Maze of twisty little passages, all alike is REAL!

Will Crowther's classic computer game "Colossal Cave Adventure" created the text-adventure game genre — and immortalized a vision of cave-complexes that went on to inform Zork and its imitators, as well as countless D&D campaings and MMORPGs. Turns out that cave-complex is real — it's modelled on Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and it really has a "maze of twisty little passages, all alike."

Because so little primary historical work has been done on the classic text computer game "Colossal Cave Adventure", academic and popular references to it frequently perpetuate inaccuracies. "Adventure" was the first in a series of text-based games ("interactive fiction") that emphasize exploring, puzzles, and story, typically in a fantasy setting; these games had a significant cultural impact in the late 1970s and a significant commercial presence in the early 1980s. Will Crowther based his program on a real cave in Kentucky; Don Woods expanded this version significantly. The expanded work has been examined as an occasion for narrative encounters (Buckles 1985) and as an aesthetic masterpiece of logic and utility (Knuth 1998); however, previous attempts to assess the significance of "Adventure" remain incomplete without access to Crowther's original source code and Crowther's original source cave. Accordingly, this paper analyzes previously unpublished files recovered from a backup of Woods's student account at Stanford, and documents an excursion to the real Colossal Cave in Kentucky in 2005. In addition, new interviews with Crowther, Woods, and their associates (particularly members of Crowther's family) provide new insights on the precise nature of Woods's significant contributions. Real locations in the cave and several artifacts (such as an iron rod and an axe head) correspond to their representation in Crowther's version; however, by May of 1977, Woods had expanded the game to include numerous locations that he invented, along with significant technical innovations (such as scorekeeping and a player inventory). Sources that incorrectly date Crowther's original to 1972 or 1974, or that identify it as a cartographic data file with no game or fantasy elements, are sourced thinly if at all. The new evidence establishes that Crowther wrote the game during the 1975-76 academic year and probably abandoned it in early 1976. The original game employed magic, humor, simple combat, and basic puzzles, all of which Woods greatly expanded. While Crowther remained largely faithful to the geography of the real cave, his original did introduce subtle changes to the environment in order to improve the gameplay.


Update: Ian Holmes sez, "The history of the exploration of Mammoth Cave, which you mentioned in your boingboing post today, and its original explorer Stephen Bishop, is described in some depth in Graham Nelson's article The Craft of Adventure. Nelson is interesting in himself, a luminary of homebrew interactive fiction: a Cambridge mathmo who reverse-engineered the Infocom virtual machine, creating his own programming language for adventure games and (in the process) incidentally turning out one of the largest ever (free) adventure games that had ever been built at the time, Curses (still a beautiful & extremely playable classic of time-travel, parallel worlds and adventurer dynasties)."

Update 2: Julian Dibbell sez, "that Colossal Cave link did r0xx0r my b0xx0rs, but the author
is a little stingy with the additionally awesome historical resonances
of the Mammoth Cave/Adventure story. For more on that, see my very own elucidation on the subject."