Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original ”Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky

Because so little primary historical work has been done on the classic text computer game “Colossal Cave Adventure”, academic and popular references to it frequently perpetuate inaccuracies. “Adventure” was the first in a series of text-based games (“interactive fiction”) that emphasize exploring, puzzles, and story, typically in a fantasy setting; these games had a significant cultural impact in the late 1970s and a significant commercial presence in the early 1980s. Will Crowther based his program on a real cave in Kentucky; Don Woods expanded this version significantly. The expanded work has been examined as an occasion for narrative encounters (Buckles 1985) and as an aesthetic masterpiece of logic and utility (Knuth 1998); however, previous attempts to assess the significance of “Adventure” remain incomplete without access to Crowther’s original source code and Crowther’s original source cave. Accordingly, this paper analyzes previously unpublished files recovered from a backup of Woods’s student account at Stanford, and documents an excursion to the real Colossal Cave in Kentucky in 2005. In addition, new interviews with Crowther, Woods, and their associates (particularly members of Crowther’s family) provide new insights on the precise nature of Woods’s significant contributions. Real locations in the cave and several artifacts (such as an iron rod and an axe head) correspond to their representation in Crowther’s version; however, by May of 1977, Woods had expanded the game to include numerous locations that he invented, along with significant technical innovations (such as scorekeeping and a player inventory). Sources that incorrectly date Crowther’s original to 1972 or 1974, or that identify it as a cartographic data file with no game or fantasy elements, are sourced thinly if at all. The new evidence establishes that Crowther wrote the game during the 1975-76 academic year and probably abandoned it in early 1976. The original game employed magic, humor, simple combat, and basic puzzles, all of which Woods greatly expanded. While Crowther remained largely faithful to the geography of the real cave, his original did introduce subtle changes to the environment in order to improve the gameplay. —Dennis G. JerzSomewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original ”Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky (Digital Humanities Quarterly)

One of the journal’s editors, Matt Kirschenbaum, writes:

Just a post to draw attention to a major new piece in the current issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (a venue which you all should be keeping tabs on anyway) on Will Crowther’s original ADVENTURE (aka Colossal Cave).

In his “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original ‘Adventure’ in Code and in Kentucky,” Dennis Jerz offers an archeology of the work’s source code alongside of an exploration (photo-documented!) of the actual Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Scholars routinely mis-cite information as fundamental as ADVENTURE’s date of composition, the kind of carelessness that reinforces the view that electronic objects exist outside of material histories and are impossible to take seriously as cultural artifacts. Jerz sets the record straight with rigorous textual scholarship based (in part) on the work’s original magnetic back-up tapes, which is personally responsible for recovering.

Absolutely essential reading.

Update, Aug 11: Some reactions have started to appear on
Update, Aug 12: Matthew Russoto has posted compilable versions of Crowther’s original source code. That was fast!
Update, Aug 13: David Kinder has posted a Windows executable based on Crowther’s original source code. (The URL points to a temporary holding spot… I’ll update the final URL when I find out what it is.)
MetaFilter and BoingBoing have also posted about the article.
Update, August 14: Slashdot compares the discovery of the code to the finding of the Holy Grail. Also,, reddit, Digg.