Tuesday, 9 June 2015

History of Adventure 1: Text-based Interactive Fiction (1977?)

Written by TAG reviewer team

Notable Titles: Adventure, Zork, Adventureland, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, Curses, Photopia, Anchorhead, Spider and Web, Varicella, Galatea
Notable Creators and Companies: William Crowther and Don Woods, Infocom (Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky, Brian Moriarty and many others), Adventure International (Scott Adams), Graham Nelson, Andrew Plotkin, Adam Cadre, Emily Short

Very literally, were it not for the games in this industry we would not be talking about these things today. When Crowther and Woods let Adventure out of the bag in 1977, the gaming world was irrevocably changed for every man, woman and wildebeest who have ever read the words "It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” (Well, it might be possible that it all began a couple of years earlier with a mainframe text adventure creation system called Wander, but since it's unclear whether at least later versions of Wander were heavily influenced by Adventure, we'll just stick to the old story.) Adventure gaming in and of itself has always been one of the easiest things to do – you need a story, which more or less everyone can at least come up with, a reason to go on an adventure (treasure, damsel in distress, need to get your frog into a frog contest with frog steroids while winning a video gaming championship) and a way in which to influence what you're dealing with.

The notion of a simple parser was the real joy that came out of all of this. By giving gamers a way to influence what was on the screen with simple words (PICK UP TORCH, LIGHT TORCH, LOOK, RUN FROM GRUE) there was suddenly a market to be had. The main problem with this genre was, as more or less anyone who has played even some of it knows, that a parser can never be perfect. It's all well and good to know that you need to have the four pieces of pocket lint from all around the galaxy, but not realising that you have to LOOK in your POCKET to get it? It's going to leave some extremely aggravated people! Of course, this is largely down to the quality of the company who creates the game.


A good, descriptive block of text can make all the difference


IF is undoubtedly the grandfather of this genre, and it thrives still today. It has evolved, of course. The original Adventure used a crude parser that understood only commands made out of a verb and a noun, and it was left for Infocom to create a truly versatile parser that understood such complex commands like “UNLOCK BRONZE DOOR WITH A BRASS KEY”, converse with NPCs etc. And while the first adventure games were simple treasure hunts, the stories also became more involved and complex, like Infocom’s Trinity that told an allegorical story of atom bombs.

Apart from a few curiosities, purely text-based interactive fiction as a commercial product has not been seen since Infocom died at the end of 1980s. The genre has still not completely vanished, because since the late 1990s, a non-commercial IF scene has been quite lively. First signs of the rise of non-commercial IF was the publication of TADS (first version in 1988) and Inform (1993), two programming languages designed precisely for interactive fiction. Graham Nelson, the creator of Inform, was also responsible for Curses (1993), one of the first works of modern IF. Significant events were the beginning of annual IF competitions in 1995 and the first XYZZY awards given in 1996.

While the first few non-commercial works of IF just continued in the footsteps of earlier text adventures, a general trend in modern IF has been an attempt to raise the literary qualities of the works - a good early example is Andrew Plotkin’s So Far (1996). Often modern IF emphasizes the story over the puzzles, like in Adam Cadre’s mostly puzzleless classic Photopia (1998). Another milestone in modern IF is Emily Short’s Galatea (2000), which concentrates on interaction with a single NPC.


Photopia summarising perfectly the charm of IF

14 comments:

  1. I've not played much IF, I was exposed to graphical games early on and never looked back. I did try the Hitchhikers Guide game a couple of times though, and failed miserably to make any significant progress.

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    1. Because that game is, in a single word, evil. Tight constrictions on getting the exact wordings right in a tight timelimit where you're essentially limited to the confines of 'the entire English language'? Pain. Zork is probably a kinder introduction, as at least you have to do something silly to die in the first twenty turns.

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    2. Andy, in that case, I suggest you try something light. You could try out Necrotic Drift. It's not fantastic but it's a pretty fun romp.

