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Daily Archives: May 24, 2011

Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 2

Crowther’s original Adventure consists of relatively complete implementations of the above-ground section and the first underground level of the complete game that so many would come to know later. It peters out around the “Complex Junction” room, where a sign stands announcing, “CAVE UNDER CONSTRUCTION BEYOND THIS POINT. PROCEED AT OWN RISK.” It’s not kidding; things start to go haywire with some of the room connections at this point, such that navigating in some directions inexplicably returns you to above-ground locations. Beyond the ever-present challenges of navigation, there’s not really that much of a game here. Still, Crowther has laid down the basics of the thousands of text adventures that would follow, and even manages to include a few simple puzzles — and, yes, a maze.

In fact, one could say that the whole of Adventure is really one big maze. By far its biggest challenge is coming to understand and get around in the interconnected nodes (i.e., “rooms”) that make up its world. Even its few simple puzzles revolve around movement: we must deal with the snake to be allowed to progress beyond The Hall of the Mountain King; must find an alternative exit from the cave that will allow us to take the gold with us; etc. This may seem odd, unappealing, perhaps annoying to us when we play the game today — at least, that is, to those of us steeped in the culture of modern IF, with its emphasis on crafting an enjoyable narrative experience for the player. But was Crowther trying to craft a narrative experience at all? I don’t think so, actually.

Crowther is an extremely private person who is not much prone to revisiting the past or discussing his work, so there isn’t much direct evidence as to what he was thinking when he crafted Adventure. We might, however, find some clues in his game’s HELP text:

“I KNOW OF PLACES, ACTIONS, AND THINGS. MOST OF MY VOCABULARY DESCRIBES PLACES AND IS USED TO MOVE YOU THERE. TO MOVE TRY WORDS LIKE FOREST, BUILDING, DOWNSTREAM, ENTER, EAST, WEST, NORTH, SOUTH, UP, OR DOWN. I KNOW ABOUT A FEW SPECIAL OBJECTS, LIKE A BLACK ROD HIDDEN IN THE CAVE. THESE OBJECTS CAN BE MANIPULATED USING ONE OF THE ACTION WORDS THAT I KNOW.”

It’s interesting that Crowther foregrounds the geographical so obviously, and only then goes on to mention the possibility of manipulating just “a few special objects.” As a dedicated hacker, Crowther would almost certainly have come across Hunt the Wumpus. I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that Adventure started as another iteration on Yob’s idea of a “topological computer game,” and quite likely continued largely in that vein in its author’s mind right up until he abandoned its development. It’s very possible, even likely, that compass directions were a fairly late edition, that Crowther initially intended to have the player navigate entirely by working out keywords for getting from place to place, thus making navigation even more of the central chore. (While Dennis Jerz spoke to some who claimed to remember compass directions from the beginning, it’s possible they were misremembering; from reading the source it certainly seems that compass directions were a late — possibly almost a last — addition, perhaps upon realizing just how unworkable keyword navigation was likely to get over the course of a sprawling underground complex populated by dozens of similar rooms.) As a caver, meanwhile, geography would have been constantly on Crowther’s mind, not only as a point of factual interest but literally as a matter of life or death while underground; the in-home teletype connection through which Crowther likely developed Adventure was the same one that he used to enter survey data and construct maps of the real Mammoth Cave for the benefit of other cavers.

How much does it really matter how Crowther conceptualized his game? Perhaps not a lot. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that expectations of both players and authors were very different back in the day, and that this can explain some things that authors did and players apparently enjoyed which we might find infuriating today. It’s certainly a point I’m likely to revisit again when I look at other historical works. Some scholars have recently advanced the idea that computer games are most of all about the experience of space, even going so far as to call them a form of architecture. It’s an interesting idea, and one that gains a lot of credence when I consider it in the light of these early works of IF. I’m not yet sure how to reconcile that idea with some of my other notions, but it’s more on my radar than ever in light of my experience with Adventure.

Abstractions like that aside, though, there is a certain stately appeal to this early iteration of Adventure which I find hard to explain. Crowther was by neither talent nor inclination a writer, but his terse, matter-of-fact descriptions bear the stamp of someone who knows the environment of which he writes. That gives his game, almost in spite of itself, a certain verisimilitude that would be lacking in many of the more polished efforts that would follow in later years. I want to look at how Woods expanded on this solid kernel next.

 

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