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

I’m not sure Mass Effect and Dragon Age are such good examples of games where you have to make decisions quickly, given that at any time, you can freeze the world to look around, target enemies, issue commands to party members, look through your inventory, etc. If you don’t do it that way, it becomes virtually unplayable, as your party members die within seconds of the start of combat. All the recent BioWare games are like this. Your choices are to play them as essentially turn-based games (except you decide when the “turns” happen and the AI fills in the gaps between them) or to crank down the difficulty such that you can just button-mash your way through them and not worry about actually making any important decisions.

Far Cry 2 is a bit more interesting as an example, but I’m not sure how relevant it is considering that what it tries to do is so completely different from what IF generally tries to do. Far Cry 2 does a pretty good job of modeling a realistic world, but the only things you can do in the game are basically running around and shooting guys. IF tends to model worlds in very abstract ways, but simulate a much wider variety of things that can happen in them.

Going back to the original question, that’s what interesting to me about IF as a gaming medium. In a modern 3D game, every additional element that you want to add requires a huge investment of resources. For every object or location, you’ve got to have a 3D model, textures, lighting, etc.; for every character you’ve got to have those things plus a voice actor, a set of animations, etc. Say you want the player to go to another planet; somebody has to design and model and paint that planet and populate it with architecture, people, and whatever else. If you want the player to be able to ride a motorcycle, you have to set up a new control scheme, animations, maybe a whole physics model. In IF, if you want the player to visit another planet, all you have to do is write a description of that planet; if you want the player to ride a motorcycle, you can just say he’s on a motorcycle. (This is a little bit of an oversimplification; obviously you still need to come up with interactions to make those situations interesting, but the amount of actual assets that need to be created is drastically reduced.) In a big-budget 3D game, it takes such a commitment of time and resources every time you add a new system that those games tend to end up being the player doing essentially the same things with slightly different window-dressing over and over again.

(There’s also the simple issue of controls – in the example mentioned before of an FPS implementing a scene of going downstairs and making breakfast, how does the player know how to open a cabinet, pick up a bowl, tear open the cereal packet, use a spoon, etc.? It’s not practical to assign a button/keypress to every possible action, so those would all probably end up being context-sensitive, which tends to feel like you’re not making any decisions, but just pressing buttons to advance through a scripted sequence.)

And, of course, there are some things you can do with text that just wouldn’t make any sense in any other medium. Games like Nord and Bert, Ad Verbum, or Earl Grey are good examples of this.

I also like that IF is narrated because it allows for deeper characterization. Everything you’re experiencing in the game is coming through the filter of a narrator or the player character him/herself, so there’s room to convey a lot of information through the way you tell the player about what’s happening. In graphical games the presentation is usually pretty objective and you can take it for granted that what you’re seeing on screen is an accurate representation of what’s happening. IF allows for an unreliable narrator or lets the author more easily pick and choose what the player gets to know about and what’s important to take notice of.

Not every IF game takes advantages of all those things, of course, but they can if they want to, and that’s the appeal of text adventures to me. But if you don’t like them, I don’t think anyone else’s reasons for liking them are going to change your mind.

I do think that’s is a little unfair. The independent game scene is thriving right now, moreso than in the past couple of decades at least. There are many, many well-received games out there that don’t fit that description at all.

And as graphical adventures, they don’t have the sort of interactivity you’ve been talking about, do they? When you say:

you’re talking about interacting with the environment in ways that (I’m pretty sure) you can’t in point-and-clicks. I mean, “graphical adventures” are so-called because they ultimately derive from Colossal Cave Adventure. And as RealNC (I think) pointed out, graphical adventure fans and text adventure fans talk about basically the same things when they talk about why they like certain games rather than other games. (Well, graphical adventure fans are more likely to talk about the quality of the art and text adventure fans are more likely to talk about the quality of the writing.)

And I do find many graphical adventures appealing for the same reason that I find many text adventures appealing – that they’re not just about blowing things up – but text is more flexible, or at least flexible in different ways. The narrative frame of Spider and Web, the free-flowing conversation of Galatea, the games with the commentary and interface in the opening of Rover’s Day Out; none of those are things that would translate well into point-and-clicks, I think.

