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Daily Archives: June 3, 2011

The Completed Adventure, Part 2

(Warning: spoilers galore in this one, folks.)

Woods replaced virtually none of Crowther’s original text in Adventure, but simply built upon it, by fleshing out Crowther’s minimalist help text and of course adding many more locations to explore. The contrast in the two men’s coding styles has no parallel in their prose, as Woods ably continues in Crowther’s terse but just-evocative-enough style. The player notices no obvious point where Crowther left off and Woods picked up, and, indeed, would probably never guess that the latter parts were written by a different person entirely.

If we insist on finding differences, we might point to Woods’s willingness to indulge in more fantastic and anachronistic elements, as well a willingness to allow himself a bit more poetic license here and there. As an example in the former category, the vending machine selling batteries feels like something Crowther would never have added. (Of course, it’s also true that Crowther’s lamp never ran out of batteries in the first place, because it was almost certainly conceived by him as a carbide lamp of the sort he took with him on his caving expeditions rather than a battery-powered job; in this case the very different backgrounds of the two men does affect the finished work.) (Edit: Actually, it seems the lamp was electric in Crowther’s original. See the response to rub: “RUBBING THE ELECTRIC LAMP IS NOT PARTICULARLY REWARDING.” Lucky I qualified my “certainly” with an “almost…”) In the latter category, we have the most elaborate and extended room description in the entire game, for the “Breath-Taking View” located deep, deep within the cave complex:

YOU ARE ON THE EDGE OF A BREATH-TAKING VIEW.  FAR BELOW YOU IS AN
ACTIVE VOLCANO, FROM WHICH GREAT GOUTS OF MOLTEN LAVA COME SURGING    
OUT, CASCADING BACK DOWN INTO THE DEPTHS.  THE GLOWING ROCK FILLS THE 
FARTHEST REACHES OF THE CAVERN WITH A BLOOD-RED GLARE, GIVING EVERY-  
THING AN EERIE, MACABRE APPEARANCE.  THE AIR IS FILLED WITH FLICKERING
SPARKS OF ASH AND A HEAVY SMELL OF BRIMSTONE.  THE WALLS ARE HOT TO   
THE TOUCH, AND THE THUNDERING OF THE VOLCANO DROWNS OUT ALL OTHER
SOUNDS.  EMBEDDED IN THE JAGGED ROOF FAR OVERHEAD ARE MYRIAD TWISTED  
FORMATIONS COMPOSED OF PURE WHITE ALABASTER, WHICH SCATTER THE MURKY  
LIGHT INTO SINISTER APPARITIONS UPON THE WALLS.  TO ONE SIDE IS A DEEP
GORGE, FILLED WITH A BIZARRE CHAOS OF TORTURED ROCK WHICH SEEMS TO    
HAVE BEEN CRAFTED BY THE DEVIL HIMSELF.  AN IMMENSE RIVER OF FIRE
CRASHES OUT FROM THE DEPTHS OF THE VOLCANO, BURNS ITS WAY THROUGH THE 
GORGE, AND PLUMMETS INTO A BOTTOMLESS PIT FAR OFF TO YOUR LEFT.  TO   
THE RIGHT, AN IMMENSE GEYSER OF BLISTERING STEAM ERUPTS CONTINUOUSLY  
FROM A BARREN ISLAND IN THE CENTER OF A SULFUROUS LAKE, WHICH BUBBLES 
OMINOUSLY.  THE FAR RIGHT WALL IS AFLAME WITH AN INCANDESCENCE OF ITS 
OWN, WHICH LENDS AN ADDITIONAL INFERNAL SPLENDOR TO THE ALREADY  
HELLISH SCENE.  A DARK, FOREBODING PASSAGE EXITS TO THE SOUTH.


It’s somehow hard to imagine Crowther writing that; it’s a long way indeed from the humble wellhouse by the roadside in Kentucky at which the player began. It’s often been compared with the descriptions of Mount Doom found in The Return of the King, but Woods, while admitting he had read Tolkien before working on Adventure, has denied using him as a conscious inspiration. Oddly, this room has no practical function whatsoever. Perhaps Woods conceived of it as a reward of sorts for the persistent player who made it this far underground.

And what sort of challenges must a player who made it so far have overcome? Well, I divide them into three categories.

