The comeback of text-based games and interactive fiction

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Thursday, 22 April 2010 - Last Updated on April 22, 2010

Screenshot of MUDEarly text-based games took their cues from their pen-and-paper predecessors; more than images and sounds, words and numbers were used to convey information. With consistently low system requirements, text-based games ran perfectly even on very old computers and slow Internet connections. And unlike mainstream video games, text-based games didn’t require better video cards or more RAM over time. The narrative text was what was important.

A Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) is a type of online text-based game that is built on role playing, actual human communication, and storytelling. Players log in and walk into a whole different virtual world where they can explore, mingle, do battle, solve puzzles, and further the game’s main storyline. Everything is described in text only. Players interact with game elements and other players by typing commands. Early MUDs were little more than open windows of scrolling text on a computer screen.

Modern games tracing their roots back to traditional MUDs can include most massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), simply because MMORPGs generally showcase character progression, story progression, and online common areas for its players. Of course, the obvious progeny of the MUD is the modern text-based game. While some of these games are now browser-based, some do still run on MUD clients. Another offshoot of both text-based games and actual pen-and-paper games is the creative play-by-post gaming platform, which is the method of using online bulletin boards, forums and other messaging services to facilitate role playing games (RPGs).

Text adventures are another kind of text-based game. Also called Interactive Fiction (IF), these games used passages of narrative text to convey story progression in response to a player’s typed commands. These commands were usually simple phrases (e.g. “open door” or “get sword”) that the game would interpret according to its programming. The interaction between the player and the game was comparable to the act of reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Traditional IF games and game mechanics are being kept alive by websites such as The Interactive Fiction Archive, iFiction, The Interactive Fiction Wiki, and Brass Lantern; however, interactive fiction has evolved way past its humble beginnings. A modern incarnation is the graphical adventure game; which include point-and-click adventure games, puzzle adventure games, and visual novels. Of the three, the closest to the original text adventure format and style is the visual novel.

Visual novels feature static graphics combined with narrative text, and are especially popular in Japan. They require very little interaction from the player; choices are given at certain decision points, and all the player has to do is choose one. Certain sets of decisions often lead to different storylines or a different ending. Almost all of these games are romantic – even sexual – in nature and rarely have English releases, which may explain their limited popularity. Still, some games employing visual novel elements have managed to succeed outside of Japan.

Now, the question is this: Is there a resurgence of text-based games and interactive fiction in terms of mainstream popularity? A quick look at the purported best and most popular video games of 2009 tells us that there isn’t; not in a big way, at least. The best – the trendiest, the most widely distributed, and the most played – video games are invariably graphics intensive and action oriented. Sure, text-based games have thrived over the years. Modern text-based games run on Web browsers and MUD clients, play-by-post role playing campaigns, text adventure archives and resource material, visual novels – these are all easily found online; you just have to look. But the simple truth is that test-based games cater to a niche audience.

Still, there is definitely a comeback of sorts in the making. Some Facebook applications like Dictator Wars lean towards the casual end of text-based gaming. The Nintendo DS now supports games in the English language with visual novel elements, such as Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and the Ace Attorney series. Even the iPhone is getting in on the game with text-based RPGs like CozyQuest. It seems that the rise of social networking sites and the advent of handheld technology translate to an increased likelihood that text-based games will become more prevalent.

Why so? With free Flash games all over the Internet and free applications in social networking sites, perhaps some gamers will realize that it does not necessarily take a souped-up computer or an expensive gaming console to have fun and play games. With just a little research and persistence, many gamers will find that there is a veritable treasure trove of adventures and immersive virtual worlds online. All it takes is a little bit more imagination; a fitting exchange for a lot less in terms of hardware requirements!

It’s also painfully obvious that optimized desktop PCs and Macs, Sony PS3s, Nintendo Wiis, and Xbox 360s are not as mobile as their handheld counterparts. Although handhelds have improved in leaps and bounds over the past decade, most are still not equipped for graphics-intensive gaming. Hence, the proliferation of back-to-basics programming when it comes to creating new titles. Obviously, one consequence of this is a return to text-based game design.

Past this point, everything is conjecture. Although the niche audience for text-based games is definitely increasing in numbers, only time will tell if those added numbers are casual gamers who will move on to the next fad after all is said and done, or if they will be converted fans of the genre as a whole.

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