPECT (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
In this one, you play a newspaper reporter who has been invited to a socialite party, but quickly finds yourself in a downward spiral as you are framed for the hostess’s murder. Can you prove your innocence?
Infocom Text Adventures: Adventure
ZORK 1 (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
ZORK 2 (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
ZORK 3 (Get feelies as online scans or as PDF)
This is the series that launched Infocom. Inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure, they break a large story into 3 parts in which you explore an underground empire, discovering treasure and solving puzzles.
INFIDEL (Get the feelies as online scans or PDF)
You have just snapped up (through dishonest means) an opportunity to use your experience in archaeology to uncover a rumored Egyptian pyramid. But everything has gone wrong, with your local crew all leaving you stranded in the desert, and supplies running low. Can you find the site, and the treasure? Can you survive?
CUTTHROATS (Get the feelies as online scans or PDF)
You play an undersea diver struggling to get by in a hard-luck seaside town, when an old friend shows up with a map and information about undiscovered shipwrecks. Your friend is suddenly murdered, and you have to figure out who you can trust in order to retrieve the treasure.
SEASTALKER (Get the feelies as online scans or PDF)
This adventure was written for kids, as an easier introduction to text adventure games. You play a kid marine scientist/inventor who has been called in to rescue the undersea research facility Aquadome from attack by a sea monster.
Using a Z-Machine interpreter to play a text adventure is pretty straightforward once you know what you’re doing. The main thing you need is the interpreter program (see this list), and your game file (see the appropriate How to Play section above or below in this Resource list).
- OSX: Spatterlight
If you’re using Spatterlight on OSX, you can just drag and drop the z-code game file onto the Spatterlight icon. Alternatively, you can run Spatterlight, and go to File > Open Game, and pick the file you want.
- Windows: Frotz (Get WindowsFrotz.zip)
On Windows, you can also drag-and-drop the game file onto Frotz. When you run Frotz, it should automatically go to the “Open a Z-code game” dialog box, where you can choose your game.
- Linux: Frotz (Choose your distro)
On Linux, you can also drag-and-drop the game file onto Frotz. When you run Frotz, it should automatically go to the “Open a Z-code game” dialog box, where you can choose your game.
- OSX: Spatterlight
- IOS: Frotz
On iOS, install Frotz, and then download the Z-Code file as explained above. After clicking download, you are given the option “Open in Frotz” Click that, and voila!
- Android: Hunky Punk
On Android, run Hunky Punk, and tap the settings (tools) icon in the top right. Scroll down, and then under File Path, tap “IF Folder Path.” Choose the Download folder here, to find the game files you download. Once you download a game file, it will show up on the main screen. Back out of the settings screen to see the listing on the main screen.
- Big list of Z-Machine Interpreters for various machines, devices, and operating systems, old & new
- Another list of more Z-Machine interpreters
- IOS: Frotz
Infocom Game Feelies
Infocom’s games often included what they called “feelies” - physical, printed items designed to extend the game world, often providing backstory, clues, maps, etc. The enrich gameplay, and are sometimes essential to proper gameplay.
Get them as online scans
Get them as PDFs
If you really want to recreate the old school experience, you can buy old physical copies of these games on eBay, Amazon, or other places, either singly, or in collections such as The Lost Treasures of Infocom. And please remember that this is only if you want to install and play from physical media. You can be playing in 5 minutes, just by using the option above - a Z-Machine interpreter.
Keep in mind that if you buy any of these games on floppy disks, you will need to have drives to read those disks, and there is no guarantee that decades-old floppies will all work properly. There was a version of The Lost Treasures that was on CD, so if you can find that, CDs are much less likely to have problems than floppies. Any way you slice it, you’ll need to have a computer running DOS. You have a few options:
- Run a DOS emulator as an application on your modern computer. DOSBox runs on many platforms. On OSX, you can also try Boxer, a simpler drag-and-drop wrapper for DOSBox. Emulation is really the best way to go, if you also plan on running other DOS games using graphics and sound. This is because DOSBox emulates old school graphics and sound hardware as well. Just grab a USB 3.5" floppy drive, and get rocking. Realistically, if you want to play, and not spend a lot of time tweaking and troubleshooting, emulate DOS, don’t install it.
- Boot your computer with FreeDOS, from USB thumb drive, burned CD, or even a floppy. FreeDOS is a free clone of DOS, created to let you run old DOS software on a modern computer. This will require more geekery than DOSBox to get things optimized for proper picture, sound, and general performance (modern PCs are FAR faster than what the games were written for).
