Video games have a rich history that often gets lost in the modern era. Even independent developers today have access to game engines that decades ago would have defied belief, and Triple A games today have budgets comparable to blockbuster films. But there’s a reason we’ve come this far – pioneers in the 50s and 60s were innovating with the technology they had at their disposal to create interactive media to entertain.
In 1958 William Higinbotham designed Tennis for Two, widely credited as the first video game. Later, in 1972, Pong would be a commercial blockbuster and help establish the video game industry that we love today. But there’s a part of video game history that most forgot about, the text-based adventure. The origins of the text-based video game can be followed as far back as 1961, to a game called BBC on the IBM1620. Arguably the most influential title to arise from the text-based genre was 1980’s Zork 1: The Great Underground Empire. Based on the 1975 title Colossal Cave Adventure, Zork was originally developed for the beautifully archaic PDP-10 system, but would see re-releases all the way into the PlayStation and Sega era.
It wasn’t until PAX Australia in 2017 that I became aware of the continued development of text-based adventures by dedicated fans of the medium. Wandering through the PAX Rising section, one booth stood out that hadn’t been on my radar. In the Snowy Winter’s Wake, a text-based adventure game developed by Cheeseness. Winter’s Wake melds the mouse control movement of a modern first-person game with the imagination driven world building of a text-based adventure. Although I didn’t get the chance to play the demo at PAX, it is available on the developer’s website, which I jumped on to when I got back home.
As the game opens, text scrolls up the screen and tells the narrative while music plays in the background. The action begins to ramp up and the music swells, describing a set piece that would feel at home in any Triple A title. Once the gameplay starts, positional audio and background tinting help to orient you and provide a sense of atmosphere. For example, moving the mouse until you’re looking up provides the text: “you see the sky”, with a light blue-tinted background. Looking at the ground, the background becomes an earthy brown. The HUD comprises of a compass at the top of the screen to show what direction you’re facing, and an arrow on the side of the screen to denote whether you’re looking up, down, or straight ahead. This all works together to give just enough detail to guide your mind into filling in the gaps.
The demo is short, but the time spent in this world was charming and deep. This is in part due to the rambling nature of the imagination. I found that stumbling across a waterfall in the forest recalled images that made me feel calm and comforted, in a more profound way than any artist could render. This is the same feeling I get playing Dungeons and Dragons, even though the world I’m sharing with other players is completely unique to me and that’s truly something special.
In the Snowy Winter’s Wake was my first foray into text-based adventures since I last played Zork nearly a decade ago, but it really made an impact on me, and made me remember how much I appreciate the simplistic style of gaming. Those that enjoying reading and find it easy to become immersed in a novel will really enjoy games like Winters Wake. To the same tune, those that enjoy a tabletop game and the power of their imagination will find it easy to enjoy.