Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Game 5: Colossal Cave Adventure (1977)

Though I'm net yet out of the PLATO RPG wilderness, it's time to move ahead to something entirely different.  I haven't finished with Moria, and probably won't for a long time, but a blog needs to be fed.  And so I come to Adventure, also known as Colossal Cave Adventure, the first ever text adventure game.

The original version of Adventure was developed by programmer Will Crowther.  Crowther was also a caving enthusiast, and much of the game was modelled after his experiences exploring the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky.  Crowther's game is not the version that most people played, though.  In 1976, a student at Stanford University named Don Woods discovered Adventure, and set about expanding it.  He did so with Crowther's blessing, and greatly added to the fantasy elements of the game.

The influence of Adventure cannot be understated.  It directly influenced Ken and Roberta Williams to found Sierra On-Line, and was the progenitor of an entire genre of games.  Not only that, but it was later released commercially for systems such as MS-DOS and Commodore 64, and has been rewritten and expanded even further by a multitude of programmers over the years.

The question that faces me at this point is: which version should I play?  Crowther's original is out there, and I've messed around with it and mapped it, but it's incomplete.  There's no real goal as such, and no point-scoring system, and many of the areas are unfinished.  It's a fascinating historical curiosity, but not a complete game.  The commercially released versions, as well as the expanded versions made after Don Woods' involvement, would be playable, but they fall well out of the time-frame that I'm currently exploring.  I may revisit them at a later date, but for the moment I'm sticking with the 1970s.

I'll be playing the Don Woods version, also known as Adventure 350 due to the number of points scored in the game for solving all of the puzzles.  It's the earliest version, it's the most well-known, and to be perfectly honest it's the one I'm most interested in.  Finding a copy of this isn't difficult, but finding one that runs on Windows 7 is a bit harder.  I'm running it using Dosbox, and that seems to work fine, though I'm not certain whether the version of Adventure that I got has any added features that were not in the original.

When the game first loads, it asks if you want to read the instructions.  Typing 'YES' brings up the screen above, which tells you that the goal of the game is to enter Colossal Cave and look for treasure.  The rest of the instructions confirm what I already expected: this is going to be a traditional text adventure, with loads of typing and a command parser and all the frustration that entails.  I'm actually a little bit surprised that the game accepts abbreviations like N, in lieu of typing GO NORTH.  I'd expected that was something that would be introduced later in the genre, but here it is right at the beginning.  It's a pleasant surprise.

Typing 'INFO' as instructed brings up another screen that gives more information about scoring in the game.  You get points for finding the various treasures, and more points for bringing them back to the building at the start of the game.  Points are also awarded for finding certain areas, and it also mentions a "master's section", which I don't like the sound of.

The adventure begins, as you can see above, with you standing in a forest next to a building, with a gleaming tower in the distance.  Obviously the house is the first thing I should explore, and after a bit of trial and error I found that I could enter by going west (by typing W), and also by typing IN, and even HOUSE.  In fact, typing HOUSE anywhere on the surface brings you back here, which has been quite handy in the instances that I've become disoriented.

Inside the house I found a set of keys, some food, a bottle of water, and a lamp.  The influence of this game on Zork is very strong.  No doubt this is the building that I have to return all of the treasures to, and I'll be coming back here quite a lot during my quest.

Next I went to the tower, but there wasn't a lot that I could do there.  The door was firmly closed, and I couldn't unlock it with the keys (unless I haven't used the right command, which is always a caveat when playing these kinds of games).  A curious sign on the tower read "NO ENTRY DANGER PARTICLES AT WORK".  This made no sense to me, so I made a note of it and left to explore further.

Aside from the house and the tower, there's not much to see on the surface.  The forest feels larger than it really is, because it often randomises your destination when you leave, and it can feel like you are lost at times.  The only thing to do is to follow the stream down through a valley to a locked grate.  The keys unlock the grate, and it's a simple matter then to go down into Colossal Cave.

At first the cave is quite linear.  It begins in a small chamber.  Away from this chamber the caves are dark, and I needed to light my lamp to explore further.  West from there is a tunnel, where I found an empty wicker cage.  West of that is a room full of debris.  On the floor I found a three foot black rod, topped with a rusty star, but of more interest was a note on the wall.

