Why Colossal Cave Holds Up

By Brian Lancaster

Enter house, get torch, exit house, north, XYZZY.

The first text adventure (also known as interactive fiction) to ever be created, was called Colossal Cave Adventure (1977), in which a sentence parser broke down the player’s commands into verbs, direct objects, and indirect objects with a preposition (the subject is always assumed to be the player). For example: “hit snake with axe.” The game was purchased by Microsoft in 1979 and renamed Microsoft Adventure, and they added a few more rooms. The game was quickly followed by the Zork series (which is much better).


After more than 40 years, Colossal Cave still holds up, and here’s why.

After the sentence parser IF came the point-and-click adventure games, and I think the only ones I ever beat were Full Throttle and King’s Quest 7. I assume the premier game of this genre would be Myst. Speaking of which, what the hell was Myst?

I loved the art and voice acting of Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, etc. I love cartoons, and I love voice actors. However, the pointing and the clicking can only bring you so much satisfaction gameplay-wise. When a game has a full text parser, like the original Colossal Cave, it brings so much more satisfaction when you solve a puzzle. Look at you! You formulated a semi-sentence!

The evolution to point-and-click adventure games was a downgrade in gameplay, despite the amazing animation and voice acting. The sentence parsing was fun as hell. Not “look at window” but “look through window” maybe? Kick turtle? Scratch lottery ticket? Buy yacht? “You have nothing to gain by kicking the turtle.” Thank you, text adventure.


Then you have the imagination factor, which is why it’s better to call it “Interactive Fiction”, because there is the potential here to be an amazing indie game genre for people who don’t know how to make visual art. If you are a fat-ass ignorant American like myself, you will collect the “torch” in Colossal Cave only to find that it requires batteries eventually, which you must retrieve from a vending machine in a windy twisty maze. I thought I was living in a fantasy world, and the game slapped me back into reality, and I was only a kid. Creator William Crowther is American, but I assume he knew what he was doing when he called the thing a “torch” (this is U.K. English for “flashlight”).

And if you haven’t played any of Emily Short’s interactive fiction, I suggest you try them now.

I’ve made a sentence parser in Visual Basic, and it was kind of fun. The problem was that I couldn’t disable the Windows ding every time the player hit ENTER. The engine is scrapped but I can give it out if anyone is interested. It comes complete with a thesaurus where the “get” command is the same as “take”, etc. I put a lot of work into that a long time ago.

Now on to the final lesson of this rambling piece of crap article: this is the basis of linguistic artificial intelligence. This is how ad bots work. Have you ever chatted with an ad bot for a while just to see if it’s a real fake person or a fake fake person? One time it took me almost an hour to realize I was talking to a computer. Take that sentence, break it down into subject, verb, object, preposition, indirect object, and BOOM! AI. How does that make you feel? We’re all AI simulations, people.

But here’s a shameless plug for my indie FPS/RPG, Brigand: Oaxaca, and my upcoming RTS/RPG, Warlordocracy.

Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/652410/Brigand_Oaxaca/

Itch: https://blancaster45.itch.io/

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blancaster45 View All →

Indie game developer, writer, non-teacher.

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