Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

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I should write a book about the history of adventure games

If there's one genre of computer game that's dead and is never coming back, it's the text adventure.

Even for those of us who are me (I happen to like text adventures), this is not a bad thing; finishing a text adventure is an ordeal. They're not inordinately difficult, but it's hard for a bad one to hold your attention, and a good one requires more reading and analytical thought than most people want to put into playing a game. By definition they have an incredibly high potential for unintuitive design (as in the example on the right).

I don't doubt that most of my friends are aware of text adventures. Many of you have probably played a few. The first computer games I fell in love with were text adventures. This was around 1990, and even at that time they were pretty outdated. It's really easy to criticize text adventures in 2006, but when they were new they changed everything.

The first text adventure was simply called Adventure (later renamed The Colossal Cave) and written in Fortran on a PDP-10 mainframe in 1975 by William Crowther as a toy to bring him closer to his daughters after the end of his marriage. He'd been playing Dungeons and Dragons and was an avid spelunker, and the game combined both of these passions. His kids liked it, his coworkers liked it, and it made its way around the burgeoning Internet. Within a year Crowther was contacted by Donald Woods, a programmer at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. Woods received Crowther's blessing to expand the game, and the expanded version became very popular in the late '70s and very early '80s.

Adventure was so groundbreaking because, well, there was nothing else like it. The scope of any given computer game in the late '70s was pathetically narrow. There were computerized reproductions of card and board games, simple exercises in nerve-twitching, and uh, Hunt the Wumpus. Hunt the Wumpus (which, apparently, you can play online) had a fanatical, World of Warcraft-like following, but was really little more than a maze game. Adventure, on the other hand, presented players with a rich, expansive world with countless locations, objects, and multiple objectives, all described in text and manipulated via two-word sentences ("open door", "get key", "eat robot", etc.). Other games with their simple "shoot anything that moves" premise seemed tiny by comparison.

Adventure wasn't for everybody. There was a lot of typing involved, and a lot of reading. Most players found that they had to take frequent notes and make maps to navigate the game's mazes. Still, Adventure was popular and well-liked, and by the early '80s it was available for pretty every major computer on the market (and most of the minor ones, too). Copycat games didn't spring up quickly, which is sort of surprising. Those who remember the initial release of Doom will remember that clones like Rise of the Triad sprung up almost immediately. The first major Adventure-imitators were Zork (which you've heard of) and Adventureland (which you probably haven't). Despite Adventure's being a catalyst, Adventureland is really the game that created the genre. Up until that point, the only text adventures were other people's reworkings of the original Adventure.

Adventureland was the first text adventure I ever played, and had no real plot beyond the goal of "find these things and bring them back here." It was written in 1978 by Scott Adams (not the Dilbert cartoonist), and is also especially notable in being the first use of a game "engine." Adams realized that the design philosophy behind Adventure could easily be applied to any story. Adventure was a collection of variables representing rooms, objects, and flags (like checkboxes on a printed form). The engine just had to keep track of which room the player was in, what objects he was carrying, and any special conditions that might exist. An example taken directly out of Adventureland:
There's a swamp filled with chiggers and evil-smelling mud. If you get bitten by the chiggers -- which simply happens on occasion -- a variable is set giving you X number of moves before the bites become infected and kill you. The mud (apparently) soothes the bites, so if you pick it up the counter is reset and you are no longer in danger from the bites. If you carry mud into the meadow, it wakes the sleeping dragon which eats you. If you're not carrying the mud when you enter the hive of giant bees, they sting you to death.
There's a lot of death in text adventures.

The text in Adventureland is terse and simple, but the puzzles are well-designed and logical. At a time when professionally-marketed software packages were being sold in Ziploc bags with Xeroxed instruction manuals, Adventureland managed to sell reasonably well. Adams designed eleven more games, all at least moderately successful, before turning to other pursuits when the home computer market took a dive in 1983. Anybody still reading can download his games in Windows-playable versions from his website.

