Or, of early adventure games, and how to go adventuring on your Apple II today
Many are familiar with the concept of the computer text adventure game, or work of ‘interactive fiction’; they may even have played such a game when they were much younger, in the early days of home computing – the late 1970s to 1980s – when they may have had fun loading them up off cassette with a Sinclair Spectrum, a BBC Micro, a Commodore 64, an Amstrad, a Dragon or even an MSX.
But many of the first commercially available adventure games, indeed some of the very first available on a microcomputer instead of a mainframe or minicomputer, were actually initially introduced on the now-scarce Tandy TRS-80 Model I, the Commodore Pet 2001, or the rather easier to find Apple II range. And even today, for those wanting to go adventuring like in the “good old days”, there is much to be said for turning to the classic Apple eight-bit machines once again, and truly seminal games like Adventureland, Zork I and Mystery House, from which all else follows on.
What’s in an adventure game?
Adventures were some of the very first games to be played on computers, with Colossal Cave Adventure (often known simply as Adventure) being developed for mainframes and minicomputers as far back as 1975-6. The whole point of the game was to present the player with a story within a digital world with which he or she could interact, solve puzzles in, progress through and, well, have an adventure!
Because those early scientific or business-oriented computers didn’t use bit-mapped graphics, the first games, and many of those created for early home computers, were entirely text or character-based, and before the advent of VDU (video display) terminals, game progress would actually be printed out on a teletype machine or line printer. This made text adventure games ideal for converting to the earliest home computers, with minimal or relatively crude graphics by modern standards. They also required relatively little memory to run in, and could be stored on tape cassette or the relatively low capacity floppy disk drives of the day.
The adventurer’s tale
Adventure games are also known as ‘interactive fiction’, since their object is for the player to take part in and influence a fictional story by exploring within the game, making choices, picking up and using objects, solving puzzles and, in the more sophisticated games, even interacting with other, computer-generated characters in the story.
Typically, as you might expect given the geeky nature of computer gaming, fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime, and variations on these tropes, tend to be the most popular themes for adventure game storylines, but almost any subject can lend itself to the genre.
In the beginning
The very first adventure game was Colossal Cave Adventure, often referred to simply as Adventure, Colossal Cave, or ADVENT. Colossal Cave was developed in 1976 by Will Crowther, for the 36-bit DEC PDP-10 mainframe computer. This game is the great, great grandfather of all the adventure games which followed. And as you might expect, variations on it were among the very first games to appear on the Apple II range.
The basic principle of the game was that the player would control a central character in the game’s storyline using simple text commands. A verb-noun parser was used to interpret these instructions, allowing the player to interact with objects through the program at a basic level, such as typing ‘get lamp’ or ‘read book’. Later text adventures use natural language processing to allow the use of more complex and ambigous commands.
But the whole point of a text adventure game is really to tell a story, and allow the player to become involved with all its twists and turns, its shocks and setbacks, and its successes. So it needs, much like a book, a background story, scenery, characters, objects and happenings. Unsurprisingly, Colossal Cave Adventure is set in a colossal cave, rumoured to filled with wealth, and the primary purpose of the player is to live long enough and solve enough puzzles to claim their financial reward at the end by earning the maximum number of game points available.
In 1977, Crowther was approached by fellow programmer Don Woods, who discovered Adventure while he was working at the Stanford Artificial Intellgence Laboratory. A fan of the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, Woods was keen to add such high-fantasy elements to Colossal Cave. Crowther’s original game comprised about 700 lines of FORTRAN code plus an additional 700 lines of data, the latter of which included full text descriptions for 78 map locations – a combination of 66 ‘rooms’ and 12 navigation messages. The program’s vocabulary covered 193 words, plus miscellaneous messages and travel tables. Don Woods added elves, a troll and a volcano which some have said is based on Tolkien’s Mount Doom in Mordor, but Woods denies this. He also introduced the game’s scoring system and hid in it ten additional treasures to collect, over and above Crowther’s original five.
Adams and the Apple
Scott Adams is the first person known to have created an Adventure-style game for personal computers, on a Tandy TRS-80 Model I with just 16k of memory and a cassette recorder for storage. Adams had been interested in computers since childhood, having worked with early mainframes at high school in Miami Beach, and went on to attend Florida Institute of Technology where he majored in computer programming and minored in business administration. To help pay for his education he worked in the school’s computer department part-time.
