The History of Computing: Colossal Cave Adventure (2024)

Jun 2, 2022

Imagine a game that begins with a printout that reads:

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brickbuilding. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of thebuilding and down a gully. In the distance there is a tall gleamingwhite tower.

Now imagine typing some information into a teletype and thenreading the next printout. And then another. A trail of paper listsyour every move. This is interactive gaming in the 1970s. Laterversions had a monitor so a screen could just show a cursor and theplayer needed to know what to type. Type N and hit enter and theplayer travels north. “Search” doesn’t work but “look” does. “Takewater” works as does “Drink water” but it takes hours to finddwarves and dragons and figure out how to battle or escape. This isone of the earliest games we played and it was marvelous. The gamewas called Colossal Cave Adventure and it was one of the firstconversational adventure games. Many came after it in the 70s and80s, in an era before good graphics were feasible. But theimagination was strong.

The Oregon Trail was written before it, in 1971 and Trek73 camein 1973, both written for HP minicomputers. Dungeon was written in1975 for a PDP-10. The author, Don Daglow, went on the work ongames like Utopia and Neverwinter Nights Another game calledDungeon showed up in 1975 as well, on the PLATO network at theUniversity of Illinois Champagne-Urbana. As the computer monitorspread, so spread games.

William Crowther got his degree in physics at MIT and then wentto work at Bolt Baranek and Newman during the early days of theARPANET. He was on the IMP team, or the people who developed theInterface Message Processor, the first nodes of the packetswitching ARPANET, the ancestor of the Internet. They were longhours, but when he wasn’t working, he and his wife Pat exploredcaves. She was a programmer as well. Or he played the new Dungeons& Dragons game that was popular with other programmers.

The two got divorced in 1975 and like many suddenly singlefathers he searched for something for his daughters to do when theywere at the house. Crowther combined exploring caves, Dungeons &Dragons, and FORTRAN to get Colossal Cave Adventure, often justcalled Adventure. And since he worked on the ARPANET, the gamefound its way out onto the growing computer network. Crowther movedto Palo Alto and went to work for Xerox PARC in 1976 before goingback to BBN and eventually retiring from Cisco.

Crowther loosely based the game mechanics on the ELIZA naturallanguage processing work done by Joseph Weizenbaum at the MITArtificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s. That had been aproject to show how computers could be shown to understand textprovided to computers. It was most notably used in tests to have acomputer provide therapy sessions. And writing software for thekids or gaming can be therapeutic as well. As can replaying happiertimes.

Crowther explored Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky in theearly 1970s. The characters in the game follow along his notesabout the caves, exploring the area around it using naturallanguage while the computer looked for commands in what wasentered. It took about 700 lines to do the original Fortran codefor the PDP-10 he had at his disposal at BBN. When he was done hewent off on vacation, and the game spread.

Programmers in that era just shared code. Source needed to berecompiled for different computers, so they had to. Anotherprogrammer was Don Woods, who also used a PDP-10. He went toPrinceton in the 1970s and was working at the Stanford AI Lab, orSAIL, at the time. He came across the game and asked Crowther if itwould be OK to add a few features and did. His version gotdistributed through DECUS, or the Digital Equipment Computer UsersSociety. A lot of people went there for software at the time. Thegame was up to 3,000 lines of code when it left Woods.

The adventurer could now enter the mysterious cave in search ofthe hidden treasures. The concept of the computer as a narratorbegan with Collosal Cave Adventure and is now widely used. Althoughwe now have vast scenery rendered and can point and click where wewant to go so don’t need to type commands as often. The interpreterlooked for commands like “move”, “interact” with other characters,“get” items for the inventory, etc. Woods went further and addedmore words and the ability to interpret punctuation as well. Healso added over a thousand lines of text used to identify anddescribe the 40 locations. Woods continued to update that gameuntil the mid-1990s.

James Gillogly of RAND ported the code to C so it would run onthe newer Unix architecture in 1977 and it’s still part ofmany a BSD distribution. Microsoft published a version of Adventurein 1979 that was distributed for the Apple II and TRS-80 andfollowed that up in 1981 with a version for Microsoft DOS orMS-DOS. Adventure was now a commercial product. Kevin Black wrote aversion for IBM PCs. Peter Gerrard ported it to Amiga

Bob Supnik rose to a Vice President at Digital Equipment, notbecause he ported the game, but it didn’t hurt. And throughout the1980s, the game spread to other devices as well. Peter Gerrardimplemented the version for the Tandy 1000. The Original Adventurewas a version that came out of Aventuras AD in Spain. They gave itone of the biggest updates of all. Colossal Cave Adventure wasnever forgotten, even though it was Zork was replaced. Zork camealong in 1977 and Adventureland in 1979.

Ken and Roberta Williams played the game in 1979. Ken hadbounced around the computer industry for awhile and had a teletypeterminal at home when he came across Colossal Cave Adventure in1979. The two became transfixed and opened their own company tomake the game they released the next year called Mystery House. Andthe text adventure genre moved to a new level when they sold 15,000copies and it became the first hit. Rogue, and others followed,increasingly interactive, until fully immersive graphical gamesreplaced the adventure genre in general. That process began whenWarren Robinett of Atari created the 1980 game,Adventure.

Robinett saw Colossal Cave Adventure when he visited theStanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1977. He wasinspired into a life of programming by a programming professor hehad in college named Ken Thompson while he was on sabbatical fromBell Labs. That’s where Thompason, with Dennis Ritchie and one ofthe most amazing teams of programmers ever assembled, gave theworld Unix and the the C programming language at Bell Labs.Adventure game went on to sell over a million copies and the genreof fantasy action-adventure games moved from text to video.

The History of Computing: Colossal Cave Adventure (2024)
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