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
- 7 Aspects of the Text Adventure Game Experience That Make Them a 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
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.
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.
7 Aspects of the Text Adventure Game Experience That Make Them a 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 history in my companion post to this one). 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 on my companion post: Text Adventures: Download and Play Classic Interactive Fiction.
On this topic of text adventures as literature, Infocom’s games 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. You can download Infocom’s games from my companion post about playing text adventures.
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.