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In-depth: Is it time for a text game revival?
In-depth: Is it time for a text game revival? Exclusive
May 11, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

May 11, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

For years, the traditional publishing industry has been telling us that nobody wants story-driven adventures or game forms oriented around interactive storytelling. But the Kickstarter age has been showing us something a little bit different, amid successful fundraising for developers of renowned adventure games of yore.

But there's more than just nostalgia contributing to a potential revival for interactive stories. A broader gaming audience means appetites for game forms we might have once called "casual" in another time -- and furthermore, the popularity of tablets and e-readers means there's a real appetite for game forms that take advantage of a culture now habituated to reading on luminous screens in ways prior generations were widely not.

In a market where books and games are close rivals for the most popular category on app stores, what happens when today's new gamers are hungry for something more than word puzzles?

Text gaming: Back to the roots

Of course, interaction via simple text commands was how video games were born -- it used to be that supporting graphics was an impossibility. Early designers would add graphics as soon as it became feasible, but before that they were forced to get creative, sketching tactile universes only from words that glowed pale green against dark monitors.

To be a good game designer, you had to be a good writer. Serious players were folks who liked the surreal dialogue that could take place between the writer of a game and themselves; many even liked the absurdist frustration of learning a puzzle that could be solved simply by using the word "take" instead of "get."

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I can't count how many games I've played since I was a child, but nothing can ever quite substitute for my long young days and years spent with Will Crowther's Colossal Cave Adventure, the widely-known "granddaddy" of text games -- mapping mazes, crawling quilted bedrock and chasing hollow voices into impossible crevices.

The game industry has spent most of its time since then marching hungrily toward ever-expanding technological horizons, taking every wild leap it could across the gulfs that spanned play and the real world -- sometimes without consideration to whether better graphics or higher fidelity were necessary, whether they served. Often, simpler and more abstract modes of interaction fell by the wayside.

The adventure games of the '80s and '90s, pioneered by Sierra and LucasArts, held to spines of witty, playful writing as core to the experience even as they relied on expansive, brightly-colored worlds and their litanies of objects and tools. The result was experiences strongly impressed with the voice and identities of their creators, so that players still valued games because of descriptive humorists and fun character writers above anything else.

That's probably why renowned and well-remembered folks like Tim Schafer, Jane Jensen, Al Lowe and the Two Guys From Andromeda have such opportunity today to revisit the style of game in which they excelled. But even more primordial modes of storytelling in games -- including those that rely on text primarily -- are making something of a comeback too, thanks to the diverse mobile climate and a new wave of appreciation for storytelling and adventure.

An appetite for wordplay and the "lean-back" game

Actually, the text-only game has never wholly disappeared. All the while a close-knit group of interactive fiction writers and designers have kept the form alive through community, tools and annual competitions.

That means its veteran leaders are well-positioned to lead as the IF space takes its own share of today's new opportunities -- in 2010, well before Double Fine Adventure, Andrew Plotkin asked for $8,000 through Kickstarter to fund Hadean Lands, an interactive fiction game for the iPhone. He got over $30,000, validating his stated curiosity about whether anyone would actually pay him to make the text games his fans had loved for so many years.

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Writer and designer Emily Short is also a longtime leader of the IF community, and much of her work has focused on creating plausible interactions among characters in interactive fiction experiences. Her company, Little Text People, was recently acquired by Second Life creator Linden Lab, and her current project underway at the studio is an AI-driven interactive storytelling experience backed by the sophisticated social simulation engine she presented during GDC this year.

She agrees that her field is uniquely positioned for a blossoming. "With the rise of tablets, we've got a form factor that's really comfortable for reading, and for interacting with things with high-intensity graphics," she tells Gamasutra.

Instead of designing for the lean-forward, action-oriented living room experience consoles brought to the home television screen, tablets' popularity means there are all kinds of opportunities to design an experience for somebody sitting back on a sofa, casually reading.

Playing with books, too

"There's also an increased interest from people in the publishing industry in looking at what they can do with books that really takes advantage of the ebook form," Short continues. She's heard from people in traditional publishing who are intrigued by what interactivity and new tech can continue adding to books.

For example, Penguin Group has published an App Store version of Chopsticks, a teen romance story by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral. The app edition provides an alternate take on the paperback story that lets players interact with artifacts from the characters' lives and explore the narrative through visuals and tactile interaction.