I like IF because your possible interactions are unknown, to a greater level than any other game genre I know. When you know IF’s conventions, and are playing an IF work whose craft approaches perfection, the illusion of being able to enter any input feels very solid.

There are therefore two big problems IF faces: helping people become familiar with our conventions, and filtering out all the works whose crafting sucks.

Hmm. I think I have an answer to the original question of why one should play IF. Look at all modern high-profile games. Next, look at past high-profile games. One has to notice that (non-adventure) games in the past were just gameplay without much story. Doom, Quake, Super Mario, Lemmings, you name it. Slowly but surely, story was put into almost every game, to the point of FPS games like Half-Life and Doom3/Quake4 having story/plot as a vital element. Heck, even motor-racing games today have story.

So, why should one play IF? Because you’re not just playing a game with a story. You are playing the story itself :wink: Once the story becomes its own entity, it gets separated from the limitations of the game’s mechanics. It has not limits to the choices it can offer. In an FPS, the story can offer choices involving shooting things. In IF, you can shoot things, talk to people, blow up the universe, become God, unite quantum mechanics with general relativity, or whatever else anybody anywhere can imagine. If that isn’t powerful, then what is?

I notice that the ASK/ABOUT interface was mentioned rather prominently in your accompanying litany of onerous text adventure mechanics. IMO, aside from being forced to make maps, which is properly out of fashion, I think ASK/ABOUT is the worst interface convention to have become standard in IF. Story games tend to have a lot of ASKing ABOUT these days, and an exploding set of dialogue tree choices that will absorb all of your time using characters as if they are dictionaries, which is not really a very interactive-feeling experience, and typically completely kills any momentum in the plot.

But make no mistake: the ASK/ABOUT interface is not necessary to the IF form; it was extremely uncommon in the original popular, commercial run of text adventures (having been wisely confined back then mostly to the mystery games like Deadline). It has developed merely by convention and there are other ways to solve the problem that it solves that are much less tedious to play through but require you to be more creative about how you work conversation and personality into the story.

In fact, the best non-player characters in IF who achieve ‘personality’ most elegantly are consistently those that you can’t ASK anything useful ABOUT. Classic example: Floyd the robot from Planetfall. Modern example: the pig from Lost Pig. With these examples in play and highly acclaimed, I don’t really totally get why people keep choosing to go the ASK/ABOUT route. Possibly because it’s standardised and the tools are there (it’s easier to program an ASK/TELL interface than it is to actually play through most of them). Whereas, to go the other way takes more of a dual exertion of creativity of both the mechanical and literary kinds (as opposed to the literary-only exertion of writing reams of ASK/ABOUTs to fill in your backstory).

Besides that partial agreement about the negatives of the current crop of text-games IF, I would only like to point out that almost every modern game exposes it’s ‘mechanic’ and whether you find it ‘mechanical’ depends entirely on your point of view. You personally have been unable to internalise the command parser interface and take it ‘as read’ or ‘in stride’ so it feels ‘exposed’. I don’t have that problem: the command parser interface is in my blood, so it does not feel mechanical to me at all. On the other hand clicking those ‘action wheels’ that come up in graphic games, including the Mass Effects, feels more mechanical than a command parser to me because concepts and abstract things are being given physical-looking iconic representations on the screen (i.e. ‘talking’, ‘fighting’ etc.) which makes the options feel very mechanically exposed and therefore clearly more limited to me. It’s not that I don’t like the action wheels; it’s just that I am very aware of them as an exposed mechanic and wish the interface could be less in-my-face with its annoyingly fisher-price-like love of pearly-looking buttons as if making a button look cool has anything to do with a story.

Also, since I’m a programmer I can kind of ‘see behind’ the interface and easily detect how little actual interactivity is going on, i.e. how narrow my story options really are compared to how wide the program wants me to believe they are. I played Mass Effect #1 and I can tell you that it does not rate very highly on this ‘how truly interactive is the interactivity’ front. I’ve heard ME2 is better, but I doubt it’s THAT much better that I am suddenly not going to be able to perceive that I basically have no meaningful choices besides superficial ‘space dungeon crawl’ choices (the order in which I kill baddies) for the vast majority of the game, even though I am listening through tons of pages of dialogue trees. (You see, graphical games have their own problem with ASK ABOUT-style conversations, they are always packing players with long dialogue trees that don’t lead anywhere with any narrative juice and just bog down the storyline. How mechanical is a dialogue tree as a way of telling a conversation story? Think about it. You have internalised it but it’s actually quite awkward. The problem doesn’t stem from graphics or text. The problem stems from the relationship between character and complexity, and how the problem gets solved often from the wrong perspective – from the perspective of information delivery and systems architecture, rather than from the perspective of storytelling include suspense, pacing, satisfaction, etc.)

