The New Narrative of Video Games: Text Adventures

By Aaron Thies

When a person reads a book or watches a movie or the television, that person is whisked away to the world the creator invents with their words or imagery. The person observes as the story unfolds and experiences the emotions, the adventures, and the hardships the main character encounters; and, if the story is good enough, the observer grows attached to the characters. These mediums of storytelling have created some of the most memorable characters, settings, and plots of our past.

But in the last few decades a brand new and unique medium of storytelling has emerged and is known to the world as video games. Now, I’m not going to pander to the 1% of people who have been  living under a rock for the last 20 plus years and explain the entire history of video games, but what makes video games so unique is that the player is actively participating in the narrative, forwarding the plot as they play. This type of interactive storytelling is why a game like Grand Theft Auto V outsold every movie in existence just this year.

I know I just mentioned GTA, but what I’d like to do is take a step further back and examine something a little less contemporary in video game narratives, the genre of gaming known as the text adventure. Specifically, I’d like to highlight the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure. Hitchhikers_Guide_box_art text adventureA text adventure is unlike any other type of video game because of how it’s played: the story in one of these games is usually based on an already existing work of fiction, whether it is a movie like JAWS,  a play like Hamlet, or an incredibly funny novel like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the player advances the story by typing the right command. That sounds simple, but if you take into account that you have a move counter, and if you don’t accomplish something in a certain number of moves you lose, it gets considerably more difficult.

I haven’t played too many TA’s; I’ve really played only the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy one, but in my opinion it’s the best one. With the witty and hilarious writing of Douglas Adams, and the rage inducing and infuriating mechanics of text adventures, you are left with a work of art that causes me to laugh and punch the computer monitor. The most infuriating thing about TA is the fact that you have to accomplish most tasks in a certain order: you can’t brush your teeth until you get out of bed, or to take the headache reliever that’s in the robe’s pocket you first have to put on your robe, not just search your pocket. Failure to do these things in order precipitates  a sarcastic comment from the narrator and brings you one step closer to your demise. I have not yet made it any farther than the destruction of my house, because after its destruction a brick flies through the air, strikes me in the head, and kills me, forcing me to restart.

Text adventures were the first video games with an actual story to tell, but because of the graphic restrictions of early computers none of them had any kind of animation or illustrations, and they lost out to games with hardly any story like Pacman and Asteroids. But for the time this was an incredible step towards the future. The highest praised games of today are games with deep and engaging stories and interesting and realistic characters, and it was text adventures that attempted this first.

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