Many have experimented with augmenting novels with other digital media content, or with creating choose-your-own-adventure type experiences, "but a lot of publishers are aware there's more they could be doing," Short says. "What are the possibilities of interactive storytelling that go beyond?"

"Obviously I'm bringing my own biases to this, because this is what I've always wanted to see, but I think there is an increased interest in some of the kinds of stories and interaction that are more challenging to do in traditional game formats," Short continues.

Gamers are hungry for deeper characterization and worlds to which they can truly attach, and text can be a way to illuminate inner worlds, thought processes or other elements that aren't easily demonstrated by imagery.

"The approach that we're taking tries to leverage people's familiarity with books to make it feel like something they already understand," Short says of Little Text People's project. "We're doing something that is very unusual in terms of game formats; you understand how to read a story, and here's a page -- but things are being added to that page."

In terms of demographics, Short hopes that interactive stories will attract the same kind of "relaxed attention" audiences that are drawn to simple touch-based games like Angry Birds. "I enjoy playing console games, but there are certainly times where if I've had a draining or busy day, the last thing I want to do is sit down and play an FPS that is going to be adrenaline-fueled and anxious."

"What do you get from a game if you want it to be low-commitment?" poses Short. "There's more of that spectrum we could explore... what do games look like when you want something that gives you the kind of relaxation that a chapter of a book would give you? You want something where you feel like you're retaining some kind of gained value you don't necessarily get from playing one more round of Tetris."

Where interactive stories fit

It's also a cultural climate where audiences are increasingly used to thinking of books as media companions -- popular film series like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games, or TV series like Game of Thrones, all feel richer to fans if they read the books as well as enjoy the films.

Designers of text-based games can take advantage of that familiarity to bring audiences into worlds they can read and participate in. Not every fan would want to create fan art or fan fiction or do cosplay (though thousands do!), but it's clear people very much want to interact with things they read, or to access written content in new ways.

"There's always been a desire, when you read a book that you really like, to remain in the setting, and to remain engaged with it," she suggests. "You put the book down, and somehow wish that world could go on... so I do see that as an opportunity. I see that as a place where i want people to re-engage."

At the same time, Short says she can't help but look at things from the perspecive of her "previous life" as a classics professor: "I feel a lot of the things people are doing now actually have really profound roots in human nature," she says.

"The whole idea that a story is a kind of intellectual property and only counts the first time you tell it, and that it's cheating to repurpose someone else's story, to retell it, is... not the way people conceived of these things in the ancient world."

Through interactivity, participation and game design, today's stories can gain the complex permanence of mythology, where players can explore narratives as multidimensional things -- for example, the same series of events from the perspective of multiple characters, or where the villains are now the heroes.

"I know there are a lot of people obsessed with the cult of the author, but I think there is something that is not anti-literature about having people take a story that they really care about and play with it," she reflects.

Past the parser: into the modern climate

The tech with which Short and her team are currently working determines possible affordances within a situation, but doesn't actually ask for text input -- one thing the new generation of gamers might not easily hurdle is a persnickety parser, even an up-to-date one.

"There's sort of a design issue we've had to take from the parser world into the world of selected choices," Short explains. "The thing the parser gives you is on one hand, there's the possibility of tremendous player frustration."

"But what goes with this is the possibility of making a leap on your own as a player, of realizing the game wasn't holding my hand," she adds. "I didn't get told to 'press the X button' -- I thought of a possibility on my own and then I executed it."

"For me, that's a lot of the appeal of especially the classic text adventures: the process of realizing you live in a world with a tremendous and unbounded number of verbs," she continues. "As an author, the challenge is always to figure out how to communicate with the player... without spoiling that sense of mystery."

[Colossal Cave Adventure image source]

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Andrew Grapsas
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I just assigned an extra credit assignment to my game engine programming grad class at the beginning of the week. The task? Build a text adventure engine :) Good stuff, this! Interestingly enough, I also taught 8-11 year olds how to program by having them write basic text adventures! Great education tool, lots of fun to build, and when they're well crafted, they're also addictive and stimulating to play.

David Cornelson
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Textfyre has been publishing commercial Interactive Fiction for nearly three years and is about to release several eReader and Android tablet selections as well as launch a cloud-based service. More is in the works.

I agree that there is a lot of verbal support from publishing companies, but so far, financial partnerships are difficult to find. Although it's impressive that Hadean Lands pulled in $30,000 in Kickstarter cash, that says more about the respect people have for Andrew's past works. It's not revenue and it remains to be seen whether any singular IF story can generate the type of revenue that investors and larger partners expect to see in a business.