XYZZY!  I've seen this work referenced before, and I knew it was from Adventure, but I never really knew the context of it before.  I did a bit of experimentation, and worked out that if I type XYZZY while in this room I am teleported to the building on the surface.  Likewise, if I type it while in the building, I'm teleported back to this room.  It doesn't work anywhere else, alas.  I suppose it's handy, but it doesn't really save much time.  I expect it will be used to solve a puzzle later on.

Heading west led through a canyon and into a cave where a bird was singing.  I tried to get the bird, but no matter what I tried (GET BIRD, USE CAGE, WAVE ROD) it always flew away from me.  I tried dropping the cage and leaving the room, and I tried putting food in the cage (you can't).  In the end I resorted to typing HELP, as the game had instructed earlier.  That brings up a screen that mostly tells you ways to navigate the game, and also that you can look at what you are carrying by typing INVENTORY (or I).  Of most interest to me, though, is a note that there is a black rod in the caves that scares the bird.  I was a little miffed that the solution to the first puzzle was given away like that, but then again I did go to that screen seeking hints.  I dropped the rod, and was easily able to get the bird in the cage.  I'd "solved" the first puzzle, but that was all the help the game was going to give me.  The rest I'd have to do on my own.

Further west was a pit, with stairs leading down to a room full of mist.  To the west was an impassable fissure.  I went south and found a room containing a huge nugget of gold.  A note on the wall read "You won't get it up the stairs", and sure enough, after I picked up the nugget I found that I was unable to climb back up.  I left the nugget behind (as it was heavy, and I'd had to discard some items to pick it up), and decided to explore for an alternate route to the surface.

At this point a dwarf appeared, threw an axe at my head, and ran away.  I'm not sure if I could have died here.  Normally I would think not in this kind of game, but it's always hard to say when you're exploring the earliest days of a genre, before the conventions were set.  Regardless, I was able to retrieve the axe, and felt a little bit safer for it.

Heading north I came to the Hall of the Mountain King, which sounded suitably epic.  The first hint of danger was introduced, as a huge green snake was blocking my way onwards.  I didn't have much trouble with this, to be honest.  The first thing I tried was to release the bird from its cage, and sure enough it chased the snake away.  I'm not sure if I've encountered a similar puzzle in a later game, or if there's a mythological story that it's drawing from, but the answer popped into my head right away.  I'm good at this!

At that point a hostile dwarf wandered into the room, and hurled a knife at me.  It missed, but I started to panic.  Nothing I seemed to type was working.  I tried KILL DWARF and HIT DWARF, but the game seemed incredulous that I would try to do so with my bare hands.  I tried KILL DWARF WITH AXE before remembering that the parser only accepts two word commands.  Eventually I settled on THROW AXE, and that worked.  My axe hit home, and the dwarf vanished in a "puff of smoke" (or as I prefer to imagine it, a "gout of blood").  (You may notice that the "puff of smoke" isn't shown in the screen-grab below.  Confession time: most of these images were created after the fact, with me trying to recreate the original occurrence.  I couldn't get the puff of smoke this time.)

After this I did a bit more exploring, and hit the mother lode.  South of the Hall of the Mountain King, I found some jewellery.  To the west, I found some gold coins.  To the north, I found some bars of silver.  No doubt these were some of the treasures I was looking for, and if I added that gold nugget from earlier I had already discovered four of them.  I tried to load up, only to discover that I couldn't carry anything else.  It looked like an inventory limit was something I would have to contend with, and it wasn't just restricted to the heavy gold nugget as I'd hoped.

At this point I got a bit lost while wandering around, and couldn't find my way back to familiar territory.  Then, horror of horrors, I encountered this nightmare.

I mentioned this game's influence on Zork earlier, but I hadn't realised exactly how strong it was.  I had stumbled into a maze of twisty passages, all different.  You'll notice that each one has a different description, and I could probably use this to map them.  Not right now, though.  Right now I'm too dismayed, and I'm having horrible Zork flashbacks, and I need to have a little lie down.  It's time to quit and start again.

Despite this setback, though, I'm having a lot of fun with Adventure.  It's surprisingly sophisticated, and the emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving is a welcome relief from Moria and the other RPGs I've been playing.  I'm pretty excited to load it up and try again.

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