Big Echo

Critical SF

Colossal Cave Adventure: An Essay

by Leigh Alexander

First published as “Gaming Made Me: A Colossal Cave Adventure” at rockpapershotgun.com, June 4th, 2011

I’ve lived in New York City for nearly nine years now, and yet I still can become so easily disoriented in the grids of Manhattan. Nearly every time the subway stairs eject me blinking into the above ground sun, I don’t know which way is north; I stagger for landmarks, and I am shaking my iPhone to dislodge the compass interference that will tell me which way to turn. My map reading skills are horrific.

It wasn’t always this way. As a child I was a cartographer of imaginary worlds, drawing maps by hand for my best friend Charlotte and I to play with. I often mapped the woodlands of the neighborhood in which I grew up: a suburban Massachusetts loop of peaceful little homes surrounded by the kind of greenery I took for granted as a kid, not knowing yet how rare it was, how distant a memory it would be once the ruthless asphalt and metal of the big city became my adult home.

I am sure Liberty Hill Circle is neither as vast nor as magical as it was to my young mind, but to my memory Charlotte and I had great trees that breathed, forbidding encampments for imaginary tribal people, and “rivers” – muddy gullies in the woods between homes that sometimes had crude planks for bridges. Trails were to be followed, walls scaled, and any unusual object, from abandoned toys to simple garbage, had the possibility of being invested with magic. They were faerie crowns, they were clues in a murder mystery, they were signposts for travelers.

Once, we got lost, having come out of the woods on a thoroughfare a few blocks away, and we walked back and forth bawling loudly until someone came out of their house and directed us how to get home. With all the wandering we did, I remain impressed that was the only time we lost our path, and that that was the only trouble we’d ever really gotten into (aside from a mud-ruined sneaker or a missed dinner or two).

But then, my childhood world was one long continuum of maps, forests, and secret places. After we got done playing outside, Charlotte and I would escape the summer heat by retreating into her basement, a magic space in its own right: Her father, who to my memory was a mad scientist, kept all his things down here, hulking bookshelves full of calculus texts that might as well have been bibles in a foreign language (but were ideal for playing “teenager”), a fascinating bin of many-colored wires in tiny looped bundles, an old brown and orange couch set whose foam cushions were better for forts than for sitting. From the basement rafter, a painted rope swing in the shape of a horse that Charlotte’s father had built for her and her brothers.

The cool space was more than a reprieve from the heat. The most important thing in it was a PC the size of a refrigerator, with a great big shelf for disks the size of pizza boxes. It was an ark, a monolith, and its screen was the sort of primitive green-text display that made me feel, even in the 1980s, as if I were a programmer in an ancient language just to tell it to RUN, driving a blinking bright-green cursor across a swamp-colored screen. We had computers at home, but the Commodore 64 and Apple IIe on which I played my adventures had flat floppy disks, graphics in a few colors, and did not loom nearly so large, either physically or in my impressionable mind.

There was only one game. Appropriately for us neighborhood-explorers, for us mapmakers, it was launched by typing ADVENTURE.

The game began you at a house by the woods, with a mailbox, a trail to a grate, not unlike the wandering explorations we undertook on our own in our simple neighborhood. It explicated all of this entirely as text, of course. It understood typed commands, ordinal directions and simple instructions, GET, DROP, OPEN. At the time I was about six or seven years old, and I believed I was training to be an adventurer of some kind, a discoverer of hidden lands, or maybe even a scientist like Charlotte’s father, capable of communing with primeval programming, of drawing maps on dot matrix printer paper of the worlds within the machine that only I could read.

Sometimes as we played, in the other room her father undertook the synthesis of sapphires with heated instruments (the result: dull stones that looked nothing like the faceted blue gems I imagined) – I can’t to this day imagine how one synthesizes sapphires, but the sound of something lit and spark-throwing in the next room and the cool, labored breathing of the PC-fridge were the backdrop to the hours we spent in that basement, two little girls side by side bathed in the screen’s green light, drawing maps of N, S, E, W, jotting notes on now-iconic commands like XYZZY and the less-repeated PLUGH (but oh, how we were creeped by the hollow voice that cried it).

When we filled one piece of green-striped printer paper we taped another to it, sketching and sprawling a map smudged with the sharp-scented rubber cement that I restlessly played with whenever it wasn’t my turn at the keys. I imagined that the nasty little dwarves that periodically appeared to throw knives at you smelled of rubber cement when they disappeared into puffs of smoke.

