Gaming in 2-D: Text-Based Gaming and its Roots in IT

Gaming in 2-D: Text-Based Gaming and its Roots in IT

Posted on January 30, 2018 0 Comments

You turn on your computer.  You navigate to your favorite IT blog, Defrag This, to read about what’s new in the world of technology.  Select one of the articles to read:

  1. The Basics of File Transfer Encryption
  2. Balancing Security and Ease of Use with Two-Factor Authentication
  3. Gaming in 2-D: Text-Based Gaming and its Roots in IT

>> Select “Gaming in 2-D:  Text-Based Gaming and its Roots in IT

You begin to read.

The above narrative may describe your actions over the last 5 minutes, or it could be a narrative within a text-based game.  Before the rich graphical role-playing adventures such as World of Warcraft, and before personal computers existed in nearly every household, aspiring computer scientists wrote text-based games that, while visually simple, provided complex stimuli for the mind.  Although in those days, access to the games was likely via the ARPANET or sneaker-net rather than the Internet, programmers and gamers alike discovered a world where enemies could be battled and defeated, and caves, houses, and dungeons could be explored. 

Stories Meet Video Games

Text-based video games intersect “Interactive Fiction” and the programming elements of the game.  A perfect example of interactive fiction without any programming elements is the classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.  These books are not meant to be read in order from page one to the end, but rather, they are written to engage the reader, who makes choices that determine the narrative and outcome of the book. This allows the book to be read multiple times with different storylines each time. Text-based gaming simply adds a programming dimension to the choose-your-own-adventure narrative where the software interprets the command that the gamer provides, and responds with the appropriate next outcome of the gamer’s command. 

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The Pioneer of Text-Based Gaming

A game named Colossal Cave Adventure or sometimes just simply called “Adventure,” pioneered the text-based gaming genre.  Introduced to the world in 1976, the creator of Adventure was both a computer programmer and cave explorer.  Based originally on an actual cave, Adventure created a world where the user would use their imagination and ingenuity to explore the cave in the game much like they would in an actual cave.  It grew in popularity by users who “passed it around,” and later it was discovered on a machine by a student at Stanford who expanded it with the original author’s approval. Initially written in Fortran, Adventure was later ported to C for Unix.

Natural Language Processing

What made Adventure so unique for its time was the language processing of the program itself.  Natural language processing intersects computer programming and linguistics to produce the ability for the program to perform tasks based on the information it receives – in plain language rather than a programming language.  In Adventure, the game presents you with information about your surroundings such as “there is food here on the ground.”  You type “get food” in response, and the program adds the food into your inventory.  Now consider the real-world scenario where you tell a virtual assistant to do something in plain language – “Alexa, add batteries to my shopping list” – and the device knows what to do and completes the task for you.  This simple game was a long way away, but still the start of the evolution into the world of digital assistants and artificial intelligence.

Text-Based Games Going Commercial

Other text-based games soon followed the success of Adventure.  MIT students wrote a similar program, Zork, with a dungeon setting rather than a cave.  These MIT students implemented Zork in a LISP-like language, which allowed more advanced language programming, including the ability to process full sentences rather than the simple verb-noun combinations of Adventure.  Like Adventure, Zork was initially written in Fortran but moved later to a new language: Zork Implementation Language, or ZIL.  This port allowed Zork to run within a virtual machine, which eventually allowed commercial distribution on the TRS-80 and Apple II. 

From Text to Graphical

In the early 1980s, another game named Rogue became a fascinating crossover between the original text-based games and “the next generation” of games. While not entirely “text-based,” Rogue incorporated a Unix programming library called curses which allowed for placement of characters anywhere on a text screen or terminal.  The use of curses allowed for “graphical” representation using text characters and development of a text user interface.  Although the previously-mentioned games drew inspiration from fantasy role-playing games, Rogue weaved some of these high-fantasy storylines into its narrative. Rogue also incorporated “procedural generation” into its game - dynamically generating elements of the game so that no two games were ever the same.  

Why Text-Based Games Appeal to Programmers

All computer games–and all programs, for that matter–start with a concept and programmers bring that concept to life. The grassroots distribution of early games amongst the computer science community meant that many of the end users of these games were also computer scientists and programmers. This begs the question: why were these simple games so popular in that community?

The challenges in these games were typical of role-playing games of the time: use problem-solving in a fun way to achieve an outcome, such as being able to advance through a cave, or defeat an enemy. But these games–in contrast to the graphical games available today–had two additional challenges. One, with a distinct lack of visual clues, the end-user needed to use and stretch their imagination to solve the problems. Second, though, without the social aspects of many modern-day games, it made solving a problem inside the game so much sweeter. Today, if you’re stuck at a particular spot in a game or on a specific enemy, there are forums where you can look up strategies for defeating an enemy, typically, the answer is just a Google search away. In other words, today’s games give players extremely complex problems to solve, but the answers are readily available. These early games may have had easier problems, but users were dependent on their own problem-solving abilities–they couldn't crowd-source progress.

Mind Puzzles

While games available these days are more graphically complex, they also require much more hand-eye coordination than the text-based games of the past.  Some gamers yearn for simpler times, where puzzles were complex, challenging, and largely unsolved, and no forum contained discussions on strategies for completing the game.  Many of these games still have ports on the web, so if you find yourself craving a challenge along with some mental stimulation and fun exploration, give a text-based game a try.  If you do this – without Googling for help, mind you–you’ll stimulate your mind and have some fun at the same time.

Want to check out text-based gaming for yourself? Check out these free online games:

Colossal Cave Adventure



Spider and Web

Night House

Missy Januszko

Missy Januszko is an independent IT consultant, with more than 20 years of experience as an enterprise hosting architect, large-scale infrastructure designer, and hosted application designer. She specializes in DevOps, automation and configuration management, PowerShell, and Active Directory, and has broad experience across the entire line of Microsoft business technologies. Missy is a co-author of “The DSC Book” with Microsoft MVP Don Jones, and she is also a conference speaker on DSC-related topics. She is a contributor to a number of open-source projects, including “Tug”, the open-source DSC pull server, and “Autolab”, an automated, rapid-install lab build.


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