Of all the genres in gaming, perhaps the one which suffered the most tragic death is the text adventure. What started with the simple Colossal Cave Adventure in 1975 matured through the 1980s in the loving care of companies like Infocom, becoming more thorough, immersive and complex. The benefits of the text adventure were many. For one, pure text adventures, like a book, were fueled by imagination. You were fed descriptions and formed your own images which, given good writing, were certainly superior to the 16-color (or possibly monochrome) low-resolution images available at the time. Just as importantly, you were in control. Most games, even in this day, limit your possible actions significantly due to the complexity of programming the results of doing anything you want. Because the only real impact of a command in classic adventure games is the setting of invisible flags and pointers and the output of text (which requires little space or code), your possibilities were amazingly large. If you’ve ever played some of the Infocom games renowned for their complexity like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Trinity, Suspended or Stationfall, you’ll know what I mean.
Eventually, however, the genre of text adventure games died, with a primary reason being the shift in gamer mentality to graphics being an item of significant importance. Although text adventures are still being made, their commercial viability and widespread appeal are a thing of the past. Thus, the storyline for Asylum–that rampant addictions to the virtual worlds created within adventure games caused psychoses that were treated by placing victims in artificial environments that they had to interact their way out of–never came to pass. But that doesn’t make it any less of an interesting game. In Asylum, you play one such patient, forced to move through a large maze while encountering other characters (purportedly cyborgs according to the intro) and interacting with them to solve puzzles and eventually escape.
Asylum is an unusual game, a hybrid of text adventure, graphical text adventure (such as those developed by Magnetic Scrolls) and 3D free movement like an RPG. You use the arrow buttons on the keyboard to navigate a rather nondescript maze, with individual graphic images appearing when something interesting happens–usually an encounter with another character within the maze. Some characters are helpful, some less so, and many are crazy.
The graphics in Asylum are serviceable. They won’t win any awards or captivate you like something out of The Pawn but they convey the atmosphere well enough. Wander around the maze long enough and meet enough slightly off-kilter inhabitants, and you’ll get the feeling you really are in some sort of rehabilitation center, or possibly just a government experiment.
Like many of its ilk, Asylum has more than its fair share of unusual puzzles, several of which can only be overcome with trial and error–that is, by making a mistake in order to see the result and then act in advance to circumvent that result on your next attempt. For example, violence toward other inmates will be met with electroshock therapy, but such violence is actually required to advance, so it’s only after you’re punished that you even consider sabotaging the electroshock equipment before your next attempt. This can be a bit on the frustrating side, but nowhere near as much so as other cases in the genre like the infamous Babel Fish puzzle in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And of course, you must navigate a maze to make your way around, which can be tricky in and of itself.
One thing Asylum has going for it is the convenience of playing without a time limit and with few (if any) chances of getting stuck without the ability to succeed. Your character needs neither to sleep nor eat, and short of just giving away crucial items for no reason, it’s difficult to back yourself into a corner. Character death is the one thing that will force you to restart your game or load an earlier save and, you usually have to do something overtly dangerous for it to happen. Usually.
In the end, Asylum is hardly the poster child for excellence in interactive fiction, and yet at the same time it holds a distinctive charm all its own. Would I recommend it for first time text adventurers? Absolutely not–that honor would fall to some of my other favorites such as (in increasing order of difficulty) Wishbringer, Zork I, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Trinity or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But if you feel like you’ve experienced all that text adventures–graphical or otherwise–have to offer, you’ll probably find yourself surprised.