Your mileage obviously varies but many of the things you criticise are just as bad or worse in modern ‘story-based’ games; you just have not yet removed the modern veil of blind spots from your eyes, but you will soon enough, the more you think about these issues from a design perspective. 8)


P.S. I don’t think you’re trolling.

Good design is what gamers respond to. I don’t assume “current game design” is somehow good design except insofar as people I would want to reach also seem to think it’s good enough design.

I agree that the game industry is targeted around the maximization of profit but that also leads to games that have some modicum of story. (Witness the lack of fanfare over the arrival of “Duke Nukem: Forever” with its paltry story and really out-of-date characterizations.) Games that are selling are also those that – at least in many cases – do provide compelling gameplay, a compelling story, or both.

Your characterization of “16 year old teenagers” is a typical mischaracterization particularly since even a little research would show the vast majority of the gaming audience is not 16 year old teenagers.

I’ve played both games and I don’t tend to pause the games for combat and I don’t “die within seconds.” Nor do many gamers, by all accounts. Where the story-element pauses come in – and which is much more relevant – is the dialogue options. You’re not forced to make a decision quickly about what to say. And I do think that’s a detriment because it doesn’t allow you to react as you would most likely react as that type of persona. You can sit there and hem and haw over what dialogue choice you should take and what the likely ramifications of that are.

Agreed. Except in many cases all that modeling or simulation is not really relevant to progressing the story or the game. A lot of it is just for atmosphere. I’m not discounting atmosphere but my point here is that all that ability to model a world to a certain level of conciseness does not necessarily lead to a better experience. It can, but it doesn’t have to. A lot of times when I’m forced to do something that doesn’t really propel the story, I’m turned off. (Since I brought up Mass Effect games, I’ll say a big turn off for me was the roving around in the Mako. This was great modeling, I guess. Great simulation of driving around a really big world. But it was boring. And tedious. And they – correctly – dropped it all in the second game.)

But sometimes the “big-budget” aspects make up for the window-dressing. After all, people do respond to those types of gaming experiences. Can the same be said for text adventures? Maybe so. I’m not saying text games are not capable of this, but the gaming audience has, by and large, decided one way rather than the other. (One of the biggest complaints about Mass Effect, for example, was the amount of text that needed to be read.)

I don’t know that saying text adventures are so much simpler to produce is really a compelling argument if only because it says nothing to quality. In fact, given that text adventures are so much simpler to produce, I would expect really high quality in the aspects that it provides: the mechanics, the parser, and, above all, the story (i.e., the level of writing that I have to read since it’s all pretty much text based).

I can’t speak to the latter two – I will look them up – but I can speak to “Nord and Bert.” There are graphical games, including many for kids, that do use various forms of word play as part of the gaming. Many LeapFrog games do this. The graphical nature of the games does not mean they can’t use textual words in some cases. On the other hand, I do agree that something like “Nord and Bert” could be a great way to get kids to look at situations that force them to consider words and how they are used. But many gamers are not going to be interested in that.

Which works well if you have a good writer. Which goes back to what I said way before. It seems text adventures really shine when you have a good author writing the text, one who is skilled in the ability to tell a good story, who knows how to do good characterization, etc.

Good argument. But see the F.E.A.R games which constantly play on what’s really there and what’s not. Hallways expand all the sudden and then you’re somewhere else. Someone you were talking to dissolves in front of you. The thing you were shooting at turns out to be ten feet closer to you than expected: literally in one second.

I do agree this is an area that graphical games could explore more. Alpha Protocol does a fairly good job of this, in terms of not really knowing what’s going on. Good argument, though. Again this really puts the emphasis on the authoring skills.

