Adventures In Interactivity

Interactive text adventures were a big part of the early days of gaming—and still lots of fun today. Who needs fancy graphics when you have your imagination?

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from David Buck, who last wrote a great piece on novelty songwriting contests. This time, he’s taking you on an adventure!

Today in Tedium: I’m attempting to learn COBOL. Online resources for such a task are in-depth and excellent, but I have the added advantage of my father’s personal library of books about the programming language. While I’m looking forward to learning to code in something other than HTML and BASIC. I couldn’t help feel a bit nostalgic about another book I found while going through the shelf. That book was Creating Adventure Games on Your Computer by Tim Hartnell. The book taught me how to make rudimentary text adventure games on my Apple ][ as a kid and prompted a recent adventure of revisiting the classic text adventures of the past. So grab a torch and get your map making tools ready because today’s Tedium is an exploration of text adventures through the years. Try not to get eaten by a grue along the way. — David @ Tedium

1964

The year in which the PDP-10 mainframe computer, the device on which the first interactive text adventure game was programmed, first began its life. The PDP-10 gained a foothold in several industries and university research/computer labs during the early 1970s. The mainframe is an important part of computing history, as it holds the distinction for being the basis of ARPANET, was one of the first mainframes that allowed timesharing and was used by a mn name William Crowther to make gaming history with. It would eventually have four different versions and still maintains quite a following. There are even a series of PDP emulators available for those interested in further exploring this fascinating machine.

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(via Columbia University Computing History)

Colossal Adventures in FORTRAN

The first interactive text adventure game was originally called ADVENT, because the Tops-10 operating system only allowed six letters in uppercase for filenames. Written in early programming language FORTRAN, the game was programmed by William Crowther as a way to reconnect with his kids following a divorce. In addition to being an influential player in laying the groundwork for ARPANET, Crowther was a spelunker, cave surveyor and played Dungeons & Dragons in his spare time. Drawing on his knowledge of the Kentucky caves he explored, Crowther built the world’s first interactive text adventure between 1975 and 1976. Later, a Stanford student named Don Woods discovered the game and emailed Crowther for permission to “add enhancements” to the game, whereupon he nearly doubled the number of rooms and puzzles in the game. Woods played a major role in ensuring Colossal Cave Adventure would take on new life in the internet.

The game is an important part of gaming history—one that’s not only seen versions programmed in C and ported to MS-DOS 1.0 during is lifetime, but that has also captured the imaginations of skilled programmers in recent times, culminating with Eric S. Raymond bringing the world an open-source version of Adventure 2.5—approved by the game’s authors—called Open Adventure.

Colossal Cave Adventure can be readily played today, whether it’s a poorly reviewed port for Windows, on your smartphone, via SMS text messages and at AMC’s website for their series Halt & Catch Fire. To learn more about Colossal Cave Adventure, check out Volume One, Issue Two of Digital Humanities Quarterly, where author Dennis Jerz goes spelunking into the deepest history and legacy of the game.

1978

The year the game Adventureland found its way into the home microcomputer market. Programmed in TRS-80 BASIC by developer Scott Adams (NOT the Dilbert guy), the game centered around tracking down 13 treasures and using them to further the adventure. The success of the game led Adams to create his own company—Adventure International—and numerous other games. The game uses simple one or two word commands to make progress in the game. Like many other interactive text adventures, Adventureland can be played in your browser here.

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Scott Adams’ games eventually gained graphics. (via MOCAGH)

An empire of adventures at home

After Colossal Cave Adventure surged in popularity, other interactive fiction adventures—not to mention some phenomenal programmers—began to program similar games for home use on microcomputers. Programmer Scott Adams was influential in the creation of many games for home computers from 1978 to 1984. Adams was responsible for a variety of games during this time including Mystery Fun House, Pyramid of Doom, Ghost Town, and a text adventure based on my favorite film of all time, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.