Zork is another game that changed the industry, though maybe not quite as much as Adventureland. Work on Zork began before Adventureland, but Adventureland was already a commercial success before Zork was released. Zork was originally written by four hobbyists on a mainframe at MIT. These four started their own company called Infocom to release the game which had to be split into three separately-released episodes (available here) to accommodate the low storage capacity of the computers of the day.

Zork contributed two big things to the world of adventure games. The first was a complex full-featured text parser, which allowed players to enter complex commands in plain English ("exit the pub and go north", for example). Second, the world of Zork was described in expansive, novel-worthy prose rather than the standard "I am standing in _____________. I am carrying ___________. Obvious exits are ____________. What shall I do?" Infocom eschewed the phrase "adventure games" in favor of "interactive fiction", sold their games through bookstores (something nobody else was doing at the time), and marketed their designers the way publishers market their authors. Shrewd marketing made Infocom THE big name in adventure games, and it was unusual between 1981 and 1986 for a month to go by when Infocom didn't own two or more of the top ten best-selling games.

Anyway, the arrival of graphics eventually killed text adventures. In 1981, Sierra (originally called On-Line Systems) released Mystery House, an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit with stick figures. Text adventures with visual elements quickly became the norm, and in 1984 Sierra released King's Quest, a visual adventure game with animation and arcade elements. Infocom struggled to stay afloat, but was eventually bought out and mismanaged by Activision which shut down Infocom in 1989. By this time Infocom's star designers had jumped ship and were working for other designers. Brian Moriarty (designer of several sequels to the Zork trilogy) designed Loom for Lucasarts. Steve Meretzky (best known for The Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) went on to design the Spellcasting series for Legend Entertainment, and later founded Boffo Games. Infocom's demise was the death knell of the text adventure, but the reverberations of Infocom's influence were still obvious into the mid-'90s.

The death of text adventures happened without much fanfare. Adventure and Adventureland created an entire genre of games, Zork refined it, and then as far as I'm concerned, everything between Zork and King's Quest pretty much represents treading water. Roberta Williams (designer of Mystery House) and her husband Ken founded Sierra and like to credit themselves with the idea of adding visuals to adventure games, but I think it would have happened anyway sooner or later (probably sooner). After King's Quest everything was slow, steady evolution, punctuated by a few major developments (Lucasarts' Maniac Mansion added the mouse interface, Sierra's King's Quest V was the first consumer-level software product to really utilize the CD-ROM format).

Unfortunately, text adventures -- specifically the ones from Infocom -- did have one thing going for them which will be never be recaptured in mainstream games, and that, quite simply, was brilliant prose. Infocom's designers knew that there were things they could do in text which could never be done in a visual game simply because text affords a much greater degree of emotional control over one's audience. Consider these two passages from The Leather Goddesses of Phobos:
A Phobosian Chomper is faster than a cheetah, meaner than a Tyrannosaurus Rex, bigger than a sperm whale, and as hungry as the state of Texas. We mention this because fifty of them just entered the plaza and spotted you.
Eagerly, the salesman accepts the flashlight, mentioning that he knows a Plutonian plutocrat who'll trade his life fortune for one, and drops an odd machine at your feet. "It's a TEE remover," he explains. You ponder what it removes -- tea stains, hallway T-intersections -- even TV star Mr. T crosses your mind, until you recall that it's only 1936. But before you have a chance to ask the salesman, he points the flashlight upwards and a giant Venusian MegaMoth swoops down and carries him off. The other salesmen scatter like frightened salesmen.
Sure, both passages could be adapted visually, but how do you convey their comic deflation outside of voiceover narration?

I guess it's a small loss because abandoning the text format made the games more appealing to a wider audience, but it makes me a little sad that I'll never play another game where I can pick up the fork in the road. That joke just doesn't work in a visual medium.

Anyway, the fact that nobody plays text adventures anymore means that nobody has the patience to work their way through the brilliance that is Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Luckily for you, I've already done it. The very next post I make to my journal will contain the (almost) full text of the game, which was too big to include here. I certainly don't expect anybody to read it through from top to bottom, but it's ridiculously entertaining and definitely worth a look.
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