- Run actual DOS on a modern machine that will support it. This is the most fiddly approach, and you need to be pretty technically minded to do it. MS-DOS 6.22 (the last official DOS release) is readily available on eBay, and can be installed on a new Intel-based PC - with some serious messing around to make things work, including using a floppy disk to boot. Unless you really want to get your geek on, I recommend emulation over this.
- Run DOS on a vintage computer. This is a ridiculous way to go is you’re just wanting to play text adventures… but some people are purist recreationists, and have the time & money to pursue it. If retro computing is a hobby you’re interested in, by all means, dive in. By my own criteria, I’m ridiculous, because I have an IBM PC/XT (the follow-up to the 1981 IBM PC) on my desk, complete with monochrome green screen, and so far, I have only used it to play The Lost Treasures of Infocom, which I installed from 5.25” floppies. In my defense, I got the whole thing for a song (less than $50), and I had fun tweaking it to get it working. Unless you like that kind of thing, this really is killing a fly with a bazooka.
How to Play: Colossal Cave Adventure
This is the grandaddy - the one that started it all. It has multiple official versions, due to being expanded and updated over time as it moved from the original FORTRAN version on a PDP-10 mainframe, to the version redone in C in the mid-90s. Variants and non-official versions abound as well. You’ll often see the versions differentiated by the number of points they have. As the game changed over time, people added new elements that increased the total score you can achieve. The 250-point version is the original Crowther & Woods one that became so popular in the 70s.
Colossal Cave Adventure was not a commercial product, and was created in a time when things like this got freely shared among computing enthusiasts. Interestingly though, Microsoft did create their own commercial version of the game for release with the IBM PC. It’s called Microsoft Adventure, and apparently, Crowther & Woods got no money from it.
RECOMMENDED: THIS Z-CODE VERSION - For an easy and enjoyable way to play, grab this 350-point version recreated with the modern text adventure-making software, Inform. The file can be popped into a Z-Machine Interpreter on your platform of choice (listed above, in the Infocom resource section), and you’re good. This is the easiest way to go.
The ’77 Original in FORTRAN - Once thought lost, the original source code was recovered from some old backups, and can be viewed. For most of us, this is just of historical significance. But for the hardcore, maybe you have a PDP-10 or a FORTRAN setup, and and want to go as original as possible.
Version Timeline at the IFA - This guide breaks out multiple version and derivatives in different formats.
The (Colossal Cave) Adventure Family Tree - Another deep list of versions, shown as an indented outline to illustrate the lineage of the different versions.
Myriad Versions on the IFDB - The Interactive Fiction Database provides a TON of options, including ports (reworking of the code to do the same thing on a different platform) to contemporary operating systems, all the way back to retro computers like DOS, Amiga, and Atari ST. They’ve got you covered. See the MASSIVE list in the Download box on the right at the link above.
ESR’s Open Adventure - Eric S. Raymond, coiner of the term “open source,” has taken the 430-point version redone in the C programming language in 1995 (also known as Adventure 2.5) and released it as open source software. This was done with the encouragement of Crowther & Woods. The intent is to preserve an important piece of computing history, but keep it according to the old tradition of refining and updating the code, rather than leaving it as an aging historical snapshot. The gameplay is the same as the 1995 2.5 version, but as you can see in this log of commits on the official GitLab repository, this labor of love has seen a lot of activity during the 2+ years (as of this writing) since it was first released.
Please note that this version provides the source code written in C. To play this version, you will need to compile it on your platform of choice. C is pretty portable to a lot of different environments, and this lets you create your own version, instead of the programmers compiling versions for every system. Yes, this raises the bar to entry by requiring you to do something that an average user doesn’t know how to do, but if you’re determined, it’s quite doable. You’ll need a C compiler (GCC is very popular). If you’ve ever done something at a command prompt (DOS, Terminal, Shell, etc), you can likely do this, but it is not for the average, non-techy user, and is beyond the current scope of this post (maybe one soon?).
Crowther’s Original, ported to BASIC - This is a fascinating find. It says it’s a conversion of Will Crowther’s original game, prior to Don Woods expanding and refining it. It’s written in a version of BASIC for a TRS-80 MC10, and may or may not require some tweaking to work on your system. I gave it a quick try in Chipmunk BASIC (a modern version for contemporary computers), and it threw some initial errors. I may try to sort those out and re-post my cleaned-up version at some point. I share this now, because of the extensive post I created about Type-In Text-Based BASIC Games.
Android Stand-Alone Version - While I recommended the Z-Code version above, that requires installing a Z-Machine interpreter, and downloading the Adventure game file. Easy to do with my provided instructions, but in case you want a completely plug-and-play version you can just grab and start using, I include this one as well. This does include a handy little “direction tool” that allows you to tap the direction you want to go, instead of always typing “N”, “E”, “SW”, etc.
