30 Best Text-Adventures/Interactive-Fiction Games Over 5 Decades
As gamers, we know perfectly well that the graphics is not everything that counts. The story, the immersion, the memorable characters – those are the things we really dig. So what would we get if we leave those and eliminate the visual side altogether (or almost altogether), relying just on text and our imagination? The answer is simple – interactive fiction (IF) aka text adventures! Even though this genre reached the peak of its popularity in ancient times of late 70’s and early 80’s, it has its devoted fans and supporters even to this very day. If you’re not afraid of figuring things on your own, typing your answers and reading walls of text, don’t hesitate to try the games on your own. I decided to present you the thirty most interesting, at least according to me, titles in this genre. Hopefully, this lists of little gems will be helpful on your quest to discover interesting productions that will stir your imagination. Among the many types and kinds of stories everyone is bound to finding something special.
It’s only fitting to begin with the game that started everything. After all, the whole genre was named after it. The world-shattering breakthrough happened in 1976 when William Crowther wrote the game to cheer up his two young children after the divorce. It was the text-based production, involving an exploration of a cave, resembling the real Colossal Cave, but not free of supernatural elements like for instance dwarves. The game uses a verb-noun parser and only typing appropriate commands can save us from the impending doom of getting lost in a labyrinth or a surprise death that can occur without any previous notification. Since the game was released, it was changed and expanded numerous times by different authors, who added new challenges or rooms into it. Still, no matter the version, Adventure is a milestone in game development. It’s worth checking out if you feel nostalgic and despite the fact that it’s dated in so many ways, the playability didn’t suffer one bit.
Some big quest have a very unheroic beginnings. In Planetfall, released in 1983, we play as Ensign Seventh Class serving on the S.P.S Feinstein – a starship of the Stellar Patrol. Instead of having daring and exciting adventures among the stars, we’re put in charge of mopping the deck. The fate, however, gives us a chance to prove ourselves when, after the catastrophe, our escape pod crashes on a deserted planet. Finding an unlikely ally, a friendly robot called Floyd, we need to unravel the secret of the civilisation who suddenly abandoned their home. At least two things makes Planetfall memorable. The first one is certainly our sidekick, Floyd. He is the main source of humour in the game (for instance, when we make a save around him he says: “Oh boy, are we gonna try something dangerous now?”) but he’s not just a comic relief, we grow really attached to him over the course of the adventure. I’m pretty sure that Crispin from Primordia was largely inspired by Floyd. The other thing is a bit more controversial because the game is full of red herrings. Figuring out which items are actually useless and which puzzles unsolvable, is actually the part of the gameplay. Still, despite that all the fans of s-f genre should at least try and embark on a journey with Floyd.
Digital: A Love Story
It’s not true that all interactive fiction require some serious dusting off before playing. Some of the productions are quite recent, like for instance Digital: A Love Story, which was developed by Christine Love and released in February 2010. Are you in a mood for a romance? You’d better be or else you’ll be missing on one of the best love stories in computer games history ever. Digital is set in the late 1980s when we assume the role of an unidentified protagonist, who just got his/hers computer for the first time. Soon we acquaint online a girl called Emilia and as we exchange messages with each other, the affection starts to bloom. Not everything goes smoothly though, because due to some malfunction of the host computer we cannot make any contact with her. What would a heartsick person do? Try to find her, obviously.
Digital: A Love Story is short (it takes about an hour to beat it), linear and doesn’t give us much freedom, since the game automatically sends messages – we do not influence (or even see) their content – but still it’s definitely worth recommending and playing. Try it out, especially if for some reason you feel leery of older games and still want to give interactive fiction a chance.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is a classic of British sense of humour and if you’re unfamiliar with the books then do yourself a favour and read them at once. You might also want to watch the movie or, even better, play the game. It was released in 1984 and Adams himself had his hand in it. The game follows loosely the story known from the books and once again everything begins with the destruction of Arthur Dent’s home. He is the protagonist, but the game allows us as well to play as Ford Prefect, Trillian or Zaphod Beeblebrox, so the fans of the originals should be pleased. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is notorious though for its difficulty level and generally being “mean” to the player. Some puzzles if not solved in an appropriate fashion, would infallibly result in not being able to beat the game at all. A walkthrough is thus recommended for less patient gamers. The ending also teases the sequel but it was never produced. Shame.
