Have Rumors of the Death of the Text-Based Adventure Game Been Greatly Exaggerated?

by G. Christopher Williams

16 September 2015

Games like 80 Days and Device 6 lead one to wonder if there is a possible life after death for the text-based adventure game.

Rumors of the death of the point-and-click adventure game were, of course, greatly exaggerated. It isn’t impossible to see how one could draw the conclusion a decade ago that this form of gaming, present since almost the inception of the medium, seemed to have been finally drawing its last breath. And, indeed, the point-and-click adventure game is, for the most part, no longer the sort of game that breaks sales records, and it isn’t likely to be so again. The days of the classic LucasArts and Sierra games selling as well as or better than other genres are probably over. But that doesn’t mean the genre is dead.

Certainly, the more recent evolution of this genre largely spurred on by Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead have not been entirely unsuccessful. The addition of mechanisms that allow for more choices in these games, like conversation wheels and other ways of promoting more branching narrative paths, expand on the more traditional exploration and puzzle-based mechanics associated with the genre. Additionally, though, the genre has continued to exist apart from that success story and that newer approach to the genre, regardless of these efforts to “modernize” it.
Thanks to platforms like Steam, smaller developers and publishers of what is now a much more niche genre of gaming, point-and-click adventures, continue to put out probably less profitable, but still more of what one recognizes as traditional point-and-click-style games. The audience for these games is smaller, but, hey, there’s still an audience out there for this kind of game and a way of getting these games to the genre’s most committed fan base.

As far as adventure gaming more broadly, though, it seems that video did manage to kill the radio star at one point in this genre’s history. The DNA of point-and-click adventures share much in common with an even older, but largely extinct subspecies of adventure gaming, the text-based adventure game.

The text-based adventure was one of the earliest experiments in the creation of video games and more specifically the creation of video game worlds. Lacking the computing power to produce high pixel count graphics, games like Zork, Planetside, and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy were early efforts to use computers to create spaces for people to play in. Without graphics, though, these early game developers had to instead depend on text itself to define the early geography of video game worlds. When point-and-click graphical versions of these exploration-based games eventually appeared on the scene, though, it seems relatively unsurprising that this ability to represent geography through graphics, rather than through text, would eventually kill these “dinosaurs.”

And frankly, the text-based adventure game would seem to be sort of more old fashioned in any case, since it also seems to have more in common with older literary mediums in the first place. Text describing and defining worlds is nothing new, of course. Countless novels, short stories, and poems have used language to define imaginary spaces for millenia. One might even be tempted to suggest that the text-based adventure really has something more in common with something like a Choose-Your-Own Adventure book than most of what is described as a video game these days.

However, while the Choose-Your-Own Adventure is certainly a text that emphasizes “traversal” of a text, this “traversal” lacks the same quality as the more geographically defined textual spaces of the text-based adventure. In truth, a text-based adventure and its offspring, the point-and-click adventure, is not usually marked by the same approach to branching narrative possibilities that something like a Choose-Your-Own Adventure is. Choices made in such books concern much less the traversal of a kind of textual space, a world, and more interest in providing their readers the ability to “traverse” a narrative over a course of time. The two share the same means of representation, textuality, but not the same interests in the architecture of the experiences offered by these kinds of texts.

What I mean by this is that the Choose-Your-Own Adventure allows one to make choices about the way that a story is told. The text-based adventure creates locations in which choices can be made by the explorer of a world. These are really quite different ideas.

In any given text adventure, the player and reader is greeted initially with a text that describes a space, a room, an environment. That player and reader is told what is in that space and can stop there and manipulate textual “objects” in that room (even picking them up), before then leaving that space for a new textually described location that offers new scenery, new objects, and potentially new challenges. One can double back to places in a text-based adventure because the text serves as the geography of a game world. The text is not so much a story, as it is a space, because it concerns itself with space more so than it does with story—or in some sense, with time

Such possibilities are generally not available in a Choose-Your-Own Adventure, which is more concerned with time, since it is more interested in telling a story than it is in providing a space to occupy. You don’t return to the textual “space” of page three in a Choose-Your-Own Adventure because page three represents events that have already happened in a story and in time. In a text-based adventure, one can return to older textual “spaces,” though, because they are legitimately texts that represent space, not time. They are places to go, not events to witness.

