Choose your own adventure with these 7 games


Gisela Factora, opinions editor

Modern-day text-based RPGs

Gisela Factora


Ever heard of text-based roleplaying games (RPGs)? If you’re one of the few high school students that has, you’re probably familiar with them as an archaic game format that has long since been abandoned for the life-like graphics of today’s hottest games. If so, I have some surprising news for you: text-based RPGs are far from dead.


For the uninitiated, text-based RPGs (more commonly referred to as “interactive fiction,” by those involved in the scene) are story-driven video games in which you, the player, make choices to affect the flow of gameplay. Simply put, it’s like “choose your own adventure” books in video game format. Some of the earliest video games were made in this format, since programming plain text is much easier than programming graphics. It might seem limited, especially in the age of the Oculus Rift and other such virtual reality endeavors. But fancy graphics does not a good game, and the games in this article prove that.


While the original wave of interactive fiction contains a myriad of gems, today’s interactive fiction (IF) scene is much more suited to modern sensibilities. With origins in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, after the decline of the commercial IF market, the new IF scene isn’t limited to stories about dragons and aliens. I’ve played games where I’ve been a tour guide on the moon, a butler in a steampunk Victorian Era, an insane Confederate veteran in a house in the woods. But more than the difference in setting, the new IF scene is about story over action. The best part of IF? Most games are free to play, with a select (and very worthy) few asking for a mere few dollars. If anything, IF games are worthy of checking out for that reason alone. Nothing to lose, right? But I hope playing through these games convinces you that IF can be so much more than just a timekiller.


  1. Undertale: “Undertale” is the best-known game on this list, and incidentally, the only one I haven’t played. But I had to include it. “Undertale” was absolutely the underdog of 2015. Written, designed, and composed by indie developer Toby Fox, it was released in September. An 8-bit game with a similarly retro chiptune soundtrack and fairly simple mechanics would seem more in place in 1985, yet it captured the hearts of millions around the globe, critics and civilians alike. It was nominated for several awards– including, controversially, the PC Game of the Year award on prestigious gaming site IGN, beating out commercial successes such as “Fallout 4” and “Grand Theft Auto V.” It’s that good. It’s not strictly text-based, but text is the main mechanic used to progress the story of the game, with battle sequences as well to shake things up. For these reasons, “Undertale” is a great starter game for those who are unsure about the merits of returning to gaming old-school style. And hopefully, it will convince the world of the merits of returning to a simpler era of gaming as well. It can be purchased on Steam for $9.99.


  1. Photopia: “Photopia” is widely considered the best IF game of the modern scene, written by Adam Cadre in 1998. It begins with someone, presumably a child, being asked to be read a story, and so your story begins. The game uses a parser mechanic, which, in layman’s terms, means that instead of being given choices to pick from to advance the story, you must type in actions instead. This gives games much more of a feeling of investigation and discovery. However, this is not a typical game, as it places story above action. As a result, it doesn’t offer you much in terms of choice; it’s merely a narrative presented in an alternative way. But it is definitely a rewarding narrative, and one that easily allows newcomers to the format to become acquainted with it. Best of all, it’s free. Play it here.


  1. 80 Days: “80 Days,” written by Meg Jayanth, is not only one of my favorite interactive fiction games, but one of my favorite games period. You play as Jean Passepartout, the able valet of Phileas Fogg, as you attempt to journey around the world in 80 days. As you navegate your way through the 126 cities, you can buy and sell items in order to raise money, or go to the bank, at the cost of losing a day or two. Yes, it is entirely text and audio based, but it is one of the most engrossing games I have ever played. With over half a million words of story, the developers estimate that on one playthrough, one only sees about three percent of the content. I can attest to that; I’ve had it for almost two months, and every time I play through it, I discover something new. That’s what makes it a great game to have on your phone; it isn’t so enveloping that you need to devote all of your attention to it whenever you play, but it is a great time killer if you are ever bored. The game is only loosely based on the novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” and expands upon the novel by including gay characters, transgender characters, strong female characters, and more. It’s $4.99 on iOS or on Steam, but it’s so worth it. Don’t take my word for it, take TIME’s, who named “80 Days” Game of the Year in 2014.


  1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The first thing you see when you begin “Hitchhiker’s Guide” is a warning: “This game will kill you frequently. It’s a bit mean like that.” “Hitchhiker’s Guide” is a classic text-based RPG, based off the novel of the same name. It’s filled with adventure and puzzles, but unlike classic text-based RPGs, the puzzles make absolutely no sense. It’s absurdly complex and near impossible to get through without a guide, since it’s also in a parser format. It’s considered one of the hardest text-based RPGs of all time. Because of this, I have never actually played it all the way through. But if you enjoy suffering, “Hitchhiker’s Guide” is the game for you! Play it here.


  1. The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo: “The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo” is one of those games that reminds one of how truly powerful words can be; powerful because of the terror they induce. You play as a ten-year-old child of the ‘90s staying over at a friend’s house for the night. Seemingly innocuous, but that’s the beauty of the game. It grows more and more creepy the further you play. You can only play through it once (and some people may only be able to make it through one playthrough), but the game has five possible endings, the fifth of which can only be unlocked by unlocking the other four. And the fifth ending is worth it, I promise you. You’ll need headphones for this, because the audio makes the game at least ten times more horrifying. I would also recommend playing it alone in the dark for a truly spine-tingling experience. Play it here.


  1. Peasant’s Quest: As recovery from “Uncle,” play this game. It’s the product of the geniuses behind early-2000s flash animation website Homestar Runner, and it’s surprisingly well-done. This game is what introduced me to the text-based RPG format, and it remains one of my favorites, despite its silliness. You play as Rather Dashing, a peasant whose cottage has recently been “burninated” by the loathsome Trogdor the Burninator. You have sworn to exact revenge, but upon meeting the knight guarding the entrance to the castle, you find that you still have work to do. The dialogue is incredibly clever and funny, which you’ll recognize if you’re one of the two people at West Ranch who frequented Homestar Runner back in the day. Like Undertale, it’s not strictly text-based. It features charming, simplistic 8-bit graphics, and unlike “Undertale,” it utilizes a parser. And in case you’re picky, Homestar Runner also offers a truly text-based adventure that is just as funny. Play “Peasant’s Quest” here.


  1. Emily Is Away: Recovered from “Uncle” now? Good! Experience an entirely new form of emotional devastation through “Emily Is Away!” Don’t worry though, this one’s not scary, just horribly sad and all too relatable to most of us. This game is unique. You will have to download it, but it’s free, and the interface is worth it. The “setting” is the archaic chat client known as AIM, during a span of 4 years from the late ‘90s to the early 2000s. It’s worth poking around to see the tidbits of authentic vintage 2000s culture. You start the game as a senior about to graduate from high school, chatting with your best friend Emily. You are in love with her, and she’s maybe in love with you. The game follows your relationship as you progress through college. One playthrough is adequate, but playing it through twice communicates the theme most effectively. Download it here; it will give you an amount of $1.00 to pay, but you can choose to download it for free or even pay more.


If you find yourself having played through this entire list, fret not. There are decades worth of games which are mostly free to download on the Internet, though some require a client such as Frotz. Pretty much every interactive fiction game ever made can be found at the Interactive Fiction Database, complete with reviews and download links. Who knows? You might unexpectedly fall in love with the format, just as I did.