Scott’s own imagination was fired up by the interactive, problem-solving nature of the adventure game, and wanted to show it to his friends but couldn’t very well take them in to work to see it. So he decided to program his own game, inspired by the original, and this was on his own TRS-80 at home, which was one of the first such machines to go on sale. It seemed impossible – after all, the original adventures were running on powerful mainframes. But it could be done, amazingly at first using the BASIC programming language (and later in machine code), and subsequently Scott’s fellow hobbyists ‘went wild’ about his achievement, showing that there must be a market for this kind of software. More importantly, it was to be the beginning of one of the first and most influential home computers games businesses – Adventure International, which was founded by Adams with the help of his first wife and co-founder Alexis, selling Adventureland by mail order. Demanded exceeded all expectation and before long Adventure International was able to take the game into mass production. After its launch on the TRS-80, Adventureland was published for the Apple II series and a number of other early platforms.
Adventuring in Adventureland
Adventureland involves the search for thirteen lost artefacts in a fantasy setting. Unlike succeeding adventure games, it has no major story or plot, being simply a treasure hunt. To succeed, the player must move between various locations within the game, and at the same time find and collect objects. Often, these objects will be needed for later use, perhaps in a totally different location. There are also puzzles to be solved.
As you would expect for the time, and bearing in mind the limited amount of RAM and initial lack of a floppy disk system (Apple was eventually the first to make this available on a home computer), the game has a vocabulary of just 120 words or so. Game commands are simple and not always obvious. Most take the form of either simple, two-word, verb/noun phrases, such as ‘climb tree,’ or single word commands, such as for moving the player’s character through the game and its locations (north, south, east, west, up, down etc.).
Because the parser (the program’s command interpreter) only recognised the first three letters of any command, it occasionally misidentified a command. But this also mean that the player in a hurry could get away with shortened versions of commands such as ‘lig lam’ instead of ‘light lamp.’
There are thirteen ‘lost artefacts’ which must be collected by the player to complete the game: A jewelled fruit, a golden fish, a diamond necklace and a diamond bracelet, a statue of Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, Babe, a golden net, a magic carpet, a dragon’s egg, the ‘royal honey’, a magic mirror, a crown, a ‘firestone,’ and a pot of rubies.
Zork the Great and Powerful
The slightly later, but equally legendary game Zork was also inspired by Adventure, and also originated on a mainframe computer, a DEC PDP-10. A greatly updated version of Colossal Cave, Zork was co-authored in 1977–1979 using the MDL programming language by a team including Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling – all members of the Dynamic Modelling Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
MDL was a LISP-based system offering powerful string manipulation, making it possible for Zork to be much more advanced than the original Adventure. While superficially similar in terms of concept and text entry, Zork allowed longer and more specific commands. It also used a completely new map made up of multiple areas, each with their own set of puzzles and stories.
Zork was originally so big that it had to be split up into three separate, linked games so that it could be ported to early microcomputers. They were Zork: The Great Underground Empire – Part I (later Zork I), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz, and Zork III: The Dungeon Master.
This next step in text adventure games was a step up in depth and quality, not just because the three-game format permitted richer and deeper storytelling, but because the program’s text parser (command interpreter) not only recognised simple two word commands but also some prepositions and conjunctions.
Zork is said to be set in ‘…the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground’. You, the player, are a nameless adventurer, ‘…venturing into this dangerous land in search of wealth and adventure’. Over all three games, you must seek to inherit the title of Dungeon Master. These dungeons, which it is your task to successfully explore, house numerous weird and unusual objects and creatures, and comprise many strange locations. Some of those things which you find along your way are, as you might expect, referred to in sequel games and others by Infocom, which is all part of the fun.
Zork I begins above ground, near a white house in a small, self-contained area. The house may yield numerous intriguing objects, including an Elvish sword of great antiquity. A rug hides a trap door leading down, down into a dark cellar, an entrance to the ‘Great Underground Empire’ (aka GUE), and so your adventure begins. But keep your wits about you, or it may end sooner than you think!
