We Don’t Need No Steenking Graphics

Back in 1999, I wrote an article about the very first work of interactive fiction, Adventure, which you can still experience on modern PCs. The piece was written for a proto-webmag that vanished years ago; I resurrect the article today in honor of the 9th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, which Slashdot took note of this morning.

Out of Time: Old-School Gaming Done Right
More than 20 years later, Adventure still packs a punch.

You love technology. Your PC is your friend. You pay your bills online, you communicate via email, you let Quicken figure out where your money went last month, and you order lovely material somethings from virtual boutiques. And yet, the question lingers: is this all a computer is good for — streamlining everyday tasks and chores?

Of course not. The nineties have made one thing quite clear: computers make for good entertainment. The variety of games at your local CompUSA is staggering: you’ve got your shooters (Quake and its ilk), your action adventures (like Tomb Raider), your real-time strategy extravaganzas (pioneered by Dune II), sports sims, flight sims, and even programs that mimic your favorite TV game show.

And yet, there’s something missing. Conspicuously absent on the shelves is the adventure genre—games in which you travel through an imagined world, exploring and solving puzzles as you progress toward an ultimate goal—perhaps killing a dreaded demon or collecting a sacred relic. The top-selling game of all time is an adventure game; I’m talking, of course, about Myst. Despite Myst’s success (as well as that of its sequel, Riven), adventure games are relatively scarce. While we’re waiting for the gaming industry to wake up and rediscover this genre, what’s an adventure lover to do? The answer is simple: go back in time a couple of decades, and discover Adventure.

You see, Myst has its roots in a game that was created twenty years earlier. A game that ran on large mainframes and minicomputers running long-dead operating systems, like VAX and TOPS-10. A game that, according to the nature of those minicomputers and the “dumb terminals” one used to interface with them, could only display text. Graphics were simply not an option. This game didn’t even have a particularly inventive name, and introduced itself very simply when you started it up:

Quaint, isn’t it? There’s not a single bell or whistle here. That’s how it is with Adventure. No graphics. No sounds. And yet, this game has a way of pulling you in. A few sentences glow brightly on your screen, and your cursor sits there, blinking away, beckoning you to make a move…

The Advent of Colossal Cave

Adventure began as a pet project of William Crowther, a programmer and sometimes cave explorer, back in 1972. Crowther and his wife Patricia (also a programmer) spent time exploring Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave—a series of interconnected underground chambers that still are not entirely explored, and stretch for a minimum of 350 miles.

In 1972, Crowther and his wife separated. Missing his kids and thinking back to his explorations in Mammoth Cave, Crowther began work on a computer game. He envisioned an underground exploration game for children that borrowed from his caving experiences as well as another hobby of his — the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. Coding in Fortran, Crowther constructed a virtual replica of a small part of Mammoth Cave, providing a way for players to navigate through virtual subterranean “rooms” containing treasures sprinkled here and there. The program was dubbed ADVENT—short for Adventure. (The operating system of ADVENT’s host machine truncated filenames at six uppercase characters.)

Fast forward a few years. Don Woods, a student at Stanford University, got hold of a copy of ADVENT and decided to expand it to include puzzle-solving, exploration, and hand-to-hand combat. More importantly, Woods’ additions were beautifully constructed: his descriptions of chambers, passages, and other surprising underground features were filled with detail, and more than made up for the lack of graphical embellishments. Take, for instance, this scene, which a player encounters somewhat early in the game:

The first time I encountered this section, it was late at night — the lights in the house were out, and all was silent except for the faint whir of the PC’s fan. As I got to the end of the paragraph, a chill went down my spine as the computer added:

The cursor just sat there, blinking away. “What are you going to do now, sucker?”

This is how your adventure unfolds in Adventure — you wander through the caves (“Colossal Cave,” according to the instructions), scribbling crude maps on paper to guide you on the journey. You pick up objects and use them, learn magic words, collect treasures, and place them in a building you discover at the start of the game — a “well house for a large spring.” Along the way, you’ll meet a cave bear, a troll, dwarves, a dragon (yes, you’ll slay him — if you dare), a pirate, a couple of mazes, a beanstalk, a peculiar vending machine, and even an underground volcano. (The volcano “scene” will take your breath away, guaranteed.) You’ll also find quite a bit of humor. When you discover the identity of the shadowy figure (who continues to try to attract your attention), you might find yourself laughing out loud.

