Trying to Understand Appeal of Text Adventures (I Really Am)

So every time I try to figure out “interactive fiction”, I find that people often sell it by touting the interactivity. Okay, fair enough. If I just wanted to read a bunch of text, I’d probably pick up a book. If I just wanted a story that I could engage with visuals, I’d probably go to a movie. Those are the presumably less-interactive options.

So interactivity.

This past weekend I played the F.E.A.R games again. Very linear shooter, much like Half-Life 2. And, yet, while playing there are genuinely creepy moments and some outright jumps. There’s an evolving story as you figure out what Armachem was up to, what Alma has to do with it all, and just whether or not Paxton Fettel (and Alma) are helping me or trying to kill me. I get a visual, auditory, and textual viewpoint of how an evil is spreading and what role I may have to play in that.

I also started playing Mass Effect 2. There I have an evolving story of a threat with a group called the Collectors (who may be working with aliens called the Reapers). I have to assemble a team to take on this threat, all the while not entirely trusting my employer or the people he has me working with (most of whom are mercenaries and thieves). While I don’t trust my employer, he did raise me from the dead so I suppose I have to at least try to work with them. So good dialogue moments, good tension, and lots of building up of my motley crew, learning how to communicate with them so that they’ll help me on what everyone already believes is a suicide mission.

Lots of interactivity, all of which encourages my participation in visual, audio, and reading aspects. And it’s all continuous. Even if nothing immediate is happening on screen (talking to characters, bad guys shooting at me, etc), I can still interact with the world, run around, check out areas, etc. I can hear atmospheric sounds (some of which are really creepy in the F.E.A.R. games). But it’s also constrained: there are limits to the interactivity so that the story does progress and at a fairly decent clip in both games mentioned above.

So then I play “interactive fiction”. (A good comparison with F.E.A.R in some ways is “Slouching Towards Bedlam” or “Babel” – both of which have you learning about events that have already taken place via tapes or memories. In F.E.A.R it’s finding laptops and listening to phone messages.) Anyway: “interactive fiction”. So I read some static text. Then I get a command prompt. I try to type a command. I get a new batch of static text. Maybe an NPC is encountered. I get a menu to list some text items to speak to them about. (Or I have to sit there trying "ASK CREEPY DUDE ABOUT {something} and hope that {something} works.) To get to a location I have to type a bunch of direction commands. Or maybe I can just say "GO TO {room}, which of course makes all the rooms just sort of blur by.

My point here is that it’s all very mechanical. Text adventures can’t help but expose their mechanics at each and every point. The same could be said of any game, of course, but those other games are busy engaging all of your senses in various ways and at various times. Text adventures are like reading a book where I have to turn the page after every paragraph (and where the pages are stapled together in some cases). I notice it most when I find a text adventure game that has what seems to be a really good story. I’m then frustrated that I can’t just keep the story going because the game mechanics keep intruding. Again, wouldn’t any game do that? Yes, but also again, those games are engaging my senses and thus are interactive at various levels without violating a convention. (I.e., I don’t feel like I’m reading a book that just stopped on me until I do something or watching a movie that won’t continue until I say the right thing.)

I don’t see “interactive fiction” as being limited to text games so I still prefer “text adventures” because graphic games ARE fictional worlds that you interact with. “Text adventure” at least makes it clear that the emphasis is on text. And I actually see text games offering much more limited interactivity than other games. They do offer more interactivity than books and movies – but so what? Unless the story is comparable to what I’d read in a book or see in a movie, I don’t see the interactivity being all that much of a value add because it usually means I have to jump through numerous hoops – all the while usually only having one sense engaged. Since it’s purely textual, that means pacing and tension can be more difficult to sustain since you have no idea where the player will get stuck, so sometimes story suffers.

I’m not saying all this to bash text adventures. (I used to love text adventures back in the day. I remember playing Moonmist, Planetfall, Ballyhoo, etc.) But I’m really trying to understand the value add of the interactivity that text adventures bring over other formats since many of the most ardent supporters continually say that the interactivity is what sets text adventures apart.

Maybe a good question is the “elevator speech” you would use to convince someone to try text adventures. “You should totally try text adventures, because you …” <— what?

Can you answer the question of why I should play RPG games rather than first person shooters? It’s the same kind of question, really.

