Lilybet Skatilar is a level 9 human bard wearing a shimmering rainbow cape, fur-lined snow boots, elegant purple sash, sunstone earrings, blue polka dot baggy pants, ruby ring blue, an engagement ring adorned with jewels and various other accessories accumulated in the town of Wehnimer’s Landing in 1997.
If you checked it out by typing “LOOK LILYBET”, you would get a large descriptive paragraph of text – no pictures, just words that brought the world to life.
I played this character in GemStone III, one of the first online role-playing games, for a precious six months when I was 13, learning to relate to friends and strangers in my new teenage skin. What I didn’t know at the time was that Gem and similar titles from Simutronics Corporation represented a pivotal moment in gaming history.
Simutronics’ Gem and her sister game DragonRealms helped build a bridge between the all-important text-based adventure for one player and what we now call MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. When the internet was young, these games responded to a demand for shared alternate realities, a thirst that has since shaped online media as we know it.
The genre of text-based adventure games started with Adventure in the colossal cave from 1976, widely regarded as the first interactive text-based computer game, by Will Crowther and Don Woods. Through commands involving verbs and nouns, players could explore a written version of Mammoth cave in Kentucky.
Another newbie in the genre was Zork: the great underground empire from Personal Software, which allowed gamers to be more creative with the commands they type. Write in Byte magazine in 1980, reviewer Bob Liddil wrote that he was “addicted” after receiving a computer-generated response typing “OPEN THE BAG AND HAVE LUNCH” followed by “EAT LUNCH AND DRINK WATER”.
They were simpler times. And those early games didn’t have interactions with other human-controlled characters. But in 1978, University of Essex students Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw created Multi-user dungeon, or MUD, which could be played by anyone who can connect to the school server. He is credited with being the first to trigger the new genre, also known as MUD.
“This branch of things has turned today into World of warcraft, Minecraft, Role blocks, Second life, and a whole host of other things, ”says Raph Koster, longtime game designer and founder of the online games company Playable worlds. “Pretty much anything that has multiple people running in one world, and that’s a world as opposed to a shooting match, is a child of MUD.”
And while graphical MMORPGs have since overtaken the market, that doesn’t mean gamers didn’t have immersive in-text experiences – some would even say they were more immersive, says TL Taylor, professor of benchmarking at the media at MIT. She remembers lying awake all night playing MUDs in her university’s computer lab at graduate school in the early 1990s. “You could have embodied experiences, a sense of presence and a shared space,” says Taylor.
Gem Was born
One of the fans of Zork and his cousins were David Whatley. In the 1980s, he started writing his own solo text adventures on the Commodore 64 while attending a local college in Missouri – something he didn’t like, outside of creative writing classes.
“I told my parents they should stop spending money on this and let me start my own business,” he said in an email. “I said I would have something operational before I could graduate. It took a lot less time, as it turned out.