Text adventure games are still new

Cross-posted to Gamasutra. This blog post is based on part of my AdventureX talk from December – hopefully a video of that will be available soon.

Every couple of weeks, it seems, another games journalist writes an article about how they’ve rediscovered the long lost art of the text adventure game. After a few minutes looking through Wikipedia, they write an article which will inevitably talk about green screens, clattering keyboards, and grues. Then they will talk about a somehow thriving yet hidden “scene” of people who are still creating and sharing these games like some kind of long-forgotten tribe that had been cut off from the rest of the civilised world.

As the creator of a text adventure engine, Quest, these pop up in my Google alerts with tedious regularity. They are so boring and predictable. And more importantly, they are utterly short-sighted.

Many people think of text adventures as an old-fashioned game form, something that was maybe acceptable in the 80s but which we have now outgrown and left behind. But I think the opposite is true. Right now, we are early in the history of text adventure games. Their time to shine is just beginning.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune

The image above is from the film Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), a French science-fiction film from 1902. For me, it’s the image that immediately springs to mind when I imagine the very early days of cinema. You can watch it on YouTube if you have a spare 10 minutes. If you do, I want you to notice one thing…

It doesn’t look very much like a modern film, does it?

That’s because it’s over 110 years old, of course.

Nearly 40 years later, Orson Welles released his first film, Citizen Kane. You can watch various scenes on YouTube too. This film pioneered many aspects of modern film-making.

It took 40 years to get from Le Voyage Dans La Lune to Citizen Kane.

Forty. Years.

40 years from the early days of film-making to get to something that even starts to look like a modern film. And this wasn’t forty years of hobbyists dabbling with making little movies in their spare time, to be enjoyed only by other hobbyist film fans. This was 40 years during which films were a mainstream entertainment format.

And of course film continues to develop today. Citizen Kane looks somewhat different to Inception, for example (yet I wonder if it’s closer to that than Le Voyage Dans La Lune?)

The first text adventure was written in about 1975, which makes text adventures only 38 years old. Text adventures have never really been a mainstream entertainment format. IFDB attempts to list every work of interactive fiction, and it currently lists 4,444 games. As a comparison, IMDB currently lists 48,525 films created during the period between Le Voyage Dans La Lune and Citizen Kane.

So, there are hardly any text adventure games, really. In that light, it seems completely ridiculous to think of text adventures as some kind of ancient game form. We have barely even begun.

We cannot possibly argue that text adventures have matured. We cannot reasonably declare that we know how a text-based interactive story should work. We will need a lot more games to be written, and a lot more experimental works to be created, before we will be able to see which direction this particular art form is taking.

Therefore when thinking about the future of text adventure games, I like to pretty much ignore the 1980s entirely. Those games have interesting historical value, but will look pretty quaint when we put them next to the text adventure games that will be created over the next few decades.

Citizen Kane

There is a quote from an interview with Orson Welles which I find particularly inspirational:

Interviewer: What I’d like to know is, seeing that you’d never in all your life, ever made a film before Kane, and had never so far as I’m aware been in a studio before Kane … where did you get the confidence from to make a film with such –

Welles: Ignorance. Sheer ignorance, there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you’re timid, or careful.

What I take from this is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know much about the existing text adventure games – just the vision and desire to create an interactive story will be enough. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

And right now is a great time to start reimagining what a text adventure is. Why?

Because this never happened:

Playing text adventures in bed

And this never happened:

Playing text adventures on the tube

(My Photoshop Masterclass was, coincidentally, another thing that never happened – but you get the idea).

Desktop computers, terminals and laptops were never really the right devices for playing book-like games. Tablets and smartphones are the natural home for interactive fiction – and it’s only in the last few years that these devices are in everybody’s pockets. People are used to taking their phone out of their pockets to play with something for a few minutes, and text adventures can perfectly fill that need. Apps can bring text adventures where they belong – in front of people who want to read, wherever they are.

Unlike early film, the tools are available to everyone. My own engine, Quest, is free and open source. You don’t need any programming experience to get started with it, and it can run entirely in a web browser so you don’t even need to download anything. The system is open and hackable, with a core library written in Quest itself which defines the default behaviour – so you can change fundamental things about how the system works, even without going into the source code.

Quest is built upon web technologies, so games can run anywhere, or be packaged with Phonegap and be turned into offline apps. Hyperlinks mean that “guess the verb” is a thing of the past – if you want to, that is, because authors can disable hyperlinks if they choose.

