It was the last talk of a long day. On the MIT campus in October 1997, an interdisciplinary symposium called “Transformations of the Book” was taking place, bringing together “classicists, Shakespearean scholars, technological wizards and lovers of all media” to explore how printed books were being challenged and changed by the digital age. The talks had begun just after lunch, and now it was coming up on nine o’clock as the final speaker took the stage: a woman in her mid-twenties. In her author photo she wore a sleeveless vest, a dense cluster of ear piercings, and an ampersand, tattooed…


On a spring day in 1990, in a tiny studio theater at Carnegie Mellon — the first university in the world to offer a degree in drama — a most unusual performance took place. The seats were empty except for a handful of computer science researchers, and the only audience member was on the stage. She stood amidst a minimalist set representing a bus station along with a small troupe of improv actors wearing headsets. She’d been told she was taking part in an experiment in “interactive drama,” but her only guidance was to try to buy a bus ticket…


It would have been a safe bet in 1993 to say the text adventure was dead. That year saw the last release of a traditional parser game by a mainstream publisher: Legend Entertainment’s Gateway II: Homeworld, a sequel only greenlit because the original had sold unexpectedly well. But the unlikely success was not repeated. The bestselling games of the year would be CD-ROM extravaganzas like Myst and The Seventh Guest loaded with animations, music, voice acting, and video. Infocom — once the king of interactive story — was out of business, its lauded text games now in the remainder bin if they could still be found at all. It did not seem likely the genre they helped popularize would ever come back.

Continue reading at the home of my new blog series, “50 Years of Text Games.”

The cover art for Curses, featuring an old woodcut illustration of a group of standing stones and a portion of a subway map.

It was an odd advert for a computer magazine. Next to a sketch of a provocatively posed, long-legged young woman in stockings — okay, maybe that part wasn’t so odd — its copy hyped not a new piece of hardware, but a house in Ireland:

the famous school where grown-up girls are transformed into schoolgirls. …Now you can find out for yourself as you guide Trixie Trinian through the classrooms, corridors and secret places of the strangest school ever — to uncover

THE SECRET OF ST. BRIDE’S

“Not so much a programme more a way of life,” the text below…


If you first got online after 1996 or so, you might never have connected to a BBS. If you first got online after 2006, you might never have even heard of one. Reading the histories of online games like dnd (1975) MUD (1980), or LambdaMOO (1990) can give the impression that gamers have been happily playing together on the internet since the 1970s, and in some special places like university campuses, they have been. But for most early computer users there was no cheap or easy way to connect to the nascent internet. For them, going online meant dialing into a local bulletin board system — and the games on those systems were a curious sort of multiplayer, because only one person could play them at a time.

Continue reading at the home of my new blog series, “50 Years of Text Games.”

Title screen for Trade Wars 2002, showing the logo in an oversized font and a colorful ASCII-art space station.

It had all started at the end of the ’70s with MUD, the original multi-user Dungeon, which successfully demonstrated the incredible appeal of sharing a virtual world with other people. By the end of the ’80s, text-based MUDs had become an established genre. As more and more university students gained access to computers and large quantities of unmetered Internet time, they created at first dozens, then hundreds and hundreds of MUD clones. The earliest were simple knock-offs of the original, but an increasing number were evolving into more and more sophisticated simulations of fantastical other worlds.

This complexity had largely…


The mailbox squeaks open, and the teenager’s eyes light up: amid the junk mail for parents is a bulky envelope from a company called Adventures By Mail. The teenager has waited all week for it to get here.

Inside is a trifold newsletter and a long stiff postcard, a New York return address on one side and a blank grid of rows with esoteric abbreviations on the other. But the bulk of the content is a stack of stapled laser-printed pages. While everyone getting letters from Adventures By Mail this week got the same card and newsletter, these pages are…


On August 21, 1968, the Soviet Union sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia, bringing an end to a reform movement known as the Prague Spring. The movement in the fellow communist country had aimed to increase freedom of the press, allow for multiple political parties, and soften a Soviet-style system into a more modern and liberal democratic socialism. But to the Soviets it was unacceptable, an erosion of their dominance over the Eastern Bloc and thus their position in the global Cold War. They responded with one of the most aggressive military actions postwar Europe had seen…


“Yuk!” began the review in Commodore User magazine of Infocom’s latest text game, something new for the company and, perhaps, for the reviewer: a romance. “Probably Infocom’s easiest title,” it concluded dismissively, in a tone matched by many other critics of the day. “There is, of course, a place for easy adventures,” wrote Computer and Video Games magazine: “after all, everyone has got to start somewhere.” Everyone here presumably meant women, the only plausible audience for an easy game with kissing. Many male reviewers assumed the game was a cheap attempt to expand Infocom’s audience to a new, less sophisticated…


It’s 1969. A young woman in Boulder, Colorado is working for an engineering firm that’s building the Orbiting Solar Observatory satellites, the world’s first space telescopes. She’s there to help computerize the firm’s databases, not build satellites, but can’t help stopping often by the viewing platform overlooking the clean room to watch this glorious piece of hardware be assembled. “People entered in lab coats,” she reminisced later: “the thing was gold, it was shining, it was huge, it was intricate. It was — beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.” And yet at the same time, another part of her was sad. Because outside…

Aaron A. Reed

Writer and game designer interested in the future and history of interactive narrative. https://aaronareed.net/ https://igg.me/at/subcutanean

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