Even with the current lack of financial interest in Interactive Fiction, I'm confident that one of us (Andrew with Hadean Lands, Emily with her works, Jon Ingold with Inkle Studios, or myself with Textfyre) will achieve a greater level of success. Once that happens, and I can only speak for myself, profits will be turned back into making more stories for more audiences.

I think it is time for a text game revival as do many others. Hopefully we'll see that happen in the next few years.

Eric Schwarz
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I think interactive fiction and videogames have sort of split off into their own things, and you can't quite directly compare them. In a text adventure, the text parser serves to moderate the player's interaction with the game world. In interactive fiction, the emphasis is more on telling a story that the reader can shape rather than solving puzzles. I studied both in university and it's interesting how modern interactive fiction differs from earlier text adventure videogames. You can clearly see the links between the two, but nowadays they cater even more to very different skill sets and markets.

Despite a lot of love for text adventures, I think the adventure genre was improved by the move to graphical format. The fact is that replacing all the "take", "get", "move" etc. verbs and nouns with actors in the game world and clickable interface elements was a much better way to handle puzzle-solving. People tend to relate much better to information if they can spatially separate and distinguish it, and you can't really do that with a text-only game. In interactive fiction, that isn't as much of a problem because the focus isn't really on keeping track of a lot of different objects and characters, it's on following the story and making decisions "in the moment."

All that said, I do think there's definitely room for adventure games that make heavy use of text, and I don't even think they'd be (formerly) "casual" games as this article suggests. However, I also think that at least some graphical elements for the interface make a game infinitely more playable and, in my opinion, more fun. The right balance for me would be visuals depicting inventory and world, as well as common interactions mapped to interface buttons. Text could be used for dialogue and long-format descriptions that still factor into solving challenges and completing the game, and a parser could remain for conversations and other relevant sections. Usually I'm not one to argue that technology has made a game mechanic or genre outdated, but... in some senses with text adventures, it really has.

Bart Stewart
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"People tend to relate much better to information if they can spatially separate and distinguish it, and you can't really do that with a text-only game."

Eric, when I read this I couldn't help but think of the pretty well-documented point that men tend to have better spatial skills than women, while women tend have better verbal skills than men. As always, this has to be qualified by noting that it's meaningful *in the aggregate only*, and that the capabilities of individuals aren't determined by group characteristics.

That said, given that games are made for lots of people rather than for particular individuals, group characteristics apply. It doesn't seem unreasonable to conclude that while men as a group probably find a visual metaphor with spatially manipulatable objects more comfortable, women -- as a group -- may be more comfortable interacting verbally with the characters of a fictional world.

If true, that's got some important implications for IF design and marketing. In particular, it implies that inclusive design means emphasizing both object-manipulation-mechanics and relationship-management-through-words, rather than offering a visual metaphor only. And that might be true even for a game that's weighted more toward the puzzle form of play than the storytelling form.

"In interactive fiction, that isn't as much of a problem because the focus isn't really on keeping track of a lot of different objects and characters, it's on following the story and making decisions 'in the moment.'"

I understand what you mean about the "in the moment" decision-making. But from the IF I've played (and the little bit I've written privately), that decision-making tends to be driven strongly by the characters. Specifically, the choices made flow from how the player/protagonist perceives the nature of the game's characters and wants to interact with them.

So for those choices to be fun, the characters need to be strongly written. That's what gives a plot its emotional weight; interacting with interesting characters in varied situations is what makes IF more about story than mechanical puzzle-solving.

I'm probably reading too much into your comments; there's obviously a lot more to this subject than can be summarized in a couple of paragraphs. And I actually agree with you that a kind of blended game, with visual manipulation of objects/places and verbal personal interactions, could be very appealing to a wide variety of gamers. I'd like to see a game like that.

But I also think Leigh's point -- that the relatively low-fi interface of tablets and smartphones makes them particularly well-suited for text games -- is a good one. If they ever thrive again, that's probably where it will happen.

Eric Schwarz
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@Bart Stewart

Oh, I completely agree with you that interactive fiction is a viable medium, no question, and I'd love to see it adopted readily on whatever platforms are suited to it. My comment was more concerning text adventures versus interactive fiction, which I think are two genres that are quite distinguished from one another... interactive fiction doesn't need to change because its medium is already ideal for its goal (storytelling) while adventure games were, in my opinion, improved by the move to a graphical format because it's more appropriate for that genre's goal (puzzle solving).

