Text Based Games Connect Gamers With Their Roots
Players of text based games know the phrase well: “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” This threat of imminent death originated in the famous addicting game “Zork.” Now 30 years old, knowing and fearing grues is a badge of experience amongst gamers. If you know never to venture into dark places without a light, you know your games. Zork’s enduring legacy is remarkable in its own right, but it is particularly notable for one simple fact: the game was played entirely in text. There were no graphics. None. While this may seem positively archaic in today’s landscape of intensely visual computer games, many are surprised to find that addicting games in text are the bedrock on which most of today’s online gaming landscape is based.
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The origins of Zork and its descendents lie in a program named “Colossal Cave Adventure” or simply, “Adventure.” Designed by avid cavers during the 70s, the addicting game involved taking on the role of an adventurer exploring a complex set of caves. Presented entirely in text, players could interact with the environment being described to them by entering commands such as “look at the tree, “go north” and “get sword.” Each command yielded a description of a new scene or the results of the player’s actions. While this hardly seems revolutionary now, one must remember that this the first time many people could interact with fantasy worlds via the computer. Adventure represented the birth of RPG video game.
Where Adventure laid the groundwork for text based games, Zork would add depth and content to the genre and parlay it into commercial success. Zork added a linear plotline, a robust command interpreter that allowed a great deal more commands to be entered and the trademark humor that has become the series’ hallmark. The famous phrase: “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue” served as a method to keep players from exploring areas before they had completed certain quests. The threat was very real; plunging into a darkened area without a light would result in the player’s untimely end in the stomach of a grue.
The puzzles found in the game required a level of ingenuity and lateral thinking that had not been found in computer games at the time. It’s here that we find the link between text based games and modern gaming. Zork and its earlier ancestors introduced the idea of completing a series of quests and riddles. This mechanic has become ubiquitous. Imagine games like World of Warcraft, Neverwinter Nights or even The Sims without the quests and lists of objectives that allow you to progress through the game.
Zork Innovated the most Addicting Games
The next evolution of the genre would happen when game developers moved the medium online. Starting in 1979, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle would develop Essex MUD (multi-user dungeon). While the game resembled the text based approach of Adventure and Zork, Essex MUD added a twist by allowing several players to join the game at the same time and work together to defeat dragons, solve puzzles and collect treasure. By doing so players earned points. The more points players gained, the greater their powers in the game, including the ability to change and add to the MUD environment itself. Essex MUD also added a new and startlingly popular feature, the ability to kill other players for points. Here the world was witnessing both the birth of both the idea of the raid and player-versus-player combat. Unlikely as it seems, the rabidly competitive PvP carnage found in games like Modern Warfare 2 and the obsessive raiding culture of World of Warcraft emerged from the primordial squeal and static of the 2400 baud modems that connected players to the MUD via dial up connections.
In the time since the advent of Essex MUD in the early 80’s, MUDs experienced a boom. Their elegant simplicity was perfectly suited for immersing players in complex, multi-faceted fantasy worlds at a time with computer processing power and bandwidth was incredibly limited. Several variants of the MUD emerged, sporting a variety of acronyms: MOOs (Mud: Object Oriented), MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucinations), MUCKs and MUSEs. By the mid 90s, the most popular MUDs sported upwards of 250-300 people simultaneously connected. The fantasy worlds to be found in these online games grew in complexity and immersiveness. It was from these simple beginnings that today’s visually stunning MMOs emerged. As computers became more powerful and bandwidth increased, modern MMOs such as Everquest and World of Warcraft emerged and grew dominant. But much of the structure of these games, from raids to player-versus-player combat to simple features such the “tells” by which people communicate with one another, found their genesis in text based RPGs. As Dave Lebling, one of the programmers of the original Zork games notes: “The MMOs are the most Zork-like, but the lineage is more through the side door: MMOs like Everquest and World of Warcraft are descended from MUDs, which were inspired by Adventure and Zork.” Thus, when players on popular online games prepare for their next raid, they may be wise to remember the heritage of text based games and avoid the darkness and the grues that lurk there.
Get connected to your gamer roots by tryout out some great text based games.
Tony Christensen is a text game enthusiast and currently plays games from http://www.IronRealms.com.
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