The lost art of mapping games

adventure1.jpeg Leigh Alexander recalls the lost art of mapping games, such as Colossal Cave, by hand:
The terse text lent itself to that kind of dreaming. The game was littered with treasure objects: a Ming vase, a pearl, an emerald, clearly meant to be carried, but for what purpose? Points? Why were we in a cave, for what were we searching, to what end? Why was there a pirate? We never asked. We never even thought about it. It was about the exploration, and we cared only about how to get to the next room, and how to put it all in order. We never finished the game, of course
Gaming Made Me: Colossal Cave Adventure [Rock Paper Shotgun]


  1. Between the ages of five and 12, my dad and I payed videogames together, and we were pretty competitive about who would beat it first.

    Myst was one of those games. I got it pretty easily, whereas my dad would furrow his brow and take pages and pages of notes to try and figure it out. We ran out of space in the notebook that comes with the game pretty quickly.

    I remember one night coming by and finding him in the subway system in the Spaceship Age. He was exploring every single pathway and had meticulously mapped out the branching subway system on a two-page spread of the notebook including notes.

    He was so proud of his map, especially when he finally found the destination. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there was a much easier way of solving the puzzle: you listen to the noise every time you arrive at a station, that tells you which direction to go next.

    1. It’s weird to think of Myst as an old-timey game, (as a Gen X-er, old-timey means Apple ][ or Commodore 64, not something requiring a 32-bit processor and a CD-ROM drive), but I suppose it is — there’s even an iPhone version of it these days.

      1. It’s definitely in the category of my childhood. I think I was 9 or 10 when I played it. It was one of the first CD-ROM games we owned.

        Myst is one of those games I wish I could take a pill to wipe from my memory so I could play again from scratch. I tried to play it again a few years ago and it just didn’t work. The solution to every puzzle came flowing back as soon as I looked at them. Put all the switches on the island up and then put the one on the dock down. Reroute the flow of water to the elevators you want to work. Don’t trust Sirrus and Achenar (well that one’s a duh).

          1. Yeah, I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on Myst spoilers has long since expired.

    2. My dad and I made a map for The Legend Of Zelda. He insisted, and I eventually agreed it was a good idea. I could never convince him there was “an easier way to do things”, though; he played NES games with the controller sitting flat on a stool in front of him using his fingers instead of his thumbs.

    3. I love this comment, my dad and I are the same way. I truly hope this never ends. I’m tearing up just thinking about its inevitable close.

  2. One of the things I miss about Ye Olden Days of Gaming is the importance of the player’s own imagination. Today, all the imagining is done for you with with state of the art graphics. While modern games are fun and spectacular to look at, there’s something unique and special–and also very fun–about old text adventures that young gamers of today will never experience.

    1. Zork comes to mind with your comment, I can remember standing in my local Radio Shack playing Zork on there in store TSR80 with tape drive no less lol.

      Thank goodness the owner of that store had no idea how to operate the computer. That was how I got away with spending so many hours in the store. I would demo the computer or any potential customers. This was back in 1980-81. Come to think about it I never did get to finish that game. Joined the Navy right out of High School and that was the last of my TSR80 Days….Next computer I mess with and owned was a Jappal. It was a Japanese knockoff of the Apple 2e

  3. For me, it was the Bard’s Tale series on the Commodore 64. I used up many sheets of graph paper mapping out every single dungeon so that I could be sure I didn’t miss anything important. The worst were dungeons that had hallways in permanent darkness (so that you had to use up an item or a spell just to take a quick look at what was ahead), and spinners in the intersections that would randomly flip you in another direction. Definitely an OCD paradise.

  4. I totally did this with a ton of quest games with graph paper. kings quest, space quest…i really miss games where you had to type in your commands on the keyboard with words rather than the new way of icons changing whenever you can do something and it giving away the clues….

  5. Gentlemen, may I offer the trite comment that anything and everything we say in here will make us seem old?

    Oh, and, on the subject of mapmaking: Minecraft dungeon maps. Sure, there might be an app for that, but do I want an app?

  6. A hollow voice says, “PLUGH!”

    Somewhere, in a box, I still have the Colossal Cave map I drew in 1980.

    At the time I worked as a swing shift computer *operator* and I only needed to run one of the two PDP-1145’s at my disposal to get my assigned work done.

    At my peak I could attain all 350 points (This was, I believe, the original Willie Crowther version without the Brass Hatch) in 340 moves.

  7. I made a very simple grid map for “X: Beyond the Frontier” but it was nowhere as groovy as this.


    You cannot write an article without something to write about.


    You reminisce about your carefree days as a little girl in suburban Massachusetts.




    A series of unreturned e-mails convinces you that this is impossible.


    An online gaming website purchases your article. An owl flies in through the east window, bearing an envelope.


