In 50 Years of Text Games, Aaron Reed challenges the conventional wisdom that text adventures are mostly for other people who make text adventures, reminding readers that graphics came first. The earliest digital games in the 1940s and 1950s were built on displays too primitive to display bitmap text– instead they used dots to symbolize artillery shells, tennis balls, and beams of light. Text did not come until later. Even after the advent of sophisticated graphic adventures, text adventures remained popular commercially, and still remain significant for hobbyists, researchers, and narrative designers.
The book evolved from a series of Substack articles, highlighting one text game per year from 1971 (The Oregon Trail) to 2020 (Scents and Semiosis). Each decade is covered in detail with advances in technology and notable games that didn’t make it into feature articles, including IF Comp winners. This makes it much meatier than simply stanning select games; rather it shows why interactive fiction is important, why it still matters, and how the field has evolved in terms of technology, game design techniques, and commercial viability.
Several games I worked on were even in the book! As well as games written by friends and acquaintances. As anticipated, there’s a whole chapter on Colossal Cave Adventure, the original parser text adventure by Will Crowther and Don Woods that I worked on the VR remake of in 2022. However, Adventure is presented as a logical evolution from pure resource management games (Oregon Trail, ROCKET) to games with simple maps and worlds (Hunt the Wumpus), into an entire world of text that people would spend years exploring and reimagining.
Finding out there was a chapter on Achaea brought back years of memories. In high school, just about everyone in my friend group was playing it, whereas I spent most of my time on less technologicallly sophisticated play-by-post roleplaying games, with richer opportunities for free-form roleplay and collaborative worldbuilding than what could be refereed by a computer. The only glaring omission I can see in the book is the lack of coverage of decentralized play-by-post and play-by-chat games (which tend to rely on human moderators rather than centralized software and codebases), including fandom roleplay.
The book contextualizes the boom of commercial text adventures in the 1970s and 1980s to the rise of the modern interactive fiction community in the 90s and early 2000s. The development of Inform and Inform7 (use to create parser-IF) from the ashes of Infocom, and the rise of annual interactive fiction competitions such as IFComp and Spring Fling are covered, as well as the switch from game-sized dungeon crawls to more experimental art pieces. Emily Short’s Galatea and Adam Cadre’s Photopia, both parser IF classics that illustrate what they medium is capable of, are covered, along with seminal Twine games (Porpentine’s Howling Dogs), Ink (80 Days), and ChoiceScript. Plenty of entries were games I’ve never heard of, including experimental projects from the 70s and 80s that I want to check out for the sake of completionism. Someday. When there’s time.
I haven’t made a game that was pure interactive fiction in some time (hopefully someday there will be time), but I’m in the middle of prototyping what will eventually be a graphic adventure/RPG using Ink. This allows me to sketch out detailed urban settings with plenty of NPCs very quickly, without having to worry about investing resources in designing characters and background art or animating NPCs. There’s something to be said for plain text as a tool for creativity. And it’s useful to be reminded of how rich (50 years!) this legacy actually is.
50 Years of Text Games is available in a limited print run, but hardcover copies still can be preordered here, as can digital copies.