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March 6, 2008

Adventure, Atari style

Not long ago, there was an article on Gamasutra, one of a continuing series, on the "History of Gaming Platforms." This one was on the Atari 2600 VCS, one of the memorable old consoles I used to have as a kid. I had seen and enjoyed their previous article on the Apple ][, so I checked it out, and overall I thought it was well done.

On the first page of the article is an image reproduced from a 1981 catalog for the VCS:

While glancing it over, one thing barely caught my eye: in the top row of game cartridges, second from the right, the game "Adventure".

I had completely forgotten about this game, although it has a relatively important place in history -- the first graphical adventure game, the first "action-adventure" game, and the first game, apparently, with hidden back doors and an Easter Egg. I remember having played it, although I must have borrowed the cartridge from someone else because I don't recall playing it more than a couple of times. But given that I'm in the process of creating an adventure game, and focusing a great deal on the origins of the adventure genre and adventure game interfaces, I thought it would be interesting to go back and explore that game in more detail.

Of course, the intertubes are filled with all kinds of good stuff on Adventure. In addition to a pretty extensive Wikipedia page, which tells you just about everything you ever wanted to know about the game and gameplay, there are YouTube walkthrough videos, a couple of authentic browser versions you can play (here and here, for example), and some good info from the creator himself, Warren Robinett, including a map of the Adventure world with all 30 rooms:

Of particular interest, he includes a link on his site to his Powerpoint lecture for computer science students at the University of North Carolina. The lecture covers the hardware architecture of the Atari 2600 and the design of Adventure, and it has some really interesting technical information. But what I find most intriguing are the slides discussing the development of the game, how it was directly inspired by the original Colossal Cave adventure by Crowther and Woods, and the problems in adapting the adventure game idea to the video game medium -- particularly since they had only 4K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM to work with (Colossal Cave, in contrast, reportedly required hundreds of K).

He notes that his boss told him it was impossible and to not work on it -- and yet, in the end, it sold 1 million units at $25 each. Hmm.

He also covers how he approached solutions to questions like how to display rooms and objects, how to move from room to room, how to pick up, drop, and use objects, and how to represent creatures. You know, those same questions the solutions for which I've been searching since the beginning of the Vespers project, some 30 years after Adventure was published.

What I find amusing is that, when I first remembered that old Adventure game, my initial gut response was that it really wasn't an adventure game, at least not the way I think of adventure games. I guess it mostly had to do with the oversimplification of the visuals, interface, and gameplay -- the fact that there wasn't really much to make it look or feel like a "real" adventure game, whatever that is.

Of course, on closer inspection that's really not the case. Adventure games, generally speaking, tend to focus on things like investigation, exploration, puzzle-solving, interaction with game characters, and narrative. And really, aside perhaps from the precariously thin narrative, Adventure had just about all of those features. Granted, there was not a lot to investigate or explore (the castles and catacombs), the puzzles were relatively facile (finding the keys and chalice), and the character interactions were not very sophisticated (the dragons and the bat). But all the elements were there, not to mention an inventory (of only one object) with items to pick up and drop (keys, chalice, magnet, bridge, sword).

Also, when you think about it, the "verbs" represented by the game included things like movement, take, drop, unlock/open, and attack, even though just about all of these were performed a similar way (through collisions or the joystick). Many modern graphical adventure games do essentially the same thing with the same general mechanism, just perhaps more explicitly (but often not).

In any case, I found this to be an entertaining and enlightening detour into the early history of adventure gaming triggered almost accidentally by a glance in the right direction.

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