Well, this is part of the reason why I think puzzles often are at war with stories; if your game gets the player stuck (let’s say that a puzzle is something that’s likely to get a player stuck for a little while) then it brings the story to a halt. But I’m not sure this is unique to text adventures; it’s a question of how good you are at dealing with the mechanics. It disrupts my immersion in Cave Story’s story just as much when I have to replay a boss fight for the twentieth time as it disrupts my immersion in Sparrow’s Song when I can’t get past the nymph.* And with IF, at least a well-designed hint system (or failing that a working walkthrough) will get you past the obstruction. In action games, if your reflexes aren’t good enough you’re SOL.

Not that I’m saying that this is an answer to your question, just that other games can do very well at recreating the “watching a movie that stopped on me” feeling.

*Well, in Cave Story I get the hint of a bit of progress and in Sparrow’s Song I don’t. But Sparrow’s Song may be out on the extreme of unclued puzzles.

For me personally, I haven’t player the Fear or Mass Effect games because the gameplay is too difficult for me. (I did try the ME2 demo, and got hopelessly killed quickly.) I do play and enjoy some graphical games, the turn-based nature of text adventures (to use your terminology) and usually slower pace is one of the things that appeal to me. (And should I get stuck - hints and walkthroughs can help.)

Another thing is the parser. I love the idea of the parser, not in a Sleep-is-death kind of way, but the way it exists in current IF systems.

When compared to most hobbyist-created graphical adventure games I like that most IF is less fuelled by nostalgia.

I’m fairly new to the genre, so I’m still getting my bearings straight, but be that as it may, the term interactivity springs two things in mind. The degree the player interacts with his environment, and the way he does so, which for text adventures is in a sense the parser. I’m guessing a common example is that text games are to books what graphical games are to movies, which may not be exactly the case, but has some truth in it.

Having said that, with my limited experience and historical knowledge of the genre, I can’t see the value of a “more/less interactive” argument. Certainly, older text adventure games let you interact with the world in ways that were impossible for graphical games of that era, but nowadays things have changed a lot for graphical games, so that is not necessarily the case.

The way I see it, both text and graphical games have plenty to offer, and without delving any deeper, a couple of the best arguments I could offer someone to convince him to try text adventures have nothing to do with interactivity. One is the part your imagination plays and at the same time(even though at first glance it seems like the opposite) the way that you get a full sense of what the creator/writer wanted you to(for lack of a better description).

True … except that those are questions that get answered regularly by wide audiences that usually talk about the strategy aspects of one versus the immediacy of combat of the others. Both will often be talked about in terms of to what extent they are a bit of both. Mass Effect, for example, is a bit of both shooter and RPG. As is Fallout 3. Combined with story elements, discussions will usually center on how much or how little you want to micromanage aspects of a party, or how much you have to search for items versus just interacting with the world, or the nature of the weapons you can use, etc. People life Half-Life 2 not just because of the story but also because of certain elements, like the gravity gun, giving you a good way to puzzle out solutions to environmental problems. Call of Duty is a good example where people often tout the story but also the cool situational elements, combined with the squad-based mechanics that are getting much better. Even Hitman is like this, where people often bring up the stealth aspects combined with the need to figure out the layout of an environment, ambush your target, get out alive. Deus Ex was another game in that category, although that was much more shooter than not, but you could still choose a wide variety of ways to deal with situations, often having to avoid making sounds that tipped off the enemy you were around.

I never see text adventures discussed in this same context. Maybe they are. I just haven’t seen it. I don’t see the level of interactivity that I just described.

Right, I agree. But in graphical games, you can cue the player in numerous ways. Have a sound near where they should go. (In F.E.A.R, if you get stuck in an area, the ghost of Alma will often appear quickly showing you where you probably want to look. Or lights will flicker indicating something you haven’t looked at. Dead Space was also good at this. Even turn-based RPGs can still have elements going on around you to a certain extent.

The only mechanic that text adventures have is the command prompt: everything is static until the player does something. Not true in other games. Stuff can be going on around you that can observe, either with sound or sight. So, again, the very nature of text adventures limits the options for interactivity as I see it.

This totally makes sense to me. I can easily see how text adventures would cater to a more sedate gaming experience.

