Adventure games were my bread and butter during my formative gaming years, but my only exposure to text adventures was Infocom’s library. Scott Adam’s Adventureland is the next whale, and is considered to be the first commercial adventure game ever, predating all extant versions of Zork. Both Adventureland and Zork were primarily influenced by a PDP-10 game, Adventure, whose version history is much longer and more complicated than I would care to fully explore.
In short, Adventure was created around 1976 by William Crowther, as a text adventure set in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky. In 1977, Don Woods took the source code and greatly expanded upon it, and this version formed the basis for countless derivatives and iterations since.
Above is an almost hilariously oversimplified roadmap to Adventureland, which was made as an attempt to adapt Adventure to a 16KB microcomputer. In truth, an accurate graph of the versions of Adventure by Woods would look like a maze of twisty little passages, all different.
I don’t know which version of Adventure was played by Scott Adams, or by the Zork team, or by Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams, who often wrote about Colossal Cave Adventure and its influence on her. I don’t know which version formed the basis of Microsoft Adventure, which was the first IBM PC game ever. But I am satisfied that there exists an original Crowther version, that there is an original Woods version based on its final revisions, and that the original Woods version is the template and namesake of the entire commercial adventure genre, as well as a major influence on MUDs and by extension MMORPGs.
Crowther’s Adventure was presumed lost for decades, but the source code was found in 2007, and subsequently ported to Windows. Rather than figure out how to emulate a PDP-10 and compile FORTRAN, I’ve decided to play this Windows port, confident that I’m not going to miss out on much by playing a text-only port of a text-only game.
The package comes with two identically sized executables named “advf4-11” and “advf4-31,” which represent the state of Adventure on March 11 1977 and March 31 1977 respectively. I did check the differences in the source code and dat files, and it looks like the main differences in the 3/31 version are that some line numbers and variable names have been changed, and a subroutine called “SHIFT” is added, though I can’t deduce its purpose. Some bugs have been fixed too. For instance, the command “ENTER STREAM” isn’t recognized by the 3/11 version even though there is code for it, while it does produce results in the 3/31 version. Woods claims the 3/11 source and data represents Crowther’s original work, and I’m assuming the changes in the 3/31 version are Woods’, so I played the 3/11 version.
Immediately upon loading it up, the output window shows a cryptic message that I’m guessing is a vestige of the PDP-10 environment:
PAUSE INIT DONE statement executed
To resume execution, type go. Other input will terminate the job.
Typing “go” proceeds, and the game offers these instructions:
SOMEWHERE NEARBY IS COLOSSAL CAVE, WHERE OTHERS HAVE FOUND
FORTUNES IN TREASURE AND GOLD, THOUGH IT IS RUMORED
THAT SOME WHO ENTER ARE NEVER SEEN AGAIN. MAGIC IS SAID
TO WORK IN THE CAVE. I WILL BE YOUR EYES AND HANDS. DIRECT
ME WITH COMMANDS OF 1 OR 2 WORDS.
(ERRORS, SUGGESTIONS, COMPLAINTS TO CROWTHER)
(IF STUCK TYPE HELP FOR SOME HINTS)
The “help” command prints these hints:
I KNOW OF PLACES, ACTIONS, AND THINGS. MOST OF MY VOCABULARY
DESCRIBES PLACES AND IS USED TO MOVE YOU THERE. TO MOVE TRY
WORDS LIKE FOREST, BUILDING, DOWNSTREAM, ENTER, EAST, WEST
NORTH, SOUTH, UP, OR DOWN. I KNOW ABOUT A FEW SPECIAL OBJECTS,
LIKE A BLACK ROD HIDDEN IN THE CAVE. THESE OBJECTS CAN BE
MANIPULATED USING ONE OF THE ACTION WORDS THAT I KNOW. USUALLY
YOU WILL NEED TO GIVE BOTH THE OBJECT AND ACTION WORDS
(IN EITHER ORDER), BUT SOMETIMES I CAN INFER THE OBJECT FROM
THE VERB ALONE. THE OBJECTS HAVE SIDE EFFECTS - FOR
INSTANCE, THE ROD SCARES THE BIRD.
