Adventure in the Colossal Cave

Joe Pranevich – Originally published in the online supplement to Linux Journal Magazine, Issue #65. (Sep 1999)

Adventure is an old game and one that has been known by many names: ”Adventure”, “Colossal Cave”, and the simplistic abbreviation “Advent”. As games go, it is indeed a classic, having sparked an entirely new tangent of game development in the early days of the gaming industry. Its effects can still be felt today.

I sat down this morning to write a review of a game. At some point, I figured I’d tell about its strengths and weaknesses. In the end, I’d probably assign it a value in stars or thumbs or joysticks or some other arbitrary measurement of quality. However, assigning a letter of quality to this game is nearly as anachronistic as seeing The Illiad on Oprah’s booklist; it is simply inappropriate and demeans the true quality of the work. So instead, I’m going to tell you what this game has meant to me, a little about where it came from, and how it shaped the Quake III world in which we live today. We’ve come a long way from the early days of text adventures–or have we?

My Story

It was 1989 and I was 10. The end of the eighties was upon us, and we all looked with trepidation to the coming decade and the closing years of our millennium. The Bangles played “Walk Like an Egyptian” to hordes of onlookers not interested in the nostalgia of the moment. The economy was in a deep recession, and with the Cold War and movies like War Games, people were naturally wary of what the coming years would bring. The Berlin Wall fell that year, and we all wondered what more the future would bring. Well, I didn’t wonder. I was 10, what do you expect?

Instead, I was concentrating on my own life. Already the budding geek (before the term became a compliment), I went out and hunted my butterflies (tilted my windmills) and enjoyed life. I had a Commodore 64 at the time, and thought it was the coolest thing in the world, but it never affected me. It was fun, certainly. I knew how to program simple things in Basic. I could make balloons float around on the screen. I knew that if I typed “SYS 64738”, the whole thing would reboot. But it never grew beyond a tinker toy to me–it never awakened my inner geek.

That changed, of course. My father bought me a game package he had pulled from the bargain bin. It was a set of two 5.25-inch floppies from Broderbund (the covered wagon people) entitled “Golden Oldies Volume 1.” Loading it up, I was surprised to find a collection of four “classics” of the day: Adventure, Eliza, Life and Pong. My mother decided she liked Eliza the best and would continually attempt to convince the poor thing that she was a beach ball or something similar. I found my passion in Adventure, a little game that transported me into a world filled with scary little dwarves and myriad treasures, all for the taking, if the young spelunker was up to the challenge. Needless to say, I never beat the game. I rarely drew maps, and when I did, I routinely forgot which direction was east. I had managed to memorize a large portion of the game, but in retrospect I don’t think I ever truly got it. Maybe it was because I was too busy experiencing the world to really want to win. (Or more likely, because I was young and stupid, but leave me to rose-tint my world however I want, please.) Eventually, my old copy of Adventure developed bad sectors and I put it to rest.

Several times later in life, I would rediscover these games I loved. I did eventually get to play Zork (a version of Adventure) for the Apple II, and found it richly gratifying, but too similar to the game I left behind. Other games I loved: King’s Quest, Quest for Glory and the early Sierra masterpieces. Somehow, even with their fancy four-color pictures and their beeps, they never transported me to a world in the same way my first Adventure did. I rediscovered Adventure when I finally turned to the “dark side” and was given a 386 and a modem to play with. It was just as I remembered it, except free from a local BBS. I played and played and mapped it a little, but I still never beat it. Life had a tendency to intrude and I put it away again, a cherished childhood game to relive later.

I was happy to rediscover my game in the BSD Gamespack (/usr/games/) that ships with many Linux distributions, including Red Hat. It was like meeting a childhood friend again on the street. Now I’d like to introduce it to you.

History of Adventure

The game of Adventure has a long history, dating back to the earliest days of modern computing. In the beginning (1972), there was Will Crowther. He was a programmer, caver and role-player (Dungeons and Dragons, in particular). Faced with boredom (the motivational force behind many a good program), a desire to create something for his daughter and his assorted talents, he set out to create a game based on his explorations of the Mammoth and Flint Ridge cave systems in Kentucky. This game included many of the features of the later versions and included descriptions and room names taken directly from the caves in the real world.

A couple of years later, Don Woods discovered the game and added a number of fantasy elements to the plot including pesky dwarves, a dragon and whatnot. His primary inspiration was fantasy literature (such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and Adventure was never to be the same again.

Many other coders added bits and pieces after that point. This may be one of the earliest examples of open-source gaming. The game Adventure could be one of a dozen or more variants, each with minor scoring differences and occasional major additions. By and large, all Adventures are created equal.

An Evolutionary “Dead End”?

Most people, while writing game reviews, don’t have the luxury of jumping ahead 30 years and seeing how a particular piece of software affected the computing landscape. I do have this luxury.

