Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 1

18 May

What remains to be said about Adventure? It has long and rightfully been canonized as the urtext not just of textual interactive fiction but of a whole swathe of modern mainstream videogames. (For example, trace World of Warcraft‘s lineage back through Ultima Online and Richard Bartle’s original MUD and you arrive at Adventure.) It’s certainly received its share of scholarly attention over the years, from Mary Ann Buckles’s groundbreaking 1985 PhD thesis “Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame Adventure” to Dennis Jerz’s superb 2007 article for Digital Humanities Quarterly, “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave.” Still, since this blog has kind of turned into a history of early digital narratives without my entirely realizing it, it’s worthwhile to talk about its background. And having recently played it in its original Crowther-authored form as unearthed by Jerz in the course of researching his aforementioned article, I join Jason Dyer in having a few things to say about the experience. Finally, I’d like to make it as painless as possible for you to experience it in that authentic form as well, if you’re interested.

The outline of Adventure‘s history is probably familiar to many reading this, but in a nutshell it goes like this:

Back in 1975 a programmer and spelunker named Will Crowther had just gotten divorced. Missing his children and feeling somewhat at loose ends generally, he started to write a game in his spare time with the vague idea that he could share it with his two daughters, who now lived with their mother and whom he missed desperately. The game, which he named Adventure, combined his three biggest interests at the time: programming, caving, and playing a new tabletop game called Dungeons and Dragons.

How so? Well, the player would explore a geography loosely based on the Bedquilt branch of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, a place Crowther had spent years laboriously exploring and mapping; she would encounter treasures and creatures drawn from D&D in the process; and to win she would have to solve intricate puzzles while always maintaining close attention to detail, just like a programmer. Crowther had just invented the world’s first text adventure, in the process prototyping much that remains with the form to this day.

Those are the broad strokes. But let’s back up for a moment. Just who was Will Crowther? Where Wizards Stay Up Late, Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s history of the development of the ARPANET (predecessor to the modern Internet), paints a pretty good picture of Crowther. His eccentricities have become so associated with the hacker mentality that they almost read like items on a checklist today. To wit:

He was almost disturbingly non-verbal, and rarely displayed any affect at all. He refused to dress up for any reason, even visiting the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in sneakers. And “he was a notoriously finicky eater (anything beyond the culinary level of a plain bologna sandwich was a risk), making him an impossible dinner guest or dining companion.” For all that, though, Crowther was a very unusual computer nerd in at least some ways. For one, he loved outdoor adventures, particularly rock climbing and of course caving. As befits an adventurer, he kept himself in excellent shape, in part by hanging by his fingers for hours on the frame of his office door. And most shockingly of all, he “never touched” soda.

Of course, what allowed Crowther to get away with eccentric behavior was the brilliance of his mind. Crowther’s Wikipedia page says as of this writing that, “He is best known as the co-creator of Colossal Cave Adventure.” That’s true enough, but it’s a bit unfair in a way to Crowther that Adventure and caving so dominate the page, for Crowther’s importance in computer history would be assured even had he never created Adventure.

Crowther was an absolutely key player on the tiny team that, beginning in the late-1960s, laid the foundation of the modern Internet. He wrote the software that ran on the Interface Message Processors (IMPs), the set of computers that shunted data around the nascent ARPANET; in other words, he wrote the firmware for the world’s first routers. He was one hell of a programmer, “regarded by his colleagues as being within the top fraction of 1 percent of programmers in the world,” with a particular genius for writing incredibly compact and efficient code, a valuable skill indeed in those days of absurdly limited memory and processing power. If he had a fault, it was that he was more interested in prototyping, in showing that things could work and how, than in doing the hard, often tedious work of polishing and refining that results in a truly finished, production-ready program.

When we add all of this together, we can begin to see how Crowther could have birthed IF in such a complete form almost on a whim… and then abandoned it on another whim when (presumably) a more interesting problem came along.