His games were ported across various platforms and he developed a language for graphic adventures called SAGA Plus (Scott Adams Graphic Adventures). In an interview with Crash Magazine from 1985, he describes it as “… a full sentence and graphics interpreter designed to run on machines as small as 48K or as large as 400 megabytes. SAGA is an open ended language which is designed to take advantage of new machines as they come out—we are ready for the next two or three generations of machines.”

In the same interview, he discusses his work on Hulk and Spiderman adventures for his Questprobe series, a highly ambitious project focusing on Marvel characters being used as the focal point of a text adventure with a comic book release to match. The series never panned out due to the bankruptcy of Adventure International, but the three games that do exist are worth playing today—especially if you love interactive fiction and Marvel characters. Adams continued to work as a programmer and remained heavily involved with creating adventure games, including a title called The Inheritance recently.

In March of 2019, a new development in the Scott Adams story occurred. Adams’ website posted an update stating it would no longer be maintained and advised checking out Clopas for more updates on Adams’ work. Doing so points the existence of a new version of Adventureland—dubbed Adventureland XL—is in development for Amazon’s Echo smart speaker, 41 years after the original was released.

“It was a pretty slow week, so I thought to myself—’maybe we should spice it up a bit.’ And that’s how I got to releasing all of the Infocom source code.”

Jason Scott, documentary maker and preserver of the digital world. As the opening lines to “The Infocom Source Code Episode” of his Jason Scott Talks his Way Out of It podcast, these words set the precedent for perhaps one of the most interesting source code uploads in recent memory. Like all of the other episodes of the podcast, this one is required listening for archivists and fans of Scott’s work. Scott regularly archives Infocom related items and his Infocom: the Documentary provides a deep look into the history of the company, through the lens of the programmers and employees themselves.

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The box for Zork I. Infocom’s games, due to their programming style, could easily be ported to different home computers. (MobyGames)

From mainframes to the home: the Infocom legacy

In April, 2019, the source code for every Infocom title was published to GitHub. Infocom was a major player in the interactive fiction world and remained that way for a long time. From its beginnings in the late 1970s, Infocom carried the torch of Colossal Cave Adventure into new and interesting places. Per the official history of Infocom, the story goes something like this: two MIT Laboratory for Computer Sciences students—Dave Lebling and Marc Blank—played and solved CCA, then challenged themselves to make a better version of the game.

Lebling—a big D&D guy—created a program for managing his RPG gaming sessions and began working on a parser using MIT’s own developed language MDL. Joined by two other students—Tim Anderson and Bruce Daniels—the team created the prototype for what would later become Zork.

Just like Crowther’s game before them, the mainframe version of Zork was widely distributed over ARPANET.

Later, Infocom would find a clever way to bring their masterpiece to the world at large by creating its own programming language.

ZIL

The specially developed programming language used to being Zork and other Infocom games to microcomputers. Short for “Zork Implementation Language,” ZIL was used to develop Infocom’s adventure games for the home market.

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An example of some of the ZIL programming language instructions that can be found on the Internet Archive.

Zork’s virtual machine backbone

Because MDL and the original version of Zork was built in the mainframe’s language, it was incompatible with home computers. So, the team built their own code. Per Interactive fiction guru Andrew Plotkin at Zarf Updates:

Infocom would write a game in ZIL, or “Zork Implementation Language”—a high-level language derived from MDL. A compiler called ZILCH would then compile the game into a binary format. The binary format, Z-code, was a program for an imaginary computer called the Z-machine. Nobody intended to build a Z-machine. But they could write a program that emulated the Z-machine. This program, called ZIP, was compact enough to run on a 16-bit home computer. So Infocom could distribute ZIP and the Z-code file on a floppy disk (or cassette tape!) and thus sell a playable game.

ZIL is certainly unique and well worth diving into with Steve Meretsky’s handy guide. Jimmy Mayhew at The Digital Antiquarian can also provide extensive insight into ZIL, while Windows users can install an extension that adds support for ZIL and MDL in the operating system.

