IF Week Part 2: A History of Interactive Fiction

Remember when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were college rivals? When Mary Tyler Moore ruled the Emmys annually? When Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain were the most unstoppable force in pro sports?

I sure don't; I was still a few years away from being born. But another, lesser-known event took place in 1976. It began not with a boom and a display of fireworks, but with a slow word-of-mouth that would lead to a revolution the designers could never have conceived.

The game was called ADVENT, also known as Colossal Cave. It was written by a man named Will Crowther, as a gift for his two daughters. It was written in an archaic language (archaic today, at least) called FORTRAN. It was a simulation of an actual cave in Kentucky called Bedquilt Cave.

This phenomenally simple game was discovered by one Don Woods, working at the Stanford AI Lab. With Crowther's permission, Woods borrowed heavily on his Tolkien influences and expanded the game into the form that we have come to know it today.

Adventure spread like wildfire among mainframes. Inspired by this new idea of interactive fiction, five men working at the MIT Computer Science Lab in 1977 began work on their text adventure masterpiece, Dungeon...or as we now know it, Zork.

As Zork was being finished and circulated in 1979, another man was hard at work fulfilling his vision of text adventures. This man was Scott Adams, possibly the single greatest text adventure author ever (not to be confused with the equally brilliant Dilbert author), and his first game was called Adventureland. Scott chose to take a different route with his creation; he took out an ad and began selling it. Thus Adventureland became the first commercial adventure game.

Then on June 22nd, 1979, Infocom was incorporated, founded by ten members of the MIT Dynamics Modelling Group. 1980 saw the release of Roberta William's Mystery House, the first commercial graphic adventure, and later in the year, the commercial release of Zork I. The mainframe phenom was becoming a viable commercial endeavor. It is around this point that the Infocom designers christened their product "interactive fiction."

The second and third chapters of the Zork trilogy sold like wildfire, and Infocom began to pump out a steady stream of classic text adventures, many of which were comparable in size and scope to modern-day classics such as The Longest Journey. Suspended, Planetfall, Deadline...all generated mass amounts of cash for the company. 1984 brought Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which became Infocom's best-selling game besides the Zork trilogy.

Unfortunately, all this cash was being poured into one of the most infamous products in the history of computing. Infocom decided in 1982 that they wanted to expand themselves beyond gaming, and since text adventures were so low-cost and the profits being reaped were so extensive, Infocom began developing Cornerstone, the so-called "first database system designed specifically for the non-programmer." Through more than two years of messy development, the project was finally completed in 1984 and released in 1985 - for the unreal price of $495.

The idea of a database system that accepted natural language input was not a very exciting one, apparently. Takers were few, and the product lay dormant on store shelves everywhere. Less than a year later, the price was slashed to just under $100. Infocom had released the very successful A Mind Forever Voyaging and Bureaucracy, but it wasn't enough to stop the bleeding. Infocom had poured every last cent and then more into their disastrous database software, and on June 13th, 1986, just days after Trinity was released, Infocom was purchased by Activision for $7.5 million.

Continued on the next page...

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