CIRCA:Text Adventure (Computer Game Genre)


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Definition and Typical Features

Text adventures are a genre of computer game where a player types on a command-line descriptions of intended actions (e.g. 'look,' 'go north,' 'open door with key') which if known by the game program prompt the computer to return clues or descriptions of how the actions performed advance events in a virtual fictional narrative. Typical features of 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.
  • 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 in while playing that game:
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 but restrictive syntax for commands Players communicate their intended actions to the computer using ordinary sentences rather than specialized computer code, but the computer typically can only recognize the plainest syntax. For example "Go through door" or "Use door" might be acceptible, while "Proceed through entryway" or "Flee the area" would likely not to 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. Text adventures have some interesting 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.

Degree to which the individual player is the center of focus - made possible by programming the computer to give responses and perform calculations without anyone else being present. Degree to which the narrative must be 'configured' by the individual player. The concept of virtual presence and inventory.

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