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Ludic Narrative née Storygame

I’m not done with this little stroll through history — in fact, I’m just getting started — but I want at this point to take a few posts to introduce some theoretical ideas that will be informing the history to come. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible… really, I will.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, the broad category of “adventure games” as covered by folks like Scorpia in Computer Gaming World was generally taken to be composed of four distinct subtypes. There was of course first the form I’ve been focusing on in this blog so far, the text adventure (or, if you like, interactive fiction), which I trust needs no further definition. There was the computer role-playing game (CRPG), a less rigid, more emergent form which focused on strategy and tactics in sending the player forth to do battle with multitudes of monsters or, occasionally, mutant humans or space aliens. There was the point-and-click graphical adventure, which like the text adventure tended to be built around set-piece puzzles rather than simulational emergence, but which replaced descriptive text with pictures and the parser with a joystick or mouse. (This form should not be confused with text adventures which happened to feature pictures.) And finally there was the action adventure, which combined reflex-oriented jumping or fighting gameplay with puzzle-solving, exploration, and an overarching storyline or quest.

So, four quite disparate approaches, no? Given that disparity, I started asking myself a number of years ago just what prompted people to see such kinship among these forms, kinship they didn’t also see in, say, a strategy game like Archon or a pure action game like Frogger. Or, put another way: what was it about these forms that made them uniquely appealing to a columnist like Scorpia, or for that matter to a young nerd like me? Clearly it wasn’t a question of their fictional context; while dwarfs and dragons may have been disproportionately represented in the group of four, there were also plenty of non-fantasy examples — not to mention plenty of strategy and action games with fantasy themes that clearly did not fit in the group of four. The answer I came up with, which I’m sure will surprise no one, was that the distinguishing feature of these forms was that they all foregrounded story in a way that didn’t really happen in other forms of 1980s computer gaming. From there, I decided to try to codify the unique qualities of these games in a way that would be a bit more definite, not to mention applicable to other technologies and eras. In the end I came up with two approaches, actually, one a fairly rigid checklist and the other based more on abstracts.

But before I defined them, I first had to decide what I wanted to call the category of works in question. At first I simply went with storygames, but lately I’ve been leaning more toward ludic narratives. I favor the latter not because it sounds more academic and pretentious, although that it certainly does, but rather because I think the narrative component of these works is of equal or even greater important than the systems of rules — the “game” part — that underlie them. But I’ll get into that a bit more in my next post. For now, let’s just roll out the definitions, beginning with the rigid checklist approach.

So, then, to qualify as a ludic narrative a work must possess the following four attributes:

1. The work must be directly and obviously interactive. When I say “directly and obviously” here, I mean that if there is any real question the work probably fails this test. Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabakov’s Pale Fire, for instance, may have a certain sense of interactivity about them in that they demand a certain sort of engaged, motivated reading, but they still carry, at least outwardly, the form of conventional, linear novels, and thus fail this test.

2. A computational simulation — a “storyworld” — must enable the narrative. It should be noted that a computational simulation does not automatically mean a computerized simulation, as a human rather than a computer can administer the rules of the ludic narrative. This simulation can run at virtually any level of abstraction, but it must be there. Hypertext literature thus does not qualify as a form of ludic narrative, as no simulation exists “behind” the links one clicks in “playing” a hypertext.

3. The player must play the role of an individual in the storyworld, experiencing events through the eyes of and in the persona of that character. Some ludic narratives may allow the player to switch roles or even play several simultaneously, but she is always immersed in the storyworld rather than viewing it from an on-high, abstract perspective. Thus a game like Civilization, which is played at the macro level, does not qualify as a ludic narrative.

4. There must be a coherent story arc, and it must be possible to well and truly complete that story. A massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft thus does not qualify as a ludic narrative, as it has no endpoint, and is ultimately experienced as a series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story.

Having just disqualified several games in the definitions above, let’s quickly return yet again to our old friend Adventure for an example of a game that does qualify as a ludic narrative. It satisfies criteria #1 in that it is directly interactive, responding to player inputs through a textual parser. It satisfies criteria #2 in that a simplified simulation of the real world houses the action, allowing the player to pick things up, carry them around, and leave them in other places; to open and close doors; and even to interact (simplistically) with other characters who autonomously move about the storyworld with agendas of their own. It satisfies criteria #3 in that the player interacts and views the storyworld strictly through the persona of a character in that world, the nameless “adventurer.” And it satisfies criteria #4 in that Adventure has an extant, if simplistic almost to the point of transparency, story arc and goal. Its plot even has a climax in the form of the closing of the cave and the visit to the control room. That said, it’s also true that if Adventure comes close to failing to qualify as a ludic narrative anywhere, it is here. The Oregon Trail, for example, is actually a stronger example of the form in that its story arc is much more pronounced and was much more of a priority for its designer.

