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Video Game / Colossal Cave

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ADVENT, also known as Adventure or Colossal Cave Adventure, is the ur-Interactive Fiction game. Originally written by Will Crowther in the mid-1970s as an attempt at a computer-refereed fantasy game inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, based on his map of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. His version was ready by 1976. The game was then greatly expanded by Don Woods in 1977.

According to legend, Don Woods played Adventure in its original form, and attempted to contact Crowther for permission to expand the program. Naturally, Woods didn't have Crowther's mailing address, so he resorted to the fledgling Internet and e-mail; as the Internet itself had only about three hundred networked systems at the time, Woods simply sent a blanket e-mail to 'crowther@' every network.

Colossal Cave Adventure is a text-based game in which the player explores a large complex of underground caverns — Will Crowther wrote the game for his daughters, who were at the time too young to join him on caving expeditions. The layout is so precise that, in at least one instance, an inexperienced caver was able to navigate flawlessly in the Mammoth cave system on her first visit.

The dryly humorous, terse narration style of the game set the standard for future Interactive Fiction games. Much of the style also influenced early MUDs, still evident in modern examples.

Developed on BBN's PDP-10, the game was written in FORTRAN and later ported to C under UNIX. Further iterations of the game were re-written in custom languages developed specifically to handle the unique features of text-based interactive adventure games.

Many versions and descendants of the game have been released, mostly under the title Adventure or some variation thereof (e.g., Adventure II, Adventure 550, Adventureland, etc.) Even Microsoft published a version of the game, packaged with its original MS-DOS 1.0 for the IBM PC. The Infocom classic Zork began life as a remake of Adventure, and both Zork and Adventure influenced Dunnet, a cyberpunk text adventure buried as an Easter Egg in the Emacs text editor,note  which is in turn included as standard with Mac OS X.

Some phrases popularized by ADVENT are:

  • "A huge green fierce snake bars the way!"
  • "I see no X here." (for some noun X).
  • "You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike."
  • "You are in a little maze of twisty passages, all different."
  • "With what? Your bare hands?" (When encountering a hostile creature, and you type "kill [it]")

Advent is also responsible for the Classic Cheat Code "XYZZY."

'Advent' is believed to be directly responsible for coining the term 'adventure game', and is known to have inspired Roberta Williams to develop her first computer game, Mystery House, which would, in turn, lead to the founding of On-Line Systems (later Sierra Online) with her husband Ken.

In addition, the game inspired an offbeat 'hobby' known as 'urban exploration', or 'vadding'. An often-illegal pursuit, 'vadding' involves entering steam tunnels, access tunnels, sewers or abandoned buildings to explore and take photographs. The term 'vadding' came directly from 'Advent' — a great number of urban explorers were Colossal Cave enthusiasts, and the game would appear with remarkable frequency on college and university computer networks under the name 'Advent'. When system administrators caught on to the game's presence, they began to remove 'Advent' whenever it was discovered. Enterprising players then simply renamed the game 'Adv', and when that tactic was discovered, reversed it, turning it into 'Vad', which (because of the game's emphasis on exploration) became the de facto term for referring to the real-life hobby.

(Public Service Announcement: Readers should be aware that Vadding may be illegal (if it involves trespassing or breaking-and-entering), and can be quite dangerous (as in serious injury, possibly death). Follow the Urban Explorer's Golden Rule: Do NOT go Vadding alone).

For more information on Advent (external links):

Much of the information on this page comes from the Jargon File entry. The game is among the more important heirloom artifacts of the hacker culture the File describes.

A 3D graphic adventure remake was released in January of 2023, directed by the aforementioned Roberta Williams in her return to video game development. It was made for the then current platforms of the time, including the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and also supports the Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset.

