Colossal Cave Adventure: A Modern Critique

Harrison Scott

Colossal Cave Adventure: A Modern Critique

Historical Background

            Played even by my parents at the time, Colossal Cave Adventure is a text-based adventure game originally developed by William Crowther for the PDP-10 mainframe computer in 1975. The PDP-10 was a notorious machine that enabled the development of other well-known early titles like Zork (1980) and Dungeon (1975). The PDP-10 is perhaps best known, however, for being the platform on which Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed the first BASIC interpreter; thanks to the PDP-10, Gates and Allen were able to use BASIC as a launching point for their first company– Micro-Soft. 

            As Adventure found its way into more PDP-10s, programmer named Don Woods added fantasy elements to the game come 1977; this early port sparked a frenzy of sorts, and Microsoft soon ported their own version for newly released IBM PCs in 1981. One of very few programs available at launch, Adventure found an audience in many– including my parents. The game was so popular in fact that it spawned its own video game genre, that of the “adventure game”– to say that the game was influential to the history of video games would be an understatement.

My Initial Expectations

            As a modern-day gamer influenced by titles like Minecraft and The Binding of Isaac, my expectations were for Adventure to be a procedurally generated cave game with a set number of few room types whose specific attributes would be generated on the fly. With the first of Murray’s four essential properties of digital environments in mind, proceduralism, I was excited to play a game that would be wildly different between each playthrough.

My Initial Impression

            After spending some time with the game, however, I realized my hopes for procedural generation weren’t met. Level progression was consistent and more or less predictable; save the RnG responsible for dwarves’ appearances, the game felt far more linear than I had expected. Does this then mean Adventure is not procedural, and that one of Murray’s essential properties of digital environments isn’t met in Adventure?

            Well, not exactly. The game is still quite procedural in the way it computes gameplay; although the rooms aren’t randomized, progression still follows a linear procedure that allows the player to press forward. Having questioned Adventure’s proceduralism, I began to think through the other three of Murray’s essential properties. How does Adventure stack up against Murray’s other criteria?

  1. Is Adventure participatory?
    1. Most certainly. As alluded to by Aarseth, the player must participate in non-trivial activity to continue their playthrough– that activity being entering text in a field, which itself requires the user to “participate” in the rules of the game world (for instance, limiting movement inputs to cardinal directions).
  2. Is Adventure spatial?
    1. In a non-Euclidian sense, yes. The user traverses beautifully described spaces that connect to one another (and can even be mapped out!)
      1. A testament to Adventure’s world-building abilities: if each of the 40 rooms were 130x130x130ft (40x40x40m) on average (a fair estimate), one could still fit up to 3,600,000,000,000 colossal caves in a single Minecraft world. Although Minecraft is significantly larger in scale, though, Adventure’s narration and design makes the world feel every bit as dense and complex as any Minecraft cave system.  
  3. Is Adventure encyclopedic?
    1. Most certainly, for there are myriad items the player can pick up, enemies to encounter. Compared to modern-day titles like World of Warcraft (housing over 116,000 unique items and thousands of enemy types), Adventure’s implementation is light- yet, its item and enemy selection is diverse enough so that the world feels sufficiently full and populated.

Critical Overview / Walkthrough

Outside the Cave

            Booting up the game, I started at the end of the road and quickly found myself in the surrounding forest. With the idea that my player was indeed moving in space, I continued in one direction (north, I believe) for a solid five minutes before giving up; I promptly “turned” my character around (in my mind’s eye, anyway), and buckled up for what I thought was going to be another five minutes of walking south back to my starting point.

            Only travelling back didn’t take five minutes– it was instant. I realized the game did not work based on a traditional 2-D basis, but rather via a finite number of ‘cells’ interlinked with one another; I found there were two forest cells, one of which was “near both a valley and a road,” and the other of which runs along “a deep valley to one side.” I learned space could be non-euclidian in this video game world; I could walk straight into the forest for hours, turn around, and be back to my starting point almost instantly.

            The GIF below is fairly representative of how I visualized my experience in the forest; I walked for an age, only to turn around and realize I hadn’t moved far at all.  

            Once I had gotten my bearings in and around the forest, I tried entering the wellhouse near the end of the road. Perhaps an unavoidable consequence of using a more basic NLP system, I found the rest of my time outside the cave frustrating due to the game’s occasionally inconsistent vocabulary. For example, after reaching the end of the road once again, I inputted “enter building” in the text parser; the game specified our character stands before a wellhouse, after all, and I was curious what lay within. To my surprise, this command worked– after picking up the loose items, I went to leave the building. However, entering “leave building” produced the following output:

But you aren’t in the well house. 

For whatever reason, “enter building” was recognized while “leave building” wasn’t. I then tried many combinations of the same “leave building” command:

>exit house

But you aren’t in the well house.

>flee house

That’s not a verb I recognize.

>run away

You can’t go that way.

At a loss, I finally “caved” (a little pun there) and re-read the game’s instructions– I was able to leave the house by simply “walking” west. 

