Text-based gamers can afford to be picky

I just finished up 10 days riffling through a score of console games, and the experience reinforced something I wrote about a month ago: that text-based gamers can afford to be picky.

And I should probably be clear about what that means. I’m not suggesting text-based games are somehow superior to graphical games — that, after all, would depend on what we were comparing. There are some very good games in both camps, but unless we’re comparing direct renditions, both sides will have obvious winners.

No, what struck me about the past 10 days — and the past two years, really — was the sheer depth and breadth of the field, and how many of those were actually very good games. Not necessarily technical or visual triumphs, but games that grabbed my attention and engaged me for a serious amount of time.

Pick an interface, a game or a genre, and there will be more than a handful of games that fit it. Limit yourself to text-based games, and there are still many, many titles that will impress you.

Money is no object. It's no joke either.

Money is no object. It’s no joke either.

Here’s a good example: Starlanes, which I just learned about a week ago, and now love to death.

Starlanes won’t wow you with its “immersive” 3D interface or tickle your retinas with intricate shader effects. It’s just a straightforward game that has precise economic rules, and those rules permit some wild, but completely logical, turns of events.

In the “sci-fi-strategic-economic-territorial-market-acquisition” genre, Starlanes pretty much dominates the field — and has, for the past decade or two, considering it’s not a new game. You might have to look outside the text-only field to find another title that competes, or compares, with it.

But don’t think that I’m backing the only horse in the race. Starlanes is a powerful game in its own right, even if you think it’s just a big fish in a small pond.

War is hell, even in ASCII.

War is hell, even in ASCII.

Here’s another one that follows a basic format but has excellent rules: Curse of War, which also makes the leap from turn-based to real-time strategy.

Guide the growth of your civilization toward geographic goals, and dominate your opponents by sheer force of demographics. Set flags and your population migrates toward them; fortify your hold on resources by improving structures. It has all the flavor of most real-time strategy games, with tiny splashes of Life, Populous, StarCraft and even Civilization, to a small degree.

Starlanes and Curse of War don’t compete by any stretch. Starlanes is turn-based, and has a strategic appeal that is reinforced by some simple territory annexation and market rules. Curse of War is real-time and allows less precise geographic control, but offers its own set of rules that govern migration, zones of control and even fortifications. Different, but also a very good game.

That's me, running from the Americans again.

That’s me, running from the Americans again.

So economic simulations and population strategy games aren’t to your liking? How about a tall ships simulator?

I found Sail a few months ago, hiding in the ancient bsd-games package, and the level of detail made my jaw drop. It should be enough to say that Sail was intended as a conversion of a decades-old Avalon Hill tabletop pen-and-paper, map-and-counter game, but if that doesn’t ring your bell, let me say this: Imagine Sid Meier’s Pirates!, cross-bred with any version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and strained through an ASCII filter. It’s almost frightening.

The majesty in something like Sail isn’t in its uniqueness; after all, pirate games have been around since kids were invented. Sail wins points for pulling in an established rule base, automating the more cumbersome points like firing angles or wind calculations, and creating a game that’s just as fun as the tabletop game … and still in a text-only format.

The best analogue I can think of for Sail would be the classic Star Trek: Starfleet Command PC games of a decade ago, that converted the original Star Fleet Battles games into a fully graphical environment. I played the original Starfleet Battles games a long time ago, and let me tell you, the PC rendition was a gift straight from Allah. 😐

But simulations aren’t everyone’s cup of tea either, and I don’t find fault if it’s not your favorite. How about we go the opposite direction, and pick up something simpler? Something old, and yet new?

Eat your heart out, Gameboy.

Eat your heart out, Gameboy.

If I must be honest, Yetris is not my choice for the tip-top Tetris clone available in chunky block characters. That honor belongs to vitetris, as I’ve mentioned many times in the past. It’s definitely not for lack of trying though, and as you can see, Yetris takes the Tetris precept and spins it at a fever pitch.

