My first computer had a black and white screen. It might be more accurate to say, it had a white screen; the black was simply negative space between white pixels, more a gray, the natural color of the monitor. Where it was not white it was nothing.
The computer was all one piece. The monitor, the keyboard, and the computer itself were all crammed together in one dense, heavy package, like an old television with a keyboard glued to its front. (The keys were deep, black, and loud.) I used that computer strictly to play games. Some of the games were text adventures.
A text adventure is a game that takes place in prose. The computer describes a world to you one room at a time, writing in the second person. "You stand in the center of a cool, dark cave," says the computer. "Exits are north, south, east, and west." The computer waits for you to tell it what you want to do. "Go east," you might say. Or if there is a key, you might say "take key." The computer parses your commands as best it can and tells you what happens next.
The trouble is computers are lousy with language. The only way a text adventure can understand your commands is if the programmer saw you coming. If he knew that you would want to take the key and he wrote the game accordingly, then you can take the key. If you want to eat the key, however -- well, he probably didn't see that coming. (And if he did, he probably programmed the game to say, "You can't eat that!" which, depending on your definition of "eat," is false.) For this reason and others, most text adventures become simplistic exercises in puzzle-solving, matching keys to locks to progress slowly through weird tunnels.
I love text adventures, but they usually disappoint me. I wanted a way to make them more open-ended, less about puzzle-solving and more about language: its weirdness, its beauty. So I started playing a game with some of the writers I knew. Using gchat, I pretend to be a text adventure. The other writer is the player. We use the form of the text adventure to collaborate on some kind of strange, fun narrative. The only rule is that we take turns typing. We never discuss what we're going to do in advance, so the results are improvisational and surprising/exciting/stressful/upsetting for both participants. Every time, the player does things I never could have seen coming.
I will play and post new adventures at least once a week until it feels right to quit. If you head over to the play page, you can find out how to play the game with me.
Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death is a major inspiration for this project, and should be acknowledged as such.
About the author: Mike Meginnis serves as the fiction editor for Noemi Press and co-edits the magazine Uncanny Valley with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling. You can find an updated list of his publications here. He lives and works in Iowa City.