Who said that the protagonist of a game must be an honest man? Playing as a cunning scoundrel can be at least as much fun. Or maybe even more. Varicella, a game developed in 1999 by Adam Cadre, shows us an alternative history of the world, skilfully mixing together atmosphere and customs of Renaissance with fairly modern technology. We assume the role of eponymous Primo Varicella, who is the amoral Palace Minister at Palazzo del Piemonte. The king has recently died and the prince is too young to rule on his own, so a regent needs to be chosen. Of course, we want to hold that position and in order to do that we must eliminate other candidates. Permanently. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Great writing, lots of dark humour, the opportunity to be really nasty and above all, the ending makes Varicella a great, unparalleled experience. It’s one of the best interactive fictions ever created, hands down.
Slouching Towards Bedlam
If your life motto goes along the lines: “there’s no such thing as too much steampunk”, then Slouching Towards Bedlam is a perfect game for you. The highly praised title, which was created in 2003 by Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster, is set in year 1885 in the Victorian London where magic is as easily encountered as steam-powered technology. We play here as Doctor Xavier, who works as … well, a doctor in Bedlam Asylum. Or so it appears, since we don’t have any recollections of the past. As the story progresses, we learn that we’ve been infected with a mysterious and deadly virus called “Logos”, which spreads by using speech. What’s really remarkable about this game is the amount of freedom we’re given. The game has several endings, which depend on the choices we’ve made during the playthrough. Adding to this very atmospheric narration, great setting and overall enjoyability of experiencing the game, Slouching Towards Bedlam can be recommended to anyone seeking a good and engrossing story.
Cypher: Cyberpunk Text Adventure
The newest game on the list and the one I had the pleasure of reviewing. Long story short, Cypher is set in a cyberpunkish city called NeoSushi (formerly Tokyo…). We play here as Dogeron “Dog” Kenan, who works as a data-smuggler, which basically comes down to hiding some illegal information encoded on a chip inside his brain and selling them to the mobsters. One time though, something goes terribly wrong and Dog suddenly founds himself in a mortal danger. We need to find out who wants to kill us and we need to do it fast. The game’s biggest assets is the gripping and really atmospheric story that bears the mark of Blade Runner or Deus Ex about it. The game also incorporates some visuals and sound effects, which enhances immersion. Cypher got mixed reviews though, mainly due to very uncooperative parser as well as many grammatical errors and typos. The game, however, has been patched a few times, so right now playing it should be much more enjoyable experience. Just give it a try and you might be nicely surprised.
It seems that not many occupations are as hazardous as being a magician’s servant. After all, so many things may go wrong and result in you being switched into a frog. Or being locked up in your master’s vault, which at least sounds entertaining. Exactly that happens in David Fisher’s game Suveh nux from 2007. To escape from the room we need to master the magical language that allows us to manipulate the environment. Don’t worry, it’s not that hard and actually more fun then it may seem. No “guess-the-verb” puzzles, I promise. Messing with magic is very rewarding and sometimes produces really funny outcomes. Overall, Suveh nux is a short, but extremely enjoyable experience that plays smoothly, even if you’re new to the genre of IF.
Make It Good
I’ve always had a soft spot for a noir detective stories but even if you don’t, Make It Good by Jon Ingold from 2009 may perhaps change your attitude. We play here is as a run-down cop who hit rock-bottom due to his drinking addiction and even his partner despises him. Still, we’re getting put in charge of a murder investigation that was committed in a house full of people, every one of them being now a suspect. We have to interrogate witnesses, collect the clues and in the end bring the inquire to a satisfactory conclusion. Apart from the atmosphere and great writing, the game has one very unique feature – the world there seems alive. All the characters have their own personalities, aim and purpose, moving about the house as they please. It’s almost as if your presence as a player wasn’t really necessary for that reality to exist. All in all, every home-grown detective should check this game out.
Ain’t nothing better than a bit of a western, right? Hoosegow (2010) by Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch allows us to have a first-hand experience of a titular jail cell. Too bad that in the morning we’re going to be hanged along our buddy if we don’t figure a way out of this mess. The plot is rather simple, but entertaining, especially because of the “local flavour”. There’s a lot of Southern slang in the game – from “that ain’t no verb I got knowledge of” to “is you talking plain English?” – which strengthens the immersion and boosts up the fun factor. As for the puzzles, they are interesting and rather logical, but the game experiences some “guess-the-verb” problems and occasional bugs. Still, if you’d be understanding towards Hoosegow’s flaws, it will offer you a truly unique experience.
