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The Text Adventure Isn’t Dead

There's a small but dedicated community keeping the genre alive, including writers and designers like Jason McIntosh, the man behind the unsettling tale Warbler's Nest.

(I'd recommend at least checking out Warbler's Nest before reading too far. It's free, and will take less than an hour!)

Playing a text adventure sounds easy. (At first, definitely not.) Type actions, then watch them play out. (Or, often, no.) It’s not that simple, though. (Correct.) There is not an actively learning artificial intelligence driving the on-screen text--it was all written by a person. That person is tasked with a hugely daunting task: predict all player behavior.

In a game full of shooting where you cannot open random door X, that’s no big deal. It’s a game about shooting, so you can go around the corner and keep shooting. Plus, in most games, players today are expecting a sense of linearity. Not so in the text adventure, which explains why things like this exist for beginning players. It’s all about exploration, and that requires the designer to have answers prepared to all your poking and prodding.

Say, for example, you enter a room, you’re told your Grandpa is sitting in a chair, and you type:

push grandma.

Now, why would the player push Grandma? First, who does that? Second, the game said Grandpa. Part of a text adventure is learning the limits of the adventure, and the player has to, at first, explore all of their boundaries.

“You can type whatever you want, and most of what you can type causes absolutely nothing to happen,” said Jason McIntosh, designer and author enjoyably creepy text adventure Warbler’s Nest.

Warbler's Nest is not the first text adventure McIntosh has created, either. It's been a process.

McIntosh also had the honor of introducing me to the text adventure. Yes, a shameful secret revealed. Having played Warbler’s Nest, though, I’m now psyched to see what else the genre has to offer, especially since it’s hardly a dead one, which was certainly a surprise to yours truly. Sure, the text adventure isn’t getting a billboard in Times Square these days, but devotees of interactive fiction, the fancier term for the text adventure, are keeping the genre alive. McIntosh is one of those people.

(I’m about to spoil some parts of Warbler’s Next, so if you want it to remain a mystery, play and come back. It’s free!)

Warbler’s Nest is McIntosh’s take on the changeling myth from Western Europe, a tragically real belief from the 19th century wherein parents came to believe their child had been kidnapped and replaced with the child of a goblin, troll, or other creature. These days, we’d come to understand these children were developmentally disabled, diseased, or suffering from some other disorder. This wasn’t understood concept back then, so the parents would go to great lengths to get their children back, including drowning the children, placing them into a heated oven, and other horrific acts.

It’s easy to look back and scoff, but in the absence of science, imagine being a parent who believed their child had been kidnapped, and this child-like thing left behind was not theirs. Often, McIntosh noted, there’s a reference to a friendly tailor, a confidant who advises what to do. In this case, collect...eggs. (It's also part of the myth.)

“Wouldn’t it be really disturbing to have a short video game where the player character is the mother of a baby during this time period, in this setting, and has no reason not to believe this is a thing that happens?” he said. “Could we make a game about the decisions that you would have to face, and her reality, without making it a fantasy story? Setting it in a realistic setting, but making it about the way that her sense of reality projects, if you will, onto the world around her, and makes this unthinkable thing real to her.”

The original idea bubbled to McIntosh while exploring a museum full of pikes and swords in Boston, and he soon began researching the concept of the changeling. At roughly the same time, he had started regularly listening to the amateur horror fiction podcast Pseudopod, despite not caring for the genre, and playing through ACE Team’s Zeno Clash, an unsettling first-person brawler with a similar sub-plot. He admired that game's sense of place.

“It takes reality, turns it by two degrees, and then follows that down a path,” said McIntosh.

The changeling angle isn’t revealed up-front in Warbler’s Nest. Instead, the game simply alludes to something horrific inside the main character’s home. Here’s an excerpt from the very beginning:

It’s eventually revealed that “something” that is “wrong” is your child. The scene inside your home, the crux of the story and gameplay, is the first scene that McIntosh started piecing together, right around the time he was playing Zeno Clash. There’s a baby in the room, and what happens next is up to you. There are multiple ways for this scene to play out, and it’s where McIntosh got incredibly playful with the interaction between player and creator.

