Sponsored By

In-depth: Is it time for a text game revival?

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander examines why text-based games and interactive storytelling could be primed for a comeback, catching up with interactive fiction designer Emily Short to talk new opportunities for the form.

Leigh Alexander

May 11, 2012

9 Min Read

For years, the traditional publishing industry has been telling us that nobody wants story-driven adventures or game forms oriented around interactive storytelling. But the Kickstarter age has been showing us something a little bit different, amid successful fundraising for developers of renowned adventure games of yore. But there's more than just nostalgia contributing to a potential revival for interactive stories. A broader gaming audience means appetites for game forms we might have once called "casual" in another time -- and furthermore, the popularity of tablets and e-readers means there's a real appetite for game forms that take advantage of a culture now habituated to reading on luminous screens in ways prior generations were widely not. In a market where books and games are close rivals for the most popular category on app stores, what happens when today's new gamers are hungry for something more than word puzzles? Text gaming: Back to the roots Of course, interaction via simple text commands was how video games were born -- it used to be that supporting graphics was an impossibility. Early designers would add graphics as soon as it became feasible, but before that they were forced to get creative, sketching tactile universes only from words that glowed pale green against dark monitors. To be a good game designer, you had to be a good writer. Serious players were folks who liked the surreal dialogue that could take place between the writer of a game and themselves; many even liked the absurdist frustration of learning a puzzle that could be solved simply by using the word "take" instead of "get." colossal cave adventure main.png I can't count how many games I've played since I was a child, but nothing can ever quite substitute for my long young days and years spent with Will Crowther's Colossal Cave Adventure, the widely-known "granddaddy" of text games -- mapping mazes, crawling quilted bedrock and chasing hollow voices into impossible crevices. The game industry has spent most of its time since then marching hungrily toward ever-expanding technological horizons, taking every wild leap it could across the gulfs that spanned play and the real world -- sometimes without consideration to whether better graphics or higher fidelity were necessary, whether they served. Often, simpler and more abstract modes of interaction fell by the wayside. The adventure games of the '80s and '90s, pioneered by Sierra and LucasArts, held to spines of witty, playful writing as core to the experience even as they relied on expansive, brightly-colored worlds and their litanies of objects and tools. The result was experiences strongly impressed with the voice and identities of their creators, so that players still valued games because of descriptive humorists and fun character writers above anything else. That's probably why renowned and well-remembered folks like Tim Schafer, Jane Jensen, Al Lowe and the Two Guys From Andromeda have such opportunity today to revisit the style of game in which they excelled. But even more primordial modes of storytelling in games -- including those that rely on text primarily -- are making something of a comeback too, thanks to the diverse mobile climate and a new wave of appreciation for storytelling and adventure. An appetite for wordplay and the "lean-back" game Actually, the text-only game has never wholly disappeared. All the while a close-knit group of interactive fiction writers and designers have kept the form alive through community, tools and annual competitions. That means its veteran leaders are well-positioned to lead as the IF space takes its own share of today's new opportunities -- in 2010, well before Double Fine Adventure, Andrew Plotkin asked for $8,000 through Kickstarter to fund Hadean Lands, an interactive fiction game for the iPhone. He got over $30,000, validating his stated curiosity about whether anyone would actually pay him to make the text games his fans had loved for so many years. hadean lands.jpg Writer and designer Emily Short is also a longtime leader of the IF community, and much of her work has focused on creating plausible interactions among characters in interactive fiction experiences. Her company, Little Text People, was recently acquired by Second Life creator Linden Lab, and her current project underway at the studio is an AI-driven interactive storytelling experience backed by the sophisticated social simulation engine she presented during GDC this year. She agrees that her field is uniquely positioned for a blossoming. "With the rise of tablets, we've got a form factor that's really comfortable for reading, and for interacting with things with high-intensity graphics," she tells Gamasutra. Instead of designing for the lean-forward, action-oriented living room experience consoles brought to the home television screen, tablets' popularity means there are all kinds of opportunities to design an experience for somebody sitting back on a sofa, casually reading. Playing with books, too "There's also an increased interest from people in the publishing industry in looking at what they can do with books that really takes advantage of the ebook form," Short continues. She's heard from people in traditional publishing