The games of today, at first glance, are not even remotely similar to the games of yesteryear. Space Invaders yielded to Quake and Rogue to Diablo. Are these games fundamentally different from their legacy counterparts? Take a close look and you will find relatively little difference, except for the quality of the graphics engine. Early in the process, game manufacturers discovered that graphics sell. In the early days, black and white games yielded to those with color and then yielded to those with sound. 3-D polygonal rendering is the big kick these days (take a look at Nintendo 64). Are these true enhancements, or just eye candy? I tend to take the stance of the latter. Move, shoot and move, shoot and repeat until your thumbs get sore. What game am I talking about?

It would be foolish of me to point to two of the oldest breakthroughs in game design and say that the gaming industry has stagnated–that is not what I’m trying to say. Now-classics such as Civilization, SimCity, PacMan, Tetris, The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers sparked their legions of clones but were all individual and profound. But which of these series haven’t suffered in some way from graphics mania? (I’d like to make an exception to this point. Mario 64 was actually, in my opinion, a breakthrough in gaming and not just a knock-off of a superior product.)

What games trace the lineage back to Adventure? What games descended from its pinnacle in the non-combat adventure genre?

Following Adventure first and foremost was Zork. There were probably others before Zork, but Zork made a noticeable impact on our consciousness. The original Zork didn’t stray far from the original concept; it had a newer and fancier parser than the old caving adventure, resulting in more fluid game play. Later installments by the Infocom crowd took gaming to new heights. Their games had magic, mystery and fun. They pioneered the interactive story and took it much farther than even Adventure. This is not to say that each of their games were classic; many were derivative, but many more were unique.

Eventually, however, Infocom’s luster began to wear off. Games increasingly turned to graphical albeit inferior forms of gaming. Sierra On-line took a prominent role with King’s Quest and other games. Their storytelling was fantastic, but something was just not right about using the arrow keys to walk up to a tree and typing “look into tree” when you got there. Gradually, they refined that interface further with icons and mouse movement, but the “universal range of motion” feel that you got with the old text adventures was gone. Now your actions were defined by what you could click on, not by what you could imagine. Particularly frustrating for me were the layers of eye candy they added to their games. It looked nice, but was often distracting, especially when you wanted to manipulate and just couldn’t figure out how.

Eventually, “point and click” adventure gaming became even more “clicky” with the advent of games without funny icons. In these games, you just click on the screen and the computer figures out what action you want from context. To make matters worse, it wasn’t long before gamers discovered a profound secret: when one is stuck, one needs only to click madly around the screen until stumbling on the magic hot-spot that jumps to the next level. Certainly, this is a far cry from the seemingly infinite worlds offered by the early text-adventure games, but is it progress?

Infocom (now owned by Activision) and others would try to break away from this mold with later games, such as Return to Zork, which offered a much more detailed mouse interface. Sadly, however, this is where I became disinterested with the genre of non-combat “adventure” gaming, and I have yet to see whether their more recent titles have matched that level in playability. (I’d love to see a review of Zork: Grand Inquisitor–too bad they don’t make it for Linux.)

What made these games so wonderful? It wasn’t the graphics, obviously. What made these games special was something more subtle. In addition to generally good writing, the textual format allowed game designers to plug the computer’s output directly into the gamer’s imagination. Who among us doesn’t have splendid memories of “Flood Control Dam III” (Zork), the little white house with the boarded front door (Zork), or the “Hall of the Mountain King” (Adventure)? Graphical games just don’t plug into the subconscious in the same way. For me, that made all the difference.

The Game

In the game of Adventure, you are an unnamed hero-explorer with a good head on your shoulders and a sturdy back. Your mission is to locate and explore Colossal Cave and bring back the hoards of treasure rumored to be inside. But watch out; magic is afoot in the cave and all may not be as it seems. Scoring is based on how many treasures you find, how much of the cave (if any) you explore, and how many of those treasures you get out of the cave.

The game play is fairly simple. You instruct the game in two-word English phrases (“get lamp”) to do things, and your character does them. The vocabulary of the game is not quite as large as its Infocom descendants, but that is understandable. When you get stuck, you can ask for help (although it may not be forthcoming) and when you die, you can get put back together again. It is all very simple.

On first starting the game, it will probably seem confusing. You’ve just been plopped down in the middle of a large world with little idea of where to go. A building is nearby–that’s obvious. Consider it your base of operations, as you’ll need to deliver your hoards of treasure there in order to score the most points. Farther afield is the hidden entrance to the cave, a confusing forest (the game’s first mini-maze), and many other sights once you get underground. That is, if you remembered to bring your lamp. Otherwise, it’ll be a short trip.

If you’re playing this game for the first time, I recommend just exploring for a while and seeing the sights. Once you are comfortable with the interface, you’ll probably want to get pen and paper and start drawing maps like a true spelunker. Without some sort of map, you will most likely become lost in the maze-like passageways, halls and crawls of Colossal Cave. If you do get stuck, don’t ask me for help. I’m at Witt’s End.

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