Text Based Games Connect Gamers With Their Roots

Zork Text Game
By Tony Christensen

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.


Play Zork at Iron Realms!

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.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Tony_Christensen


Well versed you are, sirrah. Simply put, you are correct. Many of those who play graphical MMOs should indeed pay homage to what started it all. If you look deep down at the code behind the graphics of a game like WoW or EQ, you realize you could route it to a telnet user and play the same thing as a MUD, more or less. The only thing you'd need to add is individual rooms within the zones.

And, the fact that you mentioned Zork in this article should win you thousands upon thousands of golden coins from the sky. Well written, Tony.

Years before I started playing Achaea, I was a writer- poetry, stories, blogs. I could form worlds in my mind and write them on the page. It was a coping mechanism, it was an escape. After moving around a lot, I stopped writing, I lost my drive.

As soon as I was introduced to Achaea, I felt my writing bug spark to life. I had found a muse! I thought up Trilliana's whole story, what I pictured her in my mind, that she would be a Scholar (Which she did for the Wardens) And all in a FREE game. It was so much better for my writing than visual MMOs and honestly, it got my imagination and my vocabulary higher than it was while I was in school.
I reconnected with myself. After a couple of absences, I've connected to friends that I never would have had before, I would have never met my husband, would have never had kids, and would probably be either homeless and alone or completely miserable with my mom.
I'm going to get my kids onto this game, or even Midkemia with my husband just because it can do so much for them with reading and their imagination.

It's interesting to think about this marvelous history of the text-based medium in the context of constant pronouncements that this-or-that is "dead." Most recently, Wired Magazine declared, "The Web is Dead." Well, to that I say, Bullpucky!
The reason for a technology to be dead, one assumes, is that a new technology has arisen to serve the same functions or desires with greater efficiency, or just in a "cooler" way. Thus the mainstream moves from MUDs to MMORPGs, or from letter-press to digital press. The problem is that graphic MMOs don't capture all the functionality of MUDs. Analogously, the digital press doesn't capture all the aesthetic functionality of the old-fashioned letter-press.
A new technology might capture the "mainstream," but where a value goes un-transferred, a constituency for the old tech is bound to remain.
It's in the rare instance that you see a new technology capturing ALL the functions and values of an old technology that an old technology "dies." For example, cuneiform has been totally supplanted by later forms of written communication. The only reason to write in cuneiform today is nostalgia or historical interest.
It'd be pointless to deny that nostalgia and historical interest are part of the reason for continued interest in MUDs, but as a long-time player of MUDs, primarily Achaea, I can say that the old technology has values that the new technology, the banner of which is carried by World of Warcraft, emphatically fails to capture.
MUDs don't need graphic artists to sketch out every new development. The graphics hurdle limits the class of people that can make permanent or semi-permanent changes to the fabric of a game to developers. On MMOs like WoW, as far as I can tell, the pinnacle of success is to have access to all the commodities the developers have created. On MUDs like the Iron Realms MUDs, even low level players expect to create content, in at least a limited capacity. And the smaller scale means that the ranks of the "developers" are open.
Events in Achaea can be truly open-ended and they can result in the destruction of whole cities, as well as real political re-alignment. Meanwhile in WoW, the Hoard and the Alliance will continue to bash on one another, and the next major event will be tied to the next expansion pack Blizzard wants purchased.
The dynamism of the IRE games, and of all MUDs, is possible because the MUD loyalists weren't seduced away by graphics, pretty much. For 30 years now, MUDders have pursued alternate values in their games and in so doing, have created a stream of technological advancement parallel to the mainstream represented by WoW. Just imagine what the Essex MUD players must think of the fiendishly complex combat scripting systems employed today. I imagine some are still playing today; it'd be interested to find one and find out.
Oh, and text adventures? They aren't dead either. They seem to be going by the title "interactive fiction" more regularly, and they have captured the interest of an avant-garde, not to mention Douglas Adams.

