Long before computer animation and virtual reality, people were creating virtual worlds in a more traditional way: text. And some of the most vibrant and complete virtual worlds existed in a quirky genre of video game called the text adventure.
Most people have experienced text adventures (also known as interactive fiction) in some way: the phrase "you are likely to be eaten by a grue" still strikes fear into many hearts. The same way a well-written novel can conjure up detailed and engrossing pictures in the mind of a reader, so, too, can a good text adventure.
The first experiment with interactive fiction, ADVENT (or Colossal Cave Adventure), and the first commercial text adventure, Adventureland, were the model for future games of this format. Both were fantasy games with increasingly widening worlds to explore. From there, though, one company dominated the text adventure market: Infocom.
In addition to their humor, their unconventional packaging (including "feelies," odd little artifacts from the game), and their innovative interface, Infocom also developed a reputation for creating large and strange virtual worlds. They also inspired independent creators to take up the mantel of creating text-based worlds. Here are some of the most expansive and iconic of those worlds.
The first version of Zork was written in the late 70's, but since then, the world of Zork has expanded into something giant and complex. The game is divided into three parts, all set in the vast Zork universe. In part 1, throughout your quest to collect treasures and become the Dungeon Master, you explore a fiendishly complex maze, an ancient ruined temple, a portion of the "Land of the Dead," and a flood control dam, all part of a great Underground Empire.
An that's all just part 1. Parts 2 and 3 take you to more mazes, a carousel, a volcano, a museum, an immense "Land of Shadows," and more, encountering wizards, thieves, and the infamous grue. The tone of the games is lighthearted and full of jokes. The combined effect makes the Zork trilogy totally engrossing, one of the first fully immersive virtual worlds. (Play part 1 here)
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams worked closely with Infocom to create two different games. The first, and more well known, was based off of his famous Hitchhiker series, but the second was set in an entirely different, entirely scarier world.
It's called Bureaucracy, and in it, you are a confused citizen trying to file a change of address card. This simple task spirals into a complex, infuriating adventure in a fully formed world disconcertingly similar to the real one. In the world of Bureaucracy, your lunch order is lost due to a computer crash, your mail is scattered throughout the various houses you visit, you are almost eaten by a tribe of cannibals, and you eventually enlist the help of a hacker to finally get your address changed.
The thing that makes the world of Bureaucracy so engrossing is that it starts as a routine exploration of the town you find yourself in, but it quickly develops into a giant web of confusion and manipulation. It feels a little like waking up and finding yourself in a parallel world where everyday tasks take a SWAT team to accomplish.
Trinity opens on a quiet English park about to be blasted by a nuclear explosion. Your job is to escape into a parallel universe of sorts and explore the mystery of how the bomb came to be launched at the park that day. What follows is a journey through nuclear test sites of the past and future and the surreal landscapes of another dimension, a sort of speculative history and future of the development of nuclear weapons.
Trinity is an unabashedly political game. It was released in 1986, and it's a commentary on the nuclear age. But it's also an exploration of a strange dimension with it's own rules, a blend of fiction and reality. Figuring out these rules means fully delving into Trinity's strange world.
In a strange experiment with the virtual worlds of text adventures, A Mind Forever Voyaging presents a laboratory creating its own simulated virtual world. This research team has created a virtual city to model a new plan for economic and social development. You control an artificial intelligence named PRISM, and your job is to delve into the virtual town to observe conditions under this new plan.
The game progresses through years in the simulated city, and you observe the slow growth of dystopia. It's an unconventional entry in the text adventure canon. There are very few puzzles and the ultimate goal seems merely to observe and learn from the failures of the research team. The game essentially presents you with a declining world for you to explore and try to understand.
With the fall of Infocom in the late 80's, text adventures and interactive fiction seemed to be on the decline. But there was a minor resurgence in the format not long after. Graham Nelson's 1993 game, Curses, is considered a standout in that resurgence.
In Curses, you are a wealthy Englishman searching through the attic of your recently inherited house for a map. Of course things get complex from there, but the bulk of the richness of the environment comes from the clearly carefully conceived mansion, Meldrew Hall. In exploring the house, it seems to come alive with its own history. Curses is worth checking out for this section alone. (Play it here)
These games, among others, show the power of text to develop immersive and complex virtual worlds.
Further reading: The Cursor Is Your Friend In Scifi Text Adventure Games