Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 19 / MAY 1988 / PAGE 15


Worlds to conquer

Defender of the Crown

The history of adventure gaming

by Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel and Joyce Worley

Cooperative storytelling is as old as the communal campfire. The unstructured folk-art process was transformed into a game with rules and limitations by two military simulation buffs, E. Gary Gygax and David Arneson.

In the mid-1970s, both men developed an interest in fighting tabletop medieval battles with miniature soldiers. As visionaries might, the two began to wonder why their armies were meeting on the battlefield, what the troops themselves hoped to gain—or desired not to lose—in the confrontation, and the names of the commanders and heroes who led them into battle.

Each participant in Blackmoor, as Arneson called his campaign, devised background and created characters to explain one or more of the fighting forces in the game-world. As these histories became richer and more detailed, both in Blackmoor and Gygax's Greyhawk, the creation took a turn toward the fantastic. Before long, magic, monsters and treasures became part of the scene. Much of fantasy literature has a medieval setting, so it seemed natural to embellish the campaign with these elements.

Gradually, emphasis shifted from full-scale battles to smaller encounters involving individualized characters. Gygax codified the structure into a three-book set of rules which his then-new company, TSR, published as Dungeons & Dragons, now fondly known as D&D.

Many changes and improvements have been made in the decade since its inception, but D&D has set the pattern for all nonelectronic role-playing games (we'll refer to them as RPGs here).

An RPG session consists of give-and-take between a game master (GM) and a variable number of players. The GM creates the world in which the players' characters have their adventures. Every RPG employs a system, often a set of random die-rolls, to establish the attributes of new characters. A player guides one or more characters through exploits which increase its experience level. The more experience a character gets, the more powerful it becomes. Play sessions are generally linked together in an ongoing campaign, so characters can be built up over months or even years of participation.

Interactivity has sold well over 10 million RPGs in the last decade, but a flaw in the concept opened the way for the booming computer adventure category. The stumbling block: the person who's most interested in the game never gets to play. The GM consults charts and referees action impartially, while everyone else gets to actually operate the characters.

Another drawback is that a GM can work on an episode for a week, only to have four players demolish it in a couple of hours. A prepared module eases the GM's burden, but it still requires hours of study and fine-tuning to fit a "canned" scenario into an ongoing RPG campaign.

Adventures transfer the GM's duties to the machine. While no computer game can compare to a skilled human GM, adventure software requires little or no preparation and provides an outlet for the suppressed heroic urges of erstwhile GMs.

Crowther and Wood's Adventure appeared on computer mainframes in the mid-1970s. It and other "puzzle dungeons" consist of a string of all-text logical puzzles.

Adventureland (Scott Adams International), authored by Scott Adams, was the first puzzle dungeon for the microcomputer. The home versions were, if anything, even more terse than the mainframe programs, because of the severe memory limitations of 8-bit systems.

The illustrated adventure, which added drawings to the verbiage, made its debut in 1981 with Ken and Roberta Williams’ Mystery Funhouse (Sierra On-Line). An illustrated adventure presents each location in the game as a full-screen picture accompanied by a written description.

Until the introduction of Ultima I (Origin Systems) in 1981, all adventures relied on a parser. This part of the program analyzes the player's typed commands and picks an appropriate response. Ultima (and Sir-Tech's Wizardry for the Apple II system) substitutes single-keystroke commands for the laborious typing.

Graphic adventures began with a classic that's still available, Temple of Apshai (Epyx). The player guides the on-screen character through the game-world, and combines an action button and joystick movement to drop and pick up items, fire weapons and to perform other actions. Graphic adventures differ from illustrated adventures in one major respect: the graphic player's character operates inside the graphics on the screen. By contrast, there's no way for a character to jump into the drawing of an illustrated adventure.

The 16-bit systems like the Atari ST unshackled adventure designers. Previously, creating an adventure meant deciding what to leave out. There wasn't enough memory to allow full development of graphics, sound and content.

Improved hardware has encouraged designers to experiment with new ways of structuring adventures. Sierra's graphic adventures for the ST, using a revision of the King's Quest system, incorporate a small but powerful parser which allows the user to execute actions too complex for the joystick.

CinemaWare has invented a new format called the arcade adventure. Titles such as Defender of the Crown and Sinbad (both from Mindscape), utilize real-time interactive action contests to dramatize key portions of the story line. Menus, decision screens, animated sequences, and extensive music and sound effects flesh out the story and characters.