            After contemplation, I thought this blatant contradiction– “enter building” working as expected, and “exit building” doing the opposite– could be a design choice aimed at acclimating the player to the cardinal direction movement system. Perhaps Crowther/Woods thought allowing the player to enter but not exit would provide an incentive to actually read the “HELP” text closely and realize the game preferred cardinal directions to description-based movement commands. A better way to motivate the player in this way, in my opinion, would be to script the following after the player tries to leave the building:

You start to leave the building, but spot a sign above the entryway. ‘ONLY TRAVEL NWSE, OR RISK GETTING LOST.’ You stop before the entryway.

This would more obviously call the player’s attention to the NWSE movement scheme, as opposed to the irritating:

But you aren’t in the well house. 

            On the other hand, though, the tutorial sequence does get world building right. For instance, although the first few areas beyond the end of the road– the valley, the slit in the streambed– are devoid of any interesting action aside from aesthetic descriptions, the lack of activity in both of these places serves the game’s overall narrative by making the above-ground seem boring and trite. When we combine this trite environment with details alluding to passage belowground– a gully flowing beyond the wellhouse, water flowing into a slit in the streambed, the dry streambed itself leading into a damp depression surrounding the grate– the player’s curiosity is piqued to where these waters lead. Much like the flowing water, I felt drawn to the depths below. 

Depth Level 1: Hall of Mists

            Beginning with my critiques of the infamous Hall of Mists, I found progressing past this level unnecessarily counterintuitive at times. For example, the black rod was a major cause for confusion– thinking it was some sort of weapon, I picked it up as soon as I could to prepare myself for the depths below. Once I found myself in the Hall of the Mountain King faced by a giant snake, I realized the rod was completely useless; recalling the bird in the canyon and the wicker cage I had picked up earlier, I quickly backtracked to try and capture the bird– only to be met with:

>capture bird

The bird was unafraid when you entered, but as you approach it becomes disturbed and you cannot catch it. 

I soon returned back to the snake, only to be attacked by a dwarf; even the dwarf’s axe, however, wouldn’t make a mark on the snake. 

            Although the bird’s fear of the rod is mentioned in the game’s “HELP” text (which I had to read a third time to progress past this point- reading comprehension doesn’t seem to be my strong suit), I feel the bird’s fear  of the rod works against the player’s progression in an unjustified way. If the rod were revealed to have belonged to a wizard that killed birds, this complication would feel more justified; as it stands, the bird’s fear of the rod comes across as the developers doing their best to work against the player’s progression. 

            On the other hand, I found Depth Level 1’s aesthetic design compelling. Following white mist meant magic was afoot; whether it was drifting upward from a cavern below or lining the walls of the corridor my player was lighting up with their lantern, the use of this white mist added a sense of ambience and atmosphere I really enjoyed. Furthermore, some of the cells were especially interesting to imagine; for instance, the “window” cell caught my attention due to its mystery:

“You’re at a low window overlooking a huge pit, which extends up out of sight. A floor is indistinctly visible over 50 feet below. Traces of white mist cover the floor of the pit, becoming thicker to the right. Marks in the dust around the window would seem to indicate that someone has been here recently. Directly across the pit from you and 25 feet away there is a similar window looking into a lighted room. A shadowy figure can be seen there peering back at you.”

            Is this pit some kind of stadium? Are these windows intended to be for two spectators? Why just two? Why can’t we see the floor? Why is the mist thicker to the right side of the room? Who was at this window earlier, the dust preserving their presence? Who lies across the pit? So many questions, zero answers– the fact that the player feels motivated to ask them is an indication that the cave’s worldbuilding is working wonders. 

Depth Level 2: Dirty Room

            Perhaps a combination of being accustomed to the control scheme and becoming more motivated to complete the game, I have nothing but praise for Depth Levels 2 and 3 of the game. Depth Level 2 stood out especially due to the unnatural way in which its main chambers are reached; before the player can access Depth Level 2’s main chambers, we must descend to Depth Level 3 and find an entrance upward back into Depth Level 2. As we pass through Depth Level 2 for the first time, the player feels there’s more to explore here and searches Depth Level 3 for an alternate entrance to the level above. 

            Another design choice I found rather charming in Depth Level 2 was the troll’s demand for treasure. Each time the player crosses the troll’s bridge, they must pay with at least one form of treasure; to free Depth Level 2’s bear and acquire its gold chain, the player must come prepared to sacrifice two pieces of treasure to cross the bridge twice. One issue: it is possible for the player to be stuck on the bear side of the troll bridge without any treasure. If this is the case, the player is soft-locked from continuing their playthrough; they must restart, as they can no longer progress to areas on the other side of the troll’s bridge. 

Depth Level 3: The Bedquilt

            Depth Level 3, home to a few secret levels, was challenging to navigate by this point in my playthrough. One aspect I could pinpoint as enjoyable, however, was the bedquilt itself. This cell is completely unique to other cells found in Adventure in that escaping it is 100% dependent on random number generation. There is a chance that walking any of 4 directions will allow the player to escape the cell– progressing beyond the bedquilt is simply a matter of brute force, entering enough commands into the parser until it eventually spits you out. 

Overall Thoughts

            Although the game isn’t the procedurally-generated cave crawler I was expecting, I definitely understand and appreciate its cult appeal. Aside from a few annoyances (not being able to “exit” the well house, the intricacies of the infamous black rod, potentially soft-locking a playthrough by either killing the bird or running out of treasure on the other side of the troll bridge), the game is a fount of entertainment and definitely worth playing!

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