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History of Colossal Cave Adventure Part 1 - The First Text Adventure Game


The adventure game genre has evolved and expanded as quickly as the video game industry itself, spawning one time industry giants such as Infocom, Sierra On-Line and LucasArts, and expanded into cross-genre games including RPGs such as Legend of Zelda and action-adventure games like God of War.

If you take all of the graphs, rich animations, epic audio and advancing technology, at the core of all adventure games is the story, and one of the oldest, most universal way of telling a story is though text.

In 1975 programmer Will Crowther conceived a new type of interactive computer game, one that could be as rich, deep and expansive as the text that described it, and would go on to create an entirely new genre that started with the name Adventure, but would go on to become Colossal Cave Adventure.

Basic Facts:

  • Title: Colossal Cave Adventure aka Adventure ala Colossal Cave
  • Original Creator: Will Crowther
  • Original Platform: PDP-10 Computer
  • Genre: Text Adventure
  • Original Release Date: 1975

The original creator and inventor of the text-adventure game was Will Crowther, a programmer for the computer tech company BBN Technologies, which at the time specialized in early predecessors to the internet, including the peer-to-peer email network ARPANET, and developing the first computer time sharing system.

In addition to being a programmer, Will, along with his wife Patricia, were well-known cave exploration enthusiast, called Cavers, with several books including them in the ranks of some of the best cave explorers At the time that Will came up with the idea of CCA, he and Patricia were going though a difficult divorce.

In the book Genesis II Creation and Recreation With Computers by Dale Peterson, Will Crowther explains his state of mind at the time...

"I had been involved in a non-computer role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons at the time, and also I had been actively exploring in caves... Suddenly, I got involved in a divorce, and that left me a bit pulled apart in various ways. In particular I was missing my kids. Also the caving had stopped, because that had become awkward, so I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids...My idea was that it would be a computer game that would not be intimidating to non-computer people, and that was one of the reasons why I made it so that the player directs the game with natural language input, instead of more standardized commands."

Will began designing a game that would take the player though a fantastical cave that delivered the same dangers, treasures, and wonder as pen and paper roll-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, and modeled his creation after the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. During these emerging days of computer technology we had advanced from computer interfaces consisting of punch cards, to being able to directly input data via a keyboard. Graphics, however, were still primitive and would not allow for a rich narrative experience that moved the player though numerous environments. In order to be able to bring the full layout and feeling that he needed, Will decide on an entirely text based game.

Coding in the programming language FORTRAN, Crowther built the first iteration of his text adventure game using the PDP-10 computer in his lab at BBN Technologies. Will finished his creation in 1977, titling the game simply as "Adventure".

Players started at the surface in front of a mysterious brick building surrounded by forest, and soon find a secret passage into an underground cave system that was crafted to be an exact match to the Bedquilt Cave area of the Mammoth Cave system.

Of course Bedquilt Cave didn't include weapons, treasure and dangers such as evil dwarves and pirates, but many who have been to the Bedquilt Cave say the in-game descriptions and path are an exact match.

This first version contained a limited inventory system and key commands that would trigger specific areas of the code in response, so when the player typed "Look" it would describe their surroundings, "take" it would collect any objects available or tell the player that there is nothing to collect, and respond to the direction the player typed in that they wanted to move.

The game also included a magic word that could be used to teleport between key locations: "XYZZY". While Will insists that this is a nonsense word that he made up out of need, but many have theorized that the code is an in-joke or has a mathematical secret behind it. Regardless the term has become as synonymous with text and graphical adventure games, which regularly include it to unlock secret items and Easter Eggs, or as part of the main gameplay.

Friends and family all enjoyed Will's creation and he uploaded it to the PDP-10 time sharing system that uploaded the games code to share with other PDP-10 computer labs across the country.

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