Originally published in the BFS Journal #14, Jul 2015 – British Fantasy Society
Text-based adventures were some of our first early videogames to use progression or creation of a narrative as the main method of play. These games first appeared in the 1970s, then became incredibly popular in the 1980s due to their simplicity to create and power. Text-based adventures are merely a subsection of interactive fiction, a cornerstone of games development. This genre has suffered with a fall from grace and was neglected for many years, but now it’s back with a vengeance.
Games like Colossal Cave Adventure, Zork and The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy are some of the more popular examples of early text adventures that paved the way. Many of us have happy memories of whiling away hours in front of screen, typing “take lamp”, “north” and other commands, one of which would let you kill a dragon with your bare hands if you knew what to say. I fondly remember spending time in front of my Commodore 64; there was one game about travelling through time which I had a love-hate relationship with, mostly because a T-Rex would always somehow manage to find me and eat me within a few moves. Every. Single. Time.
Visual novels made an appearance in the mid to late 80s, predominantly in Japan, though for some reason never really attaining any degree of popularity outside of Asia. Some were surprisingly advanced for their time, despite the use of static art assets they boasted of non-linear branching narratives, multiple endings and moral choice systems, like we see in games like Mass Effect today. It was visual novels such as Portopia Serial Murder Case that inspired the likes of Hideo Kojima to create games, eventually leading to Metal Gear.
Other notable examples of games that use interactive narrative as their centrepiece, are: The various videogame conversions of roleplaying books from the Fighting Fanstasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, co-founders of Games Workshop. Along with the Myst series, which started in the 90s and progressed through, sporadically, to the early 2000s; and despite being a puzzler, used the discovery of the story as a focus.
Sadly as technology advanced text-based games and interactive fiction on the whole fell out of favour, people thirsted for more advanced home computers and the emergence of 3D. Computers could do more, graphics were getting better, stories were still being told but the interactive fiction element had started to wane. The golden age of videogame development and innovation had left the humble text-adventure behind.
Those that played videogames then, which were far fewer than now, seemed to forget about the joy of playing through a good story, presented simply. Current generations now seek something new, something different out of their games; with games, much like with fashion, creators start to look to the past for inspiration. The potential found within the elegant simplicity of interactive fiction games is an enticing prospect for indie developers.
New technology is now supporting the creation of quality storytelling, ushering in interactive fiction’s new golden age and players can’t get enough. Tools such as Twine allow even the most clueless person to write, design and publish an interactive narrative. As you learn more about it you can make things more complex, but at its core it’s all about allowing people to tell a story as simply as possible. In fact, I took part in a games jam (a competition of sorts) entirely based on creating a ‘twine’ using no more than 300 words. It was sort of scary and liberating all at the same time.
There are wonderful, thought-provoking games being made where their strength, their core, is their story. No dancing around clever mechanics or crazy graphics technology. There’s the infamous Depression Quest, a powerful and intelligently written game about the experiences of someone who battles with depression; then there’s Gone Home, where you find yourself returning home after a year abroad to find an empty house, your family gone with no explanation and need to uncover what’s happened to them, echoing Myst in a way; text-based adventure Heroes Rise: The Prodigy and it’s sequels focus on the plight of superheroes as celebrities and your quest to become one; or the episodic Kentucky Route Zero, that incorporates a point-and-click style of play to allow you to play in a surreal interpretation of the American South, through a beautiful and weird road-trip.
Searching the depths of Steam, Valve’s games distribution platform, for ‘interactive fiction’ will show you that there are an endless number of new narrative-based games appearing every day, whether they be visual novels, computer screenplays, digital theatre; all of them wonderful and unique, shining all the more brightly because of their strong literary sensibilities. This rebirth of the genre is proof that a good story, and good writing never truly dies.