Kindle Fire Version - Same as the Android version, but on Amazon so you can grab it for your Kindle Fire.
How to Play: Scott Adams Adventures
Adams’ approach was often minimalist, and many of his games are notoriously difficult, due to cryptic puzzles, and situations that make it easy to die. The completist should not skip these because of their significance to the history of adventure gaming, but I recommend you not start here.
Adams has graciously allowed the release of his classic games for free download.
- OSX, Windows, and Linux
- Download for various platforms direct from Adams’ site
- Use a Z-Machine interpreter from above with adamsinform.zip to get all the games (see the notes on the linked page about possible bugginess)
- Use the ScottFree interpreter from below - and get AdamsGames.zip to get all the games (see the notes on the linked page about possible bugginess)
- ScottFree Interpreters
This game is historically significant as the first text adventure for a personal computer, since Colossal Cave had only been on mainframes. Due to Adams’ dedication to get everything into 16K, certain aspects of gameplay needed to be slimmed down, leading to a more minimalist approach. See just above under Desktop or Device to get all the games in one download.
This is Adams’ spin on the classic novel Treasure Island. It was the second release from Adventure International, and shows a maturing approach to text adventure game creation. It is noted for managing to create a surprising degree of atmosphere, while sticking to a minimal amount of actual text. See just above under Desktop or Device to get all the games in one download.
How to Play: Wander
Another game surfaced in 2015 that appears to rewrite the history of text adventures. Peter Langston’s Wander was authored as a text adventure creation tool, and accumulated a few text adventure “worlds” written for it. Its surprising significance is that it was first released in 1974, predating the earliest Colossal Cave version by a year.
The Wander source code is written in C, and can be downloaded from GitHub. You will need to compile it yourself to play. I hope to tinker with it soon, and may then post some pre-compiled versions for those who are curious, but not comfortable messing around with C.
How to Play: Other Text Adventures, Old & New
There is a world of text adventures out there, with all sorts of differing approaches. Options range from commercial games created in the 80s, to more contemporary, non-commercial efforts produced from the 90s to the present day. Keep in mind that not all titles are appropriate for kids, and the non-commercial ones… you have to find out what’s in them via reviews, or playing. Non-commercial efforts can also be experimental, playing with new ideas on the interactive fiction form, such as being based in a single location, and simulating interaction with another character. I recommend you explore these down the road after you’ve established a familiarity with the classics, such as Infocom’s work.
The IFDB is a large repository site holding an enormous collection of text adventures paired with reviews, and grouped into collections.
The Interactive Fiction Archive is another resource for further exploration.
Text Adventure Creation Tools
This topic deserves a post of its own, and will get one in the future. Based on the recent rediscovery of Wander, it seems that having a tool to allow people to create their own text adventures was part of the form’s DNA since the beginning. Because the appeal of text adventures/interactive fiction lives on, an array of tools have been created to allow people to build their own text adventure games.
Inform (free) - This is a robust system for creating Infocom-esque adventures, using a scripting style that feels like writing English. The basics can be learned quickly, and since it’s so popular, you can find lots of sample source files so you can see how other people do things. Many titles on the IFDB created with Inform even provide their source file along with the gameplay file. Playback is done with a standard Z-Machine interpreter, meaning your game can be played on computers old and new, devices, or even online. Inform also comes with some excellent manuals to help you learn.
TADS (free) - This is the most programming-like approach, with a language that they liken to working in C++, but specifically focused on the needs of text adventures. The TADS system has its own cross-platform virtual machine that it compiles games to run on.
There are a number of other solutions, it all just depends on what you’re interested in.
Text Adventures as Literature: Download Mary Ann Buckles’ PhD Dissertation
Having heard about Mary Ann Buckles’ doctoral dissertation on the text adventure (specifically Colossal Cave) as literary form, I reached out to an online text adventure community which includes the likes of Scott Adams. No one seemed to have been able to secure a copy, so I took this as a personal challenge. After some web searches, a few phone calls, and several follow-up emails, I managed to locate a hard copy through interlibrary loan, which is the one I read. I also then discovered that a PDF was available, and took steps to secure it. Finally, I reached out to Ms. Buckles, and she was so kind as to grant me permission to share it.
