Before Minecraft, Tetris or even Pac-Man existed, people played text-based computer games. The earliest such game, released in 1975, was inspired by a national park.
In 1975, “computers” and “games” were largely separate concepts — the giant, room-sized mainframe processors that represented the cutting-edge technology of the time were not generally used for fun.
That changed when programmer Will Crowther decided to develop something on one of these mainframes that would be interesting enough to entertain his daughters when they came to visit him. His own hobbies included extensive caving experience; he also enjoyed playing Dungeons and Dragons, a classic role-playing game that involves exploring fictional worlds by rolling dice and talking through imaginary expeditions with friends.
Combining his outdoor and indoor passions, Crowther programmed a game in Fortran that was largely based on his personal explorations of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. He called the game Colossal Cave Adventure, though it later became so popular, it was known to many enthusiasts simply as “Adventure” — because no other computer game had yet claimed the word.
The original game was written with just 700 lines of code and an additional 700 lines of data; many of its 78 map locations closely resembled places in the park.
“My idea was that it would be a computer game that would not be intimidating to non-computer people, and that was one of the reasons why I made it so that the player directs the game with natural language input, instead of more standardized commands,” Crowther is quoted as saying in the 2015 book, “The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution” by Tony Hey and Gyuri Pápay.
“My kids thought it was a lot of fun,” he added.
Crowther first released his game on the ARPANET, a military-based communications network that served as a predecessor to the modern internet (and was the first network to employ TCP/IP protocols, the model for open end-to-end data exchange that is still used today). The following year, Stanford researcher Don Woods asked Crowther’s permission to expand the game and add more fantasy elements to it. Woods released his enhanced version in 1977 to widespread acclaim.
Tim Anderson, a computer programmer who helped create the popular text-based game Zork in the late 70s, once wrote that “it’s estimated that Adventure set the entire computer industry back two weeks” as the programming community dropped everything to solve the game — and people like him looked for ways to build on the concept.
PC Gamer magazine now calls Colossal Cave Adventure “one of the most important games of all time.” But don’t take their word for it. You can try it for yourself!
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To play a reproduction of the original game, simply send a text to 669.238.3683. Within seconds, you will receive a reply: “WELCOME TO ADVENTURE!! WOULD YOU LIKE INSTRUCTIONS?” Type “yes,” and you’ll receive a brief description of how to play and the original opening text, including the quaint scene where computer gaming began, at a small brick building in a forest near a stream. From there, you can enter one- or two-word commands responding to the descriptions and prompts. Because the game is played entirely through text messaging, users can explore it at their own pace, picking it up for a few minutes or a few hours at a time.
The game may lack the dramatic visuals that visitors to the real Mammoth Cave can see, but with widespread travel risks and only limited cave tours available at the park during the pandemic, it could provide some fun inspiration while you plan a future trip or reflect on your own caving adventures.
This is an updated version of a previously published story.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.