CIRCA:Text Adventure (Computer Game Genre)


Jump to: navigation, search


Definition and Typical Features

Text adventures are a genre of computer game where a player must type commands on a command-line describing actions (e.g. 'look,' 'go north,' 'open door with key') which, if entered in valid syntax and context, will be performed by a character representing the player within the virtual fictional narrative being described by the computer program through text & or graphics. Subject matter is wide and varied, covering a wide range of literary styles including fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mystery, comedy, to avant garde. Typical features defining the genre include:

A screenshot of ca. 1977 text-adventure Zork I showing the textual description given when the game starts - As found on
  • Textual descriptions-- including locations and objects and the effect of actions as they are called for by commands. Early text adventures designed for computer systems not capable of displaying graphics rely solely on textual description -- later versions of text adventures often incorporate pictures as well as text.
  • Second-person narrative perspective -- the main actor in the narrative is referred to by the pronoun you, indicating the person playing is responsible for instigating the action of the game through their input. E.g. "You are standing in an open field..." (Text shown in the image to the right).
  • Items storable in a personal inventory -- for example, keys to a door.
  • Puzzles with multiple steps -- for example, entering the command 'use key in door' might be required to open a door, and only work once the player has used 'look in mailbox' to find the key and 'get key' to add the key item to their personal inventory.
  • Locations -- contexts where certain commands will work. e.g. the command 'look' typically provides a textual description of the area the player last entered and clues such as whether there is a key or a door nearby.
  • Non-Player Characters Including monsters or sidekicks that may perform actions for or to the player, or be conversed with and given commands.
  • Alternate narrative outcomes -- mistaken actions which could be avoided if clues are carefully observed, ways of gaining or losing 'points' for solving a puzzle in a certain order, or possibly alternate endings to a story based on certain decisions.
  • Procedural events-- events based on variables such as probability. For example, the Wikipedia entry for the very first text adventure, Collosal Cave Adventure, reports that while playing that game the following is possible:
When the player arrives at a location known as "Y2", the player may (with 25% probability) receive the message "A hollow voice says 'PLUGH'." This magic word takes the player between the rooms "inside building" and "Y2".
  • Plain language but restrictive syntax for commands Players communicate their intended actions to the computer using ordinary sentences rather than specialized computer code, but the program's language parsing capabilities (especially in earlier games) may require a very minimal and specific syntax of noun + verb + direct object combinations. For example "Go through door" or "Use door" might be acceptable, while "Proceed through entryway" or "Flee the area" would likely not be recognized as valid.

Text Adventures as Interactive Fiction -- Similarities to other Narrative Forms

The term interactive fiction has been used as a synonym for text adventures , underscoring the genre's position as an alternative style of fiction to longer-established literary forms such as the novel. However, although all text adventures are interactive, not all fictions permitting interactivity are text adventure computer games, or computer games at all. Although the concepts and technology behind text adventures are similar to those underlying the Internet, the games have also many precedents that came about not necessarily through recent digital technological developments:

  • Performances of plays have always occasionally veered slightly off script -- some theater traditions permit or expect actors to intentionally ad lib or interact with the audience.
  • Role playing games with virtual personas and described fictional scenarios have been around for centuries.
  • Hypertext fiction has been explored in book form including the well known 1941 short-storyThe Garden of Forking Paths.
  • Merce Cunningham Ballet from the 50's onward employs probability and chance operations to live performances.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure Novels employ the second person perspective, branching narratives with different outcomes based on player choices.

Novel Features of (Digital) Interactive Fictions

Although many of the typical features of text adventures have precedents in non-digital art, the form presents some extended capabilities to the notion of dynamic 'texts.' Here are two examples:

  • Extends the degree to which the individual player may be the center of focus - made possible by programming the computer to give appropriate responses and perform calculations without anyone else needing to be present. Although improvised drama allows the possibility of direct interaction with an audience, few play productions can afford to focus solely on one audience member's experience(games may do this for millions of players).
  • Extends the degree to which the narrative must be 'configured' by the individual player, who must 'act' strategically in order for the narrative to proceed -- in contrast to traditional cinema (for example), in which the action continues regardless of whether important details have been noticed by an individual.


  • In 1975-76 Will Crowther created the first text adventure game -- Collosal Cave Adventure a.k.a. ADVENT, Colossal Cave, or Adventure. Although this was merely a side-project inspired by Will's love of cave exploration and meant to entertain his daughters and himself, others began to catch on to the potential of the concept for expansion. The first was Don Woods, who with Crowther's permission expanded and improved the initial version of Colossal Cave, adding fantasy elements such as elves and trolls inspired by Woods' love of Tolkien lore.
  • In early 1977, Adventure spread across ARPAnet (forerunner of the internet which, incidentally, Will Crowther had been employed to help program).
  • By 1978 the first commercially available text adventure, Adventureland was created by Scott Adams, loosely patterned after Crowther's game. Like Collossal Cave, Adventureland took advantage of the fact that early home computers had little if any graphics capability.
  • 1979 -- the founders of Infocom completed the first version of their game Zork, which they had began working on in 1977. The game which would sell over 300,000 copies in the next five years, and eventually over 1,000,000 copies. Infocom set the technological and artistic standard for graphical adventures over the next several years (with several sequels to Zork and other important titles such as an adventure game adaptation of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The heyday of Infocom games constitutes a golden age for the popularity and artistry of text adventures.
  • 1980 -- Also directly inspired by Colossal Cave, Ken and Roberta Williams decided to start a company (Sierra On-line) to create adventure games, coming up with the first commercial graphical adventure Mystery House.
  • Transition To Graphical Adventures
  • By 1985 and onward, text adventure games were routinely accompanied by supporting graphics supported by more powerful home computers.
  • The 1985 game Deja Vu was similar to text adventures except that now noun-verb combinations were selected by point-and-click (with a mouse or joystick to control an onscreen cursor, a new feature supported by home-computers).
  • By the end of the 1980's Lucasarts (Curse of Monkey Island Series) and Sierra Online (King's Quest, etc) were leading the market for graphical point-and-click adventures. The genre gradually transitioned from selecting verbs and nouns to directly clicking on objects to perform interactions. As the 1990's technological arms race for graphically driven action games ensued, the puzzle and story-base game Myst surprised the market by holding the record for best-selling game between 1993 and 2002.
  • The basic forms established by text and graphical adventures remain a part of many games were there is an interactive story with dialogue choices involved, rather than just occasional movie sequences to advance the plot. In these cases players usually can read and select from a list of dialogue items, and the second person narrative voice describing to players what they are seeing and doing is more often than not replaced by animation and sounds that communicate similar information.

Renewed Interest and current applications

  • Most classic text adventures can now be accessed and played online.
  • In 2011 a full length video documentary of the history of text adventures was created by director Jason Scott and enthusiastically promoted by Google Tech Talks.
  • A burgeoning independent development community is active in creating new text adventures in low or no-budget productions -- this is an interesting possibility for amateurs create their own interactive work without the massive expenses and skill-sets involved in creating a full-scale graphical game.
  • Text adventures also provide an underlying method for creating interactive graphic novels with still or animated artwork backgrounds, a commercially salient hybrid genre in Japan, a pattern which a few western commercial games have tried to emulate.
  • In 2010 influential text adventure author Andrew Plotkin started a Kickstarter project to design a new text adventure game and text adventure development kit for the iPhone, and in just a few months, received over 30,000 dollars in donations.
  • As with text-message based cell phone novels, the medium offers authors great flexibility to choose subject matter of personal and cultural importance that major game publishers are unlikely to consider commercially viable.
Personal tools