You're also definitely right that much of the decision-making in interactive fiction can hinge upon a strong foreknowledge of the work and an understanding of context, characters and so on. Saying that decisions are "in the moment" because they might be more emotionally driven might be a little bit inaccurate. I think what I was getting at was something closer to how interactive fiction is usually about selecting a path in a story that's appealing for myriad reasons, while adventure games are all about accomplishing a goal (getting to the end of a scenario/etc.). Of course, that doesn't mean that either genre can't incorporate other elements (and I'd love to see adventure games that deal more with character interaction and avoid traditional win/lose conditions, hunt-and-peck, use-object-on-object mechanics, etc.), but speaking broadly, I think there's a distinction between how readers/players interact with each, and the interface needs to reflect those.

David Lee
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Here's a thought: Take the mechanics of text-based adventures and convert them to narrative audio that you can play in your car (using your smartphone through the stereo) using voice input. Games that you can play in the car without having to look at a screen can fill a need. The same principle could work with limited touch input so you could listen to spoken audio on your earbuds while walking or doing something where you didn't want to have to give undivided attention to your screen. Apologies if anyone is already doing this (and good on ya!).

Andrew Grapsas
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You just described my senior project back when I was in college.

Mitchell Fujino
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I was with you until you said "car". Dividing attention away from drivers is not a good space to play in.
(for more info, check the psychology studies about limited attention)

It's still a great idea for other situations, like on a walk or while exercising on a bike.

Jordan Mechner
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Emily's comment that

"The whole idea that a story is a kind of intellectual property and only counts the first time you tell it, and that it's cheating to repurpose someone else's story, to retell it, is... not the way people conceived of these things in the ancient world."

reminds me of the chapter in Jonah Lehrer's book "Imagine" describing the cultural and legal milieu in which Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays. Lehrer points out that under today's laws, Shakespeare would have been sued for copyright infringement and Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, etc. could never be performed or published.

Keith Nemitz
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With a couple commercial adventure games, 'The Witch's Yarn' & 'Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!' in my portfolio, and another, '7 Grand Steps' on the way, I'm always eager to see text based games reinvented.

"...text can be a way to illuminate inner worlds, thought processes or other elements that aren't easily demonstrated by imagery."

Text is also the cheapest way to add detail to environments, and characters. 7 Grand Steps tells an epic tale of family generations over seven thousand years, across four social tiers, in high fidelity. Even Tencent couldn't afford the art it would take to realize all of 7GS's details. I spent two solid years, writing.

I'm about to release a side project, forked from MolyJam. It's a choice based adventure game engine, with probably the easiest scripting language out there for writers. "Easiest scripting language..." was how three separate developers described it to me during MolyJam. They used the prototype engine to create adventure games in a few hours.

The 'Mousechief Engine' should be available, free, open source, no restrictions on usage, (Mac, PC, Linux) by the end of this month. We'll make a general announcement then. The scripting language looks like an outline, but it's turing complete. The language is called Mischief.

Please contact me about it. Especially, if you love porting things to Android or iOS... :-)

Alfe Clemencio
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I do believe that if text-focused games are going to advance with storylines, we'll have to get away from the "choose-your-own-adventure" method.

Hirotaka Sato
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Yes, exactly. That is what happened in Japan !

Matt Mihaly
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They're a different kind of text games, but MUDs (the precursors to today's graphical MMORPGs) are still a thriving niche, with a couple of companies - Iron Realms Entertainment (disclaimer: I'm the founder, though I don't run it day to day anymore) and Simutronics - still running very commercially viable text games. Iron Realms runs five of them, and I believe Simutronics runs two. We're not talking massive amounts of players - they measure in the hundreds of concurrent online players rather than hundreds of thousands - but it's enough to be profitable, support full-time staff, etc.

Alfe Clemencio
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Wow... got a few founders/presidents/leaders who have produced something with interactive narrative/stories posting on this article. I'm just wondering where do you find writers that can write interactive stories/narrative?

Sherman Luong
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lol, I am in the opposite position as you. I have writers on board just not enough artist on staff to create what I like.

Eric Latham
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Alfe, we at Simutronics find our writers and designers from our player-base. They know the lore, they know the systems, they know the way things work because they have "lived it."

