The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Interactive Fiction Games Day, starring Colossal Cave Adventure *

* (restored)




Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure was neither the first computer game nor the first program to emulate conversation; nevertheless, Adventure — an interactive textual simulation of a caving expedition, augmented by fantasy-themed puzzles – inspired a generation of hackers. Playing Adventure involves reading prose descriptions of the setting, and typing brief commands (i.e. “light lamp”) in order to solve puzzles and collect treasure. Similar text games representing environments defined both by story and rules were extremely popular during the 80s and (with the addition of graphics) through the 90s. Text-adventures, also known as “interactive fiction”, attracted modest scholarly attention as an emerging literary form in the 80s.

‘While today’s young computer professionals may have only passing familiarity with Adventure, the game had a tremendous effect on an earlier generation of programmers. Lines from Adventure, such as “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike” and the magic word “XYZZY”, quickly entered hacker culture. The New Hacker Dictionary includes the term “vadding” (“from VAD, a permutation of ADV (i.e., ADVENT), used to avoid a particular admin’s continual search-and-destroy sweeps for the game”), defining it as a “leisure-time activity of certain hackers involving the covert exploration of the ‘secret’ parts of large buildings”.

‘When Adventure reached MIT in the spring of 1977, one group of players reacted by creating Zork and the company Infocom, whose text-adventure titles were best-sellers during the 80s. Other entrepreneurs inspired by Adventure included Scott Adams (founder of Adventure International), who published the lean but accessible Adventureland in 1978, and Ken and Roberta Williams (co-founders of Sierra On-Line), who produced the first graphic adventure game (Mystery House, 1980) after Roberta got hooked on Adventure. In 1978, Atari employee Warren Robinett reworked the general exploration-and-treasure premise into a 2D graphic game, also called Adventure, which sold a million units. During the late 70s, text-based computer games had tactical advantages over games using the slow, blocky, and expensive graphics that were then cutting-edge.

Atari ‘Adventure’

‘Last year’s graphic games dated quickly due to rapid hardware advances, while last year’s text games still appealed to this year’s text gamers, which helped sales. Text games were also easily portable to multiple platforms, thereby increasing sales potential in a crowded market. When the PC and Mac emerged as the dominant hardware platforms in the late 80s, both the aesthetic and economic advantages of text adventures evaporated.

‘Colossal Cave Adventure’, later version

‘Even after the commercial market faded, hobbyists continued to play, review, and create interactive fiction. Indeed, the post-commercial IF community was producing valuable analysis and theory long before games began to emerge as an academic subject.

‘Within the computer science field, Knuth (1998) used Adventure as his sole example in a 107-page tutorial on “literate programming” — coding for human readers as well as machines. His text carefully translates the Crowther/Woods FORTRAN code to CWEB, prefacing each section of code with a discussion of how the rules defined in each section of code affect the gameplay. Knuth expects his reader to have played Adventure multiple times, but offers his close reading of the code as the proper way to experience the work.

‘Knuth’s approach is the mirror image of Buckles (1985), whose dissertation on Adventure employs literary formalism to examine what she calls a “storygame” in terms of established genres such as the riddle and the folktale. Where Knuth’s procedural formalism argues “you cannot fully appreciate the astonishing brilliance of its design until you have seen all of the surprises that have been built in [the code]”, Buckles explores the narratives that her volunteer players generated as they attempted (often unsuccessfully) to make sense of their partial exposure to the simulated world.

‘Colossal Cave Adventure’, even later version

‘Nevertheless, many things that Adventure players enjoyed — logic and resource-management puzzles and the exploration of a complex virtual topography within the context of a framing story — remain staples in adventure, role-playing, and multiplayer game genres. Further, many elements that Adventure did not implement — complex non-player characters, believable AI, dynamic branching plots — still elude today’s game designers. Lured by the siren song of ever-improving graphics power, terrified by the risks involved with truly unique ideas in gaming, the industry is collectively stumbling along a path well-worn by Hollywood, which uses non-stop action and visual spectacle to compete against itself for the quickest path to the consumer’s dollar.

‘One of the major goals of video game systems has been to simulate the real, to create images so lifelike, and movements so natural that there is no sense of artifice, yet paradoxically, the technology is put in service to creating a world that could very well do without it. Because interactive fiction authors can draw on an existing body of narrative techniques, as well as emergent code-based interaction techniques, the medium (free from the corporate pressures associated with team-based development) is well-suited to individual experimentation and innovation.’ — Dennis G. Jerz, ‘Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original “Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky’

Finish reading that (above) then play this (below)





Get Lamp: A Documentary about Adventures in Text (2010)
Directed by Jason Scott

‘With limited sound, simple graphics, and tiny amounts of computing power, the first games on home computers would hardly raise an eyebrow in the modern era of photorealism and surround sound. In a world of Quake, Half-Life and Halo, it is expected that a successful game must be loud, fast, and full of blazing life-like action.

‘But in the early 1980s, an entire industry rose over the telling of tales, the solving of intricate puzzles and the art of writing. Like living books, these games described fantastic worlds to their readers, and then invited them to live within them. They were called “computer adventure games”, and they used the most powerful graphics processor in the world: the human mind.

