This article originally appeared in issue 249 of PC Gamer UK.
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.
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.
Fallen London creator Alexis Kennedy is one of the biggest advocates for pure text, though did ultimately yield and permit a few graphics to sneak into both that world, and his company's latest big project, the world creation tool StoryNexus that lets anyone make games in the same style.
“There isn't the kind of limit that there is with a graphical interface,” he explains. “We haven't gone as far as I'd like – we keep drifting back to the relatively comfortable tropes of you being an antihero in an exotic place, but things we like doing in Fallen London are things like what happens when your Scandal gets too high. You get exiled from the city and spend an indeterminate amount of time in a story told in purely epistolary mode – writing home to win support. That would be impossible to do if you were representing it graphically, in a game that also had to do other things.”
Graphics have a lure of course, and even Kennedy wouldn't necessarily say no to seeing a big budget game set in his universe of Dickensian subterfuge. (“I'm not going to lie, I'd love that. That would be a thrill,” he admits.) Yet it's hard to imagine the result ever meeting his narrative approval.
“Most of the things you'd end up doing in a traditional Fallen London RPG would be the things you'd end up doing in any other RPG, because that's what their engines are designed for. It'd look very interesting, but you'd spend your time there beating up demons for experience points, not spending a week in a sado-masochistic romance with one.”
Fallen London is relatively unusual, not just in setting, but in being one of the few text-based games that supports its creators. Kennedy was willing to share that it currently gets around 20,000 monthly players, adding “By the standards of a social game, that's microscopic. For an indie game, it's pretty good.”
And the audience for text games in general?
“On a bad day, I'd describe it as 'niche'. On a good day, I'd say 'cult'. As far as I know, we're the biggest of the current breed of text-based narrative platforms, but I don't think we're orders of magnitude bigger. As far as I can tell, most of us have an audience in the thousands.”
This meshes with IFComp's stats, as shared by Granade. Despite being the most visible part of the modern IF community, it's a relatively small scale affair. “You've got about 30 games, played by around a thousand people. Of those, about 150 vote.”
These numbers make up a devoted community though, whose members are often drawn to the creative side of things. “A huge proportion of our players have had a go at writing a novel, or a blog, or would like to be a writer,” says Kennedy, whose StoryNexus creation tools are new on the scene, but likely to benefit from being just one click away for players of Fallen London and other games built on it.
Unless you're John Carmack, the relative ease of creating text-based games is obviously going to be a big attraction. Although as Carmack once infamously described story in games as being “like story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important,” he probably wouldn't be that interested anyway. For the rest of us mortals, writing an all-text game, especially alone, is always going to be a more realistic goal than creating even a basic platformer in GameMaker and similar.
“We chose to make a tool for writers because, you know, writers write well,” says Ingold of Inklewriter. “That meant no learning curve, no programming, and no requirement to hold a map in your head of how the story branches. And I think we've been successful – Inklewriter is being used in schools with kids as young as 8 and 9.”
Kennedy himself ascribes at least part of the creative interest to the mindset needed to appreciate IF in the first place. “When a game is mostly text, it requires a level of focus and investment that a graphical game doesn't necessarily demand. For people willing to give that commitment, the next obvious step is to try it themselves, especially when they're already in a creative space like StoryNexus.”
While StoryNexus, Inklewriter and a number of other systems offer the ability to create worlds without any programming, something no technology can get around is how long it takes to write a game. Fallen London for example has over 812,000 words – the equivalent of eight regular novels, or one prologue by George R R Martin. Given the small size of the audience, why not just write a book instead?
“Novels are amazing and interactive stories won't replace them,” says Ingold. “But there are things interactivity lets us do that novels don't. Exploring is one – in novels, you see the world but only as a background for the action: if you really loved the Mines of Moria, you can't hold up Frodo to delve deeper. In Sorcery , there's a whole world to travel through, and the interactivity can let you do that.”
What you definitely shouldn't expect is to make a fortune via this route. “You see some one-off attempts, but at this point few people are trying to make money writing IF,” says Granade.
