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'Get Lamp' illuminates the text adventure game

Text adventure games may seem like ancient history but they have aspects in common with today's casual and social games.

Jason Scott's first documentary in 2005 was about bulletin board systems (BBSs), which were in a sense the PC world's parallel evolution of the early Internet. This documentary, really more a multi-disc series of interviews with BBS pioneers than a documentary film as such, brought back to me my early years in personal computing and my subsequent forays into shareware software development through the mid-1990s.

Now, Scott has tackled a subject from roughly the same era: the text adventure game. My involvement here was more peripheral but no less a part of my memories.

As his new "Get Lamp" documentary recounts, the text adventure genre began with Will Crowther's Colossal Cave Adventure game in the early 1970s, more commonly referred to as just Adventure. Crowther was a caver and was also involved with the initial development of the ARPAnet, the Internet's precursor, at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) in Cambridge, Mass. Crowther himself isn't interviewed for the documentary, which describes him as the J.D. Salinger of computer games. He prefers his work to speak for itself. However, Don Woods, who later enhanced the game, does put in an appearance.

'Get Lamp' is Jason Scott's new documentary about text adventure games. Jason Scott

Fast-forward a few years to the late 1970s. Various MIT staff and students associated with the AI Lab were starting up a company called Infocom which would go on to become the most significant commercial text adventure game company.

Artificial Intelligence was a big MIT computer science focus of the time; the department that inhabits MIT's Stata Center still goes colloquially by CSAIL--Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. And some of the technology that went into Infocom's games starting with Zork had more than a passing relationship to AI research; perhaps the biggest technical challenge with these games was parsing and "understanding" freeform text entered by the human player and responding logically.

At the time, I was the publicity director for the Lecture Series Committee (LSC) at MIT and several of the Infocom founders such as Marc Blanc were regulars around the LSC office. A fair number of others involved with the group would join Infocom over time. (I personally did some casual volunteer game testing and paid a number of visits to Infocom's 55 Wheeler St. offices in Cambridge.)

Scott's documentary does a great job of capturing a gaming era which is ultimately hard to separate from the history of Infocom. Indeed, in addition to various extras, Scott has actually assembled two full videos. One is a broad history of text adventure games, starting with Adventure. The other focuses exclusively on the Infocom thread, both its beginnings and its fall after a relatively few years.

The company arguably was slow to incorporate computer graphics, horrible as early PC graphics were. But its hugely expensive move into the PC database market was its ultimate undoing.

Of course, text adventures were giving way to graphics games in any case. "Shooters" like Castle Woflenstein became the game of choice. Natural language parsing, advanced as it was, was still hamstrung by limitations. Hard AI, after all, never really worked out.

Graphics-centric games became the norm. And the specs of the latest graphic card became intertwined with the latest generation of game.

But that's changing. The first-person-shooter (FPS) on the Xbox isn't going away. But casual games, which don't have such an intensely state-of-the-art graphic focus, seem to be staging a comeback.

Take social gaming for example.

Steve Meretzky wrote some of Infocom's major titles (my favorite being A Mind Forever Voyaging) and would, ahem, make me a very inside-baseball joke in one of them (Planetfall). He's now Playdom's VP of Game Design, a company recently purchased by Disney, and the creator of games like Social City and Mobsters.

As Meretzky puts it: "Text games, like the early games in any genre or on any platform, prove that well-designed interactivity and meaningful player agency are the core elements of fun, and that all the polish and pizzazz that comes later is just sizzle on the steak. The early days of social gaming, with hits like Mobsters and Mafia Wars that were almost all text are just the latest examples of this."

The axis of game development has arguably shifted. At a minimum, it's also happening along new axes in response to mobility and interconnectedness. And it's starting to look a bit like a return to the past.