Sunday, 18 December 2016

History of Adventure 2: Interactive Fiction with Graphics (1980)

By the TAG Team

Notable Titles: Mystery House, Transylvania, Hobbit, Wizard and Princess, Pawn, Fish!, Spellcasting, Gateway, The Portopia Serial Murder Case, Muv-Luv, The PK Girl

Notable Creators and Companies: Sierra (Roberta Williams etc.), Penguin Software (Antonio Antiochia), Melbourne House (Veronika Megler, Philip Mitchell), Magnetic Scrolls (Rob Steggles, Hugh Steers, John Molloy, Phil South, etc.), Legend Entertainment (Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Glen Dahlgren, Mike Verdu etc.), Enix (Yuji Horii)

It's been a while since our last installment on History of Adventure, but we didn't want to just forget this idea, so let's get started! While adventure games in 1970s were all text-based, excluding some quaint ASCII-drawings, since 1980 it became a trend to include simple graphics to help get a gamer in the mood (Mystery House, Transylvania and The Hobbit are early examples of this trend). In some cases graphics served no other purpose but to enhance the gaming experience - a notable example includes graphical revampings of Scott Adams’s older text adventures.

We could do without the picture of this Dracula wannabe, but it sure is evocative

In other cases, graphics were an integral part of the gameplay and you simply couldn’t solve all the puzzles without seeing the images, because all that you could see in the pictures was not included in the textual description of the game environment.

If I couldn’t see the picture, I wouldn’t know what the peddler is selling

At first, adding graphics to an otherwise text-based adventure game simply meant that both the amount and quality of the text and the parser had to be reduced. While Infocom emphasised text and parser, one by one the other major text adventure companies were lured in by the graphical trend, especially as the more powerful 16-bit computers started to appear around mid-eighties. An oldtimer like Level 9 published graphical versions of their classic text adventures, while newcomers like Magnetic Scrolls went straight to the graphical market. Finally, even the stubbornly old-fashioned Infocom had to succumb.

Arthur, the last of a noble breed

The ultimate problem with graphical interactive fiction was that it failed to attract the masses, which were already moving on to completely graphical adventure games with no need to fiddle with a parser. The final sigh of graphical text adventures in the Western market of commercial games, Legend Entertainment, produced several games with a kind of hybrid interface in which the player could interact with the game using the parser, by clicking a list of nouns and verbs, and in a limited fashion even by clicking on the pictures. Later Legend games, like Gateway, also included some animated cutscenes and clickable device screens separate from the parser interface. Later on, even Legend dropped the parser altogether and made fully graphical adventure games.

Adventuring just ain’t what it used to be

While the pure text-based interactive fiction had a second life in the hands of independent developers, graphical interactive fiction is rather limited. True, some modern interactive fiction languages do support inclusion of graphics and sounds, especially the non-parser tools like Twine. Most of the interactive fiction published today is still traditionally text-based, but some pieces are enhanced with some proportion of graphics, even parser games. A fantastic recent commercial example is Worldsmith, which offers a standard parser experience embedded within a graphical frame in a browser that updates depending on the player’s context.

Now this looks modern

If we orient ourselves a bit differently, we can find another sort of thematic descendant of graphical interactive fiction elsewhere. In 1983, a game called The Portopia Serial Murder Case helped define the visual novel genre in Japan. Influenced by Mystery House, its creator, Yuji Horii, wanted to introduce graphical adventure games to the Japanese market. Later he helped define a second game genre with the hugely successful Dragon Quest games.

The graphics definitely look like those from the early Sierra games

Although the first examples of this Japanese phenomenon used parsers, when gamers in Japan turned more and more to consoles, such text-based methods of interaction were soon abandoned, making these visual novels more reminiscent of Legend hybrids. Furthermore, the visual novel style generally became less and less of a game and more focused on plot and characters. Some visual novels, known as kinetic novels, are simply graphically-enhanced novels with no real interaction. But many visual novels offer branching plot choices and multiple endings, usually one for each character.

“Their date is really getting in the way, isn’t it?”

Although visual novels are nowadays one of the most common forms of any sort of gaming in Japan, we are unlikely to see many examples in the near future of this interesting offshoot of adventure games on our fine blog. We are not so prudish as to be afraid of the often sexually loaded content of visual novels, but instead we lack the required skill to read Japanese well - a pity, since this interesting genre could really use its own historians. Only a small fraction of original Japanese visual novels have been translated and released in English.

On the other hand, the development of the free visual novel tool Ren’Py in 2004 resulted in a large body of visual novels written originally in English, many released for free, as in the interactive fiction scene. So in more recent years we have visual novels produced in English in parallel to the Japanese market, and some commercial Japanese visual novels are even given an official English translation and release. Two of the most famous of these recent ones are Hatoful Boyfriend and Clannad, which are even available on Steam. But since Steam doesn’t allow sexually explicit content, only non-explicit visual novels can be released there, or only if given an “all ages” release.

Classic anime graphics accompanying a parser.

There’s even some overlap between modern interactive fiction and visual novels. For example, The PK Girl (2002) is a dating sim with anime-style art in the Japanese visual novel tradition, but it was developed in a parser-based interactive fiction system called Adrift. Plus there’s a lot of potential overlap structurally between pieces produced in Ren’Py compared to those produced in a choice-based IF system like Twine or Undum. Ren’Py is optimized for displaying conversations with character sprites overlaid on a background, while the IF systems are optimized for displaying text with options to add graphics, but either system is flexible enough to be used for a wide range of story structures. There are even visual novels and graphical parser games created with Unity now.

As a result of all these different systems and tools, it’s really difficult to draw a firm boundary to separate adventure games from interactive fiction or visual novels. There’s a whole continuum of pieces that span the line from kinetic (linear) novels, to branching or game-like visual novels, to graphical interactive fiction (choice-based or parser-based), to fully graphical adventures. Although there was a historical progression from parser games to graphical adventures or visual novels, none of these categories is necessarily more primitive than the others anymore given modern development tools.


  1. Apparently visual novels are even better at storytelling than Western adventure games - on another planet entirely, so to say. Someone claimed to me that Umineko: When They Cry (the first half of which which has also been released on Steam BTW) is a literary masterpiece, so I went ahead and read The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina back-to-back just before starting it, for comparison's sake. :-P I haven't gotten further than episode 2 of it yet, but so far it's been better or at least less stupid than e.g. Clannad or Muv-Luv Alternative.

  2. Fascinating! And, coincidentally, I'm messing with reverse engineering and translating some mid-90's visual novels for modern English users. There are occasional gems there, even if most are kind of trashy, and some downright disturbing.

    The balance of puzzle games vs. experiential games has moved pretty far away from the puzzle side. It does seem like a natural progression, since compelling experiences have a much wider appeal, and puzzles tend to reduce the immersion needed for a good experience.