USUALLY PEOPLE HAVING TROUBLE MOVING JUST NEED TO TRY A FEW
MORE WORDS. USUALLY PEOPLE TRYING TO MANIPULATE AN
OBJECT ARE ATTEMPTING SOMETHING BEYOND THEIR (OR MY!)
CAPABILITIES AND SHOULD TRY A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TACK.
TO SPEED THE GAME YOU CAN SOMETIMES MOVE LONG DISTANCES
WITH A SINGLE WORD. FOR EXAMPLE, 'BUILDING' USUALLY GETS
YOU TO THE BUILDING FROM ANYWHERE ABOVE GROUND EXCEPT WHEN
LOST IN THE FOREST. ALSO, NOTE THAT CAVE PASSAGES TURN A
LOT, AND THAT LEAVING A ROOM TO THE NORTH DOES NOT GUARANTEE
ENTERING THE NEXT FROM THE SOUTH. GOOD LUCK!
You start in a location called End of Road, which is connected to a building with a key, a lamp, and some other items. This outdoor area also has a forest, a valley, a stream, and a locked grate leading to the cave system below. Intentional or not, this is a good example of gating in game design; the grate seals off the vast caves until you’ve located the building within the relatively small area above and taken the keys, and then you’ll likely have also taken the absolutely necessary lamp and other items before you go spelunking.
Down below, it got dark, so I turned the lamp on (“light lamp” since the game only recognizes two word commands). The first few rooms of the cave are laid out in a linear manner from east to west. Along the way are more items, a cage, a rod, and a small, singing bird which can be taken if you have the cage, but not if you are carrying the rod. The helpfile mentioned this. At the end of this passageway are steps leading down a pit.
On the next level things got more cavernous. A “hall of mists” connects to three new rooms:
- “Hall of the Mountain King” to the north, with more passages off in all directions, but a giant snake blocks them all off except the one I entered from.
- “East bank of fissure,” warning me that the fissure is too wide to jump. Jumping would have certainly killed me in an Infocom game, but here it just says
“THERE IS NO WAY ACROSS THE FISSURE.”
- “Nugget of gold room,” containing a gold nugget and a warning on the wall “
YOU WON’T GET IT UP THE STEPS.” True enough, you can’t return to the first level from the hall of mists when holding the golden nugget.
In this area, a dwarf chucked an axe at me, missed and ran away, so I took the axe. I tried to kill the snake with it, but the game just didn’t recognize any of my attempts to command it. “
THROW AXE” prompted a suggestion to use the command “
ATTACK” instead, but this too proved useless, as it responded
“ATTACKING THE SNAKE BOTH DOESN’T WORK AND IS VERY DANGEROUS.”A second, knife-wielding dwarf showed up in the hall of mists, but quickly fell to my axe. A third showed up immediately after, who was just as easily killed. No more showed up after that.
At this point, the snake was blocking my only way forward. I dropped my gold nugget, returned to the first level, grabbed the rod (the bird didn’t mind), and descended again, recollecting the gold. I tried waving the rod at the snake, but nothing happened. I dropped the bird, and it chased the snake away! Go figure.
Past the hall of the Mountain King are a south chamber, west chamber, and a north passage with a hole leading to a lower passage. These rooms contain jewelry, coins, and silver bars, which I took, and the west chamber continued “west and up.” I took the north passage to a large room with a rock marked “Y2,” and then –
A HOLLOW VOICE SAYS ‘PLUGH’
I typed ‘
PLUGH’ right back – I knew about this already – and got teleported to the building, where I dropped off my treasures.
PLUGHtook me right back to the Y2 room. From there, there were passages leading to a dead-end room described as a “window on a huge pit,” a jumble of rock, and a passage from there leading right back to the hall of mists. There were two unexplored avenues, the hole in the north passage, and the west chamber of the HOTMK. I took the hole.
This led to a third level with only a few rooms laid out simply. The west passage led to a room of dusty rocks and another hole in the floor. The east passage led to the brink of a climbable pit with nothing in it but a tiny stream. Third level fully explored, I went west and down the hole.
