Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 2

24 May

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:


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 addition, 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.



14 Responses to Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 2

  1. Jason Dyer

    May 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    I’m skeptical about the Wumpus connection. This kind of armchair spot-the-influence is a dangerous game, and results in all sorts of plausable theories that turn out to be wrong (see the long-standing theory about The Wizard of Oz being a parable about the gold/silver standard, or the contention that Don Woods got ideas from Dungeons and Dragons). This kind of theorizing was also what lead to the myth that the Crowther version of Adventure was solely a cave simulator.

    I’m especially skeptical of your second-level guess (that Adventure originally didn’t have compass directions). The rooms-cued-to-words are very spread out and their use as verbs seems to be more of a shortcut than a navigation system (and according to the Jerz article being a shortcut is why XYZZY was put in in the first place)

    Zork has a direct reference to Wumpus so feel free to run with that.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 25, 2011 at 5:39 am

      Regarding the Wumpus connection: I agree that it’s dangerous when reading any kind of text to push speculations like these too far. Certainly I would never push this idea as absolute truth without a lot more evidence. Still (and this is really my main point), I think there’s good reason to believe that Crowther himself was not fully aware of the potential and the ramifications of what he was creating as a new kind of narrative, that he saw it as just a “topological computer game.”

      On compass directions: Here I am on somewhat firmer ground, as I haven’t pulled quite EVERYTHING out of my posterior. :) In the data files that accompany the FORTRAN source, the compass directions were apparently some of the last movement verbs added. This could mean, as Jerz tentatively concluded in his article, that they were originally included in the FORTRAN source itself, then moved into the data file at a very late date in the interest of keeping everything clean and consistent. It does, though, strike me as odd that Crowther would put them directly into his FORTRAN code in the first place, considering that the code contains no other vocabulary. (Of course, that’s also an argument for why, if he HAD put them there for some reason, he might move them to the data file at a late date. Way to argue both sides, Jimmy…)

      See the thread “Fortran 4 and Adventure” on alt.sys.pdp10 and for some deeper discussion of all this, including some really interesting code analysis from DKleinecke that also argues in favor of compass directions as a late edition. Unfortunately, his ideas also tend to pull against my theory that Adventure was conceived as fundamentally a game of navigation, so don’t take them too seriously. :) Still, interesting reading.

  2. Dennis Jerz

    May 27, 2011 at 1:49 am

    The description of room 9 includes a compass direction. It seems we could get another data point if we checked the map table to see whether there are any room connections that absolutely require the player to type a compass direction.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 27, 2011 at 9:55 am

      Very good idea!

      All of the lower-numbered rooms — almost certainly those implemented first — can be navigated using keywords. This begins to change at room 27, “WEST SIDE OF THE FISSURE IN THE HALL OF MISTS.” From here, one can enter “WIDE LOW PASSAGE PARALLEL TO AND NORTH OF THE HALL OF MISTS” (room 40) and “WEST END OF HALL OF MISTS” (room 41) only by using compass directions. From that point on there are lots of rooms with no keywords implemented.

      Another interesting point: the earlier rooms uniformly have the compass connections listed in the data file AFTER the keyword connections. For example, one can navigate from room 1 (END OF ROAD) to room 3 (INSIDE BUILDING) by typing (remembering that inputted words are truncated to five characters): ENTER, DOOR, GATE, BUILD, BLD, HOUSE, INWAR, INSID, IN, EAST, or E. They appear in that order in the data file. Even where keywords appear in the latter 50 rooms, on the other hand, they appear AFTER rather than before the compass directions in the data file, perhaps indicating that the keywords became the secondary means of navigation to Crowther from that point.

      Based on this, my Final Answer would be that Crowther started out with a mixture of keyword navigation, relative directions, in and out, etc., realized this was becoming hopelessly unworkable when he got well into the underground areas, and so implemented compass directions as his primary means of navigation from there, while also retrofitting them to the already completed sections. This also does the neat trick of at least partially reconciling the fact that the evidence of the source seems to point to compass directions as a later addition while players insist they were there all along. It’s very possible that no one actually played the game until it was far enough along to include them.

