Online Text Adventure Games: How to Explain Text Games To Your Friends

Question mark about text games

By Lisa Ohanian

Let me share a little secret with you: I play online text games. A lot of them.

But let me be completely honest; as much as I love text-based games, for a very long time I never recommended them to my friends, or even to my fellow gamers. The most I would ever do is admit to playing them with a sheepish smile, and then add to save face: "But they're not for everyone."

It bothered me even back then that I didn't feel comfortable touting the merits of text-based games, but I never thought much about it until recently. While I never considered it a 'dirty little secret' - as an unfortunate amount of text gamers actually do - I always just assumed that it was an odd, quirky little habit that nobody else I met 'IRL' would ever take the time to truly grasp.

It's undeniable that gamers today not only demand graphics, but expect them. Virtually every game rating system has a category for graphics, as if they were as essential to a game as having an engine, or the use of a keyboard or mouse. The modern notion of what a computer game is, is almost inextricably intertwined with the idea that it has to have graphics. Moreover, graphics are seen as technologically superior to text, and so even some gamers who are able to separate the idea of computer games and graphics still do wonder why anyone would ever subject themselves to text games when perfectly good computer games with beautiful graphics are so readily available.

Allow me to take a step back and look at the issue from a different angle.

Once upon a time in a land called 'the 1980s', there was a revolutionary text-based game called Zork. One of the most interesting things about this game (to me, at least) is that it was not, in fact, referred to as a 'text game' in this wonderous and strange land of the 1980s. Instead it was referred to as 'interactive fiction'. Zork enthusiasts have said in interviews that games like Zork are, "more like playing a book," and would enthusiastically describe it to friends as, "a type of literature [they] may or may not have seen before" (Get Lamp).

This is a far superior way to explain the genre to newcomers. Reframing text games as interactive fiction is one of the best things an enthusiast can do to 'recruit' for this lovely little niche for two very important reasons - it puts a positive spin on them instead of a negative one, and it conforms more closely to the kinds of expectations that a participant is most likely to develop.

Think about it; if you're unfamiliar with text-based games, comparing them to computer games can make them seem lacking because they don't have an expected component - graphics. This puts text games at a disadvantage from the very start. Explaining them as a type of interactive literature, however, makes them seem spectacular because it brings to mind all the appealing features of books and adds an exciting interactive element. This, by contrast, focuses on the inherent strengths of text games and makes them seem more innovative than outdated. It's like describing a donut as 'a bagel with frosting' instead of 'a cake with a piece missing in the center'.

Describing text games to newcomers as interactive fiction is also beneficial because it conforms more closely to their expectations, which allows them to have a smoother and more pleasant experience. One of the main arguments for the genre is that it can draw upon the imagination to create a more powerful and memorable experience than games with graphics will ever be able to, and this is a major selling point. But people are turning to games for the purpose of stimulating their imaginations less and less, while good fiction is still expected to do so. By putting newcomers in a position where they expect a more fiction-like experience, they are better prepared to work with the game rather than be confused or disappointed by it, and it ends up meeting the correct set of expectations.

I hope this article has shed some light on text games' place in the gaming community. Text games have a lot of fun and unique things to offer, as their players well understand, but they will never reach their potential if players remain quiet and ashamed. The key to spreading their joy is within our grasp; it is simply dependent upon our ability to express text games in a way that highlights their strengths and sets up new players to appreciate them.

"Get Lamp: The Text Adventure Documentary." Dir. Jason Scott. 2010.

Interactive fiction by any other name still plays just as sweet; so try some great online text adventure games today!

Lisa Ohanian is a text game enthusiast and currently plays games from

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it is like a book, where someone is flipping the pages for you, but they do it too fast. Also you enter your own story via the keyboard .. and.. there is.. okay what?

Its like a book, except every word of the book triggers a response from you which causes the book to change. So not really like a book, more like a dialogue. Except you can't really steer the conversation that much, so possibly more like an interrogation. Although its not always painful, so maybe more like bondage. Except its in text, kinda like a book...


This is why I don't bother trying to explain it to anyone.

