Atari Adventure: The First Video Game Masterpiece

Beginning of Atari Adventure 1979, with the avatar standing by the castle.

We have long been obsessed with adventure, even before Homer first waxed poetic about Odysseus.  We usually like to talk about it in romantic terms, but adventures are not just fantastic series' of events that happen to rare individuals, they are an ongoing part of every human life.  It is our struggle, and for millennia, artists in every conceivable medium have sought to manifest adventure in their work.

Video games are no different.  By 1979, when Adventure was released, the title had already been used for a wide variety of video games, most notably in early text adventures.  But Warren Robinett, the developer of Atari's Adventure, had something different in mind.  Rather than presenting the player with a detailed, narrative-like experience for which the freedom of choice served only to enable a predetermined set of possible events, he instead broke down an adventure into its most basic elements.  The interactions between those elements then allow the player to make their own events, and their own story.

According to the manual, the goal of Adventure is to take an enchanted chalice from the lair of an evil magician and return it to the Golden Castle.  In order to achieve this, you must make your way past dragons (which the manual even names Yorgle, Grundle, and Rhindle) to find the keys that unlock the castle gates.  But this literal telling of an adventure story is extrinsic to the game, and only one possible interpretation of what transpires within.  The images in Adventure have a symbolic significance that transcends a single narrative.

Animation of beginning of Atari Adventure, with avatar grabbing a key, entering the castle, taking a sword, and setting out.

On one side, there is the player, represented by a square.  It may seem crude, but can you imagine a protagonist more broadly representative of adventure than one without any distinctive characteristics?  As a culture, we have told of adventures carried out by every conceivable race, color, creed, species, and even object.   We imagine children in their pajamas traveling the stars, cats and dogs on a journey across country to find their owners, and toys trying to avoid becoming scrap.  In the '90s, role-playing games featured protagonists that were mute, unassuming, and indistinct because they wanted a wide range of players to identify with the hero.  But those heroes were mostly white, male, and human --  Adventure does them one or two better, and removes any indication of what the hero might be.

On the other side are the obstacles the hero must overcome in order to complete their quest, here represented by the dragon.  The dragon has long been a nemesis of heroes; it is both what we fear and what we crave to conquer, a symbol of a struggle the overcoming of which is almost as important the quest itself.  And unlike in books, movies, and songs, the outcome in Adventure is not determined for us.  The dragon may be slain, or we may be eaten, or both outcomes can happen in succession.

Animation of Atari Adventure 1979 showing the avatar killing a dragon with a sword and grabbing a key.

Moving through the game world is necessarily arduous and confounding, with maze passages that dead-end, wrap around between screens, and taunt you with views of inaccessible paths.  And as you try to collect the items you need to complete your quest, you may find them guarded by dragons or suddenly snatched up by a bat, the game manifestation of luck.

You have tools to help you in your quest, including a sword, a bridge, and even a magnet that attracts other out-of-reach items.  However, you can only hold one item at a time, forcing you to make difficult choices and be creative with what is easily available.  Wandering through the maze with a dragon on the loose is unwise without a sword, but then how will you bring the key to the castle gates?  A bridge may shorten the path to the castle, but be sure you're prepared for what lies within.

Animation of Atari Adventure 1979 showing the avatar wandering around the in-game maze.

Animation from Atari Adventure 1979 showing a dragon eating the avatar on transparent background.
And of course, you can fail in your quest.  Normally, being eaten by a dragon would be a hard thing to recover from, but in the game world, the adventure can always continue.  And if you persist and if you are clever, perhaps the chalice will be returned.  But as in life, there are no guarantees.

Yes, anybody can throw a bunch of adventure tropes into a game cartridge and slap a sticker on it.  What makes this game such a singular feat is how well the elements work together to create an emergent playspace that feels like an ever-changing adventure.  There are paths to victory that include killing the dragons, and paths that avoid them.  There are paths that create one bridge, and paths that create many.  And if you are very clever, perhaps you can even use the bat to your advantage.

What Robinett created was perhaps the first example of a video game that is a complete representation of something beyond the game itself.  Other reviewers tend to miss that Adventure isn't just letting people play out an adventure, it IS adventure.  The crude representations of dragons, swords, and bats may have been forced on Robinett by the Atari 2600's primitive graphics capabilities, but their symbolic significance is all that ever mattered.  And for anyone familiar with the game, they are instantly recognizable symbols of the quest.  There are no enchanted chalices or dragons in the real world, and the doors that matter won't open with metal keys, but we are all familiar with the template.

Adventure is fun, but also meaningful.  It is inspired, but never imitates.  It is clever, but not self-indulgent.  It is everything that great art should be, achieving things that would not have been possible in any earlier artistic medium.  It's nice that it influenced so many game developers and started a genre, but this is no artifact, it's the real deal -- a true video game masterpiece.

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