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17 October 2008updated 01 Jul 2021 5:42am

Revisiting Text-based Games

Each week Iain Simons finds you a game to while away a few hours at your desk. This week's Something

By Iain Simons

A little history.

There was a time, not twenty years ago, when some of the most popular video games in the world consisted solely of text. Acts of startling imagination and brutal violence were executed on screen with a simple string of words: “hit the grue with the Elvish sword.”

For those who are utterly tired of retinal over-stimulation, the ‘ancient’ world of interactive-fiction can provide some welcome respite. This form of video game has a rich heritage, but one of the most loved and renowned developers of the form was the American company ‘Infocom’ – who created a long line of seminal titles. Their work was rich, literary and paid special attention to packaging, creating not just boxes that held software – but rich bundles of gifts which contained clue-books, badges and other fun ephemera which fed into the experience. (These ‘feelies’ also functioned as elaborate anti-piracy devices, with some of the games being unsolvable without clues contained in the packaging.) They even attracted high-profile literary collaborators, with no less than Douglas Adams himself working on their acclaimed version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Perhaps their best loved title though, was their first – Zork. Following in the footsteps of the seminal ‘Colossal Cave’, this game trod what was to be familiar ground for this kind of work. Playful, witty, literary and on occasion – utterly frustrating.

Fortunately, much of their work is now available and playable online. Today I’m happy to direct you to a java-version of the z-machine (their game engine) which will allow you to play many of their brilliant works online. Be warned, these will take you a lot longer than an hour to play – but the effort will be worth it.

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