Text Adventures: Download and Play Classic Interactive Fiction

Download and play the best classic text adventures

I was astonished when I discovered text adventures in the early days - the perfect combination of written stories and computers. It felt like stepping through the looking glass. Even today, they still radiate that deep charm. Getting inside a story, and using imagination to unravel a mysterious scenario never goes out of style. 

Do you know you can download and start playing classic text adventure games right now? The right way to play a text adventure is to download and play it on your device or computer so you can save progress and continue later. Top games are easy to download and get playing in just a few minutes.

Table of Contents

Stepping into a classic text adventure is a great way to take a mini vacation into an engaging story. If you are familiar with how to play them, you can jump to the resource downloads.

But if you have not played before, I encourage you to read these next short sections to familiarize yourself with this enjoyable pastime...

What Text Adventure Games Are & How They Work

To best understand the world of text adventures, I recommend reading the history they grew out of, an overview on playing them (this section), and then jumping into one.

Let’s do a quick run-down here.

A text adventure is a game that uses written narrative to put you, the player into a story. You read the short pieces of text the game feeds out, then type in what you want to do. Like so:

Stone Threshold
You stand on the stone threshold of an abandoned, overgrown tower built from large flagstones in the middle of a wheat field. The structure stands about thirty feet tall, and forty in diameter. The oaken entry door is weathered, and a fresh split down the middle is accompanied by the double-headed axe that seems to have been used to make it. The door stands slightly ajar. The sea of ripe wheat sways gently in the breeze, and the whole place is oddly quiet.
A silver ring, made for a finger roughly twice the thickness of yours, is slung on the nearest point of the axehead.
> Take the ring

In removing the ring, you are surprised at how heavy the thing is. It feels warm to the touch. Warmer than sun-warmed silver normally might. Somewhere behind you, within the forest, you hear the snort of a horse and the sound of hoofbeats. The faint sound of weeping comes from within the stone tower.
> Open the door

Text adventures normally break up their world into separate locations, such as this Stone Threshold above. Each location has a description, and may be populated with objects, characters, or challenges (such as a mechanism that must be figured out in order to open a secret passage). You move between locations using standard directions (N, S, E, W, up, down), manipulate objects (“Put the ring in the flagon of ale”), and generally work your way through the environment. Some stories have a completely non-linear exploration and puzzle solving model, and others have elements of a built-in time flow (such as needing to confront the Duke at noon in an empty valley). The common element is that you are the protagonist, and you make choices about what to do, discovering things, and changing the story as you do.

Standard Conventions in Text Adventure Gameplay

Earlier text adventures were pretty simple in what kinds of commands they could understand. Playing the classic Colossal Cave Adventure requires working with two-word-maximum commands, like “get lamp,” or “kill dragon.” Later games had a more sophisticated ability to understand English, and allowed you to say things like “put the glowing orb inside the rusty can,” or “attach the metal plate with the green bolt.” You can also perform compound actions by typing things like “drop the sword, the ram horn, and the carved stone.” You can also shortcut things by typing “take all,” or “drop all,” to handle getting or leaving a bunch of items at once.

In order to make the game flow, once you have been in a location, returning there does not trigger the full location description. If you want to see it again, type “look.”

Games with characters you can talk to typically let you address them with commands such as “Captain Blunthook, move aside.”

Use “inventory” to see a list of everything you are carrying. “Wait” makes time pass in some games. “Save” and “Restore” let you save out your current game status, and bring it back. This is very useful if you need to end your play session for restarting later, or else you want to try something dangerous and be able to undo by restoring if it turns out badly.

Text Adventure Gaming Resource List

Text adventures span from the early days of computer gaming (Colossal Cave) up to the present day (contemporary “interactive fiction” being produced, usually non-commercially). Just trying to play the games can be a puzzle in itself. While you can find some that are playable online, being unable to save your progress creates a real problem, since you are unable to break off and continue later. That being the case, the optimal way to play them is on your computer or device where you can save, so that’s what the focus will be on here.

Please read The History of Text Adventure Gaming below to get a better sense of what these games are, if you are at all unfamiliar with them.