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    3. Hitchhikers managed to do almost anything wrong, when it comes to ease of playing. Infocom did some games aimed more for the beginners, and the best of them is probably Wishbringer, which has a lot of alternative solutions to many puzzles. From later games, I might recommend Anchorhead, especially if you like Lovecraftian genre - it's not perfect and has some difficult timed puzzles in the end section, but it does have a pretty convincing atmosphere.

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    4. Wishbringer was a great game - you get a magical stone that can grant seven different wishes, and the game names those wishes, so you can think about how to apply them to puzzles. But if you're clever (and trying for maximum score*), you never need to wish at all.

      * though I did find a bug that allowed me to get unlimited score even beyond the theoretical maximum, involving picking up the same item over and over again

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  2. GOG sale is finishing soon, and they have repeated all of their best offers! Get the various Quest games and the Lucasarts games for super cheap:

    http://www.gog.com/promo/summer_lucasfilm_adventures_bundle_030615
    http://www.gog.com/promo/summer_quest_bundle_050615

    also the Telltale stuff (Walking Dead, Sam & Max etc.)

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  3. Well, I'll be damned. Our friend Corey needs some assistance.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/transolargames/hero-u-adventure-role-playing-game/description

    Still short of $11K to hit his target. I've already pledged way more than I did for any other projects there for this game (without raising ire from me wife).

    Help spread the word again, brothers & sisters in Adventure/RPG/Fun.

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    1. Thanks! For those reading this blog, even if you don't support Kickstarters or supported our first one, please visit our Kickstarter page, watch the video, and read the last update or two. They'll give you a better feel for what we're doing with Hero-U. It started out as a much simpler project.

      Also visit www.hero-u.com for Lori's blog. Currently she's handing out free wallpaper (desktop backgrounds) with a new one each night.

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  4. First signs of the rise of non-commercial IF was the publication of TADS (first version in 1988) and Inform (1993)

    I first wrote amateur text adventures on the Adventure Game Toolkit (~1987) which derived from the Generic Adventure Game System (GAGS, 1985), plus over in the vicinity of the UK they made great use of Professional Adventure Writer System (PAWS, 1986) which succeeded The Quill (1983).

    These engines weren't really capable of producing interactive fiction (as opposed to text adventures), but they nonetheless enjoyed brisk trade.

    Very literally, were it not for the games in this industry we would not be talking about these things today.

    Of course Crowther & Woods' Adventure is the genre-namer, but with Eliza and Wumpus leaving the pieces of the puzzle out on the table, it seems inevitable that someone else wouldn't have put them together eventually -- just without the emphasis on caves, treasure-collecting, or the word "xyzzy".

    It's interesting to speculate what adventure games might have happened regardless; directly-inspired lines include Scott Adams' Adventureland and everything of his that followed, Sierra's Mystery House and the High-Resolution Adventures (but would we still have had the Troll's Tale pseudo-adventures and King's Quest with its text input or would those games have worked out with the Black Cauldron's action-medallion interface?), Infocom and Level 9, and of course Warren Robinett's Adventure on the 2600 and games (eg. Rocky's Boots, Gertrude's Secret) following from that. Influential adventure game milestone question marks from there include Icom's MacVentures, Silicon Beach's Enchanted Sceptres for the Mac (and all the World Builder games that followed) and Lucasarts' Maniac Mansion. Y'know, we might not have visual novels but we'd probably still end up with games like Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, but for a while we'd still have "adventure games" in the vein of Stuart Smith's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, makable with his Adventure Construction Set which produced games that looked markedly little like anything inspired by Advent. I'm thinking Cyan would still have made The Manhole and ended up with Myst.

    And maybe the literary hyperfiction of Eastgate Systems would have been quite a bit more influential than it ended up in this timeline!

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    1. It's always difficult to make these What If -predictions, and no less the case here, especially as Adventure has affected the genre so deeply. From Eliza the would-be alternative adventurers would have gotten the idea of NPC interaction and from Hunt the Wumpus some rudiments of adventure game geography (but would they have used cardinal directions or something else for movement?; one thing's sure - we wouldn't have avoided mazes).

