Brass Lantern
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How Adventure Games Age

by Stephen Granade

Unplanned Obsolescence

Interactive fiction is a house divided. Text adventures and graphics adventures have long since parted ways, one side of the family flourishing in an obscure economic backwater, the other producing countless multi-million-dollar siblings in the harsh light of the gaming industry.

They may have sprung from the same ancestors, but they have evolved into separate creatures with distinct differences. One of the big differences is in how they age. Playing a decade-old graphic adventure is a very different experience than playing a text adventure from ten years ago.

Graphic Adventures

One of the appeals of graphic adventures is that they look really, really cool. When friends come over to see what your two-thousand dollar computer can do, they're much more impressed by realistic video than by a screenful of text.

Driven by the wants of bleeding-edge gamers and the bottom lines of manufacturers, the graphic capabilities of computers have continually improved. We've been willing to upgrade our computers over and over, our progress measured in resolution and number of colors and frames per second. From the early 160x100 16-color Sierra games to today's million-color streaming-video multimedia extravaganzas, technology has marched on.

This inexorable march has left countless games behind. Within a year or two, most graphic games are outdated. They wear their age poorly; we are left to comment about how good a game looked "for its time." When one of a game's selling points is how good its graphics look, it's hard to find the game as compelling when its graphics pale in comparison to its newer brethren.

Text Adventures

Text adventures are not subject to this tyrrany of looks. There is an initial plateau to overcome when first playing text adventures, namely, why bother with text when graphics are available? But the presentation does not age as it does with graphic adventures.

How text is presented on a computer screen hasn't changed fundamentally since the invention of the monitor. Oh, there have been improvements, like proportional fonts and new colors. But text is text, and bells and whistles don't change that fact. Text in books hasn't changed dramatically in the last century; why should we expect it to be revolutionized just because it's shown on a computer rather than on a page?

When text presentation does change, often text adventures can incorporate the change with little difficulty. Does your operating system allow anti-aliased true-type fonts? Tweak the interpreter to add them. Want to include a scroll-back window? That doesn't change the basic content of adventures. When Sierra wanted to update their early graphic adventures, they spent a lot of money and time doing so, and each adventure had to be updated individually. When Andrew Plotkin wanted to give Infocom adventures a modern interface under MacOS, he spent a few months writing a new interpreter in his spare time. Once he was done, every adventure written for the z-machine could take advantage of the new interface.

This subject is interesting only if you view text adventures as a viable alternative to graphics, a completely separate type of interactive fiction. If you think that text adventures are only of historical interest and were only worth playing because there were no graphic adventures at the time, then why bother? Why worry about how these games age if you're not interested in playing them? But I like the thought that people may still be playing my games in ten years, a perk which most graphic designers don't have.

What does make a text adventure obsolete? How does a text adventure show its age? It shows its age through its writing, just as a book does. Writing doesn't age nearly as quickly as graphics do, which is why I can still play Trinity today and find it as fresh as I did ten years ago. Try that with King's Quest III and see how it has fared.

Graphic adventures have often been viewed as superior to text because of their impressive pictures. I find it amusing to think that such an advantage is transitory in the constantly-evolving world of graphic adventures, in the long run giving graphic adventures a shorter shelf-life than text adventures.

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