Text Adventures that Go Beyond

Text Adventures that Go Beyond

This post is the third in a series about interactive stories.
Read the second post.

It’s funny that text-based games are commonly called “interactive fiction,” since that’s a label suitable for most video games. That name is a relic of a time when games were far less commonly thought of as art, and ones that worked with the written word seemed closer to what was thought of as “telling stories.” Now, in an age of dazzling graphical capabilities, it might seem like the opposite is true – that text games are antiquated, and that technology has allowed gaming to move on and fully embrace its potential as an art form.
– Daniel Schindel, More than Zork

Daniel Schindel makes an important point, in his review of “modern text adventures.” Once you’ve enjoyed the intuitable and panoramic explorations in a video game like Halo or Skyrim, it becomes difficult to enjoy an experience that involves typing Go East, open door and go through door over and over again. Once you’ve spoken with Siri, or Cortana, or Alexa, it’s frustrating when a text parser doesn’t understand a typed command like go back to the kitchen.

In my own explorations of contemporary interactive stories, I’m hesitant to include many “text adventures” for those reasons above. I set out to find the best/new/different interactive stories, but seems much of this text-command-parsing genre has aged to the point where it seems too difficult and unattractive, compared to newer options. I will focus on two notable exceptions, though. There are others.

One of these text adventures takes a new approach to the old experience, and another pushes the medium towards a limit that could suggest its future direction.

The House Abandon

If you’ve never played a “text adventure” type of interactive fiction before, The House Abandon would be great to play first. (It doesn’t require any unusual softare to learn how to install, learn how to install install, and then learn how to use with one or many file formats.) It’s available on Steam, a hugely popular source for computer games, as part of a trilogy called Stories Untold

As with any of the original text adventures, the interface is a computer terminal and you control the game with typed, verbal commands, but this occurs within a frame story, where that interface is part of a larger narrative. You play a character whose father has dusted off an old computer game console, so you can play a classic again, and that’s where the fun begins. Play this one with the lights off and the sound on so you can enjoy an innovative text adventure that moves beyond a limited vocabulary to include video and sound effects. Stories Untold include two other marvelous “episodes” as well, but they are less textual and so not my main focus here.

Galatea

Written nearly 20 years ago, Galatea gives readers the experience of a realistic conversation with a fictional character. The character, Galatea, is the name given to a marble statue come to life, a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. You play an art critic who has a moment alone with her, and a chance to converse.

The game runs on the same software that powers many works in the text adventure genre, but it does away with all the go west and put gun on table because everything happens in a single space. With no need for movement, the author is free to focus more on dialogue than on setting, and Emily Short has authored some compelling dialogue. This game doesn’t involve an AI to power its conversational interface (it might have in a later version that never happened, though). Nevertheless, this game suggests what it might be like to have a conversation with a fictional character, who is an AI. There’s a handcrafted script behind this character, and for once it isn’t a computer or a robot!

Play Galatea

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Comparing the text adventure genre to video game may be unfair. Today’s video games are more like movies, often with giant teams and budgets to fuel their flashy special effects. Text adventures are more like books, a textual experience, more nuanced, typically from a single author. It’s that comparison, with books, that leads me to mention another irksome quality of the genre: its typography. This is changing, and I’ll get to that in a later post, but text adventures hail from a time when there were zero options for text formatting on a screen. It pales in comparison to what you could get from a book, or a magazine, a modern web site, or even a kindle. This is a minor gripe though, since ultimately it’s the story that matters most, and there are some good stories, if you can get to them.

Oh, and here’s a painting of Galatea and Pygmalion, for fun.

Pygmalion and Galatea,ca. 1890 Jean-Léon Gérôme French
Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890 Jean-Léon Gérôme French

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