50 Years of Text Games parses the rich history of a foundational genre


Level 27
Thread author
Aug 17, 2017

Zork and MUD? Sure. But also Universal Paperclips, AI Dungeon, and Lifeline

There's a quote in 50 Years of Text Games from Dave Lebling, co-creator of Zork, that has been rattling around in my head ever since I read the book, coming to the surface every so often like an M&M in trail mix. "Obviously, no small computer program can encompass the entire universe. What it can do, however, is simulate enough of the universe to appear more intelligent than it really is."

Lebling's quote comes up first in a chapter about The Oregon Trail. Even by today's standards, the degree to which that 1971 classic simulates the randomness of reality and invites you into its simulation is impressive. When you inevitably perish, it asks you about "a few formalities we must go through," accepting Y/N for each.
  • "Would you like a minister?"
  • "Would you like a fancy funeral?"
  • "Would you like us to inform your next of kin?"
The game follows up with a quirky, morbid rejoinder: "Your aunt Nellie in St. Louis is anxious to hear." Author Aaron Reed notes that, "though the game does nothing with the answers, the mere fact of being asked makes you feel like a part of the story being told. It was a trick that would continue to work across half a century of computer games and counting."

Reed's book—which has over 620 pages of analysis, code samples, photographs, maps, flowcharts, footnotes, asides, cross-references, and other details—thoroughly backs up this claim. Text games, in both their earliest parser form and in more modern incarnations, are a fascinating space in which people have pulled off amazing feats, and innovations continue today.

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