HTML5 opens up a lot of possibilities for experimenting. For example, using Canvas we can dynamically draw maps:

Game with map

Of course, HTML is designed for laying out text – so there is plenty of room for experimentation here. For example, why not split the screen in two:

Split screen text adventure

The images above are very basic protoypes, but of course you can tap into the full power of CSS and JavaScript to give games your own look, and build your own UI. Perhaps you would want to remove the command bar entirely, or add your own information panes? Maybe change the UI for each scene in the game. Have players type inside a speech bubble, or inside a newspaper column. Make text move, blur, melt away. There are so many possibilities – so many things that have not yet been tried. Some will work, some will not, some will simply inspire other authors to do better.

And even within the writing, there is much experimentation to be done. Text adventures are typically written in the form “You can see… You can go…”. Why not in first person, or third person? Why does it have to be the present tense – why not past tense? Maybe the future tense could even work. We just don’t know – yet.

What about other technologies and APIs we could get a game to tap into? How could we use geolocation within a game? The ability for players to take photos and record sounds? How can we have players interacting over the internet?

There is so much unexplored potential for text-based games. With new devices and technologies, we are really only just getting started. I think we need a new generation of authors to come along, unhindered by 1980s expectations of what a text adventure should look like, and in the spirit of sheer ignorance, create games that will excite and inspire us all.

I hope that Quest is a platform that will enable that – but I’m sure there are many ways it needs to be improved to let that happen. I’m always open to ideas so please get in touch if there’s anything I can do to help your vision become reality. You can email me at alex@textadventures.co.uk or find me on Twitter @alexwarren.

6 thoughts on “Text adventure games are still new

  1. Felix

    I have little to add, but I found your article very inspiring. I had allowed myself to be influenced by the pessimists claiming that text adventures (and computer games in general) have had plenty of time to mature, and that the current state of the art is the best it gets. Thanks to you, now I believe again that we can go further still. Thank you.

    1. Joe Pereira

      Hi Alex – great post, and I also cringe when I read about the ‘long lost art of parser-based IF’. I really like that 2-way mirror world implementation you used as an example of HTML experimentation – very innovative! What I like about Quest so far (and I haven’t delved very deep yet), is that the author can maintain the classic Infocom-esque parser-focused layout or use hyperlinks and panes – or even mix them both up. Very user-friendly.
      I’m about to start using Quest with my EFL students and I’m looking forward to playing around with it to see what it can do.

  2. Classroom Aid

    Reblogged this on Classroom Aid and commented:
    Alex Warren is the creator of the Quest text adventure game system, a free and open source authoring tool for text adventures. You don’t need any programming experience to get started with it, and it can run entirely in a web browser so you don’t even need to download anything. The system is open and hackable, with a core library written in Quest itself which defines the default behaviour – so you can change fundamental things about how the system works, even without going into the source code. Tablets and smartphones are the natural home for interactive fiction – and it’s only in the last few years that these devices are in everybody’s pockets. People are used to taking their phone out of their pockets to play with something for a few minutes, and text adventures can perfectly fill that need. Apps can bring text adventures where they belong – in front of people who want to read, wherever they are. And HTML5 opens up a lot of possibilities for experimenting…

  3. estigmergica

    Hi Alex,
    It’s great what you’ve been doing with Quest, I’ve downloaded it,
    tried it and liked iit,
    it’s a long way from The Quill (for the ZX Spectrum) and my own custom
    made engine I wrote for the IBM computers in 1987.
    Back then I had very little idea of language processing, or about
    programming language design, it almost naturally happened that I made
    my own version of Lisp without knowing anything about Lisp. But who
    cares? I was able to script my own games. Even if the games were
    rubbish and a handful of friends played them, they were running on an
    engine that could store really big worlds and scripts in the large
    databases systems at the company I used to work for. You could say I
    got a peek of the future then, because very expensive and complex
    hardware was already available to me for free when I was a teenager.
    (and I could do that during my “job spare time”, after quickly
    finishing my tasks, with the rest of the day and all resources
    available for my flights of fancy)

    So, as Orson Welles correctly reminds us, ignorance goes a long way.
    It’s the same “can do”, DIY attitude that brought us punk rock, Free
    Software and their derivatives. You only need to be given the chance
    to play, an inquisitive mind, and a little bit of luck, then…
    ***poof*** magic… it just magically happens.