An adventure anatomy lesson

Some readers, especially newer ST owners, may be unfamiliar with this entertainment software category. Although adventures demand more from players than do some other types of computer games, knowing a few basics can spare novices a world of frustration.

Role-playing and interaction are key qualities of the adventure game. The user plays the role of the protagonist and interacts with the people, places and things portrayed in the game. Every adventure incorporates role-playing and interaction, though there are many possible ways to express these elements in game terms.

Two forms of role-playing are commonly found in computer adventures. Adventures are subdivided into two categories:

Interactive Fiction. In this type of adventure, the player becomes a specific character within the framework of the game.

Role-Playing Games. Instead of assuming the identity of a specific individual, the computer user constructs a new character from scratch and, based on its attributes and its earned experiences, creates an original, fictitious personality.

Separating titles which employ a parser from those which use an alternative order entry system is another meaningful way to divide the category.

A parser dissects orders the player types on the keyboard. It isolates key words in the sentence, then determines how the computer responds to the command.

Parsers in the earliest adventures have vocabularies of less than 200 words and only handle orders in a rigid "verb-noun" shorthand. These limitations narrow the plot possibilities to simple puzzles.

Zork (Infocom) introduced a much more sophisticated parser in 1981. It "reads" complete sentences, accepts multiple commands in the same sentence, and has a vocabulary of 1,000 to 1,200 words. Combined with other features of the Infocom system, this allows designers to present more complex situations. The larger vocabulary also reduces the "guess the right word" aspect of text adventures, which so many gamesmen dislike.

Nonparser systems cut the difficulty of interacting with the game, to heighten the impact of the play experience. Most players find it hard to fully enter the world of the adventure if they have to devote so much energy to typing commands. The continued evolution in computer adventures is the story of attempts to give gamers maximum output for minimum input, while increasing the ability of the player to interact with the game.

Ultima I by Lord British (Origin Systems) introduced the first alternative to the parser. The computer user directs movement and orders a wide range of action with single keystrokes. Obviously, it's easier to hit O than to key in Open Door.

Another alternative assigns all functions to the mouse or joystick. Players direct on-screen characters, with the joy-stick, through a picture of the location, and combine button and mouse/joystick movements to select other activities.

This system promotes ease of play, but can't do much with conversation between characters. Most controller activated adventures require the player to collect items while fighting adversaries.

Pull-down menus, as in Temple of Apshai (Epyx), increase the flexibility of controller-activated games. The player picks actions from menus and confirms selections by clicking a button. (ST owners can enjoy an updated version of Apshai and the other two titles in this fantasy set, the Apshai Trilogy.)

Rogue (Epyx) combines the controller with the ability to click on objects. The player guides the on-screen hero over an object to pick it up, then clicks on the corresponding picture in the inventory box to activate it.

Many titles use multifaced control systems. Kings Quest (Sierra) depends heavily on the mouse or joystick, as do Apshai and Rogue, but adds a parser for more complex activities. Deja Vu (Mindscape) uses the controller to click on objects, but also incorporates icons and menus to allow such complicated activities as using one object to affect another.

Six hints for novices

Each adventure game is unique, so it's impossible to provide sweeping suggestions about specifics. Here are some general hints to make things easier.

  1. Make sure the game is not too difficult. Many companies, including Infocom, rate the difficulty of their programs on the packages. Put aside ego; you can move up to the real stumpers later.
  2. Read the documentation. Sure, you can figure things out as the game progresses, but why accept the extra frustration that invariably accompanies ignorance of the rules.
  3. Make sure you understand the goals of the game. This will keep you from getting sidetracked and expending great energy to do unnecessary things.
  4. Make a map. This isn't always necessary, but becoming disoriented is an automatic loss in many adventure games.
  5. Determine the amount and form of available help. Many games have a built-in "help" feature, while others are the subject of hint books. A few publishers, like Sierra, even have hot lines and bulletin boards to lend assistance.
  6. Save frequently. Repeating long stretches of a game just because there's one trouble spot is annoying. Conserve time and energy by saving the game position before trying anything too risky.

Home computer adventures have progressed from semiconnected sets of written brainteasers to rich, multisensory experiences in less than fifteen years. The next five should see similarly dramatic growth and improvement. Current technology is still underutilized by designers, and exciting innovations like CD-ROM are poised to enter the market. We can only eagerly anticipate improvements in adventure game software.