A post on a formative gaming experience, originally written for my now-defunct Walkerings blog.
Walkerings, August 2005
When I was 12 years old and supposed to be studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I was instead spending lots and lots of my time staring at what was then called a “dumb terminal,” on the screen of which scrolled hundreds of lines of text from the classic of all classic computer games, Adventure. It was 1978 or ’79 and my father was taking his CompSci masters at the State University of New York at Albany. We had a big, aqua-colored CRT that lived on the dining room table, as I recall, and which, when you switched it on, would do exactly nothing. To liven it up, you had to dial the university’s PDP-11 computer (that is, turn the dial on the house phone), listen for the burr of the computer tone, then jam the handset into the pair of fat black rubber bushings that protruded from the brick-sized modem attached to the terminal.
Discovering that the static that came through our phone could bring the dead, tv-looking thing on our table to life was one of the most fascinating moments of my youth and young manhood. Sadly, that tone is almost gone from our world now, as dial-up disappears in favor of broadband connections (and rightly so). But even better was discovering what kind of life lay in wait on the other end of the line. My brother and I spent hours and hours playing Adventure, throwing axes at dwarves and scrawling dozens of pages of maps in an attempt to collect whatever treasures we could and somehow beat this game–though I don’t think the concept of beating a game even existed yet, as such. We had already discovered Dungeons & Dragons, and we weren’t about to give that up. I think I was already on to the Silmarillion (yes, I was a nerdy boy), and somewhere there still exists the epic fantasy novel that I’d begun to pen (or pencil, rather), complete with Tolkienesque family trees and lots of “begats,” etc. But Adventure held my attention in a different way.
For the uninitiated out there (if there are any still), Adventure was a text-based adventure game in which you navigated the halls and chasms of a place called the Colossal Cave, in which lurked nasty dwarves and dragons, a towering beanstalk (well, towering once you’d figured out how to water it, anyway), frustrating mazes that had to be navigated in order to collect more batteries for your flashlight, and a great many other things. Your interaction with the game consisted entirely of command-line inputs at the level of “throw axe,” “take cage” (so you could carry the bird that would scare away the snake, I think it was), or just plain “N” if you wanted to go north.
The place must have had just the right challenge-reward ratio, because it was absolutely addictive. And while the code behind it was simple, it was not a trivial piece of software. There’s a great passage in Tracy Kidder’s fantastic book The Soul of a New Machine in which he describes how Adventure was used to test early minicomputers. If it could run Adventure without crashing, it was thought, it could run anything. How’s that for system requirements?
As far as I’m concerned, Adventure was the great-great-grandaddy of the virtual worlds and first-person shooters we all wander around in today. Though it was only short chunks of text scrolling up your screen, there was a “you are there” sense to it that many games still fail to capture. It was the state of the art. Take away today’s graphics and Adventure is actually a good bit more complex than many contemporary FPS games, as it took place in a non-linear, open world where what you killed stayed killed, for the most part, and what you carried from the Hall of the Mountain King and then dropped in the large room full of dirty rocks would still be there should you chance to return. It wasn’t multi-player, but it inspired the first multi-player adventure game, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle‘s MUD1.
As games go, it’s hard to overstate the importance of that moment. I’ll be interested to see how it’s treated in the documentary about such text adventures that’s apparently going into production next year. [Grand Text Auto’s link to the documentary site was what inspired this post in the first place, though it’s something I’ve been wanting to write for some time.]
But for me the fascination wasn’t just with the game. I don’t know how it happened, since I too should probably have been in class at the time, but I remember spending days with my father on the SUNY Albany campus, days that profoundly satisfied the geek in me (or helped shape and nurture it). My dad at the time was teaching a graduate course in programming, a course he was also taking from another instructor (thus his students were always a week behind those in the class where he was a student), and while he was in class I’d have the great privilege of being sent off with a pocket full of quarters to the game room, which at that time meant all the pinball I could handle–and I could handle a lot. (I don’t recall any video games there at the time.) On other days I’d sit in the rathskellar with my father and his friend Henry, which must be where I got the taste for smoky, smelly pubs and hanging out with people who knew how to make pipes out of nothing but a pear and an aluminum ashtray.
Of course, my dad and his friend couldn’t get high in the bar, so we’d skulk off to the tunnels that ran beneath the quad and after they’d consumed their consumables they’d show the kid a good time by trotting me around the steam pipes pretending to all be orcs or rangers or whatever we came up with. It was a good time. Best of all, though, was learning BASIC (instead of Hebrew) and getting to sit in the mainframe room in front of a teletype, one of those ancient keyboards that stood on its own legs like a little mech-dwarf demigod, fed by an endless scroll of rough brown pub-toilet-quality hand-towel paper, and punch a program into the machine itself on its big cylindrical keys. Hello, World!
That’s why even today when I fire up some World of Warcraft or ponder things like mods, maps or machinima, I still get the taste in my mouth of that time. I think it was my first experience of something “important,” something that was clearly going to change the world, even if I had no thought at the time of how that might happen. Here was something big, bigger than school and sports and whatever synagogue I never showed up at for my rite of passage into manhood, and we were involved. My father was part of this thing that was happening, this thing that was cooler than men walking on the moon because it was right there in front of you and you could do it too.
And I was doing it, and it was more than just pushing buttons. My own little 12-year-old’s text-based programming adventures didn’t come anywhere near what was happening in Adventure, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that what was coming back to me in little green letters or smudged black ink was something I had brought into being, my contribution to the world. For me, listening to the static song of the modem carrier signal or sitting in front of that clunky, clacketing teletype meant that I was charged, for however many minutes I could get, with the responsibility of creating something cool. And there’s no better drug for a pre-teen geek than that, no more solemn burden to shoulder. I never did make it to my Bar Mitzvah. But I’m pretty sure I learned some of the same lessons, thanks to dad and DEC and the big machines that did turn out to spark a revolution after all.