Colossal Cave provides examples of:

  • Alien Geometries: When you go west and then east, you might not be in the same room you started from. The problem is not actually the geometries, it's that the various locations are notionally connected by twisty passages, such that you might for instance leave one location heading east and arrive in the next location heading north; but the effect is the same.
  • Alliterative Title: Colossal Cave.
  • Artistic License Geology: Crowther's original version, drawn from first-hand knowledge, is set in a reasonably accurate version of a limestone cave system. Some of Woods's additions, not so much. Of particular note is the active volcano underground.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Well, until you tame it. Then things get bad for somebody else.
  • Blunt "Yes": You have to invoke this to kill the dragon with your bare hands.
  • Convection, Schmonvection: Played straight. However, you die from poisonous fumes if you try crossing the volcano without protection.
  • Cool Sword:
    • The Singing Sword, which is solely used to be thrown at the ogre, and requires being pulled from a stone. When thrown, it sings a few measures of Dies Irae (similar to Ominous Latin Chanting), spins rapidly then obliterates the ogre into gray smoke. It was too much for the sword, which then melts but leaves behind a small silver ring.
    • Humongous Cave (the 1000-point version of the game) also has the sword sing random songs as well.
  • Darkness Equals Death: Trying to fumble around in the dark results in you falling in a pit to "break every bone in your body".
  • Dead-End Room: The aptly-named Witt's End. Actually not quite an example — you won't get out if you try going back the way you came (or in just about any other direction), but if you persist in heading north, eventually the game will relent and let you out.
  • Debug Room: On timesharing computers, "Wizard Mode", if you wanted to use it, had to be typed as the first command given to the game. You then had to give the password and solve a computation to prove you are a Wizard. In Wizard Mode, you could shut down the game into single player mode, set the hours the game is allowed to be played (to keep people from running it when a lot of people want to use the computer, like during daytime hours of finals week on a university or college computer) or to set holidays when anyone could play with no restrictions (like Thanksgiving or Christmas). On PCs, this was deactivated.
  • Developer's Foresight: In some versions, swearing can have interesting results.
  • Fun with Homophones: When trying to kill the bear.
    With what? Your bare hands? Against his bear hands?
  • Glowing Gem: The source of the light in the Plover Room.
  • Hint System: Spending enough time at certain points will allow the game to provide a hint, at the cost of points; this includes saying yes to the first question asking if you like instructions. Some versions of the game will add additional time to the lamp if you accept the hint.
  • Infinite Flashlight: ...after you install fresh batteries, in some versions. (Which require you to sacrifice some treasure to purchase, and therefore prevent you from getting the best ending.) In other versions, the fresh batteries eventually wear out as well, and the game narrator suggests that you start wrapping things up.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: You. The purpose of the game is to find all the treasure.
  • Last Lousy Point:
    • The last point is obtained by picking up "spelunker Today" magazine, and dropping them in Witt's end.
    • Reading instructions at the beginning also deducts some points, with the player not immediately aware that points are missing.
  • The Many Deaths of You
    You fell into a pit and broke every bone in your body!
  • The Maze: Two mazes exist in the base game - the pirate maze, and vending machine maze. They're both Asymmetric. The pirate cave is homogeneous. Both mazes are tricky unless the player drops items to mark rooms (and doesn't guarantee being able to return). Walls are invisible even in dead ends, thus movement requires probing directions to see if there's a passage. An extended version adds ice tunnels, which seems to be slightly more reasonable in comparison.
  • Missing Secret: Two rooms with a window facing another window across a room, with a "Shadowy Figure" in that other window. The player would like to know who the heck he is, and what the heck to do with him. Turns out the two windows are over the giant mirror room, and the "Shadowy Figure" is your own reflection.
  • No Fair Cheating: Saved games are encrypted, and there's a CRC check to prevent tampering. Now superfluous because the game is mostly open source.
  • Permanently Missable Content:
    • Throwing the trident to the troll prevents you from finding the pearl. The game doesn't detect this.
    • Killing the bird prevents you from being able to get past the snake
    • The vase will break if dropped without the pillow on the floor.
  • Perplexing Pearl Production: Discussed. You find a "giant clam" in one room. Once you pry it open:
    A glistening pearl falls out of the clam and rolls away. Goodness, this must really be an oyster. (I never was very good at identifying bivalves.)
  • Priceless Ming Vase: One of the treasures. If you drop it, it will shatter into a million pieces unless you have dropped the pillow at the same location first. Possibly the Ur-Example in video games.
  • Puzzle Boss: The Dragon cannot be harmed with any conventional weapon. Defeating it requires figuring out (or becoming desperate enough to discover through trial and error) that it can be killed by a specific method of attack that doesn't work on any other opponent in the game.