Spider and Web
Spy stories definitely has their charm. But maybe not so much if you suddenly find yourself with a lamp pointed directly at your face and strange people asking you weird questions. Spider and Web (1998) by Andrew Plotkin begins quite unexcitingly – the protagonist, a tourist, faces a closed door but as he tries to leave the alley, a voice begins shouting at him and saying that it is all a lie and we need to tell the truth. And thus the intricate mystery unfolds as we want to outsmart our interrogator while trying to figure out what really happened, since the player is pretty much in the dark all the time. The premise of the game is certainly original and the execution is equally good. Spider and Web is undoubtedly confusing, difficult and unforgiving, especially later, but the more you play it, the more you appreciate the ingenuity.
A bit of hilarity is always welcome. And while playing Lost Pig (2007) by Admiral Jota you’re bound to chuckle, cackle and snort on a regular basis. The epic quest starts as our protagonist, an orc Grunk, finds out that a pig from his farm is missing. During the chase after an unruly animal, the hero falls into some kind of dungeon, so he now has two objectives – find the pig and return home. What makes this game so enjoyable is the narration – Grunk uses broken English to describe everything that happens around him and his comments are often completely disarming. There’s no better game if you want to take a breather from more serious and complex titles and simply to have a great time. Definitely a gem in the comedic genre.
The puzzles are nice but it is the story that really attracts people into games. Adam Cadre’s Photopia (1998) is often considered to be the first interactive fiction that is almost solely narrative-driven. It’s completely linear and has very few puzzles, but nonetheless it is an experience hard to forget. I won’t spoil anything about the story, it’s better to discover the intricate twists and turns of the plot yourself. Not your usual adventure game, but if you look for some originality and ingenuity you’ve come to the right place.
Losing Your Grip
Kids, don’t experiment with dangerous substances. In Stephen Grenade’s Losing Your Grip (1998) we play as Terry, who is in rehab because of his nicotine addiction. The way to overcome it involves taking various drugs, which send the poor guy on a weird and psychedelic journey into his own mind. The game is ambiguous and nearly everything we encounter may be understood as a metaphor for something, but it is precisely why Losing Your Grip is so enjoyable. As for the puzzles, they are rather difficult. Still, they are also really well integrated into the game, so fighting against them proves to be very rewarding. Basically, a title worth looking into.
It takes great skills to leave a haunting impression on the player while using nothing more than words. Jason Devlin’s Vespers (2005) certainly can do that – no wonder the games was showered with praises and awards. The game takes place in a 15th century monastery, which seems to be the only haven free of the plague that rages throughout Italy. Not for long though… Vespers puts us in the shoes of an abbot, who over the course of a few days sees his fellow monks descend into madness as the disease spreads and the whole world goes to hell. That is, however, not his only problem, since he needs to conduct an investigation regarding the murder that has been committed on the premises. The tone of the game is very dark, gruesome and depressing. A truly horrifying, but thought-provoking experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression on the player. If you’re not afraid of the darkness in human hearts, be sure to check Vespers out.
If there’s a game that can develop an atticophobia, it is certainly Curses!, Graham Nelson’s classic from 1994. We assume here the role of an aristocrat and the current owner of Meldrew Hall, an old mansion full of secrets. The beginning is quite normal and uneventful – you rummage through the attic of a house in search of an old map of Paris, since you’re bent on going there on holiday. Soon, however, as you find more and more bizarre items you find out that your family is cursed. Now you have no other choice but to discover the nature of the curse and try to lift it if possible. The game is huge, well-written and thoroughly enjoyable, even though some puzzles prove to be a hard nut to crack. Still, it is one of those classics that any fan of IF should experience for themselves.
Jeremy’s Freese Violet (2008) might have been as well named Procrastination: The Game. It’s not often that I find a game so relatable. We assume here a role of a student, who struggles with writing his dissertation. Our girlfriend, eponymous Violet, threatens to leave us if we don’t write at least 1000 words. Anyone who ever tried forcing themselves to write knows perfectly well how hard that is, especially if the Internet or a window overlooking a campus is in the vicinity. Will our hero be strong enough to fulfil his quest and keep his girlfriend? It’s all up to us. What’s worth noting, is that everything is narrated in Violet’s voice and the longer we play, the more we begin to care about her. That motivates us to abandon any distractions and solve puzzles that allow us to write. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable and funny game with a nice message behind it.
