New Movie Chronicles a Special Time in Computer Game History

Dennis Faas's picture

Imagine a game without graphics or sound. To succeed, all players need are reasonable spelling and typing skills -- not a speedy trigger finger or lightning-fast eye-hand coordination.

Imagine something like this...

"You wake up. The room is spinning very gently round your head. Or at least it would be if you could see it -- which you can't.

It is pitch black."

That is how the computer game version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy begins. Based on the famous book by Douglas Adams, the all-text game was released in 1984 by Infocom, Inc. At the time, Infocom was the king of the text adventure hill.

Typing in simple commands like "turn on light" allows players to progress to the next part of the adventure.

"Good start to the day. Pity it's going to be the worst one of your life. The light is now on."

Yes, text adventures were basically books in game form.

Between roughly 1979 and 1985, a generation of gamers pecked at their keyboards and strained their minds to get through situations like the one described above. For those six short, sweet years, text adventures were all the rage. They topped the sales charts despite lacking the visual impact of traditional video games. (Source:

Even though text adventures only captured an official slice of the computer gaming market for a short time, the movement is still going strong -- with a number of recent fan-made efforts circulating the Internet. People still remember and cherish the experience. One of them, Jason Scott, is a documentary filmmaker who plans to take a look back at the quiet revolution that burned out quickly but continues to spark embers even today.

Scott's movie will be called Get Lamp -- an obvious reference to the typical style of command players would have to type to move ahead in a text adventure game.

In Scott's own words:

"In the early years of the microcomputer, a special kind of game was being played.

With limited sound, simple graphics, and tiny amounts of computing power, the first games on home computers would hardly raise an eyebrow in the modern era of photorealism and surround sound. In a world of Quake, Half-Life and Halo, it is expected that a successful game must be loud, fast, and full of blazing life-like action.

But in the early 1980s, an entire industry rose over the telling of tales, the solving of intricate puzzles and the art of writing. Like living books, these games described fantastic worlds to their readers, and then invited them to live within them.

They were called 'computer adventure games', and they used the most powerful graphics processor in the world: the human mind.

Rising from side projects at universities and engineering companies, adventure games would describe a place, and then ask what to do next. They presented puzzles, tricks and traps to be overcome. They were filled with suspense, humor and sadness. And they offered a unique type of joy as players discovered how to negotiate the obstacles and think their way to victory. These players have carried their memories of these text adventures to the modern day, and a whole new generation of authors have taken up the torch to present a new set of places to explore.

Get Lamp is a documentary that will tell the story of the creation of these incredible games, in the words of the people who made them." (Source:

Scott plans to include interviews with the developers of early text games -- such as Zork and Adventure.

One downside of text adventures: the utter frustration of trying to figure out the exact word or phrase needed to progress. For example, "turn on light" might not work, but "turn on lamp" will. Or "take pill" won't work without "open pill bottle." How aggravating!

Luckily, that's now a thing of the past. Thanks to advances in memory and programming, today's homebrew games make it easier for players to type in commands that won't lead to errors.

"There's certainly a learning curve," admits Stephen Granade, who runs the Interactive Fiction Competition. "But in the past 30 years, we've learned a lot about how to be nicer to players." (Source:

You can play The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy here. It is a java-based version (no download required) that perfectly replicates the 1984 original.

For more information on text adventures, click here for a useful series of links.

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