Mammoth Cave, the beginning

MammothCave While returning from a trip this past weekend, I asked my wife if we could swing by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Without hesitation, she said yes (and then I launched into an entirely unnecessary history of computer games.) I wanted to visit the place that helped inspire one of the first computer games: Colossal Cave Adventure, which would morph into just Adventure a short time later.

Here is a brief (and unedited excerpt) from the Second Edition of Dungeons & Dreamers:

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The spread of Dungeons & Dragons through programmers’ circles would quickly give adventure gamers a taste for more complicated games of exploration and fantastic worlds, however a talented young programmer named Willie Crowther at the Boston-based Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a computer company involved in creating much of the early ARPANET’s basic technologies, was one of that city’s early D&D players.

Not long after the release of Gygax’s game, his marriage began to fail and he separated from his wife. In a bid to maintain contact with his two daughters, he decided to write a computer game for them, basing it in part on the pen-and-paper dungeon exploring he’d done, and partly on the real-life spelunking he and his wife had avidly pursued. His wife Pat had been immortalized in spelunking circles for finding a passageway connecting two segments of the world’s largest cave. Willie turned parts of that cavern into the setting for his daughters’ game, which he dubbed Colossal Cave.

Crowther’s Colossal Cave lacked even the simple graphics of Spacewar! or the Pong-style games just beginning to sweep the market. Like Hunt the Wumpus, it was all text, and like D&D, it relied on players’ imaginations to fill in the most visceral elements of the world. Because he wanted to let ordinary non-programmers like his daughters play the game, Crowther made the game respond to natural language commands like “go north” or “take stick.”

The details of the environment itself were drawn from the weird beauty of the real Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, from the soaring domes and twisting narrow passageways called “crawls” to a massive column of orange stone based explicitly on a real-life counterpart.

Released in 1976, Crowther’s project turned out to be one of the most influential computer games in the medium’s early history. His girls liked the game, he said in later interviews, but other game players were fascinated by the adventure, too. Crowther put a copy of the game on a computer at Boston University, and the code spread quickly as programmers made copies and passed it around.

At night, players installed it on the giant computers they worked on during the day, and other people would find the code there, start playing it, and then pass it along to others on the ARPANET.

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