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Text adventures

In the beginning, there was the Word...

Well, no. In the beginning, there was Pong. That was the time of Atari and Amiga and other blippy game computers that hooked up to the TV and displayed a glorious 16 colours; the kind of machines, quite ahead of their time, now replaced by XBox and PS3. And for serious computers, the kind used in offices with disk drives instead of tape drives, there was the Solitaire game that came with my first mouse driver for practice in using the mouse; a DOS game that could switch between colour and B/W, which is what many monitors and graphics cards still were at that time. It's odd to think that these small boxy integrated-monitor computers with their switch to change the font colour from white to green or amber, somehow feel more "hi-tech" than the modern Pentium-something multimedia monsters with an OS in teletubby colours that exclaims "I am made for very stupid users!" which ironically makes it hard to use for anyone who knows what a directory is - yes, I'm talking about Windows XP. Anyway, those ugly little grey or black boxes reverently placed in something called a "computer room", often not running independently but all connected to a "mainframe", and approached only by the nerdiest, the spookiest, the most alien of humans - people with three heads and scaly purple skins called "programmers" who stayed up all night and ate pizza - bring back an aching sense of nostalgia. And of course the three-headed monsters didn't just program. Into the cold, inhuman sphere of numbers and calculations and bits that are either 1 or 0, they sneaked something called "games".

Considering that the first computers marketed to the public were "game" computers and that "work" computers were soon subverted to the same purpose, I wonder how the idea ever came about that computers would change human society into something intellectual, emotionless and devoid of imagination. The famous cupholder anecdote shows just how intelligent computer users can be, while a less known anecdote of a barkeeper shooting a laptop - actually firing several bullets into it, out of anger at its malfunctioning - illustrates the computer's ability to raise emotion. Still, this almost religious fear of The Computer led to something. Computers were out of this world. They held the key to new worlds. Their intelligence was boundless and infallible. The words they displayed in white (or green, or amber) on their inscrutable black monitors had a sacred quality. What better orators to tell the famous interactive tale that starts:

Zork I: the Great Underground Empire - West of House

Published for the DOS-based PC and several other platforms, Zork I: The Great Underground Empire was a hit. Despite the fact that it had no graphics, no sounds, nothing that required a mouse, just text and dry wit. And, being just text, which is what all computers no matter how antique even for that time could display, they could be played on literally any computer. They were generally not real-time, which had the double advantage of using less resources and being less stressful than pushbutton games; what they exercised was intellect and imagination rather than reaction speed, and the player was at liberty to leave the screen and make a cup of tea while pondering a problem. (I don't want to be too derogatory as I've been addicted to a number of pushbutton games, mostly for their graphics, but they do attract the sort of crowd that boasts about highscores.) Their textual descriptions suggested scenes that the graphics cards of that time could not yet display, and the fact that they accepted keyboard input made them just that bit more interactive. There is something very quiet, very private, very compelling about communicating in writing with a living story book that won't turn the page until you discover the magic word.

Of course not every text adventure is about a huge, deserted underground dungeon full of relics of a bizarre past. Computer games are an industry, and when text adventures caught on, many were produced, in as many settings as there are genres of fiction; in fact, one text adventure, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Universe, was based on a book of the same name. The pure text adventure was just that, and consisted of a collection of "rooms" each with a title and description, connected to other rooms by directions. The player could type "west" or just "w" to go from "Stream" to "West of Stream", the invaluable Verbose option repeating the room description each time a room was entered. Though invisible, the text adventure's world was strictly delineated, with many "You can't go that way" or "You can't do that" or "I don't know that word", so even finding out what input the game would accept was a puzzle. Some text adventures provided a picture for each room as mnemonic, or a map showing which rooms had already been visited; some, like Zork Zero with its rebus and incorporated Towers of Hanoi, used graphics as part of the game's puzzles. The Sorceror's Appliance, by the same author, was a text adventure with elaborate graphics, the input still all text and the game having a no-pictures text-only mode. In a way it's just as well that text adventures aren't real-time, because they required non-stop player input of a generally complicated kind, eg. put string in brick, then light match, then light string, then rapidly vacate the area. The fact that they're not doesn't mean that there isn't a clock ticking: moves are counted, and after so many moves a bridge will collapse, so many moves later a light will burn out andsoforth.

What every text adventure is about, however, is solving puzzles. Since most computer games (including the graphical evergreen Tetris) are about puzzle-solving to some extent, I should rephrase that: what every text adventure is about is solving riddles. The riddle is the text-based puzzle par excellence, and text adventures may well include some riddles in actual riddle form ("what's green, fuzzy and likes to sit on your shoulder?") Being linear and non-graphical, it's not multi-character either in the sense of being multiplayer or allowing easy interaction with game characters. But interaction with game characters is possible, and they, too, are riddles. There is a reason why they're here. They hold the key to some item or solution, or the game writer wouldn't have written them in. Or they deliberately have no function whatsoever, to sidetrack the player. Every detail in a text adventure is drenched with significance, every obstacle cleverly designed, the whole adventure a work of genius; so different from a 3D fantasy game with lots of lovely scenery that doesn't do anything. The only, inevitable shortcoming of text adventures (but one that they share with other puzzle-solving genres) is: they're not open-ended. They can't be. The satisfaction of a riddle lies in solving it; when all riddles are solved, the story is done, and the game is over.

The company when it comes to text adventures is Infocom, the company name that is virtually synonymous with text adventures. This company merged with and, after the collapse of text adventures, disappeared into Activision. Most of its titles have been bundled into and sold as compilations, two notable ones being the "Infocom Treasures" parts I and II. These are still for sale here and there. Hardly for sale anywhere as this company did shut down, are the titles from rival game company "Magnetic Scrolls", maker of Fish, Guild of Thieves and Wonderland (a title I remember seeing boxed in a shop display at around eighteen - ah, nostalgia!). This company, which put much effort into its game engine, produced few games compared to Infocom, but they were both more verbose and more surreal. It also used graphics from the start: splash screens and room graphics, although neither were necessary to play the game. What often is necessary to play the game is documentation provided with the game medium. This was an early form of copy protection: games could not be solved without hints or maps from the manual. Especially in the case of Magnetic Scrolls, whose games can, at this time, only be illegally downloaded, bought second-hand or inherited from relatives, this is a bit of a problem and so text adventure afficionados have scanned this documentation, and it can be found online here and there.

What text adventure afficionados have also done: write text adventures themselves! A text adventure can not only be played on almost every computer imaginable, it can be written by anyone who can write adventures and think sequentially. There are various game engines, as the applications are called, for writing text adventures; most of them, as far as I know, free. So are the games made with them, and though they can't be relied on to be as polished and bug-free as professional releases - I gave up playing an adventure called "Castle" because it hung every time I accessed a certain room - they can be as imaginative and, very important to me: as funny, as my grand old favourite Zork.

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