Yetris stands out to me because it doesn’t accept the terminal environment as a limitation, full stop. vitetris offers network play and a few other smaller fillips, but Yetris takes command of the terminal, sets its own rules for visual appeal and space usage, and does not back down.

At the start of this post I said most of these games wouldn’t be visual triumphs; Yetris is. If half the games I’ve seen in the past two years approached the text-only medium with the same level of aggressiveness, there would never have been a migration to the graphical desktop. We’d all be playing fantastic Yetris-esque versions of World of Warcraft. 😕

Papa was a troll 'n stone ...

2014-10-26-6m47421-angband Papa was a troll ‘n stone …

And so long as we’re on the topic, if I had to pick out a text-only game that might satisfy the fantasy RPAG crowd, I’d have to think for a minute. When I opened the field at Inconsolation to more roguelike titles, I realized I was going to be drawing in dozens upon dozens of games that followed much the same format, but offered their own small personal tweak.

I saw a lot of them — a lot of good roguelike games — last week, and the two at the top of the stack were definitely ADOM and Angband. It would be impossible to try them all, so you could argue that I missed out on [insert title here] which was clearly superior :roll:, but those two are what I remember most.

ADOM took the dungeoneer out of the dungeon, and turned him/her loose on a world above. Angband refined the classic moria format derived from hack and rogue, injected healthy doses of Tolkien and Gygax, and arranged everything with better color and a better layout. And both games are very good indeed.

Hail to the king, baby.

Hail to the king, baby.

But still — after years of poking and prodding the Internet and seeing what falls out — but still the game that keeps pulling me back for hours on end, is Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup.

I don’t even know if I could tell you what makes Crawl better than any of the others, except that it manages almost every task efficiently and expertly. It handles dungeon generation, targeting, ammunition, autoexploring, autofighting, automapping, spellcasting, religion, regex object searches, skills, proficiencies and specialties, poisons, mutations, races, subraces, classes, subclasses, divine blessings, diseases, vampirism, draconism, encumbrance, hunger … I can’t list them all.

Truth be told, I stopped installing Crawl a long time ago — because I can get to it through ssh, and that’s even better than installing it if you’re on an old machine. All that intricate stat management might take a toll on my dear old Pentium. 😉

There’s only one game I know of that approaches the same level of detail and comprehension as Crawl, but still works in a text-based environment. But we have to switch atmospheres to peek at it.

Of course I died right after this screenshot.

Of course I died right after this screenshot.

For my money, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is the pinnacle of text-based games, regardless of the genre. I realize that’s a bold statement, but I think I’m in a position to defend it. I’ve done my share of research.

Just about everything that I’ve mentioned in Crawl is also available in Cataclysm, understanding of course that Crawl is a fantasy RPAG and Cataclysm is a zombie apocalypse survival epic. So of course, some parts don’t overlap.

But I knew I had found a winner when I realized I could actually create primitive explosives in Cataclysm, by scrounging through stacks of other garbage left over in the remains of my world. And then I discovered I could rearrange my layers of clothes to provide for more pockets. 😯

And when I thought through my defenses and resources, rather than just wandering around the countryside like an idiot. Staking out an abandoned power station and devising barricades and gauntlets for zombie onslaughts suddenly made perfect sense. …

This is where I have to stop. This post has already taken me about two days to assemble, because every time I mention a game, I reinstall it, and then I play it, and from there … half the day is gone. … Not that I’m complaining, of course. 😛

But don’t ever let it be said that there’s nothing to do for fun in a text-only environment. There is a ton of great entertainment available that doesn’t require a graphical environment, and probably more importantly, doesn’t require a quad-core with dual SLI cards and 12Gb of memory … just to install. 😉


3 thoughts on “Text-based gamers can afford to be picky

  1. Pingback: ctris and seatris: A homophonic puzzle pair | Inconsolation

  2. Pingback: Bonus: 2014 in review | Inconsolation

  3. Pingback: Bonus: A short score of games | Inconsolation

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