Text adventure games: from the front lines to behind the scenes

Posted by Howard Sherman.
First posted on 18 August 2006. Last updated on 26 July 2010.
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Text adventure games: from the front lines to behind the scenes
Sherman is the founder of Malinche Entertainment.

About the author

Howard Sherman is the founder of Malinche Entertainment, a developer of interactive fiction games. He is the author of Pentari: First Light, Greystone, Endgame, and The First Mile.

When you fire up a video game of any kind you more or less know what you're in for. But when you take your first step into the magical world of an adventure game, any adventure game either textual or graphical, there's no telling what'll happen next. Where video games are predictable and adhere tightly to the theme of the game, adventure games tantalize the adventurer with seemingly endless possibilities wrapped within the premise of the story. Where video games demand the player to mostly shoot things and blow stuff up with the dubious challenge of pushing buttons and manipulating controllers fast enough, adventure games can challenge the mind and the imagination in a deeper, more moving way.

Don't get me wrong. I like video games and I enjoy shooting and looting as much as the next guy but nothing can replace the endless possibilities in an adventure game.

And while I enjoy adventure games of every stripe, nothing can entertain me more than a text adventure game. Right now I am exploring the environs of the Great Underground Empire in Zork Zero with the firm goal of finally completing it after almost twenty years of half-hearted attempts. The magic of Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky and the other legendary Implementers of Infocom still shines brightly although many years have passed. My company, Malinche Entertainment, proudly continues that legendary tradition today. I was awestruck the first time I played Zork as we all were. I was hooked the moment I started playing Guild of Thieves and I was beside myself when I discovered Legend's Spellcasting series after the demise of Infocom. I have truly savored every moment of my time spent as an adventurer.

And let me tell you, I have more fun writing text adventure games than I do playing them.

That's because I am an Implementer and I am the last of my kind still active in that profession. It's kind of like "Return of the Jedi" meets the computer game industry. Ironically, I can borrow from another retro/new example; some have called me the Commander Adama of text adventure games in the sense I am the last hope for the survival of commercial, professional interactive fiction. Yes, I know that in "modern" Battlestar Galactica lore Adama is now an Admiral but, hey, we're thinking retro aren't we...?

Witty examples and analogies aside, I am the last Implementor still active in the world and in as much as I take the duties of my lofty position very seriously I also have plenty of fun in the process. Fun is the thing. Fun is what makes games what they are. But there's also satisfaction. The satisfaction of solving a difficult puzzle. The fulfillment of your feelings when elements in the story go right. The sense of achievement that washes over you after the devious difficulty of a mind-warping puzzle or challenge is vanquished and you, the adventurer, emerge victorious....

...just to run into another challenge that may be even greater than the one you just solved. Heck, you might have ten ongoing puzzles to solve at any given point ranging in size from small and curious to large and staggering.

As many as ten challenges. All on your mind. Simultaneously. But you don't need to handle them all at once. Text adventure games (also known as interactive fiction, which is my preferred term) often lets you tackle whichever puzzles you like—and in no particular order.

That's how I write every Malinche title. I lay out the world as puzzles and ideas come to me in the process. Most are outlined then and there as I create sections of the game while others occur to me after the fact. More often than not, a puzzle idea that comes to me while writing a section of code and it slips so smoothly into the bigger picture of the story. Sometimes a brilliant idea for a challenging quest will strike me as I drive down the highway, stand in line at Starbuck's or lift weights at the gym.

Once in a while an idea for a puzzle that I think "seemed like a good idea at the time" gets dropped completely. One example is the vial of holy water and the cup of soda pop in The First Mile. Mayor Shelby of Dead Rock is certainly a bad guy. And one of the ways the player could have killed him would be by pouring a vial of holy water into a cup of soda and then giving the newly-mixed concoction to Mayor Shelby. As a minion of evil the theory went that drinking holy water would have killed him on the spot.

But it didn't make a lot of sense to me. Mayor Shelby was a man most mortal—not an immortal creature of darkness. SHOULD holy water have such a deadly effect on a mortal? No, it shouldn't. This inconsistency bothered me. That nagging feeling wouldn't go away. The puzzle was removed from the game even though it was roughly 75% complete. Here's a fun fact—a hint about this puzzle-that-never-was is found in Mayor Shelby's own behavior in all versions of The First Mile. The rotund mayor will complain of being thirsty. That would've been your cue to bring him something to drink.... some deadly mixture of liquids perhaps.... Sentimental as I am, I decided to keep the cup of soda pop and the vial of holy water in the game. There are other things that can be done with both of these items—but mixing them together to kill someone is no longer an option.

My brain is set to 'auto pilot' when devising new puzzles, challenges and quests to adventure gamers. And I always try to be fair. I seek to challenge adventurers at every turn just enough... but hopefully never too much. A frustrating game is not a fun game.

I always think of the adventurer as I write any portion of my adventure games. With the descriptions I write of rooms, puzzles and people I always try to evoke the feelings of the adventurer as I fire up their imagination. I constantly ask myself "What will a player think as they enter this room? How will they feel about a new character I introduce to the story. How will an adventurer react to this new puzzle?"

Sometimes I hit a brick wall with regards to HOW to write the computer code necessary to implement the vision I hold in my mind. I don't get frustrated. I don't fret. I just keep on working on the problem always keeping my eye on the prize; the completion of a new element to the game. I constantly push myself past my limits driven by my motivation to move you. You, the adventurer, inspire me to constantly beat my personal best, continually enhance my skills and deliver better and better adventure games.

Let met just come out and say it—I am relentless in all of my pursuits and writing interactive fiction is no exception.

The result? Malinche's text adventure games get better because I get better at writing them. Passion drives me as experience schools me. Experience both as an adventurer and as an Implementor.

As an Implementor I see every text adventure game I write through two different prisms at the same time. First and foremost I scrutinize every line of code I write as a professional; is the writing good? Are the puzzles challenging enough? Am I giving the answer away? Is the solution totally unfair? Are all the bugs nailed down? Does the story make sense? Do elements WITHIN the game fit snugly inside the plot? Then there's the other side of the coin—seeing my own work through the eyes of the adventurer. I constantly call upon my own extensive experience as an adventurer and imagine myself inside my own game as a new player. I am my own harshest critic and always take myself to task when running through the sequences of events within my games.

Like a celebrity chef I cook up the very best adventure games I can with all of the best ingredients to deliver an unforgettable experience. Anything less than perfect is tossed. Everything superb is included. And like a fine gourmet meal, the finished product is unveiled to the delight of the consumers.

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