Long before online gaming hit the mainstream in the mid 1990’s, there was MUD. Standing for Multi-User Dungeon, it was an online version of the Adventure text game, created by Roy Trubshaw at Essex University in England in 1979. It would later be greatly expanded on by Richard Bartle, sparking an entire genre of game that still thrives today.
You can directly tie the existence of today’s MMOGs such as World of Warcraft to the original MUDs, which proved to the world that gaming online with fellow adventurers was and is incredibly compelling. For the history of the trailblazing MUD, please consult your local Dot Eaters article.
I’d be hard-pressed to do a review of the computer gaming I did in my youth and not dedicate an entire chapter to the wonderful text-adventures put out by Infocom in the 80’s.
I remember that the first disk I ever bought for my gigantic 1541 floppy drive, newly attached to my Commodore 64, was a Commodore-labelled version of Infocom’s Zork. Just a few minutes exploring the surface landscape and then delving deep into an ever-expanding Underground Empire had me hooked.
Zork, TRS-80 version
Starting as an answer to Crowther and Wood’s original Adventuretext adventure, a group of MIT students designed Zork as a program on a mainframe computer, and eventually developed a system to port it to personal computers. After an initial release by VisiCalc makers Personal Software, the Infocom team decided to publish the games themselves, and hence was a computer game giant created.
Ten Zork games were eventually produced, along with a huge library of other works spanning genres such as science fiction, history, mysteries, fantasy, and on and on. When Douglas Adams got wind of what Infocom is doing with interactive fiction, he signed on with the company to adapt his seminal comedy science fiction book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. From this unholy pairing of Adams and Infocom “IMP” Steve Meretsky would come one of the most cruel, diabolical computer games of all time.
Even as graphics eventually supplanted text and the human imagination as the canvas of computer game design, the great writing and intricate design of Infocom’s worlds kept me visiting them. For our full history of Zork and Infocom, consult your local Dot Eaters article.
Perhaps you’re like me, and one of the very first gaming experiences you had on a computer was a text adventure.
Sometimes a person is lucky enough to have a first experience, a first taste of something, that is so amazingly, compellingly good that it forever shapes how they think about that thing. For me, that first thing was Infocom‘s Zork, and it gave me a lifelong love of computers and gaming.
The text adventure was a genre that ruled the landscape of early computer gaming, until advancing graphics technology inevitably supplanted text as the canvas for creating worlds on personal computers. GET LAMP, a documentary directed by Jason Scott, takes a close look at the genre, from its inception as Will Crowther‘s original cave-diving Adventure, to its perfection at Infocom, to its effective demise in the late 80’s and resurgence in the modern era as home-grown Interactive Fiction.
Box art for Zork I, Atari ST version
As the premiere text adventure company of the era, a particular light is shone on Infocom, producer of classics such as the aforementioned Zork games, Deadline, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… the list is exhaustive. Interviews of those involved are numerous and informative, and form a captivating narrative about the company and what it was like to work there. It’s fascinating to hear the founders and game designers talk about how they were convinced they were on the cusp of creating a new type of literature that would stand the test of time. Now we look back with 20/20 vision and it seems so obvious that the writing was on the wall for Infocom even as it began making games, that inherent in the very idea of text adventure computer games is the seed that will sow the company’s destruction. It was inevitable that game designers, inspired by Infocom games, would eventually want to move on from monochromatic text and turn the lights on to see what is actually there. As well, hobbyist IF writers and players also feature in segments that highlight the fact that text adventures have survived and thrived after the demise of Infocom. Be sure to keep an eye out for a secret item in these interview segments.
Call them text adventures, or adventure games, or the more grandiose interactive fiction, these types of games created entire worlds only with words on a screen. GET LAMP brightly illuminates the forgotten dark corners, hallways and caverns of these worlds and the people who crafted them. Good thing too, because you don’t want to end up reading these words:
Gamasutra has a great article on how Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, creators of the venerable Space Quest adventure game series during the heydays of Sierra, managed to bury the hatchet and end a 20-year estrangement to work together on the new Kickstarter project that you can help fund.