There are ways though, especially with the most recent services out there. StoryNexus offers the ability to sell content using an in-game currency called Nex, split between service and creator. Inklewriter games can be converted to Kindle books for £5 and then sold on Amazon like any other service. Both Kennedy and Ingold are more upbeat about the profit side of things. StoryNexus recently sent its authors their first payments, and Ingold is currently at work on the aforementioned Sorcery – his second iPad game – which converts the old Fighting Fantasy series of the same name to a new format.
Kindle and iPad are easily the best thing to happen to text-based games in years, not simply because these devices are great at handling words, but because monitors aren't. Longform reading on the web doesn't suffer only because of reduced attention spans or the world falling into philistine illiteracy, but because settling down in your office chair to read a long text on a monitor is as uncomfortable as finding your mother's dog-eared copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey in a shoebox under the bed.
Some games find ways around this. Fallen London's card system and limited number of turns per session make it a bite-size experience, for example. But web browsers and big screens will never be an ideal configuration for most readers, and so the focus is moving elsewhere.
“People can get lost in their iPads and their Kindles for hours,” says Ingold, who recently launched an iPad conversion of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. “As designers, we're going to have to have to adapt to make ourselves fit the tablet model, too.”
Kennedy goes one step further. “The natural medium for story on handheld devices is text. You can tell story through game, through video, but reading is such a natural activity on a handheld device that I would expect to see growth there.”
Even if the games themselves move away from the PC, in search of more comfortable screens and more pocket-friendly formats, it'll still be the PC (and Mac, of course) where they're written and curated. To move away from graphics isn't the easiest of things, and finding your style of game can require work. Take the time though, and you will be rewarded with some of the more imaginative stories on the PC – and potentially a creative new way to show off your writing and design chops.
It's not all about colossal caves and twisty little passages any more. Here are a few IF highlights that show off how varied the genre can be, from card-based trips to the 'Neath to hunts for lost pigs. In the print version of this, we also linked to a interesting James Bond text-adventure used to promote Skyfall - unfortunately, that's been taken offline now. Still, if it was good enough for Bond...
Gloriously dark and dripping with wicked culture, but a game that takes a little while to open up. Using cards to represent random events, explore the underground realm of the Traitor empress with no greater purpose than to live a virtual life. It can get repetitive, but the higher your stats get, the more stories become available and the more control you have over your destiny.
Pig lost! Boss say it Grunk fault. Grunk need help. Grunk an orc, and not good at description; detailed expository introspections on combining inherently ludic nature of interactive fiction and unconventional prose style not Grunk's thing. But Grunk's story funny. Grunk win 2007 Interactive fiction Competition. You probably like Grunk. Help Grunk find lost pig.
While this is iPad only, sorry, there is a live demo on the site. This is easily one of the most stylish attempts at bringing interactive fiction to portable devices so far. It's not really an adventure so much as a live retelling of the story, placing you at the good doctor's side as he meddles with things man was not meant to know. All wrapped up in some very nice interface work.
An oldie but a goodie, this spy story is one of the most enjoyable examples of unreliable narration, and a story that couldn't be told any other way. Your mission went badly wrong, and your 'adventure' is the story you spin to an interrogator who knows a lot more than you do. To survive, you must weave a precarious path through the gaps in his knowledge. It's not easy, but it is extremely clever.
Although built on the same engine as Fallen London, this is a very different kind of project – a Rogue-style RPG based on decks of cards. Its most interesting twist is splitting the action into Surface and below decks. Surface decks fill in your backstory and restore your Spirit. The more you use them though, the darker your story becomes and the less reason you may have to ever return.
A great example of how interactive fiction can work without a big dramatic concept, Bee is simply the story of a girl trying to win a spelling bee, despite low motivation and a difficult home life with her religious parents. This is also a good introduction to a basic rule of playing interactive fiction – if you see the name 'Emily Short' listed as the writer, it's going to be a good one.
Just because a game communicates through text doesn't mean it can't provide atmosphere. This proto-hacking game is set on the bulletin boards of the late '80s, telling a mystery mixed with romance, wrapped up in wires. Some nostalgia for the sound of a dialling modem will help, but absolutely isn't required to have a good time digging into this retro-sci-fi mystery.