When I was in college, the interactive text-based program called Adventure transported me to a place where logic, curiosity and humor were equally valuable tools, where I could escape from the stuff of daily life. In the game, I could be a treasure hunter and intrepid explorer, and I got an infinite number of "do-overs." Like many of the best stories, Adventure inspired me to action. Such as sneaking into the computer lab in the middle of the night to solve just one more puzzle.
The story goes that Adventure was shared person-to-person, mainframe-to-mainframe from Stanford to MIT. Programmers reportedly lost a week of coding time to this brand new toy. Two weeks, for those who set out to build their own versions. An apocryphal senior was so captivated by the world of the Colossal Cave that he failed to graduate.
It started with Will Crowther, who built the game’s framework in the early 1970s while developing assembly language programming for ARPAnet. Along the way, he developed computer simulations of maps and incidentally spurred the creation of a new gaming genre. Next was Don Woods, a student working in Stanford’s AI lab, who discovered Adventure on one of the university systems.
Woods supposedly reached out to Crowther by sending email to “Crowther@ every computer on the internet” -- which at that time was a pretty small number.
Like many others who came after him, Woods sought to expand the game world, invent new puzzles and contribute to the Adventure narrative. These early game writers anticipated crowd-sourced digital storytelling by a good three decades. That’s like ancient history on the gaming timeline. But Adventure lives on.
There’s no need to prowl the nearest campus for unlocked doors or windows anymore. If you’d like to play the original, it’s here. And there are a bunch of apps that allow you to crack puzzles on your favorite hand-held: search for "Colossal Cave" or just check out my favorite. I’d argue that Adventure’s early impact stemmed from the novelty of its quirkily engaging delivery system – computer as storyteller, parsing just one or two words at a time to invoke the very human experience of imagination.
But that’s not what has kept interest in Adventure alive. Again like some of the best stories, Adventure blends the new and the archetypally familiar. The game balances magic (elves, wands) and realism (the actual topography of Colossal Cave in Kentucky). Adventure is a place where control and chaos meet. It offers the fulfillment provided by mastery – whether understanding the architecture of the world or the logic of its challenges. And it captivates us with the unexpected. It is a place where we can abandon our preset boundary conditions and generate new-made selves time and again.