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Beyond the Balrog
The Evolution of Text Adventures

by Tim Miller of UVGM

Playing with parsers and talking with text ...
Tim Miller remembers the long-gone days of the text adventure.

James Sutherland's sig currently reads "You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building." For those unfamiliar with that phrase, you can see it by visiting this link, and starting the game. It's the first line of Adventure, the first-ever text adventure, or interactive fiction game. Over the past 25 years it's spawned an entire genre, more than one in fact, and yet nowadays you can't find a
single text-adventure to buy in any shop.

Well, that's not exactly true. Of the genres that Adventure founded, several are just about still around, although they've evolved almost beyond recognition. Full Throttle, Monkey Island, the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, Dizzy and Zork ... all belong to the same family of game, though at first you wouldn't believe it. But all consist of finding objects, using them in different places, and trying to open new locations to explore.

Development of the First

Will Crowther has two technical programming achievements to his name - he wrote much of the assembly code which the Internet uses to control its routers, and he wrote much of the original Adventure. The latter was a pet project for him - in an attempt to stay in contact with his daughters after his divorce, he designed a game for them to play based on the real caves he and his former wife had explored together. After designing the original on paper, Crowther started to program a game in FORTRAN.

" ... 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, and perhaps some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing," said Crowther in a
recent interview. "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."

It was this use of a natural-language parser which meant that the game took off like wildfire - that, and the fact that it was distributed for free. The game was installed on computing lab machines all over the world, normally without the knowledge of the system administrators.

One such copy was found in 1976 by Don Woods. He was immediately hooked, and after a long period he decided to contact Crowther to ask permission to expand and improve the game. To do this, he sent an email to crowther@* - that is, an email to every known sitename on the Internet. Crowther
responded, agreed, and the game was expanded to become the original Adventure.

The game was commercially released in 1891, on the Unix platform. When IBM released their PC, the game was included in the package by default.

The Early Years

The success of Adventure, by now known as the Colossal Cave Adventure, inspired many to start working on their own text adventures, or "interactive fiction". A group of graduate students at MIT worked together to produce Dungeon, which was later renamed Zork when the students formed their own company, Infocom, to release the game.

"When Zork was originally written, it was not intended to be a commercial product", said Marc Blank, one of the original authors. "When Infocom was founded, in 1979, we certainly expected that the game would be popular, but I don't think we dreamed that it would have the success that it finally achieved."

Zork spawned two direct sequels and countless spinoffs. Infocom didn't stick with just the one game series, though - during the 1980s the company produced 31 text adventures, and 4 "graphic" adventures - text adventures with illustrations for each location. They were exceptionally successful,
in main due to the quality of their games. A Google search for Infocom will show just how large a following they acquired.

Infocom wasn't the only company in the area. Partially in response to the success of Infocom, a group of British programmers formed Magnetic Scrolls, which concentrated on the graphical adventures that Infocom tended to avoid. The quality of Magnetic Scrolls games was generally thought to be unsurpassed; although the descriptions of locations were lacking compared to Infocom adventures, the graphical additions made up for it considerably. Another company involved in the scene was Level 9 - founded in part to release the original Adventure on British computers.

The ultimate step for text adventures came in 1986, when Incentive Software released the Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC) - an application which allowed users to easily and freely create their own adventures. Along with PAW and Quill (two similar applications), this meant that the market was flooded with rubbish at first, but some excellent games were eventually produced, often in response to competitions run in magazines.

By this time, text adventures were quite different to role-playing games, which invariably involved stat-building and battling. Adventuring and RPGing were to take two quite different paths.

Maturing the Concept

When adventures moved onto the 16-bit computers, they evolved further. Initially the games were the same as released on the 8-bits, with better graphical locations, but that changed when Sierra released text-based games with interactive graphics, such as the King's Quest series. A further step was taken by Lucasarts with Maniac Mansion, which used an interface called SCUMM (the SCripting Utility for Maniac Mansion).

SCUMM was a breakthrough as it moved the control from the keyboard to the mouse. Instead of typing "open door", the user was required to click on the word "open" on the control panel, and then click on the door. The era of point-and-click adventures was beginning (while this had previously been used in a game called Deja Vu, it was then unintuitive and clumsy).

Lucasarts remained at the forefront of point-and-click adventures for years, using their SCUMM system, combined with humour. Monkey Island, Sam & Max, and Day of the Tentacle were universally praised, and sold very well. Indeed, Lucasarts had so strong a hold on the market that it wasn't until
1996, when Revolution Software released Broken Sword, that a rival adventure sold in appreciable numbers.

End of an Era

Which brings us to the present. Where are text-based adventures now? Well, they're not. Monkey Island 4 and Broken Sword 3 are abandoning the point-and-click interface and becoming a game where you directly control the character. This has been done before, of course - the Dizzy games had exactly the same idea.

But adventures are still around, outside the commercial games scene. GAC games are still released from time to time to be played by emulation. Many of the older text games can be played online, via Java. A game where you have to use your imagination is becoming a rare thing, but it'll never disappear.

>Go North

Beyond the Balrog was originally published in issue #3 of ugvm magazine.
Read this article and other great content in every issue of ugvm magazine online.


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