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    A Mind Forever Voyaging: The Lost and Found Art of the Text Adventure

    Written by

    Claire Evans

    WELCOME TO ADVENTURE!! WOULD YOU LIKE INSTRUCTIONS?”

    So begins one of the most influential computer games of all time. Populated by axe-wielding dwarves and magical bridges, it led devoted players through little twisting passages and submitted them to Gordian puzzles at every turn. Spawning a decade of imitators, it catalyzed an entirely new industry, and is still played to this day.

    And it did it all with 700 lines of code. No graphics.

    “Adventure” would be the first piece of interactive fiction, a lost art of a genre that solidly dominated the computer game market until the mid-1980s.

    Cheap to make, the interactive fiction of text adventure games borrowed liberally from mythology, fantasy literature, and classic paper-and-pencil roleplayers like Dungeons and Dragons. Propelled through an entirely text-based world by an invisible narrator, players would employ imperative commands like “examine victorian tea-chest” or “kill troll with sword” to solve puzzles. They were portable across different computing platforms without concern for rapidly changing graphics architectures; Infocom, for years the leading purveyor of titles like “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” and “Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare,” could sell a game that ran not only on the Apple II, but on Atari, IBM, Commodore, and Amiga Machines — even on the Radio Shack TRS-80. To liven up the text, games often came packaged with elaborate “feelies,” dossiers full of maps, hints, badges, brochures — even scratch-n-sniff cards.

     

    The genesis of interactive fiction is really a story of art imitating life. In 1975, a programmer named Will Crowther was working at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, developing ARPANET, the forerunner to our modern web. In addition to writing code, he was an amateur caver with a particular fondness for Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky, which, with over 390 miles of winding tunnels, passageways, and rooms, is the longest cave system in the world. Crowther created an accurate vector map of the whole cave and translated it to a fiendishly complex text game entitled simply “Adventure,” which reproduced portions of Mammoth so faithfully that cavers playing it could easily navigate through familiar sections on their first try.

    It may be impossible to imagine now but, in the 1970s, a computer program which could receive and output relatively natural language was revelatory. “Adventure,” with the revision that followed, “Colossal Cave Adventure,” was a phenomenon, spreading unchecked across the early academic web. Productivity in computer science labs would cease completely every time it made landfall on a DEC terminal; legend has it the game set the entire computer industry back two weeks when it arrived at MIT.

    The withdrawn Crowther is now considered the J.D. Salinger of text adventure gaming, and for good reason: his stylistic example included second-person tense (“YOU ARE IN A SPLENDID CHAMBER THIRTY FEET HIGH”) and elaborate descriptions that connected rooms and passageways, which necessitated players to keep hand-drawn maps. His model would go on to be reproduced ad infinitum, most successfully with “Zork,” a D&D-esque subterranean saga, which sold over a million copies in the 1980s. (Best line: “IT IS PITCH BLACK. YOU ARE LIKELY TO BE EATEN BY A GRUE.”)

    Text-adventure gaming went the way of the buffalo for obvious reasons: visual stimulus superseded the saleability of the mental image, and social gaming — from the multi-user MUDS of halcyon nerddom to the communal romper room of XBOX 360 — eclipsed the solitary puzzlemaster. Yet the brief heyday of the genre, perhaps inadvertently, birthed a strangely powerful form of literature, variably called interactive fiction, hypertext, or interactive storytelling. Although graphics games replaced their textual antecedents, they did not entirely displace them; almost two decades after its commercial demise, text-adventure gaming is alive and well in 2012.

     

    Two-thousand pieces of interactive fiction have been written, give or take, since the era of commercial text-adventures, and almost all of them are available to play free online. Diverse as any literature, they run the gamut from hour-long experimental riffs to complex historical pieces that can take weeks, even months, to complete. The games can be extremely challenging; I’m currently playing Jigsaw, a 1995 opus that spans the entire 20th-century and requires working knowledge of Proust, Morse code, and medical history to solve. (Get Lamp,, an ongoing documentary by Jason Scott, the tireless chronicler of the old web, gives the wide-ranging human backstory of text adventures on 2 DVDs.)

    As you work through a piece of interactive fiction, you are both “guy” and player, an implied specter floating above a digital avatar, guiding its movements. The game, designed to tease and conceal clues, speaks to you in cryptic chunks of belletristic text, and, you, in turn, respond in terse imperative, poking around the periphery of invisible scenes. You move through a text pockmarked with temporal shifts and wormholes. With a sliver of disdain, fans of IF sometimes refer to normal books as “linear.”

    As both author and coder, artist and engineer, the designer of such texts is a schizophrenic. It’s as though a writer were expected to not only craft a compelling story, but also to mill the paper stock, consider the viscosity of the ink, and weigh the heft of the hardcover binding. Interactive fiction, whose use of second person collapses the reader and protagonist, falls somewhere between video game and novel: some say it’s like “playing a book,” while game designer Graham Nelson compared it to “a crossword at war with a narrative.”

    There’s a new game in town, too. CYPHER: Cyberpunk Text Adventure, the first significant piece of commercial interactive fiction in years, hopes to tap collective digital nostalgia and re-introduce text-adventure gaming to the mainstream. CYPHER was written by a pair of Argentine brothers, Carlos and Javier Cabrera, and takes place in a dystopian Tokyo renamed NeoSushi. It splits the screen between a classic text-adventure parser (the player moves with imperative sentences, and the game responds with pastiche-Gibson prose) and a visual panel populated by maps, atmospheric tableaus, and visual clues. A soundtrack of gauzy neon jams and sound effects completes the effect. As interactive fiction, it’s bound to rile purists, but it just might bring the medium to a new generation.

    Despite its singularity, however, IF, at its most interesting, toys with the same dynamics as fiction itself, the endlessly variable interplay between author, character, and reader. It ports the omniscient kinetics of gaming — the ability to save, restore, undo, and quit — over to the staid world of front-to-back fiction. In a sense, a book is just a kind of interactive fiction where the player self-reflexively commands, “read page, read page, read page” until it “beats” the story.

    In the end, caving is a perfect metaphor for what Interactive Fiction became: you dive in alone, into the pitch darkness, with only your wits. Literally, you see nothing — but what emerges from the gloom, the play of shadow on obscured forms and corridors, is as visceral as a film because it employs the most powerful graphics engine of all.

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