It still really comes down to this for me: why does text adventure development seem to attract many non-authors? Witness many posts in the forum for Inform 7 for example, where the posters apparently don’t believe in full sentences, periods, or the need to capitalize. Witness those who can’t even ask a question in a way that allows people to reliably answer it. These are the writers that Inform 7 at least is attracting. I’m not saying that’s the case across the board. But text adventures seem to have this appeal that “Hey, I can’t program. I can’t do graphics. I don’t know if I want to write a book and I don’t even know if I can. I sure as hell I know I can’t do graphics or sound all that well. But you know what? I bet I can write a text adventure?”

That’s really part of what prompted me to start this discussion. It just seems like text adventures seem to attract people who feel they “can’t do other things but here’s finally something they can do” and then text adventures, at least in my mind, start to become the lowest common denominator of a storytelling or gaming experience.

I can see the points you and others have made. So, again, I guess I’m wondering. Why isn’t the text adventure attracing more game authors, particularly those who have studied game design? Why isn’t the text adventure arena attracing more authors? I mentioned those companies Malinche and TextFyre. I don’t know if there’s an attempt to attract known names in the gaming or novel arenas. If not, why not? Couldn’t such people help make text adventures even more exciting? Propel the medium in new ways? Or is that not a desire? But if that’s not a desire, why come out with such an extensive and impressive system like Inform 7? Why have such impressive languages like TADS 3? Why have new versions of ADRIFT and Quest? Clearly people take this stuff seriously but given the current audience, it’s hard to see why (at least for me).

You have to be careful that you don’t wind up concluding that Dan Brown is a good writer, here. (Leaving aside the question of who “gamers” are and whether they’re the people IF authors should be trying to cater to.)

My guess would be because there’s no money in it. People write and play IF for the love of the medium. There are quirky things you can do in IF that you can’t do in graphical games (SUTWIN and Violet) and which wouldn’t make sense in a graphical medium, but are great fun as IF.

I’m sure there are people who have studied game design and who write IF. I don’t know enough about game design to know whether the same people who write the stories and the scripts are the same people who implement them into the environment.

As an experiment, I sat all three of my kids down in front of IF. Gave them the basic run-down of how to play (as they yawned and squinted at the screen) and looked for their reaction. They range in age from 10-13. After they’d had all they could stand, the oldest went back to playing Prototype, the middle child went back to Facebook and the youngest went back to his DS. But they all love to read. But when they’re reading, they don’t want to be challenged by their book. They just want it fed to them. When they’re playing video games, they want to be as visually immersed as possible.

Lack of multiplayer could have something to do with it also. Not being able to frag or pwn ones friends, or scream obscenities into a headset like Sam Kinison on a bender, could be a turn-off. Not that I don’t frequently scream at my computer in just such a fashion.

I think it’s just a different crowd and different demographic. IF isn’t a mainstream medium. I don’t think it’s trying to be. If there’s a company out there advertising something like “Come try our newest Interactive Fiction for a gaming experience like you’ve never had before”, I think it’s only because that’s better marketing hype than “Come try our newest Interactive Fiction if you’re over 30, are a nostalgia buff or of a peculiar, singular temperament.” (Not saying everyone who plays IF meets any of those criteria.)

To do an adventure in Inform7 and similar IF programming systems, you both have to know how to program and in the same moment write a story. Anyone who doesn’t care will soon be pulled to the abyss of ugly code and mysterious errors in game logic. Inform7 is far away from a situation where anyone could point’n’click together an adventure game like an MS access database query. Maybe we are lucky in that.

But in general, where’s your point? There are still far more far worse games made by “professionals” out there. Some have near unuseable controls, some a far to steep learning curve, some lack game logic if their gameplay idea makes sense at all. You can be sure those games have excellent graphics and sound and even better artwork on the packaging, if that’s not enough then sex will sell and so on. People just have to buy it, the graphic and sound designers were expensive. Marketing will condition you the way you want to buy it.

So the crap is everywhere. Why should IF be a crap-free zone? Even if there have to be 100 IF pieces where only one of them is excellent, you are neither required to buy all the crap nor to play it.

I’m still trying to figure that out. “Why play IF”. Well, why play any kind of game?

This is a complete tangent, but if you can get through that awful Benezia fight in real-time, then my hat is off to you. It’s possible I just suck at games, but for me, pausing all the time is the only way to make it any fun at all.

