Lilybet Skatilar is a level 9 human bard wearing a shimmering rainbow cloak, fur-lined snow boots, a stylish purple scarf, sunstone earrings, baggy blue polka dot pants, a blue ruby ring, a jeweled engagement ring, and various other accessories accumulated in the town of Wehnimer’s Landing in 1997.
If you checked her out by typing “LOOK LILYBET,” you would get a large descriptive paragraph of text—no images, just words that made the world come to life.
I played this character in GemStone III, an early online role-playing game, for a precious six-month period when I was a 13-year-old learning how to relate to friends and strangers in my newfound teenage skin. What I didn’t know at the time was that GemStone and similar titles from Simutronics Corporation represented a pivotal moment in the history of gaming.
Simutronics’ GemStone and its sister game DragonRealms helped build a bridge between the primordial single-player text adventure and what we now call MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. When the internet was young, these games hit on a demand for shared alternate realities, a thirst that has since shaped online media as we know it.
The genre of text adventure games started with Colossal Cave Adventure from 1976, widely considered 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 early entrant in the genre was Zork: The Great Underground Empire from Personal Software, which allowed players to be more creative in the commands that they typed. Writing in Byte magazine in 1980, reviewer Bob Liddil wrote that he was “hooked” after he got a computer-generated response to typing “OPEN THE BAG AND GET THE LUNCH,” followed by “EAT THE LUNCH AND DRINK THE WATER.”
Those were simpler times. And, these 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 could connect to the school’s server. It is credited with being the first to spark the new genre, also called MUD.
“That branch of things today turned into World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Roblox, Second Life, and a huge spread of other things,” says Raph Koster, a longtime game designer and founder of the online game company Playable Worlds. “Pretty much everything where there are multiple people running around in one world, and it’s a world as opposed to a shooting match, is a child of MUD.”
And while graphical MMORPGs have since overtaken the market, this does not mean players weren’t having immersive experiences in text—some would even say they were more immersive, says T. L. Taylor, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT. She remembers staying up all night playing MUDs in her university’s computer lab in graduate school in the early 1990s. “You could have embodied experiences, a sense of presence, and shared space,” Taylor says.
GemStone Is Born
One of the fans of Zork and its cousins was David Whatley. In the 1980s, he started writing his own single-player text adventures on the Commodore 64 while attending a local college in Missouri—which he didn’t enjoy, apart from creative writing classes.
“I told my parents that they should stop spending money on that and let me just start my own business,” he said in an email. “I said I’d have something up and running before I could graduate. Took way less time, as it turned out.”