Actually, speaking of “stronger” or “weaker” examples of ludic narratives brings me to the other way of looking at the subject. When I first came up with the set of criteria above, I put it in my little backpack of theoretical constructs and continued on my way, smugly sure I had “solved” this little problem of ludic taxonomy. As time has passed, though, I’ve become more and more aware that rigid categorization is not always the best approach, that it may often be better to consider ludic narrative in a gradient (“more or less”) fashion rather than as an “either/or” proposition. In doing so I’m drawing a lot from the cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Consider, to use one of Lakoff’s examples, the concept of “bird,” not as it’s understood scientifically but as it’s thought of in everyday life. Lakoff writes that, while people recognize both robins and emus to be birds, the robin is in some sense also recognized as more “birdy”: it can fly while the emu cannot, it sings while the emu does not, etc. In Lakoff’s formulation, there is some central idea of absolute birdyness (it may be helpful to think of Plato’s ideas about the Good). The robin is closer to this central idea than the emu, but both are close enough that if queried most people would recognize them both to be birds. I believe we can when it suits our purposes consider (potential) ludic narratives in the same way, in which case The Oregon Trail is “more” of a ludic narrative than Adventure, even as we recognize both to basically fit the category. Simply put, the narrative component of The Oregon Trail, the importance of its narrative dimension to both author and player, feels much more significant. There may also be edge cases which fail one of the tests, but which still have the “feel” of ludic narrative. As long as we’re reasonable about these things, it seems pointless to exclude them from discussion because of some arbitrary checklist. So, we can have our scientific definition of a ludic narrative and our instinctual definition, and mix and match and apply them as seems most useful, letting each inform both our understanding of the other and our understanding of the form.

Of course, the modern world of videogames is very different from that of the 1980s. Out of our group of four, text adventures are, at least as of this writing and with a bare handful of exceptions, no longer commercially marketed, while traditional graphic adventures have retreated from near the center of the gaming universe in the early 1990s to a decidedly niche form today. More interestingly, absolutely heaps of videogames, very possibly the majority, now fit into the category of ludic narratives, at least by our “scientific” definition. (Whether Flo’s Fix-It Scramble XXVI: Build a Cake, with the simplistic story it uses to structure its levels, really feels like an exercise in ludic narrative is another matter.) If some of the traditionally story-oriented forms of game have retreated from the mainstream, their absence is more than made up for by the piles of first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and casual tycoon games that now also want to be narrative experiences to one degree or another. One thing that I hope will emerge over time from this blog is a picture of how that happened.

In my next post I plan to work out a couple more theoretical ideas that will complement what I’ve just written and hopefully make the thrust of all this much clearer.

 

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Microsoft Adventure

There’s a good chance that you’ve received a forwarded email at least once or twice during the past ten years or so with the photograph above and a snarky caption such as, “Would you have invested?” The picture shows eleven of the thirteen Microsoft employees as of December 7, 1978, just before the company decamped from its first home in Albuquerque, New Mexico (initially chosen because it was the home of Microsoft’s first customer, the now increasingly irrelevant MITS) for the big time in Seattle. The twelve-year-old at the bottom left is of course Bill Gates himself… and, believe it or not, he’s actually already 23 there.

Ah, what can I say about Bill? I suppose you don’t become a multi-billionaire without leaving some bruised egos in your wake, but old Bill has always had a special knack for pissing people off and generally coming off like the computer industry’s own version of Darth Vader. In the abstract, I’m not sure that he was really so much more evil than most of his peers. Even by the time this photo was taken, the digital utopianism of the People’s Computer Company and Creative Computing was beginning to take a beating from a whole lot of would-be titans of industry looking to get a piece of the new microcomputer action — people like Commodore head Jack Tramiel, who announced that “business is war” and then wondered why all of his business partners and employees were so surprised when he lied to them and betrayed them; or like Steve Jobs, who even before co-founding Apple swindled his best friend out of a $5000 bonus he had earned doing his job for him, disingenuously prattling on about hippie togetherness and Eastern philosophy all the while. Perhaps the closest to moral in this lot was the management of Tandy, who were so unimaginative and so out of touch with their competitors that they couldn’t really be bothered to actively try to wrong them.

