The End of a Journey
Yes, there will be a book. But more about that in a moment.
When I started researching this project at the end of 2019, I had no idea if it was something I would have the energy or dedication to pull off. While the then-upcoming anniversary of The Oregon Trail triggered the initial idea, and the first round of COVID lockdowns provided the first supply of extra hours, it was really the excitement of getting to research and write about particular games that kept me going—and to look for all the fascinating connections between them. I’ve always been interested in stitching threads between communities of practitioners: bringing different kinds of text games together in Spring Thing, collaborating with more systemsy designers in grad school, connecting analog and digital storygames in my dissertation. What was fascinating to me about the full scope of this project as it revealed itself was bringing all these kinds of games together in the same conversation—Zork, Choices, Patchwork Girl, The Beast, Dwarf Fortress, Shades of Doom, TradeWars. Talking about them together in a shared context of coding practices, technical trade-offs, cultural influence, and text games as a category more expansive than fans of any of those individual titles might have previously considered: it’s been a fascinating journey for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.
This is the end of the “50 Years” Substack as a regular column for now, though I’d like to keep the list around: I may post an occasional article here and there in the future if I get a hankering to write about a cool text game or two. I’m turning off paid subscriptions this week: for those who have been paid supporters at any point during the run, thank you! The articles, of course, will remain online.
Feel free to stay subscribed to the list at the free level (or subscribe to my separate project announcements mailing list): if nothing else, I’ll use it to announce when the book is ready to preorder. Speaking of which:
About The Book
This isn’t the end of the full “50 Years of Text Games” project. As was the plan from the beginning—though as we've picked up more subscribers along the way, not everyone may have been aware of it—the idea has been to collect these articles in a book at the end of the series. This has been a great way to get some peer review and feedback on the contents as I go along, as well as collect an audience interested (I hope!) in the final book. Thanks to everyone who’s sent feedback on everything from typos to the existential issues that come with being a historian: many of the articles have been significantly improved through your feedback.
The book will not just be the fifty articles stapled together. It will include:
the revised final versions of each piece
a full research bibliography for each
sidebars with additional interesting tidbits or background info that couldn’t fit into the main articles
extra reference material for each game, including a release history for its major versions, memorable inventory items or locations for adventure-style games, and other games by the same author
capsule summaries of a few other noteworthy text games from each year
a timeline of interesting events in games and computing history for each year (did you know the Apple II was released just as Adventure went viral?)
footnotes, an index, and all that other great book stuff
More significantly, the book will also include a meaty introduction to each decade, contextualizing the broader trends within interactive fiction and gaming in that period beyond just the ten specific games covered, and a final section on “the 2020s and beyond” with some of my big-picture takeaways from the project. I'm particularly excited about the first of these pieces, which covers the 1970s but also the earlier history of digital text games, beginning with the first time someone could type words into a keyboard and get words back. Belying popular narratives about this period, many of these earliest game pioneers were women: from Grace Hopper’s 1950s FLOW-MATIC compiler, perhaps the first time you could program using English words; to The Sumerian Game by Mabel Addis, one of the earliest teaching games for a digital system to be presented in full sentences; to The Alphabet Game by Judith Harris at BBN, a conversational guessing game and important precursor to Eliza. This will be one of several great additions to the book version of this project, and together I hope these pieces will really help bring this from a collection of standalone articles into a unified history.
My plan is to crowdfund the book in late spring or summer, and deliver it near the end of the year. It will be a hefty tome, probably coming in somewhere between 500 and 600 pages. It should be much simpler than some of my other print-on-demand projects, though, and I’m hoping to keep it available in perpetuity afterwards if the campaign is successful. The plan is to release it in three versions:
a deluxe collectible hardback, probably with some bonus content
a lower-cost paperback
an e-book version compatible with screen readers
Stay subscribed to this list for news about the campaign when it launches: in addition to notifications, I may also post early looks at layout or cover designs here, and would as always welcome your feedback!
I mentioned history a moment ago, and I’d like again to reiterate something I've maintained throughout the project: this is not the only history of text games, nor should it be. In particular I’d like to point readers to the ongoing work of historians like Jason Dyer, Laine Nooney, Jimmy Maher, and Kate Willært, who are each digging deep into gaming history in their own ways, and all well worth reading and supporting.
The “one game a year” conceit forced this project to be something other than the “best” or “most important” fifty text games, whatever such a list might mean to various people. It meant there were a lot of unarguably important or influential games we missed out on. (If we skipped yours, I’m sorry.) There are many, many fond favorites of mine that didn’t end up fitting into this particular jigsaw puzzle, and I could assemble another list of fifty worthy games without blinking. Hey, here's one, and I would have loved to have written about any of these: Wander, The Great Guano Gap, Atom 20, Stuga, Sceptre of Goth, The Prisoner, Reality Ends, Deadline, Planetfall, Snowball, Beyond the Tesseract, System 15000, First Screening: Computer Poems, The Pawn, Mindwheel, Trinity, Micro Adventure, Varitale, Star Saga One, La diosa de Cozumel, Shades of Gray, Marble Springs, Delirium, Babel, Anchorhead, Spider and Web, Bad Machine, Aisle, The Gostak, 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, Sun and Moon, Slouching Towards Bedlam, De Baron, Cathy’s Book, Buried In Shoes, The Warbler’s Nest, Flexible Survival, Taco Fiction, Deadline Enchanter, Counterfeit Monkey, Mastaba Snoopy, Winterstrike, Device 6, SLAMMED!, Hadean Lands, Barbetween, Creatures Such As We, Will Not Let Me Go, Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory, Animalia. (No, I’m not going to link them all: do your own research this time!) There are plenty of others not on this list, either. The history of interactive fiction is deep and filled with treasures.
A bit of down time for me, I think! This project has been a lot of things: exhausting, rewarding, fascinating, but also exhausting. Did I say exhausting? Yes. I wrote about my process a bit at the mid-point; even with the writing spread out over nearly two full years, not one, the pace of keeping up with the research and writing has been grueling, and I definitely need a break. I have plans to get back to making digital games of my own soon, after various multi-year distractions! But a bit of recharge is needed.
I’m looking forward to diving into design and layout of the book once my head has cleared a bit. I’ve been doing layout for my tabletop roleplaying books for a few years now, and I’m excited to apply those skills to a larger-scaled project. Updates here if anything happens along the way I think you would be interested in.
Finally, a thank you to all those who started the journey with me for The Oregon Trail or who joined in along the way. The work has been so much more pleasant with readers out there cheering me on, leaving comments, reblogging favorite articles, and reminding me there are people besides me who find text games so fascinating. I couldn’t have completed this marathon without a cheering section, and you’ve been a great one.
Happy new year and bye for now,