Unsettling would be the best way to describe the general aesthetic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash.

“If you type in a violent action,” he said, “if you type in ‘hit baby,’ or ‘cut the baby with the shears’ or whatever, the player will not carry out that action, but you have now permanently darkened the game because the attitude I wanted to present was ‘Oh, that’s the game we’re playing? Okay.’”

This is a case where experimentation can backfire on the player, depending on how they “wanted” the story to play out.

“That’s how you get to the ‘bad ending’ and the player character starts to believe maybe the tailor was right,” he continued, “maybe this actually isn’t my baby, and it starts to fill in this past where it’s actually suggested that maybe the mother has tried hitting the kid in the past. This does not come up if you do not do that. I wanted to make it very unsettling. If you treat the child with affection, it goes the other way.”

If you treat the child with affection, it's implied you accept the child as it is, changeling and all.

This scene is also where I had the most trouble with the game, unaware of what language to use. As someone without much text adventure experience, it was easily most frustrating part of the experience. Relative to modern "standards," a term I use rather loosely, the game is providing precious few drops of feedback. (I also realize this can be, and this case is, a very good thing. It's just different.) But for every moment of frustration in Warbler’s Nest came one of extraordinary euphoria, as I discovered the phrases that unlocked the next area, the next piece of story.

Juuuuust often enough, though, when I was typing ideas that didn’t accomplish anything, the game was had a piece of useful feedback in response or a new slice of plot to keep my interested, a testament to McIntosh’s extensive playtesting. Playtesting a text adventure game in the modern age is easier, as players can simply send along their entire transcripts, and the creator can make adjustments based on how the game did or didn’t respond.

“The only way to make a game that’s actually playable by people who are not dyed-in-the-wool IF [interactive fiction] fans is to have a lot of people test it, and find a whole lot of paths that don’t work and spend a lot of time,” he said.

McIntosh figures probably 50% of his code is spent simply responding to potential behavior that has nothing to do with the path he wants players to go down, but will hopefully nudge them back to it. It’s this struggle between explicit and implicit that underscores what McIntosh loves about the genre.

“Why I like it so much, both as a player and as a developer, is that specifically in how it lets you play with ambiguity and, to a great extent, the game I created is about ambiguity,” he said.

One of the big daddy's of the text adventure, and a series I hope to cross off my list very soon.

By the end of our conversation, there was an itch, and McIntosh helped me scratch it. Ever since the MolyJam came and went earlier this year, I’ve talked about how developing a video game, even a tiny, dumb one, would be a useful exercise. Since I’m so used to writing for a living, why not start with a game that’s entirely word-based? A big reason the text adventure remains a viable genre, McIntosh told me, is specifically because of the software that makes creating new stories so easy, a testament to the community.

McIntosh recommended would-be creators to download Inform7, a free download at www.inform7.com, and read the Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction With Inform 7+. The book guides you through creating a sprawling text adventure using Inform7. Inform7 even has the ability to spit out a Javascript version of the game, which means you can dump that into Dropbox and, voila, anybody can begin playing your probably not great game on the web!

I’d had ambitions of creating something small and stupid to be released alongside this article, but so far, all I’ve done is drag Inform7 into my Applications section. Status quo achieved!

The best thing you can do, though, is play loads and loads of good text adventure games, and soak it all in. Fortunately, the Boston-based group McIntosh is part of, People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, has a list of must-play games that’s constantly updated on their website. That seems like a good place to start for you and me.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
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Posted by patrickklepek

(I'd recommend at least checking out Warbler's Nest before reading too far. It's free, and will take less than an hour!)

Playing a text adventure sounds easy. (At first, definitely not.) Type actions, then watch them play out. (Or, often, no.) It’s not that simple, though. (Correct.) There is not an actively learning artificial intelligence driving the on-screen text--it was all written by a person. That person is tasked with a hugely daunting task: predict all player behavior.

In a game full of shooting where you cannot open random door X, that’s no big deal. It’s a game about shooting, so you can go around the corner and keep shooting. Plus, in most games, players today are expecting a sense of linearity. Not so in the text adventure, which explains why things like this exist for beginning players. It’s all about exploration, and that requires the designer to have answers prepared to all your poking and prodding.

