Text-Based Games and Nonfiction Storytelling

As part of learning more about game design and development, I have started playing and researching text-based games toward understanding more about nonfiction game development and online interaction.

A text-based is just that: A game wherein everything, including scene-setting, character development, and action, is conveyed through text. Some might include ASCII or other images, but those images are generally decorative and not vital to the gameplay.

Text-based games originated with early computers and the ARPANET (the forerunner to today’s Internet). According to Vice, the first text-based game was titled Colossal Cave Adventure, wherein users entered commands to explore caves looking for treasure. Development started in 1975 and expanded in 1977.

Another popular game to emerge during this era was Zork, which started in 1977 and by 1979 was 1 MB (yes, megabyte — you read that right the first time). Zork became part of Infocom, a company that existed from 1979 to 1989 and was responsible for many popular text-based games, such as Planetfall and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like Colossal Cave Adventure, Zork sent users exploring the “Great Underground Empire,” seeking treasures and trying to stay alive.

Text-based games continued in popularity throughout the 1980s, but by the 1990s these games were relegated to enthusiasts instead of brisk commercial sales.

Gameplay in text-based games is deceivingly simple, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the game itself is simple. In general, text-based games present information, and from there users make decisions on what to do next. There are two options for this decision-making: selection options or command inputs.

Selection options provide a list of potential next steps. Users choose one, and the game usually continues based on that decision. Sometimes, that decision ends the character’s life and thus the game. One popular example of this approach is The Oregon Trail. Other examples include Tradewars, Seedship, and A Dark Room.

The other option, command inputs, requires that users enter a command of some kind before the game continues. In a scene from the episode “The Irish Pub Formulation” in The Big Bang Theory, the main character, Sheldon Cooper, plays a text-based adventure game, possibly Zork. After reading scene descriptions, the character types in commands such as “Go west,” “Kill troll,” and “Drop ax.” This approach proves more challenging to play in not only learning the commands syntax, but also learning the ins and outs of the game. In addition to Zork, other examples include 9:05 and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

While many text-based games are single-player, text-based MMORPGs do exist. Examples include Torn, which is a crime-based game, and DragonRealms, which is a medieval fantasy game.

Since text-based games rely on text, they port easily to multiple platforms. You can find them through app stores, game stores such as Steam, websites, and downloadable applications. Check out textadventures.co.uk for curated list or archive.org’s software library if you don’t mind doing a little searching.

In terms of design, text-based games offer an opportunity to create a game without the burdens of character design, world design, sound, and music. Even choosing the fonts and sizes can be let go, leaving the game designer to concentrate on story and interaction. More writing about this kind of game design will be coming soon.

I have been careful throughout this post to rely on the phrase “text-based” to describe these games. Another popular term that comes up is “interactive fiction.” Wikipedia searches for “text-based adventure” redirect to interactive fiction, and there is even an Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation dedicated to the art form.

While many text-based games are fiction based, some are nonfiction, which is where my interest lies. Of course, sometimes the best nonfiction uses the tools of fiction. Text-based games should be no exception.

One example is called the Coming Out Simulator. The author, Nicky Case, wanted to share his story and chose this conversation-based simulator in which to tell it. He casts you as the main character in the experience, and he includes dialogue from his experiences. Case writes more about the game’s development, stating, “My game is emotionally authentic, and factually inaccurate.”

Another example designed for youth is titled The Migrant, which casts you as a young, married man from Syria seeking a better life for your family. Though rather simplistic, The Migrant does offer a starting point for thinking about why people leave their homes and what challenges they face. Another example is Tuberculosis Treatment in Bolivia. The story casts you as someone coughing up blood and facing the decision to seek treatment. Like The Migrant, the story offers a starting point for thinking about experiences with medical care and its costs in Bolivia. Check out more of these educational interactive games on textadventures.co.uk.

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