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The Craft of Adventure

Five articles on the design of adventure games

Copyright 1995-6 Graham Nelson. Second edition.
HTML conversion by N. K. Guy, tela design.

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2 - In The Beginning

It’s very tight. But we have cave!

- Patricia Crowther, July 1972

Perhaps the first adventurer was a mulatto slave named Stephen Bishop, born about 1820: ‘slight, graceful, and very handsome’; a ‘quick, daring, enthusiastic’ guide to the Mammoth Cave in the Kentucky karst. The story of the Cave is a curious microcosm of American history. Its discovery is a matter of legend dating back to the 1790s; it is said that a hunter, John Houchin, pursued a wounded bear to a large pit near the Green River and stumbled upon the entrance. The entrance was thick with bats and by the War of 1812 was intensively mined for guano, dissolved into nitrate vats to make saltpetre for gunpowder. After the war prices fell; but the Cave became a minor side-show when a dessicated Indian mummy was found nearby, sitting upright in a stone coffin, surrounded by talismans. In 1815, Fawn Hoof, as she was nicknamed after one of the charms, was taken away by a circus, drawing crowds across America (a tour rather reminiscent of Don McLean’s song ‘The Legend of Andrew McCrew’). She ended up in the Smithsonian but by the 1820s the Cave was being called one of the wonders of the world, largely due to her posthumous efforts.

By the early nineteenth century European caves were big tourist attractions, but hardly anyone visited the Mammoth, ‘wonder of the world’ or not. Nor was it then especially large (the name was a leftover from the miners, who boasted of their mammoth yields of guano). In 1838, Stephen Bishop’s owner bought up the Cave. Stephen, as (being a slave) he was invariably called, was by any standards a remarkable man: self-educated in Latin and Greek, he became famous as the ‘chief ruler’ of his underground realm. He explored and named much of the layout in his spare time, doubling the known map in a year. The distinctive flavour of the Cave’s names - half-homespun American, half-classical - started with Stephen: the River Styx, the Snowball Room, Little Bat Avenue, the Giant Dome. Stephen found strange blind fish, snakes, silent crickets, the remains of cave bears (savage, playful creatures, five feet long and four high, which became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age), centuries-old Indian gypsum workings and ever more cave. His 1842 map, drafted entirely from memory, was still in use forty years later.

As a tourist attraction (and, since Stephen’s owner was a philanthropist, briefly a sanatorium for tuberculosis, owing to a hopeless medical theory) the Cave became big business: for decades nearby caves were hotly seized and legal title endlessly challenged. The neighbouring chain, across Houchins Valley in the Flint Ridge, opened the Great Onyx Cave in 1912. By the 1920s, the Kentucky Cave Wars were in full swing. Rival owners diverted tourists with fake policemen, employed stooges to heckle each other’s guided tours, burned down ticket huts, put out libellous and forged advertisements. Cave exploration became so dangerous and secretive that finally in 1941 the U.S. Government stepped in, made much of the area a National Park and effectively banned caving. The gold rush of tourists was, in any case, waning.

Convinced that the Mammoth and Flint Ridge caves were all linked in a huge chain, explorers tried secret entrances for years, eventually winning official backing. Throughout the 1960s all connections from Flint Ridge - difficult and water-filled tunnels - ended frustratingly in chokes of boulders. A ‘reed-thin’ physicist, Patricia Crowther, made the breakthrough in 1972 when she got through the Tight Spot and found a muddy passage: it was a hidden way into the Mammoth Cave.

Under the terms of his owner’s will, Stephen Bishop was freed in 1856, at which time the cave boasted 226 avenues, 47 domes, 23 pits and 8 waterfalls. He died a year later, before he could buy his wife and son. In the 1970s, Crowther’s muddy passage was found on his map.

The Mammoth Cave is huge, its full extent still a matter of speculation (estimates vary from 300 to 500 miles). Patricia’s husband, Willie Crowther, wrote a computer simulation of his favourite region, Bedquilt Cave, in FORTRAN in the early 1970s. (It came to be called Colossal Cave, though this name actually belongs further along.) Like the real cave, the simulation was a map on about four levels of depth, rich in geology. A good example is the orange column which descends to the Orange River Rock room (where the bird lives): and the real column is indeed orange (of travertine, a beautiful mineral found in wet limestone).