Sometimes it was enough to talk about it as we walked in the real-life woods, wondering what marvelous truths the game’s ending would reveal just as much as we wondered what artifact lay around the next corner of our latest exploration trip. In school I wrote short books that were influenced by the game, sprawling and structureless narratives that led a first-person narrator from one challenge to the next. I liked to think there would be a horse in the game at some point, an abandoned castle.

The terse text lent itself to that kind of dreaming. The game was littered with treasure objects: a Ming vase, a pearl, an emerald, clearly meant to be carried, but for what purpose? Points? Why were we in a cave, for what were we searching, to what end? Why was there a pirate? We never asked. We never even thought about it. It was about the exploration, and we cared only about how to get to the next room, and how to put it all in order.

We never finished the game, of course. It was probably too challenging for a couple of six or seven year-olds. Or even eight or nine year-olds, since we played for years. I was nine when my parents and I moved me to a different neighborhood, and while I quickly co-opted the other neighborhood kids into after-school gaming adventures with me, it was never the same. The language had been laid out in my early life, and everything else was just evolutions upon it, imitations thereof.

Along with a going-away present of puffy shirt paint — it was then 1991! — Charlotte gave me a farewell card that depicted a long, hazardous route to a barred door. It was meant to be humorous (“YOU’RE LEAVING? WELL, THERE’S THE DOOR!”) but when I dredged it out of a memory box just a few months ago, all I could think of was that she was suggesting one more obstacle to overcome, one more puzzle to unpuzzle, key to find.

When I was young, I knew nothing of someone named Will Crowther or of the title ‘Colossal Cave’, as Adventure is more commonly known. I only learned this later, on Wikipedia, which claims that one of my first adventure games was the first adventure game. Granddaddy, people call it, as if I were taught what’s a Ming vase and how to draw maps of catacombs by some kindly old patriarch, equally mysterious and terrible, some old-generation parent that built his children’s survival skills by setting them off in the wild on their own.

And when I was young I didn’t know to wonder what it was all for, the purpose or order of the objects, why a bent and star-crowned rod found in a cave should have teleportation powers, what lament all those sepulchral voices were singing. It wasn’t simply that I was too young to have got my head around the game; it was that I hadn’t learned game design yet, how to work out that conversation between the designer and myself wherein my role was to divine what Granddaddy wanted me to do.

I know all that stuff now, just as I know that the edition of the game we played, on that pizza-sized slab of disk, had a filesize not much bigger than the file I’ll create in the writing of this. I know that Colossal Cave Adventure was a crude relic, an early experiment, and I even know, from having read others’ work on it, that it has no real objective except to gather points and treasures like in any of a million disappointing design skeletons I could probably dredge up today.

And I know I could finish it in about a half hour, learn the ending of an adventure I spent years of my young life on. I would snap it up quicker than normal, probably, because that call-and-response between the designer and the player has become so evident to me.

I know all of this because my business is to write about games, to know their innards and to answer them, to map their making. And that’s also why I know that Colossal Cave Adventure engineered my immersion entirely by accident, through sparse threads of language that didn’t care about things like “critical response” that didn’t really exist yet.

Which is why I won’t go back to it. In my mind it’s no primitive text file, but a basement chamber full of greenlit memories, beloved documents, the experience that spawned a hundred short stories and led me to look more closely at the lace detail of a leaf’s vein, to lend magic to a child’s discarded pail found in the woods or to the haphazard placement of a board across a muddy rut. In my mind the trails of my childhood backyard lead seamlessly into Crowther’s mazelike, forbidding caverns, rooms with names like Bedquilt, Misty and Slab Room.

I found Charlotte on Facebook and considered contacting her for the purposes of this article, to see what she remembered of the Colossal Caves and if it’d changed her (we haven’t spoken since I was a kid). But then as I refreshed my memory through reading, I found this account, which says Crowther created the game as a way to share with his daughters the spelunking experiences he’d enjoyed with his wife before they divorced.

It hit me hard. Colossal Cave Adventure is a love letter to the things that don’t exist anymore; little me, little Charlotte. I cannot read maps anymore; I managed to grow up with no sense of direction. I live in a place where nothing is green, where everything is ordered chaos, the hollow voices tell me nothing, and I turn in circles like a compass who wants north, or like a girl who wants her father.

But I have the memory to hold onto of a time when neither the world nor computer games needed to have objectives or solutions to be loved. I have the knowledge that a field of possibility can be born from a few terse lines.

I didn’t contact Charlotte; I want to leave the memory untouched. So that we will always both be Crowther’s daughters, too.

You can play various versions of Colossal Cave yourself here.

For more by Leigh Alexander on growing up in a digital age read Breathing Machine, A Memoir of Computers.