Text-based adventure games are probably the dinosaurs of PC gaming at this point. Not only is it a relatively dead genre, but it is definitely something situated within a certain time and place in video game history. This was before flashy graphics and huge graphical interfaces. Gamers still wanted stories – the more involved the better – but the only real way to get that was through a text-based adventure game which, if you do not like reading, is a pretty forbidding prospect for some gamers.
For one, they are not always intuitive. You interact with the word through text commands of varying complexity in order to achieve in-game end results. The variety and creativity with which developers imbued these outcomes is part of the reason why gamers still love this genre so much to this day. But it is also this variety and multiplicity that makes them sort of opaque and tough. Back in the day you absolutely had to have a guide for some of these if you were not super familiar with the conventions of the genre. Now, with the Internet and message boards everywhere, it is not so hard.
Gamers now appreciate these titles for their quirky ability to convey the creators’ collected will and vision in a purely text format. Some of these franchises would later go on to spawn graphical titles (such as the OG Zork series), but, largely, the spirit of text-based adventures lives on in the point-and-click games which are themselves relics of a bygone era at this point.
This article was kind of tough for me to write for you all, because I played many of these games eons ago. Even so, you know that I know what is quality and these classic titles are definitely the best I have ever encountered. Here are the 10 best text-based adventure games:
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10. Planetfall (developed and published by Infocom in 1983)
This game takes place on a spaceship and involves surviving in that harsh environment, while also figuring out what is going on around you. Typical conspiracy and puzzle solving game if ever there was one, the reason Planetfall is a great title for text-based adventures is because it is set in space which is basically a real life text-based adventure. One wrong choice in space results in death and that is the case here.
The combination of that and the engrossing plot are what most gamers loved about it back in the day, but what modern gamers will appreciate is how effective Planetfall is at creating atmosphere without any graphics whatsoever to back it up. This is fine video game writing and it will have you looking sideways at the next triple-A title that comes out with hackneyed garbage writing and plots.
9. Eric the Unready (developed and published by Legend Entertainment in 1993)
You are a terrible knight named Eric who is perpetually unprepared for everything in life. That is the setup and the whole game follows from that premise, as you often find yourself screwing up in this game more often due to Eric’s penchant for folly than you do because you made the wrong choice.
Half comical, half frustrating as heck, Eric the Unready almost exists as a commentary on the broader text-based genre. It mocks its conventions and its narratives in a Terry Pratchett-esque way. If you are looking for something somewhat comical and fun for all ages, ETU is a good choice.
8. Stationfall (developed and published by Infocom in 1987)
Can’t get enough of Planetfall? Do not worry – I couldn’t either. Stationfall is the same setup, same characters, same everything, but a new story and setup for you to explore. It is also somewhat dependent on the first game.
Sure, you will have fun playing Stationfall, but it might not be as rich for you if you have played the first game. They are very much like novels in that way and that is really a huge part of the appeal of this genre.
7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (developed and published by Infocom in 1984)
You are probably familiar with this property in one format or the other if you are a true sci-fi fan. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy captures that wild, zany spirit and is a solid text-based adventure in addition.
Should you try it out if you do not know anything about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? That is a question you will have to answer yourself but I can tell you that the game’s charm really rests heavily on that. If it is missing, what else is there? Just another weird game – but an amazing one. I would say give it a try before you pass judgment.
6. The Hobbit (developed by Beam Software, published by Melbourne House in 1982)
Yes, it is that Hobbit and it is awesome. It is also a work of art in this genre. How? The Hobbit almost mimics early AI and non-player characters in that players will have unique playthroughs each and every time. If that is not wild enough, the number of choices at the player’s disposal are pretty much the equivalent of endless (as are the ways to die).
You do not have to be a fan of Tolkien’s work to love this game, but it might help. I would say that a guide is almost a necessity but this title is so much fun on its own that, really, you should just experience it as is. Do not get me wrong – you are going to fail, a lot. But that is part of the experience.
Also the ever-shifting circumstances of the narrative means you are always on your toes. Being a technical marvel is one thing, but being a compelling game is another and, luckily for us, this is both.
5. A mind forever voyaging (developed by Infocom, published by Infocom and Activision in 1985)
A lot of the format and inspiration for text-based adventure games comes from novels and nowhere is that more obvious (outside of the ACTUAL games with titles from novels) than A Mind Forever Voyaging. This game explores the 1980s USA and tries to posit what the social events of that era mean for the future.