Which is interesting because I find text adventure creation to be largely fueled by nostalgia, largely because if I load up a game today (created with the latest and greatest system), I can still see basically the same interface from twenty or more years ago. I still see people worrying about accomodating a z-machine. (I realize that not all of this is truly fueled by nostalgia but to an outsider it can definitely seem that way.) But I concede this is an area where I’m biased.

But books and movies require my imagination as well. Books are the closest parallel to text adventures I guess. So I don’t see “using your imagination” as being all that much of an argument since just about anything can ask you to do that. The “get a full sense of what that creator/writer wanted you to” could apply to books, movies or graphical games. So, again, I’m not seeing an argument that’s really unique or compelling to text adventures.

A poster above did mention the more sedate gaming experience, certainly one that doesn’t require hand/eye coordination to any great degree and usually not too many aspects of timing related challenges. Those at least do suggest text adventures. Another, obviously, is the desire to read text. But, again, it’s the interactivity people often tout: interacting with the world and thus the story. Those interactions tend to be puzzle-based. So I guess that starts to get at the elevator speech.

Having real-time stuff going on in turn based games is very uncanny valley to me, actually, kind of like when the newspaper comic “For Better or For Worse” starting adding blinking eyes to the characters in the online archives. This is why I generally dislike sounds in IF, too.

Anyway, like mattw, I can’t for the life of me make progress in real-time games. The frustration I get from playing the same darn tutorial level repeatedly to try to get to the meat of a platformer or FPS makes those genres a lot less interactive than IF for me, personally.

Hey! I am currently completely and absolutely stuck at the end of Cave Story, thank you very much. (Intermediate ending.) Did get stuck for a long time at four other points, but eventually made it through:

Balfrog, Frenzied ******, Monster X, and the Core/Waterway – that last one was very frustrating because I beat the first part the first time, which I think was supposed to be the hard one, and then kept getting destroyed in the second part, which I think is supposed to be a meditative interlude after something really draining, no pun intended. Part of what crossed me up might be that the control scheme changes for the boss battle.

What kills is me is 3D stuff, at least Lugaru and most Unity-based jumping games. I can’t deal with anything that makes me fight enemies with the keys while I’m fighting the camera with the mouse. I really thought Jonathan Blow whiffed on this point.

Another issue is that real-time games demand all of my attention for a considerable length of time. With IF, I can listen to music while I’m playing, and even switch back and forth between that and other things at my leisure. If I’m playing say Aquaria (or even Don’t Take It Personally or Your Life Flashes), I have to block out time to do just that. Of course here IF is no different from books.

Oh, I should have said, “like matt w but even worse” then. :stuck_out_tongue: I have a hard time even watching 3D games.

Also, oh man I watched my boyfriend attempt that Cave Story ending at least ten times on two separate occasions before I wandered away. He did defeat it after a few more attempts, and then went back in to try for the hard ending just a few days later. He eventually gave up and watched a speed run video. Good luck!

Well, in a way there’s a serious point – if you just can’t play a style of game, you won’t get into it at all; like a novel written in a language you can’t read. But even if you’re moderately competent at the style, or with the basic mechanics, you can still get absolutely stuck. That’s when it’s like a novel where some of the pages are glued together.

Now I don’t want to stand for any side, but RPGs and FPSs are being so recurrently mentioned that I think It’s worth to state just one historical fact: IF’s battle to stay in the video-game market was fought, and lost, more than 20 years ago. If it survives today is, among many other reasons, 'cause its current audience is not exclusively searching for that video-gaming experience. That doesn´t mean IF shouldn’t be considered a ludical, enjoyable affair. In fact, when someone at job has some spare time and asks for something fun to do, I usually mention Violet or Lost Pig provided the person is fluent in written English, no matter wether she is aware of IF at all or not. Unexpectedly my suggest has worked succesfully at least a couple of times!
I could dig deeper into that, but I’ve been acting as an IF author recently so my point of view is clearly biased and I don’t want to distort this thread.
Just remember all of you, to make your focus clearer, that, interactivity or not, it’s not about video-games anymore. :slight_smile:

Well, I don’t see adventure games in general discussed in this context. Why should anyone play Syberia, Monkey Island or The Longest Journey instead of Half Life? Because of the differences in the way you handle your weapons, battle tactics and armor?

Answer that question first. Then you can go on and ask the question of why someone should play Lost Pig instead of Monkey Island. And why “instead”? Can’t someone play both?

