Sunday, 5 June 2016

Controlling the Story - The Adventure Game

As a kid I loved to explore - though I admit that as an adult I still love to explore, which is probably why I seem to spend most of my leave anywhere but home, and also have a lot of difficulty being stuck for too long in one place, unless that one place happens to be my home. Thus it is probably not surprising that when I was introduced to my first adventure game - Adventure Land - I took to it like a fish to water. Here was a computer game where I could actually explore a mysterious world, and in fact as a kid my intentions wasn't so much to try to complete the game, but to rather get into every single location in the game, which meant that the more locations a game had the more interesting that I found it.

It was adventure games that ended up getting me involved in Dungeons and Dragons - I remember reading one of my Dad's computer magazines which was talking about Dungeons and Dragons and referencing an adventure game known as Colossal Cave. At the time I believed both where one and the same, and when we were at a toy store (or I should probably say Toy Warehouse), in the back corner I discovered the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Box Set. Needless to say that my Dad ended up buying it for me, and when I got home I opened the box and pored over the game, believing that this game and Colossal Cave were one and the same - it turned out that it wasn't, but that is another story.

The First Adventure

You're probably wandering what this Colossal Cave that I'm talking about is. Well, come to think of it if you are reading this post you probably already know what it is all about, but that is beside the point because I'm simply reminiscing on some of the games that I loved when I was a kid. Mind you, despite my fascination with this particular game it was quite a while before I actually managed to get my hands on a copy, the reason being is that the computer my Dad owned didn't have a version that was compatible with it, which meant that I wasn't able to play it until much later (when we finally got a Commodore 64). Okay, while I would suggest that back in those days cross compatibility was something that owning a computer that nobody else owned made it really difficult (and expensive) to get games, I feel that much is the same today - I'm sure there are games that are available on the X-box that aren't available on the Playstation, and if you own a Playstation then I know that you can't play X-box games.

I guess because I owned a Commodore 64, and then when the PC became a games machine, cross-compatibility was not a problem because pretty much all of the gamers I knew owned the same computer that I do (and I have a feeling that one doesn't use a Mac to play computer games). Anyway, once again, and as usual, I've gone off track, so I better get back to my story - Colossal Cave.

Colossal Cave Adventure
The beginning of Colossal Cave

So, the question probably comes about: what is an adventure game, or more precisely, interactive fiction. Well, to put is simply an adventure game is a game that is like a story where you are the protagonist. While these days adventure games have taken many and varied forms, and are more in line with interactive movies, traditionally an adventure game was purely text based, though some of them would have a picture of some, or even all, of the locations, which is why these days that are referred to as interactive fiction.

The original adventure games were purely text, and this had a lot to do with computing power back in the late 60s and 70s. In fact the first adventure that used graphics was for the Apple II and known called Mystery House. This game was actually produced by a company called Sierra Online, a company that we will visit again later in this post, however here is screen shot of the beginning of Mystery House.

Mystery House Screen Shot
Yep, that's what the graphics were like back in the very early 80s.

Colossal Cave

Colossal Cave actually has a very interesting beginning. It first appeared in 1976 and was developed by a couple of engineers, William Cowther and Don Woods, who ironically were working on ARPAnet Routers - and anybody who knows anything about the history of computers will recognise the ARPAnet as being the fore-runner of the modern internet. These guys were Dungeons and Dragons tragics, and it wasn't going to take long for a couple of computer programmers to look for a way to bring the game into the world of computers. The other interesting thing about this game was that when it was completed it is was placed onto the ARPAnet to be downloaded by anybody who wanted to give it a shot - so long before the internet became a commercial phenomena computer games where accessed simply by longing on to the fore-runner of the web and downloading it onto your computer.

As I have mentioned, Colossal Cave was a purely text based game. You simply pictured the locations using your own imagination and instructed the computer through text based commands. In fact I remember one of my friend's mums loved adventure games because she believed that they had immense educational potential, especially in assisting children in learning how to spell, or even learning basic grammar. She actually forbid her children to use the three letter shortcuts (you could enter commands using only the first three letters of a word) an insisted that they type in the entire word.