The big difference with Gates was that he was so damned good at being evil. While everyone else wound up to one degree or another hoisted from their own petards for their misdeeds, Gates just prospered. He wasn’t so much immoral as amoral. Unlike Tramiel, who seemed to positively revel in his evil, or Jobs, who desperately wanted to be seen as the good guy whatever dirty tricks he was pulling behind the scenes, Gates seemed utterly indifferent to his image and utterly disinterested in the niceties of right and wrong. On a personal level, he seems to have inspired something between ambivalence and out-and-out dislike in everyone who wasn’t directly depending on him for their salary (or, perhaps, the latter group just couldn’t speak up about it). It wasn’t just that his personal hygiene left as much to be desired as his interpersonal skills. Nor was it just that he displayed all the arrogance of both a brilliant programmer and the Harvard scion of a prosperous family; that was to be expected, considering that he was both of these things. No, it was the sheer magnitude of Gates’s need to win and to dominate those around him that made him downright disturbing to be around for so many people. If Gates couldn’t win at something fairly, one never doubted that he would cheat. Hell, if he could win at something fairly but it was just easier to cheat, he’d probably choose the latter course there as well. But, here’s the thing: Gates always cheated smart. If ethics didn’t mean much to him, he was very aware of legalities, and always careful to make sure that even at his shadiest he stayed on the right side of that line. (Of course, he became increasingly less good at that in the 1990s, but that’s a story for another time…) Remember the blinkered MIT nerds that Joseph Weizenbaum railed against in Computers and Human Reason? Well, the young Gates fit that stereotype perfectly, with an added heaping measure of cold-blooded ruthlessness. His wasn’t a personality likely to win a lot of friends. As an investment opportunity, however…

The story of Microsoft Adventure provides a good early illustration of both the very real technical and marketing acumen of Gates’s company and its genius for ignoring ethical considerations while still staying on the right side of the law. It provides an early example of what was already becoming the company’s modus operandi, one guaranteed to piss off idealistic hackers as much as it would delight its financial backers. And, not incidentally, it also represents a very important moment in the continuing evolution of adventure games.

In 1979, fully two years before Gates’s genius stroke in partnering with IBM on the original IBM PC, Microsoft was already a very big fish in the still relatively small pond that was the microcomputer industry of the era, having built a strong business upon the solid foundation of that initial Altair BASIC. In fact, Microsoft was simply the company to go to for a microcomputer BASIC implementation; it provided not only the TRS-80 Level 2 BASIC, but also the BASICs in the Commodore PET and the just-released Apple II Plus. It had also already expanded into other high-level programming languages, producing the first implementations of FORTRAN and COBOL to appear on microcomputers. Microsoft Adventure was part of a new initiative for 1979, the Microsoft Consumer Products Division, which aimed to market games and less esoteric applications to everyday consumers. The division as a whole was arguably somewhat ahead of its time, and would not be a rousing success in the long term. (Microsoft gave up on it within a few years to focus almost exclusively on technical and business products, and, the long-lived oddity Flight Simulator aside, would not begin marketing games and applications directly to home users once again until the 1990s.) For now, though, Consumer Products was big at Microsoft. With adventure games becoming so big on the TRS-80, when an employee named Gordon Letwin said he could port the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, something of a semi-legendary holy grail to microcomputer adventurers, onto the little machine, the go-ahead wasn’t long in coming.

Gordon Letwin is the bearded, black-haired fellow at the far right of the second row in the picture above. Born in 1952 and thus three years older than Bill Gates himself, his character and background is not too far removed from that of other hackers we’ve already met on this blog. A withdrawn, almost disturbingly nonverbal personality, Letwin read non-fiction books by the dozen throughout his childhood and teen years. Upon entering Purdue University as a physics major (the same major Will Crowther had chosen a decade earlier), Letwin found his real calling in the university’s computer center. After university, he got a job with Heath Company, who were well known among electronics hobbyists of the time for their “Heathkits,” do-it-yourself kits that let hobbyists build test equipment, amplifiers, radios, even televisions. In 1977 the line was expanded to include a computer, the H8, for which Letwin designed a simple operating system called H-DOS. He also designed a BASIC of his own, but a young and aggressive Gates, much to Letwin’s chagrin, dropped in on Heath while making the rounds of microcomputer manufacturers to try to convince them to buy Microsoft’s version. Letwin did something interesting, something that few others would ever do: he stood up to Gates. In Gates’s own words:

“There are different ways to do this stuff. His had some advantages which he was pointing out to me. We ended up in this argument between two technical guys. There were about 15 people in the room and no one else could follow along. We’re talking all in terms of data structure, single representations, double scan, stuff like that… Like if you typed a bad line, his would immediately check the syntax, and mine wouldn’t. Which is one of the negative points of our design. Anyway, he was being very sarcastic about that, telling me how dumb that was.”

