You See Nothing

People believe that Da Vinci's art showed futuristic visions... but not this one. Pac-Man was from the 80s and that was AGES ago!

There are times when I stop and think about how good graphics look in games these days. There is so much detail to the characters you control and interact with, there’s the built up 3D worlds and the freedom to explore them, the objects to interact with (weapons, vehicles, containers, etc) and there’s the audio – the music, the sound effects and the speech. When I think of these, it’s not about the development from one game to another, but I think about how they are compared to games I played when I was younger. Games such as Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Back in those days, I was happy to play those games, I could never have imagined games to look as impressive and be as immersive as they are today.

Other times I think about when I played games on my Commodore 64 or at my friend’s house playing on his Spectrum 48k. I imagine what would it have been like if I could have invited my friend to my house, but instead of playing on the Commodore 64, I had the Xbox 360. While my friend was playing Yie Ar Kung Fu, I would have Street Fighter, while he played Out Run, I had Burnout Paradise, while he played Commando, I had Call Of Duty. If this is how much games have changed, what will games look like in another 25 – 30 years.

Games have advanced so much with so much visual and audio splendour, but what about games that had none. Those game worlds that only existed how your imagination created them based on a small description. I am, of course, referring to text based adventure games. There were only words on a screen, telling you where you were, what objects/buildings were nearby and which compass directions you could move to leave your current location. Yet anyone playing these games would always visualise the locations, similar to how you imagine the scenes when reading a book (or so I would imagine if I actually read a book).

The Pawn. Not the first text adventure game to use graphics as a visual aid, but certainly groundbreaking for its time and was so impressive that it was used heavily in publicising the Amiga's capabilities

After the description of the location you would have a command prompt, often asking you “What Now?>” or “What Would You Like To Do Next?>”. With playing so many of these games, it was not unusual just to see the command prompt as just > either. Your responses to how you interacted mostly consisted of typing two words as a verb noun combination, examples being “Get Lamp”, “Open Door”, and “Pull Rope”. Imagining yourself in the world helped you try and decide how to interact and how to solve the puzzles before you. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, yet these games held my attention time and again. Some of these games did advance to showing a picture of the scene while others remained as purely text only, both types still required text input to control the game. I loved playing text based adventure games, but often got stuck. There was no internet to consult (yes, there was a time before the internet and NO I am not old) so if you tried everything you could to progress you would hope that you could find someone else who was playing the same game and get some help from them otherwise you would turn to the games magazines.

The help you got from these magazines worked in a few different ways. There were tips sections, and now and again there would be be a tip submitted by a reader about a puzzle in a game. Very random and not a great way to rely on for help. There were addresses you could write to asking for a solution to a game and wait for the response by post (seriously, how did we survive without the internet). And for more interactive help there were readers who would list the games they had beaten and supply their telephone number offering help to anyone who was stuck. Strangers helping strangers all in the name of gaming,

Of course, the ability to spell helped a great deal in these games and there is one particular instance I can recall were I was stuck purely because I misspelled a word. I was playing a Fantastic Four game, and could switch between The Thing and The Human Torch (only these two of the Fantastic Four were in the game). For some reason The Thing was at the bottom of a shaft and a huge boulder blocked the top. The Human Torch was outside and you had to find a way to get them back together. You could fire a supernova blast at the boulder, as The Human Torch, which resulted in a small piece breaking off and falling down the shaft. You would lift the pebble as The Thing and throw it at the boulder which would shatter the boulder because of The Thing’s strength. At least, this was the idea, but it never worked for me. I phoned someone who had beaten the game and they told me this was what to do as well, I explained I had tried but it didn’t seem to work and the other person insisted it was the correct solution. We debated back and forth about this, and then I suddenly realised why it wasn’t working for me. For some reason, I was typing peeble instead of pebble, and not just once, but every time I played it. Once, I figured this out, I smashed that boulder and was able to fly The Human Torch down to The Thing. I don’t recall if I got The Thing out of the shaft, and I know I never actually beat this game.

