Editorial: Text-Based Adventures

After devoting my last two editorials to modestly-researched pontification on graphic design and resolution in video games from past to present, something occurred to me: a game does not require graphics of any kind to function. Well, unless on-screen text is considered “graphics”. I kept thinking about this over the last week, when my mind was not occupied with thoughts of eggnog and ginger cookies, and when I remembered that our GREAT AND BENEVOLENT MASTER (and Editor-in-chief, also owner, oh, and president) Lusipurr mentioned something recently (or perhaps it was a while back) about books, stories, and words making up the contents of those stories (or did he say the contents of the books?), and those words (or books) single-handedly producing the story without the help of any graphics (which I suppose refers to printed illustrations), it motivated me to do some of the soft research that generally precedes these editorials, and write about the things I read. And I did. And you are reading it.

No, this isn't an invitation to participate in a survey printed at the bottom of a Target receipt. It's a game.
Embark on a journey of imagination, powered by beautiful English words.

I may not be an bonafide expert on graphic design, having acquired what general knowledge I possess from (you guessed it) non-peer-reviewed online resources; but I do know how to read and write in English. The acquisition of this skill may have been the greatest accomplishment of my life, though I receive very little acclaim for it, due to obvious jealousy from those around me. When I am not reading great literary works, I am furiously writing about them, or simply about the things I see around me, or about the strange dreams I have been experiencing of late. The fleeting wisps of memory as the dream-state dissolves into the first rays of sunlight of a fresh winter morn’ must be captured for further analysis, and I have diaries full of such musings. But what does any of this have to do with video games, you may ask? Good question. I happen to speak (and write in) English, and the text-based games to follow are all available in this very language! Yes, if you are able to read this without the aid of online translation, it will be easy to boot up your favorite DOS-powered PC (or use an emulator such as DOSBox if you somehow do not own a functioning AT computer with a 5.25-inch floppy disk drive) and play one of these outstanding (I assume) games!

First we have the granddaddy of them all: Adventure; a text-based adventure game (in case the title did not give the genre away) that was originally released in 1977. While nerds were going to see summer blockbuster Star Wars over and over, even bigger nerds were staying inside to play Adventure. Call it “interactive fiction” if you must, this was text-based gaming like we had never seen it before – because we had not seen it before. Adventure (also known as Colossal Cave Adventure) ushered in the era of typing simple commands at a DOS prompt, and simultaneously losing oneself in the immersion of such an experience. I am being facetious, of course, as we all know (well, those of us, LIKE ME, who know how to read, anyhow) how immersive a book can be, and who would not enjoy being a participant in the Adventure? (Get it? I said adventure, and that is also the name of the game.) Typing a command such as “get thing” or “move left” may not sound as flashy as today’s HD razzmatazz, but it was a different era; an era of IMAGINATION. Perhaps the idea of moving about using only simple words and a lot of patience sounds unappealing in [CURRENT YEAR], but one must tryeth a thing bef’re thee knocketh yond thing, as the saying goeth.

Combining words and pictures on the screen at the same time? Genius.
A scene from the text-based version of The Hobbit.

Next we have The Hobbit, released in 1982. While the plot might be familiar to anyone older than Adeki, this game iterated on the text-based adventure gaming concept (and a fascinating account of its history can be found on this page). In addition to bringing Tolkien’s classic book to life with a large game world complete with numerous NPCs and glorious color images, it used a sophisticated engine called “Inglish” (I see what they did there) that allowed for more natural, imaginative input by parsing full sentences, rather than requiring the rather stilted input of other text-based games. Thus, ordinary, conversational English could be used to interact with the game (a curiosity given the fact that this game was developed in Australia – and we all know how coherent those people tend to be). I will illustrate – using words, of course: Viciously stab Lusipurr in the throat with the dullest knife in your bag. Nice! This aspect of the game alone should convince you to play it, and the game is easily found as “abandonware” on the internet. I shall be installing and playing it soon, if only to recreate the example command above.

The final game I will mention is not a PC title, having been released originally for the obscure Satellaview online add-on system for the Super Famicom in Japan. It is Radical Dreamers. A newcomer to this title might be surprised by its text-based design considering it was released in 1996, and the characters (Serge, Kid, Lynx, etc.), plot elements (they are after something called “the frozen flame”), and music (from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross composer Yasunori Mitsuda) are more than just similar to the later PlayStation title. It just so happens that the developers (including Makoto Shimamoto and Yasuhiko Kamata) of this all-but-forgotten text-based adventure game recreated it for the PlayStation as a sequel/remake (the above-mentioned Chrono Cross). If you are like me (or aspire to be), and enjoy some aspects of Chrono Cross while disliking the battle system, what could be better than an earlier, text-based version of the game featuring a battle system that only requires answering multiple-choice questions? And while it was never officially released outside of Japan, various patches (and at least one patched version of the ROM) exist to allow the game to be played in English (which, as I have mentioned, I know how to read). The game is easily found online, and conveniently plays on SNES emulators.

Sorry, Kid; it turns out what Lynx deserved was a PlayStation remake.
Radical Dreamers combines colorful images with colorful language.

There you have it! The power of reading can not be understated, and if you are among the few and proud to have mastered this mysterious art, the above games will be more than just incomprehensible gibberish; they will be GAMES. And are not games what a website about games (and anime, I am being reminded) is all about? I thought so. Readeth on, sweet princes and princesses of did light’rary arts!

3 comments

  1. Viciously stab Lusipurr in the throat with the dullest knife in your bag.

    Someone is going to be closely monitored by the “Safety and Security Team”.

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