First there are the logistical challenges — or, if you prefer, the emergent challenges. These involve the practical difficulties of getting about in the 140 intricately interconnected rooms that make up Adventure‘s storyworld and returning all 15 treasures found therein to the wellhouse: managing the lamp’s limited power reserves, dealing with the limited carrying capacity of the player’s avatar, and, most of all, mapping, mapping, mapping. A player who wants to get anywhere in the game has to plan her underground expeditions much like one of Crowther’s caving teams would have. I’ve already stated my belief that, at least in Crowther the caver’s mind, this was the real heart of the game, its real challenge. If that seems a stretch, imagine playing Adventure for the first time in 1976 or 1977, with no knowledge about how text-adventure geographies are supposed to work; imagine trying to figure out how to map that maze when the old dropping-items-in-each-room trick wasn’t second nature. Modern IF may have largely rejected many of the tropes found under this category, but they are a fundamental part of what Adventure really is, and, I would argue, even an important part of the appeal it held for so many back in the days of yore.

Then there are the good puzzles. These are simple, straightforward challenges, solvable with a bit of basic logic and common sense. So, you must find another exit from the cave since you can’t carry the gold nugget (must be one hell of a nugget!) up the stairs; you must employ the trident to pry open the giant clam shell; etc. In contrast to the sort of conundrums Infocom and others would be offering up in just a few years, these are gentle indeed.

But then we come to the bad puzzles. There aren’t too many of them, but they’re a scary lot. There’s the dragon puzzle: when the player types, “KILL DRAGON,” the game responds, “WITH WHAT? YOUR BARE HANDS?” Whereupon she must type, “YES,” to get the reply, “CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE JUST VANQUISHED A DRAGON WITH YOUR BARE HANDS! (UNBELIEVABLE, ISN’T IT?)” In presaging some of the ridiculous puzzles in the inexplicably delightful The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy of many years later, this is almost amusing enough to be forgivable. Not so the climactic puzzle, in which the player is expected to intuit a heretofore nonexistent property of the black rod she’s been toting around almost since the game began. She’s expected to “BLAST” the control room of what has now been revealed to be a sort of amusement park rather than a natural cave complex. She can only “BLAST,” mind you. No “BLAST WITH ROD,” no “WAVE ROD.” Unless I’m missing something, this action and this phrasing of it are utterly unmotivated. It’s perhaps the most egregious example of guess the verb and just about the worst puzzle in general I’ve ever seen, playing like a satire of the worst of old-school text-adventure tropes.

Upon encountering such delights, one is left shaking one’s head and trying to figure out how we got from category-two to category-three puzzles, with no gradation in between. It’s particularly surprising to encounter puzzles like these in light of the fact that in some ways Adventure is surprisingly friendly and progressive; consider, for example, the automated hint system that dispenses clues here and there when the player has floundered long enough in one of its trickier sections.

We might find an answer if we consider the capabilities of the Adventure program itself. Woods was working with an extremely simplistic world model joined to a two-word parser. Such a system imposes a real limit on how intricate a puzzle an author can devise. Even some of Adventure‘s better puzzles are made more frustrating than they should be by parser limitations. Consider the case of the bear that the player can tame and lead around to scare away the troll. It’s kosher enough as a puzzle — except that the player must divine the syntax “TAKE BEAR” (presumably not quite what she’s actually doing) to accomplish it. Perhaps Adventure‘s underlying technology can really only support two kinds of puzzles: the extremely simple and the blatantly unfair. Guess the verb, after all, is always easy to code.

And of course we have to consider cultural differences. There seems to have been a real sense on everyone’s part that Adventure should be hard, that getting to the end of it should be a huge accomplishment. Thus all the emphasis the game places on scoring points. Like with the coin-op arcade games of the day, players would compare scores for sessions that resulted in eventual “defeat,” and would be satisfied with at least getting further than the rest of the office had managed. Less competitive types, meanwhile, could form teams to work on the game together, a natural result of the social environment in which PDP-10s were inevitably placed.

Finally, the enterprising could always turn to the freely distributed source code. Considering that most of the first people to play the game were hardcore hackers, I suspect that this was the way that the absurd “BLAST” puzzle first got solved. (EDIT: Or perhaps with a machine-language debugger. Tim Anderson states in Infocom’s “History of Zork” that this was the method used to figure out how to get the “last lousy point.” It does appear from anecdotes like these that Adventure was first distributed only in binary format, and that the source came afterward.)

I’ve gone on about these things at length because I think they will be relevant not just for understanding Adventure but also for understanding many of the games that would come afterward, many of which would be so infuriating that plenty of people even today can’t mention text adventures without cursing. Next time I’ll finish up this little miniseries on Adventure by talking about the game’s rapturous reception and legacy — and I’ll provide a final tally of exactly who was responsible for what parts of the final design, so you can know to whom to send your bouquets and your brickbats.

 

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