The game’s language is loaded with references to caving, to ‘domes’ and ‘crawls’. A ‘slab room’, for instance, is a very old cave whose roof has begun to break away into sharp flakes which litter the floor in a crazy heap. The program’s use of the word ‘room’ for all manner of caves and places seems slightly sloppy in everyday English, but is widespread in American caving and goes back as far as Stephen Bishop: so the Adventure-games usage of the word ‘room’ to mean ‘place’ may even be bequeathed from him.

Then came elaboration. A colleague of Crowther’s (at a Massachusetts computing firm), Don Woods, stocked up the caves with magical items and puzzles, inspired by a role-playing game. Despite this, very many of the elements of the original game crop up in real life. Cavers do turn back when their carbide lamps flicker; there are mysterious markings and initials on the cave walls, some left by the miners, some by Bishop, some by 1920s explorers. Of course there isn’t an active volcano in central Kentucky, nor are there dragons and dwarves. But even these embellishments are, in a sense, derived from tradition: like most of the early role-playing games, ‘Adventure’ owes much to J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, and the passage through the mountains and Moria of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (arguably its most dramatic and atmospheric passage). Tolkien himself, the most successful myth-maker of the twentieth century, worked from the example of Icelandic, Finnish and Welsh sagas.

By 1977 tapes of ‘Adventure’ were being circulated widely, by the Digital user group DECUS, amongst others: taking over lunchtimes and weekends wherever it went... but that’s another story. (Tracy Kidder’s fascinating book ‘The Soul of a New Machine’, a journalist’s-eye-view of working in a computing firm at about this time, catches it well.)

There is a moral to this tale, and a reason for telling it. The original ‘Adventure’ was much imitated and many traditions are derived from it. It had no direct sequel itself but several ‘schools’ of adventure games began from it. ‘Zork’ (which was to be the first Infocom game) and ‘Adventureland’ (the first Scott Adams game) include, for instance, a rather passive dragon, a bear, a troll, a volcano, a maze, a lamp with limited battery-power, a place to deposit treasures and so on. The earliest British game of real quality, ‘Acheton’, written at Cambridge University in 1979-80 by David Seal and Jonathan Thackray (and the first of a dozen or so games written in Cambridge) has in addition secret canyons, water, a wizard’s house not unlike that of ‘Zork’. The Level 9 games began with a good port of ‘Adventure’ (which was generally considered at the time, and ever since, to be in the public domain, on what legal grounds it’s hard to see) and then two sequels in similar style. All these games had a standard prologue-middle game-end game form: the prologue is a tranquil outside world, the middle game consists of collecting treasures in the cave, the end is usually called a Master Game (Level 9 expanded on the ‘Adventure’ end game somewhat, not so well).

Of this first crop of games, ‘Adventure’ remains the best, mainly because it has its roots in a simulation. This is why it is so atmospheric, more so than any other game for a decade after. The Great Underground Empire of ‘Zork’ is an imitation of the original, based not on real caves but on Crowther’s descriptions. ‘Zork’ is better laid out as a game but not as convincing, and in places a caricature: too tidy, with no blind alleys, no secret canyons. Its mythology is similarly less well-grounded: the long-gone Flathead dynasty, beginning in a few throwaway jokes, ended up downright tiresome in the later sequels, when the ‘legend of the Flatheads’ had become, by default, the distinguishing feature of ‘Zorkness’. The middle segments especially of ‘Zork’ (now called ‘Zork II’) make a fine game, one of the best of the ‘cave’ games, but ‘Zork’ remains flawed in a way that many of Infocom’s later games were not.

In the beginning of any game is its ‘world’, physical and imaginary, geography and myth. The vital test takes place in the player’s head: is the picture of a continuous sweep of landscape, or of a railway-map on which a counter moves from one node to another? ‘Adventure’ passes this test, however primitive some may call it. If it had not done so, the genre might never have started.

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