Deciding perhaps that the adage that no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft was true even in 1977, Heath’s management elected to replace Letwin’s in-house design with Microsoft’s BASIC. This left them with one very angry Letwin. Gates, who whatever his other failings knew talent when he saw it, poached him for Microsoft about nine months later, not too terribly long before the above photograph was taken.

Although Letwin and his wife lived very modestly even years after Microsoft had made them wealthy, he more so than most hackers always knew the value of a buck, and always wanted to get what was coming to him. A 1988 Seattle Times profile alleges that he was a major impetus behind the decision of Gates and Paul Allen to transform Microsoft from a partnership to a corporation in 1981, and to grant him and other early employees like him the shares that would make them very rich indeed by the end of the decade. I mention this here because it may explain something odd about Microsoft Adventure: it was published by Microsoft, but allegedly developed by an entity called Softwin Associates, a company that apparently consisted of only Letwin himself. It seems that Letwin developed Adventure as something of a moonlighting project, then licensed it back to his employer. Why do it that way? Well, doing so gave Letwin the ability to collect royalties on sales as an outside contractor, above and beyond his regular employee salary. That the very finances-focused Gates let him get away with such a scheme probably says a lot about his perceived value to the company.

As Microsoft claimed in the instruction manual, “With Microsoft Adventure, you have the complete version of the original Adventure. Nothing has been left out of the original DEC version.” That stands as quite a neat trick; remember that Scott Adams, himself an experienced programmer, had not even tried to do a direct port but had instead developed Adventureland as its own, much smaller game. How did Letwin manage it?

He first of all took advantage of Radio Shack’s expansion interface, which allowed the user both to expand memory beyond 16 K and to replace cassette-based storage with floppy disks. This was a bold choice in its way, dramatically limiting the potential buyers of Adventure; in its September, 1979, issue, SoftSide reported that “only a few” of its readers had yet bought Radio Shack’s $500 disk drive. Yet Adventure would have been impossible without it.

The benefits of expanded memory were obvious in allowing longer and more complex programs, but those of the floppy disk were both obvious and more subtle. On the obvious level, the floppy was superior to the cassette in every way, allowing users to store much more data on a single piece of media and to save and retrieve it many times faster and with many times the reliability. But another attribute of the floppy would be key to the implementation of major games like Adventure given the still tiny amount of memory 32 K actually is. Unlike the cassette, the floppy was a random-access storage device, meaning the TRS-80 could be programmed to load into memory chunks of data from all over the disk as a program ran. By comparison, reading from the cassette required that the user manually position the tape in the correct position using the player’s counter, then press play… and then, of course, wait, for up to 20 minutes just to load one of Scott Adams’s simple adventures. With a disk drive, then, Letwin could leave all of that text that was stored in an external file even in Crowther and Woods’s original on the disk, loading in only the bit and pieces that he needed as they were needed. He needed only pack the core code of the game itself into his 32 K — not that that was a trivial task in itself, requiring as it did that Letwin port the original FORTRAN code into Z80 assembly language while optimizing everywhere for speed and size. Letwin’s pioneering use of the disk drive as a sort of auxilliary memory would soon enough be everywhere, refined to something of an art by companies like Infocom. Countless classic games would have been simply impossible without it.

The arrival of disk drives also brought with them another, less welcome innovation: copy protection. Every computer has a standard format in which it arranges data on its disks. To simplify rather extremely, locations on the disk are broken down into track and sector numbers, with a master directory stored in some standard location that records all of the files stored on the disk and their location by track and sector; this allows the computer to locate and retrieve files as they are requested. Most early disk copying programs assumed that the disk being copied would be laid out in this standard format, and would simply attempt to copy each file they found in the master directory over to the new disk one by one. It was, however, relatively easy for a program like Adventure to replace the standard disk format with one of its own devising — one that it knew how to read, but which would completely flummox another program expecting a standard format. By later standards, Adventure‘s copy protection was relatively simple, just rearranging the numbering scheme used to identify the different sectors on the disk. It was also relatively kind in allowing at least those with two disk drives to make a single backup copy by entering a special command within the program itself. Later protection schemes would get much more sophisticated, and much less kind.

