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These video games are based on nothing but words

Text-based games are quirky, confessional, and sometimes political — and they’re pushing the boundaries of storytelling.

By Mehitabel Glenhaber

When a friend recommended Tom McHenry’s Horse Master: The Game of Horse Mastery to me, I was skeptical about the idea of a video game with no pictures and no sound. But as the bitmapped text popped up on my computer monitor — a throwback to 1980s-era monochrome computer screens — the game drew me into its bizarre, evocative world. The game opened with a description of a custom-made horse that begins as a larva, sent to you from a factory and delivered within a blue sphere.

“The first horse you ever assisted mastering (when you were only 8!) was a Furioso-Hellfist,” the game informed me, “and this is why you can’t raise your left arm over your shoulder.”

Already, I had a thousand questions.

 As I made choices — mostly picking options from text menus — to carefully rear my “Carolina Coffinbreath” horse from its larval stage to its 18-hands-high, elaborately carapaced form and maximize its stats such as “uncanny” or “realness,” I became shockingly invested in the wellbeing of my new monstrous and imaginary pet, which I could not even see.

When I finished after an hour of play, it felt like I was emerging into the light, like after seeing a film in a theater. And since then, I’ve had many more ultra-low-res gaming experiences. Horse Master’s creator is part of a vibrant community of indie game designers who don’t think a good computer game needs to have good graphics — or pictures at all.

Most mainstream graphical video games fit a standard mold: fighting and exploration tasks, focused on leveling up and collecting treasures, in sci-fi, fantasy, and military genres. Video graphics have become immersive and complex, with cinematic presentations of light and shadow and motion-capture technology that makes animated humans look almost real.

But text-based adventure games persist, and many of them are pushing the boundaries of storytelling in gaming. Text-based game developers say they can create more experimental, kooky, contemplative, personal, politically activist, or just plain niche narratives than they could with traditional video games, because they don’t focus most of their time and resources on graphics, and they’re less beholden to market pressures. Want to play a game about 16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonald’s? How about a political satire about spending all of Jeff Bezos’s money? There’s a text-based game for you.

“It’s great just being able to play a bizarre little gem of a game put out by one person with a singular vision.”

Jared Pedachek, an indie role-playing-game designer

You won’t find anything “focus-grouped to death or stripped of its uniqueness by executives,” says Jared Pedachek, an indie role-playing-game designer, “just the beautiful strangeness that’s allowed to flourish when someone is given the time and space to create.”

Early text-based video games make up an important part of gaming history. In the 1980s, as arcade games led video-game innovation, home computers hosted simple, text-adventure classics like Zork and Colossal Cave Adventure, which had no graphics beyond white-on-black text. “My parents played text-adventure games the first time around, when they were the only games you could get,” recalls Xavid Pretzer, a text-based video game designer from Boston who publishes games under the mononym Xavid, including the game Vain Empires, a Cold-War thriller about angels and demons.

These early video games were exciting to computer owners because they were the first time that, rather than just crunching numbers, they could use their machines to tell stories — to explore a magical cave or roleplay in a spy thriller. Some classics, like Andrew Plotkin’s cult favorite Spider and Web, or more recent hits, like the massively multiplayer online game Fallen London, have maintained large player-bases. But nowadays, most new text-based games are being produced by small, independent developers who aren’t backed by major gaming companies.

“As the text-adventure game genre faded away commercially, it was taken up by amateurs — people who make games for the love of it,” says Nick Montfort, a professor of the history of interactive fiction at MIT. The Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB) alone lists 11,571 text-based video games — and that’s just a small subset of all the games out there, almost all of them created by lone designers and hobbyists. Communities of text-based game enthusiasts — like the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, and the IFDB — are working to keep the text-only games medium alive.

For some designers, the modern appeal of text-only video games is the ease of entry into the genre. Pedachek creates text-based games on Twitter — including a fairytale noir, The Last Queen of Elphame, and a Regency-era romance, The Westons — with crowdsourced poll results driving the gameplay. He says he loves how democratic the medium is. “With the increasing consolidation of popular art under corporations,” Pedachek says, “it’s great just being able to play a bizarre little gem of a game put out by one person with a singular vision.” As the recent success of Wordle has demonstrated, sometimes a single game designer’s low-graphics passion project can delight players just as much as a sleeker, higher-production-values game.

After becoming a fan of the text-based, surreal baseball simulator Blaseball, Jamie Carlan decided to try his hand at creating a Blaseball fanfiction game, Fletch Quest, using Twine, an open-source software for creating hyperlinked text-based storytelling. “It is so easy to use,” Carlan says, even for creators like him without a background in art or programming. “You can absolutely throw yourself into it immediately.”

Twine’s design invites intimate revelations, game designer Porpentine Charity Heartscape writes in a blog post: “Twine’s default color scheme is blue on black, not black on white. Black on white is daylight … Twine invites us to write our secrets into the night.” Because text-based video-gaming is so accessible to new designers, the post suggests, the games can be more personal and confessional than a mainstream video game.

Text-based video-game storytelling can be more poetic, too. It can evoke moods or set up plot twists or mysteries that might not work as well if you had to visually represent them. “You can have a character that is a 100-foot-tall Cerberus engage in witty political repartee with a band of dragons,” says Carlin, “so long as you can sell it with your writing skills.”

The medium has also become a haven for many gay and transgender game designers, who say text-based games give them the freedom to explore subjects outside the mainstream. “If you’re playing games based on graphics quality, that’s still quite a high barrier to entry,” says Xavid, who is genderqueer. “Queer, non-mainstream narratives, you’re more likely to find in [text-based] games.”          

When I introduce new friends to text-based games, they’re often skeptical at first. “Aren’t those just for the 1980s?” people will ask me. But to many indie game designers, text adventure games aren’t an obsolete technology — they’re still a worthwhile genre that can offer an experience that others can’t. “Just because we have movies and comics now,” says Eric Willisson, an interactive fiction enthusiast and member of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, “doesn’t mean novels aren’t good.”

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Mehitabel Glenhaber is a freelance illustrator, comic artist, tabletop role-playing game designer, and visual novel developer who has written for Real Life Magazine and Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

Illustration by Antonio Pinna

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