 

This Section at a Glance

Download and Play: Infocom’s Adventures

A selection of Infocom’s box art

This is where I recommend everyone new to text adventures starts. Infocom’s work represents the pinnacle of the form, showcasing excellent writing, gameplay & puzzle design, as well as overall execution. You need to play Colossal Cave at some point, but it’s an earlier, less polished example of the form that Infocom perfected.

Infocom’s heyday was 1979-1986, but unfortunately, their amazing work is not readily available anymore via commercial outlets. There is an exception though, and I’d like to bring that up, since it’s easy and inexpensive, and can get you playing the sci-fi great, Planetfall, along with their fan faves - the Zork series.

You can inexpensively buy the Zork Anthology (which tucks in Planetfall) from both GOG, and Steam, if you are a Windows user. I’ll take a moment to talk up GOG, because of their active involvement in the rescue and preservation of historic games, and because they provide games free of DRM (Digital Rights Management). Please note that if you search either site for “Planetfall,” there is a recent game that’s unrelated.

Buy The Zork Anthology (with Planetfall!) on GOG

Buy The Zork Anthology (with Planetfall!) on Steam

Unfortunately, that’s the only way you can currently buy any of the Infocom games commercially at the time of this writing.

 

On another front, there has been a very interesting development. A copy of the development hard drive from Infocom, including all of the original source files was given by a key Infocom person to Jason Scott of Archive.org, who has organized them, and placed them on GitHub, a site where programmers share and collaborate. Combining this source code with modern compiling tools means that people wanting to preserve this important chunk of retro gaming history have stepped up, and are making playable games freely available.

You just need two things to play these free downloads:

  1. Grab the compiled Z-Code file for the game you want
  2. Then get a Z-Machine interpreter for your operating system or device

Infocom games always came with “feelies” - printed materials that helped provide background information, in-story items, and other elements to round out gameplay. Some games are playable without them, but all benefit from taking a moment to look through them and add context. Infidel, for instance, is playable, but gives you none of the setup that explains what’s going on unless you read the feelies. Scroll down below the game file listing to find links to online versions of the feelies.

The GitHub Infocom game files. If you want to dive right in and look around, you can jump right to the repositories where you can find the games.

Click the repository name for the game you want, and then click the COMPILED folder you should find there. If there is no COMPILED folder, then those working on the games have not yet made them ready. While you could try compiling the source yourself, that is very specialized stuff, and beyond the scope of this post. Note that the “Gold” versions do not have compiled files, as of this writing. No problem - just grab the regular version.

The file you want is the game name with an extension like .z3, or .z[whatever] for the version number. Most you’ll see are .z3. So for Planetfall, you want the planetfall.z3 in Planetfall’s COMPILED folder in the repository on GitHub.

Click the file name, then click the “Download” button to get it.

BEWARE ONLINE GAME DESCRIPTIONS (like Wikipedia) THAT MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!

Here are my Infocom recommendations. For the full list, go to the GitHub repository.

 

Infocom Text Adventure Categories

 

Infocom Text Adventures: Science Fiction

Planetfall
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

I’m starting with this, because it’s so classic, and so well done. You play a lowly ensign, who finds himself crash landing in an escape pod on an abandoned planet. Where is everyone? What happened? How do you get home? Partner with Floyd, a childlike robot, to sort through this mysterious scenario. Planetfall blends drama and humor in a sci-fi setting to create a highly engaging game with a great story.

Stationfall
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

The sequel to Planetfall, Stationfall has you making a delivery to a space station, only to find it mysteriously empty, and not very welcoming. You must unravel what’s going on to fix things and save yourself!

Starcross
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

This was Infocom’s first foray into science fiction. You are exploring space, looking for black holes to do energy mining, when you discover a mysterious alien craft floating in space. You must dock and explore it - sifting through completely alien technology, plants, and animal life.

Suspended
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

You are in suspended animation, intended to unconsciously control the vital systems on a colonized planet with your mind. But something has gone wrong, and you are awakened to find that the systems are going haywire. You must remotely control a handful of robots with different capabilities in order to set things right before the planetary colonists terminate and replace you.

