Adventureland: Adams’ Interactive Folk Tales

Fairy tales and folklore are products of antiquity, times when the spoken word was the most effective means of transmitting stories from one place to another.  Such tales are necessarily simple and repetitive, with an emphasis on fantastic imagery that can be easily recalled in conversation.  One might have thought that they would have faded into history after the invention of the printing press, much less the invention of the internet, but something about these old yarns continues to stimulate imaginations worldwide.  When authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin construct their fantasy worlds, they almost always draw on some aspect of traditional folklore, whether it be dragons, maidens in distress, magical weapons, or riddling little people.

Similarly, when Scott Adams made his first text adventure, Adventureland, in 1978, he too was drawing on folklore, but was in some ways following more closely in the footsteps of fairy tale tradition than either Tolkien or Martin were.  Due to fundamental limitations of the hardware he was using -- a TRS-80 with 16 K of RAM and a cassette drive -- the game had to be short and relatively simple, with no room for elaborate logic puzzles, character development, or florid prose.  A quick treasure hunt in a simple fantasy world was all that he had space for, and all that most of his audience wanted. 

Adams' games were inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure, so he designed the mechanics to be very similar those of the Crowther/Woods adventure (described here), albeit with a more limited scope.  The resulting game manages to squeeze together a whole slew of fantastical encounters -- including a sleeping dragon, a royal throne room, Paul Bunyan's axe, a literate spider, and a magic mirror, just to name a few -- into only 22 locations.  The rapid movement between these seemingly disparate story elements gives the adventure a surreal feel that really is reminiscent of mythology and folklore.  But despite the similarities to a fairy tale, don't confuse this with a children's game.  It's not as difficult as Colossal Cave Adventure, but it still has its share of non-intuitive puzzles and will not hesitate to kill you, whether through drowning, bee swarms, dragon attacks... and I bet you never thought you'd have to worry about infected chigger bites in an adventure game.

Adams' company, Adventure International, would eventually release 13 more text adventures, including seven more in 1978 and 1979 alone, marking the first real commercial success for interactive fiction.  His games would explore themes ranging from pirates to vampires and would continue in the quickie treasure hunt formula established by Adventureland.  Despite this success, fans of interactive fiction have sometimes been dismissive of Adams' work, comparing it unfavorably to contemporary games like Zork.  Major points of criticism include Adams' use of a simple two-word parser and an overall lack of depth in the storytelling.  But these seem like answers to questions that nobody needed to ask; Adams' work is no more comparable to Zork than Aesop is to Tolkien.  I enjoyed my trip through Adventureland for what it was:  fast-paced and surreal, with a touch of the absurd.