Every text adventure fan knows the name of Adventure—a.k.a. Colossal Cave. Created by Will Crowther in 1976 and expanded the next year by Don Woods, Adventure gave its name to the genre class, and was the first adventure game of all.
Except that it turns out it wasn’t.
Oh, adventure games do take their name from Adventure; that much is true. (And if you insist on calling them “interactive fiction”, you’re dead to me.) But it seems that Adventure wasn’t really first after all.
(A bit of a side note… I mentioned in my initial post that I didn’t think categories of game like “adventure game” and “third-person shooter” were really genres; a genre referred to the content and setting, like “science fiction” or “mystery”, and was more or less perpendicular to these categories, or at least not parallel to them. But I wasn’t sure what term to use instead, and I kind of tentatively landed on “class”. So as you can see, I tried “class” out in the first paragraph, and… I don’t know; I’m not sold on it. I’ve since seen other sites refer to “gameplay genre” vs. “story genre”, which, okay, I guess gets the job done, but seems a bit wordy. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll stick with “class” for now, until I or someone else comes up with something better; maybe the more I use it the less odd it will seem. Whatever.)
Anyway, while Adventure was the first known adventure game, there had been some references to a game called Wander that may have preceded it. Written by Peter Langston—who later went on to play an important role in the starting of Lucasfilm Games, which later became LucasArts—this game was said to have been written in 1974, which would put it two years earlier than Adventure. Not only that, but Wander wasn’t just a game; according to the Inform Designer’s Manual, it was “a text-based world modelling program”, which would make it not just the first adventure game, but one of the first game creation systems, if not the first. Unfortunately, the system had long since been lost, and there didn’t seem to be much information available about it.
Until it was found.
For the full story, I refer you to this post on the blog “Retroactive Fiction”, by Anthony Hope, who took the direct step of contacting Langston to ask for a copy. (As described in the comments of the posts, a more complete copy was later found by Doug Merritt.) So now we have the full Wander source code and documentation as well as four sample games. They’re not from 1974, unfortunately; the existing versions date from the late 70s or early 80s. (Jason Renga in a post on Wander on his blog “Renga in Blue” dates one of the games, Castle, to 1974, but based both on internal evidence in the game and on my own correspondence with Peter Langston I’m convinced this is incorrect. More on that later.) Still, it seems clear that by this time the system had already been in development for some time, and there’s no reason to doubt that the system really was first created in 1974 as claimed.
While they have their shortcomings, the Wander games really are recognizable adventure games, with most of the same basic features that have come to define the class. Which is a bit of a surprise, given that it was created prior to and independently of the game, Adventure, that supposedly codified the class. For example, Wander has discrete rooms the player can navigate between by compass directions. I’ve often seen histories of adventure games ascribe this convention to Crowther’s caving background, reasoning that a caver would be used to using compass directions in this way… but Langston was no caver. Still, I don’t think it’s that surprising that he would have independently come up with the use of compass directions for navigation; the idea that only a caver would have thought of that never struck me as convincing. Cavers certainly aren’t the only ones to use compass directions, after all, and I don’t know that there’s a more natural method that comes readily to mind; relative direction like “forward” and “left” have been tried, but can be confusing, and are harder to program since a room description would vary depending on the direction from which it’s entered. And, more to the point, compass directions had been present in older games that predated both Wander and Adventure; the very early game Hurkle used these directions (though to a somewhat different effect); its successor Wumpus added a world made of discrete rooms (though without the compass directions). Both these games were well known in the computing community at a time, and it’s likely that both Crowther and Langston were aware of that, and hardly a stretch that they would have independently adapted some of their principles to their own games.
On the other hand, Eric S. Raymond makes a case that Crowther and Woods probably wouldn’t have known about Wumpus. It doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly strong case; he refers to Wumpus being “circulated in BASIC among microcomputer enthusiasts” and unknown at the time to the “the ARPANET- and minicomputer-centered culture Crowther and Woods were part of “, but I think this is anachronistic; there was no community of microcomputer enthusiasts when Yob wrote Wumpus, because microcomputers simply didn’t exist yet as a consumer concern. Even if Raymond’s right and Crowther and Woods didn’t take inspiration from Wumpus, though, that would mean that they came up with the idea of using compass directions separately, which, again, makes it less surprising that Langston would also have done so… if the idea is so natural that two people came up with it independently, why not a third? So I don’t know whether Crowther got the compass directions from Wumpus or not, but for our current question it really doesn’t matter. Whether he did or not, either way the fact that Wumpus and Adventure shared this feature means the fact that Wander also shared it doesn’t provide any evidence for either Wander or Adventure somehow influencing the other.
Another thing, by the way, that’s been proposed as a consequence of Crowther’s caving background is the designation of different locations in the gameworld as “rooms”—cavers use the term “room” to refer to locations within caves, but it otherwise seems an odd choice. Here, at least, I think this argument holds a bit more water—and indeed Wander doesn’t use the term “room”; the Wander documentation refers to different locations as just “locations”.
Honestly, the one thing that it does strike me as surprising that Adventure and Wander share is the INVENTORY command. The fact that the player character has an inventory in both games and can pick up and discard objects isn’t too surprising by itself; manipulating objects is a common aspect of everyday life, and it seems fairly natural it would be emulated in a game like this. The fact that the word “INVENTORY” would be used to list what the player was carrying, though, is a little less so. It may seem natural now to use the command just because it’s become a standard and adventure game players are so used to it, but if it hadn’t been used before, is it really the first command that would come to mind for the purpose? (Indeed, the early adventure game “Mystery Mansion” used the command “LIST”.) My guess here, though I don’t know for sure, is that the “inventory” command wasn’t in the original version of Wander, and was added to the system after Adventure. It may seem odd to not have a command to list what the player character is carrying, but the original version of Adventure didn’t have such a command either; players had to just remember what they had picked up, or keep their own records. The word “INVENTORY” wasn’t in Crowther’s original game, and was added by Woods. If the original version of Adventure could have gotten by without a way to list what the player is carrying, it doesn’t seem out of the question that the earliest version of Wander could have done the same.
Anyway, I think next time we’ll take a look at the available Wander games, and then we’ll delve into the details of the system itself. And “next time” should I hope be sooner than next Friday… I seem to have fallen into a pattern of making a post every week late on Friday, but this wasn’t my intent. The last few weeks I’ve been putting in long hours working on a feature film as a studio teacher, and haven’t had a lot of free time, so I haven’t been able to post as often as I’d like. The last day of the shoot was Wednesday, though, and though I start working on another film on Monday, I think this one should be a bit less time-consuming. So… I’m going to try to get the next post out tomorrow, but in any case no later than Monday. Now that I’ve got a preliminary version of the Big List up and have the rest of the preamble out of the way, I really want to get into what this blog is supposed to be about… creating games.