Eventually, the interactive fiction format extended beyond commercially available games as microcomputer hobbyists began to explore programming their own interactive fiction games at home.

“Give me my Bow…”

Australian journalist Tim Hartnell, from Creating Adventure Games on your Computer. Hartnell, a self-taught BASIC programmer, penned a series of books intended to help amateurs, enthusiasts, and kids learn how to code. The book focuses on teaching beginning coders how write adventure games in BASIC with titles like “Werewolves and Wanderer,” “The Ancient Chateau,” and “The Citadel of Pershu.” I loved them as a kid, but I wonder how it would go if I decided to code and compile one of these today?

A few text adventure games we love (and still play) today

Zork I, II, & III. Of course Zork is on this list. Three times. Like everyone else, I owned and played the game as a kid. The world of the great underground empire is forever etched in my memory and who doesn’t love the crazy creatures, awesome treasures, and mind melting puzzles the series has to offer?

I’ve been on a bit of Zork adventure myself recently. Earlier this year, I picked up a brand new, sealed CD-ROM collection containing Zork I, II, III, Beyond Zork and Zork Zero which included a special bonus copy of the original Planetfall text adventure. Yes, I know I could have just played it online or downloaded it, but where’s the challenge in that? The satisfaction of playing Zork from a CD-ROM on a Windows 10 PC is great, considering the amazing journey Zork itself took going from mainframe to mainstream.

Anyhow, Zork was not simply a great game—it sometimes feels like the defining game of the genre. People still love Zork and it is the subject of several different retrospectives, rich histories, multiple releases (including the Amazon Kindle)

And if you find yourself lost along the way, perhaps these maps or the fine adventurers at the Zork Library can lend you a hand.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams’ book series and original radio play are still some of my favorite bits of pop culture from the past 50 years. This Infocom title is testament and tribute to the amazing adventures of Arthur Dent, Ford Perfect, and a small book packed with big facts about the galaxy itself. Too bad that sequel never came out, but the bonus is the game was written by Adams himself. Don’t forget to bring a towel!

Planetfall. Steve Meretzky’s Planetfall is unabashed, hilarious fun. There’s mystery, death, and disease here along with some cool science fiction wrapped up in a neat little package. This one is a must-play for any fan of interactive fiction.

Legend of the Red Dragon. Ernie told me that mentioning this title was a requirement for the completion of this piece. Legend of the Red Dragon is an interesting title from Robinson Technologies. I honestly don’t know much about it, other than it was a “door” game played via BBS systems until MUDs supplanted door games as the preferred multiplayer online experience. It sounds pretty cool, though.

“You don’t need to have a team of people creating graphics, music and sound effects. You don’t even need any programming experience. If you’ve never created a game before, a text game is the easiest and quickest way to start. This doesn’t mean that it’s trivial—creating a good game, like creating a good novel, takes a lot of effort—but you don’t need to have any special tools or expertise to start.”

— A passage from the documentation of Quest 5, a utility that allows for easily crafting interactive text adventures. The software is a powerful tool for realizing your storytelling, interactive fiction-writing dreams. Not only is it free and open source, it’s a phenomenal program that can be downloaded or used in your browser. Quest 5 has an extremely helpful community and extensive tutorials for creating your game.

In 2019, the interactive text adventure game is not only fondly remembered, but has become a cultural institution. There are ways to play many of these games online (the internet archive is a good place to start), there’s a ton of information/history across the net and there’s a burgeoning community of folks still creating these types of games.

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation is dedicated to maintaining tools and knowledge for creating new interactive fiction.

In other media, we’ve seen shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch take the idea of interactive fiction and bring it into a wholly different type of setting. Whether this trend will continue remains to be seen.

A great deal more can be said on the subject, but as you approach the end of this paragraph, you hear a beeping sound from the living room. You notice your desktop computer has been switched on. The screen flashes and suddenly you find yourself standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here …

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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