Microsoft Adventure also points toward the future in its packaging. It shipped in a real box with real, professionally produced artwork and a multi-page, glossy manual written by Dottie Hall. Contrast this with the packaging of the early Scott Adams games, constructed from a plastic sandwich bag, a business card, and a baby formula liner. In 1979, Microsoft was one of the few software companies with the resources to give its products a professional presentation. As the games industry grew more professional and profitable, however, packaging would become a huge part of the whole experience of adventuring, reaching glorious (some might say absurd) heights of lurid artwork, lengthy manuals, included novellas or even novels, elaborate maps (sometimes from cloth or parchment), and evocative physical props (“feelies”).

Microsoft Adventure also started another, related trend that became almost as prevalent: its artwork has almost nothing to do with the actual game it represents.

I certainly never imagined the jokey response to “KILL DRAGON” (“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE JUST VANQUISHED A DRAGON WITH YOUR BARE HANDS!”) playing out quite like that. Although, I guess with sufficient imagination…

Having dwelt on the original DEC versions at length, there’s not really that much to say about the actual playing experience of the version of Adventure that Letwin developed. It is exactly what Microsoft claimed it to be, a slavishly faithful port of the original, minus only such PDP-centric niceties as “cave hours.” I suspect that most of the in-game text is literally the same as that on the PDP original, being the original’s external data file simply copied over to a TRS-80 floppy. Interestingly, Letwin does make an effort to ease some of the original’s more nonsensical puzzles. In the original, for instance, one could earn the “last lousy point” only by dropping the Spelunker Today magazine at Witt’s End, a completely unmotivated action; in Letwin’s version, reading the magazine (new renamed to LWPI for some reason; any readers have any ideas what this might reference?) now yields the vital clue that “ITS ADDRESSED TO WITTS END!” Even better, the richly described but previously useless “Breath-Taking View” now has a purpose of sorts, for Letwin adds a single line that helps out with another notorious puzzle: “WORDS OF FIRE, APPARENTLY HANGING IN AIR, SAY ‘PLOVER.'” What a guy!

Nudges like that aside, Letwin makes just one addition, the “Software Den.”

YOU ARE IN A STRANGE ROOM WHOSE ENTRANCE WAS HIDDEN BEHIND THE CURTAINS. THE FLOOR IS CARPETED, THE WALLS ARE RUBBER, THE ROOM IS STREWN WITH PAPERS, LISTINGS, BOOKS, AND HALF-EMPTY DR. PEPPER BOTTLES. THE DOOR IN THE SOUTH WALL IS ALMOST COVERED BY A LARGE COLOUR POSTER OF A NUDE CRAY-1 SUPERCOMPUTER.

A SIGN ON THE WALL SAYS, “SOFTWARE DEN.”

THE SOFTWARE WIZARD IS NOWHERE TO BE SEEN.

THERE ARE MANY COMPUTERS HERE, MICROS, MINIS, AND MAXIS.

Messing with any of the computers results in:

AS YOU REACH FOR THE ELECTRONIC GOODIES, AN ENRAGED BEARDED PROGRAMMER JUMPS OUT OF CONCEALMENT. “AHA!” HE CROWS, “I’VE FOUND THE SOB (THAT’S ‘SUBTRACT-ONE-AND-BRANCH’) THAT’S BEEN STEALING MY EQUIPMENT! HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THAT MY WIZARDLY SPELLS HELP KEEP THIS CAVE TOGETHER? FIRST, I’LL REMOVE SOME OF THE TREASURES:

DESTROY (TREASURES);

THEN, I’LL REVOKE SOME MAGIC WORDS:

REVOKE (MAGICWORDS);

FINALLY, I’LL KICK YOU DEEP INTO THE MAZE!”

YOURLOC = DEEP.IN.MAZE;

YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTING LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL DIFFERENT.