1893: A World’s Fair Mystery
Nothing better than a 19th century setting and a bit of mystery. Just as the title of Peter Nepstad game (2002) suggests – 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery – we’ll get them here. The game is set during the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, which took place in 1893 as we may deduce. We assume here the role of a detective, whose initial objective is to investigate the theft of a diamond. Soon, however, we branch out to make an inquiry about the kidnapping and murder which is just a preview of a much more elaborate mystery. The game is definitely fun to play but what really distinguished it from many other is the focus on historical details. No wonder, since the author is a historian. The exposition itself is as truthful to the original one as possible and features 500 photographs from the period, which significantly deepens the experience. If you consider yourself a bit of a history nerd, there’s few better games to indulge yourself.
Lovecraftian mythos have inspired many authors, game developers included. Among them was Michael S. Gentry, who in 1998 released Anchorhead, which is a horror-adventure that no fan of the Cthulhu mythos should pass over. The game is set in year 1997 in a titular coastal town. The protagonist and her husband had just moved into an old mansion, which the husband has recently inherited. Soon, however, the man becomes more and more obsessed with the past of his family, which apparently dabbed into occult. What’s more, the town’s denizens turn out to be far more sinister than it appeared at first glance. Our heroine needs to uncover what is really going on here and stop the evil-doers before one of the Great Old Ones visits for tea. Anchorhead has been widely praised, mainly for its atmosphere as well as for well-written dialogues and gripping narration. The only gripe people had with this game was puzzle-difficulty, but even if you’ll have to resort once or twice to the walkthrough, it is still a production definitely worth checking.
The strength and charm of some games lies in their simplicity. This certainly applies to Adam Cadre’s little game from 2000 called 9:05. At the said time our phone rings and wakes us up. It seems that we had overslept horribly. All we have to do now is to get up and leave the flat as soon as possible. Sounds simple enough, right? Yeah, but just wait till the ending… This is one of those productions in which seeing the conclusion totally changes the perception of the whole. I recommend playing it if only for the twist at the end. It’s very short, fun and clever title.
An atomic bomb, that’s something we as players are quite familiar with. There were numerous occasions in many series to witness the aftermath of the explosion. Rarely though, first hand and while standing at ground zero. Brian Moriarty’s game Trinity (1986) makes us play as an American tourist in London, which suddenly becomes a target of a nuclear missile. When we think that we’re done for, a strange door appear from the thin air. Having nothing to lose, we open them and find ourselves in a bizarre world, where the laws of physics does not apply and the continuity of time and space goes all wibbly-wobbly. Still, we traverse this strange realm, getting to know along the way the history of nuclear bombs as we visit various test sites. We’ll be able in the end to prevent the disaster? The game is quite though-provoking without shoving the message right into your face. What’s more, it’s well-written, entertaining and with hard, but rewarding puzzles. Basically, it would be a shame not play it even once.
18th century France and magic? I’m sold! Savoir-Faire (2002) by Emily Short allows us to play as a young man, who is in desperate need of money, so he decides to pay a visit to his aristocratic adoptive father’s house. Once there, however, he realises that everybody has disappeared. We obviously need to find out what have happened. Fortunately, our hero is a talented magician, who is a specialist in the “lavori d’Aracne”. Basically, it’s a kind of magic that creates links between objects and if something happens to one of them, the same happens also to the pther. This mechanism is extensively used while solving puzzles, which makes Savoir-Faire quite original production. It’s not a masterpiece, but a very enjoyable and memorable game nonetheless.
City of Secrets
Who doesn’t like to travel and visit new places? Sadly, not always we have time or means to do that. In such cases computer games may save the day. Emily Short’s City of Secrets (2003) takes us on a trip to the titular place that is full of magic and advanced technology. We’re just a tourist without a clue what’s going on, so large part of the game is just exploration and marvelling at all the wonders around us. Still, soon enough we begin to realise that this paradise is not free of troubles as many powers within the city struggle to obtain more power. Story-wise and by the creation of the setting, it is one of the best IF out there. Don’t hesitate too long, the City of Secrets awaits for an eager explorer.
