Most people, while writing game reviews, don't have the luxury of jumping ahead 30 years and seeing how a particular piece of software affected the computing landscape. I do have this luxury.
The games of today, at first glance, are not even remotely similar to the games of yesteryear. Space Invaders yielded to Quake and Rogue to Diablo. Are these games fundamentally different from their legacy counterparts? Take a close look and you will find relatively little difference, except for the quality of the graphics engine. Early in the process, game manufacturers discovered that graphics sell. In the early days, black and white games yielded to those with color and then yielded to those with sound. 3-D polygonal rendering is the big kick these days (take a look at Nintendo 64). Are these true enhancements, or just eye candy? I tend to take the stance of the latter. Move, shoot and move, shoot and repeat until your thumbs get sore. What game am I talking about?
It would be foolish of me to point to two of the oldest breakthroughs in game design and say that the gaming industry has stagnated—that is not what I'm trying to say. Now-classics such as Civilization, SimCity, PacMan, Tetris, The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers sparked their legions of clones but were all individual and profound. But which of these series haven't suffered in some way from graphics mania? (I'd like to make an exception to this point. Mario 64 was actually, in my opinion, a breakthrough in gaming and not just a knock-off of a superior product.)
What games trace the lineage back to Adventure? What games descended from its pinnacle in the non-combat adventure genre?
Following Adventure first and foremost was Zork. There were probably others before Zork, but Zork made a noticeable impact on our consciousness. The original Zork didn't stray far from the original concept; it had a newer and fancier parser than the old caving adventure, resulting in more fluid game play. Later installments by the Infocom crowd took gaming to new heights. Their games had magic, mystery and fun. They pioneered the interactive story and took it much farther than even Adventure. This is not to say that each of their games were classic; many were derivative, but many more were unique.
Eventually, however, Infocom's luster began to wear off. Games increasingly turned to graphical albeit inferior forms of gaming. Sierra On-line took a prominent role with King's Quest and other games. Their storytelling was fantastic, but something was just not right about using the arrow keys to walk up to a tree and typing “look into tree” when you got there. Gradually, they refined that interface further with icons and mouse movement, but the “universal range of motion” feel that you got with the old text adventures was gone. Now your actions were defined by what you could click on, not by what you could imagine. Particularly frustrating for me were the layers of eye candy they added to their games. It looked nice, but was often distracting, especially when you wanted to manipulate and just couldn't figure out how.
Eventually, “point and click” adventure gaming became even more “clicky” with the advent of games without funny icons. In these games, you just click on the screen and the computer figures out what action you want from context. To make matters worse, it wasn't long before gamers discovered a profound secret: when one is stuck, one needs only to click madly around the screen until stumbling on the magic hot-spot that jumps to the next level. Certainly, this is a far cry from the seemingly infinite worlds offered by the early text-adventure games, but is it progress?
Infocom (now owned by Activision) and others would try to break away from this mold with later games, such as Return to Zork, which offered a much more detailed mouse interface. Sadly, however, this is where I became disinterested with the genre of non-combat “adventure” gaming, and I have yet to see whether their more recent titles have matched that level in playability. (I'd love to see a review of Zork: Grand Inquisitor—too bad they don't make it for Linux.)
What made these games so wonderful? It wasn't the graphics, obviously. What made these games special was something more subtle. In addition to generally good writing, the textual format allowed game designers to plug the computer's output directly into the gamer's imagination. Who among us doesn't have splendid memories of “Flood Control Dam III” (Zork), the little white house with the boarded front door (Zork), or the “Hall of the Mountain King” (Adventure)? Graphical games just don't plug into the subconscious in the same way. For me, that made all the difference.
In the game of Adventure, you are an unnamed hero-explorer with a good head on your shoulders and a sturdy back. Your mission is to locate and explore Colossal Cave and bring back the hoards of treasure rumored to be inside. But watch out; magic is afoot in the cave and all may not be as it seems. Scoring is based on how many treasures you find, how much of the cave (if any) you explore, and how many of those treasures you get out of the cave.
The game play is fairly simple. You instruct the game in two-word English phrases (“get lamp”) to do things, and your character does them. The vocabulary of the game is not quite as large as its Infocom descendants, but that is understandable. When you get stuck, you can ask for help (although it may not be forthcoming) and when you die, you can get put back together again. It is all very simple.
On first starting the game, it will probably seem confusing. You've just been plopped down in the middle of a large world with little idea of where to go. A building is nearby—that's obvious. Consider it your base of operations, as you'll need to deliver your hoards of treasure there in order to score the most points. Farther afield is the hidden entrance to the cave, a confusing forest (the game's first mini-maze), and many other sights once you get underground. That is, if you remembered to bring your lamp. Otherwise, it'll be a short trip.
If you're playing this game for the first time, I recommend just exploring for a while and seeing the sights. Once you are comfortable with the interface, you'll probably want to get pen and paper and start drawing maps like a true spelunker. Without some sort of map, you will most likely become lost in the maze-like passageways, halls and crawls of Colossal Cave. If you do get stuck, don't ask me for help. I'm at Witt's End.
Joseph Pranevich (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an avid Linux geek and, while not working for Lycos, enjoys writing (all kinds) and working with a number of open-source projects.
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