ZORK, Colossal Cave Adventure, and the landscape of the text-based adventure game.
[[This essay first appeared in Gary Kachadourian's print zine "A Brief Survey of Video Game Landscapes"]]
Between its release in 1981 and 1986, the text adventure game ZORK sold almost 400,000 copies, making it the best selling title for its parent company, Infocom. ZORK is not strictly a *video* game, there are no images in it, only words. At 92 kilobytes, the game file is about 1/10th the size of a single still frame from a contemporary game with full motion video. But inside all of this text is an entire world, navigated by the player with simple commands in plain english: "open the window" "go up the stairs" "pick up the knife". The imagery exists within the player's mind, helped along with occasionally evocative text from the narrator:
You are at the base of Flood Control Dam #3, which looms above you and to
the north. The River Frigid is flowing by here. Across the river are the
White Cliffs, which seem to form a giant wall stretching from north to
south along the east shore of the river as it winds its way downstream.
There is an inflated boat here.
The game replaces the visual landscape with its own description, and this has been cited by many as the key to its longlived success and sales record. As computers became more and more sophisticated during the 1980s, graphics became more and more complex, and older games quickly looked outdated and obsolete. ZORK and other text based adventures never relied on images, and so never seemed stale.
This reliance on the verbal over the visual is exploited by the game's designers, clues to the puzzles are embedded in the things the narrator points out, and ambiguity is turned into confusion in some of the game's more difficult to navigate portions. In the maze, 16 rooms have an identical description: "This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike." This sameness is effective blindness, and even though there are vital objects hidden here, the player is forced to grope through on trial and error.
The phrase "twisty little passages" is a reference to Colossal Cave Adventure, a mainframe based text adventure game that was the freely distributed predecesor and inspiration for ZORK. Created by two computer scientists, Don Woods and Will Crowther, Colossal Cave Adventure included its own 'all alike' maze, described in the same way. There was also a complementary 'all different' maze, using almost all possible systematic permutations of the phrase:
Little maze of twisting passages
Little maze of twisty passages
Little twisty maze of passages
Maze of little twisting passages
Maze of little twisty passages
Maze of twisting little passages
Maze of twisty little passages
Twisting little maze of passages
Twisting maze of little passages
Twisty little maze of passages
Twisty maze of little passages
This genre of game was created by and for computer scientists, Will Crowther, in an interview from 1994, speculates: "And why did people enjoy it? Because it's exactly the kind of thing that computer programmers do. They're struggling with an obstinate system that can do what you want but only if you can figure out the right thing to say to it"
The game is a landscape, but this isn't a landscape that can be appreciated visually, it can only be apprehended and understood structurally and functionally. The similarity of the game's structure to the flowcharts used by computer scientists is obvious, it is a network of nodes with paths between them that control how the landscape can be moved through. This resonance is underscored by the fact that, at the same time as the original version of Colossal Cave Adventure in 1975, Will Crowther was working for a defense contractor, helping to build ARPAnet, the networked computer system that would later become the internet.
Will Crowther was also an avid caver. In the 1970s, he was part of a team mapping undocumented portions of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Using surveyors techniques, nodal points are connected by clear paths in a network, this bare bones structure of vector lines is then fleshed out with the specific qualities of various rooms and passages in drawing. Portions of Colossal Cave Adventure are said to be so similar in structure to portions of the actual cave that first time visitors familiar with the game can navigate easily.
ZORK didn't come with a map, early players drew their own. The smallest complete map available on the internet today, is, at 480 kilobytes, about five times the size of the game itself. After 1983, Infocom finally released its own map for ZORK, the key shows the five types of passages that connect the nodes: "Normal Passaway, One-way Passageway, Narrow Passageway (baggage limit), and Passageway returning to room of origin".
Text based adventure games work because landscapes can be understood in ways that have little to do with vision. It isn't the specific form of any one object or space that is memorable here, it is the structure of the underlying system. But this disconnect between form and structure is bridged when it is understood that the structure itself has a form, a branching self-similar network that is as intricate as any graphic representation.
The landscape in ZORK is what it does, and it can only be appreciated and unlocked by interacting with it. The keys to the puzzles are often found when the player takes control over the same kind of network flow that generates the landscape, finding ways to open and close new connections between points. The aesthetic is the product of the constant mix up between the operational and the picturesque, between infrastructure and ruin, between interaction and observation:
"You are standing on the top of the Flood Control Dam #3, which was quite a tourist attraction in times far distant. There are paths to the north, south, and west, and a scramble down. The sluice gates on the dam are closed. Behind the dam, there can be seen a wide reservoir. Water is pouring over the top of the now abandoned dam.
There is a control panel here, on which a large metal bolt is mounted. Directly above the bolt is a small green plastic bubble."
[[Much of the background information on Colossal Cave Adventure was found in Dennis G. Jerz's excellent essay "Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther's Original "Adventure" in Code and in Kentucky"]] [[The original game is available for free download from Infocom here]]