A Text Based Adventure Story

Or Granddad’s Guide to Computer Games Part 3 (Part 1, Part 2).

spectrum keyboard

I’ve recently left the games industry, off to focus on eLearning for the foreseeable future, so this may be the last of my curmudgeonly rants on how ‘Computer Games’ were so much better back in my day. My first post on this subject, a love letter to Braben and Bell’s Elite, which mourned the death of the creative ambition of the early computer games, has been one of the most widely read pieces I’ve ever written, so perhaps I’m not alone. But if you want to want to continue reading about computer games, without the nostalgic grumpiness, I recommend Si’s excellent chewing pixels blog, he’s the main man when it comes to the modern crap.

It’s probably a generational thing. I’m of the ZX Spectrum generation, turned on to programming through experimenting with one of Clive Sinclair‘s babies – the ZX80, ZX81, ZX Spectrum. This is why I understand the allure of the blinking cursor.

In 1983 we didn’t have desktop metaphors, we didn’t have mice, all we had was a blinking cursor. There wasn’t something to click to open a document or load a game, your mysterious machine just blinked uncomprehendingly at you, waiting for you to type a command. This is why I am a great fan of a dimly remembered genre of computer game called the text based adventure. Advances in computing graphics capabilities have meant the text based adventure is now regarded as a relic of computer game history. I think this is a mistake. The text based adventure is one of those genres that transcends medium – it is midway between a book and a game. It is a narrative in the form of a conversation, but not as a passive reading experience; you are responsible for one side of the dialogue, and to progress you need to keep up your end of the conversation.

If you’ve never played one of these games I’ll give you an example. The HitchHikers Guide To The Galaxy game, inspired by the 80s books, and written by Douglas Adams himself (who was a great evangelist for text based multi-media in the 80s), is one of the best examples of the form. It starts like this:

You wake up. The room is spinning very gently round your head. Or at least it would be if you could see it which you can’t.

It is pitch black.

And that’s it. Just that and a blinking cursor. It’s now up to you to try and communicate with the game and unlock the narrative. Your first command might be “turn on light”, “go downstairs” etc, but as the scene is being constructed in your head, rather than onscreen, it is only when you are arrested after leaving the house that you realise you have forgotten to put any clothes on.

It is a wonderfully absorbing way of playing. There is a version of the game on the BBC site, which will alarm the purists by its addition of graphics, but give it a try, see how far it sucks you in.

Another of the finest examples of the genre was ID, a game by Mel Croucher, one of most imaginative creators of the 80s for whom the modern games market would have no room. He didn’t create many games, but every one he did was pretty much a genre in itself.

ID game screenID had no graphics, just a percentage in the corner of the screen. There was also no opening message, just a blinking cursor. You had to start the conversation, with no clues as to what you were meant to be doing. Without giving too much away, it unraveled to be a dialogue with an entity living within your machine, who had experienced several previous lives. Your progress was marked by how much you could discover about this entity, by winning its trust and getting it to open up to you. The modern equivalent might be chat room grooming.

No-one is making these games anymore because nowadays we can create amazing graphical environments, so we don’t need text based adventures. This is illogical thinking; just because on film we can now create a CGI Spaceship it doesn’t mean every film has to have CGI spaceships in them. Not every game needs a realistic graphical environment to be compelling. Just look at the recent success of Sudoku. I think there is still a place in the world for the text based adventure.

I’ve recently seen someone has mashed the Hitchhikers game with Jabber, so it can be played as an instant messager conversation. With the popularity of text messaging, and the limited low bandwidth communications of mobile phones, I think there could still be a market there.

And before you ask, yes, I did try and suggest this to LittleLoud during my time there. I was laughed out the room.

So someone please, write a text based adventure for 2007, market it to the kids who love their AIM/text messaging, and make a million off it. You can buy me lunch as a thank you.

-- 8th September 2007 --

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