MUDs don't just connect me with my roots -they are my roots. I stumbled onto my first MUD at age 13 while searching the internet for "free games". At that point I was heavily into Runescape, which at the time was a two-dimensional (in more ways than one), completely free little Java-based MMO. The first MUD I played was a highly experimental roomless hunter-and-gatherer themed affair. Very interesting looking back on it, but it didn't have many players and the learning curve was steep. But a link on the website led me to Topmudsites.com. If only I knew what I was getting myself into.

I've been mudding (MUDing?) regularly since then, all through middle school and high school and now into (and out of) college. There were times when I became way too emotionally invested and things got unfun, and there were times when I lost interest completely and drifted away, but while graphics-based MMOs and game consoles have come and gone over the years, I've always just kept coming back to my favorite MUDs (and finding new ones when the ancients finally collapse).

Playing MUDs has shaped my vocabulary, my reading ability, and my social skills. I know I wouldn't be as educated or well-rounded today if it weren't for the millions of lines of language I've fed into, and been fed from, my MUSHclient input and output, and the enormous casts of characters and players - most excellent, others terrible - that I've encountered along the way.

Aaaaah man talk about a nostalgia trip.

While I have heard of the great MUDs of the past Achaea ha sbeen my one and only. Home sick one day I saw a review on g4 for Achaea and fell in love immediately. 

I got into muds at 9 years old and started here at 12 years old. I am still 16 so I am a bit of a newbie compared to others.

as good as it gets

You know I'm pretty sure I played Adventure at one point or the other. Maybe back on the computer we had that ran DOS. Heh. DOS.

Games like Leisure Suit Larry and Space Quest were my text game training wheels, a lot of those early adventure games used text commands to interact with the graphical environment

I don't think I played any of those games. I didn't have training wheels that lead me to MUDs as someone else put it, hell I don't even like RPG's or Reading so my roots are long disconnected from pretty much everything mentioned here.... i totally don't feel like a cool kid

Thats ok Emrik, I still think your cool

For those of us who now enjoy text based worlds such as Lusternia, Achaea, Aetolia, Imperian and Midkemia Online should remember those who laid the foundation for what became known as MUDs. Like I've told people numerous times before, I prefer text-based worlds as opposed to graphical ones because it allows the mind and imagination to expand further. And thank you for yet another great article!

My first MUD was a game called Dragons Era, back in the early 2000's, from which someone there introduced me to Achaea. I got into mudding when a friend of mine had actually urged me to play one, mocking it and pointing out how "nerdy and stupid" it was. Me, on the other hand, with my young and overactive imagination, found myself playing more and more, and trying out various other games, but I've never played a single-player adventure sort of game. Guess I'm just an oddball!

I actually started with Achaea, and then moved to Lusternia before I had begun my stitn with World of Warcraft. Then came WoW, and I proceeded to play Lusternia Off and on within those six years. But now I'm back for real, and it feels good! Unfortunately I'm not quite old enough for Zork, But I still get the reference!

I remember playing alot of text games growing up, but I can't for the life of me remember any names.

I used to play a few kingdom building games on the TRS 80.

Ah, those were the days. I remember text-based adventure gaming back on the old Amstrad CPC. No surprise really that I should enjoy the multiplayer version so much!

I've never played another MUD nor one before it for Achaea. I love Achaea and I doubt I could grasp my head around another one because I still attempt to do emotes in WoW that are achaean related and won't work.

I actually played a MUSE before I came to Achaea. It was fun and a lot more about coding descriptions and development of areas but when I find achaea I got caught here because of the RPG aspect!

Was just bored in a computer class one day, and my buddy leaned over gave me the link and i've been sucked in ever since.

I think the first text based game I ever played was Ferris. Or something with a similar name. It was pay-to-play, and I was a teenager without a credit card, so all I could do was play the free trials. Unfortunately, you only had five logins before the free trial expired, so I had to make each login count. Don't remember much about it, except that it taught me the basics of directional movement and how to pick up items. Pay2Play muds, man. Is coding really that expensive?

