Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Revisited: A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 17, 2016

ColossalCaveAdventure> Kill Dragon


I never had to answer that question myself. But that dragon was my first significant exposure to the world of computer games.

I didn’t play the game myself. Instead, I was given a walkthrough by my buddy in fifth grade, Craig Bucher, who had played it over the weekend on some “minicomputer.” I don’t even know if the computer even had a monitor – the game was played on the printer, recording his explorations to be shared later. With the huge printout in hand, he took relish in showing me the most interesting parts. Through his printout, I was able to share in his adventure (which I didn’t realize had the name, “Adventure,” at the time – AKA “Colossal Cave Adventure“). I witnessed him being attacked by nasty axe-throwing dwarves and giant snakes, saw him trying to deal with the “troll bridge,” navigate the twisty little mazes of passages, and witnessed him face down a fierce green dragon sprawled out on a Persian rug.

I don’t know why it was – but the fact that the dragon was on a Persian rug really stuck with me. For the rest of my life, my mental image of a dragon wasn’t lounging Smaug-like on a bed of gold and silver, but rather sprawled out on a large, expensive Persian rug. My parents bought a Persian rug for our home, and I always thought it seemed a bit bare without a fierce green dragon on it.

I don’t know if you could call my career and hobby of making videogames a “life’s calling.” But if you choose to, then you could say that I realized it on that winter morning. I was an avid reader, and here I was reading what looked like a book (or at least a short story) that had been written by the computer in reaction to my friend’s voyages through an imaginary world. I was struck by the possibilities of it all.

I went home that night and wrote up something without the benefit of a computer on several pages of lined notebook paper. It was an adventure, and its format was vaguely reminiscent of a “choose your own adventure” book (I hadn’t yet discovered Dungeons & Dragons). I worked on it for days, and filled several pages with text and options. Much was original, but it also had nasty little dwarves with axes, and the obligatory dragon sitting on a Persian rug.

When I felt all was ready, I ran my brothers through my adventure. I played the part of the computer, reading text according to their choices.

The entire adventure ran maybe five minutes, and that was including the time necessary to give them instructions. I’d apparently underestimated the content requirements by a hair. This is a problem I still struggle with today.

I taught myself to program on my first computer, a Sinclair ZX80, which lacked the capacity to actually run any of these games (one kilobyte of memory is apparently only enough for about a paragraph of text). Later, when we got the Commodore 64, I finally had enough memory (and storage space) to start making my dreams come true. First off, I was finally able to play these adventure games myself, and finally follow in the footsteps of my friend. I finally encountered the fierce green dragon on the Persian rug, the axe-throwing dwarves, and the notorious TWISTY LITTLE MAZE OF PASSAGES for myself. And I was able to explore the Great Underground Empire, gathering the treasures I’d heard so much about. The experiences were satisfying and thrilling, but still a little short of what I’d felt a couple of years earlier.

But the best thing was that I was able to create these experiences. I started perhaps a dozen adventure games, most left incomplete in one form or another. I even collaborated with a schoolmate on one. I wouldn’t go anywhere without my notebook full of maps and notes for my next awesome project. The two adventure games I actually finished, “The Dungeons of Doom” and “The Secret of Red Hill Pass” are long-gone now. And even at the time, I realized their weaknesses (though I thought they were a bit more sophisticated than the original Colossal Cave Adventure or Scott Adams’ adventures). And of course, as I already knew the games intimately well, they weren’t so much fun for me to play.

But it was during the development of these games that I felt the magic of the dragon on the Persian rug the strongest. I still get a taste of it in other games. I think part of the reason I’m still a gamer today is that I hope to recapture a bit of that magic. I haven’t really gotten back into the text adventures / interactive fiction of the modern era so much, although I’ve tried. But I do still catch a shadow of that feeling every once in a while, and that’s enough to continue to drive me to play… and to create.

After all this time, that dragon is still there on that Persian rug. Oh, he’s available in a free download, if anyone feels like challenging him – though I doubt the magic hides there anymore. I don’t think it ever was captured in the bits of data that made up the game. Where he really lived, for me, was in my mind. My imagination. The simplicity and abstraction of the text was what invited me to create him, to give him life, and to even give him some amount of power over me.

That was where the immersiveness came from. That’s something that fantastic shaders and voice-overs cannot reproduce, and may even hinder at times. It’s all about capturing and engaging the imagination. Once that happens, the game – the medium – takes on a life of its own. The player is not just a consumer, an audience, but a participant, and the game becomes much more than the sum of its code and data.

And that’s the power of the dragon.

In spite of all his power, the dragon was actually pathetically easy to slay. That was the whole trick. The key was to think outside of the box. It was to realize that in this new medium, the rules of the “real world” didn’t necessarily apply. Adventurers were confounded, sometimes for weeks, sometimes forever, because they brought with them assumptions and baggage from the outside world with them into this new but familiar one. Because obviously, slaying a dragon is going to have to take something spectacular. Maybe something you haven’t found yet. All the tricks that worked against the other monsters in the world failed utterly before the power of the dragon.

But the solution was both simple and outrageous. It was spectacular by being non-spectacular. It involved nothing that the adventurer didn’t already have with him at the start of the game. For all his intimidating might, the dragon could be defeated by the simplest (but not the most obvious) means possible.

I lied when I said at the beginning of this article that I never had to answer that question myself. Sure, I knew the answer for the Colossal Cave Adventure. But as it set me on my path to making games, to trying to share that little bit of magic with others, particularly as an indie game developer with little resources. I haven’t felt extremely successful at it. The dragon on his Persian rug keeps defeating me, as I find myself having to answer that question over and over again. But I keep trying.

I wonder if the answer is really any different?

> Kill Dragon


> Yes.




(Note: This is a revision of an article from the earlier, long-gone blog, circa November 2006.)

Filed Under: Adventure Games - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • CdrJameson said,

    You must all be familiar with The Digital Antiquarian:


    I’ve been absolutely reveling in reliving* the history of adventure gaming covered there, handily gathered into ebooks for catching up. Excellent RPG coverage too.
    Beware though, once you get started it’s hard to stop.

    *Eat that, parser.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    YES, me too! I haven’t read nearly as much of the stories as I would have liked, but it’s fascinating stuff.

  • Kyle Haight said,

    Many years ago I worked at a small internet company with Don Woods, the co-author of the original Adventure. Cool guy. We had the ‘official’ copy of the game running on one of the company computers, which was pretty neat.

    It was pretty weird meeting and working with the guy who wrote one of my formative gaming experiences.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That’s awesome, Kyle. IIRC, he’s the one who put the fantasy and “gamey” elements into the original. The original was more about just navigating something like the real-life cavern.