Your mission is to return from exploring the GUE alive and having collected all of the treasures which you will need to complete each adventure. Finding the treasures requires solving a variety of puzzles such as the navigation of mazes and some intricate manipulations. The ultimate goal of Zork I is to collect all Twenty Treasures of Zork and install them in a trophy case, whereupon the player will be granted the title of ‘Master Adventurer’ and the way to the beginning of Zork II will be revealed…
Being underground, you will often need a source of light to pick up and use, and these are many and varied amongst the Zork games. For example, a pair of candles, or a battery-powered brass lantern, both of which will only last so long before plunging the player into darkness… If you end up navigating through the dark, you may be grabbed and eaten by a carnivorous creature known as a ‘grue’, thus ending your adventure in an abrupt and grisly fashion. Unless, of course, you have a grue repellent spray on hand.
Zork went through several versions between 1977-78 before three members of the original team, who by then were known as the ‘imps’, joined forces to found Infocom as a general programming firm. Marc Blank and Joel Berez had both moved to Pittsburgh and kept in touch, thinking about the future of Zork. When word reached them of the formation of Infocom, they convinced their former colleagues that it would be possible to sell Zork as a commercial product for the new home computers, albeit they were far less powerful, with simpler programming languages and storage systems.
To get round these hardware and software difficulties, Berez and Blank devised their own computer programming language known as ‘Zork Implementation Language’, or “ZIL”, running within a virtual machine known as the Z-machine. The Z-machine would be ported to various platforms in shells known as the “Z-machine Interpreter Program” or ZIP. The first ZIP was built in 1979. The storage issue required the cutting down of the game until it would fit on a floppy disk, with Dave Lebling drawing a circle on the Zork map and retaining and remodelling around 100 locations from the original, leaving the rest of the map for the sequel games.
The first graphic adventure
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and while that might be a bit of an exaggeration, the basic principle holds true in gaming as well as in art. Both as a way of adding content to a game, and excitement, as well as giving a commercial edge to whichever game might have the best graphics, the addition of artwork to a basic text adventure was to become a very popular game format, especially with those gamers who were less likely to be grabbed by the excitement of a pithy paragraph of puzzles.
The first ever graphic adventure game, Mystery House, was created by husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams for the Apple II range of computers in 1980. Designed, written and illustrated by Roberta and programmed by Ken, it was destined to be the first in a long line of classics.
At the end of the 1970s, Ken Williams had become determined to set up a company for enterprise software for the Apple II, which by then was dominating the market. One day, he took a teletype terminal to his home so that he would work on developing an accounting program, and while searching through a catalogue he discovered Colossal Cave Adventure. Ken and Roberta played it all the way through and after completing it they were so enthused that they decided to look for something similar, but there was very little. In a light-bulb moment, they decided that their future would be in creating adventure games.
Roberta Williams was keen on the concept of text adventures, but rapidly concluded that if it were possible to add graphic images, the player’s experience could be considerably enhanced. She pondered on the idea of designing her own game, and so conceived Mystery House, which was based on a detective story inspired by crime writer Agatha Christie’s ‘whodunit tale’, And Then There Were None.
Getting the picture
Amazingly, once Roberta had created seventy simple two-dimensional drawings upon which the ground-breaking new game would be based, Ken Williams took just a few nights to program the game itself on his Apple II. When it first went on sale, Mystery House was packed in individual Ziploc bags, each containing a 5¼-inch floppy disk plus a photocopied sheet describing the game. It was sold in local software shops in Los Angeles County, and to the amazement of the couple, the game was hugely successful, rapidly becoming a best-seller at US$24.95. Eventually, the game’s sales rocketed to a then-record 10,000 plus copies. In 1979, the Williamses founded On-Line Systems, which would become Sierra On-Line in 1982, and so another gaming legend was born.
The mystery of Mystery House
The game, which is relatively simple, begins outside an abandoned Victorian mansion. Climbing the steps to the door, the player soon finds themselves locked inside the house with no obvious escape and no other option but to explore. The mansion itself is full of intriguing rooms and besides the player, seven other characters: Dr. Green, the surgeon; Sally, the seamstress; Tom, the plumber; Joe, the gravedigger; Sam, the mechanic; Daisy, the cook and Bill, the butcher.
