News: How Victorian Era Gamers Would Have Played Computer Games Using the Analytical Engine

How Victorian Era Gamers Would Have Played Computer Games Using the Analytical Engine

How Victorian Era Gamers Would Have Played Computer Games Using the Analytical Engine

Text adventure games, such as the well-known Zork series, were some of the first computer games ever made, second only to the likes of Spacewar! and the better-known Pong.

So let's travel back in time for a moment, to a time that never was.

Charles Babbage successfully built his Difference Engine, and went on to build a more successful Analytical Engine, thus ushering in the Age of Computing nearly a hundred years earlier than its time. That's the premise of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's book, The Difference Engine, often considered a seminal work of Steampunk literature.

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What games would they have played on the Analytical Engine? Considering that cathode ray technology was still half a century away, there would be no digital (or analog, for that matter) displays. Instead, readouts would be done entirely in text form, possibly even printed (or typed) out on paper.

What I'm getting at is that this would have been a prime opportunity for the birth of the text adventure game!

For those who are too young to have lived through it, text adventure games were pioneered by a game called Colossal Cave Adventure, or sometimes just Adventure. The game was entirely made of text, and the player had to navigate through a fantasy-inspired cave, successfully recovering a variety of treasures. This soon led to the much-more-successful Zork franchise, and then spawned a huge number of other text games.

This is one of the most famous pieces of text in video game history, from Zork 1.

These games developed certain styles of play in order to make it an easier experience for the user. For example, instead of the player having to guess at what words are necessary in a given situation, the available vocabulary was narrowed down to just a dozen or so verbs which could then interact with a potentially unlimited number of nouns.

For example, you would say something like "take potion" (picking up the potion and putting it in your inventory) and then "drink potion" (to, well, drink the potion). Sometimes 'quaff' was used instead of 'drink'. There's your vocabulary word of the day: quaff.

Anyway, to carry on the non-existent tradition of text adventure games that may or may not have existed in an alternate Steampunk history, I wrote a Steampunk text adventure game. Why don't you give it a try, and take a trip back to what Victorian computer gaming enthusiasts may have enjoyed?

The game is available to play thanks to the Z-machine interpreter Parchment. The game is called "Trouble in the Workshop", and in it, you play a young laboratory assistant to the brilliant and eccentric Doctor Edgar von Winterstein. However, when Doctor von Winterstein leaves you alone in his lab, various hijinks (another vocabulary word!) ensue, which could lead to either the destruction of the workshop, or perhaps even the dawn of a new age for humanity!

If you're a newcomer to text games, or Interactive Fiction as it's called today, here's a quick rundown on what you need to know to play them:

  1. The syntax will always be <verb> <noun>, such as the "take potion" example I mentioned earlier.
  2. Sometimes the syntax will require <verb> <noun> in/on <second noun>, such as "put potion on table", or "put potion in backpack".
  3. "Look" by itself will show you the room you're in.
  4. "Inventory" will show you what items you're currently carrying.

Here's a list of all the verbs you need in "Trouble in the Workshop":

  • Look, read, go, take, put, open, close, turn on, and push.

You can also try to eat various things, if you'd like, but it won't really get you anywhere. So that's it, just nine verbs to keep track of!

I hope you enjoy my humble entry! Let me know what you think.

Images from Nebula24, West Karana, Bit By Bit


Early digital computers had no graphical display either, I think that once the idea of a graphical display was concieved, the technology to accomplish it would have been devised.

There is such a device for presentations described in the Difference Engine, The Kinotype if I recall.

Yeah, there was such a device in The Difference Engine, though the name escapes me. You're right that they would certainly have conceived some form of graphical display, though what form it would have taken is up in the air. After all, cathode ray tube technology didn't arise for computers, but as a result of a variety of other technological advances that made it possible. If we're talking about the 1860's, electromagnetic science wasn't in a place where CRT tech could have feasibly arisen.

So in all likelihood, we'd have been looking at something akin to a flip clock. That sure would have been interesting!

Ada Lovelace would love this! Need to share this with my daughter (she loves text games).

Share away! Tell her to play my text game, and let me know what she thinks. =)

I have been playing your game for hours. I like it, it brings me back to the 80's text games. I am stuck though. I simply can't find a way to "use" or "combine" or "scan" or many other verbs that come to mind. To make matter worse, being English is not my first language, I made a lot of mistakes with prepositions. i.e." put paper on box" instead of "in box", more synonyms of verbs would make it a lot better. How do I get unstuck? lol

Haha, I'm glad you enjoy it!

As I said in the article above, the only verbs you need are look, read, go, take, put, open, close, push, and pull. That's it!

So, no objects need words like 'use' or 'combine'. If you want to combine two objects, try PUTting the first one IN or ON the second one.

Hint: you'll never have to combine two objects that are both in your inventory.

Oh, and my mistake! I originally left out 'turn on' from the list of verb. I've now fixed it. =)

haha cool :) There used to be a fun text-based online game created by Sony and SIS, but apparently it's not up anymore!? :(

Not sure it had a title, but here is a video of someone playing it:

Ooooh, you're talking about the British Intelligence Officers Exam! Yeah, that one was well-known in the IF scene, though this is the first I hear that it's been taken down.

I hope there's a mirror somewhere!

With this idea, we can even have a real time strategy/board game mechanism at the most complex levels.

How would that work, mechanically?

I love this post

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