Say, for example, you enter a room, you’re told your Grandpa is sitting in a chair, and you type:

push grandma.

Now, why would the player push Grandma? First, who does that? Second, the game said Grandpa. Part of a text adventure is learning the limits of the adventure, and the player has to, at first, explore all of their boundaries.

“You can type whatever you want, and most of what you can type causes absolutely nothing to happen,” said Jason McIntosh, designer and author enjoyably creepy text adventure Warbler’s Nest.

Warbler's Nest is not the first text adventure McIntosh has created, either. It's been a process.

McIntosh also had the honor of introducing me to the text adventure. Yes, a shameful secret revealed. Having played Warbler’s Nest, though, I’m now psyched to see what else the genre has to offer, especially since it’s hardly a dead one, which was certainly a surprise to yours truly. Sure, the text adventure isn’t getting a billboard in Times Square these days, but devotees of interactive fiction, the fancier term for the text adventure, are keeping the genre alive. McIntosh is one of those people.

(I’m about to spoil some parts of Warbler’s Next, so if you want it to remain a mystery, play and come back. It’s free!)

Warbler’s Nest is McIntosh’s take on the changeling myth from Western Europe, a tragically real belief from the 19th century wherein parents came to believe their child had been kidnapped and replaced with the child of a goblin, troll, or other creature. These days, we’d come to understand these children were developmentally disabled, diseased, or suffering from some other disorder. This wasn’t understood concept back then, so the parents would go to great lengths to get their children back, including drowning the children, placing them into a heated oven, and other horrific acts.

It’s easy to look back and scoff, but in the absence of science, imagine being a parent who believed their child had been kidnapped, and this child-like thing left behind was not theirs. Often, McIntosh noted, there’s a reference to a friendly tailor, a confidant who advises what to do. In this case, collect...eggs. (It's also part of the myth.)

“Wouldn’t it be really disturbing to have a short video game where the player character is the mother of a baby during this time period, in this setting, and has no reason not to believe this is a thing that happens?” he said. “Could we make a game about the decisions that you would have to face, and her reality, without making it a fantasy story? Setting it in a realistic setting, but making it about the way that her sense of reality projects, if you will, onto the world around her, and makes this unthinkable thing real to her.”

The original idea bubbled to McIntosh while exploring a museum full of pikes and swords in Boston, and he soon began researching the concept of the changeling. At roughly the same time, he had started regularly listening to the amateur horror fiction podcast Pseudopod, despite not caring for the genre, and playing through ACE Team’s Zeno Clash, an unsettling first-person brawler with a similar sub-plot. He admired that game's sense of place.

“It takes reality, turns it by two degrees, and then follows that down a path,” said McIntosh.

The changeling angle isn’t revealed up-front in Warbler’s Nest. Instead, the game simply alludes to something horrific inside the main character’s home. Here’s an excerpt from the very beginning:

It’s eventually revealed that “something” that is “wrong” is your child. The scene inside your home, the crux of the story and gameplay, is the first scene that McIntosh started piecing together, right around the time he was playing Zeno Clash. There’s a baby in the room, and what happens next is up to you. There are multiple ways for this scene to play out, and it’s where McIntosh got incredibly playful with the interaction between player and creator.

Unsettling would be the best way to describe the general aesthetic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash.

“If you type in a violent action,” he said, “if you type in ‘hit baby,’ or ‘cut the baby with the shears’ or whatever, the player will not carry out that action, but you have now permanently darkened the game because the attitude I wanted to present was ‘Oh, that’s the game we’re playing? Okay.’”

This is a case where experimentation can backfire on the player, depending on how they “wanted” the story to play out.

“That’s how you get to the ‘bad ending’ and the player character starts to believe maybe the tailor was right,” he continued, “maybe this actually isn’t my baby, and it starts to fill in this past where it’s actually suggested that maybe the mother has tried hitting the kid in the past. This does not come up if you do not do that. I wanted to make it very unsettling. If you treat the child with affection, it goes the other way.”