    You are very right when you say that despite of its 38 years of age,
    this is the infancy of text adventure games. I also believe that it’s
    still the infancy of videogames at large.

    Only recently (after spending too much of my life writing financial
    software for a living) I’ve returned to my original intent of giving
    life to worlds and living things happening on a computer screen. I
    caught up with the Indie scene and joined a few game maker groups,
    learnt new programming languages and undusted my love for some old

    But then it struck me. I realised that whilst I had been very lucky at
    an early age, and I was able to develop my own games again, this
    second act felt like I was rehearsing the same old tricks, like a
    revival band tour doing the tacky casino rounds. Or worse, a tribute
    band to a younger version of myself. Kind of pathetic.

    But why? If we now have Android, iPads and iPhones, very powerful
    computers and operating systems, and in the rare event that you lacked
    processing power entire server farms at your disposal in the cloud, or
    if you lacked friends to work with in your town, you have the whole of
    the Internet!!
    Why? Why did it feel boring and tired despite this being a truly
    exciting Brave New World?

    Because interactive media itself has progressed very little in the
    last 30 years, despite of all the available technology. The language
    of the art itself, the range of emotions we’ve been capable of
    delivering is still quite narrow, infant-like. Technology moves too
    fast for our brains to process and catch up, always too elusive, with
    too little time available to cross the vast mental and emotional abyss
    between Lumiere novelty and Welles’ masterful work of art.

    So our primal instinct to cope with this vertigo, is to bring things
    up to date with current technology, incrementally, year after year
    playing catch up with new tech specs (which is admittedly very hard
    labour), without much time left to thoroughly think about paradigm
    shifts that we could possibly enable, hoping that incrementalism or
    rehearsal alone will suffice.

    Painters and writers didn’t have this problem, about three hundred
    years passed between Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and James
    Joyce’s Ulysses. Almost no technology changes in between, great deal
    of conceptual changes art-wise.
    Books are pretty much the same even today, dark characters on a plain
    light background, even if you read them on a Kindle. Does it really
    matter whether those photons reaching your eyes have been bounced on a
    dead tree page or they were emitted by a high definition plasma
    However, in those three hundred years between Cervantes and Joyce, the
    novel as an art form became something entirely new.

    I don’t see many signs of things changing a lot in the next 10 years.
    In between designing games, some deep thinkers like Jonathan Blow,
    Jason Rohrer and Chris Crawford have been trying to find some answers.
    I got quite emotional when I grasped the simple achievement that
    Rohrer conveyed in his mini-game “Passage”. I was impressed by Blow’s
    ability to tell an old story (much like Joyce echoed Homer) using a
    completely novel storytelling device.
    But there may be a handful of such game designers in the world today,
    and we haven’t even begun to write down a theory on what the new breed
    of games have to be like, on the other side of the abyss.

    Where does this huge hyperbole lead?

    It leads to a twofold, unsolicited opinion.
    I’m cautiously optimistic on your approach, because whatever you do to
    bring about real innovation will have to run on current hardware, on
    real world scenarios, with real users/players/readers like the people
    on a bus you described.

    However that’s only beginning to begin the start, because actual
    conceptual progress in a narrative art form doesn’t seem to depend as
    much on technology as other arts do. (like photography, for example)
    I think text adventures have a huge, HUGE potential, probably even
    more so than videogames mimicking 3D on a 2D screen.
    You can move in a simulated 3D or 2D world, you can smash things and
    jump, and do mostly anything that one would do in the physical world.

    But humans are not just all-smashing Hulks. When we suspend our
    disbelief, diving entirely in a true work of art we can reminisce
    about things past, feel true elevated emotion in anticipation to a
    momentous event in the future, describe things that have happened and
    things that have not happened yet, gather experiences from others and
    then reassemble them in our own pool of thoughts and emotions.
    Only natural language has been the device we have evolved to express
    such an incredible rich range of ideas. Entire worlds and universes
    past, present and future spring out of humble sheets of paper tied
    together. Or a computer screen.

    You are very right and that text adventures are still a young art
    form, and that the potential is there.
    But I cautiously point out that technological improvements alone may
    never suffice to create art of the next level.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type of nostalgic/romantic/primitivist
    who misses the odour from books of a badly maintained library.
    (Basically: fungus)

    But I do long for a future when we are able to convey a glowing
    tapestry of human experiences swirling in our minds, and the minds of
    our readers/players using our own art form, like James Joyce did with

    Keep up with the good work!

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