16 Responses to Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 1

  1. Jim Gerrie

    December 13, 2014 at 3:39 am

    Just re-coded the Fortran source into Basic for my favourite 8-bit the TRS-80 MC-10. Had to wedge it into 20K so some of the descriptions got “edited” a little, but I transferred all the map info from the data file into data statements, so its a completely accurate rendition of the original map. Only made a very few tweaks where directions were quite clearly messed up. Working on the rooms in the Bedquilt (“Under Construction”) area I really could sense where his patience petered out. Very fun project. Ended up adding a few unique elements of my own to “complete” what is obviously an unfinished work just begging for elaboration and completion. I can understand what tempted Woods…

  2. Martin

    July 8, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    Jim, I’m not sure if this is the right place to post this but did you give any mention to WANDER is any of your blogs? ie this link:

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 11, 2016 at 3:06 pm

      That surfaced after I’d already covered this era I’m afraid.

      • Mike Taylor

        October 16, 2017 at 10:35 am

        I’m sure I am not alone in saying: I would love to read what you have to say about WANDER and CASTLE. So if you ever want a break from the wacky world of 68000-based video gaming and fancy an amble back into prehistory, please consider it!

    • Jim Gerrie

      February 12, 2019 at 2:56 am

      Thanks Martin. I do now. Here’s my post about my reprogramming of Colossal Cave with an addendum.
      Thanks for the link.

  3. Derek

    July 30, 2018 at 5:26 am

    I don’t know where else to put this, so I guess I’ll just put it here at the beginning of the blog’s adventure-game coverage. This blog is really fascinating for how vividly it describes an era of gaming that I knew nothing about. Despite having a long familiarity with the adventure-gaming world of the 1990s, and having seen at least the openings of Adventure and most Infocom games, I knew very little about Infocom’s history and even less about the computing world that birthed Adventure and its early successors. There’s something weirdly enthralling about the world of PDP hackers, California software hippies, and Trash-80s that awkwardly pioneered the computer-driven world we now live in. Though I may be disdained for saying so here, I was never able to get into text adventures—but this blog’s discussions of them make me able to appreciate them on an intellectual level, if not as a player. Many thanks, Jimmy Maher, for all your work on this site.

    • Andromedamuse

      November 28, 2021 at 2:42 am

      These text games were so frustrating lol
      Don’t worry, even coming from an 80’s kid that had no other choice but to play text based, it was frustrating so I cannot blame you. When I got Atari at 8-9 I was in heaven. I had the Atari 5600 and then that broke and I ended up with the 7800, which still WORKS.

  4. Will Moczarski

    April 21, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    one of hell of a programmer -> one hell of a programmer

    Assuming you still value hints at (albeit old) typos in the comments.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 23, 2019 at 8:41 am

      Of course. Thanks!

  5. Tanya

    November 28, 2021 at 2:33 am

    Thank you for this. You have no idea how long I had searched for this game to confirm its existence. I think I got it when I was 5 yrs old in 1981. I always would joke and tell people the story about the huge stupid green snake that I couldnt kill with the axe. I hated this game because it was so frustrating, but it has made for funny stories over the years. My daughter just turned 13, and we started talking about it today, and the search for the game lead me to a medium article which lead me here. The minute I saw the GO WEST and the huge snake in that article, I knew I had found the right one. It confirmed everything I remembered. I still cant believe I remembered so well. At least now she knows it isnt just some crazy story I was making up. We have had a good laugh from that article, and now I know the man behind it. Thank you for writing about this game.

    Another thing, I think this was on the ZX81? I think I had a knock off from Radioshack, but I’m really not sure. I doubt my dad would have bought me an original. Although, the red letters and black body keyboard do look very familiar. Do you know if this game or a similar version of it was ever in that system? I dont remember a building. I remember in mine it was a long path and there was a stream, and I would always end up in the stupid cave fighting the snake I could never get past. So it is similar, but sounds like a ported version. It had other word games like hangman, and math games. Kind of like a speak and spell, but better. I don’t remember anything else unfortunately.

    Any help in finding the system or an emulation version would be so appreciated.

    Happy holidays!


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