The Hobbit featured "animaction" whereby all the characters in the game would roam of their own "free will" so you may not necessarily meet them each time

After playing so many of these games, I started to make maps of the locations to help keep track of where I was, where other objects were and how to get back to them. There were different stages to map making for these games, now it wasn’t as creative as drawing a detailed geographical map, instead using boxes to describe the locations. I started by drawing a box on a page and if an exit was to the north, I would draw another box directly above the first one. Each box contained the location name (in black ink) and objects there (in green ink) and a line connecting the two locations (in red ink). The maps were all squashed together, and it wasn’t until I met a fellow text adventure game player in college that I realised to space the boxes out as he showed me maps he had drawn up.

This worked well up to a point, I would start in the middle of a page with the first location, the maps may have veered more in one direction leaving me running our of space on one side of the page but leaving a large blank area on the other. This progressed into cutting up pages into tiny little squares and having a box full of them. Now as I played a game, I would fill in the locations on these small pieces of paper and stick them to the wall with blu-tac. When I finally completed a game, I would draw them up on a map on paper to keep for future records. There were times when I had multiple maps on the go with countless pieces of paper on the wall or cupboards doors.

There was great enjoyment in not only playing these games, but also in drawing up the maps and seeing them all drawn up neatly at the end of it. Sadly, I have not seen the maps I drew up in years and I fear I might have thrown them out one time when I was clearing out a book cupboard. A few moments ago I went into the spare room (junk room) to see if I could find them. Unfortunately, I did not, however I did discover a box of Commodore 64 cassettes (kids before DVD we had CD, before them we had floppy discs and before them we had cassettes – seriously, I’m not old). Within the cassettes (which I thought were all in the attic) I found a number of Zzap64 covertapes and a selection of text adventure games, Majik, The Quest For The Golden Eggcup, Rigel’s Revenge, S*M*A*S*H*E*D, Spiderman, Zzzz and a few others. The memories.

There is a lone narcissus among the delphiniums. Don't expect an awesome ending from "Lords of Time"!

As much as I love playing the games I have today, there was something special about creating the world in your mind and working out puzzles with only words. Whether I will play another one of these games is unlikely, although I do like the thought of playing one on an iPad. Books still exist and are still read manually (not by me) so maybe a text based adventure game could still be enjoyed.

You are sitting in a room in front of a computer (possibly in just your underwear). On the screen is an article about text based adventure games which you have just read and a section titled Comments. A keyboard sits in front of you. There is one doorway which is your only exit.

What Now?>

Last five articles by The Rook



  1. Rook says:

    Just to note – Lorna’s article with text based adventure stuff and mine were pure coincidental. Just goes to show Lorna and I are on the same wavelength. Oh and Lorna… GET OUT OF MY BRAIN. :D

  2. Kat says:

    I used to mess about on some text adventures when younger but never had the patience to do maps etc. I loved that I had to imagine things, like with reading a book. A western one was my fave but I can’t recall the name. Don’t think I ever played one the whole way through though.

  3. Adam Adam says:

    I got into gaming really just as this was fading out. I do remember playing the hobbit (or some D&D equivalent) on a friends Commodore but for me it was always Point and Click.

    I’ve since played the Hitchikers text adventure on the BBC site. I love that :D

    I really like (for some strange reason) text adventures that are based around navigating through DOS Shells (probably why Uplink resonates so well with me). I loved doing that sort of stuff in Enter the Matrix and more recently, the Portal Website.

    There are so many websites out there that still run versions of text adventures, I really should have the decency to sit and play some.

    You’ve installed a window where there was but a hole in my Gaming life Rook. And then you opened it. Just don’t charge me extra for that.

  4. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    My best christmas, as I think I’ve mentioned before, was the one where I got all the Level 9 text adventure games (Dungeon Adventure, Colossal Adventure, Lords Of Time and Adventure Quest) as well as The Hobbit, all for my Oric-1 computer. Mum had bought the machine from Comet in Renfrew but had problems finding games in the stores, so started calling around and dealt with the publishers directly… I’m glad she did, or I’d likely never have become so immersed in that incredible world of fiction and fantasy that had FANTASTIC graphics. Believe me, as everything was co-ordinated by the players’ imagination… all the games I played had amazing graphics even if they were just text adventures!