To begin with, the player’s task is to search all over the house to discover a hidden treasure of jewels, but before long, sinister events begin to take place, and he/she comes across dead bodies from amongst the other characters in the game. Clearly, a murderer is on the prowl in the mystery house, and the player must find out who and where the antagonist is, or become the next corpse on the list…
The legacy of the Mystery House
Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, being the first of its kind, Mystery House went on to sell as many as eighty-thousand copies around the globe, starting a new fashion in gaming. Graphic adventure games were a new concept and went on to become one of the favourite modes of interactive fiction during the home computer revolution of the early 1980s-90s.
Mystery House was re-released in 1982 through the SierraVenture line, which produced a number of early Sierra games until 1983. In 1987, the game was released into the public domain as part of Sierra’s seventh anniversary celebration.
Sierra On-Line became one of the biggest and most valuable companies of its kind, producing some of the best-loved adventure games of all time, and in 1996 was sold when Ken and Roberta Williams decided to retire. Today, Sierra is an Activision Publishing Ltd brand.
Apple adventuring today
While a huge range of different types of adventure games were developed for home computers, arcade games have always been more popular, so adventures are often thinner on the ground if you’re looking to buy original works –though this makes them all the more collectable. Thankfully, there are thousands of ‘abandonware’ adventure games for past generations of computers still available to download online, to be played on original hardware or in emulation, and with a little technical knowledge the avid adventurer, especially the Apple user looking to go way back to a time when adventuring meant a real step into the unknown, can easily amass enough games to keep him or her occupied for a lifetime!
But what do you need to go adventuring on an early Apple? Well, the commonest and best value machines around are generally the Apple IIe range, which were the company’s longest-produced eight bit computers. They turn up fairly regularly on eBay, and in the UK at least they can be picked up in working order, with one or two 5.25” disk floppy disk drives, for between £200-£350. You can also pick up the compact Apple IIc, which has a built-in drive, for similar prices, though they are less common. In the USA, where Apple’s eight-bit range was understandably far more popular, they turn up regularly for much less, if you’re prepared to do some cleaning and restoration work.
You’ll also need a monitor with a composite video input; the Apple II may work on a CRT or LCD TV with an RCA/Phono composite input and a simple cable, but in general a composite colour or green screen monitor will be a better bet, especially for authenticity. The IIc-dedicated 9” Apple green screen with a special stand which fits above the computer is particularly cute and takes up little space.
If you don’t want to splash out on old Apple kit, or would prefer to try a few games before you buy, there’s always emulation. Quick and relatively easy is the Virtual Apple ][ web browser based emulator, where after a bit of fiddling installing plugins you can just click and play. There are a number of Apple emulators downloadable for free from the web. One place to look for them is the Zophar’s Domain website. Alternatively, the most versatile emulation system for Mac OS X and macOS Sierra is offered by the commercial emulator software Virtual ][. Web links to all these are given below.
You will occasionally be able to pick up original Apple II adventure games, though they can be pricey. A more technically involved way of acquiring a good games collection for emulation or transfer to floppy disk is to download ‘abandonware’ games from online sources such as Asimov, Apple II Disk Server, My Abandonware and Apple2Online.
To get these games onto floppy disk for use with actual Apple II hardware, the best bet is to use a PC with a serial port and ADTPro software. You can also do this with a IIe (not a IIc) via a link between your PC’s speaker output and the Apple’s cassette ports, and this is fairly easily done via the Apple II Disk Server. Again, see links below.
Of course you could always ‘modernise’ your Apple II by adding a memory card device such as the CFFA3000, and filling it up with downloaded disk images. But that would not be quite the same, would it?
However you care to step into the exciting and challenging world of interactive fiction on your Apple II, there is definitely a whole, wide world of adventure waiting for you out there!
Virtual Apple ][ browser emulator: http://www.virtualapple.org/
Virtual ][ emulation software: http://www.virtualii.com
Apple II emulators on Zophar’s domain: http://www.zophar.net/apple2.html
Apple II Disk Server: http://asciiexpress.net/diskserver/readme.html
ADT Pro software: http://adtpro.sourceforge.net/
Online resources: http://apple2online.com/
Scott Adams Grand Adventures: http://www.msadams.com/index.htm
A version of this article first appeared in print, in Eight Bit magazine issue 3.