10 of the Best Text-Based Adventure Games You Never Knew You Needed

10 of the Best Text-Based Adventure Games You Never Knew You Needed
Screenshot: GenesisMUD, Fair Use

The news that old-school adventure game pioneers Roberta and Ken Williams are returning to gaming after 25 years with a virtual reality version of classic game Colossal Cave got me thinking about how awesome text adventure games were. Elden Ring is cool and all, but sometimes you want to type “GO NORTH” and enjoy some perfectly rendered mind-graphics.

If you’ve never played a text game, you should. Doing so is incredibly easy, and also free. And you certainly don’t need to worry about a fancy graphics card or your system specs” All 10 games listed here are playable in your browser, and any one of them would make a great jumping off point into the pool of interactive fiction.

The Dreamhold (2004)

Released in 2004, The Dreamhold is one of the newer games on this list, but it’s a great place to start because it features something old-school text games never bothered with: A tutorial. The Dreamhold is designed to introduce you to the mechanics, nuances, and tropes of text adventures. It’s also a meta-commentary on interactive fiction and contains some fiendishly clever puzzles. Plus, it’s free on the App Store, or you can play it on your browser.

Colossal Cave (1976)

While not the very first text adventure game, Colossal Cave is the first to be widely played and shared among the ancient computer nerds of the late 1970s. It was the first adventure games to be playable on a home computer too. In that sense, Colossal Cave is perhaps the most influential video game ever made. It drops you into one of the first virtual worlds ever created for a computer, complete with monsters, a dragon, and a rudimentary combat system with which to kill them. You can play it right here.

Zork (1980)

The world of PC gaming was very small in the 1980s, but within that realm, Zork was an absolute blockbuster. By 1986, the games’ publisher had sold over 680,000 copies — small numbers by today’s standards maybe, but back then? Huge! Zork expanded the horizons of the text-adventure genre in terms of complexity, possibilities, lore, and puzzles. It’s still an engaging and intriguing game. Check it out yourself.

Genesis MUD (1989)

Screenshot: Genesis, Fair Use

Text adventure games weren’t all solitary experiences. Gamers of the past liked playing together as much as gamers of today, and so the MUD was created. Multi-user dungeons allowed shared fictional RPG experiences before World of Warcraft was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Genesis wasn’t the first MUD, but it is the longest continually operating one — this game has history, man. It’s been running since before normal people even knew that the internet existed, and it’s still going. You can join right in, any time you feel like it, by clicking this link.

Softporn Adventure (1981)

Text adventures don’t have to be about exploring caves and fighting dragons. They can be about anything, even getting laid. This relic from the era of sexual liberation casts the player as a horny dude who wants a woman. Hmmm, wonder why gaming had to contend with a “for dude’s only” rep for so long? Anyway, Softporn Adventure is not going to turn you on — unless you really like text adventures — but it’s funny and less egregious than you might expect, given the time period when it came out and the target market. Check it out.

Fun fact: Most of the models posing in a hot tub for the game’s cover were employees of On-Line Systems — including Roberta Williams, the founder of the company. She’s on the right.

AI Dungeon (2019)

I have seen the future of text adventure games, and it is freakin’ weird. AI Dungeon is a completely procedurally generated text adventure game. You choose a character, setting, and situation and artificial intelligence takes it from there, spinning a unique tale in which you can do literally anything. The AI isn’t especially coherent or logical, but sessions of AI Dungeon are always fascinating. They unfold with computer-generated dream logic, as if your PC has come to life, taken too many quaaludes, and started DMing your D&D game.

Scott Adams’ Pirate Adventure (1979)

The series of text games created by Scott Adams (but not the Scott Adams who created Dilbert) were designed to be played on home computers. Despite the incredible limitations of ancient PC’s tiny memories, these games still managed to create fantasy worlds that felt real and exciting (until you got stuck and there was no one to turn to get help.) Pirate Adventure is among the best Scott Adams game, but all of them are worthwhile, and all of them are playable in your browser.

Google’s Text Adventure (2018)

Screenshot: Google

There is a full text adventure hidden within one of the most frequently visited URLs on the internet. To access this search engine easter egg, go to Google’s home page, search for “text adventure,” then open the Javascript console by hitting CMD + OPT + J on a Mac or CTRL + SHIFT + J in Windows. You should get a prompt asking “Would you like to play a game?” Answer yes, and you’re off. What follows is a funny little trip through a virtual version of Google’s campus featuring tricky puzzles you’ll need to solve to win.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide is notable for its insanely hard puzzles and its clever writing. It has a comically absurdist style that contrasts nicely with the serious tone of so many text games. Plus, it’s a must-play for fans of the novel — it was co-written Douglas Adams, and rather than retread the novel, it’s a fully separate narrative that expands the Hitchhiker’s universe in hilarious ways. Check it out here.

Rogue (1980)

If you’re ever heard a game described as “Roguelike,” this 1980 fantasy game is the source of the term. Whether Rogue is actually a “text-adventure” depends on how you look at it, though. Unlike the rest of the games on this list, you don’t type stuff like “Go North” and read descriptions of what happens next. Instead, it uses text in place of graphics to create a turn-based, top-down dungeon crawler. Once you get used to being an “@” fighting “Z” you’re reward with a deep and punishingly difficult game — every aspect of the dungeon is random and death is permanent, so learning how to survive and thrive is a major accomplishment. You can play it here.