Forbes and Fifth

At Wit's End

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. You are at Witt’s End. Passages lead off in *all* directions. —Colossal Cave Adventure, 1977

Stuart Moulthrop’s amalgamation of electronic literature and flash game Reagan Library says, “To move is to choose.” While it’s a proverb that applies to all videogames, it’s a phrase that speaks prominently to the adventure game genre, where movement is coordinated through typing cardinal directions rather than utilizing a control stick. Adventure games, as a standard of their genre, feature difficult puzzles that are usually solved with various objects the user acquires throughout the journey. Movement in the adventure game isn’t a subconscious hand-eye action—it takes pointed attention, the ability to read maps, and remember directions, and the tenacity to input screen-by-screen commands to get anywhere. Movement in 2D and 3D games feels mostly effortless, as the user tilts a control stick or presses WASD or arrow keys, but in a 1D interface like the text adventure (the earliest iteration of the genre) each micro-movement, like “Examine,” “Pick up,” “Push,” or “Pull,” must be typed out each time to progress the action. In short, adventure games, both graphical and textual, take exorbitant effort to traverse and complete fully, especially compared to the relatively easy difficulty characteristic of modern console gaming.

Videogames are praised for their utopian ideals. Games offer a space of freedom to let out aggression and frustration in healthy ways. In a game, one can be whoever and whatever he or she wants. Good game design truly makes these ideas feasible, but regardless of quality, games are limited by their code. Games simulate freedom and utopia, and yet they are inevitably constrained, if not obviously then unknowingly, by well-executed algorithmic processes.

However, adventure games, particularly text-based ones, force users to confront the code of the game head on. Adventure games are not only a struggle to solve the puzzles they present; they also deploy ceaseless clashes against their architecture. Unless the user draws a map as he or she goes, there is typically no way to check where he or she has been or what he or she has seen. Adventure games also employ tactics like changing the makeups of certain rooms so that revisiting places is necessary to obtain more clues. Furthermore, while contemporary games often feature voice acting, adventure games require heavy reading and rereading. Because of this, text adventures are often called interactive fiction (IF) instead. They simulate books that can be interacted with more than games, but I resist this classification for several reasons. If something classifies as IF it can be read purely on a cognitive level, but completing and piecing together Michael S. Gentry’s Anchorhead, a text-based adventure game, requires physical cooperation with the interface in addition to cognitively cohering its narrative. Both sides of the Cartesian equation—the mind and body—must work in unison to progress through a game, with fundamentally bleak consequences if we think about the hybridization of humans and machines in a Matrix-like fashion.

My paper will thus break down into four sections: What is an Adventure Game?; Moving and Choosing; Size and Scale; and Interactive Thinking. I will examine William Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure, the Miller Brothers’ Myst, Michael S. Gentry’s Anchorhead, and Stuart Moulthrop’s semi-gamic Reagan Library, with references to other texts as needed.

What is an Adventure Game?

The adventure game is one of the predecessors of all gaming. It’s an extremely precise and specific genre that exists only rarely in its pure form—yet semblances and influences of the genre are apparent in almost every modern type of game. Adventure games come in two forms: the original text-based and subsequent graphical (also point-and-click adventure) versions. The prime aspect of all pure adventure games, meaning games built predominantly or exclusively in that genre, is their puzzles.

Lee Sheldon, writer of adventure games based on Agatha Christie novels And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express wrote that puzzles are the “poetics” of adventure game design (19). Without puzzles there is no adventure game. These can include just about anything, as puzzles are both big and small—determining how to kill a dragon, backtracking to find oil and matches to light a lamp, putting orichalcum beads in a machine at the correct time, handing a flask of alcohol to a bum to get him to talk, using a pertinent key in a door, or zip-lining with a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. Sometimes puzzles have multiple parts to them, and the user has to solve a puzzle (like searching the right door, pocket, drawer, etc.) to acquire an item for use in another one. Adventure games, at their base component, are strings of puzzles with an overlying narrative to bind them together.