 

Infocom Text Adventures: Mystery

Deadline
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

This was Infocom’s first breakout from the underground cave/fantasy approach inspired by Colossal Cave. You play a police detective who is brought in to investigate the apparent suicide of a wealthy industrialist. Something is amiss though, and you need to unravel what’s really going on. This game departed from the standard exploration & adventure model, to bring in characters who act independently, and a natural flow of time, where you must accomplish things in a timely manner to stay on track. This game is one of their hardest, sports a number of sophisticated innovations such as talking to people, and having to collect evidence, to establish a motive, opportunity, and method. The feelies are a must on this one to get yourself properly situated in how to play.

The Witness
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

Once again, you play a detective. This time, you are called out to check on a millionaire who is afraid someone is going to kill him. Before you can finish your discussion with him, he is shot through the window. You’re now the only witness to the murder, and must solve the case before sunrise. The same expansions in gameplay sophistication from Deadline apply, and again, the feelies are needed.

Suspect
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

In this one, you play a newspaper reporter who has been invited to a socialite party, but quickly finds yourself in a downward spiral as you are framed for the hostess’s murder. Can you prove your innocence?

 

Infocom Text Adventures: Adventure

Zork 1
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF
Zork 2
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF
Zork 3
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

This is the series that launched Infocom. Inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure, they break a large story into 3 parts in which you explore an underground empire, discovering treasure and solving puzzles.

Infidel
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

You have just snapped up (through dishonest means) an opportunity to use your experience in archaeology to uncover a rumored Egyptian pyramid. But everything has gone wrong, with your local crew all leaving you stranded in the desert, and supplies running low. Can you find the site and the treasure? Can you survive?

Cutthroats
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

You play an undersea diver struggling to get by in a hard-luck seaside town, when an old friend shows up with a map and information about undiscovered shipwrecks. Your friend is suddenly murdered, and you have to figure out who you can trust in order to retrieve the treasure.

Seastalker
DOWNLOAD: Game File >
Get feelies as online scans or as PDF

This adventure was written for kids, as an easier introduction to text adventure games. You play a kid marine scientist/inventor who has been called in to rescue the undersea research facility Aquadome from attack by a sea monster.

Use a modern Z-Machine interpreter to play text adventure game files

Z-Machine Interpreters

Using a Z-Machine interpreter to play a text adventure is pretty straightforward once you know what you’re doing. The main thing you need is the interpreter program (see this list), and your game file (see the appropriate How to Play section above or below in this Resource list).

 

Desktop

OSX: Spatterlight
DOWNLOAD: spatterlight.zip >

If you’re using Spatterlight on OSX, you can just drag and drop the z-code game file onto the Spatterlight icon. Alternatively, you can run Spatterlight, and go to File > Open Game, and pick the file you want.

Windows: Frotz
DOWNLOAD: WindowsFrotz.zip >

On Windows, you can also drag-and-drop the game file onto Frotz. When you run Frotz, it should automatically go to the “Open a Z-code game” dialog box, where you can choose your game.

Linux: Frotz
DOWNLOAD: For Your Distro >

On Linux, you can also drag-and-drop the game file onto Frotz. When you run Frotz, it should automatically go to the “Open a Z-code game” dialog box, where you can choose your game.

 

Device

iOS: Frotz
DOWNLOAD: iOS App >

On iOS, install Frotz, and then download the Z-Code file as explained above. After clicking download, you are given the option “Open in Frotz” Click that, and voila!

Android: Hunky Punk
DOWNLOAD: Android App >

On Android, run Hunky Punk, and tap the settings (tools) icon in the top right. Scroll down, and then under File Path, tap “IF Folder Path.” Choose the Download folder here, to find the game files you download. Once you download a game file, it will show up on the main screen. Back out of the settings screen to see the listing on the main screen.

 

Various Machines, Devices, and Operating Systems Old & New

Misc Z-Machine Interpreters
DOWNLOAD: Application >
Additional Z-Machine Interpreters
DOWNLOAD: Application >

Infocom feelies

Infocom Game Feelies

Infocom’s games often included what they called “feelies” - physical, printed items designed to extend the game world, often providing backstory, clues, maps, etc. The enrich gameplay, and are sometimes essential to proper gameplay.

Get them as online scans

Get them as PDFs

You can play Infocom’s games from physical media such as floppies or a CD

Going Oldschool: Running Text Adventures in DOS

If you really want to recreate the old school experience, you can buy old physical copies of these games on eBay, Amazon, or other places, either singly, or in collections such as The Lost Treasures of Infocom. And please remember that this is only if you want to install and play from physical media. You can be playing in 5 minutes, just by using the option above - a Z-Machine interpreter.