Talk about your delusions of grandeur…

But now we come to the elephant in the room: the question of credit. At no place in the Microsoft Adventure program or its accompanying documentation do the names of Crowther and Woods appear. We are told only that “Adventure was originally written in FORTRAN for the DEC PDP-10 computer,” as if it were the result of a sort of software immaculate conception. Needless to say, Crowther and Woods were never contacted by Microsoft at all, and received no royalties whatsoever for a program that by all indications turned into quite a nice seller for the company; it was later ported to the Apple II, and was one of the programs IBM wanted available at day one for the launch of its new PC in 1981. Because Crowther and Woods, immersed in old-school hacker culture as they were, never even considered trying to assert ownership over their creation, Microsoft violated no laws in doing this. However, the ethics of cloning someone else’s game design and lifting all of their text literally verbatim, and then copy protecting it (the irony!) and selling it… well, I don’t think that calling it “ethically dubious” is going too far out on a limb. In his famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” of 1976, Gates asserted the moral right of the creators of software to have control over their creations. How to reconcile that stance with Microsoft Adventure? Incidents of commercial co-option of free software like this one are what eventually led to the creation of licenses like the GPL, designed to make sure that free software stays free. If you’ve ever wondered why so many in the open-source communities are so obsessed with the vagaries of licenses, maybe stories like this one will give an idea.

Be that as it may, Gates now seems as dedicated to doing good in the world and giving away his money as he once was to crushing his business competition and amassing it, to which I give a big hooray. I’d say that saving a single child makes up for the dubious aspects of Microsoft Adventure many times over. Gordon Letwin, meanwhile, also stayed with Microsoft for many years, going on to head the ill-fated OS/2 project before retiring on all that stock in 1993. He now also devotes himself to charity, specifically to environmental causes. A second hooray there.

Ironically, Microsoft Adventure is such a perfect clone of the original that it is now the ideal choice of anyone who wants to experience said original in as authentic a form as possible without building a whole virtual PDP-10 of their own. I’ve made a TRS-80 disk image of it available here, which will stay up as long as Microsoft’s lawyers don’t come after me for pirating their stolen 32-year old software and talking bad about their “non-executive chairman,” but for an easier time of things you might want to hunt down the IBM PC version on an abandonware site. If you do go with the TRS-80, you’ll have to play it using the SDLTRS emulator rather than the MESS version, as, due to the on-disk copy protection mentioned earlier, the disk image has to be stored in the “DMK” format — a format that MESS unfortunately cannot read. Really sorry about that!

I’ll be looking at text adventures in 1980 — a very exciting year — soon. But next I want to make a little detour into some theory and then into another genre of story-oriented game.

 

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Two Adventuring Cultures

By the time that Adventureland had its first anniversary, adventure games on the TRS-80 were already amongst the platform’s most popular software offerings. And now, thanks to Scott Adams’s portable adventure engine and the fact that virtually all non-Adams adventures were still written in relatively standard BASIC, they had begun to pop up on other microcomputer platforms as well. A new art form was on the scene. As early as its June, 1979, issue, SoftSide published an “Engagement Announcement” between the TRS-80 and “Fantasy”:

The staff of SoftSide is eagerly anticipating the birth of a new art form as a result of this match. We feel that one of the most creative art forms of the future will be the participation novel, in which you assume the role of a character and alter the direction of the story by your own actions, instead of simply reading what the original author conceived and wrote.

Right now, creative people who’ve been writing elaborate simulation games are working on computer adaptations. The progress they’re making is exciting, with greater things to come! In our December issue, we presented Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio, breaking new ground in simulations on computer. [Written by Reverend George Blank, Paravia was an adaptation / expansion of Hamurabi, a resource management strategy game dating back to 1968 and eventually ported to BASIC by David Ahl, founder of Creative Computing magazine. As the first computer game to explicitly ask the player to play a role in a storyworld of sorts, Hamurabi is of great historical and theoretical significance in its own right.] In May we presented you with Dog Star, bringing us one step closer to the electronic novel. We foresee the time when elaborate simulations of high literary and artistic quality will captivate the leisure hours the way television does today, in much the same manner that television replaced radio drama, and radio drama led to a decline in reading for pleasure.

In March, SoftSide was contacted by the publisher of The Dungeoneer and Judges Guild Journal, two magazines specializing in the simulation game Dungeons and Dragons. In a copy of The Dungeoneer we were surprised to find a list of sixty-one other magazines also specializing in fantasy, war and simulation games. We also discovered that many of these people are starting to use the TRS-80. [I’ll be exploring this linkage between the nascent computer-game industry and the rapidly expanding world of tabletop role-playing games very soon.] Once the creative work they’re doing is suitably married to the computer, the electronic novel will be born! We’re certain the day is not far off, and we intend to be part of it!

Shortly afterward, SoftSide began using the rather awkward term “compunovels” to refer to these new works, the first of many attempts by writers, commentators, and players to get away from the somewhat limiting labels of “adventure games” or (a bit further on) “text adventures” to something reflective of more literary aspirations.