Simpler to produce doesn’t mean it’s any easier to make it good. You still have to have talent; it’s just a lower initial barrier of entry. Since you don’t need an art or sound department or any tools beyond the compiler, it’s easy for some guy to see a text adventure and think “I could do that.” With Inform 7, it’s not difficult to write something that at least compiles and runs and resembles a game, whereas with a lot of other types of development, Joe Shmoe is likely to give up before ever getting to that point. (As has been pointed out, though, that crummy, amateurish games are certainly not exclusive to text adventures; just take a look at 90% of the iPhone or XBLIG marketplace for proof of that.)

At the same time, more experienced designers who would be great at making text adventures are probably pursuing making graphical games instead, since that’s the more glamorous and lucrative thing to do. No matter how well written a text adventure is, it’s never going to attract attention the way a pretty screenshot will. If you want your game to be played by as many people as possible (which presumably most authors do), it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to make it a text adventure unless you have a mechanic or story that won’t work in any other medium, or you just like text adventures. I think plenty of people in this thread have given good reasons for that to be a valid opinion, even if other types of games are occasionally capable of doing similar things.

I’m under 30 and don’t have any real nostalgia for text adventures (I played one or two as a child but was never super into them); I grew up playing consoles and that’s still how I do the majority of my gaming. But they interest me now because I think they have a lot of potential for experiences and subject matter that other types of games either can’t or just generally aren’t interested in providing.

I also agree that it doesn’t seem like this discussion is going anywhere.

I can’t fathom trying to play Mass Effect without pausing, at least to give orders to your companions.

I enjoyed the first game immensely (though I haven’t played the second), but the conversations did turn into a Choose Your Own Conversation sort of deal and that could be somewhat tedious. Adding graphics and decent voice acting didn’t make it inherently any more entertaining, less artificial, or more interactive than a well-implemented ask/about.

I’m hitting the 1/3 century mark this month. I never played text adventures prior to October 2010, but they account for a good bit of my meager personal hobby time now, between actually playing them, reading about them, and trying to learn to implement them. If they remain a niche market, I can live with that; the appeal is not universal. If they magically explode into popularity again someday, I can be elitist and go around telling people how much cooler they were before they went mainstream.

Make a system so easy to use that an idiot can use it, an idiot will. Sad, but true.

One of the reasons ADRIFT has got so much stick over the years is because it’s so easy to use, almost anyone can use it. It lulls you into falsely believing that just because it’s easy to write a game, it’s easy to write a good game. No, it isn’t. It’s hard to write a good good in any system period. It’s just that the easier to use the system is to get to grips with, the more likely it is to attract the sort of people who don’t have either the will or the skill to learn a more difficult system.

It’s interesting to see that kind of thing beginning to filter into Inform 7 now there’s another system out there that can be mastered (to a degree) by someone who couldn’t program his way out of a virtual paper bag.

As for the appeal of text adventures for me:

As a player, I just find them interesting. I played no end of them as a kid and grew up lamenting the fact that the bottom had dropped out of the market. Imagine my delight upon discovering a whole thriving text adventure community on the internet, albeit the commercial side still seems to be largely kaput.

As a writer, they appeal to me because they’re something I can do myself. In theory, I could write the best damn IF game ever written all on my lonesome; I certainly couldn’t do that if I was to write a FPS or an MMO or what have you. I’d have to work as part of a team and the writing process would be more akin to a job than a hobby. IF can be written by anyone. That’s the appeal for me.

For a long, long time I played nothing but graphical adventures. They gave me what I wanted - a good story, good puzzles, good characters (apart from the games with bad stories/puzzles/characters, of course), not to mention a very pleasing feeling of immersion in the story. Text adventures I fiddled with, but kept going back to graphical adventures because they were what I wanted to experience. Occasionaly I’d play a good RPG or cave crawl just for the heck of it.

The first non-adventure game I really REALLY played (with the exception of all the platformers of my youth such as Sonic, Mario, and the odd-genre game here and there, all casual stuff) was System Shock. It was then that I belatedly realized that different genres can still convey exactly the sort of thing I want to experience - wrapped up in a new package.

