Text Adventures: A Brief History of Interactive Fiction Games

Colossal Cave Adventure 1992 edition
Colossal!

After our nod towards Choose Your Own Adventure Books, we’re taking a closer look at text-based games from the 1970s and 1980s. Hurray!

What are Text Adventures?

These are text-based, narrative video games where the player types commands into a computer. And that leads to your interaction with the digital world.

A computer script will explain to you a scenario, to which you have to use your brain to think what action you must take.

For example, let’s look at what may play out from the above Planetfall (1985):

"You're stranded on a planet in the deep recesses of space. Your ship has crash landed and you're the only survivor. As you awake, you see a horde of slobbering alien monsters running at you—they're wielding what appears to be space bazookas and they're chanting over and over, 'Die, you human bastard! Die!' You jump to your feet, but realise your arms are broken. In fact, the right one is missing entirely! WTF!? What do you do?

So, with that in mind, what course of action seems sensible? You have a think about the situation and then type in your response.

"Although I'm panicking quite insanely about this development, I suggest running at great speed in the other direction of the monsters."

And the computer will respond with a message such as:

"You can't do that. What do you want to do next?"

Due to the set commands, you have to find a specific response. Such as:

"Run away."

If you pick the right response, the computer will then advance the story. And you interact with the narrative in this way.

Of course, you can do stupid stuff and see what happens. Swearing at the computer is a common antic. But you can really do whatever you want.

"I find you highly attractive, computer, I think we should go on a date, get married, enjoy our honeymoon, bicker over trivial things, and then divorce acrimoniously."

To which the computer will respond with.

"I don't understand this command."

Or some such. And then you can tell the computer to piss off, or whatever, and it’ll respond in the usual fashion.

So, although games were advancing to a  point of proper 2D adventures when we were kids (think of the NES), we still played text adventures.

We can’t remember on what, specifically. The Atari ST, home computers such as the IBM, the Commodore 64 etc. That sort of thing.

But they piqued our interest, despite the incredibly basic nature of the experience.

Starting the Genre: Colossal Cave Adventure

Colossal Cave Adventure (also called ADVENT and just Adventure) is one of the most enduring and popular examples of this genre. Computer programmer Will Crowther is responsible for it.

Launching in 1976 on the DEC PDP-10 mainframe (whatever the hell that is), it was a cult hit. So much so, Crowther overhauled the title for a re-release in 1977 with new features with the help of Don Woods.

So, yes, as a gaming experience it’s remarkably minimalistic. If you, for example, compare it to the likes of Red Dead Redemption II (2018). Itself a heavily narrative experience, it also comes packed with cutting edge graphics, AI, and all the other gubbins.

Colossal Cave Adventure is a bare bones romp. Pretty much one sound effect, text on screen, and your imagination must do the rest.

About as geeky as retro gaming gets. But also, essentially, an interactive book.

But it does a good job (along with the capacity of your imagination) at creating a cavernous interior with sepulchral voices haunting your every step.

The game also popularised the word, “plugh”. You reach a destination called Y2 and get the following message (25% of the time, anyway).

"A hollow voice says 'PLUGH'."

The word became something of a Wilhelm scream for text adventure games. It’s inclusion across other titles includes Prisoner 2, Pyramid 2000, and Bedlam.

According to the tribute website plugh, in 1997 Don Woods confirmed via email:

"For my part, I say 'zizzy' and 'ploog'. I'm actually rather emphatic about the latter, since it's supposed to be said in a hollow voice. I've heard some people pronounce it 'plug', 'pluh', or even 'pluff', and when I imagine the hollow voice trying to say those I keep thinking the poor voice is going to break down laughing... (A hollow laugh, naturally. :-)"

Colossal Cave Adventure Remakes

Colossal Cave Adventure remake by Cheeseness
The remake by Cheeseness.

The genre is enduringly popular to this day, which has led to remakes of the original.

Australian indie game developer Cheeseness (responsible for the excellent Hive Time) has a new version in the works.