If you treat the child with affection, it's implied you accept the child as it is, changeling and all.

This scene is also where I had the most trouble with the game, unaware of what language to use. As someone without much text adventure experience, it was easily most frustrating part of the experience. Relative to modern "standards," a term I use rather loosely, the game is providing precious few drops of feedback. (I also realize this can be, and this case is, a very good thing. It's just different.) But for every moment of frustration in Warbler’s Nest came one of extraordinary euphoria, as I discovered the phrases that unlocked the next area, the next piece of story.

Juuuuust often enough, though, when I was typing ideas that didn’t accomplish anything, the game was had a piece of useful feedback in response or a new slice of plot to keep my interested, a testament to McIntosh’s extensive playtesting. Playtesting a text adventure game in the modern age is easier, as players can simply send along their entire transcripts, and the creator can make adjustments based on how the game did or didn’t respond.

“The only way to make a game that’s actually playable by people who are not dyed-in-the-wool IF [interactive fiction] fans is to have a lot of people test it, and find a whole lot of paths that don’t work and spend a lot of time,” he said.

McIntosh figures probably 50% of his code is spent simply responding to potential behavior that has nothing to do with the path he wants players to go down, but will hopefully nudge them back to it. It’s this struggle between explicit and implicit that underscores what McIntosh loves about the genre.

“Why I like it so much, both as a player and as a developer, is that specifically in how it lets you play with ambiguity and, to a great extent, the game I created is about ambiguity,” he said.

One of the big daddy's of the text adventure, and a series I hope to cross off my list very soon.

By the end of our conversation, there was an itch, and McIntosh helped me scratch it. Ever since the MolyJam came and went earlier this year, I’ve talked about how developing a video game, even a tiny, dumb one, would be a useful exercise. Since I’m so used to writing for a living, why not start with a game that’s entirely word-based? A big reason the text adventure remains a viable genre, McIntosh told me, is specifically because of the software that makes creating new stories so easy, a testament to the community.

McIntosh recommended would-be creators to download Inform7, a free download at www.inform7.com, and read the Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction With Inform 7+. The book guides you through creating a sprawling text adventure using Inform7. Inform7 even has the ability to spit out a Javascript version of the game, which means you can dump that into Dropbox and, voila, anybody can begin playing your probably not great game on the web!

I’d had ambitions of creating something small and stupid to be released alongside this article, but so far, all I’ve done is drag Inform7 into my Applications section. Status quo achieved!

The best thing you can do, though, is play loads and loads of good text adventure games, and soak it all in. Fortunately, the Boston-based group McIntosh is part of, People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, has a list of must-play games that’s constantly updated on their website. That seems like a good place to start for you and me.

Staff
Edited by JSwan13

yea?

EDIT: Oh my god! I finally completed the quest, I'm shaking right now.

EDIT 2: Great article Patrick!

Posted by Fallen189

TKTK

Posted by theimmortalbum

TKTK. Never forget.

Posted by patrickklepek

TKTK is the name of my new text adventure.

Staff
Edited by jesterroyal

Pour one out for TKTK

Posted by papercut

TKTK

Posted by Pabba

@theimmortalbum said:

TKTK. Never forget.

Never ever.

Posted by fusrodah

TK421 do you copy?

Posted by RobinOttens

TKTK indeed. I come out of playing Adam Cadre's 'Endless, Nameless' to discover this article's been reposted. It's like magic! And a pretty cool article too!

Yeah, check out Endless, Nameless you guys, it's a fantastic example of the genre.

Posted by BirthWild

TKTK paTricK

Posted by patrickklepek

TK, by the way, means "to come." It's used by reporters to note information that has to be filled in. Thus, this morning's TKTKathon.

Staff
Posted by kashif1

Text adventures are fun but there was one that kinda put me off the genre. It gave no indication of what the player was supposed to do or where the story was going (apparently time travel is eventually involved) which would have been fine except if the player didn't pick up the plot within forty moves the game would end because the player had 'become entranced by the party.' I'm sorry but that's just crappy design and it was from what was supposed to be a classic of the genre.

