Quest Updated: Texting
Back when Pong was still a game people actively wanted to play on a regular basis, when the princess was still in another castle, and the concept of 3-dimensional graphics was not even an idea, and books were read on paper, not on Kindle, there was a niche for the text based adventure.
For anyone who didn’t live through it and hasn’t heard, a text based adventure was one that involved lots of words and little to no pictures. You had the scene described to you: a house on a hill with a broken window and a door on its west side. And you would use exciting skills like looking, examining, inspecting, and… walking.
Since then we’re far more used to things with pictures. Instead of reading about smacking a snake upside the head with a sword, you chose how to smack a snake upside the head with a demonic mace of elemental fury. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, with the Northern Lights dancing across the winter sky. The stories tend to be much more open ended, and end less and less with you dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail, which is a good thing.
Except that sometimes things can just be better in words. Take pretty much any book-to-film adaptation. Take Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. I’m a huge Tolkien fan, and I’m also rather partial to Jackson’s sweeping vision of Middle Earth. I very much like the extended, blown-to-maximum-proportions take on the slim novel. But one scene frustrated me: the one with the trolls. In the book, Gandalf uses his wizardly wiles and magic voice-modulator (is that a standard DnD spell?) to trick the stupid trolls. In the movie, Bilbo does it with just a few suggestions regarding herbs. I prefer the book version, but I know that it would be much harder to do as effectively on film. The Bilbo-saves-the-day version just cut out a lot of trouble.
But it isn’t as good. What if we need something less visual occasionally; or rather that sometimes a world built out of words, but with the interactivity of a game, could do a much better job than any 3D rendered one. We’ve already seen in the awards season that cutting-edge super-realistic visuals aren’t everything (the prosecution calls Journey to the stand). What if visuals can be avoided if the situation is right?
I present to your honours for examination Echo Bazaar, the flagship of small text-based, choose-your-own-adventure style games company Failbetter Games. The Bazaar is set in a dystopian, underground version of Victorian London. The text is dripping with texture, a dark sense of humour and a sense of the wonderful and macabre. I have been playing for months now, and have made it quite far in the game. From where I am, I can’t see that my experience would have improved much with visuals. In fact, the free-form, bizarre and often murky (morally and in terms of the overwhelming darkness of underground London) actions would be constrained somewhat by visuals. The city of Fallen London has no copy-pasted citizens who all seem to look the same the longer you play because they are in your mind. To fall into a cheesy bibliophile cliché, it is better to imagine it.
But it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s why text-based games have been so incredibly scarce in recent years, alongside the old point-and-click genre. Straight up platformers too have struggled of late. But maybe, just maybe, the hipsters and retro-game lovers will see the virtues of this small genre and breathe life into it. There are some interesting ideas floating around the Failbetter site. Interactive fiction is a really cool idea. It takes my two favourite forms of entertainment and blends them into an interesting new form.