What If… There Were No IF? An Alternative History of Games, sans Crowther's Colossal Cave

What If… There Were No IF? An Alternative History of Games, sans Crowther’s Colossal Cave (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

During a break in the Princeton video game conference a few months ago, David Thomas asked me, what would computer games be like today if Will Crowther hadn’t created Colossal Cave Adventure? I pulled Nick Montfort into the brief discussion that followed, but then the next panel started, and the topic went onto the back burner.

Here is a possible alternative history of computer game design, based on the premise that Will Crowther never wrote his 1975 original.

For want of Adventure, the magic word XYZZY is lost. (Computer users around the world are forced to think of less-guessable passwords, and information technology is more secure.)

For want of Adventure, Zork was lost. (But now everyone uses a really cool spreadsheet called VisiCalc.)

For want of Zork, Roberta Williams does not create “The Mystery House.”

For want of Adventure, Adventure International was lost.

For want of Adventure International, Ken Williams does not work briefly for Scott Adams.

For want of Ken and Roberta Williams, Sierra was lost. (A generation of youngsters don’t bother nagging their parents to upgrade their video cards from CGA to SuperVGA; when an explosion at a factory in Japan cripples the world’s supply of memory chips, about six people notice.)

For want of Sierra Online, Leisure Suit Larry was lost.

For want of Leisure Suit Larry, Grand Theft Auto was lost.

For want of Grand Theft Auto, Grand Text Auto was lost. (The creators choose the name “Rogues’ Gallery” instead, because it got more votes than “The Pong Throng” or “VisiCalc User Forum.”)

For want of the text adventure genre, the entire field of computer science seems lifeless and boring to a significant number of young men and women who briefly consider it in the late 70s and early 80s. They drop out in droves. The ones who don’t end up running computers at financial institutions, but are eventually put out of work by high-school dropouts using VisiCalc.

For want of the text adventure genre, the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure genre is lost.

For want of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, scholars groping for a way to describe hypertext to their non-technical colleagues think harder and come up with a better metaphor, one which magically prevents the premature dismissal of hyperfiction, leading to its rapid acceptance into the literary canon.

For want of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, a generation of youths watches more TV. Later, in college, these youths daydream during their hyperfiction survey courses, wondering how their life would have turned out if they had dropped out of high school like their stoner friends did.

Oh, and Dave Thomas has a scar, Nick Montfort has a beard, side-scrollers all scroll the opposite way, and all ships have funky spikes on their warp drive nacelles.

A bit more seriously, now…

I’ve read many anecdotes from programmers whose early experience with interactive fiction games turned them on to computers, so I do think that without text adventures, some of these people might not have considered careers in computing. While it’s a meme that Adventure set the field of computer science back two weeks, I’d prefer to think that after everyone finished Zork, they went back to their jobs energized by what computers might be able to accomplish, and perhaps they shifted their expectations in such a way that might have affected the development of CS in positive ways.

Since the average computer user didn’t have access to CRTs that displayed fancy graphics, and since a significant chunk of computing took place on printer terminals, I suppose that ASCII genres such as Rogue, and strategy games such as Wumpus and mainframe Trek would have attracted the attention of the amateur hackers and students who, after playing Adventure or Zork, tried their hand at creating their own amateur interactive fiction.

Hosting the wild speculation up to the next level…

Perhaps the players who lost countless hours playing interactive fiction would have instead spent more time getting their game fix at the arcade. If coin-op video arcade games developed a little faster, then perhaps users of personal computers wouldn’t have been at all satisfied with the bleeps and blips that they saw on their home computers… maybe they would have been so disappointed by the offerings of home computer entertainment that they would have preferred dropping coins in the arcade, playing games that emulated familiar TV shows (however badly), to typing in lines of code from magazines in order to play games on their home computers. This might have delayed growth in the market for PC games, paving the way in the future for a direct transition of loyalty from the video arcade to the gaming platform.