Down on the fourth level is a room called a “complex junction.” Here, there is a literal warning sign of the game’s unfinished nature:
A SIGN IN MIDAIR HERE SAYS 'CAVE UNDER CONSTRUCTION BEYOND
THIS POINT. PROCEED AT OWN RISK.'
It’s not kidding. Past this point to the west, a new room is described as:
YOU ARE IN BEDQUILT, A LONG EAST/WEST PASSAGE WITH HOLES EVERYWHERE.
TO EXPLORE AT RANDOM SELECT NORTH, SOUTH, UP, OR DOWN.
Half of these directions don’t work. East goes back to the complex junction. West goes to a room described as having walls like Swiss cheese. The rest sometimes loop me right back to bedquilt, and sometimes new rooms in a network of canyons that all eventually lead to dead ends, or to the Swiss cheese room, or back to the dirty passage, or even all the way back to the HOTMK. The Swiss cheese room and rooms past it likewise indicates passage in directions that don’t work, have passages that randomly send you off to canyons or back where you came from, and one passage outright crashes the game! Interestingly, this is also the only area of the game where inter-cardinal directions (NW/NE/SE/SW) work, which suggests that this feature, along with the semi-random navigation, were late additions.
In any event, there’s nothing down here to be interacted with or taken, so that left the west chamber of the HOTMK as the last remaining area to explore.
Past the west chamber is a crossover, and a long hall leading to the west side of the fissure, with diamonds on the edge, which I took. Going south from the hall led me to this infamous location:
YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL ALIKE.
The infamous MOTLP! Almost every room in this maze has the exact same description, and at least three exits. To navigate, I would drop my treasures, one per room, to use them as breadcrumbs.
Eventually I had the maze mapped out completely. It wasn’t that hard; the maze layout is fairly logical and not terribly complex. At the end of the maze is a brink of a pit, which I crawled down, leading back to the bird room, and from there an easy way out of the cave. I returned to the surface with all of my treasure. The game doesn’t recognize this feat or any sort of victory condition as far as I can tell. There’s simply nothing more to be done, so I stopped playing.
It’s a miracle that this version even exists, so this is likely the only proof of Crowther’s original vision of Adventure we’ll ever get to see. It’s fairly bare bones and clearly unfinished, with several indications of things that were meant to come:
- A scarcity of puzzles and treasure; there are no puzzles past the HOTMK, and all of the treasures are fairly close by. Afterward there’s nothing else to do but explore rooms.
- Past the complex junction, where a warning sign suggests the game is still being developed, internal consistency just seems to fall apart, with navigation rules suddenly changing, directions not working like they should, and one passageway that instantly returns you to the surface and then crashes the game.
- The rod item found on the first level seems to serve no purpose, even though every other item on the first floor is useful. The source code suggests it can be used to cross the fissure, but I couldn’t figure out how. The game accepts the commands “SHAKE ROD” and “WAVE ROD,” but nothing happens when you do.
- Source code indicates “BLAST” is a valid command. When typed it responds “BLASTING REQUIRES DYNAMITE,” but there is no dynamite in the game.
Even in this primordial and unfinished Adventure, we can see fundamental and stereotypical elements of the genre emerging:
- Focus on exploring nodal rooms, each with a unique description
- Traversal of rooms through cardinal directions, plus Up, Down, and sometimes Exit
- Game world structured as a mostly orthogonal graph, with persistent changes
- Nemeses who autonomously wander the game world
- Inventory items and treasures
- A two-word parser, accepting “VERB NOUN” commands, and recognizing multiple synonyms for the same command
- A “look” command
- Lock and key puzzles
- Moon logic puzzles
- Conditional logic (e.g. you can’t climb steps to the hall of mists if you are carrying the gold nugget)
- Dumb ways to die
- Dark rooms that require a light source to survive
- Elements of a fantasy theme
- Recognition when the user types swear words
Some crucial elements of the genre are not present at all, though:
- Saving and loading
- Any way of checking your inventory
- An ending
My final map - many redundant passages have been excluded for the sake of legibility.