Filtered for some text-based virtual realities

19.53, Wednesday 3 Mar 2021


Cait Kirby’s September 7th, 2020 is a playable webpage.

It’s a short and powerful story:

You are a sophomore at Most Distinguished University of the North. You are a biology major and very excited about your genetics class this fall. …

You wanted to take all your classes online. Instead, this is your day.

You click, the story unfolds. There are a few choices along the way.

Ultimately it’s an argument that, in the midst of Covid-19, university classes should be online.

Could this have been an op-ed, or a blog post? Yes. But instead it’s a self-contained text experience, almost a mini environment, and all the more transporting and empathy-building for that fact. It’s like that line from the old BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke: I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better.

It looks like this was written in Twine, which is a graphical app to author interactive, nonlinear stories. Then published with Sugarcube which is a web-based “player” for Twine stories, originally based off a wiki interface which explains why it feels so much like a hypertext. Here’s a great tutorial on using the two together: How to use Twine and SugarCube to create interactive adventure games.


Parabolic House is an immersive theatre company, and their latest production is The House of Cenci: Integrating a free-roaming text adventure with live performance on Zoom across four weeks.

You can play The House of Cenci text adventure here.

Again it’s a playable webpage (possibly using Twine?), and it seems to sit halfway between interactive fiction (you tap the words to unfold the story) and an environment (you move between rooms and pick up objects).

I like the way the description of each room expands telescopically, and then the screen resets when you move.


The Impossible Bottle by Linus Åkesson was joint winner of the 2020 Interactive Fiction competition (its 26th year!).

It is charming, gently puzzling, and beautifully described. Gorgeous.

Because The Impossible Bottle follows text adventure tropes (i.e. you go east, north, up, etc), it feels very much like exploring a real place – it’s definitely less like a story and more like immersive theatre. A text-based single-player virtual reality.

When I play text adventures, the image that always comes into my head is Superman’s Bottle City of Kandor: Kandor served as Krypton’s capital and main cultural center. BUT! An alien starship arrived and enveloped Kandor in a force field and some sort of shrinking ray.

And now Superman has, at his Fortress of Solitude, this whole tiny city with all these tiny inhabitants going about their tiny business, kept in a bottle on the shelf.

So I enjoy dropping into these bottle cities, and particularly I like it when they’re not too overwhelming and I can play on my phone.

Åkesson used a self-authored game engine for this work: The Å-machine. A more accessible app to author these kind of environment-based text adventures might be Inform 7 which feels a bit like writing a narrative, but can also output to a playable webpage.


Tully Hansen’s Writing is an unfolding/flowering text/poem/meditation about, well, writing. It starts with one word.

Give it a go, it’s wonderful. The experience of reading this semi-branching, semi-guided text is a little bit like having meandering thoughts yourself - I do wonder what David Markson would have done with this - but the fact your thumbs are engaged too makers it new. It has good… tap-feel? Can that be a word now?

(Written using which is a tool for creating such things.)


Robin Sloan’s seminal Fish: a tap essay, which is an experiment in a new format: a ‘tap essay,’ presenting its argument tap by tap, making its case with typography, color, and a few surprises.

(And I saw Sloan mention on Twitter the other day that he has a new framework for tap essays in the works, based on the open-source-and-just-released ink scripting environment for interactive narrative. Another authoring environment to experiment with!)

I think what I like about these experiments in new formats is that they’re like the text equivalent of tape cassettes if you remember those. Somebody would pass you a cassette at school, and you’d take it home, and lie on your carpet in your room next to the tape machine, and hit play, and just be transported for 30 minutes, music in your ears and the pictures in your head. If you could take that experience and bottle it… Well.

p.s. If you know of more self-contained, text-based virtual realities, particularly experiments with new formats, please send them my way. I’m interested.


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“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.

1971 is the pre-history of text games, so start right at the beginning and you’ll read how computer games came about and why, and how they spread using nascent computer networks, and how the idea of selling them in plastic bags had to be invented too, and… well, it’s great. It’s up to 1978 right now (going at one year a week), so there’s a good way to go yet. I recommend you subscribe.

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