Like silent films, old time radio, male grooming and slide shows, the text-based game is a largely dead art form. Like the other examples, it's uniquely enjoyable and was snuffed out by its flashier, less imaginative offspring in the pursuit of realism and technology. (Don't get me wrong, I think GUIs are la mamá de Tarzán and I even crossed the security line at Xerox PARC on a nerd's tour of historic Silicon Valley to drink from the fountain where the Xerox Alto was born back in 1973.) But the quiet pleasures of text games are enjoyable in their own right and with a whole generation almost incapable of communicating through any means except texting, the text game seems ripe for a comeback.
Instead of using graphics, text-based games use prose to tell the story. Players type specific commands to such as "go north" to play. A lot of the fun (and frustration) comes from having to type them precisely. For example, if you type "omg go north lol!!!," the computer will reply, "You used the word north in a way I don't understand." It may be frustrating at first to not punctuate every command with "lol," but once you get the hang of it, you'll find text games can be highly addictive. Besides, frustration puts hair on your chest.
The fact that there are no pictures can make physically creating a map with a pencil and paper neccessary. It also requires using your imagination and problem solving that you may not be accustomed to. Text games can be very challenging and sometimes you may want to type an expletive. If you do, the programmers have in nearly all cases thought of that and you might get a response like, "Not right now. I'm tired."
The earliest text games were created for mainframe computers in the 1960s, allowing multiple users to play online. Adventure was the first widely-played MUD (or multi-user dungeon) and set the standard for text games that followed. Over the years, text games were continually modified and ultimately many of them ended up being ported to personal computers. I, for one, greatly enjoyed The Sumer Game, and most of all, Oregon Trail, on our family's Apple ][e... and Zork on the TRS-80.
Here's a by-no-means-complete list of some of the more significant text games which debuted on mainframes:
BBX (1961), The Sumer Game (1969), Highnoon (1970), Basbal, Oregon Trail and Star Trek (all 1971), Hunt the Wumpus and Star Trek (both 1972), dnd and Dungeon (both 1975), Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), Empire, Mystery Mansion, Oubliette and Zork (all 1977), Acheton and Decwar (both 1978), Avatar Battlestar, Brand X, HAUNT, Martian Adventure and New Adventure (all 1979), Hexarin, Kingdom of Hamil, Monsters of Murdac, Quondam and Rogue (all 1980), LORD (1981), FisK (1982), Avn, Castle and Dunnet (all 1985), Fylfeet (1986), Crobe, MIST, Nidus and Quest of the Sangraal (all 1987), Spysnatcher (1989), and Rise to Glory (1997)
When personal computers began appearing in homes around the turn of the '80s, programmers like Scott & Alexis Adams, Don Daglow, Jonathan Partington, Jon Thackray and others began professionally making text-based games for the new market. Anyone that was familiar with programming languages could make their own with relative ease. I wrote my own, Voyage to Zeus, based on the bizarre imagination of my younger cousin, Carly. What I wouldn't do to have a copy of that! Big companies like Adventure International, Infocom, Synapse Software (who referred to text games as "electronic novels"), Melbourne House/Beam Software, Angelsoft, Topologika and Spectral Associates spun what had once been an amateur hobby for a few nerds into commercial gold. In 1982, games with graphics became popular, but as this partial list suggests, popular text games continued into the '90s.
Adventureland, Pirate Adventure (1978), Voodoo Castle (1980), C.I.A. Adventure, Eamon and Mission Impossible (all 1980), The Count, Ghost Town, Madness and the Minotaur, Mystery Fun House, Pyramid of Doom, Saigon: The Final Days and Strange Odyssey (all 1981), Deadline, The Golden Voyage, The Hobbit, Savage Island and Starcross (1982), Enchanter, Forbidden Quest, Infidel, Suspended - A Cryogenic Nightmare, The Witness and The Wizard of Akyrz (all 1983), Cutthroats, High Stakes, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Mindwheel, Seastalker, Sorcerer and Zyll (all 1984), A Mind Forever Voyaging, Brimstone, Essex, Hampstead, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Spellbreaker and Wishbringer (all 1985), Breakers, Mindwheel and Terromolinos (all 1986), Philosopher's Quest (1987), Amnesia, Braminar, Dodgy Geezers, Jacaranda Jim, The Lurking Horror, Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels and Stationfall (all 1987), Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I. (1988), Arthur - The Quest for Excalibur, The Hound of Shadow, James Clavell's Shōgun and Journey (all 1989), Humbug (1990), Danger! Adventurer at Work! (1991), and Spy Snatcher (1992)
For many younger people today, the thought of life without a constant flow of text messaging is, if not unimaginable, incredibly stressful. Though it, like the text game, goes back to the mid-'60s, text messaging didn't really explode until the peak of BBS use in the late '80s/early '90s. In the early and mid-90s, I killed a lot of time (partly because it was dial-up) on ISCABBS and even made friends whom I'm still in contact with regularly today -- as unlikely as that sounds. My brother, meanwhile, was often using IRC to do the same.
Not coincidentally, as peer-to-peer communication through personal computers grew more common, conversely, text games became less so. Cell phones weren't really an issue at first, as they were still primarily used to make telephone calls. Although the first phones with SMS appeared in Finland in 1993, when I got my Motorola StarTac in 1997, it (like most cell phones) was bulky clamshells with external antennae and a simple diplay of phone number. Not to mention, they were so large that I carried mine in a pleather holster attached to my belt.
Nowadays cell phones are more like tricorders than conventional phones and there are many days (weeks?) where mine's phone function goes unused. As I walk the streets of Los Angeles, I routinely have to dodge hunchbacked textlemmings blindly stumbling around, no doubt in most cases merely making inconsequential small talk or sexting their friends. But what to do when your friends are busy, or their phone is dead, or your continued coordination of multiple Stove Top Stuffing meals has left you hungry for something new? Why not, just for lolz, run a terminal emulator and play a text game on your phone? You'll be glad you did. And check out the computer game section at Amoeba. We've been known to feature some pretty classic antiques at low, low prices. Though to play them may require tracking down a floppy disk drive, text games are doorways to whole 'nother worlds and therefore worth the effort.
One final note, should this whole "text-based games on cell phones" thing take off-- under no circumstances attempt to play them whilst driving. Just look what happens when a group of chavvers get wrapped up in a game of Eamon!