      But without the ability to Phone a Friend (i.e., Crowther) who probably forgot all about this 30 years ago anyway, speculation is all we’re left with — and, as Jason rightfully cautioned, that can be a dangerous game. While your ideas about his likely working style sound plausible enough, I’m a bit reluctant to run too far with notions of what we think he might have done based on our (undoubtedly superficial and incomplete) understanding of his personality.

      • Mike Taylor

        October 11, 2017 at 5:49 pm

        If only Will Crowther could talk, what stories he could tell us!

  3. Dennis Jerz

    May 27, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Crowther was a rock climber before he was a caver, and seems to have broken off from the caving community around the time of his divorce from Pat. Your assessment (in part 1) of Crowther’s character and efficient creation techniques may actually support the idea that Crowther may have included cardinal compass directions as the most efficient way to navigate, then added the room labels after watching users (ordinary mortals lacking his unique talent for navigation and brevity) struggle. Without any witness testimony that the compass directions were added, the notion that the compass directions were added late is speculative. Think about it… Given what we know of Crowther as a chess player, a mathematician, a tight coder, and a cartographer, and his less-than-verbose communication habits, is it more likely that he would start with room labels and add compass as an afterthought for the benefit of his playtesters, or vice-versa? This is of course just a thought experiment, but it does suggest the more likely explanation (given the evidence we have).

  4. Borys Jagielski

    March 24, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    You write: ” 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.”

    Could you please give some reference to an article or a paper about this idea? I would like to read about it!

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 26, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      You might want to look into the work of Marc Bonner. His background is the history of architecture, but he’s turned his attention to the nature of architectural space in videogames. He’s German, however, and I’m not sure how extensively he’s published in English.

  5. anon

    August 21, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    It’s very possible, even likely, that compass directions were a fairly late edition,

    It’s very possible, even likely, that compass directions were a fairly late addition,

    Love your blog, thanks for writing it.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 22, 2018 at 8:18 am


  6. Jeff Nyman

    June 23, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    I’m late to this post, but regarding all the talk of whether compass directions were or were not included, doesn’t the help text that’s quoted directly indicate this. The quoted text says:


    That is literally listing compass directions to try. Or is the suggestion that this help text was added later?

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 24, 2019 at 7:37 am

      Exactly, the presumption is that the help text was one of the last things Crowther added. Certainly compass directions *were* present in the version of Adventure inherited by Don Woods. The only speculation is whether Crowther had them in mind from the beginning. The alternative navigation methods may be artifacts of an earlier period before compass directions.

  7. Nate

    April 16, 2020 at 7:02 pm

    I’ve come back to re-read this series after playing Adventure again, this time with my 4-year-old. It works surprisingly well to read him a room description and then type his commands for him, though he’s definitely getting stymied by the limited parser (“Ok, when we see the dwarf again, give him back the gold nugget and his axe and say we didn’t know he wanted them and then he won’t be mad at us any more.” Hehe.)

    My primary memory of Adventure is spatial, and I think that’s what made it particularly endearing. Even if it wasn’t his primary focus, just the feeling of moving through different rooms in your imagination and discovering new sights made an impact on me. When I play it, I’m back in the familiar locations, seeing passages and rock stretch out in all directions. But I’m also back in the study of the creaky old Victorian house we’d visit. I’m sitting in a dining table chair in front of a CP/M machine with a green screen and my older cousin is mapping everything on fanfold paper.

    But it’s also a linguistic memory, like Lewis Carroll. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning caving lingo. Words like Swiss cheese, bedquilt, hall, crawl, debris, and cobbles all sounded strange but compelling in this adventure. I thought the author had made up this terminology to sound more fanciful, and it added a layer of fun. The whimsy of Woods (a vending machine in a deep cave?) also fit well with these unintentionally magical sounding words.

    I’ve had to pause my trips through Adventure with my son because he was waking up with intense dreams. Like many at the time, he became a bit too obsessed with the world and it was interrupting all of our sleep. But we’ll be back soon.

    Thanks again for all your writings.


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