Aaron Reed's "50 Years of Text Games" is a delightful SubStack newsletter that — as its name suggests — explores the history of early text-based video games. Each installation focuses on a different game year and a different year, starting in 1976:
"50 Years of Text Games" is a project that traces a path through the history of digital games without graphics, by picking one game from each year between 1971 to 2021 and taking an in-depth look at how it works and why it's important. Each week throughout 2021, I'll cover a new year and game, working forward chronologically from The Oregon Trail in 1971 through the latest innovations in interactive fiction.
Reed provides a fun and comprehensive retrospective on these games; even if you (like me) are not familiar with all of them, it's interesting to read about the gradual development of interactive storytelling alongside computer technology. But I was absolutely delighted when this week's newsletter hit my inbox, focusing on the 1982 video game adaptation of The Hobbit — which I do remember fondly.
What I didn't know, however, is that The Hobbit was pretty revolutionary. It may have been the first licensing deal between a publisher and a video game company; and it may have been the first game to really introduce NPCs that had lives of their own, and encouraged the player to work with them in order to win. As Reed explains:
Megler's game took a unique approach unlike nearly any previous text adventure. She designed her NPCs not as static objects little different from props or treasures, but "animals" that could move across the map and take their own actions: they would even act in real-time if the player didn't type anything at the keyboard for a while. (Though she didn't know it, she was taking a parallel track to Richard Bartle's real-time MUDand its "mobiles" with "instincts.")
"I went through the book [of The Hobbit]," she wrote, and "tried to identify common sequences of behavior that I could represent through a sequence of actions that would capture the 'texture' of that character." A troll might simply move about at random and try to kill anything it saw, while Thorin had a penchant for complaining, following Bilbo's lead, and singing about gold. Combined with a heavy use of randomness for both action results and map layout, the result was a simulated world at turns frustrating and fascinating: no two games would be exactly alike. In one, Gandalf might have wandered off and gotten killed by a warg; in another Elrond's secret directions might change, or he might refuse to give them at all; a carefully made map of the goblin dungeons on one playthrough would be altered by the next; and the sword you were counting on for defense might have shattered because you used it to break down a locked door.
1982: The Hobbit [Aaron A. Reed / 50 Years of Text Games]
Image via YouTube