Let me sound old for a few paragraphs. In the last twenty years, the raw processing power of graphics cards has increased tremendously. This has had a large effect mainly in the gaming sector. In the 80s, video games were pixely things. If you wanted to see something rendered in more than 32 colors, you had to visit an arcade, since that particular luxury was reserved for arcade machines costing several thousand Euros.
During the decade that followed, the games’ resolution and color palette increased, but games were still predominantly 2D. The first true 3D games appeared around 1992, again arcade-only. Sega’s Virtua Racing was one of the first racing games to use fully polygonal cars and characters. We thought we were in heaven! Smooth, silky movement. Like liquid chocolate! Or egg nog! We had dramatic camera angles, 60 frames per second… Mmmmmh!
Hit the link to find out why graphics don’t matter with some games, and which ones I mean.
We’ve come a long way since then. Modern game consoles like the PS3 or the Xbox 360 are capable of generating near-photorealistic graphics and make Virtua Racing look the way it is: old and ugly. But with all these advances in graphics, the gaming industry hasn’t only made sure that a game console these days uses nearly as much electricity as a vacuum cleaner, they’ve also created a situation we know from another sector: A video game these days is like a movie, not like a book anymore.
For game makers, the emphasis is now often on making things look beautiful; quality gameplay and real depth be damned. This means that graphics-wise, there aren’t many details left for your own mind to fill in. You get pre-made scenes, ready-to-digest looks, and a style that comes straight out of someone else’s head. That’s a shame, though, because there’s one graphics card that nVidia and AMD can never compete with: Your own imagination.
But let’s not be too pessimistic. There are still games out there that let you flex some brain jelly, games that focus on gameplay and depth more than anything. Modern games. Classic games. In most cases, both at the same time. I’d like to show you a few titles that don’t come with pre-fab looks; they have no graphics at all.
Roguelikes are mostly roleplaying games. They use pseudo-graphics to display the game world — the screenshot here shows a scene from NetHack, my dwarven valkyrie (the @) and her loyal dog (the black d) are attacking a fox (the red d). Usually, the player is represented on an overhead map by an @-character, which they can move into 8 directions using the keyboard. Other beings are also represented by glyphs: a lowercase d might be a dog, an uppercase one a dragon, and different colors mean different things. A typical roguelike game involves at least a few dungeons or dangerous outdoor areas to slay monsters in. The goal of many of these games is to get stronger — level up your character, find good items — and to accomplish some ultimate task. A feature some of the roguelikes share is that the game world regenerates every time you start a new game, so no two games are ever the same.
Does all of this ring a bell? It should if you’ve played Diablo. Diablo and Diablo II were heavily inspired by the typical gameplay and atmosphere of roguelike games, where levels and items are not pre-determined. A key difference between Diablo and roguelike games is that Diablo is realtime and action-oriented, whereas roguelikes are turn-based and more tactical. Oh, and blind people can play them. NetHack for example supports screen readers and braille terminals. Next to the text adventure genre that I’ll introduce in a second, I believe roguelikes are the deepest available computer games for blind people.
Some of these titles will let you play for years before you ever see an ending. NetHack is notorious for starving beginning players to death (see beginner’s guide for help) and the dungeon of Angband requires various resistances the deeper you go, and that’s just two aspects of the game. These things may not have graphics, but they are gameplay.
Needless to say, this depth of gameplay comes at a cost: Steep learning curve. It will take you a few hours to get to grips with each of these games’ interfaces. After that, it might take you a year before you finish one of them for the first time. But the time investment is worth it; the interface blurs into the background rather quickly, and once you’re at that point, you’re hopelessly addicted anyhow. And then you know what it’s like to be very, very afraid of an uppercase D.
- Angband (Ubuntu/Debian package: angband)
- NetHack (Ubuntu/Debian package: nethack-console or nethack-gnome)
- SLASH’EM(Ubuntu/Debian package: slashem)
- ADOM: Ancient Domains of Mystery
- ToME: Troubles of Middle-Earth (Ubuntu/Debian package: tome)
- ZAngband (Ubuntu/Debian package: zangband)
- UnReal World
- List at Wikipedia
Links about Roguelikes
- Wikipedia: Roguelike
- Wikipedia: Angband
- Wikipedia: NetHack
- The Angband Newbie Guide
- Absolute Beginner’s Guide to NetHack
- NetHack vs. Angband: Fans of each play the other and give you an opinion.
