Defining Game and Defining Play: Colossal Cave Adventure and the Adventure Game Genre

“Adventure games these days at least pretend to story and character. Puzzles should therefore be designed in the context of the story and characters. It should be one of the ‘Poetics’ of adventure game design.”

—Lee Sheldon, Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG, pg. 19

I wanted to write on adventure games for this blog post. I’m going to temporarily label Anchorhead, Galatea, and Reagan Library (?) as examples of the adventure game genre (though as we touched on during the Galatea class, these don’t always “feel” like games or adhere to the rules Galloway laid out for gamic action). With that, I’m going to dive into a brief history of the adventure game, and use the very first incarnation of this type of text—the aptly named Colossal Cave Adventure—as my case study for a non-syllabus digital text. It might seem a bit counterintuitive, but we’re going to jump back to 1975 for this post.

A screenshot of the 1975 version of Colossal Cave Adventure.

Colossal Cave Adventure, which was shortened to Adventure in later iterations, is the first text-based interfaceable game, which relates the story of a mysterious underground cave network. It was first released in 1975. Designed by a single man, William Crowther attended MIT and worked on the team that developed the ARPANET. And he’s a confirmed spelunker.

A small-time project made just for his family to consume, Adventure eventually spread to labs around various computing campuses, like Stanford, where it became popular among nascent programmers. One Stanford student, Don Woods, discovered Crowther’s game and made significant improvements to its story and design, and Adventure was rereleased in 1977.

Adventure was the text that created not only the interactive fiction medium, but the adventure genre in gaming, too. As we’ve already seen in class, there are modern versions of Adventure, as Anchorhead and Galatea both engage pretty explicitly with the conventions established by Crowther’s game. Everything from “Go N/S/E/W,” “Look,” “Take x,” “Use x,” “Move x,” “Talk to x,” etc. The overarching premise of Adventure, and every adventure game that followed it, is to solve puzzles. Adventure is the purveyor of the gaming archetype of, I picked up this object, now how do I use it? What is it for? These formal design elements—the admittedly cliché “outside the box” thinking required and demanded from the game to complete it—are endemic to videogames, and I argue that in addition to undertaking the actions necessary to proceed, Adventure necessitates a fundamentally different way of problem-solving than it would take to read a book or another work of electronic literature (re: The Jew’s Daughter, Project for Tachitoscope, or Dreamaphage, which all have vastly different aesthetic/ ideological goals).

For some theoretical basis, I turn to Galloway’s book, Gaming. Galloway writes that word number one for videogames is “action.” Games are actions (Galloway 2, original emphasis). Perhaps this doesn’t help, because texts like The Jew’s Daughter require actions as well (like mouseovers, or clicks in Reagan Library). Later on, Galloway writes, “Video games don’t attempt to hide informatic control; they flaunt it… To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm (to discover its parallel ‘allegorithm’)” (90-91, original emphasis).

Right, so finding the “allegorithm” is the key. Here’s what I’ve arrived at: adventure games (in particular) are insurmountably difficult because the human operator needs to work within the preset limits of the game’s algorithms (Look, Eat, Go, Push/ Pull x/y/z, etc.). Oftentimes these are constructed in ways that we are not used to thinking of. Adventure games are largely oppressed by their algorithms—to the point where some people in class tried to kill the character in Anchorhead in multiple ways! Yet the algorithms won’t let you do so.

This is The Secret of Monkey Island (1990). Literally half the game is spent trying to figure out what you do with this chicken.

The argument can still be made that Anchorhead and Galatea are interactive fiction and not games. However, I find that they fit with Galloway’s description of algorithmic play (though there are ways to poke holes in his arguments), and that they’re insanely more difficult to physically progress through than Project for Tachitoscope, Hegirascope, Resolution, or anything else we’ve looked at thus far.

FYI: Here’s one updated version of Adventure available for play, but just because it’s older doesn’t mean it’s any easier (it’s still frustrating as hell):

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.


About Steph Roman

2015 University of Pittsburgh grad with majors in nonfiction writing and English literature. Formerly of the Pitt News and PublicSource. I like games and nerd culture in general.
This entry was posted in Electronic Literature, General Interest, Interactive Literature, Required Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Defining Game and Defining Play: Colossal Cave Adventure and the Adventure Game Genre

  1. kalihira says:

    I’ve been getting interested in text based “adventure games” of late, somewhat independent of our studies of them in class. I have noticed that sometimes it takes quite a while to figure out what the correct action that the programming is looking for is, or phrasing commands in a way that the game’s parser understands. Algorithms do oppress play, probably more so in text adventure games than what we think of as video games, because there are so few of them. Text adventures tend to be rather simplistic in design for the most part, because all that is required of them is some semblance of a map, descriptions to pop up at specific locations, an inventory system, and item recognition. They aren’t complex enough to recognize situations that aren’t expressly defined in code, so they are much more limited in the actions the user can perform than video games, which tend to have a lot of “anticipatory programming” involved in them, to be able to deal with situations the programmer didn’t necessarily think of. Basically, what I’m saying is that I really liked your post.

    Also, you mentioned that there were ways to poke holes in Galloway’s arguments on algorithmic play, and I wanted to know what you thought the holes in his arguments are?


    • Steph Roman says:

      Thanks, When it comes to Galloway, I’ve totally bought into his arguments, especially on gaming. But if you recall, he breaks gamic action into four moments we can arrange on a plane: diegetic machine acts/ diegetic player acts/ nondiegetic machine acts/ nondiegetic player acts. If we have only these four actions to go on, then the world gets very, very muddled if it is not your standard computer or console game with graphics and menus and narrative. World of Warcraft is a good example. For instance, you can sit in Stormwind City for 20 minutes. What do you see? Some NPCs running around (diegetic machine acts) and your HUD (nondiegetic machine acts), but what else do you see? Other players. Where do they fit in? They’re not controlled by the machine. And they’re not an action performed by the player watching them. The line between player/ machine act is unclear at that point. I would and probably will extend this to text-based adventure games. What constitutes a diegetic act in those? Is it making progress? Does the “the computer doesn’t recognize your command” signal a nondiegetic player act? Is the text itself a diegetic machine act? Again, the answers aren’t really there. Though I may make an attempt to argue them in the final.


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