The Joy of Text

Richard Cobbett at

The Joy of Text

This article originally appeared in issue 249 of PC Gamer UK.

Remember text?

To hear some people talk, it had a decent run before it died. Everyone loved carved stone tablets, until scrolls became the iPads of their day. Later, books picked up the slack. Then came TV and movies, and who’d want to pay to read words after that happened? Yes, they’d have to be a real sucker...

Ahem. The strange situation is that despite the written word getting sadly little respect these days, the average person has never read more. Much of it is short-form, but devices like the Kindle and the iPad have stepped in to make longer reads cool again, and then gone one step further: they’ve helped give birth to a new generation of interactive stories. The text adventure is back.

Most, although not all, of the resulting games owe their origins to two styles of interactive fiction: the classic text adventure, as popularised by Infocom, and a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure. Other books in the same style were available and extremely popular, like the more RPG-heavy Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy series, but CYOA is the one with the instantly recognisable name and thus, unsurprisingly, the most often brought up for a little misty-eyed nostalgia.

Both styles created worlds to explore through nothing but text and the odd picture, but their methods were very different. Infocom and their peers wrote parser-driven games, dropping you into a world where you’d use commands like ‘GO NORTH’ to explore and interact. CYOA simply told you what was going on, for instance: ‘You approach the castle. An evil knight attacks!’ and offered the choices ‘Turn to Page 45 to fight the knight,’ and ‘Turn to Page 60 to wet pants.’ And of course, an easy way to cheat.

In both cases, the results were simple, but varied. With just a few lines of text, either could send you into the distant future or the depths of an evil wizard’s castle, or create more sophisticated experiences than simply killing things. Infocom classic A Mind Forever Voyaging was about witnessing the collapse of America by simulating a politician’s seemingly innocent plans over several decades.

The Joy of Text

Cabinet Noir introduced the StoryNexus platform with a dark take on the Three Musketeers.

Modern equivalents are superficially similar, but far more complex. A CYOA-style game written in a system such as Inklewriter can track events and stats without the need for player notes or flipping pages. Dedicated interactive fiction languages, the most prominent being Inform 7, are advanced enough to model physical simulations – everything from enabling players to mix liquids to controlling a cast of characters with complex AI routines to breathe extra life into their actions.

Creators tend to be drawn to work with text for two reasons. First and most obvious is the power of the written word. But its flexibility is just as important, as are practical considerations.

“I like text because it’s cheap and effective for telling the stories I want to tell,” says Inklewriter creator Jon Ingold. “In a graphical game, everything that you add costs a lot. With text, I can tell a story that visits a hundred places or involves a cast of thousands.”

Stephen Granade, organiser of this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition agrees, but puts his focus on the other side. “Why use text? Because it provides experiences that other types of games don’t. Text games excel at providing a strong narrative voice in a way that’s much harder in graphics-oriented games. They can be emotionally affecting in the same way a good book can be.”

Combine the two, and you get the modern text adventure landscape: a world where any worlds are possible, and any experience that can be described can be realised in some form. Every year, more and more clever ideas emerge, some as part of each year’s big competition, others as standalone games.

One of the most successful recent examples is Fallen London, which uses a mixture of cardgame and CYOA mechanics to create a glorious alternate world where Victorian London has been abducted by bats and relocated on the edge of Hell. You play a prisoner in a jail carved out of a stalactite, freed to seek your fortune in the streets – to be a force for good or consort with demons as you choose. Or both.