Something Good #62: Minds Forever Voyaging
One of the decisive turning points in my life occurred at some point in the mid-1980s when my dad brought home a used Apple II Plus computer and installed it in our basement.
More important than the computer itself were the boxes and boxes of 5.25” floppy disks, most either cryptically labeled or not labeled at all, that came with the machine. It became a hobby to go through each one, searching its contents for games… secrets… whatever untold mysteries lay within. The art of computing was imprinted on me then, as I had to figure out, with no manuals or instructions or internet, how to load and use all this strange software.
A lot of it was inscrutable productivity software. More importantly to me and my brother, though, were the games. We spent hours trying to get them running and figuring out how to play them. But even the ones we did, like for instance, Caverns of Callisto, had an air of mystery, of limitless potential to them. Beyond their clever but relatively simply-designed levels, I always dreamed of finding some secret area in the game that would unlock a rich and vibrant, interactive world. It was the same impulse that led me to dream for years about finding a portal to The Neverending Story’s1 Fantastica.
I never found one of those magic portals. But as it turned out, right under my nose was a world of deep narrative complexity: interactive fiction, or “text adventures,” as we called them in the day. No graphics here, just words. You would be presented with a paragraph or two of text, and the game would take place via your own typed responses: GO WEST. GET CANDLE. OPEN DOOR.
I would read about Zork, A Mind Forever Voyaging, the legendary Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adaptation, countless others. From what I could tell, at the best these were almost novelistic in their depth, unparalleled in their interactivity.
I never lasted more than ten minutes with one.
My attention span then, as now, was deeply limited, and if I didn’t receive immediate affirmative feedback I was on to the next thing. I never got more than a few “rooms” deep into one of these games, but I always held them in a kind of awe. They promised so much, so many endless worlds of fascination.
So it was in 2021 that I was delighted to stumble across Aaron A. Reed’s amazing newsletter 50 Years of Text Games. Beginning in 1971 with the legendary The Oregon Trail, Reed chose a representative game for each year, writing lengthy, fascinating histories of each, and the sometimes tortured or mysterious personalities behind them. He has indeed revealed dozens of hidden worlds—only not the ones I expected.
The project has been hugely inspirational to me, both in terms of Something Good and my other creative pursuits. I was absolutely delighted to learn that Reed was planning a beatiful, deluxe print version of the project, which is now available to back on Kickstarter, and even happier when he agreed to talk to me.
Mark Slutsky: I was wondering why you picked 1971’s The Oregon Trail as the topic of your first newsletter, even as you’ve pointed out its antecedents in later editions. What about that game marks it as the beginning of interactive fiction to you?
Aaron A. Reed: I think it's a couple of reasons. One is it's just so well known, especially to a certain generation. So many people played it as a kid. It was a cultural touchstone for a largely text-driven game—even though a lot of ‘80s kids played the graphical remake, that was still very text-heavy. It’s just a really well-known starting point.
Then, in my research, I found that 1971 was about the first year where you actually have multiple possible text games to choose from. So there was definitely stuff in the ‘60s earlier than that, but they were pretty rare, one-off experiments here and there. 1971 was the first time you really started to see enough computers available to people around the world that there started to become a practice of making text games, and a community of people making them.
In a lot of the early articles I talk about the different sort of nascent communities that emerged out of that. Hunt the Wumpus came out of this community of people at the People's Computer Company in what would become Silicon Valley. That was an early meetup place where regular people could see what using a computer was like and learn how to program and things like that.
But before that, in the ‘60s, computers were still just so rare that there were just a couple people at each installation. The vast majority of the time they were being used for more professional, quote-unquote serious pursuits. So you just didn't have kind of that freedom of time and availability and stuff to experiment with things like games until the dawn of the ‘70s.
M: And to be clear to our readers, when you talk about computers of that era, you’re not talking about home computers.
AR: Yeah! That's definitely something that I think younger people don't necessarily appreciate, as it wasn't until the end of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s that you could have a computer in your own house and spend as much time as you want playing with it. So the first decade of the 50 Years of Text Games series is firmly in the era of mainframes that you would connect to at your work or at your school: a lot of people time-sharing the same big computer.
Especially in the first half of that decade, you probably weren't using a keyboard to interact with the computer directly all the time. You were punching things on cards or paper tape. Some of those programs were what's called “offline,” which came to mean something different in the internet era, but basically, you weren't sort of having a live interactive session with the computer.
You were spending hours at a mechanical punch reader entering a program, and then once a week or whatever, you would get to run your program on the computer and see the result. And then you'd go back to your typewriter, and work on refining your program for the next time you got to put it into a computer.
So, yeah, it was a very different era of computer usage and, and I kind of make a point in the series and in the book that it became a real turning point for the design of those games when you got interactive sessions, where in real time you could type something and get something back.
And it was like a conversation rather than a sort of very slow series of steps.