Posted by Brodehouse

Text adventure is analog recording equipment. Dead, but iterated beyond. And it's not recent, the SCUMM engine and adventure game GUI has obsoleted it. I _hate_ having to guess what works in a game. It would be like existing in the real world where the laws physics and causality change arbitrarily throughout the day.

Posted by CptBedlam

The Urban Dictionary says:

"1. TKTK

'Tktk' is an offensive and derogatory response used with the intent of the recipient to not recognize it as an insult. Like flicking off an infant, or cheerfully cussing someone out in a language they don't understand."

I hope that wasn't Patrick insulting us earlier. :P

Posted by bassman2112

TKTK <>

Also, this is a stellar article - I'm actually going to forward it on to my friend who is currently working on a text adventure (I know, right?)

Thanks again Patrick =)

Posted by theimmortalbum

@patrickklepek said:

TK, by the way, means "to come." It's used by reporters to note information that has to be filled in. Thus, this morning's TKTKathon.

I had wondered where TK came from. Seemed like such a random pairing of letters.

Posted by jesterroyal

@patrickklepek said:

TK, by the way, means "to come." It's used by reporters to note information that has to be filled in. Thus, this morning's TKTKathon.

And here I thought it was just you signing off your Tricky Scoops. TricKyTricKy.

Posted by Ravenlight
McIntosh also had the honor of introducing me to the text adventure. Yes, a shameful secret revealed.

Odd that the man who writes so may words is a newbie to a genre that's composed entirely of words. Welcome to the fold, brother!

Posted by movac

Some of you probably read this and thought, "hey, maybe I should check out these text adventure thingies. I'll go download some classic Infocom games." That path leads only to sorrow. Since dying as a commercial form, text adventures have been heavily refined by the online community. The classics from the '80s were well-crafted in many ways, but they were also often frustratingly unresponsive and required absurd leaps of logic. There's a reason the People's Republic playlist only mentions a single game made before the '90s. Classic adventures are still worth playing, but only after you're familiar with the genre's conventions, unless you're persistent to a degree few can manage.

Posted by MadLaughter

I would play the SHIT out of a Patrick Klepek text adventure.

Online
Posted by Little_Socrates

Excellent work, Patrick. A couple of friends who need to read it that wouldn't normally see it.

Posted by FoolishChaos

I played my first text adventure last week, Leadlight, when patrick was talking about it on twitter. http://www.leadlightgame.com/

Looking forward to playing Warbler's Nest tonight.

Posted by Vexxan

Better start working on that game of yours, Klepek!

Edited by Brackynews

Hitchhiker's Guide was an early experience for me, and I was almost too young to puzzle it out on my own without looking for help (mainly from my older brother). It had some wonderfully obscure responses for those well versed in the book. (Which I wasn't until years later.) Distinguishing between "home" and "house" for example as wordplay. The best thing I recall is it expected many responses in the form of dialogue and speaking to the other characters, much more adept than any of the early Sierra games.

Hard to remember which was my first pure text adventure exactly, but I know my first graphical parser adventure was Time Zone. Which needs some wiki help btw. :)

Posted by NathHaw

@theimmortalbum said:

TKTK. Never forget.

Posted by Ravenlight
Posted by BeachThunder

I was here for TKTK2012

Also, I still need to get around to playing The Gostak D:

Posted by SpartanAmbrose

Where were you when TKTK happened?

Posted by Feigr

I've been waiting for this site to do a story on interactive fiction since forever!

Great also that Inform 7 got a mention, I played around a bit with it many years ago and made some rudimentary games and it was a lot of fun. It's basically programming but it's the friendliest and most straight-forward programming you can imagine.

Posted by Vadis

Woah I had no idea there was a second ending in the Warbler's Nest! Guess it was a bad idea to try killing the baby >.>

Posted by Daneian

I am very disturbed by that charcoal sketch. Nightmare territory.

Posted by umdesch4

I remember as a kid being told, in text, that I was likely to be eaten by a grue, and actually being scared, 'cuz in my imagination, a grue was even scarier that anything that would have been in my closet, or under my bed.

Posted by Luck702

Just played through it. Forgot how fun text adventures can be just from the sheer possibilities and reliance on imagination.

