Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Whatever Happened to the Text Adventure?

Part interactive fiction, part video game, the classic text adventure is ready for a comeback.  ♦ 
Imagine being ten years old, somewhere around 1983. Your parents have brought home an Apple II personal computer system, which is able to run games like Zork or Planetfall from the popular Infocom Company. You decide to start off with Zork: The Great Underground Empire. The game consists only of words on a black screen, but the ability to use a computer in your own house is a novelty. The game prompts you to open a mailbox within the world of Zork and doing so provides you with a leaflet that welcomes you to the game. Continuing in the game world, you walk around a house, find a way inside, and reach a terrifying cellar where you are plunged into darkness. Suddenly, you’re killed by something called a grue. It happens out of nowhere, taking you by surprise, and you respawn in a nearby forest. When you return to the house and the cellar, you now have a feeling of suspense, wanting to outwit the grue before it kills you again. The game feels personal—it feels like you are uncovering a story which no one else has found.
   This is what is known as interactive fiction, or the text adventure. These games were most popular from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, when people were only just starting to buy personal computers and kids still frequented arcades, a few being lucky enough to have an Atari or a Sega at home. Text adventure games were different than those released on consoles because console games, at the time, often originated as arcade games. Interactive fiction, on the other hand, was meant to be played on personal computers and therefore at home. Play also progresses differently than an arcade game, because you are given a story to play through. While you may face repetitive tasks like those of a console game, interactive fiction requires that you input commands which the computer game must be able to understand. There is no manual to tell you what phrases will be understood—often words that are used in the narrative itself (like “living room”) are not recognized when input by the player. This form of entertainment takes some trial and error, and it can take many moves (commands) to actually make any progress in the story.
   The text adventure genre is truly a unique form of storytelling. It is different from a book because it is interactive, but it requires the focus that one would give to a book. It is different from an arcade game, or a video game that we are familiar with, because you can’t see the world you are playing in. But it is like a video game in that there are similar mechanics: you have an inventory, you can fight with a sword, and you collect rewards. The text adventure game requires you to think a bit like the computer, or at least a bit like the game’s programmer. What is the most basic way to convey the action you want to perform? What actions are feasible in a certain situation? You have to remember cardinal directions, rooms, enemies, and the items in your inventory—all without seeing their physical properties. What is most magical about the text adventure is that it relies on the imagination. Obviously, we immerse ourselves in books, and oftentimes we imagine ourselves in the world of a video game that we are enjoying, but a game like Zork or Planetfall requires use of the imagination to make any headway at all. Text adventure games can also be shared experiences, because you can confer with friends, parents, or siblings about what choice to make next. It is rare for the campaign of a video game to offer this kind of multiplayer experience nowadays, when most multiplayer content revolves around competition.
   The genre of text adventures should not be confused with the new interactive fiction that has replaced it. There are many games, some indie and some now mainstream, that revolve around making emotional choices and dealing with the consequences. These games do the heavy lifting for you because they give you a set of actions/responses to choose from rather than making you guess or enter them yourself. And you don’t have to imagine the game world because it is right there in front of you—you know what you are supposed to see and how you are supposed to feel. Because of this, we have lost something in the downfall of the text adventure game. Playing a video game requires the pressing of buttons and maybe some strategizing, but a text adventure game requires you to visualize the entire playing field and unearth the rules of the game’s universe yourself.
   Few video games are made in this fashion anymore, but newer pieces of interactive fiction can still be found. Especially popular are the games of Emily Short, which include Galatea, a tale about a mythic statue coming to life and Savoir–Faire, a story about a once–rich magician on a quest. If you’d like to play the classics for yourself, however, you can either download or play them on sites such as My Abandonware or Classic Reload. Next time you find yourself looking for something to do, you might want to consider the imaginative, puzzle-ridden world of the text adventure.
  • About the Author
    Julia Zorc is a junior Creative Writing and Interactive Media Studies double major. She hopes to start her own bookstore and write a grand adventure novel someday. In her free time she plays Legend of Zelda games because her love of the franchise is endless.

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