It is a really meditative, explorational style that lends itself more to literature than anything else. There are puzzles, sure, but the story is a puzzle as well. You are going to be doing a lot of thinking in AMFV but you are also bound to be impressed with just how broad and deep the well of video game creativity is.
4. Spider and Web (developed and published by Andrew Plotkin in 1998)
One of the two later entries in the genre on this list, this game came out in 1998 and is a really tough as nails text-based adventure that was created for veterans of the genre. As such, it is not friendly at all to beginners and it probably will make you never want to play another one of these games again. Like I said in the intro, the beauty of these titles is how creative they can be in their nonlinear options. Spider and Web is very much the opposite of this.
It is a linear game, which means that any wrong choice or action results in immediate death rather than the often hilarious circumstances found in other titles. Text-based adventures are meant to simulate life and an adventure novel. If that is the case, Spider and Web simulates a game of chicken that is intense and will make you tense. If you want to tackle this Spider and Web, I suggest you bring a guide. Otherwise, you are in for an often painful and frustrating ride here.
3. The Pawn (developed by Magnetic Scrolls, published by Rainbird Software in 1985)
Magnetic Scroll’s 1985 “interactive fiction” masterpiece The Pawn first came out on the Sinclair QL from Sinclair Research and other platforms later in 1986. It is notable in the history of text-based adventure games, because it was one of the first titles to seriously pursue graphics and artwork as part of the immersion experience.
The game itself is relatively mundane, but these additions were revolutionary at the time. One thing about the story is that it does not take itself too seriously and that is both a positive and a negative.
If you are not really aware of the conventions of interaction fiction and text-based adventures, many of these inside jokes will be lost on you. Even so, you cannot deny the influence of The Pawn on the ultimate development of games like the graphical Return to Zork and Myst.
2. The Dreamhold (developed and published by Andrew Plotkin in 2004)
This game, like Spider and Web, was also developed by the genius Andrew Plotkin and serves as an introduction to the entire genre. How so? It is basically a tutorial in the guise of a genius game that introduces you to conventions of the text-based adventure. To repeat: It is a full-game that teaches you how to play other games – all without you knowing it! Like I said, genius. One thing I have to explain is the game’s release date.
Coming out in 2004, it is definitely a newer game, but might irk some people that are accustomed to the classic appeal of my site. Given that the game actually serves as an introduction to the games of the classic era and is itself a great title at the same time, I think this concern is not merited and we can set it aside. In fact, I recommend that you play this game if you have never tackled a text-adventure one, because this will let you know whether it is your thing or not.
No need for guessing games. And anyone that knows anything will tell you that a game from Andrew Plotkin is a must-play if you are a fan of anything classic PC. So, a classic twofer in The Dreamhold.
No honorable mentions today, but we have more than one number one at the top of this list…
1. Zork Trilogy (developed by Infocom, published by Personal Software, Infocom and Activision in 1980, 1981 and 1982)
For many gamers, this is the touchstone game of the whole genre. I have decided to put them together as a trilogy rather than separate them out because, as a whole, their impact is undeniable. If you were to choose just one game, it would be the first, obviously, but the trilogy as a unitary package makes the most sense. Some gamers might be familiar with the more modern incarnations of this series such as Return to Zork or Zork Inquisitor (themselves classics at this point), but only really dyed-in-the-wool OG gamers know about text-based Zork and, of course, the Grue.
Who is the Grue?
See, in Zork, you need to try to stay in the light at all times. You cannot go into the darkness or let your flashlight die or your candle go out. If you do, you will be eaten alive by a Grue. In many ways it was the game’s way of letting you know you screwed up, but it became a convention in and of itself later on in the games. The Grue has even broken out of the text-based Zork games and become a broader video game cultural icon.
What makes Zork games great? Well, the stories for one.
They are amazingly fun and weird pieces of fiction. Also, the world of Zork is perhaps more fully realized than any other text-based adventure game that does not rely upon Tolkien or someone else to have written it up first. In fact, if there is any game on this list that needs a modern revival, it is the Zork games.
Whether it is the unique and diverse characters or the many situations you find yourself facing, Zork bleeds creativity and care. True, choice and options and multiple paths are not themselves unique things in modern games. But, way back then, this kind of approach was groundbreaking and consequential for the broader field of gaming. For those reasons, the Zork trilogy is not only a must-play for gamers that consider themselves true connoisseurs, but also is a must-see for those of us that love the history of programming and computer gaming development.
So retro folks we really went back to the gaming roots with this one, but what do you think? Are there some titles that you think I should add? Any favorite memories that you would like to share? You can do that in the comments section below, as always.
Till next retro journey!