who are intrigued by what interactivity and new tech can continue adding to books. For example, Penguin Group has published an App Store version of Chopsticks, a teen romance story by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral. The app edition provides an alternate take on the paperback story that lets players interact with artifacts from the characters' lives and explore the narrative through visuals and tactile interaction. chopsticks.jpg Many have experimented with augmenting novels with other digital media content, or with creating choose-your-own-adventure type experiences, "but a lot of publishers are aware there's more they could be doing," Short says. "What are the possibilities of interactive storytelling that go beyond?" "Obviously I'm bringing my own biases to this, because this is what I've always wanted to see, but I think there is an increased interest in some of the kinds of stories and interaction that are more challenging to do in traditional game formats," Short continues. Gamers are hungry for deeper characterization and worlds to which they can truly attach, and text can be a way to illuminate inner worlds, thought processes or other elements that aren't easily demonstrated by imagery. "The approach that we're taking tries to leverage people's familiarity with books to make it feel like something they already understand," Short says of Little Text People's project. "We're doing something that is very unusual in terms of game formats; you understand how to read a story, and here's a page -- but things are being added to that page." In terms of demographics, Short hopes that interactive stories will attract the same kind of "relaxed attention" audiences that are drawn to simple touch-based games like Angry Birds. "I enjoy playing console games, but there are certainly times where if I've had a draining or busy day, the last thing I want to do is sit down and play an FPS that is going to be adrenaline-fueled and anxious." "What do you get from a game if you want it to be low-commitment?" poses Short. "There's more of that spectrum we could explore... what do games look like when you want something that gives you the kind of relaxation that a chapter of a book would give you? You want something where you feel like you're retaining some kind of gained value you don't necessarily get from playing one more round of Tetris." Where interactive stories fit It's also a cultural climate where audiences are increasingly used to thinking of books as media companions -- popular film series like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games, or TV series like Game of Thrones, all feel richer to fans if they read the books as well as enjoy the films. Designers of text-based games can take advantage of that familiarity to bring audiences into worlds they can read and participate in. Not every fan would want to create fan art or fan fiction or do cosplay (though thousands do!), but it's clear people very much want to interact with things they read, or to access written content in new ways. "There's always been a desire, when you read a book that you really like, to remain in the setting, and to remain engaged with it," she suggests. "You put the book down, and somehow wish that world could go on... so I do see that as an opportunity. I see that as a place where i want people to re-engage." At the same time, Short says she can't help but look at things from the perspecive of her "previous life" as a classics professor: "I feel a lot of the things people are doing now actually have really profound roots in human nature," she says. "The whole idea that a story is a kind of intellectual property and only counts the first time you tell it, and that it's cheating to repurpose someone else's story, to retell it, is... not the way people conceived of these things in the ancient world." Through interactivity, participation and game design, today's stories can gain the complex permanence of mythology, where players can explore narratives as multidimensional things -- for example, the same series of events from the perspective of multiple characters, or where the villains are now the heroes. "I know there are a lot of people obsessed with the cult of the author, but I think there is something that is not anti-literature about having people take a story that they really care about and play with it," she reflects. Past the parser: into the modern climate The tech with which Short and her team are currently working determines possible affordances within a situation, but doesn't actually ask for text input -- one thing the new generation of gamers might not easily hurdle is a persnickety parser, even an up-to-date one. "There's sort of a design issue we've had to take from the parser world into the world of selected choices," Short explains. "The thing the parser gives you is on one hand, there's the possibility of tremendous player frustration." "But what goes with this is the possibility of making a leap on your own as a player, of realizing the game wasn't holding my hand," she adds. "I didn't get told to 'press the X button' -- I thought of a possibility on my own and then I executed it." "For me, that's a lot of the appeal of especially the classic text adventures: the process of realizing you live in a world with a tremendous and unbounded number of verbs," she continues. "As an author, the challenge is always to figure out how to communicate with the player... without spoiling that sense of mystery." [Colossal Cave Adventure image source]

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like