Why text adventures beat graphical games in realism

Why are text adventures more realistic that graphical games? Because in a piece of IF, you can’t just:

put bucket on merchant
steal his stuff

But in a graphical game, you get this:


(It’s not fake or anything. I tried it myself and it works :mrgreen:)

Hold your horses, man. You can’t say for sure which is more realistic before you’ve tried the same strategy in real life.

I should like to see someone try to sporgulate a shmelnix in a graphical game.

This reminds me of a story about the superiority of radio over television:

“All right, here we are at Lake Erie (sound of waves in the background). First we’ll drain it dry (sound of water going down a drain) and now we’ll pump it full of vanilla ice cream (whir-gloopgloopgloop). And now, we’re getting a helicopter (whupwhupwhup) to deposit a giant cherry on top (splorcht). There. Let’s see you do the same on television.”

Actually, I think the idea sort of originated on the text side. In one of the Infocom games (I don’t remember which – too many brain cells are gone at my age) there was some sort of creature which was described as being so dumb that it thought that if you coudn’t see it, it couldn’t see you. The way you got past the critter was by covering your own eyes, thereby convincing the dumb thing that it could not see you. So at least the idea that you can used blocked vision, under ridiculous circumstances, to solve a problem started in IF.

Does anybody remember which game it was?

Robert Rothman

Since that joke also appears in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book, I assume it is from that game.

The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal first was referenced/appeared on the HHGG radio show, but it looks like the joke in question didn’t come up there. I have a feeling like the joke showed up in the books first and then was used in the game? But I don’t know. (These hypernerdy dedicated wikis still aren’t nerdy enough to cite their dang sources.)

It sounds like Hitchhiker’s Guide is what I was thinking of. Interesting that I remembered it from the game, but not from the book. I guess too much Vogon poetry has taken its toll on what’s left of my brain.

Robert Rothman

The Goon Show sports an escape from the Roman catacombs by one of the characters climbing the shoulders of the other and then hauling the one below up to climb his shoulders in turn. One of the characters comments “I’d like to see them do this on television …”

I put text adventures in the same class as 3D games for realism – I put them both above pixelly 2D games. The reasoning may be obvious, but here it is. In a pixelly game, you don’t need to create a lot of visual assets. You create a maze; player can go left/right/up/down. You code collision effects and a movement routine for the player going left/right/up/down; draw a few sprites; and you’re done.

In a 3D game, on the other hand, you have to create a lot of visual assets to make that particular intersection ‘feel real’. The 2D game designer does not worry about this even a little bit.

A text adventure designer is more like a 3D game designer. They have an idea for a game mechanic – but they know that the great majority of their time is going to be spent adding assets to the game so that the mechanic ‘feels real’ – in this case, instead of indicental models and textures, the assets are added in the form of incidental objects and their synonyms and incidental commands and their synonyms – all added for no other purpose than to ‘feel real’ (2D games rarely have any concept of interactable ‘scenery’ – just a scrolling background).

So, text adventures don’t beat 3D graphical games in realism, IMO. They both are typically aimed at realism and each form comes with its own ‘cracks in reality’ that are artifacts of the tools used to build them – i.e. neither is going to be a perfect representation. But both are likely going to try. That is not true at all of a typical 2D graphical game, in which the game mechanic’s the thing, and the only function of the graphics is to entertain. To complain that Pac-Man for example is not realistic is to entirely miss the point, though you can reasonably complain that Zork isn’t. Therefore, Zork set for itself a more ambitious goal.


Perhaps a good case in point is that I just started playing Crysis 2. A different style of game than something like Skyrim, I realize. I bring it up because of the feel you mention. There is no text adventure at all that could convey the feel of me walking through a decimated New York, hearing broadcasts of emergency, hearing the odd “hooooooooooahhhh” sound of the alien ships as they fly around a couple blocks over, the constant sound of the wind and the occasional tinkling sound of glass falling to the street from above, and so forth. There’s no text adventure that could give me the immediate feeling of sneaking around an a camp filled with troops, hearing their banter, even as I keep moving, making sure to stay in the shadows and out of sight.

Agreed. In Crysis 2, for example, I can’t just go anywhere. I can’t break down any door and in any area – which, of course, in reality I could do.

I also think part of this feel is the emotional or visceral reaction you have. For example, taking another game, Modern Warfare 3. This is the final game of the series. The ending – which I won’t spoil here for those still playing – is somewhat predictable; you can see it coming. Yet – the way it plays out, the suddenness of the action, the scream of the person you end up fighting with, it’s actually really intense even when the game mechanic itself intrudes quite a bit. So realistic? Well, not any more or less than a text adventure perhaps. But for the sheer unmitigated feeling of a consistent action taking place in a visual and aural medium, a text adventure could never replicate that for me.

