Jason’s Interactive Text Adventures: Journey Down A New Rabbit Hole

A Radio Shack TRS-80 (with expansion bay)
A Radio Shack TRS-80 (with expansion bay)

I live in the year 2022. I own and enjoy the newest Xbox console. I’m writing this on an absurdly powerful PC. It can easily chew up anything I throw at it in 4K HDR. And yet I find myself tumbling down a new rabbit hole that’s existed in various states of popularity and obscurity since before I was born in the fall of 1975. One that predates video games as most of us know them. It was here before I was enamored by the hypnotic Pong system I first played in 1978. I’m talking about interactive fiction (IF). By another name: text adventures.

I’m just beginning to peek my head in to scope out its depth; its twists and turns. But already, it’s a decidedly fascinating, cerebral rabbit hole that captivates my imagination and tingles my writing sensibilities.

Unsurprisingly, it has inspired me to write, even though I don’t have any of the resulting content mapped out yet. I’m excited, I’m curious, and I’d love to take you with me on this little trip. Maybe experience some of these discoveries together! (As the old NBC slogan goes, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!”)


There Are Two Obvious Exits…

Many stories require a prologue. This one probably doesn’t, but I tend to be a completionist with certain passions of mine. That’s why I’m going to give you a quick peek inside my head and show you how I stumbled across this rabbit hole in the first place.

You know, set the tone a bit. Establish a mood (he says, in his best Barry White).

You’re welcome to jump ship right now by furiously clicking that little “x” to close this tab in your browser. Or you can click here to head straight to the wellspring of my inspiration. But it’s a lot to parse, and maybe it won’t be as fun. The choice is yours!

If you want to stick around and get notified of future posts, I’ve set up an RSS feed just for this category of my writing. That way, if you’re not interested in the tech news or the Linux stuff I cover, you can skip it and still get notified about this series.

Alternately, I’ll update subscribers of my newsletter when there’s an entry.

So there you go! Two ways to bail out, and two ways to stick around…

It Started With Non-Fiction

I found myself drawn to this interactive fiction / text adventures rabbit hole thanks to a work of non-fiction. After receiving it for Christmas, I spent all of last weekend tearing through Harold Goldberg’s “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” and walked away largely satisfied.

The book, published in 2011, is a brisk read that attempts to capture the evolution of the gaming industry from its true origins (Tennis For Two), all the way up to games like BioShock Infinite.

Its deeper focus is more on the individual visionaries, not the publishers. What drove them, and how they transformed their hobby into a career.

But know this going in: All Your Base Are Belong To Us resembles a collection of passionately written, diligently researched, loosely tied together essays, rather than being a true exploration of the video game industry’s impact on pop culture. It’s alluded to repeatedly, but not explored as deeply as I hoped. And Goldberg’s occasional reconstruction of the historical dialogue that transpired between various parties (based on his 200+ interviews) sounds stilted, not natural. 

Still, it’s packed with fascinating facts concerning the origin stories of the pioneers and creatives who paved the way.

But it left me craving so much more, the way you might feel walking into a restaurant, wracked with hunger, and being treated to a single pancetta-wrapped shrimp before being escorted out the door.

Nuggets Of Knowledge

I was vaguely aware of the historical impact Roberta and Ken Williams — the founders of On-Line Systems (which became Sierra Online, and then Sierra Entertainment) — had on the future of text adventures, and the larger video game industry. Goldberg fed me with a few more nuggets of knowledge. I never knew Roberta Williams (the mind behind Mystery House and King’s Quest) was so infatuated with Colossal Cave Adventure that she practically neglected everything else in her life for an entire month.

That was the seed. The tiny breadcrumbs leading me to the rabbit hole. I wanted to learn more about Sierra’s early catalog. I wanted to try to put myself in Roberta’s shoes and at least try to understand what made Colossal Cave Adventure so compelling. So Goldberg gets all the credit there.

Mining The Motherlode

After I finished All Your Base Are Belong To Use, I browsed to Goodreads to add it to my virtual shelf. That’s when I stumbled across another reader’s lukewarm review that opened with this sentence:

“I’ve been spoiled by the likes of The Digital Antiqurian, who combines excellent writing with in-depth analysis of the history of computer and video games.”

I clicked the link out of sheer curiosity and found myself browsing a massive collection of completely free eBooks. (Jimmy Maher, aka The Digital Antiquarian, does accept PayPal donations and Patreon pledges). Volume 1 collected all of his articles chronicling the history of text adventures and interactive fiction between 1966 and1979.

I read the entire book in 24 hours, utterly engrossed in not just the historical detail, but the technical deep-dives! It’s fascinating to learn, for example, that the common use of 2-word commands in the earliest text adventures was dictated by limitations in the hardware. Equally fascinating were the asides on emerging microcomputers like the TRS-80, and how that technology empowered all kinds of aspiring programmers to turn their hobbies into careers. Or the fact that magazines in the 1970s and early 1980s reproduced a game’s complete code, allowing anyone to simply input and play it.

As I’d quickly discover, his entire focus is interactive fiction and text adventures. Now I’m hooked.

Maher’s breadth of work is a goldmine. I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am that a digital historian like him exists.

Choose A Direction

Maher is also an advocate for game preservation. At every turn he’s providing tools and resources that will encourage future digital historians to follow in his footsteps.

Is that what I’m doing? I’m honestly not sure yet. What I do know is that in 24 hours I’ve been gifted with so much tantalizing knowledge. And this knowledge directly applies to my current writing focus. I’ve unearthed some nasty things Microsoft did in the 1970s that made the creation of the GNU General Public License necessary. And I’ve figured out how to telnet into a devoted text adventure fan’s server to play these wonderous slices of history.

Ultimately, I want to share a bunch of this with you as I’m discovering it. Want to join me down the rabbit hole? Comments are open. DMs are open. Let’s explore!

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7 Responses

    1. Nice! They existed in my peripheral vision as a kid, but I BARELY remember experiencing them! (I do have a vague recollection of Hunt the Wumpus)

    1. How odd that the company didn’t list the author credits on this one. Maybe they wanted to avoid hate mail? I’ll be watching to see if Maher mentions Madness and the Minotaur in any of his eBooks. That info is worth tracking down.

  1. I love Goodreads, but I can make a cup of coffee while waiting for it to respond. Amazon needs to add more EC2 instances. There are some other competing sites, but I’m happy with Goodreads.

    I am going to check out that link and see what rabbit holes I can do down.

    1. My wife really loves Goodreads as well. She pens all of her reviews there and uses it as a digital bookshelf. But MAN they need to update their website design!

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