Friday, February 18, 2011

Can a game without graphics be better than WoW?

The vocal members of the WoW community are currently looking left and right for someone new to fall in love with as their relationship with WoW is fading away. This has become more and more obvious the last couple of weeks.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Cataclysm. It’s just that those who have been playing WoW for six years straight are pretty much done with it, needing a change of diet, and who can blame them?

A lot of the buzz has been about Rift, which I honestly couldn’t care less about. There will no doubt be a day in the future – yet to be determined - when I too am done with World of Warcraft. However I can’t see why I would want to play something that appears to be pretty much the same thing, with only some smaller adjustments.

My current plan is to stick to the original as long as it can hold my interest, and after that I’ll probably venture for a completely different gaming experience, which not necessarily will be an MMO. But I imagine will be playing some sort of game, which is a change of mind. I guess I’ve finally taken the step to recognize myself as a gamer rather an as a temporary tourist, accidently coming by.

A new game experience
This week I dipped my toe into one candidate to become my future gaming partner.

The game in question didn’t cost me anything; I was given it for free. It didn’t spring out from a huge studio inhabited by professionals. This piece of art was created by a hobby gamer like me, not for greed or for fame, but as an outlet of creativity. A world spawned from the writer's mind and I was invited to share it.

Did it look shiny and fancy? Hardly. There wasn’t a single graphic element to be seen, no eye-candy to dazzle my eyes. If someone passed by my screen, all they would see would be plain black text on a white background. Just like any Word document.

I didn’t dance around restlessly with my mouse and there was no frenetic spamming of key combinations. All I did the entire gaming session was to write text commands. “Talk to man”, “walk east”, “take x”, read the response and then write another command. It sounds a bit quiet, almost dull, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t.

I had ventured into my first piece of interactive fiction (IF) and I can’t remember last time I was this enchanted, thrilled and immersed playing WoW as I was during my session in the text adventure.

Interactive fiction
I’m a little bit late to the party, obviously. This genre isn’t he mother of WoW and other MMOs. It’s rather the grandmother’s grandmother (if you can claim any connection at all) and according to Wikipedia it peaked in the first half of the 80s.

I suppose the more jaded readers of PPI will sigh to themselves, asking what rock Larísa has been dwelling under during all those years in order to miss it out completely. But apparently I did and I’m glad that I finally got out of my ignorance.

The question is: is my fascination and newborn enthusiasm for IF well founded? Could it be just the sensation of novelty and change that I enjoy so much? Perhaps. But thinking about it closer, there are elements in it that I miss in WoW.

I think most of all it's the sensation of exploration, of stepping into an adventure. Playing my first text adventure, I experienced the thrill of folding up a story with an unknown ending, of looking at a puzzle that needed to be solved.

Even if I didn’t see the surroundings on my screen, I had a clear picture of them in my mind, noticing every detail in a way I never would in Azeroth, where I’m just rushing forward to turn in the next 12 trophies to the quest giver.

I walked from room to room, carefully examining every item I saw, talking to every person I met, always looking for clues. I opened doors, I tried out paths, I fumbled in the darkness and sometimes I got stuck and had to go back and rethink, trying another strategy. I guessed and I took chances. One door might lead to success, another one to defeat and if there were pointers, they were well hidden.

It was exactly the opposite of the concept of yellow exclamation and question marks, sparkles, cogwheels and marked areas on the map, showing exactly where to go next.

From autopilot to interaction
After trying out IF, I can’t help thinking that some of the convenience we enjoy in WoW, those handy maximize-the-cool-fun and minimize-the-boring-hassle solutions, also come with negatives.

If I’m completely honest with myself, it sometimes feels as if I’m playing WoW on autopilot. Absentmindedly I push the same nuke button over and over again, thinking about something completely different. And you may rightfully ask: what’s the point?

The text adventure on the other hand required my full attention, without giving away a single sound or light effect. The story was more involving than any boss fight and if I failed to find a puzzle clue I felt more frustrated and more motivated to overcome the challenge than if I had been wiping repeatedly on a raid boss.

