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Friday, December 1, 2023

How Old-School Text Adventures Inspired Our Virtual Spaces

Lilybet Skatilar is a level 9 human bard wearing a shimmering rainbow cloak, fur-lined snow boots, a stylish purple scarf, sunstone earrings, baggy blue polka dot pants, a blue ruby ring, a jeweled engagement ring, and various other accessories accumulated in the town of Wehnimer’s Landing in 1997.

If you checked her out by typing “LOOK LILYBET,” you would get a large descriptive paragraph of text—no images, just words that made the world come to life.

I played this character in GemStone III, an early online role-playing game, for a precious six-month period when I was a 13-year-old learning how to relate to friends and strangers in my newfound teenage skin. What I didn’t know at the time was that GemStone and similar titles from Simutronics Corporation represented a pivotal moment in the history of gaming.

Simutronics’ GemStone and its sister game DragonRealms helped build a bridge between the primordial single-player text adventure and what we now call MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. When the internet was young, these games hit on a demand for shared alternate realities, a thirst that has since shaped online media as we know it.

Textual Beginnings

The genre of text adventure games started with Colossal Cave Adventure from 1976, widely considered the first interactive text-based computer game, by Will Crowther and Don Woods. Through commands involving verbs and nouns, players could explore a written version of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Another early entrant in the genre was Zork: The Great Underground Empire from Personal Software, which allowed players to be more creative in the commands that they typed. Writing in Byte magazine in 1980, reviewer Bob Liddil wrote that he was “hooked” after he got a computer-generated response to typing “OPEN THE BAG AND GET THE LUNCH,” followed by “EAT THE LUNCH AND DRINK THE WATER.”

Those were simpler times. And, these early games didn’t have interactions with other human-controlled characters. But in 1978, University of Essex students Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw created Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD, which could be played by anyone who could connect to the school’s server. It is credited with being the first to spark the new genre, also called MUD.

“That branch of things today turned into World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Roblox, Second Life, and a huge spread of other things,” says Raph Koster, a longtime game designer and founder of the online game company Playable Worlds. “Pretty much everything where there are multiple people running around in one world, and it’s a world as opposed to a shooting match, is a child of MUD.”

And while graphical MMORPGs have since overtaken the market, this does not mean players weren’t having immersive experiences in text—some would even say they were more immersive, says T. L. Taylor, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT. She remembers staying up all night playing MUDs in her university’s computer lab in graduate school in the early 1990s. “You could have embodied experiences, a sense of presence, and shared space,” Taylor says.

GemStone Is Born

One of the fans of Zork and its cousins was David Whatley. In the 1980s, he started writing his own single-player text adventures on the Commodore 64 while attending a local college in Missouri—which he didn’t enjoy, apart from creative writing classes.

“I told my parents that they should stop spending money on that and let me just start my own business,” he said in an email. “I said I'd have something up and running before I could graduate. Took way less time, as it turned out.”

In 1987, Whatley teamed up with Tom and Susan Zelinski to form a company called Simutronics. The couple helped secure a deal with General Electric to launch a game known then as GemStone II. It debuted on the online service GEnie in 1988. The company’s first headquarters was Whatley’s bedroom in his parents’ house in St. Louis.

GemStone II did not generate a lot of success, but it showed promise, Whatley said. Its big break was a deal to launch on America Online in 1995. Simutronics also decided to team up with a (now defunct) company called Iron Crown Enterprises to integrate a gameplay system called Rolemaster.

But just before GemStone III was about to launch on AOL in the fall of 1995, Iron Crown pulled out of the deal. Simutronics could not release the game with Iron Crown’s intellectual property—and it was everywhere in GemStone III.

That meant the Simutronics team had to go through the game and overwrite every aspect that Iron Crown Enterprises owned. And they owned every proper noun. Every creature. Every place. “We had to scramble and rebuild the entire fictional motif of the game,” Whatley says.

For Elonka Dunin, former general manager and executive producer at Simutronics, this moment felt like Apollo 13. The team had a short amount of time—Dunin remembers it as about a week—to use whatever tools they had to solve a big problem.

There was one sheeplike creature that Dunin delayed renaming—it deserved a special name, she thought, because players could both attack it and get meat from it for making sandwiches. But when the team had nearly finished their effort, they realized that particular creature still did not have a name.

“We’d been working all night off of Chinese food. And so there were egg rolls and wontons on the table,” Dunin says. “And I said, ‘Let’s call it a rolton.’”

Rather than attempt to change everything at once and confuse players, the designers made everything in the world look frozen for a few weeks and then “thawed” the world to reveal the new names. The “de-ICE” mission worked; GemStone III opened on AOL, and brought in thousands of new players, including me.

A New Community

In GemStone III, players interacted with the world and each other using text-based commands like “look,” “go,” and “get.” They used in-game money to purchase items like weapons and armor, and they attacked a variety of live and dead creatures to gain experience and steal their treasures. There were spells to cast and magic rings to wear. You could play to level up or to collect colorfully described objects. Or you could just hang out in public spaces and talk to whomever is there in character, like in a medieval fantasy chat room.


Former players remember the sense of wonder they had encountering these virtual textual spaces for the first time and interacting with strangers who became traveling companions.

“It was like being in a book,” says Sandie Springer in Los Angeles, who used to be a devoted GemStone player. “You created the story, and you fought text.”

One of GemStone’s unique features was that Simutronics contractors called Game Masters, known as GMs, hung out in the game and modified features of the world in real time. They could create custom items, code new verbs for gameplay, and insert descriptions that players experienced in the virtual environment. Dunin did, too. “Like they're role-playing at a church, and I might go, ‘the light shimmers,’” Dunin says.

