The Second World War brought about one of the most significant advancements in technology in recorded history. Decades after the conflict ended, the world’s superpowers began working with advanced machines capable of expediently conducting calculations. These machines were eventually named computers. In the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a branch within the United States Department of Defense invented a packet-switching network. Named the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), it was the first network to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite. Government agencies would use this internetworking process to quickly share important information in a secure manner.
One of the programmers who helped develop ARPANET was Will Crowther. In his spare time, he and his wife Pat would frequently go spelunking. Mr. Crowther had previously helped create vector map surveys of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky for the Cave Research Foundation. He was also a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game that launched its first edition in 1974. These good times weren’t to last, for he ended up divorcing his wife in 1975. Striving to find some way to connect with his daughters following the separation, Mr. Crowther had an idea. Combining his fondness for cave exploration with his programming expertize, he decided to create a computerized simulation of his travels.
Development of this project began in 1975 and took a year to complete. It consisted of nearly 700 lines of FORTRAN code with another 700 written for BBN’s PDP-10 timesharing computer. The result was considered the first known instance of interactive fiction. The executable file for this program was called ADVENT, but the opening screen provided its more famous name: Colossal Cave Adventure. One person who discovered Mr. Crowther’s work was Don Woods – a recent graduate from Stanford University. Mr. Woods added his own ideas to the code, including a scoring system and high fantasy elements – the latter of which was inspired by his fondness of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Unlike Mr. Crowther’s original version, the source code of Mr. Woods’s was widely distributed. What started off as a way for a man to connect with his daughters became ground zero for a type of entertainment the public later dubbed adventure games. As computers became more commonplace in the average household, Colossal Cave Adventure became a great success. Even those with limited programming knowledge could enjoy playing this game, and its impact on the medium cannot be denied. In an era before people regularly used the term “video game”, how does Colossal Cave Adventure hold up?
Analyzing the Experience
Before 1976, storytelling was fairly straightforward. The author had a creative vision, and they would use whatever means at their disposal to see it through. In ancient times, stories were usually passed down through oral tradition. Once humans began to develop writing systems, however, these oral traditions were transcribed onto some kind of surface whether it was paper, papyrus, or bamboo shoots. From there, the art of storytelling evolved alongside human engineering. Many creators would see fit to tell their stories through a long montage of moving pictures while others did so through sequential art.
Despite the various artistic mediums that existed, storytelling was largely limited to two different perspectives: third-person and first-person. Third-person perspective could be considered the standard method of storytelling given its prevalence. The narrator is an omniscient being capable of accurately relaying all the relevant information to the viewers. First-person perspective provides an interesting twist on this formula in that the narrator is an active participant in the proceedings. They’re not necessarily the main character, but they generally do provide the viewer with an insight into their world. However, this method of storytelling was typically exclusive to literature. Attempts had been made at making films from a first-person perspective, but these ended up being the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, third-person was by far the most commonly used perspective due to its greater versatility.
What Colossal Cave Adventure did with its very first lines of text is present is challenge the status quo of storytelling. Regardless of the type of story a viewer consumed, the work in question had one commonality – their non-interactive nature. The author is the storyteller, and the audience listens to what they have to say. Viewers could form their own interpretations, but otherwise, they bore witness to the same exact same events as everyone else who experienced the work. Unless an especially daft audience member had the idea to storm the stage during a production, they could not personally interact with the narrative in any way. Even then, such an occurrence would be understood by the other audience members to not be a part of the story.
Colossal Cave Adventure, on the other hand, differs from anything that came before because the person directly experiencing it is an essential part of the narrative. This is a narrative that will not advance unless the viewer does something. This is technically true of non-interactive stories, but in those cases, the viewer’s role was limited to turning the page, pressing “Play” on the VCR, or dropping the needle of their record player. Meanwhile, Colossal Cave Adventure demands a little bit more out of its reader; simply executing the program isn’t enough.
Because the reader is a part of the experience, Colossal Cave Adventure saw fit to introduce a narrative style that had been underutilized to the point where many fiction writers weren’t aware it was even an option: second-person narration. The very first thing the program asks the audience is whether or not they want instructions. This requires them to answer either “YES” or “NO” depending on their preference; the experience begins in earnest shortly thereafter.
The narration whisks the reader to another world. You are in front of a mysterious cave rumored to be filled with treasure and gold. Your goal is to gather as many of the riches as possible. In order for readers to interact with the program, Mr. Crowther invented a system called a natural language input. By using one or two-word commands, the character the reader controls will execute that action to the best of their ability. Before too long, this control system came to be known as a text parser. It was intended to create the illusion that by typing in commands in English, the program would respond and, in turn, advance the story.