Text Adventures (Interactive Fiction)
Have you played any text adventures in the 80s? Wonder where they’ve gone? Been looking for one recently? The thing is that the entire genre of the text adventure has had an informal name change. Nowadays, they are more recognized as “interactive fiction“.
If you’re too young to have played any text adventures back when they were a new idea, fear not. The basic idea is that the computer prints you a section from a story. You are part of this story and can react to it, and you determine your actions by typing a sentence. “get fish” or “eat snail” are valid commands. Reacting to that, the computer will advance the story.
In the old days (think 70s), an adventure game came with its own interpreter included, and each game would only work on one single operating system. Nowadays, there are modern interpreters for all operating systems that can understand several of the old data file formats, as well as new data files that modern adventures are written in. The end result is that you only need one or two programs in order to play several thousand adventure games.
But I trust that you’ll figure out the technicalities on your own. Once you’re in a game, you can be anything! Just like a book, an interactive fiction title can be anything that can be put into words. It also has the same depth — sometimes more, because several games provide multiple branching paths in the story so that replaying actually makes sense.
Take a look at the XYZZY award winners of the last few years, grab a matching interpreter (like Frotz or TADS, depending on the format of the game data files), find a beer somewhere and settle down in front of the screen.
Links about Text Adventures
- A wealth of information, as usual, at Wikipedia
- XYZZYnews, a magazine for interactive fiction enthusiasts
- Winners of the 2006 XYZZY Awards
- The Interactive Fiction Archive (includes lots of free award-winning games)
- Baf’s Guide to the IF archive
- Brass Lantern, the adventure game website
- Zoom Interpreter, an interpreter for games written in Z-Code
- Frotz, a Z-Code interpreter (Ubuntu/Debian package: frotz)
- TADS: Text Adventure Development System (Ubuntu/Debian package: qtads or tads3)
MUDs, MUSHes, MU*S
Missing the online component here? Addicted to World of Warcraft? Perhaps you’re surpised, perhaps not, but that whole MMORPG hype actually originated in the MUDs of old, the Multi User Dungeons of the 70s. And, no surprise again, MUDs did not have graphics. And they still exist today, they number in the thousands and are played by millions of people every day.
Like text adventures, the games present their surroundings in the form of prose. Like roguelikes and other RPGs, they often deal with characters, character statistics, items, weapons etc. Some of these games aren’t games at all, rather very sophisticated chat locations for people to meet in. Those are sometimes categorized as MUSHes (Multi User Shared Hallucinations).
Fortunately, World of Warcraft’s success has made it unnecessary to introduce people to MMORPGs. When I tried to explain the concept to normal people only a few years ago, all I got were blank stares and no more invitations to the person’s BBQs. Today, all I have to say is “MUDs are like WoW, but without graphics”. Of course most MUDs have a lot more depth than WoW does, but if you’ve actually worked through all of this text, you might have noticed a pattern: If there are less graphics, there’s usually more gameplay and/or more depth. So yay for less graphics!
Links for MUDs and MUSHes
- TinTin++, a client for MUD-like games (Ubuntu/Debian package: tintin++)
- The MUD Connector, thousands upon thousands of MUDs for anyone’s taste!
With less work to invest in graphics, developers who make text-based games have a lot of time to perfect their gameplay. If that’s not enough, many roguelikes for example have been in development for over a decade, refining every little feature to silly levels. These titles are pure, concentrated game.
Your brain’s the best graphics card there is, so give it something to work with! There’s no excuse, most of this stuff is free. Tickle your imagination and try a few games that don’t have graphics. You might discover that they’re much prettier and more engaging than those that do.
Brain photo is © Gaetan Lee, licensed under a Creative Commons By 2.0 license