‘Rising from side projects at universities and engineering companies, adventure games would describe a place, and then ask what to do next. They presented puzzles, tricks and traps to be overcome. They were filled with suspense, humor and sadness. And they offered a unique type of joy as players discovered how to negotiate the obstacles and think their way to victory. These players have carried their memories of these text adventures to the modern day, and a whole new generation of authors have taken up the torch to present a new set of places to explore.

Get Lamp is a documentary that will tell the story of the creation of these incredible games, in the words of the people who made them.’ — Get Lamp Website

Trailer: ‘Get Lamp’

Tribute to and video about ‘Get Lamp’





Interactive Fiction Games

‘Text adventures are one of the oldest types of computer games and form a subset of the adventure genre. The player uses text input to control the game, and the game state is relayed to the player via text output. Input is usually provided by the player in the form of simple sentences such as “get key” or “go east”, which are interpreted by a text parser. Parsers may vary in sophistication; the first text adventure parsers could only handle two-word sentences in the form of verb-noun pairs. Later parsers, such as those built on Infocom’s ZIL (Zork Implementation Language), could understand complete sentences. Later parsers could handle increasing levels of complexity parsing sentences such as “open the red box with the green key then go north”. This level of complexity is the standard for works of interactive fiction today.

‘Despite their lack of graphics, text adventures include a physical dimension where players move between rooms. Many text adventure games boasted their total number of rooms to indicate how much gameplay they offered. These games are unique in that they may create an illogical space, where going north from area A takes you to area B, but going south from area B did not take you back to area A. This can create mazes that do not behave as players expect, and thus players must maintain their own map. These illogical spaces are much more rare in today’s era of 3D gaming, and the Interactive Fiction community in general decries the use of mazes entirely, claiming that mazes have become arbitrary ‘puzzles for the sake of puzzles’ and that they can, in the hands of inexperienced programmers, become immensely frustrating for players to navigate.’ — XYZZY News – The Magazine for Interactive Fiction Enthusiasts

Some classic examples

‘Zork 1’

‘Mystery House’

Scott Adams shows and discusses ‘Adventureland’


‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

‘Leather Goddesses of Phobos’

‘Eric the Unready’

‘Gateway II: Home World’





The Interactive Fiction Archive
‘The contents of the IF Archive — including thousands of text adventures, text adventure development tools, articles, essays, hint files, walkthroughs, jokes, and sly references to Greek politics — are contributed by the interactive fiction community, past and present.’ — IFA

The Interactive Fiction Database
‘The Interactive Fiction Database is an IF game catalog and recommendation engine. IFDB is a Wiki-style community project: members can add new game listings, write reviews, exchange game recommendations, and more.’ — IFD

The Annual Interactive Fiction Competition
‘For the last fifteen years, the readers of the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction have held a yearly interactive fiction competition. For fans of the old Infocom games as well as for newcomers to the genre, the competition is a chance to enjoy some of the best short adventure games available anywhere.’ — IFC

Interactive Fiction: A Beginner’s Guide
‘This site is a quick start guide, designed to help people who want to try interactive fiction, or as it is also called, text adventures. It is divided up into seven steps, which can all be seen in the table to the left. Reading through all the material on this site takes about 10-20 minutes, and that’s all the preparation you’ll need before you can start downloading and playing games.’ — microheaven.com

Dennis Jerz’s ‘Playing, Studying and Writing Text Adventures’
‘Interactive fiction requires the text-analysis skills of a literary scholar and the relentless puzzle-solving drive of a computer hacker. People tend to love it or hate it. Those who hate it sometimes say it makes them think too much.’ — DJH





Interactive Fiction: The Art of Video Game Storytelling (2011)
Directed by Scott Steinberg/Game Theory

Interactive Fiction: The Art of Video Game Storytelling is a documentary film that reveals what’s next for virtual narrative. The movie, featuring today’s top writers and game designers, provides an in-depth look at the present and future of video game storytelling. The video, which features exclusive and never before seen footage, includes commentary by industry legends including Ultima creator Richard “Lord British” Garriott, Revolution Software founder Charles Cecil and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy designer Steve Meretzky. Also featuring interviews with key talent behind hit franchises like BioShock, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted, it offers an uparalleled look at the state of virtual storytelling.

‘In the film, the field’s biggest names chart virtual narrative and scriptwriting’s evolution from the days of point-and-click adventures to today’s sprawling online, downloadable and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. Beginning with the early days of text adventures from Infocom and progressing from Sierra and LucasArts’ golden age heyday to the rise of CD-ROM, next-gen consoles and cutting-edge blockbusters like Heavy Rain, yesterday and today’s greatest designers share their thoughts on film.’ — Game Theory Online




p.s. Hey. So, an inexplicable thing has happened. When I woke up this morning and checked the blog, it’s as though the blog had somehow returned to three days ago in a time machine while I was asleep. Yesterday’s and Wednesday’s posts were still in draft form, and all of the comments as well as the p.s.es were erased. All of the post-building and editing I had done since Tuesday disappeared as well. I have no idea how this could have happened, and you can bet I will be trying to find out via my hosting site as soon as I launch this. I checked in here yesterday and saw that there were comments, but they are all gone now, so I can’t respond to them today. I’ve relaunched yesterday’s and Wednesday’s posts in their naked, p.s.-less and comment-free form. As far as I can tell, everything seems to running normally here again, so any comments you leave today should be safe. I really don’t have the slightest idea how what happened last night could have happened. I apologise on behalf of whatever unknown forces caused that outage. Today I’m reposting this oldie and formerly deady post. See what you think. Now I will go try to solve the mystery of the time-traveling blog problem, and I will see you tomorrow.