Keep in mind that if you buy any of these games on floppy disks, you will need to have drives to read those disks, and there is no guarantee that decades-old floppies will all work properly. There was a version of The Lost Treasures that was on CD, so if you can find that, CDs are much less likely to have problems than floppies. Any way you slice it, you’ll need to have a computer running DOS. You have a few options:

  • Run a DOS emulator as an application on your modern computer. DOSBox runs on many platforms. On OSX, you can also try Boxer, a simpler drag-and-drop wrapper for DOSBox. Emulation is the best way to go, if you also plan on running other DOS games using graphics and sound. This is because DOSBox emulates old school graphics and sound hardware as well. Just grab a USB 3.5" floppy drive, and get rocking. Realistically, if you want to play, and not spend a lot of time tweaking and troubleshooting, emulate DOS, don’t install it.
  • Boot your computer with FreeDOS, from USB thumb drive, burned CD, or even a floppy. FreeDOS is a free clone of DOS, created to let you run old DOS software on a modern computer. This will require more geekery than DOSBox to get things optimized for proper picture, sound, and general performance (modern PCs are FAR faster than what the games were written for).
  • Run actual DOS on a modern machine that will support it. This is the most fiddly approach, and you need to be pretty technically minded to do it. MS-DOS 6.22 (the last official DOS release) is readily available on eBay, and can be installed on a new Intel-based PC - with some serious messing around to make things work, including using a floppy disk to boot. Unless you really want to get your geek on, I recommend emulation over this.
  • Run DOS on a vintage computer. This is a ridiculous way to go is you’re just wanting to play text adventures… but some people are purist recreationists, and have the time & money to pursue it. If retro computing is a hobby you’re interested in, by all means, dive in. By my own criteria, I’m ridiculous, because I have an IBM PC/XT (the follow-up to the 1981 IBM PC) on my desk, complete with monochrome green screen, and so far, I have only used it to play The Lost Treasures of Infocom, which I installed from 5.25” floppies. In my defense, I got the whole thing for a song (less than $50), and I had fun tweaking it to get it working. Unless you like that kind of thing, this really is killing a fly with a bazooka.

Download and Play: Colossal Cave Adventure

Playing Colossal Cave Adventure on a DEC PDP-11

This is the grandaddy - the one that started it all. It has multiple official versions, due to being expanded and updated over time as it moved from the original FORTRAN version on a PDP-10 mainframe, to the version redone in C in the mid-90s. Variants and non-official versions abound as well. You’ll often see the versions differentiated by the number of points they have. As the game changed over time, people added new elements that increased the total score you can achieve. The 250-point version is the original Crowther & Woods one that became so popular in the 70s.

Colossal Cave Adventure was not a commercial product, and was created in a time when things like this got freely shared among computing enthusiasts. Interestingly though, Microsoft did create their own commercial version of the game for release with the IBM PC. It’s called Microsoft Adventure, and apparently, Crowther & Woods got no money from it.

 

Recommended

Colossal Cave: Z-Code Version
DOWNLOAD: Game File >

For an easy and enjoyable way to play, grab this 350-point version recreated with the modern text adventure-making software, Inform. The file can be popped into a Z-Machine Interpreter on your platform of choice (listed above, in the Infocom resource section), and you’re good. This is the easiest way to go.

 

The ’77 Original in FORTRAN
DOWNLOAD: Source Code >

Once thought lost, the original source code was recovered from some old backups, and can be viewed. For most of us, this is just of historical significance. But for the hardcore, maybe you have a PDP-10 or a FORTRAN setup, and and want to go as original as possible.

ESR’s Open Adventure
DOWNLOAD: Source Code >

Eric S. Raymond, coiner of the term “open source,” has taken the 430-point version redone in the C programming language in 1995 (also known as Adventure 2.5) and released it as open source software. This was done with the encouragement of Crowther & Woods. The intent is to preserve an important piece of computing history, but keep it according to the old tradition of refining and updating the code, rather than leaving it as an aging historical snapshot. The gameplay is the same as the 1995 2.5 version, but as you can see in this log of commits on the official GitLab repository, this labor of love has seen a lot of activity during the 2+ years (as of this writing) since it was first released.

