text based games

Text-ually transmitted enjoyment: Why are text games still relevant today?

Let’s take a trip back in time, back before 16bit, before 8bit… When text based games were all the rage.

If you’re interested but don’t know where to start with this huge back catalogue, or if you have no idea what I’m talking about; keep on reading.

text based game or interactive novel is exactly as it sounds, so to save you all the boredom I won’t explain. They saw their peak popularity between 1970-1990 because they were fairly easy to create and required little-to-no graphics, only words, and input recognition. Nobody had a PC for much of that time, so many of these games were written by students to be run on the PC‘s of legend which were so large they required an entire room to run.

Surprisingly, though, these games are still fairly popular today with publishers such as Choice of Games LLC regularly publishing new titles… Some of my favourite games of all time are text based, sometimes you have to exercise your imagination.

Below are a few you should try and experience.

1. Zork 1: The Great Underground Empire

Zork
Good luck, adventurer.

Not the oldest, but certainly one of the most famous on this list: Zork was created by four M.I.T students and was one of the first text based adventures to recognise commands more complex than two words (e.g. “Kill Troll”). It was perhaps one of the earliest viral sensations and spread quickly between those with the required system (ARPANET). The game entered the commercial spotlight when it was properly released in 1980.

I always remember looking at the start of Zork for the first time and thinking what the fuck do I do here. All you are given is:

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

It is far from obvious that you have to discover the 20 Treasures of Zork and place them in the Trophy Cabinet… But at least the existence of the white house gives you somewhere to start. The thing I love about this game is its hidden complexity, the interesting and difficult puzzles and the thief who scrambles items as you go to make it impossible to leave a trail behind you… Just don’t get eaten by a Grue. 

Zork was the best selling game of 1982 and by the time all three games were released by Infocom in 1983 this first instalment had managed to shift over 300,000 copies. Zork is almost your first ever open-world game, and a best seller at that.

Play this one even if it’s only to experience an epic piece of gaming history by getting horribly lost in The Great Underground Empire.

2. The Oregon Trail

Doing them learns

I’m not sure I ever thought I’d be writing up and encouraging people to take a look at an educational game. 

Last year The Oregon Trail was inducted into the hall of fame.

The thing about this one is that it’s had so many reboots, and even a spoof, that most gamers have experienced it in some capacity. This is, as with all text games, rougelike. You begin by being given information about the trip you intend to make: from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail via a covered wagon in 1848… And you have to make the correct choices or, basically, die from dysentery.

Americans will probably know this game better than us Brits as it was bundled with all elementary school computers from the mid 80’s to the mid 2000’s… But screw that, right? You can play a more relevant reboot called The Organ Trail which takes the same elements that make this game what it is… but places you in a zombie-apocalypse-environment instead. Pop culture ftw, amiright?

Lookin’ good, D.C.

Play this game because it’s timeless, challenging, and ridiculously addictive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back for another dose of dysentery… Willingly, too.

3. Jigsaw

Get it together, man, enjoy the party.

Born from the mind of one Graham Nelson in 1995, Jigsaw is a little known but incredibly complex and challenging game.

This is set, as the above image tells us, in 1999 at a New Year’s Eve party. You, the player, find a time machine and have to go into the past to make sure that the past happens as it should. You revisit events such as the Titanic, the discovery of Penicillin… It’s just great fun and as you play it you will, I promise, be pushed to find out what happens and how the story unfolds… And why won’t you be seeing the new year happen?

I don’t want to spoil this in case anybody reading fancies playing, but as with the others you go into this blind and should expect to fail a few times before you actually get anywhere. What this game does differently, however, is that it allows you to experience a romance with another story character.. Seeing as neither of you have any discernable gender this is pretty progressive for the time.

4. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

This day has been a disaster from start to end

The Hitchiker’s guide to the Galaxy was already a cult classic before the game was released. The game, however, mixed things up and quickly gave the player a completely different story; one which began as the original did, but soon became your own adventure: just as any good text game should.

Douglas Adams’ setting for Hitchiker’s Guide is a huge and (although ridiculous) incredibly immersive universe with likable characters and unpredictable scenarios. Even if you have not experienced the original fiction it is a very enjoyable experience and certainly one I would recommend.

Yet again, this is an Infocom title and thus the computer is incredibly intelligent and requires less specific actions and words when compared to older titles like The Oregon TrailIf you venture over to the BBC Radio 4 website you can find a ’30th Anniversary’ version of this game which in fact comes complete with (limited) visuals if you need that little bit of extra help to keep you engaged.

That’s all great. But all this is old and boring. Why should I care?

Well, hold on to your little hat, because I’m here with something that might blow your mind.

Any game you play today with options, be it moral or otherwise, fundamentally has text based games to thank for this.

Text games such as Zork and all the others listed above paved the way for modern games such as Fallout, Skyrim, Mass Effect and all those others you’ve played where your actions dictate the outcome. Every time to scroll through speech options it is worth remembering that without the founding fathers of the game you are playing, it wouldn’t exist. Exploration, open world, sandbox, it all stems from these titles… And in turn, the oldest text games of all-time, Dungeons and Dragons-esque titles, are what we have to thank for these.

If nothing else, appreciating the origin of our AAA titles today should make you thankful for what you have; graphics never seem so great as when compared to black text on a white screen!


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Resident "Destiny Expert" for Last Life Club. I play anything and everything and can usually find a positive thing to say about any game (With the exception of Sonic 2006).