When we pick up a hefty tome by our favorite author, we understand that our minds will transport us into the story, with or without illustrations. Yet, with computer games, the absence of graphics or sound effects may strike many people as quaint and old-fashioned.
“50 Years of Text Games” by Aaron A. Reed makes it clear that this is itself an anachronistic way to think about games. The technology for multimedia is today both cheap and ubiquitous: hardly worth remarking upon. Screens are the canvas, the stage, and the empty page, on which any kind of story can be played. And the world of text games, it turns out, is more rich and vibrant than ever.
An enduring form of play
The $523,813 raised on Kickstarter to produce the book speak to the enduring interest in the genre, and can also be credited to Reed’s bona fides. The author’s work in interactive fiction over more than two decades includes narrative design, academic study, and a prior book teaching game development.
What is a text game? “In brief,” Reed writes, “it’s a game you want to share excerpts from, not screenshots.” Not all the games described in the book are completely without visuals, but they focus on tales and experiences conveyed through written or spoken text. They also feature at least some interactivity: the concept of a player rather than just a reader is meaningful in all of them.
After introducing the origins of text gaming before the 1970s, Reed’s approach is to pick a game for each year from 1971 to 2020, and to reflect upon its development, narrative, gameplay, and contribution to the genre.
Even if you are a longtime fan of text games, these are not necessarily the titles you have heard of. Instead of being guided by popularity alone, Reed has curated games that tell stories about the diversity of the genre and the many innovations within it.
Excerpt from the ebook for the year 1991 entry, about the BBS game “Trade Wars 2002”. The book features many quoted transcripts from the games. The printed book is in black and white. Credit: Aaron Reed (text) and original developers (screenshots). Fair use.
Reed has shared first revisions of each of these chapters in his Substack newsletter. The links below point to those early revisions, though interested readers are advised to purchase the book for the final versions. Here are a few examples of Reed’s curatorial approach:
1979 - “The Cave of Time”. This is not a computer game, but the first “Choose Your Own Adventure” gamebook. Its inclusion reflects how game design in print and on screen can inform one another. Reed does not mention it, but the CYOA books have themselves inspired a fascinating interactive fiction game called “The Boy in the Book” (review).
1981 - “His Majesty’s Ship ‘Impetuous’”. This little-known title is noteworthy because of its mechanics. Here, instead of typing commands like “GET LAMP”, as was common for most early text adventures, the player completes gaps in the story as it unfolds. For example, the game may prompt the player to write a line of dialogue for the protagonist. The software then matches on keywords to infer the player’s intent, and continues the story.
1987 - “Plundered Hearts”. This classic text adventure by Infocom featured a female protagonist who can romance a male love interest in a pirate adventure. Instead of pursuing romance, the player can choose to ditch the guy and become a fearsome pirate queen instead. Unlike many titles before it, the game prioritizes a compelling plot over punitive and immersion-breaking puzzles.
1999 - “King of Dragon Pass”. Through many meaningful choices, you help a small tribe to survive and thrive in a fantasy setting. The game features vast amounts of procedurally generated text and comparatively minimalist graphics. Despite a large budget, it was a commercial failure when it was released. Today it is a cult hit that has found many new players, thanks to online distribution through platforms like Steam and GOG.
2005 - “Shades of Doom”. This is a first-person shooter for visually impaired players, in which complex audio cues are used to set the scene for exploration and combat. Text games are often more accessible to visually impaired players than other video games; this title makes it clear that “text” does not have to mean “no action”, or even that the text is displayed on a screen.
Each game is covered in a few pages. Thanks to the wide range of styles and stories, I enjoyed reading through the whole book, rather than just picking and choosing titles that seemed appealing. The book also includes an introduction for each decade, which names many other notable titles that readers may wish to look up.
“King of Dragon Pass” is perhaps the most richly illustrated of all the games featured in the book, but even here, it’s the procedurally generated text that takes center stage. (Credit: A. Sharp. Fair use.)
For readers who are interested in narrative design, the culture of games, or interactive fiction as a genre, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy of “50 Years of Text Games”.
It’s a book brimming with ideas that should inspire anyone to create and play, and to experience the full range of what games can be. It’s also a labor of love by the author, whose meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful curation make this one of the best books about games I’ve ever read.
While Reed takes great care to identify potential spoilers for the games, this is not a book for hints or walkthroughs. Similarly, if you’re looking specifically for a book about, say, Infocom-style parser games, you should know that Reed explores the full breadth and depth of what text games can be, and does not limit himself to any narrow definition.
