Making games: tabletop vs text-adventure

The last few months, I’ve been working on the biggest digital game project that I’ve ever been a part of: The House of Cenci, a text-adventure game that integrates live zoom calls with performers to tell a story over four ‘acts’, that takes around 4-5 hours to play through (depending on how you are with puzzles!).

Physical games were basically on hiatus for me for a few months whilst I worked full-time coding the text-adventure elements of The House of Cenci and devising the overall story and player journey with the other creatives. And it’s interesting to return to some of my tabletop projects fresh off of such a radically different structure of work, and I wanted to get some of those thoughts down in writing, whether they’re from a player or designer perspective…

Loops, doppelgängers, and eerie recurrences

Something that the more structured format of a text-adventure allows – and something I want to explore more in future – is scenarios and stories that fold in on themselves. The phrase you type at the start coming back to be spoken to you at the end of the game. The interaction with this character that perfectly mirrors the other. The second puzzle piece that completely inverts the meaning of the first one. The kind of storytelling tricks that require serious precision, and balance.

Now, some tabletop writers or GMs might find tabletop perfectly suited to this – for me, it’s really hard (and exhausting!) to work towards. And I find that, too often, it requires not responding to players in the moment. If I don’t genuinely respond to, explore and honour players’ choices in a tabletop gaming session (or create a system that allows for this), I don’t think I’ve fulfilled the contract at play here – the kind of agency that a player reasonably expects in this kind of game.

In a text-adventure, however, there’s different contract – you get it’s a computer, not a person, controlling things, and you anticipate a different kind of agency. And, with the kind of tricks you can do in tracking people’s inputs and choices, there’s a lot to play around with in exploring certain story elements I adore, such as the eerie and reflected and mirrored.

Creating the space for creativity

One of the things I love most about tabletop role-playing games is the degree to which they create space for individuals to contribute their own ideas and creativity to a story. As a GM, my starting point is giving players a rough, general sense of the kind of world a game or campaign is going to take place in, then asking them for the detail – who they know, what their characters do, etc – and planning action specifically around that.

Whilst text-adventure games can give opportunities for input – choices expressive of what kind of game the player wants to play, literal text-input where players can write in the content they want, and of course there’s the potential for intensively programmed customisation options – it’s impossible for this to be as flexible and open as with a person running a game.

From a design perspective, it also feels a little more like you lay the groundwork to wind up the players (and GM if relevant) and just let them go – you provide the prompts for great role-play or the inciting events for cool stories. Whereas digital games definitely feel a lot more demanding to me because of everything you have to fill in, and how much work is on you rather than the players to create.

Jumping right in

I’ve played – and written – a lot of tabletop games that are incredibly short and take almost next-to-no time to pick up, but there is something to be said for how instantly you can begin playing a text-adventure game, provided you’ve got an internet connection and a device.

The above comes with some serious caveats – I don’t typically struggle with reading, maths, processing new mechanics etc, which obviously plays a role in how quickly I pick up games, alongside how long or short their rulebooks are. And there’s nothing about text-adventure games – from the visual nature to the need for internet to the typical demand on motor skills to click specific text – that’s inherently inaccessible to me. But I know this balance of ‘short prep time’ to ‘zero prep time’ won’t hold for everyone.

Because of the pre-written nature of a text-adventure, you can literally click and go – the comparatively simplistic mechanics helping in this. (I’m thinking of text-adventure games where you’re making choices by clicking on text – *not* the kind of games where you’re left typing any command you can think of for 20 minutes because for some reason ‘ENTER HOUSE’ isn’t allowed but you don’t know why.) And there’s definitely something to be said for a game that can offer players emotional, engaging, engrossing experiences but doesn’t ask that much of them bar their attention and action during solely the duration of play itself.

Making yourself understood

Personally, designing tabletop games (and running tabletop campaigns) is less mentally exhausting for me. And this comes down to one thing: text-adventure games have to be made with a co-designer who is far more exacting, strict and stubborn than I am. The software itself.

On The House of Cenci, there’d typically be 250-300 variables in play at any one time, and any one of those variables might be present in multiple locations, triggering different events or text. And, by the sheer nature of programming something on a computer, any small typo or error (or simply a forgotten instance where a variable needed to be updated or programmed in a different manner) would cause errors. Mentally keeping up with all of those – keeping up with my ‘co-designer”s standards – was really tough.

That’s not to say there isn’t a parallel in tabletop games – with text-adventures, you have to make sure the software understands what you mean. With tabletop games, you have to make sure the people who’ll be playing the game understand what you mean. The ease of this varies from game to game (for instance, Time Heist required more focus on this than most of my game, because of the fiddliness of time-travel based mechanics). But, for me, it’s always a conversation – normally conducted during or after playtest sessions – which makes it so much easier!

I am excited to get back to doing more tabletop-focused work right now; the flexibility of them, the improvisational tone, the unpredictability that comes with people making their own contributions to the story are all things I love about tabletop which doesn’t exist in the same way in text-adventure. That’s not to say I don’t like what text-adventure offers – I’m letting some thoughts brew on a possible project that leans into the eerie tones I talked about above – but it’ll nice to work with pen and paper for a bit after quite so much screen time…

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