Are Text Based Games a Dying Genre?


Text based games are arguably responsible for what the gaming industry has become today. That’s a huge claim, so let me explain. The first text based digital game was called Colossal Cave Adventure which released in 1976. It had about 700 lines of code, and the player could interact with the setting by typing in one or two word responses to the game. Colossal Cave Adventure was strictly text-based with no graphics at all.

So, how does that bring us to our destination today with billions of dollars being poured into highly immersive and interactive games that rely heavily on their graphics? Ok, strap yourself in for a little history lesson. Colossal Cave Adventure was just the start of what would become a booming genre. By taking the source code of Colossal Cave Adventure, the game Mystery House was created. Unlike Colossal Cave Adventure, Mystery House had pictures to accompany the text. This led to even more games being created with even more core mechanics and gameplay elements.

In 1986, Enchanted Scepters was released as a game already downloaded on the original Macintosh computer. It introduced point and click elements to an already engaging game. Let’s recap then: text based games improved by getting graphics to accompany the text and then eventually evolved into point and click adventure games. Fast forward to 2006, enter Telltale Games with the episodic point and click adventure game. Telltale’s Sam and Max series still relied heavily on text, but graphics and the point and click mechanic aided in its execution. Now, let’s take a look at Telltale games today. The text describing actions is replaced by cinematic sequences and the text element is implemented through voiced dialogue.

Simply put, as time goes on more and more gameplay mechanics are being invented by developers. What started as simply text on the screen evolved into something much bigger. Games today rely on text, audio, pictures and even video. But what does that mean for the text based game? Is the genre dead? My answer is no. Text-based games are slowly gaining popularity again in the form of visual novels. A visual novel is a game that uses prose to tell a story, but gives the player the option to choose what happens next with set branching points. They rely on visuals in the form of character sprites and flat backgrounds.

Visual novels are still a very niche genre. They’re by no means selling as many copies in America as some more well-known AAA games. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t playing them.  As a visual novel developer myself,  I can see that there is a considerable amount of people who play visual novels in their free time. You see this even more in Japan.

There is a cultural shift in the genre of storylines for these text-based games. The first text based game was an adventure game. Now, the visual novels that sell the most copies have romantic storylines. In 2017, the visual novel industry is fueled by romantic themed stories for both males and females. Visual novels without romantic elements are hard to find.

Visual novels are also easier to make than most games which has led to an increase in their production amongst the indie scene. Some people are even using the platform to make statements. Take the game Grand Old Academy for example. It is a satirical game about dating the former republican presidential candidates, meant to make a statement about both politics and the classic romantic visual novel.

So, what do you think? Do you play any text based games? Do you feel like they’re losing their popularity, or slowly gaining it back?