More than Zork: Four of the best modern text adventures

It’s funny that text-based games are commonly called “interactive fiction,” since that’s a label suitable for most video games. That name is a relic of a time when games were far less commonly thought of as art, and ones that worked with the written word seemed closer to what was thought of as “telling stories.” Now, in an age of dazzling graphical capabilities, it might seem like the opposite is true – that text games are antiquated, and that technology has allowed gaming to move on and fully embrace its potential as an art form.

But that’s untrue. Text games have thrived, even as the century has turned and game-making tools have become more sophisticated. With software like Twine, it’s easier than ever for creators to experiment with both the freedom and the restrictions of text without visuals. In this format, only the creator's imagination limits what kinds of stories can be told, but the methods of player input are much more limited.

Here are four text games to introduce you to these myriad possibilities. All can be played for free, right now, in your internet browser.

Aisle

Before he contributed to the Silent Hill series or made the masterful detective game Her Story, Sam Barlow developed Aisle, which pares down the text adventure genre to its barest possible form. You’re given a simple scenario with a few salient details – your character is standing in a supermarket, some gnocchi has caught your eye, there’s a woman browsing up ahead. You get to execute one, and only one, command. Then the story finishes. That’s it.

Aisle is flash fiction with innumerable endings built into it, and each outcome of the various actions you can perform will tell you something different about your character and his backstory. Small details will encourage you to try different things, thus learning even more. In essence, you are playing out the different ways one can daydream in the midst of an everyday activity, and in the process unrolling a deeply sad story about powering through life with regret constantly burdening you.

Galatea

In the Greek myth of Galatea, a sculptor makes a statue of his ideal woman, which is then brought to life by the gods. In this game, Galatea is on display in a museum exhibit, and the player engages her in conversation. You can ask her about her past, what she thinks about various subjects, even what she thinks of you. It’s similar to Aisle, but with a much more elaborate method of interaction, and you’re learning about another person instead of “yourself.”

On a meta level, Galatea engages through your simple desire to test the sophistication of the title character’s AI. Creator Emily Short was inspired by her experiences writing code for dialogue for games to envision a fully fleshed-out individual. Decades before Rockstar would boast about Red Dead Redemption 2’s characters having 80-page scripts each, there was this game. Galatea is one of the best, unsung gaming characters, and getting to know her is a singular journey.

9:05

You wake up to a phone call which informs you that you’re late for work. That big presentation was supposed to be at 9 a.m. on the dot. Now you need to put your character through the motions of showering, getting dressed, breakfast, and commuting.

If that synopsis makes 9:05 seem mundane to the point of tedium, know that this is an elaborate joke in game form, one that makes of the entire premise of many video games. You are given a scenario and bring plenty of your own assumptions to it, but what if you’ve completely misjudged the situation that’s being presented? Saying too much more risks spoiling the big twist/punchline, so trust that 9:05 builds to an initial ending that entirely recontextualizes it.

Up until that point, developer Adam Cadre keeps things engaging through gentle fun at the expense of certain text adventure conventions. You must sometimes input ridiculously specific commands to do what you need. If you take off your clothes and then try to take a shower, you are informed that it would be silly to get in while holding your clothes – meaning you not only need to write that your character undresses, but also must tell him to put down the clothing you take off. The attention to specificity in action enhances the chore-like nature of each step, further setting the player up for the punch of the ending.

Howling Dogs

Indie dev Porpentine is one of the most prolific and celebrated creators working on the Twine scene today. This is one of her earlier works, and an excellent place to start with her. A dark, unsettling story, Howling Dogs has you settle into a routine as a character confined to a facility where each day consists of playing a different VR scenario. The games within games continually blur reality, with each new return to the “real” world taking on a darker feeling.

Even getting to the unsettling ways the game has you make choices to get through this deepening nightmare, Porpentine is an excellent writer. Without using a lot of words, she conjures evocative, disturbing descriptions of each environment. You could read the same text as a short story, and it would work on its own. But it’s impossible to separate the text from its presentation – how you can explore different spaces by linking on different highlighted terms, how you are often faced with multiple ways to proceed but no option seems “better” than the others. That there is the core of gaming itself, what distinguishes it as an art form.