Of course, the idea of the “compunovel” was more aspirational than it was reflective of the reality of 1979, when the Scott Adams games with their childlike diction, “weirdly errant grammar” (in the words of Graham Nelson), and merest stubs of plots were the class of the adventuring field. Indeed, for many contemporaries these claims for literary grandeur must have seemed downright delusional given the reality of the time. It’s to the great credit of the writers at SoftSide that they could see the potential of the new form once freed of the technical constraints of 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage, and of the artistic constraints imposed by programmers attempting to get by as writers.

Still, there was another culture that was largely free of the first if not the second set of constraints: the institutional hacking culture that had birthed adventure games in the first place. By 1979 the big machines hosted quite a variety of them: Zork at MIT; Stuga, the first adventure game created outside of the United States and the first in a language other than English, at Stockholm Computer Central; Acheton at Cambridge University in England; Mystery Mansion at (of all places) the Naval Warfare Engineering Station in Keyport, Washington. Meanwhile others, free of the commercial considerations that were already coming to dominate the microcomputer software market, set about improving and expanding upon the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, creating a dizzying number of variations that have come to be referred to by their maximum possible score. The original game, which offered 350 potential points, is sometimes called Adventure 350, while its successors include Adventure 365, Adventure 550, and many others, finally many years on culminating in the inevitable Adventure 1000. Even Woods himself created an expanded 430-point version before leaving adventure creation behind for good.

The most immediately striking characteristic of all of these games today is their sheer size; they still remain some of the largest text adventures ever constructed in breadth if not depth, boasting hundreds of rooms each. Their scale was a byproduct of the culture that created them. In the hacker ethic, no program was ever considered truly finished; there was always room for more tweaking, more features, just more. Since these games were not commercial endeavors, there was no necessity to declare them done and ship them out the door at any given point. They therefore often remained in a sort of playable development stage for literally years, growing in fits and starts as the interest levels of various contributors waxed and waned. (Another thing which distinguished these games from their microcomputer counterparts, and indeed from most IF of today, is that they tended to be team efforts.) Zork, for instance, first appeared on MIT’s computer system in May of 1977, hot on the heels of the Adventure phenomenon, but was not finished until February of 1979. Even at that point, the game was not really done in any thematic or design sense. Its creators had simply managed to fill up even the cavernous one megabyte of memory on their DEC machine, and thus were physically unable to continue to build yet more new rooms.

If you’re thinking that such a development model might ultimately be as limiting to narrative possibilities as were the absurd hardware limitations of early home computers, well, you’re pretty much right. The team that created Zork, for instance, contained some genuinely talented writers, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the adventuring world of 1979. Yet their best efforts were continually undone by the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome, with descriptions of real imagination and elegance juxtaposed with others of a Scott Adams-like terseness. And the design itself is similarly sprawling and unfocused, with great ideas layered upon less great ones in seemingly random fashion. Zork and other, possibly even larger games like Acheton are vast and chaotic almost to the point of incomprehensibility. In this light the technical constraints of microcomputers, which forced authors to create games that were thought-through, structured designs rather than random sprawls, don’t look quite so bad. Or, to put it another way: bigger is not always better. It’s telling to note that none of these games had a narrative arc anywhere near as tight and coherent as that of The Count.

Still, TRS-80 owners working their way through the constrained environments of Adventureland, Dog Star Adventure, and The Count might be forgiven for casting some jealous glances in the direction of all those rooms, all those objects, all that space for text. It was therefore kind of a big deal when the daddy of all those institutional extravaganzas, Adventure itself, first came home. If Adventure could be made to run on a TRS-80, it seemed reasonable to think that other larger, more ambitious games should soon be possible on microcomputers as well — which was of course exactly what ended up happening. Indeed, within a few years adventure-game development on the big machines would pretty much dry up entirely.

The name of the company that first brought Adventure home via the TRS-80 might just surprise you. More on that, and them, next time.

 

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The Completed Adventure, Part 3

The PDP-10 system on which Don Woods completed Adventure was an expensive resource shared by many; Stanford did not purchase it to enable virtual spelunking. Perhaps to head off the inevitable complaints of his superiors, Woods built into the program the concept of “Cave Hours.” If someone tried to play during times of peak demand — by default from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, excluding weekends and holidays — she was allowed only to take a “short exploration,” limited (by default) to 30 minutes and without the option to save her progress. Some design choices also seem calculated to encourage players to play in shorter sessions over a period of weeks or months rather than binging for hours at a time. For instance, during non-peak periods a player can save her progress, but she is forced to immediately quit the game upon doing so, and cannot restore her session and resume playing for 90 minutes. (Of course, things like this also served, in keeping with the philosophy described in my last post, just to make the game hard.)