  1. Hi Dennis, this is a fun post. Did I miss it before? I don’t remember it. I attempted to say hello a few hours ago but the latest post of yours was gone so I couldn’t. Not much. Just very busy & traveling & uncertain. But pretty happy surprisingly. I guess mixed power of focus & daydream. I hope you & Zac are well. Congratulations on the desistfilm interview and more.

  2. Very strange blog developments, Dennis.

    Could someone be hacking you?

  3. “Confounded blog! ::shoots shotgun::” Great news, the story is ready for printing or rather writing/editing, which only takes a couple days once the gravy starts flowing. And… I’m moving back to the beach tomorrow! Haha! Mind still boggled by yesterdays escorts. Happy Friday

  4. So sorry to hear about the ongoing blog issues. On a brighter note, I’m happy to report that Cerith Wyn Evans won the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture for his Composition For 37 Flutes that I was raving about when I saw it recently.

    Last night I went along with my mum to a DCA talk by the curator Laura Sillars about her experiences working on the Mike Kelley – Mobile Homestead installation in Detroit. She really played a blinder with this, with so many fascinating stories involved in the the making of what is surely MK’s final masterpiece. The show comes down at the end of next week so I still have chance to go back and see the films one final time.

    I plan to spend the weekend on my short story class homework, reading through the nominated texts and trying to describe a place where I’ve never been. Not sure yet what location I’ll choose but am minded to pick somewhere cold and desolate, we’ll see.

  5. I clicked on the blog yesterday evening through the Facebook link, which generally allows me to see comments (although that’s the only way I can do so now), and it said the page was down. I instantly assumed you got hacked or your server had a problem with the escort/slave days all of a sudden. I entered the URL for the main page, and the day’s entry was there but no comments. Things seem fine now, and I can read all the comments now.

    I wrote something here yesterday about the audience reaction at the 2 Slayer shows I went to in the early ’90s. The second one was at a club with general seating, and the crowd was scary, to the point where someone where someone threw a full garbage can from the club’s rear at the band!

    I fondly remember text adventure games from my childhood, when I had a very low-grade computer (and that’s about all that were available.)

  6. Hi!!

    How are you, Dennis, how are things? Did your cold go away? I’m still coughing mildly but it’s almost nothing at this point so no complaints.
    How’s the TV script coming along?
    I’ve had a busy week and my mind’s restless. It’s the state when you feel like you need to do something but no matter what you momentarily decide on, it’s just not it. I’m determined to find out what I need over the weekend.

    Do you know the series ‘The Wire’? It’s not new, I think the first season came out in 2002? Someone recommended it and I’ve read good things about it too so I’m giving it a shot.

    Do you have any plans for the weekend aside from the usual TV script work?

    See you on Monday!!

  7. Best of luck with the tech problems.

    I remember enjoying a choose-your-own adventure game that was installed on the computers at my junior high school, but it was multiple-choice. It was about arriving at Ellis Island and starting a life in America. I was also a huge Oregon Trail fan. I think Oregon Trail found some sort of sweet spot between a text-based game and a graphic game. I’ve never seen anything like the games in the post aside from Eliza and Global Thermonuclear War.




    I’m astounded that natural language processing was good enough to make these games viable as early as they were.

    My whole mentorship issue boils down to a few fruitful friendships with older men and several let downs (one that played a big part in a downward spiral to the worst year of my life) that resulted from my expectations and/or how the friendship actually played out. All I want is to leave all this baggage on the other side of the ocean and just trust myself to be able to enjoy friendship and steer clear of bad relationships in whatever form either takes.

    I’d like to pitch you soon on a guest post I’d like to put together: Scott Ross Day. I just learned about him today and it immediately felt to me like he belongs here. I’ll let this article introduce him:


  8. Dennis, I have to admit that I’m so young, I don’t remember this game -or type of game- at all. Nah, I’m just out of it…or was. Totally missed all the early computer stuff, except Atari. Only console stuff for me back then…and today too.

    Fuck, I go away for a few days and THEN somebody or something decides to attack?! No more going away for me.

    But yeah, that’s fucked and I’m sorry whatever has happened to the blog has happened to it. Or did happen to it. Ugh.

    Me, I’ve just been falling asleep way too fucking early at night. I need to get on a better sleep schedule. Saturday night always fucks me up because I stay up way too late and then wake up way too late and the cycle starts all over again. I’m dead on my ass by Wednesday and can’t catch up.

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