Colossal Cave Adventure contains 66 areas – called rooms irrespective of whether they are set indoors or outdoors. To navigate your character through these rooms, you can type the name of a cardinal direction. Under some circumstances, your character will be able to move up, down, or diagonally. The program typically makes it clear in which directions your character is able to move, so you don’t have to worry about blindly typing each direction into the parser and hoping that it results in you making progress. The room description also includes any objects of interest. Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of the experience involves inventory management. In order to obtain an item, you must enter the command “GET [ITEM]”. If you have the means by which to get the item, you will.
Littered throughout the cave system are monsters and other obstacles preventing you from finding all of the treasures. It is through specific uses of items that you are able to circumvent them. For example, a poisonous serpent patrols an early portion of the cave. In order to get past the serpent, you must release a blue bird that will attack it with large gusts of wind. As you venture through the caves, you will eventually be accosted by one of seven rogue dwarves. The first one will throw an axe at you, which you can use to kill them. Not all of these monster encounters need to be solved with violence, however. A troll guarding a bridge merely requires a payment for you to cross, though you will have to find a more permanent solution later.
The cave system is highly perilous, and it is ill-advised to advance without some kind of light. If the light ever goes out or one of the monster’s attacks strike true, you will die instantly. The narrator can resurrect you if such a fate comes to pass using orange smoke. However, the protagonist can only be revived in such a fashion twice. It’s also important to know that dying causes all of the items they’re carrying to be dropped in the room in which it occurred, though you do get another opportunity to obtain a light source before returning.
For its time, Colossal Cave Adventure was an admirable effort. Even now, there is a lot of charm to be found in its writing. The game doesn’t understand too many commands beyond what is required to advance, but its replies are humorous and conversational – as though you’re playing a Dungeon & Dragons session with a good friend. One of the funniest bits of dialogue results from goading the narrator into resurrecting you without any orange smoke. This causes the narrator to petulantly storm out of the session once and for all.
I also admire how this is a game that rewards the reader for being pragmatic. If anyone at the time was used to how films or other media lengthened conflicts for the sake of preserving drama, Colossal Cave Adventure dispenses with this notion and allows them to accomplish their goal in the fewest steps possible. This is the most obvious when dealing with the dwarves. When one attacks you with an axe, you can just throw it right back and kill him. Of course, this is overshadowed by what was the single greatest moment in the medium’s then-short history. Eventually, you will happen upon a dragon. Naturally, a reader versed in fantasy would frantically look through their inventory in an attempt to find something capable of felling it. Alternatively, they could just type “KILL DRAGON” into the parser. When the narrator asks if they plan on doing that with their bare hands, the reader can answer “YES”.
It works. This sequence, to me, teaches readers the importance of calling a game’s bluff.
Unfortunately, as forward-looking as this game was, it really has not aged well. One of the first things anyone attempting to revisit this game will have to deal with is that there are no graphics at all. While the text doesn’t exactly hide anything from the reader, navigation is made much more difficult when you can’t easily tell where you are at a given time. This is especially bad if you happen to be killed at any point. You are revived in a specific spot, so once you regain control of your character, you must navigate them exactly where they died and type “GET [ITEM]” for each piece of inventory.
Indeed, it doesn’t take long before you realize just how irritating it is to manage inventory items. In addition to having to retrieve them every time you die, you must also contend with a limited carrying capacity. As great as it would be to carry every item with you so nothing could catch you off-guard, the game won’t let you. Because the goal is to amass as much treasure as possible, it won’t take long before you barely have enough room to hold anything. This means you must drop everything other than what is absolutely required for a given scenario. Naturally, there is no way to know in advance what you will need, so if you chose the incorrect loadout, you must waste time getting the required items back. The starting area is usually a safe place to store unneeded items, and it is fairly easy to reach, but it doesn’t prevent this process from being highly tedious.
It’s also worth mentioning that the text parser is rather fickle. If you do not phrase things exactly as the author intended, the game won’t understand your intent. Killing the dragon with your bare hands isn’t terribly difficult, but the same cannot be said of the dwarves. One reader might assume that, as long as they have the axe in their inventory, typing “KILL DWARF” would suffice. This isn’t the case. To achieve that result, you must type “THROW AXE” instead. Because the game only responds to one or two-word commands, attempting to be as specific as possible is a lost cause. This means you couldn’t type “KILL DWARF WITH AXE” or any other similar command to clear any ambiguities. When you’re in a situation in which your character can die on a given turn, you do not want to waste any time wrestling with the parser.