I wasn’t only a watcher, I was an actor, a participant, or even a co-writer, since the continuation of the story depended on my choices.

IF may have peaked 30 years ago, but apparently I’m not the only one that is intrigued by it. From what I understand there is a community that is still going strong, making up new adventures that they share generously with each other.

Could this to some extent replace WoW for me in the future? Yes, possibly. And for some reason thinking about it makes me happy. I guess it’s the old punk rocker inside me speaking. I feel the smell of underground.

So to answer the question: yes, how crazy as it sounds, games without graphics, games without million dollar budgets, can compete and even be better than WoW and its clones in some aspects.

There are still enclaves of the world that are ruled by other incentives than money.

And naturally the toast of the week will be dedicated to those enclaves and to the enthusiasts that inhabit them. Here’s to all those who create new worlds or me to explore in the future, beyond Azeroth.



Sean said...

Before I played WoW I played Dark Age of Camelot. Before that, I hadn't really done any 3D gaming as I was deeply immersed in a MUD. While WoW seemed to be most of what I loved about the MUD (BatMUD) just in a graphical incarnation, it still didn't have the level of descriptiveness the MUD offered. In games like WoW (or Rift, I imagine) everything is right there in front of you and there's not as much need for your imagination. The MUDs, interactive fiction, and any other format of entertainment (dare I include BOOKS) will always provide me more mental stimulation because I'm forced to create images in my head rather than take them in from my screen, no matter how pretty.

That said, I love playing WoW, and I've not played BatMUD in years, but I think the two genres can and do peacefully co-exist. Thanks for sharing your insight on this, I enjoy reading your blog!

spinksville said...

Oh cool, which game was it that you tried? I know that the fan community has apparently been putting out some amazing interactive fiction over the last few years.

Would love if you felt like telling us a bit about the one/s you have been playing and what you thought.

Anonymous said...

I am old enough to remember the days of playing Zork, when game playing involved reading and typing green text on a black background.

My heart tells me that Zork was a fantastic game, although I'm pretty sure that it would be a tremendous disappointment to play it today.

For the time being at least, WoW retains my affection and interest.

Ratshag said...

Ah, brings back fond memories of me adolescence, huddling around a black-and-green monitor with me friends, giggling as we tested the parser fer ta see how many dirty words it knew.

Is wishing you many funs!

Hans Persson said...

Oh, this takes me back. I grew up playing most of the classic IF titles by Infocom and other of the greats of the late 70s and early 80s. Some of the standouts were Infidel (great ending!), Planetfall (great humor, but still managed to be heart-wrenching), Enchanter and Lurking Horror.

Many years ago I even wrote an IF game myself, and I think it's still playable on modern computers. It was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy, but the second part never got more than half-finished...

Which game did you play? (One of the new community-created titles, I would guess, so I suppose I won't know anything about it.) Actually, I think many of the community titles today (available for free) are better than the classic games (sold in the 80s).

Anonymous said...

Interesting to talk about WoW in terms of love. I was just reading Erich Fromm's book The art of loving. Fromm thinks that we tend to assume that love is simple but finding the right object to love is difficult. Instead, he suggests that the ability to love must be cultivated.

Applying this to gaming, we tend see engagement with a game as a problem of the game's design. If we find the right object, the right game, we think it's easy to be entertained, engaged, immersed in it. But what if we spent more time cultivating our capacity for enjoyment and play? If we became truly skilled at creating fun, what game could hold us back?

Nils said...

Nice read. I feel the same, as you know. What I wonder, however, is whether a slow, dangerous, explorative dungeon run can be realised within the framework of a modern-graphics style MMORPG. It should be possible, shouldn't it?

Redbeard said...

Wooot! Infocom, here we come! I still miss the fun of figuring out those puzzles.

Okay, I have to ask: are you still playing LOTRO from time to time? I'm curious about your opinion now, after having played Cata.

cygnia said...


Slate just had an article on one of the original games without graphics: the Choose Your Own Adventure series. :)

Rhii said...