    Lords Of Time is the one I remember the most though, probably because I was never able to complete it when I was 11 years old, so I tried several times and still always failed. When Lorna and I both used Spectrum (*spit*) emulators a few years back and tried it again, it was surprisingly easy and annoyingly small. The ending killed it for me though, and I just wish they’d at least have written a paragraph explaining what happened after you completed it… to know what changes were put in place and how the world was affected. It didn’t. It ruined it for me.

    On the whole though, if it hadn’t been for text adventures… I probably wouldn’t be a gamer today. Sure, I played Centipede, Hopper (Frogger), The Ultra (Space Invaders), Ghost Gobbler (Pac-Man) and all the other usual titles as a kid… but I never fell in love with any of those games like I did with text adventures. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have owned so many games for the Oric at all if I hadn’t been on holiday in Truro and found an AMAZING shop that had a huge range of Oric games.

    Arfle barfle gloop.

  5. Rook says:

    @Kat – I played one called Dances With Bunny Rabbits, you’d have liked that one. Although, I don’t recall if there were any bunnies in it.

    @Adam – I had a Hitchhikers game by Infocom but it never worked for me. The friend I mentioned in college gave me his Infocom collection. I have never seen Hitchhikers so this was to be my first foary into the galaxy. I do believe I had another Hitichhikers text adventure game as well. I want to go look for them in the attic now, maybe over the weekend.

    @Markuz – I discovered the Level 9 text adventures quite late in my C64 days. And I think I only completed and mapped one… possibly. If I had my maps I could tell you, but I don’t, so I can’t.

  6. Adam Adam says:

    Theres the link to the one on the BBC site, it’s a good giggle :D

  7. Rook says:

    That’s the Infocom one I had, that never worked.

    Did a search and found and also

    Also found I had a Level 9 game called Scapeghost.

  8. Lorna Lorna says:

    Get out of my brain? Considering you just nicked one of my future blog ideas? :) I’ll do mine anyway…just not for a while, harumph. Anyway…yeah, loved text adventures…never did complete Red Moon and only a few years ago, completed Lords Of Time…what a fucking let down ending…talk about bloody lazy. I always mapped them though and still have many of the old maps.

  9. Samuel The Preacher says:

    I used to love text adventures, I had a few on MS DOS and my Atari ST, and my old school had an old BBC Micro with a few of them on. Seeing as I’ve always loved reading and writing, text adventures seemed the perfect solution.

    That said, I haven’t played one now in years and years, I think the last one was the Hitchhiker’s Guide one… the limitations of the genre just made it get to the point where I realised I was getting a similar kind of satisfaction from point and click adventures instead, and The Hobbit and Hitchhiker’s Guide made way for Monkey Island and Grim Fandango.

    I do feel a bit guilty about it now, though, because I do replay all my old games… except for the text adventures. I might have to pull out one of them later and see if I can still feel quite so absorbed in it as I used to get.

  10. Rook says:

    @Lorna – Nicked? NICKED? Just wait til I write about Sims Diaries, Hitman, Mirror’s Edge, gaming apathy. Oh it’s ON. :p

    I wish I could fnd my maps, although, it’s looks like they’re definitely gone. :(

    Found a few interesting things while hunting, but the attic is not converted and not comfortable while searching through the older stuff.

    I had a quick go on that Hitchhikers adventure, died twice. Infocom were good at packing extra little things in with their games. As you leave your house in Hitchhikers you see a pile of unread mail, amongst this is an Order For Destruction for your property. Infocom included this in the game and I took a pic of it, which you can see here:

    (Disclaimer – it may not be ON)

  11. Adam says:

    DNA was very involved in the Hitchikers game from Infograms, thats a brilliant find.

    Poor Douglas :( x

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