Download: Interactive Fiction : The Computer Storygame “Adventure” (PDF)
The History of Text Adventure Gaming
Early computer games used text-based interfaces, since this was the norm for most computing, and graphics capabilities were both primitive and expensive. I wrote another post about text-based BASIC games designed to be typed in, and the culture of this earliest retro gaming. Most of these games were modeled after various math games or simulation scenarios. Then the idea arose to create interactive narratives, where users could read a story told in short bites, and take direct action. Not just a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, where you merely pick a path to follow in the story, this new type of game allowed players to make granular decisions in an explorable world, with non-linear plot progression as they took specific actions to explore and solve puzzles. We will look at the early, non-commercial games that created the genre, and the key commercial players that took it to a mass audience.
As the story is told, Will Crowther came along and parlayed his love of cave exploration into a game that narrates your progress, littering an underground cave system with mysterious puzzles, objects, dangers, and treasure. Crowther, a programmer by trade, hit upon the brilliant idea of creating a narrative “space” you could explore, with text descriptions of various location points, and a variety of things you could do to discover and earn points as you go. Starting in 1975, he began work on a computer game he could play with his daughters in the wake of his divorce. He based the game on a section of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which contains a portion known as Colossal Cave. It was written in the FORTRAN language, for a PDP-10 mainframe - a large, powerful (for the time) computer designed to serve many users at once through remote terminals. He was working at the time for a defense contractor, and was a part of the creation of the ARPAnet, which was the first network to use key ideas that formed the Internet (such as TCP/IP).
Crowther put his game out on the ARPAnet, and by the following year, he was contacted by Don Woods from Stanford University, who asked permission to get the source code to develop it further. 1977 saw the release of the 250 point version of the game that is seen as the canonical version which started the firestorm of popularity and earned it a place in history. Over the years, many versions were released, some official, and some unofficial. The only commercial version was put out by Microsoft with the original IBM PC, but it seems Crowther and Woods received no proceeds from the sales.
Wildly popular back in the day. It spread via the ARPAnet. ADVENT, as the game was named, became a standard ingredient on most computers. (My first play was around 1978 on a Sperry Univac BC-7) It is considered one of the most important video games of all time. For a deep dive on the history and code of Colossal Cave Adventure, I recommend you check out the scholarly writeup by Dennis Jerz.
See the Text Adventure Gaming Resource List above for downloads, including the PDP-10 FORTRAN source code of the original - which is really more of an interesting historical artifact, unless you have a PDP-10 lying around.
Now while Colossal Cave Adventure has long been hailed as the very first text adventure game, another game has surfaced more recently that appears to be an even earlier version of the text adventure form. Wander, created by Peter Langston in 1974, presents both a work of interactive fiction (a text adventure), and is set up as a tool for creating more text adventures. It was originally written in BASIC around 1973, later being rewritten in C in 1974. In 1980, it was included in a Usenix conference software collection, along with a few “worlds” that were created in it.
The first “world” created in Wander is a science fiction scenario called “a3” (Aldebaran III) which appears to be based on stories written by Keith Laumer about a character named Jame Retief. This is fascinating, because the longstanding view that Colossal Cave started the text adventure ball rolling has left fans believing that the genesis of the form was in fantasy literature. Now it seems that sci-fi may actually be the original genre. Who knew?
Also very much worth noting - Wander creator Peter Langston was tapped in 1982 to form Lucasfilm Games, one of the great creators of the point-and-click adventures which became very popular in the 80s and 90s. I highly recommend taking a look at the blog posts where the initial discovery surfaced - on Retroactive Fiction, and Renga in Blue. Be sure to read the comments, to see it all unfold. Fascinating stuff.
Scott Adams is credited with launching the computer game industry with the commercial release of his Adventureland text adventure in 1978. Adventureland is also noteworthy for being the first text adventure created for a personal computer. Adams innovated on the standard text adventure interface, as well. Instead of the long scrolling column of continuous text like you find in Colossal Cave, and the Infocom works, he created a split screen which put description, objects, and exits on the top half, while having a scrolling window for interaction below. This re-visioning looks to be the clear precursor to the split screen approach of the later graphical text adventures that Sierra Online became known for, and pioneered in 1980’s Mystery House. In fact, I had a brief exchange with Adams online, and he confirmed that Ken and Roberta Williams got their inspiration from being a distributer of Adams’ games.
Scott Adams got his start programming during his senior year of high school, when he was introduced to the school’s specially modified Selectric typewriter, which was connected to a 110 baud modem in order to function as a terminal for the IBM 360 mainframe at nearby University of Miami. His company Adventure International produced immensely popular games between 1978 and 1985. Adams’ adventures were even published by Creative Computing, David Ahl’s company I wrote about elsewhere. Their games were so successful, and he was such a powerful presence in the early computer gaming scene, that Marvel Comics later approached him, asking him to produce graphical adventure games with their characters, including The Hulk, Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, plus an unreleased one with the X-Men. And for all of you Blue Blaze Irregulars out there, he also did the official Buckaroo Banzai graphical adventure in 1985. Laugh-a while you can, Monkeyboy!
