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Adventures in Text - The Origin of Adventure Games

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Today with graphically rich games in high definition, with 3D art so detailed that you can literally see the pours in a characters skin, and every strand of their flowing hair, it's hard to believe there was a time when the visuals for an adventure game existed only in the mind's of the players, because in the early days of home computing we had text adventure games.

So What is a Text Adventure Game?:

Also known as Interactive Fiction, a text adventure game is exactly what it sounds like, a game that consists only in text. Using a computer and keyboard interface, the program describes to the player the environments, using using words over graphics, with the player typing in their next direction, movement, or action.

The Elements of a Text Adventure Game::

Although it was still in the early stages, back in the mid-'70s video games were already starting to become a part of our popular culture, thanks to the first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, and the early arcade games such as Computer Space and Pong. These games consisted of simple graphics and sounds, but little in the way of story, with the exception of a set up scenario that was told outside of the game instead of within it.

The reason for this was that the game hardware and memory couldn't handle more than a series of simple graphics and controls. Levels were repetitious and it took advantage of reusable graphics, audio and actions.

In order to tell a story you needed forward progression, multiple environments, and a way of communicating it all to the player, but the technology simply wasn't powerful enough at that time. Then in 1975/76, a computer engineer with an obsession with cave exploration came up with the answer.

Colossal Cave Adventure:

Will Crowther, an avid cave explorer and programmer for BBN Technologies, wrote a program using the PDP-10 computer (12 years earlier Spacewar! would be developed on the PDP-1) that could contain the paths he mapped out, objects, and a basic inventory system, all of which would respond to basic commands input by the player.

The concept of the game was that the player would explore, find objects and avoid dangers in an underground gave that mirrored the Mammoth Cave System in Kentucky.

Crowther's program was then shared with other computer labs via the PDP-10's time sharing system, a precursor to today's server or cloud system where different PDP-10 computer labs could download shared data and build upon it, then upload it for another lab to download and work on.

Originally titled Adventure, Crowther's game was discovered by other programmers via the times haring system, who built upon it creating more narrative and complex systems. As the game evolved, so did its title, and eventually it became known as Colossal Cave Adventure.

Then Came Zork:

The first commercially available text adventure game was also developed on the PDP-10, this time by a group of programmers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure, the game was given the hacker slag name Zork and featured a fully rich fantasy narrative, randomized events, and could understand a multitude of words and directions.

Although it started out in an MIT computer lab, the year the game was completed three of Zork's original team members formed adventure studio Infocom who released home computer ports of the original Zork game across three volumes. Infocom would go on to be a major developer and publisher of text adventure games.

Colossal Cave Adventure Inspires Graphics:

Another historical game inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure was conceived when Ken Williams brought home an Apple II computer for his work at IBM. The Apple II contained a port of Colossal Cave Adventure, and when he and his wife Roberta played though it, she quickly became inspired.

Roberta wrote up the designs for a new kind of adventure game that featured both text and graphics that not only accompanied accompanied one another, but worked together to integrate a rich interactive experience. Ken took her designs and wrote up an interactive program that could handle both the progressive text and images. The couple ended up creating Mystery House, the first graphical adventure game, and started selling it mail order in the back of computer magazines.

Ken and Roberta went onto form Sierra On-Line, one of the biggest adventure game publishers in the industry.

Text Adventure Goes From Commercial to Cult:

Over the next several years both text and graphical adventure games remained popular, but eventually as home computers became more powerful, and the graphics and design of games evolved to better integrate a rich narrative, text adventures began to lose their commercial value.

Today text adventure games continue to maintain a cult following, and while Zork regularly seeing re-releases on PC, mobile and tablet devices, the real place they remain popular is with fan made games. Using The Adventure Game Toolkit, thousands of text adventure enthusiasts create their own homebrew games, with two annual contents recognizing the best in the bunch, the Interactive Fiction Competition and Spring Thing.

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