These restrictions could be altered by an administrator by entering “MAGIC MODE” at an in-game prompt. If she responds correctly to what follows she becomes a sort of root user, able to change the program’s settings:

MAGIC MODE

ARE YOU A WIZARD?   

YES

PROVE IT!  SAY THE MAGIC WORD!

DWARF

THAT IS NOT WHAT I THOUGHT IT WAS.  DO YOU KNOW WHAT I THOUGHT IT WAS?

NO

NODDG

BMAFH

OH DEAR, YOU REALLY *ARE* A WIZARD!  SORRY TO HAVE BOTHERED YOU . . . 
DO YOU WISH TO SEE THE HOURS? 
YES

         Mon - Fri:  Open all day
         Sat - Sun:  Open all day
         Holidays:   Open all day
DO YOU WISH TO CHANGE THE HOURS?   
NO
DO YOU WISH TO (RE)SCHEDULE THE NEXT HOLIDAY?
NO
Length of short game (null to leave at 30):

NEW MAGIC WORD (NULL TO LEAVE UNCHANGED):    

NEW MAGIC NUMBER (NULL TO LEAVE UNCHANGED):  

Latency for restart (null to leave at 90):

DO YOU WISH TO CHANGE THE MESSAGE OF THE DAY?
NO
OKAY.  YOU CAN SAVE THIS VERSION NOW.   

BE SURE TO SAVE YOUR CORE-IMAGE... 
CPU time 0.01   Elapsed time 33.98

EXIT

The administrator must work out the proper response using a complex cipher algorithm based not only on the randomly chosen sequence of characters the game sends to her but also on the exact current system time. This portion of the source code is obfuscated as much as possible for obvious reasons, although I’m sure the sufficiently determined could work it out. Presumably the algorithm must have been passed secretly among administrators, but this is one aspect of Adventure I’ve never heard too much about. If anyone knows anything more about how this was generally handled, by all means leave a comment to tell us about it.

One interesting aspect of the cave hours system is the way that it treats Adventure not as a narrative or even as a game, but rather as a location — specifically, as a sort of virtual amusement park. The visitor who attempts to enter during peak hours is told, “I’M TERRIBLY SORRY, BUT COLOSSAL CAVE IS CLOSED,” followed by details of its “open hours.” This idea is echoed in the endgame, as the player suddenly finds herself dropped into the control room of this underground park. It all serves to emphasize again that Adventure is ultimately all about location, location, location — and that Don Woods apparently had a bit of an amusement-park fetish.

Whatever its other implications, system administrators would soon have reason to bless Woods for including cave hours, even as they probably cursed him for ever unleashing Adventure upon them in the first place. Because, you see, Adventure turned out to be popular — really, really popular. Solving it became the obsession of hackers across the country and, eventually, all over the world; legend has it that IT departments and university computer-science departments pretty much stopped doing much of anything else until they had won. Even disallowing play during business hours is after all of limited utility when all of the people who are supposed to be accomplishing useful things during said business hours are passed out at their desks after playing Adventure all night. One apocryphal quote claims that Adventure set the entire computing industry back by two weeks.

And once that crisis was passed, lots of hackers in lots of places promptly started trying to make their own versions. Adventure-like games became Adventure games became adventure games, and a genre was born. For several years the most complex examples of the new form continued to appear on larger institutional systems in places like MIT University, the Stockholm Computer Center, and Cambridge University. Jason Dyer has been doing a great job of covering that aspect of early adventure gaming, digging into some largely forgotten works as well as the heavy hitters like Zork. At least for now, though — and, as always, as time permits — I want to look at how the innovations of Crowther and Woods, not to mention those of Gregory Yob and Don Rawitsch and so many others, began to come home, on the first practical home computers that were appearing at the same time that Adventure was paralyzing the world of the institutional computer.

Before I say goodbye to Adventure, here’s a final tally of who created what.

Crowther:
basic concept of the text adventure
compass directions
the dwarves
“Maze of Twisty Little Passages, all alike”
geography and some puzzles up to the “Complex Junction”

Woods:
inventory limit
“Maze of Twisty Little Passages, all different”
cave hours
geography and puzzles from the “Complex Junction”
scoring system
save system
the pirate
limited lamp battery life

You have a lot to answer for, Don Woods! But we love you anyway… at least you didn’t implement any hunger timers.

 

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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 as 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 do 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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