When I was a senior in High School in 1981 students in our computer class where given access to the local University’s DECSYSTEM-20 computer. This was an exciting opportunity for our small group of enthusiastic wannabe programmers. We spent many hours at night and during weekends hunched over a terminal or impatiently waiting for a line printer to finish spewing out vast amounts of some documentation that we discovered.
One day we discovered a program so powerful that it could understand regular English commands and had seemingly magical artificial intelligence abilities. Type in a command using regular English and up popped an appropriate and often humorous response. It appeared as smart as HAL from Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 a Space Odyssey, but no, it was just Zork the now classic text adventure game, or interactive fiction as the genre is now called. With today’s computers and internet you may not easily imagine just how awestruck a few school boys could be about a game that was just text based, but believe me we were awestruck. Not amazed? Well perhaps you had to be there. We tried typing all the random things we could think of just to see what the response would be in much the same way that people probably do with now with Siri. We sometimes played it using a regular terminal and sometimes on a DECWriter that had a printer instead of a screen but which meant we could take the printouts home and marvel at them at later.
We were hooked, but not so much in playing it, our main goal was trying to figure out how it worked and how to write our own game. None of us had access to a computer at home, so we could not play Zork much. We spent many hours at home designing and writing code in BASIC that we hoped would work. The three of us each had a different approach and while each had merits, none of them were masterpieces. Even though my game was quite poor and never finished I continued thinking about it for many years.
Zork wasn’t the only text adventure that we played. There was also Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther and Don Woods. Recently an excellent documentary was produced by Jason Scott called Get Lamp that covers the history of text adventure games. He is featured in a 2 hour Google Tech Talk that also shows much of the documentary.
For a brief time text adventures were popular. Now it seems that there is just a small group of enthusiastic fans that write and play games which is keeping the genre alive. You can play Zork online and also it and other interactive fiction games are included in the iPad and iPhone Frotz app.
Now more than 30 years later I’m currently working to complete my semi-serious attempt at creating a text adventure creation system that should be ready in the next few months so I can finally tick it off my bucket list. It is something that I have been quite excited working on. I don’t think it is up there with the higher level IF systems, but my system allows game creation without the need of any programming skills. I’m intending to release it for free and post it here when it is complete.