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Text adventures, or interactive fiction, are old, really old. Some of the first computer games in existence are text adventures and when done correctly they can be as engrossing, inspiring and as horrifying as any novel.
Some wise people even see graphics based computer games as a step backwards, the equivalent of drawing pictures on cave walls in comparison to the Illiad. Text adventures can be great in much the same way the novel is almost always better than the film: if only out of virtue of being able to create Harry Potter in your own mind, rather than watching some bespectacled oik grow hair in embarrassing places year after year.
A well oiled imagination can be relied on to provide vivid imagery, not surprising considering that it is the filter the real world must pass through before reaching your conscious experience. Sometimes, an in depth and well crafted interactive fiction can be just as satisfying as using a spectacularly modeled, surreal weapon to convert a beautifully animated alien killing machine into something liposuction surgeons throw out at the end of a day.
The first text adventure was called simply Adventure owing to the well documented shortage of catchy names in the seventies. It was created by Will Crowther and kick started an entire genre. Adventure eventually gave inspiration to the behemoth Infocom, arguably the greatest text adventure publisher ever to exist.
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Zork, the first Infocom game, was created at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling in 1977. This game began the dynasty from which modern gaming can claim it's heritage. No matter how far we have moved on into high resolution, face blistering feasts for the eyes, games today still claim descendancy from these heady ideals of telling a story that people would love.
The franchise is still continued with a casual persistent MMO browser based version of Zork that began in April 2009. I must warn you, Legends of Zork is set in the same universe but not a text adventure by any means. You can play the original Zork for free here and I highly recommend that you do.
Try not to get eaten by a grue and remember, "If used and maintained in accordance with normal operating practices for small universes, Zork will provide many months of trouble-free operation".
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Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Another great classic text adventure available online in both its former glory, and as a fantastic 20th anniversary edition made by the BBC. A wonderful adaptation of "the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy" written by the sadly deceased Douglas Adams. Now I must warn you this game is hard, very hard. It will do you no end of good to have read the book. This actually has no causal relationship to the game, it's just a genuinely good book that will do you no end of good to read.
HHGTTG is totally as incomprehensible as it is hilarious. If you can make it past the babble fish puzzle then you are certainly made of stern enough stuff to play any of the other adventures on this page. If not, and I hate myself for saying this, pick up a walkthrough because this game is fantastic and deserves to be finished.
You can play the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy here although if you are new to text adventures I recommend the BBC re-release, it adds graphical elements and will hold your hand in a slightly more caring way, in as much as offering a quick execution could be considered "more caring" than enduring months of having body parts removed slowly enough to prevent bleeding to death.
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Slouching Towards Bedlam
So interactive fiction has a long and distinguished heritage, but are there more modern offerings? In fact yes, there are. Interactive fiction offers a comparatively lower barrier to production than most modern games. This being the case, hordes of slavering, nicotine stained authors have the opportunity to write really rather wonderful text adventures while killing time until their epic love story involving narwhals starts to sell. They even have a yearly interactive fiction competition for the little darlings.
A submission that stands out clearly in the interactive fiction competition is "Slouching Toward Bedlam". The game appropriately takes its name from the W.B. Yeats line from "Rough Beast: The Second Coming". It's a dark, forbidding, mystery game that draws you into its unsettling storyline by simply having you listen to a recording on a phonograph. The game gives no clear indication of who you are or what is is going on apart from the disturbing voice of an unknown agent: both an interesting method for keeping you off-balance and perhaps denoting an insane protagonist.
You start life with access to a Triage MK III, a device that aids you in analysing, solving and dealing with items and puzzles. It's an interesting little game mechanism and not one that I have seen before, perhaps the most analogous being the robot Joey from "Beneath a Steel Sky". Joey however does not offer anything like the detailed advice the Triage gives and by simply "pointing" at a relevant object you can receive information about it's category (biological) and communication methods (spoken or written word). All in all, this is a wonderful game. You can play Slouching Towards Bedlam in your browser here.
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The final game in this little write up is something completely different. I have broken away from looking for games you can play inside your browser into a realm of slightly murkier water, the MUD, specifically the MOO, LamdaMOO.
A MOO is a MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon, that is also Object Oriented. It sounds complicated and in truth it can be, but it doesn't have to be in order to enjoy the fruits of the work that others have put into these systems. The Multi User Dungeon (MUD) aspect of this game just means that there are other users in the dungeon at the same time as you. You can fight them, team with them or speak to them in much the same way as any other modern MMO. Obviously the graphics aren't quite as shiny but in this case graphics would limit a lot of the creativity the user-developers have to play with.
The Object Oriented part of the equation makes things a little more interesting. Users in these systems can write game elements as they go, creating objects, rooms quests and entire worlds for other players to explore. You can create anything you can describe, a notable example of this in LamdaMOO being a magic mirror. When touched it transports you into a bustling high fantasy bar. On one of the tables sits a glass bottle, swirling gas visible inside. Peering inside the bottle will suck you in to meet a surly creature who doesn't much like your intrusion. The bottle however can be picked up by another player, only to have you emerge from inside it followed quickly by a moody green creature with intimacy issues.
Giving the user the power to create their own spaces for others to interact with results in a very "Lewis Carrol" style experience. I can't even begin to scratch the surface of something that often leads down flights of fancy more like an acid trip than a game. If it's even correct to call it a game, any attempt made would soon be outdated. All I can say is if you enjoy interactive fiction format, or think you might, give LamdaMOO a try.