A few weeks ago, Aaron Reed tooted asking for reviewers for his upcoming book, 50 Years of Text Games. I DMed him saying that I was interested, and that I’d worked on the remake of Colossal Cave Adventure. Aaron sent me a review copy– and I was shocked to find out that a text adventure I’d worked on with some friends years ago was included!

Strangely enough, I was the only author mentioned! I think this was an attempt to address marginalization of female creators. As I remember, Nick Mathewson did the initial prose writing, Thomas Mack did the overall game design, and I was working on it in Inform7, but Thomas and I spent so much time arguing about Inform6 vs. Inform7 that it burnt me and Nick out, so most of the code and prose writing is probably Thomas’s at this point! If it weren’t for him the game would never have been released. None of us were getting paid, it was supposed to be for fun, but the main lesson I learned was that three writers is way too many on a project (especially when all three of the writers have day jobs as programmers and are trying to do this as a creative hobby.) However, it’s the only text adventure I worked on that actually got published and submitted to contest.

The game I did, The Owl Consults, did get polished up and released– primarily by Thomas– for IF Comp in 2017, won sixth place (out of 79), got panned for being an old school parser adventure game and not a Serious Literary Piece of Interactive Fiction, and apparently spawned a sequel. I had no idea. Very cool!

I’ve been simultaneously reading The Video Game Industry Does Not Exist by Brendan Keogh, which discusses a survey of game developers and how most indie devs don’t think they really count as being in the game industry for various reasons (“I only made $200 in gross sales.” “I have a full time job in something else, it’s not my main source of income.” “I’m not part of a team.” “I’m not making any money.” “I’m just a writer, not a programmer.”) When I was making text adventures, I didn’t think of myself as a game developer because text adventures are only played by other people who make text adventures. Now that I’ve mostly made games with graphics, I don’t think of myself as part of the text adventure community, since that’s primarily defined by eschewing games with graphics.

But that’s kind of the point here.

Throughout the book, Aaron challenges the conventional wisdom that text adventures came before people figured out graphics, reminding readers that graphic games (simple graphics, but still graphics!) came first. 1940s computers were too primitive to display bitmap text… it was easier to use pixels to symbolize artillery shells, tennis balls, and beams of light. Text games didn’t come until later– the 1960s, really, with The Sumerian Game. And even now that computer graphics are VERY sophisticated and AAA games have enormous teams, they’re pretty significant for hobbyists, researchers, and narrative designers (since you can make a playable game of your narrative in Twine to prototype, then add graphics later.)

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 squeeing about a selection of games the author enjoyed playing (which some academic books on games unfortunately tend to feel like). 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.

In addition to games featured enough to get articles, the book tries to highlight EVERY significant text adventure in the last 50 years. So there are plenty of games I recognize– ones I’ve worked on myself, ones written by friends and acquaintances– all contextualized with the evolution of technology and the medium as a form of art. As anticipated, there’s a whole chapter on Colossal Cave Adventure. 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 re-imagining. Several Infocom games I was old enough to play growing up were there too.

And then there was a chapter on Achaea, which brought back huge memories. Most of my friends in high school played Achaea. I designed play-by-post games and was trying to woo people over, but my games were much less technologically sophisticated– it was mostly a platform for free-form writing. I was a little disappointed that the book covered MUDs and play-by-email games, but not play-by-post games, which were largely the domain of teenage fangirls. I did a fair amount of custom PHP coding for mine, but all you really needed was a web server that could run PHP or Perl, a domain name, and a way to attract a player base. (I designed two PBP roleplaying games, Ashara and Euronyme, in high school, which had about 200 daily players and a pretty solid community– and there’s apparently a fan site for it that’s still around that backed up some content here– but I didn’t monetize the game at all, it was just something I was doing for fun, so I didn’t see myself as a real game designer. But most of the games in this book were not monetized.)

50 Years of Text Games is available in a limited print run, but hardcover copies still can be preordered here, as can digital copies.