  • Random Encounter: There are seven Dwarves wandering the caves, who will chase and throw knives at you. In the AGT port, there an infinite number, which randomly appear, block you from exiting a room, and can randomly throw their knife just as soon as they appear. This means you need to wear a magic cloak to prevent being insta-killed, and keep it and the axe for the whole game because there's an infinite number of them.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder: Exploited in one of the most difficult puzzles of the game. "With What? Your bare hands?" is the rhetorical question asked when you forget to specify a weapon in an attack. After a few weeks of utter frustration trying to find a weapon that will slay the dragon, the player angrily types "Yes" more or less at random. Tada!
  • Save Scumming: From very early on, ports of the game attempted to discourage this — either by deleting the saved state when it was restored, or refusing to load a saved state until a period of time (configurable by an administrator, defaulting to 90 minutes) had elapsed from when it was saved.
  • Scenery Porn: Lots of it, in lovingly detailed text that makes up for the lack of graphics. Especially the volcano.
  • Schmuck Bait: In Mike Goetz's 580-point version, you can find a computer with a button marked "EMERGENCY STOP Do not push!" Pressing it sends the computer into an infinite loop. Not the computer in the game, the one that you're playing on. The only thing you can do is reboot.
  • Shout-Out:
    • There are seven dwarves in the cave.
    • If you try to open the treasure vault with the wrong password, you're hunted down and killed by a Rover from The Prisoner.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: In some versions, the parser doesn't know a command for melee fighting, so the only way you can attack something with the axe is to throw it.
  • Timed Mission: The brass lamp has enough power for 330 turns, enough for a walkthrough but not exploration. Asking to read instructions increases this to 1000. You can replenish it by buying batteries, using a hint, or a magic word within one of the extended versions. Additionally, finding all the treasures in the game starts an unannounced endgame timer, where there's a limited number of turns within the deeper cave to bring those treasures to the building.
  • Troll Bridge: You have to hand over a piece of treasure to get past. On the way back, you can send the bear at the troll. Versions that are extended also have an event where the troll destroys the bridge if you call the golden eggs back too early.
  • Unwinnable by Design: Some absolute examples, and others that will make impossible to get the Golden Ending, which in some versions is the only winnable state (in other versions alternate endings are possible, but will not yield sufficient points to earn you the rank of adventure grandmaster)
    • The game detects if you take a few actions that renders reaching treasures impossible, such as not seeing spices when the bear crosses the bridge, or killing the bird. Instead of starting the endgame, it will drain the lamp's batteries to result in the incomplete ending. Draining only occurs once, thus purchasing batteries to keep the lamp running will result in 2500 turns of running about being unable to progress.
    • Several in the bridge:
      • If you give the troll a non-recoverable treasure to pass (as in, not the magic egg), then you'd have lost it forever and won't get it back. You can still reach endgame, but the game doesn't detect if you thrown a treasure that's required to get another treasure.
      • If you return via the bridge with the bear still following you, the bridge breaks under the bear's weight, causing you to fall and die. You can then respawn back at the starting location, but once you make it back to the bridge room, the bridge will still be gone, and if you left something you need on the other side, you're doomed.
      • In the extended version, using the magic words to recall the eggs will cause the troll to ambush you on the way back, and destroys the bridge - having the same effect as trying to cross with the bear.
  • Videogame Lives: Based on the amount of orange smoke left to revive you.
  • Waiting Puzzle: Once the player locates all the treasures and enough turns passed afterwards, a sepulchral voice will intones "cave closing soon", and the cave will start to close, giving a limited number of turns to try to reach the exit. Exiting won't work (but does speed things up slightly), because the player is already locked within the cave and the player instead needs to find a way to waste turns for the clock to count down.
  • Wall of Text: The volcano room ("At Breath-Taking View") has a surprisingly long and verbose description. (This passage was apparently written not by Crowther or Woods, but rather by a graduate student, John Gilbert.)
  • World of Pun:
    • The Barren Room. Which contains a large, hungry, initially very grumpy ... well, guess.
    • In some versions there is a flask that says "London Dry," containing a jinn.
  • You Can't Get Ye Flask:
    • The game reacts to the "look" and "examine" commands as repeating the room description because the game can't give additional information. The former is normal usage of look, the latter means the player could be uncertain about some items (e.g. not being able to examine the rod in the endgame to know what it is).
    • The verb "blast" is only introduced in the endgame.
  • You Shouldn't Know This Already: If you go where the Pirate's treasure chest is before encountering the Pirate, you just reach a dead end. The chest isn't there.

Alternative Title(s): Colossal Cave Adventure