Colossal Cave Text
Not as fancy as World of Warcraft
The game involved you exploring a cave network (which was based on a network of caves in the author's home state of Kentucky) solving problems and collecting treasures. You would then bring all of the treasures back the hut where you started and drop them, and once you had found and returned all of the treasures then you would win. Mind you, later adventure games went out from simply finding treasures and returning them to a specific location, however in reality it didn't matter whether it was finding parts to fix a spaceship engine, collecting evidence of a murder, or simply stealing some secret plans, this basic concept of collecting the treasures and bringing then back formed the basis of  many adventure games for most of the 80s (it was only when computers become more powerful that they began to morph into stories).

Colossal Cave Map
A pretty good attempt at mapping the Labyrinth
Mind you, it wasn't long before the concept that began with Colossal Cave started to see commercial success, and even the original game was taken by one of the gaming houses, spiced up and had graphics added to it, and then released onto the market.


Well, this is one of those games that have become a staple part of the culture of the geek world. While many of us outside may not understanding the phrase 'you might get eaten by a grue', many of us geeks who grew up in the eighties know exactly what that phrase refers to (and for those who don't, Grues were monsters that existed only in the dark, and if you wandered into an area without any light then you would, pretty quickly, find yourself becoming a snack). The thing with Zork, despite it being essentially a massive treasure hunt, is that the creators placed it in a fairly developed world. The game itself is split into three parts (though the original game was only one game, and it became three for expediency reasons), and the goal is to essentially become the dungeon master. While two of the parts are basically treasure hunts, the game is well known for some really nasty problems (such as the bank vault and the baseball diamond in Zork II), as well as the ever present grue and the phrase "Hello Sailor".

Zork is purely a text adventure, though it took it to another level in having some incredibly detailed descriptions of a number of the rooms, as well as allowing commands that extended beyond the simple two words (though it wasn't hugely complex). One thing that I do remember I would do as a kid was type profantity to see how the computer world react, and of course some of the games did have some rather cute responses to such words (including ending the game).

As for Zork, as far as I'm aware, the original trilogy was never released with graphics. In fact all of Infocom's adventures where known for their complexity and their detailed descriptions. However later releases (such as Zork Zero) began bring graphics and the use of the mouse into them, and the appreciation of the traditional adventure game began to wain.

Zork I Forest Map
A map of the forest
If you are interested in finding out more about this classic game, I found this interesting article while perusing the internet.

Scott Adams Adventures

As I mentioned above, my first experience with adventure games were two of the Scott Adams adventures - Adventureland (which is basically a treasure hunt), and Pirate Adventure (which is also a treasure hunt, but a little more complicated, and is actually based, very loosely mind you, on Peter Pan). I believe there ended up being twelve games in all (not counting the Marvel Superhero adventures that were written for the Commodore 64). The games themselves were very, very basic. The rooms would be described in one or two sentences, and you explored the world using two word commands. The treasures would also be identified with the items having two asterixes to either side, so you knew if you had encountered something important.

Pirate Island Opening
Probably a pretty expensive flat at that, though I doubt it is in Mayfair
Scott Adams did borrow a number of the ideas of his games from popular culture at the time, which included a game based on Mission Impossible, where you had to prevent a nuclear reactor from melting down (and I remember you got into the reactor by throwing a cassette player through the window - as if that was going to work), one in which you had to hunt down Count Dracula, and another where you went to the wild west. As well as that, other games had you exploring (and looting) one of the pyramids, looking for a way to repair your spaceship (after discovering a stargate that allowed you to jump through to different worlds - though you did have to watch out for the black hole), and two where you landed up on an island and went out to discover the origins of humanity - pretty cool for some incredibly basic games (and the puzzles, while, weren't incredibly difficult).

Count Dracula
Meet the Count
Hot on the heels of Scott Adams adventures were the mysterious adventures, written by Brian Howarth. In many ways they are very similar in structure and style to Adam's adventures, and the thing is that they didn't require huge amounts of effort to actually write (I was able to write a few by myself - unlike games today which take an ensemble almost as large as that of a major movie to create). As such one could churn out adventure games pretty quickly, though of course quality control also comes into play.

Another series of adventures that I remember where the Mountain Valley Adventures. Like the others I have mentioned, they were pretty basic and used the simple two word commands. However, unlike others, the thing that made these particular games stand out was that they used very simple graphics that could be generated simply be pressing a couple of buttons on the Commodore 64 keyboards. However, despite their simplicity, the graphics were actually quite well done, and the games really enjoyable.

