Always an Adventure

It must have been about 1979 when Jon Sievert (who belonged to a Kaypro users’ group, where floppy disks were passed around like candy — there was no such thing as copy-protection in those days) handed me a disk and said, “Check this out.”

On the disk was a copy of Adventure, the very first computer game. They say you always remember your first time….

I don’t know that I ever finished playing the game. It was mystifying, and difficult. I’m not sure I even figured out how to catch the bird, though Jon may have told me. Even so, I was captivated. The idea of exploring an entire underground world that existed only in software (and in your imagination) was brilliant, and unlike anything I had experienced before. Later I purchased all of the Zork games from Infocom, complete with the InvisiClues booklets.

Ah, the wonders of nostalgia!

For years I thought I’d like to write a game like that. I bought a few books on computer programming, but the challenge was more than I could deal with. Then in 1998 or thereabouts, I discovered Inform. Inform (this was version 6, not the newfangled Inform 7) made the process of game design eminently manageable. So I wrote a game called “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina” and released it. People seemed to like it.

Today my relationship with interactive fiction (the hi-falutin’ term with which we dignify old-fashioned text-based computer games) is a lot more complex. I enjoy creating new games, but I have some intellectual reservations about the viability of IF as an art form, and I often find the games I try more frustrating than enjoyable.

But now, not only am I writing new games, I’m teaching kids how to write them. So I figured, I really need to get better in touch (and, I hope, better in sympathy) with the field — with the full range of modern games.

In order to get my feet on the ground, tonight I sat down and started playing Adventure again. A few years ago some TADS programmers put together PolyAdv, with which you can play the original version or any of several later, more elaborate versions. I decided to tackle the big 701-point version.

Some of the puzzles I remember. Some are new to me. Some (such as dealing with the Wumpus, which I still haven’t figured out) are fun and challenging. Others (such as mapping the mazes) are no more interesting than they were the first time around, but at least I have a system.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about — there’s a whole underground community of game authors on the Internet. You can download some very slick (and free!) software tools with which to write games. If that seems too much like work, there are hundreds of free games you can download and play. Some of them suck, but many are very good indeed. Here and there, people are getting Ph.D. theses writing about the literary theory behind this stuff.

I’m sometimes very unsure why I’m so involved with IF. I keep thinking I ought to be wearing a propeller-beanie or something, and I’m a little old for that. But I don’t think any of us has to apologize for our enthusiasms or hobbies. There are otherwise normal adults who spend endless hours building and enhancing model electric train layouts. As far as I’m concerned, writing interactive fiction, or even playing it, is a lot more interesting than electric trains, but I’m pretty sure the appeal is similar: It’s a little tiny model world where things zip around (metaphorically, in this case) on your desktop.

Which is really sort of a metaphor for or capsule summary of the entirety of civilization, if you stop to think about it.

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