Please note that this version provides the source code written in C. To play this version, you will need to compile it on your platform of choice. C is pretty portable to a lot of different environments, and this lets you create your own version, instead of the programmers compiling versions for every system. Yes, this raises the bar to entry by requiring you to do something that an average user doesn’t know how to do, but if you’re determined, it’s quite doable. You’ll need a C compiler (GCC is very popular). If you’ve ever done something at a command prompt (DOS, Terminal, Shell, etc), you can likely do this, but it is not for the average, non-techy user, and is beyond the current scope of this post (maybe one soon?).

Crowther’s Original, ported to BASIC
DOWNLOAD: Source Code >

This is a fascinating find. It says it’s a conversion of Will Crowther’s original game, prior to Don Woods expanding and refining it. It’s written in a version of BASIC for a TRS-80 MC10, and may or may not require some tweaking to work on your system. I gave it a quick try in Chipmunk BASIC (a modern version for contemporary computers), and it threw some initial errors. I may try to sort those out and re-post my cleaned-up version at some point. I share this now, because of the extensive post I created about Type-In Text-Based BASIC Games.

Android Stand-Alone Version
DOWNLOAD: Source Code >

While I recommended the Z-Code version above, that requires installing a Z-Machine interpreter, and downloading the Adventure game file. Easy to do with my provided instructions, but in case you want a completely plug-and-play version you can just grab and start using, I include this one as well. This does include a handy little “direction tool” that allows you to tap the direction you want to go, instead of always typing “N”, “E”, “SW”, etc.

Kindle Fire Version
DOWNLOAD: Source Code >

Same as the Android version, but on Amazon so you can grab it for your Kindle Fire.

 

Myriad Versions on the IFDB - The Interactive Fiction Database provides a TON of options, including ports (reworking of the code to do the same thing on a different platform) to contemporary operating systems, all the way back to retro computers like DOS, Amiga, and Atari ST. They’ve got you covered. See the MASSIVE list in the Download box on the right at the link above.

Version Timeline at the IFA - This guide breaks out multiple version and derivatives in different formats.

The (Colossal Cave) Adventure Family Tree - Another deep list of versions, shown as an indented outline to illustrate the lineage of the different versions.

Download and Play: Scott Adams Adventures

Scott Adams and Adventure International opened the floodgates for the computer game industry

Adams’ approach was often minimalist, and many of his games are notoriously difficult, due to cryptic puzzles, and situations that make it easy to die. The completist should not skip these because of their significance to the history of adventure gaming, but I recommend you not start here.

Adams has graciously allowed the release of his classic games for free download.

Desktop

ADVENTURELAND
This game is historically significant as the first text adventure for a personal computer, since Colossal Cave had only been on mainframes. Due to Adams’ dedication to get everything into 16K, certain aspects of gameplay needed to be slimmed down, leading to a more minimalist approach. See just above under Desktop or Device to get all the games in one download.

PIRATE ADVENTURE
This is Adams’ spin on the classic novel Treasure Island. It was the second release from Adventure International, and shows a maturing approach to text adventure game creation. It is noted for managing to create a surprising degree of atmosphere, while sticking to a minimal amount of actual text. See just above under Desktop or Device to get all the games in one download.

Download and Play: Wander

Wander, created by Peter Langston, may be the first text adventure game

Another game surfaced in 2015 that appears to rewrite the history of text adventures. Peter Langston’s Wander was authored as a text adventure creation tool, and accumulated a few text adventure “worlds” written for it. Its surprising significance is that it was first released in 1974, predating the earliest Colossal Cave version by a year.

The Wander source code is written in C, and can be downloaded from GitHub. You will need to compile it yourself to play. I hope to tinker with it soon, and may then post some pre-compiled versions for those who are curious, but not comfortable messing around with C.

Download and Play: Other Text Adventures, Old & New

Use a USB keyboard with your phone running a Z-Machine interpreter
PRO TIP - if you are going to play on your phone, try using a keyboard with a USB adapter. The white adapter here is the one that came with my Samsung Galaxy.