Indeed, just the presence of the dwarves ties into one of the biggest problems I have with Colossal Cave Adventure. This aspect is the single most obvious manifestation of the author’s fondness for Dungeons & Dragons. In a given session, the dungeon master would occasionally have the players fight a horde of monsters. Intuitively, these came to be known as random encounters. Therefore, what Mr. Crowther did was provide one of the first known instances of a random encounter in the form of the dwarves patrolling the cave system. It’s a shame because this mechanic absolutely does not work in its implemented form.
There is a degree of mercy to be had in that the dwarves you encounter will usually miss with their first attack. Indeed, the axe will always miss, giving you a means with which to defend yourself. While this proposition sounds promising, you then have to contend with the fact that your own attacks can miss. If it does, you have to waste turns retrieving and then throwing the axe again. For every turn you idle, the dwarf has a chance of hitting you with one of his daggers. Indeed, each time your attack proves unsuccessful gives the dwarf two attempts to kill you. You can evade them somewhat by using the various teleportation spells and moving from room to room requires them to follow you. However, even with these advantages, the dwarves make exploring the caves unnecessarily difficult – particularly if they gang up on you. Because you’re at the mercy of a random number generator, you could cut a bloody swath through the seven dwarves on one try or lose all three lives to the very first dwarf you encounter. In a game that rewards ingenuity and observational skills, allowing it to be ruined by factors outside of the reader’s control is inexcusable.
Although dealing with the dwarves makes for a terrible time, what I feel to be the fatal weakness of Colossal Cave Adventure manifests as you’re nearing the end of the game. Once you’ve safely stored the final treasure, you have but a few moves with which to reenter the cave system. When this time limit is up, you are locked out. If you’re in the caves when the timer expires, you’re merely placed in the final area. If you aren’t, you cannot go back in at all, preventing you from completing the game. You could very well have entered a situation like this earlier depending on how you dealt with the troll. If you cross the bridge with the bear required to defeat the troll, it will break, resulting in a death. You can make your way back to this room easily enough, but the bridge will still be broken. If you left anything valuable on the other side, you cannot win the game.
As adventure games grew a fanbase over the next decade, these unwinnable situations were often referred to as “Dead Man Walking” (alternatively, “Walking Dead”). The naming convention is logical enough; you have entered a situation that, despite your character being alive and well, has no way to succeed in their quest. Everything you do henceforth is completely useless – even if you get points along the way. They may as well be dead despite your ability to control them. Thanks to the sheer influence Colossal Cave Adventure had on future programmers, “Walking Dead” situations became commonplace. Although creators didn’t think much of it at the time, it is absolutely not a design choice that has aged well. Not catching onto the creator’s line of logic only to be punished with a now-unwinnable game is a decidedly hostile design choice. The reader wouldn’t immediately realize they’re in such a state until they stumble upon the one puzzle without a solution. Admittedly, that’s not too much of an issue in Colossal Cave Adventure because it is fairly obvious whenever the game can’t be won. That being said, even if it wasn’t obvious without the power of hindsight, the ability to render the game unwinnable makes it very difficult to approach from a modern perspective.
Drawing a Conclusion
It is impossible to overstate how innovative Colossal Cave Adventure was when it debuted in 1976. The electronic game Pong swept the nation and the world four years prior, and while it wasn’t exactly the first of its kind, it did codify the idea. Because it was the first successful electronic game, people naturally assumed all games were like it. Indeed, the first home console ever made, the Magnavox Odyssey, used overlays in place of graphics. Few could have predicted that before the end of the decade, this budding medium would be capable of taking readers – or perhaps better put, players – on a journey through a fantastical world.
When all is said and done, only one question remains: “Is it still worth playing this game?” I feel the answer to that question is going to depend entirely on how invested you are in the medium. If you fancy yourself a gaming historian and want to witness the evolution of the medium firsthand, delving into Colossal Cave Adventure is well worth the investment. For anyone else, merely knowing of this game’s existence and its impact on the medium will suffice. Just the fact that most versions of the game are rendered solely through text makes revisiting it a tough proposition. This was a medium that needed visuals in order to grasp its true potential. Even so, visuals or no visuals, in an age when gaming was synonymous with Pong, Colossal Cave Adventure provided an incredibly forward-looking experience that deserves its place in history.
Final Score: 4/10