Review by C.J. Bunce
If you were lucky enough to live in the 1970s, you may have witnessed something major firsthand: The beginnings of personal computers and programming, video games, and roleplaying games emerged and even intersected in a surprising way. If you learned of a new game, it wasn’t yet as a video game but a text game–a game made from rudimentary computer languages that made PCs seem smarter than they actually were. That’s right–the beginning of artificial intelligence found itself first in simple games that gave the impression to the human interfacing with a screen (accessing a shared computer housed miles away) that it was on a magical, mythical journey. That journey could be via perceived time travel to the past or a fantasy world with limits bounded only by a programmer’s imagination. If BASIC, Fortran, and ARPANET ring a bell, or you recall your TRS-80 or Commodore, and you played Oregon Trail and the first Dungeons & Dragons and Super Star Trek games, you need to check out more than 600 pages of gaming history in 50 Years of Text Games: From Oregon Trail to AI Dungeon, by Aaron A. Reed. It’s the year’s best non-fiction book for gamers, programmers, and anyone looking for their next Retro Fix.
Let’s face it–as a group, programmers aren’t known for their communications skills. So a book about the history of video games might sound a bit dry. Fortunately this book is anything but. Reed’s writing is both explanatory and historical as he pulls in the stories of the individual creators and later the companies that introduced these games to the world. Sometimes the original code was lost. Other times the games can be pieced together from clues left behind. Before you could save a program to disc, computers didn’t even have enough storage to hold a game. Key-punch and tapes evolved into floppy discs, then later compact discs, arriving at today’s itty bitty thumb drives. In its early days gaming was shared by researchers and college students, many times via paper copies to be manually inputted to whatever rudimentary personal computer or mainframe could be borrowed. My own first PC did not have enough memory to hold the games shared via code in Games Magazine. Until I got a cassette tape drive–an early external memory drive–I’d spend a day typing in code, play it for the weekend, then lose it when I turned the machine off. That was the norm. It’s amazing so much information on the early days of these games has been preserved in college archives… and individuals’ basements.
First off, text games include games from the simplest to today’s more elaborate fare. It includes all kinds of “interactive fiction,” but these are primarily games without graphics. Recall the GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR game Matthew Broderick plays in the movie WarGames? That’s just the kind of adventure available in gaming’s earliest days, and this book highlights a benchmark example from every year beginning with the ground-breaking Oregon Trail in 1971 with a comprehensive tour of the next 50 years. But it’s not only about 50 games, as each chapter incorporates all the other influences of each decade. And it doesn’t forget text games outside computers, like the series of Choose Your Own Adventure books.
Are you a genre fan? Then you’ll enjoy reading about Super Star Trek from 1974, dnd from 1975, The Hobbit in 1982, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1984, and more. Maybe you don’t care about the 1970s or 1980s (blasphemy!), but you can still enjoy the games from the era you first tapped into interactive adventures. The benchmarks that are the focus of the book include the above plus ROCKET, Hunt the Wumpus, Adventure, Zork, Pirate Adventure, MUD, His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous, Suspended, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Uncle Roger, Plundered Hearts, P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A, Monster Island, LambdaMOO, Trade Wars 2002, Silverwolf, Curses, The Playground, Patchwork Girl, So Far, Achaea, Photopia, King of Dragon Pass, Galatea, The Beast, Screen, Kingdom of Loathing, The Fire Tower, Shades of Doom, Dwarf Fortress, Lieux Communs and El Museo de la Consciencias, Violet, Fallen London, Digital: A Love Story, Nested, Howling Dogs, Versu: A Family Supper, 80 Days, Lifeline, Choices: The Freshman, Universal Paperclips, Weyrworld, AI Dungeon, and Scents & Semiosis.
The book was released in a giant hardcover edition and it includes a valuable glossary upfront, and an index and table of contents, along with a ribbon bookmark. One of the best features? The author has provided links so you can play any or all the games now. Play them at his website for free here.
But here’s the rub. 50 Years of Text Games sold out on its initial print run this weekend. But the author reports a Print on Demand edition coming later this year, and you can buy a digital edition now here. More information on the project and the successful Kickstarter behind it all is available at his website here. No matter what format you can get your hands on, it’s going to be worth it. The book is like no other, chronicling this niche of the rich–and heretofore untold–history of computer and roleplaying games.