Today I’m as likely to appreciate Syberia as Deus Ex, and my games-to-play list includes stuff like Rayman, Silent Hill, replaying all my Gabriel Knight games, and of course my huge collection of IF. If I feel like a multimedia story, I’ll boot up a graphical adventure, like when I recently finished Back to the Future. If I feel like shooting and jumping I’ll boot up maybe Tomb Raider or Soul Reaver, or American McGee’s Alice 2.

All these games stimulate visual and auditory senses in a very immediate way, using them to achieve their goal. But for the times when I want all those things with a different kind of stimulation - in a sense, for the times when I’d rather read a good book than watch a good film - I play IF.

This thread has covered some very interesting points, but ultimately the answer to the original question is as subjective as ever.

Incidently - I’ve bought both Textfyre games and intend to keep buying them. And try playing Howard Sherman’s games from the archive before investing into Malinche.

You don’t have to know how to write a story in the sense of being a good storyteller. I’ve played many text adventures where the story was pretty lame. IFDB reviews indicate many such games. You do have to know how to program to an extent, I agree. But just the act of writing a text adventure does not make you a writer or even a good storyteller. It just makes you someone who can put words together in the context of a game.

The same argument applies to other games, I’ll grant. Just writing a graphical games doesn’t mean you write a good one or one with a good story. So this to me is a bit of a null point. I do agree that since text adventures are all about the text reading experience, it would really help if you were a good writer and could do things that good writers do. But I don’t see anything in text adventures that necessarily demands this. There’s a certain level of skill to write graphical games. There’s a certain level of skill to adding effective audio to games. You have to have those skills before you even come in otherwise you can’t get started. With text adventures there’s no bare minimum of skill you necessarily need. Which could be an argument in its favor from an authoring perspective. But somehow it doesn’t feel like a good argument.

That’s true. And the competition of other games usually sinks those sub-standard games fairly quickly. And even if it doesn’t, at least those games are getting played by a wide audience and game designers and makers are learning what does and doesn’t work by constant refinement based on seeing what does and doesn’t work. I don’t think that’s quite the same for text adventures. Even with the understanding that it’s a more limited audience, I don’t really see the impetus for text adventures to improve all that much beyond what they are.

Never said it should.

Many gamers answer this all the time. For the type of experience they get while playing games with certain elements.

Through this thread, I’ve heard a few of the elements that people who like text adventures consider important. It’s just very defocused and it’s like pulling teeth to get it. (Ask a similar question to mine in other game forums and you rarely have trouble getting to an elevator speech really quick.)

So I was really trying to understand what kind of experience players of text adventures are getting that they clearly find satisfying that the vast majority of gamers out there aren’t seeing.

People keep couching it in the terms of “more glamorous” or “more lucrative.” But a lot of people are doing it largely for the fact that such games are what people respond to. And authors (whether of books, films, or games) tend to go where the audiences are, regardless of possibly glamorous or lucrative aspects. If you go to the former (where the audience is), the latter two tend to follow to some extent.

For me, it was useful. It showed me how people think. I don’t see how any discussion like that can be considered going nowhere. It’s part of how a community is introspective about its passion.

Following your argument, I cannot make a graphical game featuring ? and ! as the protagonists and # as the walls of a maze, with audio effects from Ctrl+G. That’s a pity, because I’ve done it ~27 years ago. I haven’t needed serious skills in graphic nor sound to do it, just an idea what the story of ? and ! should be and some programming skills to implement it. Still it was clearly a graphical game with sound effects. Plus, the game wasn’t crap but actually fun for a while.

EDIT: Reading your latest argument again, I too agree this discussion is going nowhere. And you don’t get “how people think”. This is because you circle around the abstraction needed to understand how games work and why without ever getting nearer to it. What is “how people think” here. Anyway, it’s no fun to argue with you, so I just leave this game and don’t care that it’s over. There is not even a highscore list for it. LAME! :angry:

As I think on it, I guess this sums it up for me and why I’m “suspicious” of text adventures. Not everyone can be a novelist. Not everyone can be a filmmaker. Not everyone can be a graphical game designer. But anyone can write text adventures! It just feels like text adventures are described as a “Can’t do anything else? Then do a text adventure!” I’d rather someone say “It’s NOT just anyone who can write a text adventure. It takes skill as a writer and as a game designer.”