Most interactive fictions are quite difficult, but there are some titles which can serve as a great and painless introduction to the genre. One of them is Wishbringer (1985) written by Brian Moriarty. We assume here the role of a postal clerk who works in an idyllic village called Festeron. Our ordinary day turns extraordinary when we’re asked to deliver a letter to the old lady running Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. She asks us to save her cat from the clutches of a sorceress named adequately The Evil One. Full of good intentions we leave the shop, but the moment we step out, the quiet village transforms into an ominous Witchville straight from hell. In this new situation we’re not entirely alone – on our way we pick up the Wishbringer, a magical stone that can grant seven wishes. We can use them as an aid to solve puzzles if we so desire, but the usage of the stone is optional. All in all, it’s a very nice game and if you’re just beginning your adventure with IF, this is a good game to start with.
A Mind Forever Voyaging
Can games talk about serious political issues? Of course they can. A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985) by Steve Meretzky is one of them, designed to provide a critique of Ronald Reagan’s decisions and plans. United States of North America in 2031 is not a great place to be. The crime rate and unemployment is alarmingly high, the educational system is on the brink of collapse and there are food shortages. Something needs to be done about it. We play here as PRISM, a sentient computer, who is asked by his creator to perform a set of simulations to predict how the introduction of the Plan for Renewed National Purpose would affect the country and whether or not it would be beneficial in the long run. Various conclusions can be drawn from those simulation. A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the most mature interactive fictions, though it didn’t achieve a commercial success. With very little puzzles, it’s based mostly on exploration and observation. A very good game to play if you’re looking for something serious and dystopian.
Time for an absolute classic and the beginning of a highly popular series of games – Zork I. Made in 1980 by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, even after 30 years is still enjoyable to play. We assume here the role of an unidentified adventurer, who begins his journey next to a white house. When we enter it, we collect a number of useful items, a lantern, trophy case and a sword among them. It seems that they will get useful pretty soon as we discover a trap door, leading to the dungeon or more precisely the Great Underground Empire. The objective in the game is to find Twenty Treasures of Zork and to do that we have to solve puzzles, involving for instance finding a way in a maze or manipulating various objects. It’s a very old-school adventure but definitely has its charm.
Do you want to play a creepy and ambiguous game that will mess with your brain? No better choice than Andrew Plotkin’s Shade (2000). The author describes his work as “a one-room game set in your apartment”. It’s a short title that depends a lot on the element of surprise, so it would be inadvisable too divulge to much at this point. I’ll just say that we assume the role of an unnamed protagonist, who wakes up before dawn and as he moves around his flat, strange things began to happen. The ending is open to various interpretations and leaves you scratching your head. Finishing Shade only takes around an hour, so feel encourages to experience it on your own.
Looking for something unusual and ridiculously challenging? Try Suspended, a game from 1983 written by Michael Berlyn. The protagonist is a person who was supposed to sleep for 500 years deep in an underground complex, while his brain, connected to a network of computers, was responsible for maintaining control over vital systems of a planet Contra. Something goes wrong though. The characters is awaken by an earthquake, which severely damages the facility, causing various systems to shut down. Now the denizens of the planet assume that we’re wrecking havoc on purpose, so we need to restore the balance before humans would enter the facility and kill us. What is so remarkable about the game is the fact that we’re not interacting with the environment on our own. It would be after all difficult, since we’re stuck underground. Instead, we control six robots, each with different speciality and personality, to perform various duties. The game is extremely difficult, but beating it brings unparalleled satisfaction.
The King of Shreds and Patches
Nothing better than a nice Lovecraftian story in a historical setting. Jimmy’s Maher The King of Shreds and Patches (2009), transports us to beautifully recreated Elizabethan London where we encounter horrors beyond any measure. Everything starts innocent enough – we get a letter from an old friend, inviting us for dinner. A nice meal is not what we get though. Instead, we end up entangling ourselves in a dark conspiracy, involving black magic and ominous cults. It’s crucial to put an end to this before something truly sinister happens. The game is long and very entertaining, keeping the player on edge all the time. Perhaps a little cheesy and frustrating at times, but a real page turner nonetheless.
Some games are remembered mainly for their uniqueness and the atmosphere. One of them is Metamorphoses (2000) by Emily Short. The plot is not of primary importance. We play here as a slave girl, who was sent by his master into another realm of idealized forms. Those forms can be transformed in many ways, which is how we solve most of the puzzles in the game. The most remarkable thing about this game is the freedom we are given. We can explore the world freely and puzzles have usually multiple solutions. There are also different endings to the story, depending on how we chose to play the game. Just check out it and see for yourself, Metamorphoses is an experience that is hard to forget.