Fall of the Text

At one point in the 80’s, people were convinced that text adventures were going to be the future. Unfortunately, and to many’s dismay, this entire concept became almost completely obsolete in less than a decade. In current times, the text adventure primarily exists as a novelty, similar to silent films or even horse-ran carriages. The question though, is why didn’t these or text adventures, or the more prestigiously phrased “Interactive Fiction” keep up with the times? I believe the fall of these text adventures is traced to two chronic flaws: the emergence of new entertainment systems and the limitations of text for a commercial and accessible game.

The fall of text adventures in the mid 80’s is aligned with the release of many popular and powerful game consoles. Nintendo’s NES was released in 1985, and provided much more for the typical consumer to enjoy. This also reached a much more dominant audience. Montfort in his article Riddle Machines: The History and Nature of Interactive Fiction comments that interactive fiction proved difficult for even literary and electronic readers. These text adventures were successful in their time, but were most likely serving to a niche market. Nintendo and other companies took electronic games to the masses, abandoning any literary component.

Text adventures also had little room to grow. The benchmark adventure Zork expanded the amount of text and allowed full sentences for input, but maxed out the capabilities of the medium. Text is not a progressive medium, and it failed to provide new experiences to its consumers. This is not to disparage the grandeur of the text adventure nor discredit its claims of innovation, but when juxtaposed to graphical games, the limitations seem clear.

Although text adventures have fallen into irrelevance, this was not the death of interactive fiction. I could argue that there has been a reemergence of player involvement in narrative in game in the past decade. Series developed by Telltale Games and Bioware have been exploring how the player can lead the story of a game by giving dialog and decision options. Time will tell if we reach a fully interactive narrative, the next benchmark for interactive fiction.


One thought on “Fall of the Text

  1. “Series developed by Telltale Games and Bioware have been exploring how the player can lead the story of a game by giving dialog and decision options.”

    I think this is the most salient point. By reading/playing a text like Colossal Cave Adventure, we are peering back at the DNA of so many games of the present. Reading IF isn’t necessarily about appreciating the text or genre (though there is that) so much as it is understanding the potentialities for digital storytelling broadly.


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