The Wizard's Tower

The First Adventure

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Welcome to The Wizard’s Tower, a regular Retro Now feature covering the history and development of computer ‘adventure games’, and the games themselves. Each week, the Wizard opens his Book of Lore to look at a different aspect of adventure gaming, as well as reviewing individual games from time to time.

If you missed the Wizard’s introductory feature, you can still find it on the dusty shelves of his tower’s magical library, by clicking on this link. If not, dear reader, then let the adventure begin!


Beginning in the mists of time

All tales have a beginning, or they cannot be told, and so it is with the very first adventure game, or computer-based work of ‘interactive fiction’, which was Colossal Cave Adventure, a program which is also often referred to simply as Adventure, Colossal Cave, or ADVENT. This, the first of the ‘text adventures’, was created around forty years ago, and is the great, great grandfather of all the adventure games which followed.


How works ye magic?

Text adventures convey the game’s story through descriptive passages of text, revealed to the player in response to typed instructions. Much of the background and atmosphere is left to the player’s fertile imagination, there being no bitmapped graphics to fall back on in early computers. In fact the first games sometimes had no access to a video display, even working through teletype or print terminals.

Colossal Cave Adventure

Colossal Cave Adventure

Colossal Cave was developed in 1976 by Will Crowther, for the 36-bit DEC PDP-10 mainframe computer. [Crowther, a programmer at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, helped develop the Arpanet, a predecessor of the Internet.] The basic principle of the game was that the player would control a central character in the game’s storyline using simple text commands. A simple verb-noun parser was used to interpret these instructions, allowing the player to interact with objects through the program at a basic level, such as typing ‘get lamp’ or ‘read book’. Later text adventures, and more recent interactive fiction, use natural language processing to allow the use of more complex and ambigous commands.


To cast a spell, a story tell…

But the whole point of a text adventure game is really to tell a story, and allow the player to become one with it, being involved with all its twists and turns, its surprises, its shocks and setbacks, and its successes. So it needs, much like a book, a background story, scenery, characters, objects and happenings.

Unsurprisingly, Colossal Cave Adventure is set in a colossal cave, rumoured to be filled with wealth, and the primary purpose of the player is to live long enough and solve enough problems to claim their financial reward at the end by earning the maximum number of game points available.

It is no coincidence that Will Crowther was a caver.  This had a major influence on the game, and its structure is based loosely on Kentucky, USA’s ‘Mammoth Cave’ system. In fact various people have explored the actual cave system in the decades since, and have found significant correlations between the interactive fiction and the reality. Sadly, though, some of the real features described in the original game have since been removed from the cave system by the local Park Service.

Rotunda Room, Mammoth Cave — Mammoth Cave National Park; Kentucky. USGS Photo

Rotunda Room, Mammoth Cave — Mammoth Cave National Park; Kentucky. USGS Photo

Of dragons and dungeons

You might expect that computer adventure games could have links to table-top role-playing games.  Indeed, Will Crowther was a fan of the most famous of all such games.  He played Dungeons & Dragons regularly, with a group including Dave Lebling, who was later to become one of the founders of Infocom (see below).  D&D, like text adventures, involves considerable use of the players’ imagination. But the sense of the fantastical whch was inherent in this very first Adventure would soon be built upon by another contributor.

In 1977, Crowther was approached by fellow programmer Don Woods, who discovered Adventure while he was working at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.  A fan of the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, Woods was keen to add such high fantasy elements to Colossal Cave.  Crowther’s original game comprised about 700 lines of FORTRAN code plus an additional 700 lines of data, the latter of which included full text descriptions for 78 map locations – a combination of 66 ‘rooms’ and 12 navigation messages. The program’s vocabulary covered 193 words, plus miscellaneous messages and travel tables.

Don Woods added elves, a troll and a volcano which some have said is based on Tolkien’s Mount Doom in Mordor, but Woods denies this. He also introduced the game’s scoring system and hid in it ten additional treasures to collect, over and above Crowther’s original five. Woods’ enhanced version continued to be released by him right up to at least the middle 1990s.


What came next?

Colossal Adventure - a graphic version for MSDOS by Level 9

Colossal Adventure – a graphic version for MSDOS by Level 9

Adventure spread across Arpanet and survives to this day on the Internet.  It led directly to the popular success of interactive fiction during the early home computer era of the late 1970s-1990s. Other programmers created variations on the game, mostly based on the more available Woods version, and ported it to a range of other systems in the years that followed.

The game was produced for the first mass-produced commercial personal computer, the Apple II, and was even included with the floppy-disk distribution of Microsoft’s MS-DOS 5. Most popular home computers, even the Sinclair ZX81, have over the years had their own variations on the original Adventure, sometimes with added graphics.  Adventure games went on to become a significant sector of the gaming industry, especially in those early years.

Probably the best-known variation on the Colossal Cave concept is Zork I, from the largest publishers of interactive fiction, and coiners of the term, Infocom, founded in 1979 by by MIT staff and students led by Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Albert Vezza, and Joel Berez.  Adventure International, the first-ever commercial publisher of interactive fiction, was also founded in 1979 by Scott Adams, who wrote Adventureland, a text adventure loosely patterned after the original Adventure. His company created a legendary line of adventure games on early home computers.  Adventure also led to the founding of Sierra Online; husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams discovered the program by accident while remotely coding on a mainframe computer, and decide to create the first ever graphic adventure game, Mystery House, for the Apple II in 1980. But that’s another story.


Be ye an adventurer bold?

The Wizard would love to hear about your favourite adventures, past and present, and invites you to comment below. He is also on the lookout for newly-published retro adventure games, so please do contact him if you are a developer looking for a review!

Watch out for the next instalment of The Wizard’s Tower next week, when The Wizard casts his scrying-glass over the story of the first commercial version of Adventure, the legendary Scott Adams’ Adventureland (1978))!


Contact The Wizard

You can contact The Wizard, Stuart Williams, by dragon messenger, by smoke signal, or by email to:



Wizard’s Tower picture used courtesy of Greg Blake:

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