I love the idea of "playing a book" as I love to read. A movie, or any graphical representation will never allow me the breadth of imagination that text will. One thing I used to do, not so much any more, is really look through an area that I liked, read the descriptions and really try to imagine my character in that space, fighting or exploring or doing whatever. A game like WoW is just for fun and pissing away some time, but a MUD, that's fun for my mind, to stimulate and provoke, and evoke.

enjoyed it!


coming from a country where only about 50 people know what a MUD is.. and probably only a handful actually play it, This explanation comes in handy.

Great article, I love the very positive spin you've put on text gaming. I can never seem to explain it very well, and my family is mostly convinced that all the text running across my screen is just a lot of code... Even though I couldn't code my way out of a paper bag.

That is exactly what I think everyone to whom I explain it thinks. And I can't code any either.

My friends and I have been playing MUDs basically since we got the internet.. and Achaea since basically it's beginning. So I always atleast have a few close friends who understand what in the heck I am talking about, even when our wives look at us like we are "special" when Achaea comes up as dinner conversation in a nice restaurant.

I'm right there with that feeling of "the look" when explaining a MUD like I'm pitching Amway to someone.

MUDs certainly have fewer (or broader) limits to creativity that graphical games do.  I love games in general but I am far more stimulated with the reading portion.

Although I have to put myself in the camp of people who don't talk about their text gaming (sorry multiplayer interactive fiction), just seems much less hassle to not mention it to be honest.

"It's a text game. Like a regular game, but everything is... text." And then if they show no further interest, that at least saves me from trying to explain why credits cost so damn much.

IRE games (and probably most text games) tend to have a different focus than your standard MMORPG. The way they are played, things to do and the why's are all different. These are not your typical games just in text. This is what I try to explain to people, but the fact it has no picture is enough to turn them off from it.


I think that even if they were interested, it can be intimidating for many reasons.

I stopped trying to explain text games to my friends. I just say they sacrifice graphics in order to allow a lot of other things, like custom emotes (try to do that in a graphic based game...), a really huge world and other things that allow a really good gaming experience for those willing to use their own fantasy. Sadly, everything that includes "you have to use your own..." has a good chance to scare away most people.


Lucky am I to be blessed with friends who are gamers themselves and understand that digital entertainment comes in many flavours. I never have to hold back on my love for Achaea because, even though they themselves might not enjoy it, they understand what draws me to them. 

On the rare occasion that I do have to explain it to someone who has no idea about this of games I tell them the following:

Imagine World of Warcraft, now remove the idiots doing stupid dances and talking like they recently broke their keyboards. Re-imagine the dreary imagery of the hopelessly outdated graphics with the most enticing and detailed world you can imagine. And then imagine the people in that world creating their own stories of politics and interpersonal relations on top of a deep lore and mythology. Only prerequisite is that you can read and write.

Simply. Awesome.

My favorite is "How do you win?" or "Does it ever end?"


or just simply a fizzled "I don't get it"

I tend to say, "You know Dungeons & Dragons? Like that but you can play it online without the dice."


For some reason they seem to grasp it quite well that way—even got some people playing Achaea from that too!

make your own stories

Text based games remind me of those choose-your-own-adventure stories: make your characters do what you want them to do and reap the consequences of your actions in some plot twist later. Only the best part of the game is that you never hit a point where you have to start all over again.

I'm fortunate in that my friends play D and D, so it's not so hard for them to imagine what a MUD is. :P

Agreed. If people know what D&D is, they're going to understand why a game that takes place solely in the form of words is likely superior to one played through a graphical interface. If they don't know enough to think D&D is appealing, I'm sure as heck not going to try to explain MUDs to them!


Very nice article, indeed.

On my side, I have no big problem in explaining what I am playing because all my firends know text adventure gaming. We were there in the old days. Basically, we started playing with a wierd sort of tennis from Mattel, before Intellevision and Atari systems came out. The first coin op videogame I ever saw was Invaders, I guess I was six.

So, it is fair to say that my generation was born at the same time videgame intertaining appeared in the known world. In those times, Of all the videogames, the so called "adventures" like Zork etc...required the most reasoning, a.k.a. your brain. After that, the VG Industry started putting in pictures and greatly improved the vocabolary. It was still cool. Then, with the introduction of the mouse, text was generally abandoned in favour of the wounderous tool.

Incidentally, the web offers legitimate ways for anyone who whish to taste the flavour of the old days (Zork included, and many others, you can message me about it). I am a retrogamer.

