The Original Texting: Playing interactive fiction on computers

Apr 11, 2018 at 10:00 am by Warlord720

Contrary to what you may believe… texting is not a recent invention coming after the smartphone. In fact, texting of different sorts has been around on computers since they were first wired together.

It was the late 1970's and I sat in a consumer finance office in a metro area of south Texas. I wasn't a customer… I was the branch manager. I was also glued to one of the first wired, chip-driven IBM terminals that I had ever seen.

It looked like an IBM Selectric typewriter on life support.

I was in contact with the branch manager of another location and we were using the teletype service of the wired terminals to talk to each other. He was in a small town north of my location.

The purpose of the clunky blue IBM was to spit out reports to help us track the daily business as well as branch-to-branch communication. That type of connectivity in the infancy of chip-based computers wasn't cheap but I don't think it cost the company by the word.

At least I hope not.

We, two managers, were engaged in a very important discussion from locations about an hour and a half apart.

We texted D&D moves back and forth.

Yep… Dungeons and Dragons. Being the intrepid souls we were, and putting first things first, we devised a way to play D&D remotely. Right under the nose of our supervisors in Dallas and Home Office in New York without either being any the wiser.

It didn't take much to spoof things back then. We had figured out how to communicate with each other while leaving our superiors out of the message loop. This wasn't supposed to be possible so none of the area supervisors knew of our "online" game playing.

I guess that made us not only early adopters but early hackers too. We were far from alone though.

Text was the only way to communicate on the computer. That was about the same time Texas Instruments came out with it's 994/A and Radio Shack had its TRS-80s. No graphics capabilities at all as we know them today.

Then appeared a program whose time had come, it was a product of its day… the text adventure.

It was interactive fiction. Text-based with sometimes simple and sometimes vivid descriptions. Where every screen conjured a different world to the players huddled around.

If there were three or four of your friends playing with you everyone had envisioned a different scenario in their heads. For text-based games… the graphics were awesome.

Your imagination is one hell of a GPU.

The text adventures revolved around a story that forked on whatever choice the player made during the game. It had to be typed in and the vocabulary was rather limited.

You typed East or E to go east. North or N to go north and so on, that is if all those directions were available at your particular location.

Most interaction was done with two words.

Take key.

Open door.

Look desk.

Read book.

Light torch.

Some games let you type in long strings (sentences) but usually just read the first two to four words or a certain amount of characters. You had to figure out what words in what combination were required.

This was 8-bit computing pushing the boundaries.

Zork, The Count, Starcross, Adventureland, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall and other adventures and flights of fancy all painted a mind's eye view of the game as it unfolded.

Living room adventures were had without large screens or VR headsets. One person would work the keyboard and read out the text.

“You are facing north. There is a door in front of you. There is mat in front of the door. There is a footpath to the east. A dark, forbidding forest blocks your path to the west. You may go N, E or S.”

Everyone in the room had an opinion and even those that agreed to choose the door or look under the mat saw a different door or mat in their heads as they puzzled out the clues. It was an exciting time in the early evolution of computer gaming.

As happens with technology the hardware improved, graphics cards became more powerful than our original computers. The text adventure faded away into historical obscurity and with it a piece of our imagination that explored new worlds and conquered distant galaxies.


M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord is an international award winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years.  M.D. is currently working on VR projects and characters. You can learn more about MD at his website


 

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