50 Years of Text Games

A 2021 Journey from Oregon Trail to A.I. Dungeon

The earliest version of The Oregon Trail—made long before the green-tinged ports known by subsequent generations from their school computer labs—was first played by students in a Minnesota classroom on December 3, 1971. It's now 2021, so the end of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of that influential game. In the past half-century, text games have gone from being the only kind of interactive digital game there was, to mainstream successes, to underground indie experiments, to viral web phenomena, to word-of-mouth hits on new generations of platforms that couldn’t even have been imagined in that 1971 winter. In the process they’ve explored countless ways that stories can be dynamic, debuted influential creators who've gone on to success in the wider gaming or publishing industries, and been a constant source of inspiration as sole creators have redefined what games made of words can do, mean, and be, over and over again.

Today, I’m excited to announce the 50 Years of Text Games project to look back at this extraordinary body of work.

Every week in 2021, I'll be posting an in-depth look at one text-based computer game from each year between 1971 and 2021, starting next week with The Oregon Trail. For each game, we’ll take a meaty deep dive into what it was like to play in the context of its original release (on a chattering teletype, over a dial-up modem in a prototype web browser, on a brand-new iPad) and how its ideas influenced players and the next generation of makers. When warranted, we’ll dig into old archives or source code to tease out how each game worked, why it was built the way it was, and what it did that was new, interesting, or successful. I’ve been doing extensive research throughout the past year to prepare for this series, and uncovered so many fascinating stories. I can’t wait to share them all with you.

The titles I’ve selected aren’t necessarily the most famous text games from each year (though there will definitely be some familiar classics). Nor am I trying to make a definitive canon of text games, or even catalogue my own personal favorites. The constraint of picking one and only one game from each year instead suggests a grand tour, a journey that can’t possibly include everything but aims to stop at as many interesting sites as it can along the way. It’s forced a closer look into periods often deemed fallow (wrongly, it turns out) and a reexamination of platforms or eras with an abundance of riches to choose from. The list includes some titles that nearly everyone has heard of, others that nearly no one has, and everything in between.

I can’t guarantee I'll be covering your favorite text game, but I do promise that every single one of these games is worth taking about.

On our journey we’ll encounter lost genres like BBS games or computer-moderated play-by-mail adventures; weird academic experiments that tried to simulate personalities or physics to enable playable stories; pioneering hypertexts from the 1980s and groundbreaking audio games for the blind in the early 2000s; games that spilled out into books, cassette tapes, watches, and phone calls; games that were covered in the New York Times and games that were forgotten and only rediscovered decades later. We'll cover games by women and people of color, games in languages other than English, games whose authors could have been arrested for writing them and games whose origin stories seem borderline miraculous. The list includes a surprising number of “famous” games for a genre often deemed niche—ever heard of Kingdom of Loathing? 80 Days? Fallen London?—and everything from massive games with millions of words of content to tiny experiments whose code can fit on a single printed page. There's so much to talk about, and taken as a whole this story cuts an incredible swath through the history of gaming, from the dawn of home computers up to the cutting edge of today’s AI.

My definition of a text game is pretty broad. In a nutshell, it means games you’d rather share excerpts from than screenshots. The history of games writ large is obsessed with documenting them visually, with flashy trailers and colorful screen grabs: I'm interested instead in the games that aren’t best summed up that way, games whose creators put all their effort, by choice or necessity, into the words, and the way you can interact with them.

(There are graphical games with great words too, like Disco Elysium or Gabriel Knight: but those aren’t what this project is about. With a few exceptions, I also won’t be covering visual novels, where the art is a vital part of the experience; gamebooks or tabletop roleplaying games, which each deserve their own series; or roguelikes, which use text more like surrogate graphics. I’m also not focusing on digital poetry, chatbots, or anything else that doesn’t comfortably fit under the umbrella of “game”; I won’t be covering any of my own work; and I’ll be looking at particular games, rather than systems in isolation or entire series.)