There is a world of text adventures out there, with all sorts of differing approaches. Options range from commercial games created in the 80s, to more contemporary, non-commercial efforts produced from the 90s to the present day. Keep in mind that not all titles are appropriate for kids, and the non-commercial ones… you have to find out what’s in them via reviews, or playing. Non-commercial efforts can also be experimental, playing with new ideas on the interactive fiction form, such as being based in a single location, and simulating interaction with another character. I recommend you explore these down the road after you’ve established a familiarity with the classics, such as Infocom’s work.

The IFDB is a large repository site holding an enormous collection of text adventures paired with reviews, and grouped into collections.

The Interactive Fiction Archive is another resource for further exploration.

Modern tools enable you to crate your own text adventure games

Text Adventure Creation Tools

This topic deserves a post of its own, and will get one in the future. Based on the recent rediscovery of Wander, it seems that having a tool to allow people to create their own text adventures was part of the form’s DNA since the beginning. Because the appeal of text adventures/interactive fiction lives on, an array of tools have been created to allow people to build their own text adventure games.

Inform
DOWNLOAD: Free Application >

This is a robust system for creating Infocom-esque adventures, using a scripting style that feels like writing English. The basics can be learned quickly, and since it’s so popular, you can find lots of sample source files so you can see how other people do things. Many titles on the IFDB created with Inform even provide their source file along with the gameplay file. Playback is done with a standard Z-Machine interpreter, meaning your game can be played on computers old and new, devices, or even online. Inform also comes with some excellent manuals to help you learn.

Twine
DOWNLOAD: Free Application >

A more recent tool that is aimed at lowering the bar and making it even easier for anyone to create their own text adventures. It outputs HTML and javascript, so that games are playable in a web browser.

TADS
DOWNLOAD: Free Application >

This is the most programming-like approach, with a language that they liken to working in C++, but specifically focused on the needs of text adventures. The TADS system has its own cross-platform virtual machine that it compiles games to run on.

There are a number of other solutions, it all just depends on what you’re interested in.

Text Adventures as Literature: Download Mary Ann Buckles’ PhD Dissertation

Having heard about Mary Ann Buckles’ doctoral dissertation on the text adventure (specifically Colossal Cave) as literary form, I reached out to an online text adventure community which includes the likes of Scott Adams. No one seemed to have been able to secure a copy, so I took this as a personal challenge. After some web searches, a few phone calls, and several follow-up emails, I managed to locate a hard copy through interlibrary loan, which is the one I read. I also then discovered that a PDF was available, and took steps to secure it. Finally, I reached out to Ms. Buckles, and she was so kind as to grant me permission to share it.

Download: Interactive Fiction : The Computer Storygame “Adventure” (PDF)

 

Why play text adventures? 8 reasons >

 

The History of Text Adventure Gaming

Classic text adventures stand on their own, but learning a little history about them may provide some context, and get you interested in playing particular games.

Early computer games used text-based interfaces, since this was the norm for most computing, and graphics capabilities were both primitive and expensive. I wrote another post about text-based BASIC games designed to be typed in, and the culture of this earliest retro gaming. Most of these games were modeled after various math games or simulation scenarios. Then the idea arose to create interactive narratives, where users could read a story told in short bites, and take direct action. Not just a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, where you merely pick a path to follow in the story, this new type of game allowed players to make granular decisions in an explorable world, with non-linear plot progression as they took specific actions to explore and solve puzzles. We will look at the early, non-commercial games that created the genre, and the key commercial players that took it to a mass audience.

Crowther & Woods, created Colossal Cave Adventure

As the story is told, Will Crowther came along and parlayed his love of cave exploration into a game that narrates your progress, littering an underground cave system with mysterious puzzles, objects, dangers, and treasure. Crowther, a programmer by trade, hit upon the brilliant idea of creating a narrative “space” you could explore, with text descriptions of various location points, and a variety of things you could do to discover and earn points as you go. Starting in 1975, he began work on a computer game he could play with his daughters in the wake of his divorce. He based the game on a section of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which contains a portion known as Colossal Cave. It was written in the FORTRAN language, for a PDP-10 mainframe - a large, powerful (for the time) computer designed to serve many users at once through remote terminals. He was working at the time for a defense contractor, and was a part of the creation of the ARPAnet, which was the first network to use key ideas that formed the Internet (such as TCP/IP).