Matt Mihaly
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@Alfe Well, MUDs are different than what one might call 'interactive fiction'. They're full-blown interactive worlds rather than choose-your-own-adventure type things. The reason people still play MUDs rather than moving into WoW or whatnot is because despite the gigantic budgets of the top-tier games like WoW or SWTOR, MUDs are way more in-depth in terms of the world, the possibilities within the world, etc. It's really cheap, by comparison, to develop content and systems in an all-text environment than it is in a 3d environment, unsurprisingly.

As for how we find writers, for us it's not purely about writers so much as it is either engineers who can also write or writers who can, at least, do heavy scripting. For our first game (Achaea) I did the majority of development myself, back in the mid-90s, though after 15 years of continual development many dozens of people's fingerprints are on the game. The writing involved might be anything from descriptions of creatures or locations (ten thousand+ locations with individual descriptions are not uncommon in these games) to real-time story-based roleplaying with players to writing and scripting out elaborate story-based events.

Alfe Clemencio
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@Matt I'm a little bit familiar with MUDs. I'm also familiar with how cheap it is to produce text comparatively to 3d environments. I do something in the middle with Visual Novel style cutscenes with the games I make. Probably a tad more expensive than pure text but still much cheaper than producing 3d environments. It also makes promotional videos a bit easier to sell with since I can lean on the quality of artwork/box art. Also I don't have to worry about graphics getting old quite as quick if at all.

I'm mostly asking about finding writers since I don't think the standard writer can handle interactive fiction/storylines/MUD writing. Like... how do you scale up so you can get something done in like a year and a half? I'm not talking like a team of 6 writers but one or two would be nice.

John Evans
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If you really want to give a broad overview of this subject, you should definitely mention Gamebook Adventures, who are publishing book/apps on iOS and Android. They seem to be doing well enough to keep expanding their line, and even get the rights to make a Judge Dredd gamebook!

I should also mention Fallen London (formerly Echo Bazaar), a web-based game that's mostly text (more than 700,000 words of it). They're doing some fascinating stuff with letting you go through the game in ways that are much less linear.

Kenneth Blaney
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Lots of people have made suggestions, but I didn't see this one yet. I think it is important to keep in mind that the old text based adventure games helped spawn the point and click adventure (that is, if we want to give the SCUMM engine any credit). There is a reason it went that way, I think. It gives the developer/author more opportunity to show instead of tell.

That said, for any book there is the impact of reader response. Since the writer cannot fully describe every scene in the finest of detail (although some try) there will be some gaps in the description of a scene or character. The reader is then tacitly given the opportunity to fill in those details, possibly incorrectly. The idea is that the more details the reader creates, the more attached they will feel to the character. The problem, however, is that if the reader fills in an important detail incorrectly, he will feel betrayed when the character does something different from what is expected. (I wrote something in school that played on this. I had a character that I described as a cat in every way, shape and form but never said it was a cat. In the last part, the character does something radically un-catlike and flies away.)

Now, how this relates back to the topic at hand... the aspect of the game play allows the author of a fictional work to account for multiple different traits the player/reader is assigning in their head. That way, the reader is still allowed to think about the character, assign traits, and determine what the character "would do" without turning so much over to the player/reader that they get detached from the protagonist. (Something I think happened to most people who were playing Mass Effect and thought that Shep was "boring and lifeless".)

Donna Prior
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I'd like to recommend a look at - I've been following them since Choice of the Dragon. I love how they really bring their community in, especially in their on-going discussions of gender in gaming.

Joshua Darlington
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Computation + text offers new frontiers of expression. Those that think pictographic work or spoken word is a progression of written prose may not fully appreciate the capabilities of written vs spoken language vs visual representation.

I'm astounded that more/all science fiction isn't written with digitally enhanced prose. It's 2012.

Alfe Clemencio
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I kinda think that it's just that there isn't enough people trying to pursue the highly interactive story part... probably due to the publishers' influence. Have you seen the Extra-Credits video about how a publisher said "You're not allowed to say the word 'story' anymore."?

Michael Brune
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So reading this got me feeling a tad better about my current game. I've been feeling really down on it because it's about 60-80% text based. A sci-fi adventure/simulation in which you manage your crew and then send them on 100% text-based missions (loaded by json and lua so they are very moddable.) In the end everyday I feel like no one would enjoy or play the game. I get really depressed on what I should even do with the game and if it's even "good". I contribute a lot of that to the text-based portion of the game because a lot of my responses have been "Well it's a great base but I wonder if there was something we could do about the reading part."

So in the end I am close to dumping my game off into the shelved state and going back to the drawing board entirely purely based off the reaction of the text based portion.