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 requires 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 by executing textual commands via type. 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 respond 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 which have a Labyrinth structure). 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

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Analysis of the paths and outcomes of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

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. There is a pre-determined element in addition to a user-created aspect in both mediums, creating a cake-mix effect when the two parts combine. In CYOA 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 "'...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.

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. 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 mechanic type in order to dominate and win a game (Kittler, 199).

Visuality/The Imagined

Because there are no graphics, the act of seeing and observing in a text-based computer game is, aside from reading, an entirely internal process for the player. The mediation between eyes and text constructs images in the mind, and this act of imagining creates a unique relationship between machine and body. Because the only aid in creating the gaming landscape is an often brief textual description, I will uphold Crary's idea that "the human body, in all its contingency and specificity...becomes the active producer of optical experience" and apply it to the experience of text-based computer gaming (Crary, 69). Rather than an "optical experience" resulting in a user viewing an image and making inferences about that image, the player is physically creating an image. Similar to Maine de Biran's concept of the "'sens intime,'" this mode of gaming is centered around an internal experience. Likewise, Shoperhauer "rejected any model of the observer as passive receiver of sensation, and instead posed a subject who was both the site and producer of sensation...[he was] concerned with "'what occurs within the brain'" (Crary, 75). What occurs within the brain is directly tied to the game, since the game is basically mapped out in the mind. While the read/write process occurs physically, and the player types commands and sends them to the computer, the gaming experience is almost entirely dependent on the active imagination constantly forming and reforming images. This process allows the brain to become an active part of the game, tying the body closely to the computer, with the hands acting as an extension of the brain, typing commands as the mind configures a setting and decides the player's movements, which are executed through the fingers.

MOOs, OOP, and Interface

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A map of LambdaMoo.


A MOO is not a game in that there is no means to an end, and no way of winning, but it is closely tied to interactive fiction in that users must still navigate a maze-like setting in order to understand the landscape of the virtual world. A MOO is somewhat closer to a modern computer game because it requires a user to register a handle, and sometimes create a character, although one that is still represented textually. For example, in the popular MOO LambdaMoo, a user registers a handle and then can choose certain "physical" characteristics of their character, i.e. by changing the gender you are changing the personal pronouns that will be used to describe and address that character. The character "lives" in the virtual world and will often continue to stay there (sometimes as "sleeping") even if the user is not logged in.

OOP and Interface

What is especially significant about MOOs is that many allow users to participate in object-oriented programming (OOP), trumping Vismann and Krajewski's idea that "...the computer show[s] only its anthropomorphic face; that is, its interface...[the user] is born as one who is capable of neither any insight beyond the surface nor any programmer's knowledge whatsoever" (96). Although a game's interface depends on the interface of the operating system (the two must "agree"), MOOs allow users to physically change their surroundings through programming (via the MOO programming language) within the server of the game. You could add rooms, change the setting, and alter play with the knowledge of MOO programming language. In the world of gaming, this could be considered a hack, since players are typically not permitted to change a game's narrative structure. While Vismann and Krajewski would argue that not everyone is a programmer, and thus OOP is not accessible to all users, making it "...impossible to decipher the product specifications of the finished product or even to change these specifications," the MOO programming language is relatively easy and straightforward for English-speakers, and can be learned quickly by anyone who is computer-savvy enough to navigate an English language-based MOO (96).

The classic Hello world program can be written in MOO programming language as:

@program hello:run
player:tell("Hello to the world of MOO!");

By acknowledging the ability for users to change their virtual world through code, thus affecting the law of the world, we can argue that saying "beyond the interface, users have no access whatsoever" is variable, and not always as concrete as Vissman and Krajewski argue (100). Law is continuously changing in the world of the MOO, relationships between users and their setting are never definite, and code can reflect a common vision the users share (i.e. they want their MOO to be a safe, welcoming place). The use of OOP to alter a MOO also counters the idea that computer and video games are contained within a "black box" and players/users cannot view or change the software's mechanics, which are often shrouded by interface. However, what remains unclear is if older MOOs, popular in the 1990s, that still exist, continue this open feature, or if they remain closed as a sort of artifact that people can tour.

The Image-Based Computer Game

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Creating an avatar in World of Warcraft.
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Navigating EverQuest.

As computer technology advanced and more image-based computer games were released, the text-based computer game fell out of favor and became something that appealed to an even smaller nice audience of programmers and "geeks." Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) like Ultima Online became one of the dominant genres of computer games in the late 1990s, and visually constructed a fantasy world in which players would create an avatar and use it take part in game play, moving their physical bodies further away from computer gaming. The idea of storytelling and narrative also changed, proving that "computer games, even those that contain substantial amounts of storytelling, do not reside comfortable within existing models of narrative" (Carr, 38). Image-based computer games have more mobility than text-based games and the player can choose to not follow the narrative embedded within the game (i.e. my avatar can just walk around a field killing monsters in WoW rather than complete quests). With the advancement of computer graphics came this increased mobility and a point-and-click method of moving. By eliminating textual commands, the computer game became more of a closed system, resulting in an interface that was entirely one-way and not malleable. Rather than type where I want to go in an imagined setting, I click my avatar through hills and forests that have already been visually created for me. The player becomes more passive, passing along game play to his or her avatar rather than using their body and mind as part of the game. Rather than the game being a "process of subjectivization in which the subject is simultaneously the object of knowledge and the object of procedures of control and normalization," the game becomes an objective experience in which subjectivity ends when you choose your avatar's hair color (Crary, 92).


Carr, Diane. "Games and Narrative." Computer Games: Text, Narrative, and Play. Cambridge: Polity, 2006. Print.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: on Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1990. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1999. Print.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages: an Approach to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2003. Print.

Vismann, Cornelia, and Markus Krajewski. "Computer Juridisms." Grey Room 29 (2008): 90-109. Web.