Crowther put his game out on the ARPAnet, and by the following year, he was contacted by Don Woods from Stanford University, who asked permission to get the source code to develop it further. 1977 saw the release of the 250 point version of the game that is seen as the canonical version which started the firestorm of popularity and earned it a place in history. Over the years, many versions were released, some official, and some unofficial. The only commercial version was put out by Microsoft with the original IBM PC, but it seems Crowther and Woods received no proceeds from the sales.

Wildly popular back in the day. It spread via the ARPAnet. ADVENT, as the game was named, became a standard ingredient on most computers. (My first play was around 1978 on a Sperry Univac BC-7) It is considered one of the most important video games of all time. For a deep dive on the history and code of Colossal Cave Adventure, I recommend you check out the scholarly writeup by Dennis Jerz.

See the Text Adventure Gaming Resource List above for downloads, including the PDP-10 FORTRAN source code of the original - which is really more of an interesting historical artifact, unless you have a PDP-10 lying around.

Peter Langston, who later put together Lucasfilm Games, created Wander

Now while Colossal Cave Adventure has long been hailed as the very first text adventure game, another game has surfaced more recently that appears to be an even earlier version of the text adventure form. Wander, created by Peter Langston in 1974, presents both a work of interactive fiction (a text adventure), and is set up as a tool for creating more text adventures. It was originally written in BASIC around 1973, later being rewritten in C in 1974. In 1980, it was included in a Usenix conference software collection, along with a few “worlds” that were created in it.

The first “world” created in Wander is a science fiction scenario called “a3” (Aldebaran III) which appears to be based on stories written by Keith Laumer about a character named Jame Retief. This is fascinating, because the longstanding view that Colossal Cave started the text adventure ball rolling has left fans believing that the genesis of the form was in fantasy literature. Now it seems that sci-fi may actually be the original genre. Who knew?

Also very much worth noting - Wander creator Peter Langston was tapped in 1982 to form Lucasfilm Games, one of the great creators of the point-and-click adventures which became very popular in the 80s and 90s. I highly recommend taking a look at the blog posts where the initial discovery surfaced - on Retroactive Fiction, and Renga in Blue. Be sure to read the comments, to see it all unfold. Fascinating stuff.

Scott Adams’ popular text adventure games shaped the industry

Scott Adams is credited with launching the computer game industry with the commercial release of his Adventureland text adventure in 1978. Adventureland is also noteworthy for being the first text adventure created for a personal computer. Adams innovated on the standard text adventure interface, as well. Instead of the long scrolling column of continuous text like you find in Colossal Cave, and the Infocom works, he created a split screen which put description, objects, and exits on the top half, while having a scrolling window for interaction below. This re-visioning looks to be the clear precursor to the split screen approach of the later graphical text adventures that Sierra Online became known for, and pioneered in 1980’s Mystery House. In fact, I had a brief exchange with Adams online, and he confirmed that Ken and Roberta Williams got their inspiration from being a distributer of Adams’ games.

Scott Adams got his start programming during his senior year of high school, when he was introduced to the school’s specially modified Selectric typewriter, which was connected to a 110 baud modem in order to function as a terminal for the IBM 360 mainframe at nearby University of Miami. His company Adventure International produced immensely popular games between 1978 and 1985. Adams’ adventures were even published by Creative Computing, David Ahl’s company I wrote about elsewhere. Their games were so successful, and he was such a powerful presence in the early computer gaming scene, that Marvel Comics later approached him, asking him to produce graphical adventure games with their characters, including The Hulk, Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, plus an unreleased one with the X-Men. And for all of you Blue Blaze Irregulars out there, he also did the official Buckaroo Banzai graphical adventure in 1985. Laugh-a while you can, Monkeyboy!

Of the key players outlined in this history, Scott Adams is the only one still producing text adventures today, having formed a new company for that purpose in 2016. His company Clopas, is focused on creating what he calls “Conversational Adventure Games,” where players can use full natural language sentences. Lost Legends of Redwall™: Escape the Gloomer is a recent release, created in conjunction with Soma Games, and based on the New York Times best-selling and award-winning Redwall™ books by Brian Jacques. It incorporates audio narration and sound effects with a text parser for entering commands.