As of this writing, the print edition of the book is sold out, but an ebook version is available.
Behind the Frame, released in 2021, is the first game from Taiwanese indie developer Silver Lining Studio. You play as a young artist named Amber, who is poised to complete her final painting for a gallery submission.
I was grateful that no artistic skill is required of the player. Instead, you simply click and drag (or touch) areas of the screen to paint parts of the canvas in the required color. When you are not painting, you explore Amber’s quaint apartment, make breakfast, and solve seemingly inconsequential puzzles.
Behind the Frame’s visual style draws heavy inspiration from the movies of Studio Ghibli. One scene pays visual homage to Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”. (Credit: Studio Ghibli / Silver Lining Studios. Fair use.)
As the story advances, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Amber is persistently disoriented, her life seems to be circumscribed by the walls of her apartment, and a mysterious old painter across the street comes into play.
The game’s runtime is a little over two hours, which includes a secondary story that unlocks after your first playthrough. The game grabs your attention with its gorgeous art style, which draws obvious inspiration from Studio Ghibli; interactive sequences are interspersed with full-screen cut scenes.
Behind the Frame’s ambience is underscored by a soundtrack that skillfully blends cello, piano, guitar and the Flügelhorn, and which perfectly suits the cozy but slightly forlorn vibes of the game.
Given its short runtime, the less you read about the story going in, the better. Suffice it to say that the story is not entirely straightforward, and like a painting, will likely resonate quite differently for different players.
I found some of the puzzle mechanics a bit tedious, and while I enjoyed the story, it did not move me as much as the short and poignant Florence or the brilliant What Remains of Edith Finch.
Don’t expect a masterpiece, but if you’re looking for a cozy game with gorgeous art and music and a small mystery to unravel, Behind the Frame is a fine choice. I played it on the Steam Deck without issues, and would strongly recommend playing with a mouse or touchscreen, not a controller.
Twin Mirror from French video game developer Don’t Nod (Life is Strange) is set in Basswood, West Virginia, a fictional coal town at the brink of economic ruin. You play as Sam Higgs, an investigative reporter.
As a writer for the Basswood Jungle, you exposed unsafe labor practices at the local mine. Because this is a work of fiction, this led to the mine being shut down. Many of the locals blamed you for the resulting job losses. Add a failed relationship to the mix, and you had every reason to leave Basswood in the past.
The only reason you’re back in town is because of the death of your friend and former colleague, Nick. The official cause of death is a car accident, but Nick’s young daughter Joan suspects foul play and implores you to investigate. This is where the game presents you with your first choice: Do you promise Joan that you will look into it?
Like Don’t Nod’s other narrative adventure games, Twin Mirror is played from a third-person camera perspective. The game places you in various settings, many of which you can explore at your leisure before performing the required actions to advance to the next scene. In most cases, that involves solving simple puzzles. There are a couple of action and exploration sequences, but they require no significant player skill.
Long sequences of the game take place in Sam’s powerful imagination (Credit: Don’t Nod. Fair use.)
A rich inner life
Sam has an extraordinary mind. By focusing on a scene, he is able to rapidly piece together disparate clues into a coherent narrative. During these moments, the player is placed in Sam’s “mind palace”, a fragmented reflection of the real world. For example, Sam can imagine multiple versions of Nick’s car accident, until all the clues fit perfectly.
Sam’s inner life comes at a cost to those around him. Throughout the game, you must choose whether to steer Sam towards facts, or towards the people in his life. Central among them are Sam’s ex-girlfriend Anna, and Nick’s daughter Joan.
Twin Mirror is over in about 6 hours, making it one of Don’t Nod’s shortest titles. This isn’t enough time to get to know any of the characters except for Sam, whom some players may find difficult to relate to due to his social and emotional difficulties.
The game does offer the player meaningful choices, which can result in one of five endings. I was satisfied with the ending I received, and felt that it was consistent with my choices. As for the plot, let’s just say that no “mind palace” is required to solve the mysteries of what’s going on in Basswood.
Visually, the game is appealing, but it only offers a couple of genuinely interesting locales. Instead of exploring a vibrant world as in Life is Strange, you spend a lot of the game’s short runtime in Sam’s head.
I would still give the game a weak recommendation if you do like narrative adventure games. However, it is overpriced at its regular price of $30. It frequently plummets into the $5 range, and for fans of the genre, it’s worth picking up at that price.