Friday, October 13, 2006



Those raised playing games like Doom, Myst, and Quake are probably aware of some of the older computer games, too. Before those 3-D first-person-perspective games were 2-D games, where the player looked at the scene as if from the side, and directed the action to the left and right, and up and down on the screen. Donkey Kong. Mario Brothers. Before those were games like Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders, and before those there was Pong.

Before all of them, though, were the text-based games. With no graphics at all, these games could be played on the IBM 2741 terminals that we had at The Nerd. There was a Star Trek game that printed status "maps" of sectors, using "*" and "O" and "-" and ".", and it took some practice to interpret things. And then there was the great-grandfather of the "explore, solve puzzles, and collect treasures" games: Adventure.

Screen shot of an Adventure gameWritten in FORTRAN in the early 1970s, Adventure typed verbal descriptions of "rooms" in a cave, which the adventurer explored. You controlled the game by typing simple two-word verb-noun commands, like "go west", "get vase", and "throw axe" (it did accept some abbreviations, like "west", or just "w", for "go west"). The screen image to the right shows a portion from the early part of the game, as played on a CRT (click to enlarge). The goal of the game was to solve puzzles (like figuring out how to get past the snake, in the excerpt shown), allowing you to collect trasures that were scattered throughout the cave. You brought the treasures back out of the cave, and got credit for them — as long as you didn't break the vase, lose a treasure to the troll, or some such. And as long as you didn't get killed.

Well, getting killed wasn't final; the game would reincarnate you. And you could also save the game state after accomplishing some set of stuff, and then you could go back to that point if you got in trouble later. (But the version we had restricted when and how often you could save the game, so you couldn't just save and restore constantly. The versions later ported to the PC had no such restrictions.)

The descriptions were quite clever, and sometimes very evocative, since the game required imagination to substitute for the absent visuals. A particularly amusing sequence is getting back from the other side of the chasm with the troll bridge. To avoid giving the troll a treasure to get back, you had to get a bear, which you found over there, to come back with you, and when the troll popped out to collect a treasure before letting you pass, you loosed the bear on him and scared him away. You were done with the bear now, and just crossed the bridge alone. But if you decided to collect the bear again and bring it with you, the bridge would collapse under the weight, and you'd fall to the bottom of the chasm and die. Choosing to get reincarnated and returning to the chasm got you the amusing description that "the wreckage of a bridge (and a dead bear) can be seen at the bottom of the chasm."

It took us a good while to master the game, solve all the puzzles, map the cave, and achieve the maximum score of... 299 349... giving us the rank of "Wizard". But, well, the maximum score was 300 350! [Thanks to Evan for correcting me on the scores.] The game told us that. Where was that final point, and why couldn't we find it? We finally did find it by looking at the FORTRAN source code. It was an arcane thing you had to do, something that you'd never think of doing unless you'd looked at the program (or someone told you), and doing so got you that extra point, and allowed you to reach the rank of "Cheater".

There was a time when I had the cave's map in my head, and I could play the entire game with no notes nor map, navigating flawlessly through the cave, including the two mazes (the "all alike" maze and the "all different" maze). And Adventure gave us catch-phrases, which we used to use all the time but which seem dated now. "You're in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike." "I see no <whatever> here," which is what the game would say if you tried to manipulate an object that wasn't present. And we debated the correct pronunciation of "plugh", one of the game's magic words.

Adventure was the ancestor of a series of similar games, and of a company called Infocom that made a bunch of them — including the Zork series — for the PC. Eventually, Infocom, and other companies such as Sierra, started making similar games with graphic interfaces, and the verbal games went the way of the bear at the bottom of the chasm. It's too bad, though: there was a certain charm to those games, and a level of imagination and reasoning that's absent in the active shoot-everything-that-moves games of today. And even the puzzle-solving games now lack the aspect of reading descriptions in florid prose and picturing the setting in your own mind.

Now, let's see... where did I put my orange smoke?


Evan said...

Interesting. By the time I was getting into computers these types of games were mostly dying off. But I remember trying out a few of them - I really liked the concept, but didn't have the patience to play them for long.

Wikipedia has a good article on Interactive Fiction, and there is a large archive of games available if you want to reminisce some time. It seems they even have a 350 point version of the original Advenure game.

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, and I'm so embarrassed now! Yes, it was 350 points, not 300. I'm afraid my brain cells have been dying at an alarming rate....

The Ridger, FCD said...

oh gosh... this really takes me back! long weekends reading green words on a monitor - such good times.

Lisa said...

So you probably wouldn't be fazed if I suddenly blurt out "Elf needs food badly!" (from Gauntlet. I tend to get very curious looks when I do that.

I played the infocom games and I played nethack as recently as a year ago :)

Natasha said...

Computer games (except Tetris) were forbidden at our house when I was a kid, so I never played the early ones, though I later got into RPGs and all manner of other mischief. So, a while ago I ran across this Boing Boing entry pointing to a story short called Life of a writer as a Zork adventure. Anyway, I thought it was pretty dang funny & this seemed like the place to share it.

Barry Leiba said...

Natasha, thanks for the comment and the link. Yes, I like it!