Infocom reached the pinnacle of commercial text adventure games

Enter, Infocom. In 1979, a group of MIT students and staff formed a software business. While they are best known for their meteoric rise in the early computer gaming world, Jason Scott’s documentary about them reveals that at the outset, games were just considered a sideline to make some cash while business database software named Cornerstone was being developed. In the end, Cornerstone didn’t do so well, and Infocom became known for their text adventures.

Zork - their initial, flagship game is the Citizen Kane of text adventures. It was the first to take the elements of this new, exciting medium, and masterfully deploy them at a whole new level of proficiency. Gone was the limiting of text commands to two words, like “get lamp,” “fight troll,” and suddenly you could write natural language commands like “cut the rope with the elvish sword.” Infocom also took the literary side very seriously (even when they were being humorous). Stories, environments, characters, and puzzles were all woven together with engaging themes, expressed through descriptive prose, creating a clear “tone” for each game. So while Zork was inspired by Colossal Cave, it pushed everything to a much higher production level.

Moving forward, Infocom experimented with different genres, varying approaches to narrative style, and more immersive technology, such as independent characters that would move around and act on their own volition. They also began the practice of including “feelies,” their name for the physical items included with the games which rounded out the backstory, providing important clues during play, and overall creating a higher degree of engagement due to their tactile nature.

Infocom delivered their games via the Z-Machine interpreter. Instead of rewriting their games for each different, incompatible home computer, they wrote the game once in Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), and created a game file. The file could then be used anywhere, as long as a Z-Code virtual machine had been written for the hardware you wanted. This meant that in one fell swoop, they could port their entire game library to a new computer, just by creating a virtual machine for that hardware. The Z-Machine is significant in that this format is still used today by people creating their own text adventures.

In the early 80s, multiple Infocom games lived on the top-seller list over extended periods of time. Many people bought computers just to play Zork, or another of their games. Their games were also noteworthy for appealing to a much larger demographic than the standard arcade-style fare, and playing Infocom text adventures always lent a whiff of intelligence to one’s gaming pursuits. They really did set the tone, and move computers from something that felt nerdy, to something that felt smart and hip.

After years of being wildly successful, Infocom was sold to Activision in 1986, around the time the game market started to change, eventually being shut down in 1989. Infocom’s Steve Meretzky kept meticulous files while at Infocom, and has provided them to Archive.org, for preservation. You can peruse scans of everything from the sublime to the silly, as you page through this trove of artifacts from inside the company during their heyday.

 

What? You’re Still Here?

If you have gotten to this point, you are hardcore. I hope you also have a burning desire to play (or create) some excellent text adventure games.

Interesting bits for the hardcore text adventure fan

I’ve saved a smattering of interesting bits for the real super-fans such as yourself:

Text adventures continue to influence geek culture. 2018’s DefCon hacker conference used electronic badges that among other things, contained a text adventure.

The Google search page conceals a hidden text adventure. This may work in other browsers, but my instructions are for using Chrome. Search for text adventure, then open the Javascript console with CMD + OPT + J (Mac) or CTRL + SHIFT + J (Win). The prompt in the console panel should ask “Would you like to play a game?” Answer Yes, and check out their wacky little adventure.

A PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience recently blogged about using the powerful GPT-2 AI to create an experience in which the AI responds to your typing on the fly, improvising responses in something that feels like a mashup of Eliza and a text adventure.

Anyone with a fondness for Infocom games can’t help but smile at MC Frontalot’s nerdcore rap video for It Is Pitch Dark.

Dunnet is a text adventure inside the Emacs text editor created by the GNU project. It’s short, challenging, and very geeky with a surreal/cyberpunk theme. Dunnet author Ron Schnell recently read and shared this article, and I learned something interesting from his Twitter page: Dunnet is the most-installed computer game, second only to Solitaire. That’s quite a noteworthy feat! If you have Emacs installed on your computer (Linux users should, my OSX machine does, Windows users can install it), go to your command line (such as Terminal) and type the command emacs -batch -l dunnet ...which whisks you away into a familiar scene of the Colossal Cave variety. Gameplay then morphs into a geeky scenario where you need to know (or learn) some command line stuff. Read more about Dunnet on the IFDB (be sure to read the comments to get a little extra insight).