WELCOME TO ADVENTURE: My First Steps Into Colossal Cave

A Colossal cave.
Original photo by Daniel Radford on Unsplash

In 1975 and 1976, computer programmer and avid cave explorer William Crowther did what so many artists are inclined to do. He channeled his pain and longing into an interactive form of escapism called Colossal Cave Adventure. His art just happened to be a legendary slice of video game history that still inspires game developers in 2022.

Living Vicariously Through The Machine

But in 1975, it wasn’t any whiff of future fame that drove him to create a game for the massive PDP-10 mainframe computer. It was grief.

Crowther had just gone through a divorce and was missing his children. Complicating his emotional state (he described it as feeling “pulled apart in various ways”) was the fact he was also unable to enjoy caving, his favorite pastime. So he started working on a way to recreate his real-life adventures inside Kentucky’s Mammoth cave system.

The silver lining? His kids ended up loving it. Colossal Cave (also simply called Adventure) also forged a path to the future of text adventure games and interactive fiction. It helped make the microcomputers rapidly emerging in people’s homes get recognized as a tool for entertainment. A fun alternative to business-minded “killer apps” like VisiCalc.

The PDP-10 Mainframe Computer. I believe there were a maximum of 1500 sold.

QUICK SIDEBAR: As Jimmy Maher points out in his excellent deep dive, Crowther doesn't get nearly enough documented recognition beyond his vital contribution to video games. It's worth mentioning here that Crowther was a key developer for the ARPAnet team. What's ARPAnet? It's essentially the distributed computer network that became the foundation for the internet as we know it today. And one of Crowther's coolest contributions: he basically wrote the firmware for the world's first routers. 

Refining Why I’m Doing This

I have a ton of respect for Crowther’s story before even exploring how to play his game. So this feels like the perfect starting point for my new rabbit hole.

(Speaking of that rabbit hole, there are two ways to jump into it with me. 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 a new entry.)

But what has compelled me to start exploring and writing about these relatively ancient games? Especially when there’s an endless buffet of graphically gorgeous experiences (read: backlog of shame) to have like God of War or No Man’s Sky or Firewatch or Horizon Forbidden West?

Curiosity, mainly. I barely touched these as a kid. When I did have access to a computer, I gravitated more towards arcade games like Pac-Man, Digger, and Donkey Kong.

Hmm, you might enjoy that story, so here it is:

But beyond curiosity, I want to gain a deeper appreciation of gaming history, from both technological and gameplay perspectives. These will be the first text adventures I have genuinely played, ever.

And you know what else? I want to wake up my imagination!

Our brain is the most powerful graphics engine ever developed.

I want to see what images and feelings mere words can evoke. I want that challenge of trying to navigate out of a maze or solve a puzzle with absolutely zero help from the internet.

There’s also a juicy bit of history surrounding this game and a very evil 1970s Microsoft, which I’ll tackle soon.

For now, let’s get into the game!

Somewhere Nearby Is Colossal Cave…

Crowther’s Adventure is a single-player experience, but I’d love to have some company anyway. Think of it as maybe a “Text Adventure Club.” We’ll get together here in the comments section and share our frustrations, our revelations, and our overall feelings about the games. (Maybe going forward we expand this out to Discord?)

There is a multitude of ways to play Colossal Cave Adventure. One of those includes Crowther’s original, ported to BASIC (update: it was on GitHub, but it’s 404 now). This stands to be a very different game, as it’s the version that existed before Don Woods tracked down Crowther to collaborate on the game, adding a ton of fantasy elements (like all the treasure and creatures) to what was a fairly vanilla mapping and exploration game.

There’s also a standalone Android version, which is undoubtedly a snap to install and start playing. As is the Telegram @cavebot!

If you’re super hardcore, you could download the source code for the FORTRAN version. Of course you’ll need some kind of exotic PDP-10 emulation for that, right?

If you want something easy, there’s this instant web version of “Microsoft Adventure” (which Bill Gates totally stole from Crowther and Woods without paying them anything or even crediting them).

My Choice: ESR’s Open Adventure

As a Linux enthusiast and fan of open source, I went with the version lovingly packaged by Eric S. Raymond. It’s called “ESR’s Open Adventure.” And it’s even endorsed by Crowther and Woods!

There are instructions right here for Debian, Ubuntu and Fedora users. But the gist of it is this: download the source code, build it with /make, and then run it with ./advent.

Even easier method? Fire up your Debian-based terminal and enter the following code:

sudo apt install open-adventure

To add a tiny layer of nostalgia, I’m going to run it on Cool Retro Term (CRT), a great retro terminal emulator.

Happy adventuring, good luck, and have fun! We’ll talk about my impressions next time.

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8 Responses

  1. Actually, I first compiled it in my home folder and then instead of ‘./advent’ I typed the plain ‘advent’ command.

    Just to receive the prompt.. the package ‘open-adventure’ contains the command ‘advent’ etc 😀

  2. That is such a cool game. I mapped it out on index cards. I still have them in a box. And the graphics are better than anything Bethesda or the big game houses can come up with. It uses your mind, instead of them drawing what they think it looks like.

    Zork I is also great, if you have never played it. It’s available free from Infocom.

What's your opinion?