M: I feel ignorant asking this, but if someone was programming the computer with punch cards, what was the UI (user interface) like? What were those interactions like, especially with games?
AR: An interesting thing that I didn't really know until I started researching this is how much of a part humans played in those loops. In the first part of the book, I talk about what things were like pre-1970, and a lot of those early games for computers, in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, had a role called the “umpire” or the “referee.”
Basically the idea was that so few people knew how to use computers, and that teaching someone how to use a computer for the purposes of playing a game didn't seem like a worthwhile endeavour. So the players would fill out worksheets or they would just tell the umpire what they wanted to do. The umpire was a person with knowledge of how the game worked and computer skills, who would go then translate the players’ decisions into a series of punch cards or instructions, and input it into the computer, get the results and then give that back to the humans.
So the computer was just sort of one part of this experience that in some ways, in some of these games, was closer to like a live action role playing game, right? The players would be having conversations about what they wanted to do and stuff, but actually inputting that into the computer was not their domain yet.
M: So the umpire would be one part Dungeon Master, one part high priest.
AR: Very much that kind of vibe. The umpire understood the mysteries of the computers.
Then a little later, you started to have teletype interfaces, which are more familiar to people who've ever used the command line. So you still wouldn’t have a screen. You'd have this typewriter basically hooked up to a phone line, or a connection that you could connect to a session of a computer running elsewhere, and type commands into it.
And then it would type back the result. Interestingly, a lot of the aesthetics of the first games, the earliest text adventures like Adventure, were designed to be played in that kind of environment. They're text-only not because computer screens couldn't render graphics at that point, but because there were literally no screens, right?
Your input-output device was literally just letters printed on a page. It wasn't until the late ‘70s that you started to see that kind of interface get translated to being displayed on a monitor, but it really evolved out of that, sitting at a teletype typing things and watching the typewriter type things back to you from a distant computer.
M: So who were the people making these games? Were they writers? Game designers? Programmers? All those things?
AR: It's really an interesting cross section of people, and that was something I wanted to get into with the stories of these games—who made them, and why did they make them? Where were they coming from?
I wrote a previous book called Adventure Games: Playing the Outsider with some collaborators, which looked at graphical adventure games. Part of our thesis was that those kind of adventure games—and that includes text games too—were intimately connected with the notion of people being outside the mainstream. So the first people who made them were the hackers, the loners. The heroes of those games were often antiheroes in various ways, they were lovable losers or misfits.
It’s been an interesting switch because in the earliest days, only the geeks and weirdos were into computers at all, and then as computers became mainstream and computer games did too, text games got abandoned by that mainstream, and it became a different kind of weirdo and loner who got into making them as, sort of punk games or a rejection of the mainstream.
If you choose to make a text game in the year 2010, you're deliberately making a game in a mode that most people aren't interested in experiencing. So why do you make that choice? What kind of person are you?
I was really tickled with one of the later games I wrote about, a text game from the company Choice of Games called Weyrwood, which was written by a woman who is a professional opera singer, Isabelle Shaw.
When I was researching the timeline, I realized she was onstage singing the leading role in an opera the week her game was released. If you're a normal game developer you're going to spend the week your game is released messing with Xcode or finding App Store submission guidelines or whatever.
So that someone who did not primarily identify as a game designer was able to tell an interactive story and release it—I think that’s really cool.
That's a huge strength of text games, that they can be more personal, less designed by committee. They can really be, in the same way that books and linear writing are, personal reflections of the people who are creating them, which is really neat.
M: Working in game narrative as I do, when I read these stories I realize that there’s all these fundamental questions about how you combine storytelling with gameplay, about whether those two things are even fundamentally compatible, about the role of choice, that we’re dealing with every day making games.
But all of these things are questions that have been debated with and struggled with for at least 50 years now. And in some cases there’s no clear answers.
AR: One thing I love through the whole series is how many of these games are experiments to try and answer those questions and how many things people have tried to try to answer them.
Take The Hobbit in 1982, which was a really early example of a procedurally randomized world. The designer's idea was that every time you would play, the non-player characters would be moving around, doing slightly different things. You know, Gandalf might bump into a warg in one game and get killed before you even meet him or you know, in one game, a character might help you and in another they wouldn’t.
So that was one attempt to have the story in part emerge from the system and the random things that could happen in the system. And then that spun off into a whole genre of games, rogue likes, and other kinds of procedural content games.
M: I personally think that there will always be a tension between gameplay and story, and that it’s a good tension. That on some level it’s fundamentally something we can’t ever completely resolve. And that’s why I find game narrative so compelling.
AR: Yeah. In a lot of ways I think you could say that this genre is that tension. All of the things that might be in the Venn diagram overlap between those two edges.
The 50 Years of Text Games: From Oregon Trail to A.I. Dungeon runs through July 7. I can’t recommend it, or the 50 Years Substack, enough.
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