All Your History: Adventure Games Part 1
Like any art form, the video game medium has its movements. A genre can come from nowhere, rise to dominance, and fall away again just as fast. World War II shooters have come and gone; so have car combat titles. But one of the most profound, influential, and groundbreaking of all was the adventure genre, a blend of exploration, puzzle solving, and storytelling that changed forever the way audiences viewed games. They could be childish; they could be adult. They could be grim; they could be fairy tale. They could be nothing but text; they could revolutionize computing technology. They sold millions of copies and made millions more dollars. And they vanished almost overnight. But at the start, it was little more than a thought exercise from a man who crawled in the dark for fun.
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It began because a computer nerd didn’t always like staring at a computer. Will Crowther [crao-thur] was a caving enthusiast in addition to being a programmer. It was Nineteen Seventy-Six, so like any good geek of the time, he was also into the brand-new tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. One day, he suddenly got it in his head to combine all three of his interests into one experience: a computer program that would take the user on an adventure through a cave. The idea was simple.
And so was the result. Colossal Cave Adventure was a quick exercise by Crowther, done entirely with text. As a true caver, he modeled his virtual world on a real underground system, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Though users could only see it in their minds’ eye, every turn, twist, and dead-end was largely true to the real-life cave. Crowther did expand on it slightly, however, adding in fantasy elements like a dwarf and treasure. Also, players would not be able to progress without searching for the correct items — famously, the cave could not be navigated unless the player found a lamp.
And that was it. Never meant for commercial distribution — indeed, never meant for any kind of distribution — Crowther made it at his office, showed it to some coworkers, and moved on to other things. As a matter of fact, for other reasons, Crowther ended up quitting his job soon after. But he left the program on his old company’s computer, and even though he was finished with it, the adventure was far from over. Crowther’s former coworkers started spreading the game around. It eventually wound up on many machines in the San Francisco area, including one at the Stanford University Medical Center.
Then as now, Stanford had no shortage of computer nerds, and it wasn’t long before one of them found Crowther’s baby. Don Woods tried the game, and enjoyed it like many others. But unlike many others, he decided to add onto it. Colossal Cave Adventure, or just Adventure as it came to be known, was a fun idea but without much to really do. It was Woods who turned the idea into a game, adding in more monsters, puzzles, and challenges.
It was Woods’ improved version of Adventure that became an overnight sensation across the country and around the world. Major institutions connected to ARPAnet, the precursor to the modern Internet, quickly sent the file around to each other. One of these was the Massachusetts Institue of Technology, and their students loved the game as much as everybody else. But once again, they thought they could improve on it.
Unlike Woods, however, these four MIT students did not intend to add to Adventure and then rerelease it for free. Rather, they’d be making their own, separate game and selling it as a commercial product. For that, they’d need a company, and so they founded: Infocom.
The guys believed that they could take the idea of Adventure several steps further. For one thing, the actual literary quality of the writing wasn’t exactly top notch. It was written by computer programmers, after all. Infocom wanted to make their game a pleasure to read as well as to play. Additionally, Adventure could only understand two-word combinations: a verb and a noun. Anything else was just too complicated. Infocom went the extra mile and developed a text parser. This way, a player could input a complex sentence, like “I look around for a shovel,” and the game could determine what they meant. And of course, they very much embraced the puzzles and monsters that made it a fun fantasy game.
The guys were so good at what they were doing, that they got a little carried away. In this early era of computing, Infocom managed to make an all-text game so large that the file literally could not fit onto most computers. They were forced to split the game into three separate parts. But it certainly didn’t hurt them any: Zork became an immediate sensation. What’s a ‘zork’ you ask? It was MIT hacker slang for an unfinished program, and the guys had made it their working title during development. When they tried to change the name to Dungeon, the owners of Dungeons & Dragons filed a trademark violation. Not wishing to get into a fight, Infocom just changed the name back to Zork. Though nobody else got the joke, it didn’t matter, as it would go on to sell over one million copies. And of course, if players wanted more, the other two parts of the whole experience were already available for purchase.
But while Infocom wanted to take the Adventure concept in a more literary direction, somebody else wanted to take it in a visual direction. Ken Williams was the founder and sole employee of On-Line Systems; basically, he freelanced for local companies, making things like financial software. But one day, his wife stumbled onto something. Roberta Williams was also a computer enthusiast, and was looking around one of Ken’s client’s mainframe to see if there was any interesting code. Sure enough, there was Adventure.
Roberta was instantly hooked, and famously sat down at her kitchen table to map out her own game. In about a month, she had it all laid out. There was only one problem: Roberta wasn’t much of a programmer. Ken was. So she took him out to dinner one night, and argued that he should drop his work on corporate software and make a game with her. He was initially skeptical, but as she kept talking, he came around to her way of thinking. By the end of the meal, it was official: husband and wife were making a video game.
And they’d do it with one critical diffference from Adventure: players would be able to see it. Ken knew that he could add in simple vector graphics to represent the mansion of his wife’s design. Virtually no computer games of the era had images of any kind, so simple as they were, these graphics were groundbreaking. In May of Nineteen Eighty, Mystery House was hand-packed into Ziploc bags and sent to local retail stores. Critically, the game billed itself as an ‘adventure game,’ partly because it was supposed to take players on an adventure, and partly because it was a knock-off of the game Adventure. Still, this was not an epic quest; rather, it was an ordinary person trying to survive a murderer on the loose.
But that setup was more than good enough. Right away, Ken saw that his wife had been right all along. The interactive visual murder mystery captured audience’s imaginations, and would go on to sell eighty thousand copies — not bad for a married couple working out of their kitchen.
On-Line Systems officially switched directions and doubled down and computer games. The Williamses released a number of games over the next few years, always referring to them as ‘adventure games.’ The name stuck, and the budding genre was coined. Ken continued to improve the capabilities of his code, adding in colors to Nineteen Eighty’s Wizard and the Princess. On-Line Systems became so famous for their adventure games, that no less than IBM heard about them. The biggest computer company in the world asked Ken and Roberta to help them sell their newest machine.
The result would be one of the seminal classics of video game history.
Tune in next time to see adventure go on a quest