Text-Based Computer Games

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The opening sequence of Zork I, created in 1979 by Infocom.

Text-Based Computer Games are a mode of gaming, popular during the 1980s, that require players to read lines of text on their computer screen which describe a virtual world and prompts players to interact within and navigate that world by typing textual commands using a keyboard. The games did not contain graphics (pixel-based images such as bitmaps or raster graphics), and required heavy participating from the user, creating an experience that closely linked the human body to machine. Games such as Zork and Adventureland are definitive examples of text-based computer games, and although they are not obsolete, they have generally been remediated by image-based computer games such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest that feature advanced computer graphics, ultimately allowing the user to detach themselves from the game, replacing their physical body with that of a digitized avatar. This article will explore the experience of text-based computer gaming, and argue that is a form of interactive fiction which prompts players to actively use their minds in order to imagine a virtual world, allowing them to solve a maze-like puzzle. This article will also include an analysis of Multi-User Dungeon Object Oriented virtual realms (MOOs), because although they are not technically "games," they are text-based virtual worlds which users can explore and navigate while interacting with other users in a chat-based setting, while additionally allowing users to participate in narrative creation through object-oriented programming.

Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction, as the term is "appropriately" used, is a form of computer software that describes a world using text and requires users to participate using text-based commands in order to navigate the world. By this definition, text-based computer games are interactive fiction. But taking the term literally, there are several forms of interactive fiction, including MOOs and Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). The common thread that ties together all interactive fiction is the aspect of the "secret" that is created by the narrative structure (mainly text adventures). In interactive fiction, "the secret is locked away, and a different sort of effort--a puzzle solving that manifests itself as actual writing--is needed to unlock it" (Montfort, 3). This section will explore several aspects of interactive fiction that are required in order to unlock the "secret."

Remediated Narrative

Interactive Fiction, literally, can be many things outside of computing. For instance, riddles could be considered an early form of interactive fiction, and a slightly more contemporary example would be the Choose Your Own Adventure novel, which text-based computer games would be a direct remediation of. In these novels, readers are told to make different decisions in the plot that would result in various outcomes. Similar to players in a text-based computer game, the reader "...determines if certain events will occur at all, and how they will unfold if they do: at such times the [reader] is the one doing the plotting. This means that these events cannot be considered narrative in the strictest sense" (39). If narrative is something pre-determined, what the readers of Choose Your Own Adventure novels and the players of text-based computer games create is something slightly different. Both CYOA novels and text-based computer games have a pre-determined course of events that are created either by the author of the novel or the programmer of the game (which varies, as will be discussed later with MOOs). What the readers/players do is similar to Chatman's idea of the "implied author" or Aarseth's idea of the "intrigue," a "'..the mastermind who is ultimately responsible for the events and existents'" (Carr, 40). What the text-based computer game does is take the elements of the CYOA novel and shroud it further, you cannot flip ahead and take a sneak peek at the outcome of each decision you make. You are literally faced with a blank screen and have to guess which way to go, how to move, and what to do in order to achieve your desired outcome. This makes the text-based adventure game more similar to a labyrinth than the CYOA novel, a more complex, detailed world that expands the notion of secrecy.

Reading the Labyrinth

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From the experience of a player, "a work of interactive fiction can itself be seen as a maze of twisty little textual passages..." (Montfort, 91). The majority of text-based computer games describe a setting and then require users to either manipulate an object within that setting and/or go in a certain direction towards a different location. There is typically no map or instruction for which way to go, only sometimes a clue, creating a maze for the user to blindly navigate. As the user progresses through the game, the maze is expanded into a virtual world, the user connecting each part to form a mental map of the virtual universe they've become a part of. The Labyrinth set-up allows the game to evolve into something more than just a reading/writing process; "if the component reading and writing processes are arranged using puzzles in such a way that the challenges of an interactive fiction world are hard enough and easy enough, the other elements can enhance, and be integral to, the reading pleasure that is involved" (Montfort, 3). These "other elements" can include play and what Montfort calls "figuring out," a problem-solving aspect of game play that requires players to develop strategies in order to maximize their game time and not run into any dead-ends (3). This makes the physical reading aspect of the game enjoyable and integral to game play, creating one of the links between machine and body that develop through this mode of gaming. One must read, process the text, make a decision based on the text, and generate output via typed instructions.

The Typed Word

The principal mode of interaction players use in text-based computer games is the keyboard, through which they type instructions that allow them to move through the game's narrative. Kittler claims that "The typewriter cannot conjure up anything imaginary, as cinema can; it cannot simulate the real..." (Kittler, 183). Although the keyboard, a remediated version of the typewriter which operates similarly, cannot explicitly reproduce the real in the way cinema can, it is a mode of simulating the real in text-based computer games. Through the keyboard, one can open letters, climb a cliff, and explore a forest. Although this Kittler cites Heidegger's idea that the typewriter demeans the hand, since it "'...deprives the hand of its rank in the realm of the written word and degrades the word to a means of communication'" in addition to making "'everyone look the same'" (Kittler, 199). Heidegger believes that one's identity is held in one's handwriting, and type homogenizes handwriting. However, I would argue that in text-based computer games the typed word is not an inferior mode of communication, but rather a powerful mode of controlling and navigating the virtual realm in a more direct way. Rather than the point-and-click method of moving an avatar through many modern image-based computer games, by typing the player is not transferring their agency onto a fictitious character, but more directly immersing themselves into the game. Rather than allowing type to "withdraw from man the essential rank of the hand," the player utilizes type in order to dominate and win a game (Kittler, 199).

Visuality/The Imagined

MOOs, OOP, and Interface

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A map of LambdaMoo.

The Image-Based Computer Game

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Creating an avatar in World of Warcraft.
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Navigating EverQuest.