This context is what has informed some experiences that I have had of late with several modern games,  whose DNA seems to me to have something in common with the DNA of the text-based adventure game even more than they do with the progeny of that genre, the point-and-click adventure. This is in spite of the fact that the point-and-click adventure seems to roughly represent the same interests as a text-based adventure game, providing a game world to explore, revisit, and investigate. The world of a point-and-click adventure as opposed to a text-based adventure is simply defined graphically rather than textually.

Indeed, The Walking Dead seems to be a branch of adventure game evolution that has married something more like the narrative manipulation of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure book (through the addition of conversation wheels and binary or multiple choice options that allow the player to not only explore a game world, but also to alter the nature of the story being told in that world). The games that I am thinking about seem like a different evolution of the broader category of adventure games that emphasize the centrality of the adventure game as a geographical space by returning to the more traditional use of text and language as largely the means of exploring its worlds, rather than by seeing them through pretty pictures.

The game that I have most recently been playing that I think might be something more akin to a traditional text-based adventure game (or at least is simply a different evolutionary branch of the genre) is the iOS game (soon to be released on PC, which is the version that I am playing), 80 Days. 80 Days is, of course, a kind of adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in 80 Days, in which the player takes on the role of Phileas Fogg’s valet, Passepartout, in an effort to aid Fogg on his attempt to win a bet by circumnavigating the globe in just 80 days.

The game does feature a some graphical elements.. A globe-like world allows the player to plan various legs of you and Fogg’s journey through the game world. Additionally, when actually visiting the specific locations on that map, cities like London, Amsterdam, Istanbul, San Francisco, etc. all are represented graphically through a static image of the city. That game location features clickable options defining what you can do in that space (visit a marketplace or a bank, stay at a hotel, check your luggage (which represents your inventory), etc. These places, though, do resemble the discrete “rooms” common to text-based adventures, though.

While these visuals exist, much, much more of these spaces are defined for the player through text that is in the foreground of these locations. Both as you travel and as you reach locations, the game describes where you are and what is happening in that space and additional options about what to do there through text, not images. If games like Zork allow you to screw around in a small geographical location, then by typing “north” to move into a new textual location, both 80 Days city locations and travel locations (in a car, on a train, in a submersible) are confined spaces to screw around in through the text provided in those locations. More of the most important geography of the game lies in its textual descriptions of space than in its graphics, making clearer the uniqueness of this video game version of Phileas Fogg’s world.

All of this seems especially sensible because by mimicking the “voice” of an nineteenth century novelist, the authenticity of the game’s setting in time and space seems that much more compelling. Verne’s world is one that many readers are familiar with not merely because of what things look like, but because of a familiarity with how that time and space are typically represented to us in novels of the period.

In turn, 80 Days commitment to textuality to define its world also reminds me of Device 6 another iOS game that includes some small amount of graphics, mostly still photographs embedded with text, but it is really a game that allows text and language to define a game world, rather than graphics. Device 6 even more fully commits to the idea of descriptive language defining space by integrating how you literally traverse the text, swiping the screen of an iOS device with aural cues that correspond to how that text is being traversed through textual descriptions.

For example, you might read about the game’s protagonist moving from one room to another, and as you scroll through the text that describes her walking from point A to Point B, you might hear her footsteps on gravel, just as the text describes her movements along a gravelly path. Or you might literally hear voices begin to grow louder as you “approach a crowded room” (while also literally reading the text that describes approaching that crowded room). There is a moment in the game in which one reads that the protagonist ascends in an elevator. The text describing that ascent quite literally breaks off from the rest of the text and rises as you read it before stopping to connect itself with the text that describes her getting off the elevator on another floor.   

While clearly the rumors of the death of the point-and-click adventure game were greatly exaggerated, games developed on Twine and commercial releases like 80 Days and Device 6 make me wonder if, perhaps, the rumored extinction of the text-based adventure also needs reconsideration.

If video games differ from mediums that seem more often dominated by textuality, like the novel, nevertheless, it still seems like there may be game developers and an audience of gamers interested in what textuality and more particularly game worlds defined through textual geography might offer as possibilities for the medium of video games. Certainly, graphics are an obvious and straightforward way of representing space to the modern gamer, but 80 Days and Device 6 both seem unwilling to abandon language as yet another interesting means of exploring a virtual world.

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