Sierra Online

The next stage I will look at are the games that came out of the Sierra studios, in particular a series of games known as Kings Quest, Space Quest, and Police Quest. These games were set apart from the earlier adventure games in that not only were they more graphical than their predecessors, but they also used a lot of animation. In fact instead of moving your character around the world through the use to two word commands, you would move the character using a controller. However for more complicated things you ended up resorting to the standard two word command (such as collecting and using objects). The problem that I found with the games was that you didn't necessarily know what was in the room because the games relied a lot more on graphics than on text. The other thing about these games was that they were really, really hard.

Kings Quest
The king outside his castle
Honestly, I never played many of these games, namely because they were written for the PC as opposed to the Commodore 64 (the Commodore simply was not powerful enough to be able to run these games). However, what I can say is that Kings Quest was a series where in the first adventure you had to become king, and then for the rest of the series you simply played various members of the Royal Family.

Space Quest was supposed to be comedy (though I never found them hugely funny - the ones I played that is, which I believe was a grand total of one). The other series, Police Quest, was actually developed by a former police officer, and it wasn't simply a detective adventure where you had to solve a murder, you actually played the role of a police officer, and had to follow all of the protocols to boot.

Police Quest
Now which car do I use?

Oh, I almost forgot, a video - here's a play-thru of Kings Quest V (though it is pretty long):


Which finally brings me to LucasArts - yep, the same George Lucas that was responsible for the Star Wars trilogy (and the not so appreciated Prequal Trilogy). Well, it seems that there wasn't a segment of the entertainment industry that Lucas didn't have his figure in, especially since pretty much every movie that came out of Hollywood (and then some) would have some connection to his special effects company Industrial Light & Magic. However this isn't about George Lucas per se but rather about the games that came out his his studio, including the very popular Monkey Island series.

Monkey Island Tavern
The Tavern from Monkey Island
In many ways LucasArts games were similar to the Sierra games, though LucasArts did come about later, with their first offering being Maniac Mansion (which appeared on the Commodore 64) - in this game you controlled six characters and you explored a haunted mansion complete with a mad scientist. Where as many of the Sierra games were serious (with the exception of Space Quest), the LucasArts games were crafted more like cartoons, which worked very well in that it made good use of the graphic capabilities at the time. They also differed from many of the other adventure games on the market as they were purely point and click - at no point did you need to actually type anything in (though I believe there may have been the occasional need for a keyboard interface).

Maniac Mansion
The first LucasArts Games
Not surprisingly, within a short space of time, LucasArts began to produce games that were connected with the LucasFilm studios, which included offerings from the Indiana Jones franchise. While I haven't played a huge number of these games, I have, in the past, spent hours on some of their games, including Sam and Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and of course the Secret of Monkey Island. However, my favourite LucasFilm game by far would be none other than Zak Mckrakin and the Alien Mindbenders, where you play Zak, and ordinary guy who ends up getting caught up in some extra-ordinary adventures, which concludes with a trip to Mars (by combi-van no less - yep, that is what you could expect from your typical LucasArts game),

Anyway, here is a video:

I was going to finish this post off with a look at interactive fiction today, however after the LucasFilm phenomena I never really followed on with any of the new releases. That didn't mean that I didn't play any adventure games - in fact I would go completely retro and play many of the games from my youth (though with cheats, because I really don't have huge amounts of time to actually work the problems out myself). Even more, I've discovered archives on the internet where people still upload games that they have written (though most of those games are pretty shocking).

If you are interested in some of these games, especially the classic text only games, you can always search the Interactive Fiction Archive, or the Commodore 64 Archive However, as with all downloads, don't do it blindly and make sure your virus scanners are up to date.

Creative Commons License

Controlling the Story - The Adventure Game by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.


  1. I read a story about Colossal Cave, how the game's map was derived from maps made by a former slave who explored it, and later people exploring the original cave who were familiar with the game knew their way around without having been there.

    In high school I made a number of text adventure games, following the model of a example game in a book.

  2. I too had a Commodore (128) as a first computer, and did play some text based games, although not these particular ones. I can't even remember the names, alas. I was never good at video games requiring hand eye coordination, so I usually watched my brother and a friend face off.

  3. Be charming and grin a considerable measure. Try not to speak down about anything. dating for gamers

  4. A game can be poorly made but it's not always the case where the game itself is bad. It could be where it was the wrong type of game for the wrong person.