I missed this before, but this is not my point. In real-time games, you can know exactly what to do and still be stuck, because you can’t do it, because you’re not good at dealing with the mechanics. That doesn’t (usually?) come up in text games, where there isn’t a separation between the mechanics and knowing what to do. (Well, sometimes you know what to do and can’t guess the verb

The question of getting stuck with the mechanics seems to me separate from the question of having ambient happenings versus pausing for the command prompt. When I’m in the groove in IF, the command prompt doesn’t register much more than I consciously register turning pages in an absorbing book.

These discussions happen all the time on gaming forums. For Monkey Island, the focus is usually on the fact that you can’t really die and the humor elements (such as the insulting contests). The graphical ways that Guybrush Threepwood acts during certain scenes, especially when trying something dangerous are often brought up. The Longest Journey (and Dreamfall) are usually because of the visuals that are combined with the story, as well as how it’s also somewhat difficult to get stuck. Dreamfall over Longest Journey usually has to do with the fact that you can roam more freely and the addition of combat (but that isn’t too hard). Syberia is usually talked about in the context of its visuals and the relatively unique setting and puzzles that use the setting as triggers. So there are very clear reasons given to tell someone what game they might prefer based on their preferences (or at least try if they don’t know their preferences yet).

Sure they can. But people often make choices at least for a time. And for the vast majority of gamers, text adventures are the last choice. I realize that’s not the case with this crowd but that stands to reason since I’m posting on a forum for people who like to play text adventures.

I’m actually more surprised that people who are clearly passionate about text adventures can’t actually come up with a simple, concise statement of why someone should give it a try.

To game designers it’s not necessarily separate. Take Mass Effect. If you don’t do certain actions – like if you just stand there – the game will prompt you about moves you might take. It doesn’t have to wait for a command. It notices that I might be stuck. (If I turn off tutorial mode, that doesn’t happen, of course.) It’s not even “getting stuck” with mechanics. It’s about the mechanics not having a flow. I already mentioned how F.E.A.R does this. Granted, though, much of this has to do with how the game author utilizies the mechanics in order to provide an experience. It just seems that in text adventures the game author has very few chances to modify the mechanics or allow for a variety of interactivity options (which, again, is what text adventures are often touted for: their interactivity).

Except perhaps where there’s inconsistent or absent cluing and you have to type in ranges of commands to see what works. Or perhaps navigating all over the place, seeing what you might have missed. And then making sure to reread the static text in case the author sometimes changes the room description. (It’d be like each page of a book recapping the setting for a scene just in case you forgot from page to page.)

But you definitely sound like you have value adds that you see in text adventures. So what would your hypothetical elevator speech be? I’m genuinely curious. “Hey, if you’re looking for a neat gaming experience, try text adventures because …” <-- what?

So what are they searching for? What makes text adventures that unique “other” gaming experience. Clearly the fact that it’s all text based is a driver of the unique gaming experience. Lack of graphics (often) and lack of sound (often). Lack of the need for manual dexterity or hand/eye coordination. Lack of concern for timed solutions (usually but not always). Emphasis on using imagination similar to how you would do so with a book: i.e., you have to picture scenes and characters in your mind rather than having them visually in front of you.

I guess I feel like I’m answering my own question but it also seems like (a) most people who want the imagination route could get that through a book so (b) it’s the act of controlling the player character that makes the difference. You can do that in just about every game, of course, which then seems to come back to how you can control the protagonist that would make the difference; i.e., the level of interactivity afforded by the agency you allow the player. And, again, I don’t see where text adventures provide more of that. Others have said “maybe it’s not more or less” but, as you said, the battle was lost for text adventures – at least in a mainstream format – many years ago. So perhaps for many people it does come down to “more or less” and the notion that text adventures are too much like a book but with extra “complications” and not enough like other game formats, so people by and large (a) choose a book or (b) choose other game formats.

What is it about then? I don’t know what you mean here.

The same holds true for an IF game. There’s setting, humor, not getting stuck, visuals, sound… Of course, the number of truly polished text adventures (with graphics and sound and whatnot) is extremely limited these days. I myself don’t like 100% text IF that much. They simply seem to be lacking something vital. It’s bearable with short games. But for a longer work of IF without any graphics and sound, nah. It gets quite boring after a while.

Here goes: “Because you might like it.”