Text Gaming: Low on graphics, big on adventure
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Image Credit: Screenshot from Iron Realms Entertainment

What makes a game worth playing? MMORPGs give players a chance to overcome boundaries with their imaginations

I remember playing the first Tomb Raider game when I was a kid. My mom walked into the room and stood behind me to see what I was up to. I had been diving, and when I brought Lara up for some air she gasped for breath and treaded water. When my mom saw Lara surface, she gasped too—“Oh my! It’s so realistic!”

Nowadays, we look back at that collection of polygons-turned-woman and find it hard to imagine a time when that was at the forefront of image quality in games. Today’s graphics capabilities are so far beyond what my mom and I could have imagined that day back in the mid-90s that it’s almost surreal. The mountains of Skyrim take our breath away and games like Fallout 4 and Star Wars Battle Front are often posted to earn a slew of replies along the lines of “is this real or from the game?”

But in a world of eye-catching images and with graphics quality improving at lightning-fast rates, there is another corner of gaming that is often relegated to the shadows: Text-based MMORPGs. These games, also called MUDs (multi-user dungeons), have been around for decades. One of the first, Colossal Cave Adventure, came out in 1975. Once graphics capabilities and computing power in general began to grow exponentially, you might have expected these games to have disappeared completely in favor of the flashier and crisper graphics we see today, but that’s where you’d be wrong.

Iron Realms Entertainment, the current leading creator of MUDs, for instance, is still going strong. They have four current games running and one in development set to come out in beta this year. But before we explore this world of imagination-driven gameplay, we have to be sure we really understand what’s going on here– what is text gaming actually like?

Think about what it’s like to read a novel. You’re just looking at words on a page, but in your head, you’re seeing a rich tapestry of characters, settings, and action; in short, you’re seeing and can even feel like you’re experiencing the story – that is, if it’s well written.

Now imagine that instead of reading a novel, you’re taking part in one. You’re your own main character, but just like in real life, you’re surrounded by others who are main characters in their own stories. You’re all interacting, joining sides, flirting, fighting, or fulfilling your characters’ destinies. And, unlike most other games which are restricted by what graphics are available, what you “see” in text-based games is completely in the hands of the player. You are given far more creative power in most MUDs with the ability to describe your character, your actions, and even your character’s motivations with as much detail as you prefer. You’re writing your character’s story in real time alongside others whose story is being written live, right next to you. It’s truly amazing!

The games also tend to give their players the ability to code and control their character’s actions with more nuance and specificity than graphics-based games. When I play Achaea, a text-based MMORPG released in 1997, coding my character’s combat tactics and alterations to her social interactions was equally as fun to me as the gameplay itself.

So is that what keeps text gaming going strong? What draws people to these relics of a simpler time? I asked Matt Mihaly, CEO and founder of Iron Realms Entertainment, what attracts people to his company’s text-based MMORPGs like Achaea, Lusternia, or the upcoming Starmourn.

“I think it’s a combination of things, from our small communities that lend themselves to a feeling of intimacy.” Mihaly added that the fact that MUDs are much cheaper to build and run, “lets us take risks and build systems that MMOs just can’t. Our game systems end up being far broader and deeper as a result.”

Image Credit: Screenshot from Iron Realms Entertainment

In addition to the more intimate and nearly infinitely customizable ways players can interact with each other in MUDs, there are some big differences in how text-based game developers can interact with their players as well. Mihaly explained that the fact that each game runs on one server is a huge boon to the players and developers alike. It makes the game feel more like a community rather than several fragmented copies of copies (think World of Warcraft and their many, many servers with different players but the same cookie-cutter events running in tandem). Mihaly says that each game having its own, single server “allows for some cool things to happen,” including developers reacting to players’ in-game reactions to events in real time. “Imagine, for instance, that there’s a story-based event happening, with an invasion by the Reavers. In a multi-server MMO, the developers aren’t going to branch the code to deal with players on different servers doing different things in reaction to the invasion. In our games, that’s not the case. We do actually hold events where the outcome is not pre-determined, and is affected by what players do.”

It’s safe to say that playing in a truly customizable world where your actions can change server-wide events is pretty appealing. I have personally found myself relating game events to friends weeks after they happen, reliving that thrill a player feels when they have helped change the outcome of a huge event in a game they feel truly invested in. It makes you feel like your character’s choices and actions really matter.

Finally, I asked Mihaly if he thought text gaming was sustainable and if he thought it would stick around. His response was that “text gaming is nobody’s idea of a growth market, but I do think that MUDs (whether ours or others) could appeal to far larger groups of people than currently play them. As always, of course, the problem, is in reaching those folks affordably.” Like perhaps all games, what they want more of is players, but for text-based MMORPGs, that means they need those potential players to be willing to step out of their comfort zones a bit and try something new and challenging.

Mihaly added that “while the future of text games may seem dark,” he takes comfort in the fact that their player communities are “incredible.” He believes that, “once people get hooked on MUDs, it often becomes a real obsession.” This is something I can attest to personally, as I was once someone who looked over the shoulder of a friend playing a text game and couldn’t understand the appeal. I couldn’t comprehend how the words scrolling past his screen could keep him engaged for hours or how they translated to the stories of his character’s heroism and love and near-death experiences he would excitedly recount for me later. Once I finally allowed myself to give it a try, though, I was hooked from the very first day.

In the end, text games offer a world somehow both similar to and totally different from today’s standard gaming experience. You still kill monsters, buy cool gear, craft potions to heal yourself or to poison others, and even fight wars against your fellow players. However, text games offer the option of a truly customizable experience, from personal behind-the-scenes coding for your character, altering the appearance, voice, or actions of your avatar, all the way up to having a real influence on the events of the world your character inhabits. You can be a vicious warlord or a humble priest or a devious politician, and without graphics, the only limit is your imagination.

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Kelsey Fox

About Kelsey Fox

Kelsey is a born-and-raised Arkansan who migrated to the Northeast for a taste of that big-city life. She is a professor by day and an avid gamer by night.

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  • Aurelius

    Truly one of the great articles of all time. I’d like to compliment the author on her excellent taste in gaming, as well as her flawless wordplay. Is it too early to talk Pulitzer?

  • Mickey

    Pity for the focus exclusively on IRE games, which are by the way the most developed MUDs at the moment, but no real reference to the wider spectrum of radically different games that can be found on the Mud Connector website. Also some references to the non-English games, which have had pretty interesting developments, would have been nice as well.

    All in all anyway the article is really awesome.