Posted by patrickklepek

@Ravenlight said:

The link to this article on the front page works fine but when trying to click on it from http://www.giantbomb.com/forums/ it redirects to the the List of Video Games. Messed up link, or clever metagame?

Good question. I'm not sure. I'll check.

Staff
Posted by morrelloman

haha forgot Scoops. Such a good nickname.

Posted by Dagbiker
Posted by theodacourt

@JSwan13 said:

EDIT: Oh my god! I finally completed the quest, I'm shaking right now.

DON'T SHAKE THE BABY

Posted by Stimpack

@MadLaughter: Ahhh, think of all the errors! Anyway, if anyone is interested in Interactive Fiction, I suggest taking a look at Lost Pig.

Online
Posted by GonzoSnot

@nrh79: The first version of this article shall live forever in our hearts and minds.

Posted by granderojo

Yeah I'm finding text adventures to be a good way to unwind since a lot of what I play is either fast paced shooters or a face paced strategy game. I just got through Han Solo Adventures demo (kickstarter project) which is oldschool as fuck and Puzzle Agent. Both were really relaxing.

Posted by gaminghooligan

I'm a wannabe writer having two novels under my belt that only a few select friends have read. For years I've wanted to get into the text adventure genre but thought it was a long lost way of gaming. This article not only changed that view, but opened up the possibility for me to explore this along with providing the tools and means to do so. Patrick's articles have become one of my favorite parts of GB, so to you Scoops I say keep up the fantastic work. Always a pleasure to read.

Posted by L44

It never was for me.

Posted by FreedomTown

@Brodehouse said:

Text adventure is analog recording equipment. Dead, but iterated beyond. And it's not recent, the SCUMM engine and adventure game GUI has obsoleted it. I _hate_ having to guess what works in a game. It would be like existing in the real world where the laws physics and causality change arbitrarily throughout the day.

Yea, because the "adventure game gui" as you put it is so much more then just a pretty face on the exact same logic that goes on in a text adventure :\

Let me know when an adventure game comes out where it doesn't involve the player just mindlessly clicking on every object he sees on screen waiting for the correct action to be triggered.

Posted by Bollard

Klepek text adventure? I'll bite.

Posted by Lind_L_Taylor

Sounds like a major exercise in mental masturbation. 

Posted by NAQ

@Lind_L_Taylor said:

Sounds like a major exercise in mental masturbation.

nope

Edited by Laiv162560asse

I'm also a latecomer to the fossil exhibit which passes for the text adventure game party.

I've only tried Anchorhead- a Lovecraftian-spooky-type tale - which I understand is something of a classic of the genre, and I enjoyed what little I've played so far. Definitely worth a look for anyone looking to sample the genre.

These games suffer from all the drawbacks and limitations of their graphical adventure game cousins - most notably having to meta-game the distorted logic employed by their creators -  but I don't agree that they're inherently any more limited by having no graphics. If anything, they have greater potential, since in graphical games you're limited to rubbing items together and talking, whereas in text adventures your actions are only limited by the scope of the author's imagination.

As with so many games, it boils down to the strength of the writing (which is why I half feel as if Grim Fandango made almost all other adventure games redundant, but whatever).

Edited by enemymouse

Great article!

To this day, no game format has surpassed the text adventure in terms of immersion, feeling, character, story etc. Just like books vs movies, there are just some things that require written words to convey. It's a shame they're ignored by so many.

If you've never played them, I recommend Infocom's A Mind Forever Voyaging and The Witness. Hell they're all good, but those two especially.

I've toyed with Inform too, but I have to say, it is less programmer friendly than TADS. It comes down to whether you want predictable programmer's syntax for your program, or a psuedo-english syntax where there is a lot of guess work in forming the sentences required to execute your desired logic.

That's the logic of the program mind you, not even broaching the topic of what the player types for commands. They both handle that very well.

Edited by vinsanityv22

Text adventures are really dumb. At least do a point and click thing. Learn how to program and do some art, fuck.

If this is your idea of a game, than...wtf are you thinking? Just write up a "Choose your own Adventure" book. It's the same thing.

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