My friends definetively understand what I am doing, although they stick to consolles (as adults with kids, we have very limited time to play). The irony of this is that it is easier for me to play Achaea, as it is very quick to log in and do stuff, that playing on Xbox for them. In Achaea I can choose the level of commitment I want (or I am allowed to by RL, I might say) while in other games it is impossible to play online as there are too many freaking babies that play all day and trash me istantly, although I was a pioneer in videgaming.

Achea is a rich, old fashioned, hardcore (and thus most rewarding) experience, simply perfect for me. Too bad I discovered mudding just a few months ago!

And no, I am not ahsamed to play Achaea, and these are just three reasons why (but there are many others, of course):

1) I am an adult and I conduct a healthy life, I do not play all day (I can't, but it is better this way);

2) I am not a native english speaker and mudding tests and improves my language skills constantly;

3) Trying to code the client is rather challenging, and keeps my brain in functions (I always wanted to do something in programming);

When my daughter will grow up, I definetively woud rather have her playing Achaea, or mud in general, than have her brain destroyed by COD, MW3 etc...I do not have a doubt about that.

Sorry for the long post!


...I might be worried about the mudsex thing. It is highly unclear to me.

I suppose you'd convince me to give it a try.


When you explain it, for God's sake don't throw in how much you (or other people) have spent on credits. Did I really spent 250 bucks so that I would be immune to the web tattoo?!?! (well also in-room web bombing)

I don't try to explain it, if they see me playing it and ask, I have them try it. MUCH easier!

I use two ways, one, it's like D&D, but on the internet, 2, it's no graphics, so you solely rely on your imagination!

Does that work?


I've always asked the question, "Have you ever wanted to control the story in that book you're reading?" I can.

I use "Have you ever wanted to live in and experience the book you're reading?" Same concept.

My friends wouldn't understand if I played games.


I'm a closet gammer...

"It is complicated."

I begin by telling them:  I have been playing this game on-line and its cool!.  It's a Text-based game where you actually get to use your imagination!.  I let them think about it, then they start asking questions.  Usually I have them hooked, if I have my lap top, I show them and let them actually see what is going on this also hooks lthem.  some don't play others do, but they all can tell the excitement in my voice how much I like it.

They did play, but the conversation was like this:


Friend: What do you do here?

Me: Anything! You can roleplay any kind of character you want, be it a socialite, soldier, merchant, or..or basically anything!

Friend: But..uh..what should I do?

Me: I don't's upon you to make your character and interact with people!


And they quit in boredom/frustration. :|


I'll try again next time. They shouldn't miss playing such a wonderful game!

Usually I concentrate on explaining how intricate descriptions are and how deep and varied the political and religious conflicts are.Then I have to repeatedly emphasize that no, it really -does not- have graphics, since the conversation tends to start because I'm drawing cartoons of Achaean things.

Theres no convincing some people though


its more about the invite...if you have to convince them, they probably won't have fun and we will probably not have fun with them

I don't tell and if asked I give as little information as I can unless the person I am talking to has played a role playing game before themselves. My favorite question is " Are you winning?" to which I always replay "oh yes!!"


get the same kind of question and give almost the same answer

I've never been able to get someone to play IRE for more than a few minutes, aside from my brother, who jumped into Lusternia the minute it was launched, and he's played ever since.


I usually say it's a roleplaying game all in text. I've got some friends to try it out but they didn't stick around for long.

I'm just frustrated that when I do try to explain to my friends what it is, they just call it 'Stupid' and write it off immediately. I was introduced to MKO by a friend, and I used to say 'No' ANd then one day I just made a character, and have been hooked ever since. 

Has not come up in conversation yet. Will hope I know what to say when it does.

but so far none of em have stayed

I got someone to try and play Aetolia with me. He got confused/pissed at it. That made me sad.

Very good article, Lisa.  This is exactly why I started to play Achaea, to became a part of a high fantasy, neverending living novel and have not been disappointed.

That is why I detest so many articles here and the IRE website itself pushing the idea of "text games", "addicting games", silly comic strips, attempting to compete with the wrong genre of games and attracting wrong type of players.

If you look at IRE website there is absolutely nothing there that would entice those seeking to be part of adventure, magic and fantasy and as a result they don't even bother to create a character to discover most incredible worlds living on the pages of individual games.