The genre began with and gets most of its standards from the aptly named Colossal Cave Adventure, first unveiled in 1975. Colossal Cave Adventure, which was shortened to Adventure (or ADVENT) in later iterations, is the first text-based interface game that relates the tale of an adventure through a mysterious underground cave network. It was completed in 1975 and publicly released in 1976. It was designed by a single man, William Crowther, who attended MIT and worked on the team that developed the ARPANET. Crowther loved spelunking enough to base the map of Adventure on the Mammoth Cave near his home in Kentucky. A small-time project made just for his family to consume, Adventure eventually spread to labs around various computing campuses like Stanford, where it became popular among nascent programmers. One Stanford student, Don Woods, discovered Crowther’s game and made significant improvements to its story and design, and Adventure was rereleased in 1977, effectively creating a brand new genre of computer game.

Crowther’s family project established the conventions for the genre that persist to the present—everything from “Go North/South/East/West,” “Look,” “Examine,” “Take x,” “Use x,” “Move x,” “Talk to x,” and so on. Even popular modern games like Mass Effect and Skyrim use the dialogue trees that originated from adventure games, with the added benefit of varied or multiple endings to one game. Most games have written out the “instant-death” or “instant fail” scenario, but early adventure games depended on this to encourage repeated plays and skill improvements. These formal design elements—the admittedly cliché “outside the box” thinking required and demanded from the game to complete it—are endemic to videogames, and I argue that in addition to undertaking the actions necessary to proceed, Adventure necessitates a fundamentally different way of problem-solving than it would take to read a book or work of IF.

Though Adventure began a trend of text-based puzzle solving games like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they eventually developed into graphical games with very similar mechanics. Instead of typing cardinal directions, the user can usually click where he wants the character to go, hence the moniker “point-and-click” adventures. This design makes transit slightly more enjoyable, although the same dialogue trees and items stick around. These games gained popularity through the ‘80s and early ‘90s with King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, and the Monkey Island series. Pure adventure games like these have mostly died out in favor of easier and better looking artifacts, and, with good reason, few new pure adventure games are made these days. However, adventure game influences, including puzzle design and dialogue trees, are standards in widespread use across all gaming genres and platform.

Moving and Choosing

In Alexander R. Galloway’s book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, he writes that word number one for videogames is action: “Games are actions” (Galloway 2, original emphasis). Later on Galloway writes, “Video games don’t attempt to hide informatic control; they flaunt it … To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm (to discover its parallel ‘allegorithm’)” (90-91, original emphasis).

Galloway’s creation of the word “allegorithm” is brilliant and marks the basis for my continued inquiry. Games are games because they are enacted; it is their claim to media specificity. Thus I look at adventure games in particular as insurmountably difficult because the human operator needs to work within the preset limits of the game’s algorithms (“Look,” “Eat,” “Go,” “Push/ Pull x/y/z,” etc.). Oftentimes these are constructed in ways humans are not programmed to think.

Adventure games are largely oppressed by their algorithms. It would be so easy to type, “Go to town square” when playing Anchorhead, but the game forces its users to take one step at a time (Magnuson n.p.). This kind of action is the furthest thing from an immersive experience. This is one of the most furiously algorithmic aspects of text adventures. Although some newer games implement fast travel systems, the painstaking action and memorization to return to previous areas are the primary instances of flaunting informatic control. Even in the graphical offshoot the user needs to click the spot for the character to go, and crossing multiple screens takes time. Adventure games depend on those actions and choices.

Every active choice the user makes must go through translation via text parser. It translates the typed text, such as “Go N” and then converts it to code the computer understands. The code enacts or fails to enact the algorithm that tells the game to move the character one space north on the map. If it fails it can say that “You’ve reached a dead end,” or “I only understood you as far as wanting to…” and other similar phrases. Trying to instigate an action that the parser doesn’t have available usually results in a message like, “That’s not a verb I recognize.” Just for fun, I tried, “Kill self” in Anchorhead, and the parser responds with, “Violence isn’t the answer to this one” (Gentry n.p.).

Initially, text parsers in games were abysmal. Adventure could only understand one verb and one noun, like “Get key.” Yet as time went by, the algorithms became much more sophisticated to the point where multiple actions can be undertaken at the same time. Furthermore, many synonyms were added to the parsers, allowing for a greater variety of options. For instance, “Read” and “Examine” might perform the same act.