The project will unfold across the whole of 2021, with two main components: a weekly blog series, and a crowdfunded book. Let me say a bit more about each of these pieces.

The series will be hosted here on Substack, and be freely available. You can also become a paid subscriber for $7/month if you'd like and are able to help support the series. (I’m cutting down on my contracting hours this year because I believe in this project so much, so your support is greatly appreciated!) Paid subscribers get access to a Discord community where you'll find discussions about the series, peeks at early drafts, cut content that didn't make the final posts, and other bonus material. But a paid subscription is mostly just helping me ensure I can make the bulk of the content free for everyone, one of my key goals for this project: thanks in advance!

The book will crowdfund in the second half of the year, and be delivered in early 2022. It will collect the whole fifty-game series along with some comprehensive framing material, including a meaty introduction considering the history of digital text games before 1971, and a shorter intro to each subsequent decade. Each article will be accompanied with supplemental reference material about the game itself and the year it was released, including a detailed version history and blurbs of other text games from the same year. The book won’t have illustrations, as befitting its subject, but it will be designed with an eye to beautiful typography and layout. It will include maps, pull quotes, sidebars, and other material to add visual interest and break up the pages. Most importantly, it will collect the definitive final versions of each essay, after any updates, corrections, or edits made during the run of the series. It’s going to be gorgeous and I can't wait for you to hold it in your hands!

It's also going to be a serious tome. I’m estimating it will run around 550-600 pages, a true collector’s item for your shelf (or possibly, items: I may need to split it into two volumes). There will hopefully be both softcover and deluxe hardcover editions available, as well as options formatted for ebook readers. Stay tuned in the second half of the year as plans solidify for more news on the book.

(How do the two paid components of this project, Substack subscribers and book backers, overlap? Effectively, they will be two separate things: the Substack is for ongoing access to the series as it’s being released and the live community discussions around it, and the crowdfunding campaign will be for getting that content in fancy book form at the end, and for me to hopefully reach new audiences that never heard of the series. There may be some crossover perks, like a discounted book pledge level for series subscribers, but this will depend on what the crowdfunding platform I end up going with allows me to do, and other details I haven’t worked out yet: so for now, it’s probably best to think about the two halves of this project as distinct things and make any decisions about your level of support accordingly. )

I'm not releasing the full list of games in advance, since it might still change as I continue researching and writing, but here’s a sampler of titles from each decade to whet your appetite:

  • 1975: dnd, the ur- dungeon crawler written for a groundbreaking educational computer network rapidly taken over by the first generation of hardcore gamers

  • 1989: Monster Island, a play-by-mail adventure game with a quarter of a million rooms that ran for nearly thirty years

  • 1996: So Far, a world-hopping puzzle game by one of a new generation of authors who reinvented parser interactive fiction without commercial constraints

  • 2001: The Beast, the first ARG, unfolding through a network of fictional websites and a novel’s worth of text from a far-future internet

  • 2016: The Freshman (Choices), an interactive romance that, despite never being reviewed by a major gaming or interactive fiction website, has been played over fifty million times

Across the year, we'll journey through these and many more text games, chronologically across nearly their entire history. Adventure and Zork will show up in early February, Infocom will burn brightly in March, Graham Nelson's Inform will revolutionize amateur interactive fiction in June, and Dwarf Fortress will debut in October. The Twine revolution will show up in mid-November, and you can expect to be reading about AI Dungeon come Christmas. It’s going to be an incredible journey through fifty fascinating games. I hope you'll join me for it.

The first post will go live next week, on The Oregon Trail (1971) [edit: it’s up!]. In the meantime, you can subscribe to the series today at either the free or paid levels to get weekly notifications as soon as each new entry is posted. If you'd prefer to just be notified when the crowdfunding campaign for the book goes live in the second half of the year, you can get on my project announcements mailing list (emails only a couple times per year). You can also follow me on Twitter at @aaronareed.

Thanks, and best wishes for a wonderful 2021,

—Aaron

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