Wow, this is a great article, thanks! Lots more to learn compared to a lot of the other articles that have come before, and it really gives the sense that text based games are here for the long haul... which is important especially for someone who hasn't had a lot of past experience with it beyond playing Peasant's Quest and Thy Dungeonman. "Get ye flask," heheh.

Completely agree, one of the better articles so far.

I got hooked on these types of games when a small group of friends from school took up playing Doom 2 and connected to BBS's to do multiplayer. I found myself logging on more for games like LORD and Swords of Chaos than for Doom.

This is the first text based game i've played. It remdinds me alot of the old choose your own adventure books.

i think i saw Zork on call of duty black ops? 


hehe yeah i think my first rpg was larry too.. :) 

It was on there because activision owns the rights to Zork.

I'm not sure if it was Zork or something similar, but I remember in the 80's my dad bringing home from work his huge dinosaur IBM with the tiny little green screen and DOS, heh. Between then and now I played my first actual MUD over on msn with the pay-to-play Dragonrealms. When I could no longer afford to pay, I looked on mudconnect for another place to play and found Aardwolf back in 2003 (it was first on the list at the time) and was horribly sorry I found it *gags*. I then found Achaea (2nd in the list) and have been here ever since. <3

Good article. I grew up playing N64 and PS before playing my first text game, so can't say it brings me any closer to the roots!

There are a lot of similarities drawn from text-based/board rpg games and mmo graphical games. The roots and the foundation of games like WoW will alwasy be connected to the origin of Zork-like games, and the apple never falls far from the tree it came from.

Kinda. The roots of WoW are in Everquest, which are in mostly DikuMUD.

Wow, I've never played this, I should check it out!

I'm really new to text-based games like this. I really had no knowledge of the roots of MUDs and found this to be a very interesting article.

These times sound like nice times... Now I'm eyed suspiciously, when I tell people, I play text only games... If they'd at least give it a try :(

Never played Zork, but I have played Nethack and the Adventure games by Scott Adams. In fact, those were my first experience with computer RPG games and I absolutely loved them. So much so that I programmed many of my own text-based adventure games on the old computers I used to have back then. I have to look into finding Zork now, it seems.

Zork was a good text game trilogy, I remember getting eaten by the lurking grues.


I had a pet Grue once, but since he only came out in the dark I never saw him much. I tried to take him for walks but he'd just tear off the leash and eat people. 


In the end, I had to put him down in a dungeon. I think he appreciated the dark and there were always adventurers that would come by and get eaten. I never worried much about him, but sometimes I get teary missing the times we shared. 

I might try it out some day.


Hugo's House of Horrors was the first text game I played, when I was about 7 or 8. It had graphics.

Interesting article.

Galstaff. You enter the door to the North. The pungent smell of mildew permeates through the dungeon walls -

I really hated Zork.

They were good for their time.


The very first computer game I ever played and still remains a nostalgic favorite.

I remember being facinated enough to stay up all night playing a game like zork because it was brand new. I had never seen anything like it.I would experiment with everything in the room by saying get rock, pull rope, climb ladder or whatever.

I also remember the first multi player game I ever saw on a black screen with green letters. Internet access was rare back then and we had to go to a colledge to get online. Once the players reached level 20 they were granted the ability to program their own little area within the game. Basically one was given divine status over an area at that point. Everyone wanted that. It was the "goal" one strove to achieve by gaining experiance. I am thinking this was about 1980 ish. Boy I am gettng old.



This is the first time I've ever taken a good look at the history of the games I love so well, beyond the range of the well-known.


the games are fun, only tried the first game, but still, fun

never tried Zork myself, but happened onto MUD's anyway.

what roots, though?

hitchhiker guide to the galaxy text game was also a hit. Remembering that I looked up for nowadays MUDs and found Achaea..

good times



Before Iron Realms added it to their site, the only time I'd heard of Zork was when it was mentioned in The Big Bang Theory. I'm going to give it a try!