Text Adventures – The Evolution of an Idea

For many years, one of the most popular game genres has been that of fantasy adventure games. One of the first computer adventure games – Will Crowther and Don Woods’ “Colossal Cave Adventure”, first released in 1976, and written in the FORTRAN porgramming language – was presented in a textual form, essentially as a form of interactive fiction. Players were presented with a written description of the location around them, and a prompt where the player could enter a simple command about what to do next, using phrases such as “go north”, “enter building” or “kill monster”.

If you’ve ever read (or should that be: ‘played’?) a “Choose Your Own Adventure” or “Fighting Fantasy” gamebook, you’ll be familiar with the form, although in the case of these text adventure books, rather than a prompt you are offered a series of options about what to do next:

You are stood in a large cavern. There are exits to the north and west. In front of you is an old chest. Do you:
– go north (turn to page 23);
– go west (turn to page 17);
– open the chest (turn to page 41).

As you might suspect, this type of structure is easily replicated in a computer programme (and even more easily in a hypertext environment such as the world wide web!).

If you would like to try out an interactive fiction game along the lines of Adventure, there is a good selection of classic games that can be played, for free, online at: ifiction.org). An online version of Colossal Cave can be found at: The Annotated “Colossal Cave” Adventure.

To what extent would you say “interactive fiction” counts as a game? What sort of narrative structure might you expect to find in such a “game”, and what sort of structure would be inappropriate?

Towards Multiplayer online adventure games

With the rise of computer networks, the adventure game genre soon moved online, and 1979 saw the release of the first MUD – or multi-user dungeon – created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle of Essex University (you can read about the origins of the game in authentic form here: Early MUD History, with a timeline here: Incarnations of MUD).

In contrast to Colossal Cave, a game that was run on a “mainframe” computer and then played via a terminal by individuals with an account on that computer, MUD was an online game that could be accessed by many people at the same time via an early incarnation of the internet (this was a time years before the advent of the world wide web…).

What do you think are the major differences in terms of gameplay and technology requirements between a single person adventure game such as Colossal Cave, and a multi-player adventure game such as MUD?

The Interface Moves On

Although notable in that it did come with illustrations to support the text based descriptions, (and in doing so opened up the possibility of using visual puzzles to enrich the game), “The Hobbit”, a game based on JRR Tolkien’s book of the same name, and first released for some of the most popular home computers of the time in 1982 took the next step in text gaming with a parser that could cope with far more complicated grammatical expressions than most of the games of the time.

[A parser is a particular sort of computer programme that can “parse” – or understand – a sentence in terms of certain grammatical structures. That is, give a simple sentence, it might be able to identify the subject and object of that sentence, what the verb is, whether there is an adjective, and so on. Parsers lay at the heart of simple “chatbots” – for several examples, see Chatterbox Challenge, or have a go at scripting your own chatbot.]

From Text Games to 3D Worlds – Is There a Link?
Although many of today’s contemporary online role playing games such as World of Warcraft are based in fantasy worlds that may be reminiscent of the worlds conjured up in the earliest text adventure games, it is arguable that their gameplay owes little to those earlier games. However, as we shall see in a future post, many of the social roles that individual players can fall into when playing a multi-user adventure game from 20 years ago are the same roles that exist in today’s multimedia, immersive 3D fantasy worlds.

Although today’s fantasy role playing games are very different in style to the early text based adventure games, some commentators have tried to see them as a developing genre. The following video shows just how far massively multiplayer online roleplaying games have come in a visual sense, from the original MUD text adventure, to the 3D persistent virtual worlds of today.

To find out more about the latest massively mutliplayer online role-playing games, check out the MMORPG Center – Massively Multiplayer Online Games Portal or this MMORPG Online 100 Chart.

Further Reading
If you are interested in reading more about the evolution of computer based role playing games, you might find the following series of articles on Gamasutra interesting:
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)

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3 Responses to “Text Adventures – The Evolution of an Idea”


  1. 1 Owen Stephens October 22, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Colossal Cave is one of the first computer games I remember playing – and one that had a definite impact on me (http://www.meanboyfriend.com/overdue_ideas/2008/09/this-gaming-life.html)

    I would argue that at least as close in terms of descendants of these games (if not closer) are the point-and-click style games – starting with Myst, but now available in many different genres – my wife loves the CSI franchise, where you point and click, find clues, process items, question suspects, until you can successfully bring the perpertrator to account (book him Danno)

    As part of the Mashed Library event on November 27th (http://mashedlibrary.ning.com) I’ve been putting together a number of project suggestions for discussion, and coincidentally yesterday I posted a suggestion to create a piece of Interactive Fiction which includes aspects of Information Literacy using the Infoform engine (http://www.inform-fiction.org/I7/Inform%207.html)

    If anyone is interested in following up this idea then either come along to the event, or let me know.

    Also worth mentioning that earlier this year the Guardian Tech blog team ran a project to build a piece of interactive fiction through collaboration http://textadventure.org.uk/index.php?title=Main_Page

  2. 2 Tony Hirst November 22, 2008 at 11:12 am

    In a parallel development to computer adventure games, fantasy role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons (D & D) also pushed the boundaries of fantasy inspired gaming. ANd now it seems that D&D may be entering the online space in anger, if this BBC news report is anything to go by: “How to put the ‘e’ in D&D” [ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7729189.stm ]

  3. 3 d December 8, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    During the years 2001 to 2009, I played a MUD continuously. It was called “Realms of Despair”, and it has a lot of user-content, where users can program other areas/levels of the game. There were hundreds of different areas with puzzles, and progressively harder monsters. You usually would need to visit an area multiple times as your character increased levels to complete the areas.

    Last time I checked, they still had about 50 players on at any time, excluding the programmed player robot user players that usually performed functions like vendors or gambling or equipment administration etc.

    the only reason I stopped playing is because I couldn’t install telnet on my new work laptop.

    Anyway, I still want to get a crackberry or some device that can use telnet….so I can continue in the Realms of Despair.

    After reading so many area descriptions, and interacting with so many other players (and NPC’s), and developing my characters….I feel like it was a real place!

    Anyhow, the question for me is how we can turn on a new generation to play these games, because with player interaction, text based adventures are better than 3d MMORPG’s, because the graphics are better, because they are completely customized, and with better clarity than dreams, because the graphics exist in your own mind!

    I’m 35 years old.


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