Adventure begat an entire slew of text-only adventures, which later became known as interactive fiction. Some were in the public domain; some went commercial. One early game company, Infocom, dealt solely in interactive fiction, producing the Zork series (an Adventure play-alike that was split into three separate games so that each could fit on a floppy disk for use on microcomputers like the Apple IIe) and others, including an interactive version of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Over the years, interactive fiction’s popularity waned. The genre tried to reinvent itself by adding graphics to supplement the onscreen descriptions of characters and places, but purists hold that this evolution took something away from the earlier, “simpler” creations. Today, interactive fiction commands a cult following on the Internet, with several tools for creating and playing complex games, two newsgroups (rec.arts.int-fiction for authors, rec.games.int-fiction for players), and annual authoring competitions and awards.

If you’re weary of the lightning-fast pace of today’s games, or bemoaning the current lack of good adventure games on the market, you’re likely ready for a change of pace. The machine you’re using to read this article is all you need to play Adventure — and it won’t cost you a thing.

Doing the Time Warp…

There are several implementations of Adventure available at the Interactive Fiction Archive. Versions of the game are usually identified by the number of points a player must earn to achieve a perfect score — the more points, the more has been tacked on to the original Crowther/Woods edition. That version, which ate up so much precious processor time on workstations of the late 1970s, was a 350-point game. There are 501, 550, 660, and 1000 point versions available, but these expanded editions don’t tend to do the original game justice: their hint systems are not as helpful, their new descriptions not as stirring, their added puzzles not as logical. Some expansions are downright silly. It’s best to stick to the real thing — especially if this is your first time Adventuring.

Alas, locating the original version of Adventure is not simple. Many ports of the game suffer from minor tweaks: one doesn’t start the adventurer in the correct location, another fails to provide hints, and so on. A version of the game in “zcode” format (the data structure used by Infocom and by many interactive fiction authors today) is a very close replica of the original, but changes the nature of at least one of the game’s puzzling locations (appropriately named Witt’s End). Believe it or not, the original Fortran source code for 350-point Adventure is also at the Interactive Fiction Archive, but I’m guessing you don’t have a Fortran compiler lying around.

Luckily, there is an excellent alternative to these hacked versions: Don Woods continued tinkering with Adventure over the years, and released his final revision in 1995, calling it Adventure 2.5. This modest expansion of the original (with 430 possible points) contains a few added treasures and hints, but, most importantly, remains true to the original feel of Adventure. The game begins with the proper “Welcome” text, offers instructions, and places the player outside the building. Hints are provided here and there at a cost of a few points. You can save your game, but to encourage you to do that only when you have to return to the real world, you lose points each time you do: hence, saving to cover your ass in “dangerous” virtual situations, so typical in modern gaming, has a real downside.

Pre-compiled versions of Adventure 2.5 are freely available for PC and Macintosh platforms. (Linux users will need to download the portable C code, place it in a directory of its own, type ‘make’ to compile it, and then enter the caves.) So, grab some scratch paper and a pencil (you’ll be drawing some maps — I mentioned that, right?), and, lit only by the dim light of the few dozen characters on your screen, enter the magical world of Colossal Cave. When you’re asked if you’d like instructions, say yes, read carefully, and then begin.

Oh, I left a wicker cage for you just past the iron grate—you’ll probably find it useful.

Do You Want to Know More?

  • The Colossal Cave Adventure Page includes a much more detailed history of Adventure, maps for the 350 and 550-point versions, hints for the 350-point version, and more. This is the Web’s main source of information on all incarnations of Adventure.

  • Don Woods has a home page on the Web.

  • A usenet posting archived at Google is instructive on the correct pronunciation of Adventure’s main magic words. (The author is none other than Don Woods himself.)

  • The Interactive Fiction Archive has a page devoted to sorting out the dozens of versions of Adventure. Source code is available for most versions, and many different platforms are supported.

  • The Unofficial Infocom Home Page is an excellent source of information about the interactive fiction generated by that now-defunct company. (Infocom was swallowed up by Activision years ago.) This site also includes free PC-platform versions of the original Zork series. If you’re interested in playing more original Infocom adventures on your modern machine, check out Play Infocome Games Cheap.

  • Is the adventure genre, spawned by Adventure, dead? According to one opinion at Salon.com, the answer is yes, while another gamer counters that adventures may be down, but they’re not out.