Open Mailbox: An Introduction to the World of Text Adventures and Interactive Fiction

From Colossal Cave Adventure to Zork and beyond...


WELCOME TO ADVENTURE!!  WOULD YOU LIKE INSTRUCTIONS? Y

SOMEWHERE NEARBY IS A COLOSSAL CAVE, WHERE OTHERS
HAVE FOUND FORTUNES IN TREASURE AND GOLD, THOUGH IT
IS RUMOURED THAT SOME WHO ENTER ARE NEVER SEEN AGAIN.

So begins 1977’s Colossal Cave Adventure, the world’s first text adventure game. The player moves from place to place using simple directional (NSEW) commands, can collect items found in these locations, use these items to solve problems, and if they fail at this, get killed by various traps. Written by William Crowther and Don Woods for the PDP-10 mainframe computer, Colossal Cave Adventure would define the text adventure genre, one that would become especially popular in the early days of home computing, when computers had very limited graphical capabilities, and a few sentences were often better than a dozen blocky, monochrome images.

In 1978, Scott Adams wrote a version of Colossal Cave Adventure, titled “Adventureland” in BASIC on a TRS-80 Model I microcomputer. The first text adventure for a personal computer, Adventureland had players search for a number of “lost artifacts”.

While it had no plot, the game was still popular, and released on a number of contemporary home computers including the Apple II, Commodore Pet and the Atari 800. Adams second adventure, “Pirate Adventure”, added a simple storyline inspired by the novel “Treasure Island”, where the player, aided by an NPC (non-player character) pirate, must build a ship to reach the island, and then find two pieces of treasure.

Developed in part using ideas from Scott’s wife Alexis, the paradigms established in Pirate Adventure would largely define the rest of Scott Adams’ games, and was a huge influence on what would become known later as the “interactive fiction” genre.

WEST OF HOUSE.
YOU ARE STANDING IN AN OPEN FIELD WEST OF A WHITE HOUSE, WITH A BOARDED FRONT DOOR.
THERE IS A SMALL MAILBOX HERE.

Meanwhile, four programmers at MIT were developing a Colossal Cave Adventure-inspired game of their own. Set in an ancient underground empire, Zork (a generic name used by MIT programmers for an unfinished program) was written in MDL, a LISP-like language with powerful string manipulation commands, which allowed for sophisticated interaction between the user and the game. Inspired perhaps by Scott Adams commercial success with Adventureland, three of the four Zork programmers decided to “port” their game to personal computers, forming a company they called Infocom. With no MDL interpreter available on microcomputers, but wishing to use the same powerful functions MDL had provided, Infocom developed the Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), which ran on their own custom interpreter called the Z-machine. This had the added benefit of meaning they only had to “port” the Z-machine to different platforms and not Zork itself nor future games.

It soon became apparent that the vast world of Zork was not going to fit in a personal computer game, and so a cut-down version of it was released in late 1980 on the TRS-80, and in 1981 on the Apple II. The remainder of the original game was released in two sequels, Zork II and III in 1981 and 1982. Over the next two decades, Zork would have a dozen sequels.

Infocom would use the Z-machine to develop a series of “interactive novels” with sophisticated characters and storylines, such as an adaptation of the Douglas Adams novel “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, B-movie inspired “Leather Goddesses of Phobos”, and “Deadline”, a 1982 murder mystery that was the first game to break free of  the traditional “text adventure” tropes and establish interactive fiction as a distinct genre.

Infocom wouldn’t remain alone in this arena for long. At the 1984 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, Spinnaker Software-subidiary Trillium introduced a number of games based on popular novels, including “Rendevous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein’s “Starman Jones” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, but Michael Crichton’s “Amazon”, based on his novel “Congo” but with a change of setting due to rights issue, was the most popular Trillium game, with as many as 100,000 copies sold. Amazon also included some rudimentary graphics, but most reviewers were more impressed with the story, which reflected Crichton’s close involvement with the project.

Action game developer Synapse Software also got in on the action, developing their own interpreter called BTZ (or “Better Than Zork”) and releasing four games in 1984, including Mindwheel, which came with a printed 93-page novella that set up the storyline in the game. Set in a dystopian far-future, the player must navigate inside the minds of a number of deceased people from our time period to establish how our society functioned despite a human proclivity toward emotion and violence. Synapse billed it as the “most complex, longest and heaviest adventure in the world.”

Unfortunately, despite being praised by reviewers, Synapse’s “electronic novels” were not enough to save the company, which was bought by Broderbund in late 1984. Interactive fiction would march on, however, with Graham Nelson’s 1993 “Inform” programming language becoming (and still is) popular for developing interactive fiction. Inform-written games can be compiled to Z-code and run on any Z-machine interpreter.

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