My “Ode” to the Forgotten Medium of Text Based Games

I get it: everyone loves graphics – even people like me, who holds any graphics technology superior to the 16-bit era in near-mythical regard. And unfortunately, not everyone loves to read… sadface.

So let me tell you a little anecdote.

I am a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Therefore, when I heard that Martin had reached a deal with HBO to make a live action series, I was excited. The series aired last year, to both critical and popular acclaim. As much as I enjoyed the series, however, I was somewhat disappointed.

“But Einskaldjir, you’re disappointed by approximately 100% of everything,” you might fairly, although incorrectly, point out.

Martin himself, however, pointed out the issue (you can find it in his Not A Blog, although you’ll have to do some digging). It’s (relatively) easy to write about a battle between one army of 25,000 men – many of them mounted – and another army of 15,000 men. It becomes quite a problem, however, to depict that battle in live action.

Do you hire 40,000 extras? Probably not. Do you hire several hundred, and then render the rest via computer? Maybe. Or do you simply hire a few dozen actors, and leave the rest of the battle to the viewers’ imaginations. In the end, the first option is prohibitively expensive and impossibly unwieldy, while any other option must balance expense with realism and practicality.

There are other problems as well, aside from issues of scale. Good writing can convey an impressive amount of information in limited space – and space is rarely at premium in a book. Film is, for the most part, limited to the visual and the aural (although creative directors can get a lot out of those two senses). In addition, movies are further limited to approximately two hours, and serials to some finite amount of either half hour or hour long segments. Books are hundreds of pages long, and even “short” books easily fill a two hour time allotment.

All of which explains, I hope, both my disappointment with the Game of Thrones series, and my fascination with text based games. The show was forced to omit scenes, characters, and even aspects of characters (and let’s not get into the unnecessary changes…). A text based game, much like a text based story, can include all of the features a visual based media cannot.

Don’t believe me? Think of this: you can literally emote anything – anything – in a text based game. Whether that’s actually a good thing may be up for debate, but it’s a feature. Or, perhaps only interesting to me, you can more easily interact with the environment: sit in chairs, light fires, heat rooms, anything you can describe can be done. As opposed to actually having to hard code graphically the infinite variations of behavior, you can just describe them – or let the players do so themselves.

Which brings up another point. In text based games, it would be far easier to allow players to create their own spells and abilities, with their own descriptions (dangerous, I know). Sure, you could create spells in Morrowind and Oblivion, and other games, I’m sure, but those spells were highly limited. As in, limited to the point of being mere extensions of effects already existent in the game.

I most assuredly don’t believe text based games should – even if they could, which they can’t – overtake graphical games as the dominant form. I just wanted to advocate that more folks give them a try, and you just might enjoy yourself. Plus, I’d like to think that a text based game revival could influence the next generation of games. We can dream, right?

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