Write Your Own Text Adventure
Ed Hall, AC Staff Columnist
For a long time I was really annoyed at Infocom. They had ZIL and I didn't. ZIL (for Zork Implementation Language) was used exclusively for creating text adventures. Music and pinball construction software already existed and were big sellers, so why wasn't there a ZIL for people like me?
Then one day I read a review of AdventureWriter, a software title that enabled non-programmers to write their own adventure. The review slammed the program for being awkward, laborious, and inefficient. I didn't care. I immediately called up the company and ordered it (and paid a handsome price in my haste).
The program, I'm pleased to say, is very good. Sure, it's complicated and takes a lot of work, but certainly not any more than the actual programming itself. The manual is over 100 pages long and, despite one or two murky areas, is competently done. Best of all, it creates stand-alone programs; there is no further need for AdventureWriter after the game has been produced.
Over the years, I discovered other programs for creating text adventures, but for me AdventureWriter remained the best. It allows the use of over 250 words, 250 objects and 250 locations, though usually the program runs out of memory before these limits are reached. The numbers compare quite favorably with commercially produced games.
For example, most Scott Adams adventures can be played to completion using less than 200 words (and some less than 100), and most games have less than 30 locations. Level 9 games commonly employ about 200 locations and 50 items, but can accommodate much more text than AdventureWriter can, thanks to text compression. The vocabularies of Infocom games range between 700 and 1000 words, while Synapse/Broderbund's "electronic novels" reached 1200 words.
But don't let numbers fool you. Huge vocabularies are meaningless if a game is poorly designed, or offset by other deficiencies. For example, the Synapse/Broderbund text adventures were bogged down by the lengthy disk access needed to handle the large vocabulary; conversely, one of the best features of Level 9 (and AdventureWriter) games is that once they are loaded into memory, there's no further need for disk I/O.
I know of at least one instance where AdventureWriter has been used to produce a commercial product. A fellow named Frank Eva sold by mail a series called MicroNovels, which included Star Voyages and the Casebook of Hemlock Soames. And recently an AdventureWriter game turned up as disk bonus from the British magazine New Atari User.
Games written with AdventureWriter are supposed to contain a notice identifying them as such, but you can also recognize them by their structure. Each game consists of two files: a short loader and the main program, both in object code.
AdventureWriter was originally released by a firm called CodeWriter; however, I've also seen it listed under the Atari name, so possibly it was later picked up by Jack and The Boys.
Another commercial product was The Slave, a British program offered for sale in 1986. It was reviewed in issue 24 of Page 6 magazine by the capable Garry Francis. After a detailed 3-page examination of The Slave's shortcomings, Francis concluded that it was the worst piece of software he had ever come across, and recommended using the disk as a coaster. His review was the most thorough dismembering of a software title that I've ever encountered.
Interestingly enough, the program's author, Nick Gregory, was responsible for translating to the Atari a text adventure called Rick Hanson, which was distributed by Robico. Garry Francis called it a thoroughly enjoyable game.
AdventureWriter may be difficult to find these days. If you can't locate it, try The Wizard, a suite of programs designed by Clayton Walnum and appearing in ANALOG 58 and 59. It consists of three modules: an editor, a compiler, and a database printer. Together they'll help you write a complete, stand-alone BASIC adventure. The listing is automatically encrypted, which prevents anyone from peeking at the code to find the solution.
Games produced using The Wizard will be fairly simple; they can't exceed a maximum of 30 locations and 50 objects. However, the Wizard is a good place for novice adventure game writers to start out. Just make sure you have the accompanying articles handy, as you'll never figure out how to use The Wizard without the proper directions.
This unique text adventure has a built-in construction feature. The program uses a separate file (maximum 58) for each location. By keying in special commands, you can access the editor and create your own location files.
The editor can handle conditional actions, random events, and even has five built-in sound effects. You can also use any standard 9-sector font. However, only five objects can be manipulated.
Adventure is a PD program written in BASIC by Max Manowski and initially distributed by Eugene's Atari Computer Enthusiasts. I got my copy from Bellcom, a PD outfit whose ads you may have seen in ANTIC, ANALOG, and AC (Feb. '93). Ask for disk no. 31. It comes with complete instructions.
Adventure Master (CBS Software) is a sort of scaled-down version of AdventureWriter, with one major exception: it allows the use of graphics. Because it's simpler than AdventureWriter, it's also easier to use. However, it may be a bit too simple; it's limited to 32 objects, 50 locations, and 10 pictures. Maximum vocabulary is 100 words.
A better choice (if you have some knowledge of programming) is a 3-disk set from Ed Churnside called The Dragon's TAIL. It's a collection of text and graphic routines which Churnside used when he wrote an illustrated text adventure called Dragon Quest (also from the ANTIC Catalog). Volume 1 covers text, Volume 2 handles graphics, and Volume 3 provides a lengthy tutorial. The package includes extensive documentation as well as the source code for Dragon Quest. Dragon's TAIL is a valuable resource for anyone interested in constructing adventures.
For those who just want to tell a simple story, try Storybook from issue 29 of Page 6. This BASIC program provides a number of graphics tools which enable you to create a simple picture in Antic mode 4, then add up to 5 lines of text. What you get is not an adventure, but an illustrated story which can have as many consecutive panels as the disk directory has room for.