    You take the envelope from the owl.


    It contains a letter from the website thanking you for your contribution, two copper coins, and the blue key (taken).

    The electricity in your apartment flickers, then dies. It is dark here. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.


    The burning owl gives off a cheerful light.

    1. Yay! I am still fondly remembering my friend ‘Floyd’ from Planetfall. And the Brown goo. And the Green goo. Sigh. I have all the Infocom games (on floppy, sadly, with nothing that can read them) BUT as it was ‘The lost treasures of Infocom’, it had all the hint books, and MAPS!! I never did get past the floating rocks puzzle, had to read the hints for that. And ‘Tea and No Tea’ was also quite tricky, from HHGTTG. Wherever you folks from Infocom are now, give yourself a pat on the back, and say ‘Beagle Brothers Rules!’

  9. Playing on a teletype terminal connected to a PDP-11, I could keep track of my history/progress by reading the print-out on the green-bar paper.

  10. I remember the map that came with Star Control II…well I don’t remember it exactly.

    I know that the game would be impossible to beat if you didn’t have it. In a way it was like cheating because all the important stars where already marked for you, but with a 5 year time limit in the game you couldn’t have visited every system and planet.

    To bad I let a friend borrow it….but thanks to the internet I have it on pdf now!

    1. When I first played StarCon2 I had a cracked version. No map, no instructions, no nothing. I made my own Hyperspace map (with Quasispace inset).

      Thanks to my anal-retention at stellar cartography, I was still able to get the “big joke” re: the Precursors and the rainbow worlds…!

      (In later years I bought it on CD-ROM, and thought the included map was like cheating.)

  11. Colossal Cave was my favorite game as a kid. I played it at my father’s office when he wanted to keep me busy for a while. As a five or six year old, I wasn’t able to grasp the solutions to the puzzles and was killed by the dwarf or lost in the dark nearly immediately but I tried again and again anyway. Good times.

    1. LOL! Same thing with me! My Dad used to take me with him to work on weekends, and I played with chaff from the punch cards, drew ASCII pics (I remember making a sailboat on the water, with sun and clouds), and of course, I played Adventure. My fondest memory is of killing a dragon with my bare hands. I couldn’t believe it actually worked. There was also some sort of Star Trek-type game, too.

  12. i had a map to adventure/colossal cave adventure drawn by crowther. my dad had built a computer out of a tektronix graphics shell and brought it home in 1979. it took ascii cassettes and he got hold of a copy of adventure for it.
    my sister and i were trying to play it and had a little trouble with the text only concept.
    so he called up crowther and asked if there was a map. officially, of course there wasn’t but when my dad explained it was for his 3 and 5 year old daughters….
    a few weeks later he sent us a hand drawn map on old dot matrix continuous printer paper [separated sheets though,] some with the perforated ends still on. each cave had been drawn on a sheet of paper and then he had apparently laid them out on a table in the right order. strange overlapping edges, nothing lined up square. cellophane taped together and then folded it up as best he could.
    we used it for years, until the tape was yellow and crackly and the cassette was cracked.
    years later he gave the whole computer [all 500 or so pounds of it] to my sister’s high school physics teacher. apparently the map went too. we were looking recently to see if it was still around, seemed like the kind of thing that ought to go in the computer museum.
    but after the teacher passed on his wife junked all that stuff, including the map.
    but i’ve been a gamer ever since because of it

  13. “Why was there a pirate?” Some people ask. I never ask.

    —Joan Diddlin’, Ply It as It Lies

  14. My dad made a thorough map for the C64 game “Asylum”. Tricky little thing, first person maze that appeared to be made of all right-angle turns. The map, however, showed a large sector of it to actually be hexagonal, and have a handful of warps.

  15. Never heard of it, but…
    a decade and 1/2 earlier I and my best friend would ‘compete’ with our hand-drawn treasure map drawings that looked mighty close to this example.
    We must have spent a whole summer making increasingly complex “follow this dotted line and here’s what you’ll find, but if you branch off here, well guess what!” creations, wish I had one today.
    There must be some inate attraction to this kind of thing, I dunno.

  16. Wow…I have absolutely no idea how many hours and hours I must have spent on mapping out areas when playing Infocom games and other games back in the 80’s. Must have been huge. Same with some MUDs when I was a BBS addict.

    Kind of wish I still had those just to look back upon. The intense focus it required and the imagination required.

    I have to wonder if these days I’d just fire up FireFox, hit Google and find a map that someone else had already made rather than do the work myself.

    Though I have a feeling much of my satisfaction in those games was purely the knowledge that my own hard work is what enabled me to complete a game. Those victories tasted pretty darn sweet.

  17. To those who are saying above that they miss typed-command parser games, and text-based games where you explore your own imagination: there is no reason to miss these things. There is an indie community of game designers who have been making free text adventures, ever since the mid-90s, and still continue to do so today. In fact, there is a contest every year — I suggest you check it out!

