Monday, 7 July 2014

A Fictionally Interactive Oddity…

…Or, why the death of the text-adventure has been greatly exaggerated.

What is a text adventure?

There are those that would dismiss text-adventures as gaming-dinosaurs that rightfully died out decades ago.
And to be fair I suppose it is now possible that a generation has grown up without ever seeing, let alone playing, the genre.

Or perhaps you only know them as their latter-life nom-de-plume of ‘Interactive Fiction:’ a name that a lot of purists loathe with a passion, and although I wouldn't place myself firmly in that camp, I must admit that I do prefer the name ‘Text-Adventure.’

So what is it? Well, it’s essentially a story-based text only puzzle game, where you communicate with the computer by typing in common-language phrases and the computer responds. This response may be based on any number of conditions, not least of which may be your location, items you are carrying, objects or characters that share your location, things you may or may not have already done, or how you have actually phrased your commands.  And if all that sounds confusing and dull, you may be half-right. Confusing – undoubtedly, but dull? Like anything else that entirely depends on the player. There are people, like me, who began playing text-adventures in the early to mid-eighties, and still occasionally find something interesting in them now. But there is also a dedicated core of people still playing old and new text-adventures, and there is no shortage of new interactive fiction being written. So the text-adventure is still very much alive and not an extinct dinosaur medium at all. Hopefully this blog will go some ways to showing you the how, why, and where’s of this…

In The Beginning…
Ok, so most people know text adventures started 'some time around 1975' when programmer Will Crowther wrote the eponymous 'Advent;' or Adventure, (but he could only have a 6 letter name) later to be renamed 'Colossal Cave;' on a PDP-10 mainframe computer. Within a couple of years this had gone viral through the fledgeling Arpanet, and was run a a variety of both Mainframe and Mini computer systems.
And that's where text adventures stayed... until 1978, when the first game to make any real inroads on to the very resource-limited Home Computer market was, the sometimes unfairly overlooked, 'Adventureland,' by Adventure international: which was basically Scott Adams and his wife (at the time). But in 1977, deep inside the bowels of a mainframe, another monster was beginning to take form. Simply knows as 'Dungeon' this monster would soon awake and become the mighty 'Zork,' by a then little known start-up company called Infocom...
After that, text adventures quickly boomed on the home computer, and the more business orientated personal computer markets, becoming big business almost overnight. With companies like Infocom, Adventure International, Level 9 and magnetic Scrolls, among others, regularly making the top 10 best sellers list for every platform they published for.

Old School Classics…
This is probably the only computer based media where the best of the commercial releases from the mid-eighties can still compete directly with the best of the modern era.  
Any top-10-games list is ultimately subjective, but I think it’s fair to say the following games are ‘classics’ in the true sense of the word for various reasons:

1)     Colossal Cave (Adventure)
2)     Zork I
3)     Adventure land
4)     The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
5)     The Leather Goddess of Phobos
6)     The Pawn
7)     A Mind Forever Voyaging 
8)     The Hobbit
9)     Fish!
10)   Knight Ork 

The list could go on... for a very long time... And I've missed out a lot of my favorites, but I think each of these games brought something new and in some way unique to the genre, whilst many others simply had brilliantly captivating stories.

The IF Scene…
So text-adventures may have been all but commercially defunct by the end of the eighties, but they didn't die, they went underground and stayed there for a long time – developing and evolving in the commercial darkness.
The Interactive Fiction community (IF for short) kept on developing the medium; they made new more advanced tools. They hosted competitions, and produced more involved and experimental storytelling techniques. The community even produced its own text-adventure programming names who begun to gather an  emerging reputation in a world existing completely under the radar of the commercial gaming industry, and mainstream gamer, but this all went towards making a thriving and very inventive IF scene.

If interested in IF you could do worse than taking a look at The Interactive Fiction Database and The Interactive Fiction Archive, both of which have much more to say on the subject than I do.

In one sense the IF community is responsible for making a slew of very ‘modern’ text-adventures, but in another sense they are still very much old-school, by design. Most early IF appeared to come from the and Usenet groups, for the writing and playing of text based adventure games. And the structure was initially still very close to that of the original text adventures.

This design is largely because they have strong views of what a text adventure is, and isn't. They may push the envelope, but they still stay within its boundaries.
If someone makes a game that falls out with these boundaries a lot of the community wouldn't entertain it. And this attitude may have led to a rather insular progression of the medium.
Not that I'm saying there's anything inherently wrong with this. A stalwart attitude has made the community what it is today, and it is exactly what the majority of its patrons want. Although it isn't necessarily a model that will ever re-appeal to a modern mainstream audience. But, for the most part, the IF community really doesn't care.

In The Mainstream…
Text adventuring has long since faded into the mists of mainstream time, and when it does appear it is only  as curio of times gone by.  You may still find a couple of small text adventures tucked away in the bowels of PSN, hidden away in the mini-games of  the PS Home space. But I dough that text gaming will ever return return to the computer or console games machines. And if that sounds a bit enigmatic, well... There is a new, and ever growing, market nowadays. A market of readers, not joy-pad button mashers, and that market is of-course the e-reader users. It's by no-means a certainty, but people are looking at this market with a view to a more lucrative interactive fiction outlet than that of the closed-community of the current IF  brigade.

In a world were more people use their hi-tech smart-phones for good old-fashioned text-messaging more than anything else, anything is possible... 

After all, you are reading this blog aren't you? Not watching/listening to a vlog...


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