Of the key players outlined in this history, Scott Adams is the only one still producing text adventures today, having formed a new company for that purpose in 2016. His company Clopas, is focused on creating what he calls “Conversational Adventure Games,” where players can use full natural language sentences. Lost Legends of Redwall™: Escape the Gloomer is a recent release, created in conjunction with Soma Games, and based on the New York Times best-selling and award-winning Redwall™ books by Brian Jacques. It incorporates audio narration and sound effects with a text parser for entering commands.
Enter, Infocom. In 1979, a group of MIT students and staff formed a software business. While they are best known for their meteoric rise in the early computer gaming world, Jason Scott’s documentary about them reveals that at the outset, games were just considered a sideline to make some cash while business database software named Cornerstone was being developed. In the end, Cornerstone didn’t do so well, and Infocom became known for their text adventures.
Zork - their initial, flagship game is the Citizen Kane of text adventures. It was the first to take the elements of this new, exciting medium, and masterfully deploy them at a whole new level of proficiency. Gone was the limiting of text commands to two words, like “get lamp,” “fight troll,” and suddenly you could write natural language commands like “cut the rope with the elvish sword.” Infocom also took the literary side very seriously (even when they were being humorous). Stories, environments, characters, and puzzles were all woven together with engaging themes, expressed through descriptive prose, creating a clear “tone” for each game. So while Zork was inspired by Colossal Cave, it pushed everything to a much higher production level.
Moving forward, Infocom experimented with different genres, varying approaches to narrative style, and more immersive technology, such as independent characters that would move around and act on their own volition. They also began the practice of including “feelies,” their name for the physical items included with the games which rounded out the backstory, providing important clues during play, and overall creating a higher degree of engagement due to their tactile nature.
Infocom delivered their games via the Z-Machine interpreter. Instead of rewriting their games for each different, incompatible home computer, they wrote the game once in Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), and created a game file. The file could then be used anywhere, as long as a Z-Code virtual machine had been written for the hardware you wanted. This meant that in one fell swoop, they could port their entire game library to a new computer, just by creating a virtual machine for that hardware. The Z-Machine is significant in that this format is still used today by people creating their own text adventures.
In the early 80s, multiple Infocom games lived on the top-seller list over extended periods of time. Many people bought computers just to play Zork, or another of their games. Their games were also noteworthy for appealing to a much larger demographic than the standard arcade-style fare, and playing Infocom text adventures always lent a whiff of intelligence to one’s gaming pursuits. They really did set the tone, and move computers from something that felt nerdy, to something that felt smart and hip.
After years of being wildly successful, Infocom was sold to Activision in 1986, around the time the game market started to change, eventually being shut down in 1989. Infocom’s Steve Meretzky kept meticulous files while at Infocom, and has provided them to Archive.org, for preservation. You can peruse scans of everything from the sublime to the silly, as you page through this trove of artifacts from inside the company during their heyday.
What? You’re Still Here?
If you have gotten to this point, you are hardcore. I hope you also have a burning desire to play (or create) some excellent text adventure games.
I’ve saved a smattering of interesting bits for the real super-fans such as yourself:
Text adventures continue to influence geek culture. 2018’s DefCon hacker conference used electronic badges that among other things, contained a text adventure.
A PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience recently blogged about using the powerful GPT-2 AI to create an experience in which the AI responds to your typing on the fly, improvising responses in something that feels like a mashup of Eliza and a text adventure.
Anyone with a fondness for Infocom games can’t help but smile at MC Frontalot’s nerdcore rap video for It Is Pitch Dark.
Dunnet is a text adventure inside the Emacs text editor created by the GNU project. It’s short, challenging, and very geeky with a surreal/cyberpunk theme. Dunnet author Ron Schnell recently read and shared this article, and I learned something interesting from his Twitter page: Dunnet is the most-installed computer game, second only to Solitaire. That’s quite a noteworthy feat! If you have Emacs installed on your computer (Linux users should, my OSX machine does, Windows users can install it), go to your command line (such as Terminal) and type the command emacs -batch -l dunnet ...which whisks you away into a familiar scene of the Colossal Cave variety. Gameplay then morphs into a geeky scenario where you need to know (or learn) some command line stuff. Read more about Dunnet on the IFDB (be sure to read the comments to get a little extra insight).