  18. I didn’t play COLOSSAL CAVES til 1985 or so in college on the mainframe (and even then mainframes were starting to seem quaint), but before that I played Scott Adams text adventure games on a friend’s TI-99/4a, and some other text adventure games on another friend’s TRS-80.

    What I remember was loading the games on AUDIO CASSETTE tapes, and having to listen to the R2D2-ish “EEP OPP ORK AH-AH” sounds at first to make sure the cassette was really loading.

  19. I was also one of the ones that didn’t get the maze puzzle in the first Myst game (never saw the toy that taught you the sounds until later), so I mapped the whole thing.

    Back when Video game RPGs were much more tile based, it was much easier to make maps on simple graph paper. I remember mapping out the dungeons for Dragon Warrior such that I could navigate most of them without even using a torch.

    StarFlight on the Sega Genesis was probably one of the last games I’d drawn any maps of. I didn’t know that the game (if you bought it) included a galaxy map, but playing from a rental copy left me without a way to record where I had been. Fun for the amateur cartographer, I wish I knew what had happened to it, it was almost a work of art.

  20. I made plenty of maps of games I was playing back in the day . . . but my real fascination was with MAKING maps for text adventures. Composing them. I have, or had, graph paper pages going back to 1985 or so, showing rooms and secret corridors and “stuff” locations.

    I actually completed one, the Inform file for which can be found here:

    I have another map, for a summer camp adventure, that I had been working on for years. I’ve finished fiddling with the design, and started coding it.

    Wish me luck!

  21. I had a guy talk me into helping bring dungeons and dragons into our High school as a club.

    He thought if he could get some Honour Roll guys to support ‘the cause’ the student council would roll with some funding for kickin’ supplies.

    They did.

    I played a few times then quickly discovered the labyrinthine s treasures, fantasy characters and tests bored me.

    I did however develop a passion for surprise and began killing everyone and everything that went in with me or that I encountered.

    Most of the others didn’t get it.

    When they caught on to my killin’ ways though I had to promise I wouldn’t kill them until we deeper into the game before they trusted me again and I had opportunity to randomly kill them all over again.

    Eventually they stopped inviting me to the meetings and I had a fantastic high school life.

    I hate to see that nob at high school reunions though…

  22. When I was a kid my friends and I used to make a lot of games like this, but they were all sort of based on the world of the Dan O’Bannon / Moebius comic, ‘The Long Tomorrow.’ The Blade Runner film wasn’t even a gleam in Ridley Scott’s eye.

  23. The other problem today is that while there are still games like Achaea that I started to make a hand map for- a quick google image search and theres plenty of professional looking ones that other people have allready made for you

  24. “We never finished the game, of course ”

    Speak for yourself, bub. I still have my very own Certificate of Wizardness issued by Walt Bilofsky’s Software Toolworks. I tried displaying it framed on a wall, but none of my co-workers got it. The game you refer to is Adventure. There are many versions, and I beg to differ that I finished every one of them including Infocom’s Zork 1, 2 and 3, plus their issue of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    Never drew a map for any of them. Such things weren’t necessary, even for the Maze of Little Twisty Passages. After so many trials and errors, the pathways engrave themselves on your brain.

  25. The worst thing about mapping Colossal Cave (And Zork) is that it has non-reciprocal directions.

    In other words, Zork starts you off “South of a House” and if you type “West” you end up “West of House” which kind of makes sense until you try to go back “East” only to be told that you can’t walk through the house!

    There’s no real good way to map those really early games without a lot of trial and error and erasing.

    Which is why this line stuck out at me:

    “I would snap it up quicker than normal, probably, because that call-and-response between the designer and the player has become so evident to me.”

    Because they kind of didn’t have that back at the time. My first real exposure to games was the Super Nintendo,and one of my first games was Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, which is a game that gives you a map with little numbered dots on it so you know where to go and in what order.

    The first time I played the original Legend of Zelda I wasn’t prepared for the fact that it plunks you down, swordless, mapless, and with no hints at all about where to go. I saw the cave on the first screen and thought to myself “Hmmm, I better not go inside any caves if I don’t have a sword to defend myself” and then I spent an hour walking around in random directions and wondering why the game was so dang hard.

    Text Adventures are the kings of obtuse gameplay, because while in theory you can do anything you can type, in practice there is a secret list of commands, and the only way you can figure them out is to listen to a lot of “I don’t understand the word ‘use'”.

  26. After creating a massive map much like the example, I finally completed ADVENTR (running on a Cyber205, IIRC) and, as well as the certificate screen, I got a message from the IT Dept, who invited me over for a celebratory coffee!

    Nowadays, my watch has more computing power than that mainframe…

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