Size and Scale

Myst is a 1993 computer game developed by two brothers at Cyan, Inc. It’s a strangely innovative and influential gem that disposed of a lot of gaming conventions; for instance, it’s the first example of a first-person shooter without the “shooter” aspect. The Stranger (the PC) opens the “Myst” book and gets transported into the world called Myst, an island featuring several important landmarks, including a planetarium, a library, a spaceship, a lighthouse, and an elevator. The player must seek out four additional books that transport the Stranger to various “Ages”—Selenitic, Stoneship, Mechanical, and Channelwood—and solve puzzles to retrieve the missing pages to restore the brothers Sirrus and Achenar, who are also trapped in books, in order to escape Myst. Depending on which puzzles and how many of them the user solves, Myst can lead to three equitably “bad” endings and one good one.

Myst is a graphical offshoot of the adventure genre that features no combat, only exploration. Navigation and investigation are the key components to Myst, and since there are five comparably-sized Ages to visit in the world, this can be a daunting endeavor. On those lines, Stuart Moulthrop’s Myst-inspired interactive text Reagan Library pays special attention to its scope and scale. It is set in a world that very much aesthetically resembles Myst, and features four zones differentiated by the color of the sky. In the red-colored sky zone, Moulthrop’s text spews out some randomly generated hints, trivia, and occasionally nonsensical phrases. Two of these are extremely poignant: “The world is round; you may repeat yourself,” and “Repetition in hypertext is not necessarily a vice” (Moulthrop n.p.).

In the Introduction to Reagan Library Moulthrop writes, “Now a word from our Idiot Questioner. Is this fiction or is it a game? Exactly. As one of the inmates says: ‘The world is what you see and where that takes you.’ And where would that be? You’ll find out” (n.p.). To be clear: Reagan Library is not a game, but it contains gamic elements, like its rotating panorama and clickable objects. Yet Moulthrop’s quote that the “world is what you see and where that takes you,” and the part about “finding out” where that is, functions as an introduction to the massive scale of space and time inside the worlds of text adventures.

Michael S. Gentry’s Anchorhead takes place in 1997 in Anchorhead, Massachusetts. Players take on the role of an unnamed female protagonist as she investigates the H.P. Lovecraftian demonic/ alien mythos surrounding her husband’s family. Things start out fairly normally, but as more puzzles are solved, more gamespace traversed, and more time spent (about four days of in-game time), the narrative takes on super-natural twists. Literally every object given notice in the text has a purpose, including the PC’s umbrella, a cold cup of coffee, keys, a pornographic magazine, and a dog’s skull. By endgame, the PC carries upwards of twenty miscellaneous objects in her trench coat; it’s the sort of comical suspension of disbelief endemic to most games. Additionally, like pure adventure games, Anchorhead features several failing, or losing, scenarios. The PC can be bitten by a poisonous spider, have her brain melted by “He Who Is Named Not,” go insane, or get mauled in melee combat, among others. Choosing “Restore” can easily counteract any mistake, which returns the player to his or her last save.

Anchorhead is also massive in scope. Simply reading a script of Gentry’s work, effectively subtracting all of the time it takes to type (and mistype) commands and solve puzzles, still takes several hours—the text alone surfeits the length of a novella, and it definitely can’t be completed in one sitting. Although the length of the game changes with the player, Anchorhead’s base script is more than 70,000 words (Wheeler n.p.) Comparatively, an estimated word count of the original Adventure tops only about 4,200 (CRL n.p.).

Of course, neither of these can even compare to the scope of something like Grand Theft Auto V (GTA). The GTA franchise focuses on transit via cars or other vehicles, usually by holding combinations of keys and buttons. Comparatively though, each movement in the maps of Anchorhead and Adventure needs to be laboriously typed out; the transit systems in GTA and text adventures are incomparable. As I already noted, navigation can be a painstakingly slow process, but it is a process that defines the genre.

Interactive Thinking

In 2002, Geoffrey Rockwell wrote in Computers and Humanities that there are four reasons for developing a poetics of computer games: 1) Computer games are a significant form of popular entertainment; 2) Games expose the most people to hypertext fiction; 3) Games are important to developing hypertext theory; 4) If players develop and access this theory, they will be able to think critically about the games they play (349). I particularly agree with points 1 and 4. Games are significant forms of entertainment and developing their poetics further encourages critical play.

