If you had access to a micro computer in the 1980s chances are you played a text adventure. You may have even written one.
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The pleasures of the text
Frustrated gamers playing text adventures would inevitably find themselves at some time typing a string of expletives into the hapless interface only to be rewarded by a snide comment or just more stonewalling from the game. Infuriating and often very punitive on the player the punishing nature of these games made the actual mastery of a text adventure a special pleasure. No amount of button mashing or sly practice was going to make you look good in front of your friends when playing a text adventure. You needed to understand the constraints of the language system and the logic of the gameworld, or at least understand it well enough to get the job done. You had to figure out how to communicate effectively with the game, finessing a vocabulary of acts that would allow you to solve the challenges that you faced.
Navigating worlds of words
Navigating these worlds of words was a particular challenge, and having more than one person play was a good idea so someone could map the spaces as you moved through them. Learning the logic of moving through the gameworld was often a trial and error business. Patience and repetition (repetition insured by the inevitable death or failure) allowed you to plot a representation of the world. The descriptions of places were often engagingly evocative or playfully rewarded the player with puns and in-jokes. Grotnik Software’s “Bunyip Adventure”(1984) offers a compendium of Australiana from the farmers in the pub complaining about the “bloody drought, bloody rabbits, bloody flies…” to camping with a jolly swagman by a billabong under a coolibah tree on your way to solving the riddle of the bunyip. Nick Montfort in his work on interactive fiction suggest that exploration is itself a form of reading pleasure, an idea that Henry Jenkins has also discussed in relation to how narratives of travel work as story in videogames.
Playing text adventures on the micro computer evoked in some a desire not just to explore these worlds but create them too. Listings for text adventure games populated computer magazines of the early 1980s such as “PC Games: Australia’s Guide to Micro Entertainment” which boasted Australia’s largest Program Listing Section. Melbourne House included an uncredited type-in “Adventure” game in their 1982 book “Over the Spectrum” which was also available on a compilation cassette. There were specialist books dedicated to the writing of text adventures including Melbourne House published “The Computer & Video games Book of Adventure” by C&VG columnist Keith Campbell giving useful advice on how to write an adventure game. Jenny Tyler and Les Howarth’s popular book “Write your own Text Adventure for your Microcomputer”(1982, published by UK publishers Usborne) was a guide to writing a two word command text adventure in BASIC. It featured a full listing for a game “Haunted House” that players could then alter but also guides to building your own maps and creating puzzles for those who wanted to start afresh with their own ideas. Aimed at a youthful audience they explained how text adventures worked as interactive databases and offered tips for debugging as a well as working with differing systems such as the Vic20, Spectrum, BBC Micro Dragon and Oric in particular being aware of how much memory your computer had to work with.
Australian designer Matthew Hall was in still in primary when he began writing text adventures for his Commodore 64 armed with a copy of “Creating Adventures on your Commodore 64”(1984) a gift from his grandfather.
You can download some of his original text adventure games here
The Matt Hall C64 Bundle! 30 years in the making! http://files.klicktock.com/c64/matt-hall-c64-bundle.zip
Did you write text adventures in the 1980s?