In 1996, the game had more than 2,000 simultaneous users on AOL—a big hit in those days. But AOL’s subsequent move from pay-per-hour to monthly subscription forced Simutronics to rethink its strategy. Gemstone III moved to the open web in 1997, shifting the paradigm to having the same interactive multiplayer world accessible no matter your internet service provider. Some customers had never used a web browser before; Dunin set up a 24/7 service line to help with the transition.

At the outset, Whatley had no idea the game would be successful. He also never considered that people might want to get married in his games until requests started rolling in for elegant receptions.

As a GM, Heather Hill customized about 500 weddings in DragonRealms, the sister game of GemStone, that takes place in the same world but in a different time. Simutronics had developed it for an online service that ended up folding, so they brought it to GEnie and AOL too.

Players would pay Simutronics up to $1,000 for the privilege of specific descriptions and interactions made for the celebration, from custom dresses and rings to text-based food tastings.

“A lot of the lure of it was just having a really great party with their friends,” Hill says. “They knew these people, and they cared about people at their party and their wedding, just as much as they would care about someone who they had met in real life and hung out with on a daily basis.”

And players could reunite in person at conventions, such as SimuCon in St. Louis. There’s no way to know how many of those game-based couples got together in real life, but Whatley acknowledges that the game has sparked real love and marriages (“and divorces,” he adds).

Sandie Springer and Jon Neill first met at a Las Vegas party that fellow GemStoners organized through an online message board in 1999, and became friends through a mutual GemStone friend.

After she became a Game Master, Springer flirted with Neill by coloring his outfits peach or turning him into a frog. At one in-person party, “I dressed as her character because I was in love with her,” Neill says. They married in real life in 2007.

More Massive, More Online

Behind the scenes, ideas that fueled games like GemStone bounced around on a mailing list called MUD-Dev. People like Simutronics’ Dunin and the original MUD’s Bartle contributed, says Koster, also the lead designer of Ultima Online. Members talked frankly about what they were doing and how to advance the field.

“We were by and large a bunch of twentysomethings who thought we were changing the world,” Koster says of the MUD community. “Unlike most twentysomethings, we were right.”

The list wasn’t the only way the philosophies and foundations of games like GemStone spread. Some Simutronics employees moved on to places like Blizzard Entertainment and Sony Online Entertainment, helping shape the next generation of MMORPG titles.

Origin Systems’ Ultima Online broke open the market for the graphical online role-playing game in 1997, Koster says. Then came EverQuest from Sony Online Entertainment in 1999, the first 3D game to explode into the MMORPG space. Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft in the 2000s expanded the MMORPG’s popularity even further, with a count of 10 million players in 2009.

Dunin, coauthor of the new book “Codebreaking: A Practical Guide,” notes that she still sees people using text to role-play even in graphical games like Final Fantasy XIV.

The underpinnings of the MUD can be seen even in Pokemon Go, because all players access the same parallel world no matter what device they are using, with the action largely taking place on the server, Koster says. Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms are also shared virtual worlds, although they come from the “life-logging” stream of tech developments. In fact, he argues that augmented reality (AR) is an MMORPG we will soon be playing.

“The coming world of constant geolocation, constant object tagging, spatial mapping, geospatial everything, smart objects, all of that stuff, and the ways in which that ties into AR glasses, means that everybody is going to be logged into an MMO 100 percent of their lives,” Koster says.

Resurrecting Your Character

Today, Simutronics offers GemStone IV, which is basically GemStone III but with a bigger world and more possibilities. And it is more popular than ever, Whatley says—the year 2020 saw more than a 50 percent increase in players. As we spoke over Zoom on a Friday afternoon, there were 694 characters actively adventuring, but for special events, this can grow to 3,000, Whatley says.

Simutronics does no traditional marketing for GemStone IV or DragonRealms. Instead, it reaches out to players from days of old, asking if they’d like to come back. A data storage bunker in St. Louis keeps the oldest GemStone characters preserved on tapes.

You couldn’t make a game like GemStone or DragonRealms today and expect anyone to play it, but former players do come back, Whatley says.

“It’s not the game—the game is meaningless,” Whatley says. “It’s actually the community that drives them to want to be in there. The friends and the memories of the experiences that they had, and they want to recreate that, or have more. And they can.”

And that community is going strong, even in the off-screen world. Neill and Springer, the couple who first met at a GemStone player party, have a large friend group bound by their GemStone memories. The “LA Crew,” about 20 people, has even gone to Mexico on a cruise together. Neill and Springer don’t play GemStone anymore, but their 35-year-old son has been playing since he was about 10.

I asked Whatley if any of my characters, dormant since 1997, could return. He wrote back that Lilybet the bard had been found (and quickly enough that she had probably not been in the bunker).

I immediately told my childhood friend Geoff Wertime that he could also contact Simutronics to resurrect his character, Aymar. On a recent Friday evening, we logged into GemStone IV from our respective homes in DC and New York. Inexplicably, reawakened Lilybet was missing a right eye and carried bottles of amber ale and moonshine.

We planned to meet at Helga’s Tavern, where juicy roast rolton sandwiches are served for 40 silvers apiece. When I got to the bar, there was Aymar. And when Aymar hugged Lilybet, and Lilybet gave a friendly hug back, it was almost, almost, like we had bridged the gap of space and time between us.

To make room for a magic gold ring, Lilybet removed that “jeweled engagement ring,” a gift from my in-game fiancé who hasn’t been seen in over 23 years.

New adventures are beginning.

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