Judging by the responses, you're not an oddball at all, Larisa. :P

I also really enjoy IF, although I don't spend as much time with it as I would like. I actually downloaded and installed a program to create my own, though I've yet to have a good idea to use with it.

Disciplinary Action said...

My first ever game started in front of a white mailbox. No flight of fancy has ever been more real, more engrossing, or more transportive than those heady days.

Good luck keeping your mind forever voyaging!

(A hollow voice says 'Fool'.)

Disciplinary Action said...

PS- You can play almost all of them online these days- the classic Infocom ones, at least- but there's also a nice little iPod/iPad application called 'Frotz' that is das bomb.

Snail said...

Infocom games rocked. Heck, they still rock.

I too started this long and perilous path in an open field in front of a white house, with a boarded front door. There was a mailbox there.

Any one else dusting off their Masterpieces of Infocom CDs this weekend?

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Dear Larísa, I have some bad news for you: you're a gamer. And, despite your protestations on other sites, I think you would have gotten into other games even without WoW. But, let me give you a delayed welcome to the group. :)

I'm with Spinks: spill the beans about what game(s) you have tried!

msp said...

"You are standing in an open field west of a white house"... my very first adventure game; many, many years ago. I didn't speak any English, so I spent days trying to play it with two or three dictionaries by my side. A "grue" wasn't in any of them. It didn't end well for my adventurer.

I gave Zork another try very recently and it sucked me in. I loved it. I'm not sure whether text adventure games can be said to be better or worse than WoW - that depends on what each individual player is looking for in a game - but for me they can certainly be just as entertaining and engaging.

Larísa said...

@Sean: Yes, seeing how stimulating it was to imagine everything myself in a game was a bit of an eyeopener to me. Mind you, I'm a vivid book reader and I've always been. But games for me have until now been very very visual. And actually they don't have to be.
There is still a place for text based games, I believe.

: I'm afraid that the first game I tried and was pulled into isn't available to the public. There's apparently a ton of games available in the archives at I'm currently messing around with a couple of games that are to be found there - Violet and Bronze and I like those as well, a lot. If you have suggestions of particularly good titles, please let me know! Considering how much I enjoy this I wouldn't be surprised if I come back to the topic.

: I guess it might be different if you've been there and done that? But to me, even after playing WoW for so long time, it was a great experience.

@Ratshag: Thanks! I'm afraid I'm doing this on my own, but it's still fun. Haven't tried many dirty words yet though. Perhaps I'm missing something?

@Hans Persson: woot! An sf fandom friend stopping by! Cheers! As I told Spinksville, this title isn't public. But yeah, community created indeed. Very underground I'd say. Are there still commercial games produced this way? In any case, yes, there seem to be enough of good quality amateur written IFs to keep you entertained for quite a while.

: It's an interesting idea. How much isn't in the eye of the beholder? Rather than choosing to focus on things about WoW that annoy you, why not focus on what you love and go from there, exploring the game, looking for aspects you never thought of? With an open-minded attitude I think we could get more enjoyment out of many games. This said though, I really can't blame players who find themselves done with WoW after six years playing. Imagine if you liked a novel particularly much. If you've been reading it for 6 years straight, over and over again, you'd probably want to read something else. You can't just say: "keep playing that game, keep reading that book, love it more". For how much we love our games, it's not quite comparative to relationships, is it?

@Nils: Maybe all those pretty graphics pull us in another direction, making us impatient? Because everything else goes that way these days. Faster and faster pace. Just have a look at an old TV series or movie and you'll be astonished how slow it is. Take Twin Peaks, which I truly love. It's amazing. But I doubt it would be done that way today. Too slow for the modern mind. I wonder if our brains are set to quick pace as soon as we see something visually?

Larísa said...

: No, I'm afraid I haven't dipped my toe into LOTRO since it got free to play. I definitely should. I think it was a very pretty world and I liked the different atmosphere in it. Since Cataclysm came I've had busy days levelling and gearing up my main. But perhaps I'll get time over to revisit LOTRO again. I surely haven't forgotten it.

@Cygnia: Oh, a wave of nostalgia perhaps?