      What I am most interested is whether anyone would have got the idea of an inventory. Perhaps someone might have had a bright idea of copying CRPG inventories, but then we would go to quite a different direction from the actual development of adventure games - at very least, the puzzle structure would then have been quite different.

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  5. It's always difficult to make these What If -predictions

    ...and so fun!

    especially as Adventure has affected the genre so deeply.

    Yes, I forgot to note that Icom's Mac-Ventures wouldn't have that "Venture" in their name... maybe they'd be "Mac-Quests"? But how much of that was inherited through Sierra? (Also: while we might have games LIKE the NES version of Princess Tomato, we wouldn't have that one -- because it's an adaptation of an earlier pure-text-adventure version of the same game.)

    From Eliza the would-be alternative adventurers would have gotten the idea of NPC interaction

    I think the main take-away from Eliza was just using the more or less natural language text parser for user I/O, a not entirely radical idea to the CLI generation that was to come.

    from Hunt the Wumpus some rudiments of adventure game geography (but would they have used cardinal directions or something else for movement?

    The original Wumpus took place in triangular rooms with three exits each, right?

    one thing's sure - we wouldn't have avoided mazes

    Whatever the genre, wherever there is a need to pad the game out with filler, there will be mazes. And Tower of Hanoi puzzles.

    What I am most interested is whether anyone would have got the idea of an inventory. Perhaps someone might have had a bright idea of copying CRPG inventories

    Gamebooks and solitaire adventures had them, so at some point they would have been introduced into computer gaming through the backdoors of Lone Wolf, Fighting Fantasy and Tunnels & Trolls. In the early days (and, well, Quest for Glory) the finer distinctions between adventures and RPGs can be somewhat blurred, but it's true that there's not an obvious predecessor for having objects act as re-skinned keys to obtain passage through symbolic locked doors -- nor to object-combination puzzles!

    then we would go to quite a different direction from the actual development of adventure games - at very least, the puzzle structure would then have been quite different.

    So there we agree.

    There are some interesting early adventures, from before the genre gelled, which reveal alternate avenues not explored... ways of adventure gaming not so slavishly adherent to the conventions of Adventure. (Eg. the TRS-80 version of His Majesty's Ship Impetuous, documented by the Digital Antiquarian, which has an Eliza-ish input scheme that tries to find keywords in the player's answers; Gaming After 40's documentation of "Dreamer" seems to work similarly, not actually modelling rooms so much as simulating modelling them -- http://gamingafter40.blogspot.ca/2014/09/adventure-of-week-dreamer-1983.html)

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  6. I think text adventures made a big mistake with the human speech parser. That is something we still have trouble with today. I wonder if they had gone for something more command line like if it would have been more successful (easier to code, less deaths due to the parser not getting what you want) or less successful (less welcoming interface?)

    Use knife on rat becomes U Knife Rat or Use -o Knife -t Rat or such.

    Either way, a man page for each item saying what verbs it has would be a good idea. I think some text adventures had that if you looked at them, didn't they?

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    1. At one time in 1980s it was a kind of fad to make better and better parsers that would understand more and more natural sentences, so that the player could just type whatever he would normally say he was doing. Games with such parseres were sold as innovative and easy-to-use. Usually the parsers just a) ignored the stuff they didn't get (like adverbs) and b) had more or less good record in getting what the player meant with the rest of the sentence.

      I suppose you might say that Legend games, with their listing of possible objects and possible actions to do with them, would be a kind of example of such text adventures. Then again, they were hardly pure text adventures anymore, with their graphical elements (which reminds me that I should get on with the next piece of this series, which is all about text adventures with graphics).

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    2. I'm aware. I've just watched you encounter horrible parser bugs, like that one with the explosives that would only take one exact form of the word. Might have been one of the LSL games? And all that eventually leads to the death of the parser and adventure games being boiled down to 3 or 4 options.

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