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Text adventures are back from the dead

Voice recognition could boost a fading form

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It’s easy to dismiss text adventures as the relics of a bygone age. They served a purpose when art and animation were too memory-intensive for the computers of the day. They were popular with a generation of players who thought choose-your-own adventure novels were neat.

And then, they were gone, superseded by heavily illustrated adventures and games with rich (ish) dialog trees.

So when a man says, actually, no, text adventures have a big future, there’s a temptation to treat this as, well, fantasy.

But Bob Bates has a point that could overturn perceptions of a generally moribund genre. He’s talking about voice recognition.

“Think of playing a game in your car,” he says. “So you’re stuck in traffic, and you’ve got this game on your Bluetooth. You’re playing this game while you commute. This is an art form that has not yet been fully developed.”

The promise of voice-controlled games has been boosted in recent years by Amazon’s announcement of a tool for its personal assistant gadget Alexa, which allows developers to create interactive adventure games for the device. One such is Jagex’s Runescape Quests, which is played entirely using voice controls.

Bob Bates

Open Play

Interactive fictions tend to posit fictional scenes and then leave the player to figure out how to proceed, by directly addressing the puzzle through text. So, if the player faces a door, they might write “Open door,” and this will either work or it won’t. Text adventures have their own language that players are expected to learn, through trial and error. But that language essentially boils down to interacting with objects, spaces and NPCs.

Some text adventures offer up multiple choice options, but for the hardcore, only open-ended input will do. Bates says he has no interest in multiple choice or dialog trees. His games tend to be linear, with a heavy emphasis on humor. You solve the puzzle and you move onto the next one.

Bates was writing text adventures and interactive fiction back in the 1980s, first for Infocom and then for the company he helped to create, Legend Entertainment. Alongside Steve Meretzky, he helped release the Spellcasting series as well as Timequest and Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur. Some of these games included illustrations, but they were essentially about text.

In more recent years he’s been busy in senior positions at the International Game Developers Association, and working a managerial role at Zynga.

Now he’s making a new text adventure, called Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way, which recently passed its $25,000 Kickstarter target. He plans to release the game — a fantasy tale of modern magic — this summer.

Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way
Bob Bates

Art and Misdirection

Despite the enthusiasm of more than 800 backers, it’s fair to say that text adventuring isn’t exactly a roiling lava-field of activity. A quick search of Steam reveals pretty slim pickings, with most of those multiple choice games.

Bates is a true believer. “There’s an open-endedness to this style of game that makes you feel as if you’re there,” he says. “You’re free to investigate the world and interrogate the characters you meet.

“That playfulness is not really present in adventure games that only offer you fixed paths. So it's a different feel and it’s a different experience. I wouldn't even say that one is better than the other. They are just different.”

I ask Bates if the absence of art in his game is just about resources. If I offered him $100,000 worth of art for his game, right now, would he take it?

He says no. Art tends to misdirect the players of games that are designed for text. “I decided early on that there would be no graphics. Let’s say you’re in a scene in a a feasting hall and there’s a Viking sitting at the table and there’s a silver chalice in front of him on a table. All I’ve written are the viking, the table, and a chalice. What an artist is going to do is make that more interesting. They are going to put torches on the wall. The torches will be on fire. Everyone is going to want to set things on fire. They are going to focus on the wrong thing.”

Bates adds that maybe he’d like to take the $100,000 worth of art to work on a game that’s designed specifically to incorporate the art.

Bob Bates

Keep the Flame Alive

He enjoys writing these games, because the act of creation is itself a kind of puzzle. He has to try to anticipate the many possible actions players will take, and craft a response to them. Players like it when their weirder responses get an actual response.

And even though his style of writing hasn’t changed, he can now input many more potential replies, as well as more synonyms that will make life more pleasant for the player, creating fewer “I don’t understand XYZ” moments. His game is also lathered with guidance and tips for those of us who need a helping hand.

Bates hopes there’s enough people out there to keep the text adventure flame alive, and to perhaps ignite spoken-word games in the way that spoken word books have become popular.

“I hope that will be the future. I'd like to make more games like this. I love the genre. It's fun to make. It’s fun to play. No, I don’t think of it as just a nostalgia thing.”