Just as Zork tried for a different experience than Pac-Man, so too does a text adventure and a game like those I mentioned. All of these can provide a narrative of sorts – hell, even Donkey Kong had a narrative – but it’s the “feel” that the game is going for that will make the difference.

A good example that’s more in line with adventure game may be the recent To The Moon. That’s a surprising strong story and it reminded me a bit of the text adventure Tapestry although it also showed me, again, why a text adventure may have a hard time giving that kind of experience.

Interesting points. Properly played, you are supposed to use your imagination to supply those visual/aural experiences when you read. Just like when you read a book. Often, with the way puzzles are oriented (text adventures broadly only utilise one type of text puzzle – but there are actually an infinite number of possible types of text puzzles that haven’t really been tried), this experience of idenification is interfered with in a text adventure. But it doesn’t have to be this way at all. Clearly words are capable of transmitting a very full-featured experience of reality to the imagination. If text adventures haven’t been doing so (and some have, but most haven’t, IMO), it is iikely because some of the standard IF conventions interfere with the process of identification. And I’m not talking about superficial stuff like scoring. I’m talking about second person (which translates dramatically into ‘no person’). I’m talking about the spatial-room-filled-with-spatial-objects paradigm. I’m talking about the idea of time being essentially frozen as you explore objects that represent purely space. None of these things are absolutely necessary to the creations of text puzzles in interactive form. All of them can easily interfere with the imagination and particularly they can block emotional identification with the main character, which requires the perception of a personality that is NOT exactly one’s own; and the observation of changes in that personality through time – the exploration of space is irrelevant [edit: or rather I should say, ‘orthogonal’] to this process; therefore, I feel that its primacy has been a mistake.


P.S. This is something text can do that 3D can’t really, as well. Slip into a non-spatial (or not literally spatial) realm, seamlessly without breaking the tone. In a 3D game you’d have to go all infographics and people tend to think of that as boring exposition that looks like an in-game web site. It could be so much more even in graphic form, but text definitely has the edge on this, as the set of things that you can express in full sentences is actually much greater. Yet we mostly use it to describe… three dimensional rooms and stuff. (I’m aware that there are exceptions, although I’m certain I’m not aware of all the exceptions. Feel free to name some of the best; I’d like that. I’d also like to scope out if anyone else has ‘gone there’ in the way my WIP is going.)

Right, but with a book I just get to experience it as a linear flow (or at least as linear as I want to keep reading). I can do that with text games but the problem is it’s totally dependent on the skill of the game writer to make the narrative good and to align the action in such a way that there are consistent cues as to what to do. Otherwise I get stuck in the text game where I wouldn’t in a book. I can get stuck in a graphical game as well, of course, but I find that’s less often the case because I have more than just the author’s words to go on. I have various cues.

Some of the better text adventures I played ended up leaving me with the feeling that “Man, I wish this was just a book. This is a good story but I’m sick of having it stopped up all the time.” So when the story is really good in a text adventure, I find that I just wish it was something I could read rather than have to play through. I have felt a similar way about movies. I’ve felt “Wow, this movie is almost really good; I can see the story. It would probably make a much better book.” But I have yet to find a graphical game where I said “Yeah, I really this was a text adventure instead.” And I’ve never really had a great book experience where I said “I wish this book was a text adventure so I could play this character.”

I totally agree. The conventions of text adventures, set down awhile ago, do seem to cause some issues with with the form really being all that different or innovative in some ways. I look at many text adventures today and the ones I played years ago and, basically, they’re just about the same in a lot of ways. That’s not the case at all for most other game formats. And I’m not just talking about graphic cards being improved and stuff like that. I’m talking about the nature of how stories are told in the context of games and how various cues (identifications?) are used to make the experience more compelling.

I basically agree with everything you say regarding the conventions you bring up.

Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I think the trick is that things still have to be relatable though. While text can be amenable to much more expressiveness, it’s also easy for it to become mired in ambiguity and confusion such that the playing experience could become very muddied. But I do agree that the “internal space” – and thus not actually a spatial set of locations at all – could be a rich vein to tap. Like everything with text games, though, the writing is going to come front and center. You’re going to need people who can convey well via text.

I think for me, the more a text game is like a book, I would just prefer a book. The more a text adventure is like a game, I would prefer a game that’s not so static. Thoughts still forming on this but that’s where I’m at right now.