You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. In the distance there is a tall gleaming white tower.
I’ve heard Willie Crowther’s Adventure (“Colossal Cave Adventure”) from 1976 called the root work of the text adventure game genre at the narrowest, and I’m asking myself why I’d never tried to play it till this week. I realized my picture of the video game history before Super Mario Bros. is a grey mist: I know there’s plenty there, but I’ve never hiked back to explore. Exploring video games’ present – that history’s future – would take well over a lifetime, so one must hike deliberately.
I looked Crowther up on YouTube wanting to see and hear him, and he’s nowhere. He was a programmer, but video games were no mainstream industry. Bearing in mind the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons, and his own love of cave exploration, he crafted this game so his visiting children would have something to do.
The premise is literary: the game’s main character greets you as though from a remote location, saying “I will be your eyes and ears,” and will obey short commands. (And only the first four letters of each word, so please type “NE” instead of “northeast”.) Thus do “you” set out from a forested well house, learn to take and use items, and scout a fantasy-influenced cave. (It took minutes to associate my instruction “take lamp” with my recollections of the phrase “get lamp,” peppered memetically by those who know.)
I played for most of an hour before being killed by a cluster of defensive dwarves (was Adventure also the origin of the “video game death”?). I’m impressed I got anywhere, and I’m not finished.
As the dawn of video games fades beneath the horizon, Adventure will soon be fifty years old.