Imagine a moment from your favorite adventure movie or drama. Imagine you are the hero. And imagine what happens next is up to you. “Text adventures” (or interactive fiction) are a modern text-based medium that opens up worlds of possibilities not limited by cgi effects or a single story-line but only by your imagination. Let me briefly touch on its fascinating history that includes cave explorations, early virtual computers and the rise of graphic adventures, to finally emerge in its state-of-the-art with the spread of the Internet.
The story starts with Will Crowther, one of the three software developers of arpanet (the forerunner of Internet), who managed to overshadow this achievement by writing Colossal Cave Adventure game (or simply Adventure). The game was based on a kind of a dialog: The player types in a simple command (such as take key), and the program narrates back the results. It simulated the exploration of the environment (based on Crowther’s mapping of parts of Mammoth Caves in Kentucky ) enriched by some puzzles and fantasy elements. More details (The article—running at over 17,000 words—includes images of the actual cave and an analysis of the original source code. It was published on the 30th anniversary of Adventure.) are given by Dennis G. Jerz in Somewhere Nearby is Collosal Cave.
Crowther’s game (originally written to amuse his daughters) gained a following and inspired others. Among these were some mit (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) students who founded Infocom in 1979. To make their first game, Zork, playable outside of university mainframes, they designed a specialized virtual computer (called the Z-machine). This was quickly implemented for TRS-80 and Apple II microcomputers (with more to follow); 16 years before Java Virtual Machine. Infocom went on to produce several critically acclaimed titles such as Trinity, a symbolical and surreal work dealing with the atomic bomb, or a sci-fi exploring the consequences of a radical political program in A Mind Forever Voyaging.
In the eighties, text adventures were top-selling computer games, and they started to evolve into graphical adventure games. Images representing the described locations were added, then the protagonist and his or her movement were also transferred into the picture; lists of verbs (actions) were made available, then reduced, to be ultimately replaced with icons, while objects in the environment were also incorporated into the graphics and made click-able. At the end of this process in the late nineties, there often remained a single generic use action requiring only a mouse click, and the text vanished.
Although this eliminated some of the problems inherent in the seemingly boundless interface of natural language, many things were lost in the transformation. Instead of guessing the recognized (‘implemented’) verbs, nouns and syntax, the player could simply choose from a limited number of actions and apply these to active onscreen objects (hot-spots). But this sacrifices a lot of the variety (E.g. In a graphical adventure “using a key on a chest” has a single interpretation, while the text-based interactive fiction can distinguish between put the key in the chest, lock the chest with the key or hide the key under the chest.) and—by driving the production costs up (in terms of animations or voice-over)—often indirectly reduced the quantity of the content (in terms of plot branching, multiple endings and available options).
Events following the commercial crash, including the rise of the IF community, are covered in the second part of this article.