This is the Colossal Cave Adventure – Icicle Edition. You can download the game from Itchio there in demo form (and we need to do a full post about Itichio soon, as it’s an amazing hive of indie game talent).

As Cheeseness puts it on the Adventure – Icicle Edition site:

"Adventure has been a significant source of influence and inspiration not only for the lineage of traditional text adventures that followed, but also for storytelling and game culture as a whole. The games we enjoy today are, in part, the legacy of a caver and a programmer whose work represents one of the earliest successful attempts to create an immersive and dynamic feeling digital world."

The attention to detail here is rather exquisite, as Cheeseness provides a full walkthrough on the site.

So, you’re not going to get stuck. Absolutely worth a download of the demo if you’re a retro gamer, or interested in any sort of narrative development in video games.

We got in contact with Cheeseness about this and he’s not quite finished the game for a full release. But it’s a project he intends to finalise in the future.

So! We used the opportunity to get down to the nitty gritty. Just why do these types of games maintain a big cult following? And why is Adventure so iconic? These are his words of wisdom.

"I can't really recall when the first time I played Adventure was. It's possible that I explored some of its chambers in the '90s. Apparently there was an Amiga port of Don Ekman's version, so I might have plumbed its depths even before that. It's possible that I never played it at all.

When my Dad suggested that we participate in The Year of Adventure, re-creating one of the earliest known text adventures in Icicle felt like a wonderful way to celebrate not only the game itself, but also the roots of the genre I was exploring with the engine and the games I've made with it.

As we teased apart Adventure, it felt immediately and eerily familiar. I can't say whether or not forgotten memories contributed to that, but I can definitely say that the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways that Adventure has permeated digital worlds, digital storytelling, and game culture as a whole definitely did.

Directly and indirectly, Adventure has some level of presence in a huge amount of Western games, and that's not really a surprise. While it doesn't quite map smoothly against contemporary sensibilities about how accessible games should be, the act of exploring Colossal Cave is still exciting and evocative. 

As an imagination oriented experience, it invites players to contribute and own their adventures while leaving behind a little inspiration. It's easy to see how generations of designers, artists, programmers, composers, sound artists, project leads, and so on drew upon or tried to capture the feelings that discovering a rainbow bridge, finding unexpected treasure, getting lost in a maze of twisty little passages, hearing a hollow voice echo through subterranean tunnels, or stepping into a dark cave for the first time.

Adapting Adventure as an Icicle game has been an interesting challenge so far. Icicle games benefit from directional constancy, something that Adventure is happy to sidestep in the interests of presenting a series of interesting locations without getting too bogged down in the twists and turns that connect them. Adventure doesn't really have a 'look' verb that can be used to scrutinise objects, while Icicle is intended to give more detail when focusing on an object. In general, Icicle demands a higher density of detail than Adventure's scene descriptions, and finding ways to expand or add content while maintaining the tone and feel of the original game has been a lot of work.

Becoming more familiar with Adventure has helped me become more familiar with my own work and the context it exists within. It's also given me a new way to explore a familiar cave system and discover what my imagination sees in its shapes and shadows."

The Future of Text Adventures

There’s still a lot of love for interactive fiction games. There are new titles coming out all the time (in the indie game world, at least).

Some of them, such as Sun Dogs (2015), add to the experience a little with ethereal type basic space-based graphics. Ooh! Ahh!

Of course, there are the bare bones type experiences, which are exactly the same as those from the ’70s and ’80s.

But many modern developers are adding a little to the experience. Such as in Lifeline.

Here you’re chatting to an astronaut lost in space. Your mission is to help the poor individual try to survive.

The idea reminds us of that bit in The Abyss (1989). There, Ed Harris is deep underwater and his crew text chat to him to keep his spirits up.

You can even make a text adventure. And that’s without coding knowledge—there are sites such as Quest that provide free text adventure making software.

Marvellous! As we like the genre. They may look basic, but then simplicity is sometimes the best thing in this big old world. Plugh.

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