Adventures with the Atari - This out-of-print and hard-tofind book by Jack Weston provides lots of help for creating your own adventure, including a BASIC program shell. As a bonus there are complete listings for a text adventure in Atari BASIC, Microsoft BASIC, and Atari LOGO.
Adventurous Programming - This 3-part series by Clayton Walnum appeared in issues 39-41 of ANALOG, and gives a step-by-step guide for creating a text adventure. A parser and a text encryptor are given as separate routines.
Writing Adventures - An excellent 4-part series by John White appeared in the British magazine New Atari User (issues 48-51). It discusses program design and advanced techniques such as data compression. There is a sample adventure, Metman, which works in Atari BASIC, TurboBASIC, and compiled TurboBASIC. (Note: these back-issues are still available.)
Adventure Works - David Woolley's brief tutorial on writing a text adventure appeared in the April 1989 issue of ANTIC. It includes a very simple adventure, Barnaby's Island.
Word Storage Space Saver - Scott Sheck demonstrates a method for storing text that may be useful in a BASIC text adventure. The article appeared in the December 1984 issue of ANTIC.
Boot Camp - In issues 66 and 69 of ANALOG Karl Wiegers creates a simple parser and shows how it works.
Infocab - This program by Chris Patterson won't help you create text adventures, but it does provide an interesting peek inside an Infocom disk. It finds the game's working vocabulary and displays or prints it out. You'll find it in issue 60 of New Atari User.
One of the most interesting products in the last few years has been HyperCard, a Macintosh program which at one time was given away free. It's basically a database which can be used for just about anything, from recipes to adventures. Individual screens ("cards") can incorporate text, sound, and graphics, and be linked to other cards in any way desired. Rob Swigart, who wrote Portal (mentioned last issue) said he could have programmed the game himself in a month using HyperCard, instead of the two years it took professionals to do in machine language.
Products like HyperCard herald a new kind of fiction available only on the computer. Multiple plotlines can be handled much more elegantly than in traditional, paper-based fiction. Hyperfiction is a name sometimes applied to it.
Of course, we don't have anything as sophisticated as HyperCard for our 8-bits, but there is a program kicking around that strikes me as being... well, not similar, but perhaps as a workable substitute. It's Codesmith's Newsletter Reader, a program for producing disk-based newsletters. It loads text and graphics files, and can use any standard 9-sector font. The main program responds to special commands embedded in the text, which can initiate the loading of another file. In a text adventure, this could become a branching point in a story (as in Level 9's "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole"); in hyperfiction it could be a gateway to a new area of information (as in Portal).
But most of all, remember that even a sophisticated program like HyperCard is only a tool. The real work begins before the computer is even switched on: characters, setting, and storyline must be devised before you can begin, and you'll also need to draw up a complete map of your world.
When you start writing, you'll be tempted to do rich atmospheric descriptions, but remember that players will want to examine every object you describe, and will expect suitable responses. Sometimes the responses will introduce new objects, which invite further examination. If you're not careful, things can quickly get out of hand.
Finally, please remember that words are your stock in trade, so get them right. There's nothing worse than a text adventure with bad spelling, bad punctuation, or bad grammar. If you're weak in these areas, enlist the help of someone who isn't.
In talking about text adventures for the Atari, it would be remiss not to say a word about Infocom's Brian Moriarty. After bringing out Wishbringer and Trinity to favorable reviews, he was entrusted with the equivalent of Infocom's crown jewels: writing a sequel to the Zork trilogy.
The result was Beyond Zork. A reviewer in QuestBusters liked it so much he gave it an 11 (on a scale of 1 to 10). Ironically, of the three games Brian produced for Infocom, only Wishbringer was ever released for Atari 8-bits. What makes it ironic is that Brian Moriarty served as technical editor for ANALOG magazine before going to Infocom.
If you'd like to sample Brian's work, but can't find Wishbringer, no problem. He wrote two text adventures for ANALOG that are still easy enough to find: Adventure in the Fifth Dimension (issue no. 11) and Crash Dive (issue no. 17).
The Moriarty Legacy
Though Brian left ANALOG in 1984 (immediately after the publication of Crash Dive), his influence lingered there for years. Tom Hudson's Adventure at Vandenburg AFB, and Chris Smith's The Treasures of Barboz, both used the framework devised by Brian for Adventure in the Fifth Dimension, and are immediately recognizable as its descendants. In the same fashion, Clayton Walnum used portions of code from Crash Dive in his own game, One for the Road.
(By the way, Adventure in the Fifth Dimension has a funny quirk: it requires a translator. This is odd because Adventure at Vandenburg AFB and The Treasures of Barboz don't. After tinkering with the program for awhile, I discovered the problem. All you have to do is delete or REM line 12, which is there for purely cosmetic reasons. If you'd like to retain the look of the program, simply delete a single control character from the line. Presto, no more translator. Strange, no?)
When Brian left Infocom, he also left behind text adventures. He joined Lucasfilm Games where he worked on an interesting graphic adventure called Loom. Animated sequences and musical score were integral elements, and the interface underwent a major change. And to think it all started with an Atari 8-bit, and a couple of text adventures in a magazine called ANALOG.