What Happened to Text Adventures?

What Happened to Text Adventures?

I came into possession of an Apple IIc that was in great condition this past year. It has several programs and a bunch of games with it. Having grown up with a DOS computer as a kid I wasn't entirely familiar with the Apple II but it was simple enough to boot up. The screen flickered and gave off a green tint, no color, but I realized quickly there wasn't an operating system... So I started sifting through the stack of 5 1/2" floppy disks to find the game I wanted to play, Zork.

In terms of quality, Zork is not the best text adventure, but it is probably the most well known. This was the first time I had played the game and what better way to experience it than on an old piece of hardware. You start out in front of a house and have the options of going several directions. I type in the direction I want to go, and within a few turns find myself lost. I'm in a forest somewhere and start to think the house has vanished. I guess it's time to practice my cartography skills.

Grabbing a fresh sheet of paper I start drawing boxes with the names of each location in them. There are lines shooting out of each rectangle in all directions and it looks more like a plate of spaghetti than a map. So I pull out another sheet of paper and clean up the lines. Now it's starting to make more sense... and I found the house!!

I open the side window and climb through to the kitchen. Hopefully no one cares that I'm breaking in. I go up to the attic to look around but there isn't much to see because it is dark and I don't have a light. A couple more turns and I end up dead, eaten by a grue if you want to get specific. Death is a bit strange in Zork because you can still explore but there is no way to interact with the world. So I restart the game and find myself in front of the house again. At least I know where it is now.

Zork I box art Back in the house I reveal a trap door under a rug. Of course it takes several minutes to move the rug by typing every verb I can think of. After opening the trap door I descend into a cavern and turn my light on to begin exploring. There are a ton of rooms and a thief frequently pops his head in a room from time to time. He doesn't seem to bother me much but he did nick a painting from under my nose. I wander around for a bit before confronting a troll. He takes a couple swings at me and BAM! I'm dead again.

This time I was smart enough to save so I manage somehow to defeat the troll, by typing attack repeatedly, and make my way into a maze. After a bit of walking around I realize I am really lost and start dropping my stuff in each room to try and figure out where I'm at. The only problem with that plan is the thief has the bright idea to pick up my stuff. Isn't he lost too? I think I'd better reload and go down a different path.

Several hours later I end up draining a body of water, stop myself from exploding, and find myself in front of the house again. This game is like a really big loop. I sweep through a couple of time to grab stuff I missed and end up finishing the game. I'm not sure I actually won but there isn't much else to do at the end.

I feel quite satisfied with my experience and I am fascinated by how rich the world seemed when in reality it was just a bunch of text on a screen. Most modern games fail to provide this deep of an experience although I would say Bioware and a few other companies have come a long way in telling rich stories. Why don't text adventures exist today?

You could argue that gamers today are lazy and don't want to read anything. This may be true to some extent but I think it is an outcome of how games have evolved. You might come from a different angle and tell me that interactive fiction is still being written today and that it's not dead at all. But let's be serious, how many people are really playing these games? They have the exact same flaws that existed 30 years ago.

I'm not claiming to have a silver bullet but I do believe that interactive fiction, or IF for short, would have a larger audience if we threw out some of the antiquated elements. Think of all the people who enjoy reading literature, whether on paper or in digital form, and how many of that group are aware that IF even exists. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, just what killed text adventures?

The Parser

Anyone who has ever played an IF game, used voice recognition software, or any other form of natural language parsing will know how infuriating it is to get a computer to understand you. Even if NLP improved ten-fold there will still be subtext it won't understand. Think of how many ways you can say the work "pick up". (Take, retrieve, lift, grab, swipe, etc...) Not to mention the multitude of ways you can form a sentence.

What I don't understand is why the parser is such a sacred cow in IF. When text adventures were first written the only input device was a keyboard. Graphics were primitive and slow. Mice existed but were the ball kind that used to get sticky and stop working. It is no wonder Infocom and others decided to use the keyboard to input commands in the form of simple sentences. But why are we still doing that today?

You could argue it has to do with immersion. Although when I read a book, which requires no typing that I'm aware of, I feel more immersed in the story than if I'm writing a sentence for the eighteenth time because the computer didn't fully understand what I was saying. Unless it's a story about how I throw the computer out the window.

Amazingly enough we have a medium that is perfect for text adventures, the web. Imagine highlighted text you can click to get a list of applicable verbs. The advantage to this approach is that I instantly know what I can interact with and what I can do with the object. This may not be a new idea but the best part is we can get rid of the generic feedback systems that are commonly found in IF games.

Directional Movement / Filler rooms

The standard movement in interactive fiction games is to specify which cardinal direction you want to go. The player will then exit the room in that direction, if possible, and be given the description of the next room. While this form of movement certainly works, it has its flaws.

This is actually more of a design flaw than actually technical. Early IF games had a tendency to create mazes by connecting exits going north to exits going southwest, instead of direct opposites. Normal people assume that going north would mean that you could then get back to that room by going south. This could further be circumvented by simply listing the name of the next area and traveling to it. How many times in books does it say that someone went north from the kitchen to the living room? Can't we just go directly there instead of having to specify the direction?

The other issue with cardinal directions is when designers try their best to keep everything to a grid. This ends up creating a bunch of filler rooms that have identical descriptions to the last four areas you've been in. Note to IF designers: if there isn't any purpose to the room, leave it out. Heck, this rule is followed by most decent modern games.

Unsolvable puzzles

Actually I was surprised that most of the puzzles in Zork were fairly simple and only a few times did I have to look up how to do something. But I feel it is worth mentioning because this is the same reason I feel point-and-click adventure games died. Puzzles can still be hard but at least be realistic, there are some really ridiculous puzzles put into adventure games.

I honestly think that this genre can be revitalized and there is already a niche group of people who play IF games. The problem is, the genre has been stagnant for at least 20 years. It doesn't mean we have to reinvent the wheel but look what indie developers have done with platformers, there are tons of various FPS games, role playing used to be strictly turn based but now even Final Fantasy is more of a hybrid.

Graphics have come a really long way through the years but it doesn't leave much to the imagination. Written words still have the power to evoke strong emotions and maybe the addition of voice overs would lower the barrier. One of the most interesting game experiences I've seen in a while was Dear Esther which was purely a discovery game.

I will step off my soap box now and let you decide what you think. What other improvements could be made to the genre to make it appeal to a new audience. I would especially love to see an opportunity for mobile games, or even Nook/Kindle. Am I just blowing hot air or do you think text adventures have a chance in the modern world of gaming? Feel free to leave your own comments.

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Tags: games, text adventure, Zork

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