The Cave Inside the Terminal
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
I’d like to take you back for a moment, all the way back to the dawn of human history, when mankind subsisted on gathered fruit and felled mastadon: the late 1970s.
You are in a secret canyon which exits to the north and east.
The plains of rural Massachusetts stretch out to the horizon. The baby Jesus, still clad in Frankincensed diapers, rides majestically by on a newly-domesticated velociraptor. And there, in the ambiguous space between the dining room and the living room of a suburban home, a tiny three-year-old Casey sits on his father’s lap facing the great hulking frame of a computer terminal.
It is a formidable machine, part cathode ray tube, part tangle of circuit boards, all encased in thick plastic molding so inoffensively beige that it makes the walls of doctor’s offices seem garish by comparison. Incapable of performing any substantial computations on its own, it is wired to a modem, which is wired to the telephone jack, and so connected it patiently waits to receive single characters from the real brains of the operation: a mainframe at the headquarters of the Digital Equipment Corporation.
The transmission speeds are so slow you can physically see the arrival of each letter on the flickering monochrome screen, and as the letters form words and the words form sentences, Casey’s father reads them aloud so he can understand the predicament he’s gotten himself into…
A huge green fierce dragon bars the way! The dragon is sprawled out on the Persian rug!
OK, essentially what just happened  —  and I know it will be difficult for you to fully comprehend this right away because your brain will take some time to fully extricate itself from such a lavishly rendered vision  —  is that you were transported to another place and time by the gentle, rhythmic, linguistic proddings of my carefully-chosen words. These words made their way from the screen through your eye sockets onto your retina and into your optic nerve, where they traveled to your brain and caused electrical signals to do something with like, neurons or something, and then some stuff happened.
Point being, scientists have a technical term for this. They call it “imagination”. You imagined you were back in the cretaceous period with baby Casey and the terminal, and through the awesome power of language, you felt as if you were actually there. And that is precisely what the interactive fiction genre was all about.
What’s “interactive fiction”? Well I’m so glad you asked. Nobody asks anymore. You have excellent manners and frankly it’s refreshing in this day and age when nobody asks. You’re an active listener, and that’s really rare. Thank you. Thank you for being you.
The answer is that “interactive fiction” was the romantic term applied to games perhaps more accurately described as “text adventures”. These were games where the computer printed out some text describing a situation, and the user typed in some text to say what they wanted to do. Originally, this was probably no one’s grand vision of the future of interactive entertainment, but rather just the most natural thing you could make on the computers of the time which often couldn’t do anything except print out text. In fact, on computers that could display graphics, the first games were often graphical, like the seminal Space War and later Pong. But many computers  —  especially terminals  —  had no graphics capabilities whatsoever, so text was the only medium for creating an interactive entertainment experience.
In the flashback that opened this blog post, little toddler me was playing the very first computer game I ever played, which coincidentally was the very first interactive fiction title ever created. It was a game known nowadays as “The Colossal Cave Adventure”, even though I think it was called simply “Adventure” at the time. It was one of the earliest computer games (although by far not the earliest), and it invited players to use simple imperative text commands (“get lamp”, “enter”, “climb”, etc.) to navigate a series of rooms in an underground cave.
In these rooms were all manner of fantastic items and creatures. The player would take the items and use them to overcome “puzzles” placed in their path while collecting as many “treasure” items as they could, their score measured by how many treasures they had thus far collected. In one room, as the computer described it, there was a “fierce green dragon”  —  an obstacle  —  that sat atop “the Persian rug”  —  a treasure. What text you had to type to get past the dragon, and get the treasured rug, was something the player had to figure out by logic, trial and error, or most likely both.
Much like Wolfenstein 3D ushered in the era of the first person shooter, Colossal Cave Adventure marked the beginning of a multi-year heyday for the interactive fiction genre, one that many saw titles sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies, a dramatic figure for computer software in that day and age.
But alas, unlike the FPS, the golden age of interactive fiction would prove to be rather short-lived.
You have died.
In titles from one of the most prolific interactive fiction companies, Infocom, when you made a particularly-wrong move, the game ground to a halt and you were unceremoniously presented with the phrase, “You have died.”
Well, much like in the games themselves, in the mid eighties, the reign of interactive fiction as a prominent genre came to an abrupt halt. The concept that someone would pay $30 for a game featuring only text went from being commonplace to laughable, and the genre itself went from being the primary form of computer entertainment to being an extremely small niche where non-commercial titles were made by diehard fans for other diehard fans.
Interactive fiction, the genre, had died  —  if not entirely, then at least commercially.
Now ideally, this would not be cause to mourn. Ideally, the reason interactive fiction died would have been because newer, better ways of making games came about, and these new ways did everything interactive fiction did, but better. That would have been nice. And for a certain read of the history, one could convince oneself that’s exactly what happened. But for some of us  —  and perhaps particularly for those of us whose first experience with computer entertainment was hearing their parent’s voice read glowing green letters describing a magical world full of magical possibility  —  that’s not at all what happened.
Which brings us to the topic of our new series of Monday posts: Molly Rocket’s soon-to-be-officially-announced interactive fiction project. The aim of this project is, over the course of several games, to bring back all of the things we as players lost when interactive fiction died. And not just bring them back as they were, but bring them back anew, with the full force of today’s technology behind them.
What are those things, you ask? What did we lose when interactive fiction died? Well that is a very good question indeed. So good, in fact, that it will be the entire topic of the next Molly Rocket blog post.
Don’t want to miss it? Well, you can either wail on F5 all week until next Monday, or you can always sign up for our mailing list with the slick little “subscribe” button in the footer of this post.
Either way, until then, thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the internet!