Essentially, what I’ve found through examining text adventures, graphic adventures, and IF is that to flow through them requires digital thinking. Literally, one needs to learn how to think like a computer, in binaries—“get key,” for example. Noun, verb. One of the most variable, flexible, fluctuating aspects of humans—language—is forcibly limited in the text adventure. It needs to realistically feed the text parser, and the user needs to actually talk to his computer to get anywhere. Text adventures require a stilted, disjointed conversation with the algorithms. In most modern games, users play as a third- or first-person character that moves through the gamespace via control stick, mouse movements, or keyboard. The user still acts within the game and communicates with the algorithms, but the conversation is muted through the simple motions of button pressing and analog rotating. When contrasted to text adventures, it’s a mindlessly pleasurable activity. In the text adventure, and to some degree the graphic adventure, the user must learn to think like the computer processes, adopt its restricted language, and proceed from there. We’re not quite at the point where we can plug our brains into computers, but I find this development alarming. Humans are approaching cyberneticism, and not only that—they take on the coding, processing, and digital thinking mostly willingly. People inherently reduce themselves to binaries when playing games—a bunch of zeroes and ones. This is the ‘allegorithm’ of algorithmic play.

In Markku Eskelinen’s “Six Problems in Search of a Solution,” he posits a more optimistic view of what he calls the “user function,” the equivalent what Alexander Galloway calls an “operator act”:

It is safe to say that whereas the explorative user function brings in the rhetoric of choice, navigation and labyrinth, the configurative and textonic user functions give us the chance and necessity to affect the text and therefore to use or conceive it as a playground, an obstacle, or more or less malleable raw material to build upon. These latter two user functions clearly foreground the user’s own extranoematic activity without which there would be no experience of wholeness whatsoever. (Eskelinen n.p.)

Sifting through problems and solving puzzles is essentially what allows people to experience “wholeness.” Directly interfacing with the text through command prompts supplies users with agency, enough agency to conceive of playgrounds and obstacles. Users may “affect the text” through textonic user functions, but it is still only a “rhetoric of choice, navigation, and labyrinth.” Games are massively contrived; even when a choice is presented, it’s still just a string of code that can be revisited and altered another time.

Yet as the librarian-explorer, Atrus, says in the opening lines of Myst, “I know my apprehensions might never be allayed... and so I close, realizing that perhaps the ending has not yet been written” (Cyan, Inc. n.p.). Text adventures, and even the more popular graphic adventures, have long faded from the mainstream, and perhaps someday they will die out entirely. They will flaunt their informatic control until people succumb (and turn into computers) or until people stop making them. I’m certainly hoping for the latter.


Colossal Cave Adventure. William Crowther and Don Woods. CRL. 1977. Videogame.

Eskelinen, Markku. “Six Problems in Search of a Solution: The Challenge of Cybertext Theory and Ludology to Literary Theory.” Dichtung Digital, 2004. Web. 14 April 2015.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Gentry, Michael S. Anchorhead. Electronic Literature Collection Vol. I, 1998. Web. Accessed 31 March 2015.

Magnuson, Jordan. “Anchorhead: Embroiled in Lovecraft.” Necessary Games: Games Considered for Meaning and Significance, 2 Aug. 2009. Web. Accessed 21 April 2015.

Moulthrop, Stuart. Reagan Library. Electronic Literature Collection Vol. I, 1999. Web. Accessed 19 March 2015.

Myst. Rand and Robyn Miller. Cyan, Inc. 1993. Videogame.

Rockwell, Geoffrey. “Gore Galore: Literary Theory and Computer Games.” Computers and the Humanities 36.3 (Aug. 2002): 345-358. Web. 14 April 2015.

Sheldon, Lee. “Writing for Adventure Games.” Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG. Ed. Wendy Despain. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009. 19-27. PDF.

Wheeler, David A. “Transcript of Michael S. Gentry’s ‘Anchorhead.’” DWheeler, n.d. Web.Accessed 21 April 2015.

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Volume 7, Fall 2015