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 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. 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.
  • 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 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 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 Crowther permitted to expand and improve 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

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