@Rhii: I wonder if not creating is just as fun as playing it. Who knows, maybe I'll get there too. But now I'm happy just dipping my toes into it, exploring the field a bit.

Action: I haven't got a smartphone yet but I might get one soon and I'll definitely see if I can move in some of those text games into it. As opposed to WoW those games are really designed for playing on simple devices such as a mobile.

@Snail: Hm.... What about those mail boxes? I have to sneak around and explore until I find it!

@Brian Psychochild Green: Ouch. Too bad. And there's no way back I suppose? Thank you for the wlcome though! And as I said earlier, my first game wasn't public. But I might share more findings in the future.

@Msp: Yes, I guess it takes a particular mindset to enjoy these kind of games. I remember doing some test of what kind of gamer personality you have in the regards of explorer, achiever, socializer and was it... killer? If I remember it correctly I was most of everything an explorer and least a killer. So I shouldn't be surprised that those games feel as if they were made for me.

Gankalicious said...

Three words:

Adventures of Eamon.

That is all.

>Word count exceeded.

>Do you post? Or re-write?

>slay dragon

>There is no dragon. Do you post? Or re-write?

>turn left

>I do not recognize the command.

>turn right

>You have been killed.

Tessy said...

Which game were you playing?

Reading this whoshed me back to my early days of playing text adventures on my C64 (Pirate Cove, Vampire Castle, The Hobbit, you name it) which I loved despite the frustrations of trying to write the same action in ten different ways before finding a word the game recognized :)

I would like to try it out again

Kurnak said...

Heh, back in time I played MUDs, specially the Diku family (Merc, Smaug, ROM...) Then we dreamed of having some kind of graphical display, even using characters like the NetHack/Moria/Angband games. Some of the latest included little maps, but only displaying your room and possibly the surrounding ones.
Are we going back full circle now? Would tired WoW players go back to the text-game days?

Larísa said...

: Hehe, that sounds a bit annoying tbh. I'd better stay away from that one.

@Tessy: as I said previously my first dip into this is not publicly available. But I'm trying a couple of others now. There seem to be tons of fan produced interactive fiction stories/games to choose between.

@Kurnak: oh, everything goes in circles, doesn't it? I wouldn't be surprised if we'd see a "back to the basics" - minimalistic sort of trend. Not that it will capture the big audience. But for a few tired wow players it might be a nice change of pace.

spinksville said...

I'm not that familiar with what's going on in the field of IF, but I've heard really good things about Emily Short's work (

nugget said...

If you like that, you might really, really, REALLY like MUDs.

Seriously. Really. REALLY.

Bearing in mind that I no longer play LegendMUD, and have not for near on 6 years, I will still say...

...if you only ever try ONE MUD, make it LegendMUD.

...not affiliated blah de blah blah. XD

But it is the only virtual world I ever considered 'home'. =)

Nube said...

I still love playing Super Mario Bros. 3. I always go there when pretty pixels just won't do. Good Games are Good, they don't need to be Good Looking

Lexicorro said...

There's a book, I have, from years ago, about life in a MUD, and it's a fascinating read.

"My tiny life" - Julian Dibbell

Lexicorro said...

Oh my first foray into MMO style games before wow & ffxi, was planetarion. Which was surprisingly serious for a browser game, by today's standards. had 000s of players at its peak and featured Alliances and mass coordination through irc channels. I was in Fury and then Elysium.

Anonymous said...

You can't just say: "keep playing that game"

I agree. An important part of cultivating our capacity for enjoyment is moderation and my sense is that a lot of people play WoW in excess of their intrinsic enjoyment of it. If you've been reading a novel over and over again for 6 years, perhaps you're undermining your own enjoyment of the experience.

But also, there's nothing wrong with moving on and putting a game aside. When we do that, it doesn't have to be because the game is "broken" in some way. I've heard a number of players cite this or that mechanic or class change or feature to justify why they don't want to play as if the game had to have some fault.

An expansive sense of play ought to be able to pick up and put down lots of games -- high-tech, low-tech, new and old -- and find pleasure in each.