I first played what were then called adventure games in 1981, on a TRS-80. (/me performs subtraction and weeps.) I’m sure I played the original Adventure, as I knew all about magical words like plugh and xyzzy, and how to deal with snakes using caged birds. It’s all come in extremely handy in my adult life.
My brother and I also played Mystery Fun House and Pyramid of Doom, both by Scott Adams (not the Dilbert one). You won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve still got the original cassettes somewhere. (Hmm. I’ve just googled and found a “memorial” site for Adventure International, Scott Adams’s company. Oh dear, I think I might have to spend some time there. Later.)
In 1982, I got (a) spots and (b) a Spectrum, quite possibly in that order. By the end of that year/early 1983 a friend and I decided to write our own adventure game for that machine, sell it, make pots of cash, and retire at 16. It was all the rage in those days. Naturally enough, since we were still at school, we decided to set the game in a school. More specifically, our school. We called the game The School.
The Hobbit was already in shops and our game was never going to be as good as that, but it could certainly be better than some of the other rubbish available at the time. (I have a vague recollection that Artic’s series “Adventure A” to “Adventure D”, as well as having the worst names of all time, were pretty bad.)
My friend created the map based on our school’s geography, and added puzzles and characters. We scandalously included some of our teachers, with their real names. All we had to do was write it.
So I did, in between homework, the usual distractions, and moving sixty miles up the A1 to a different school entirely to make new friends (hi, Scotty!).
I dread to think how bad that code must have been. No, that’s unfair. It was written in Basic and undoubtedly spaghetti, but I learned a huge amount – simple tricks like speed and memory optimisations making use of bizarre Spectrumisms, more complex refactorings, and moving some of the heavy lifting to assembler.
It was, finally, done. There were some graphics. There was a decent parser. There were puzzles. You could win the game.
I wrapped it all up into a nice package for a games company to review: instructions (proto-tech author, you see) with a full solution, including map. It was ISTR a complete 48K memory dump to cassette, for which I wrote a saver/loader in assembler. It used almost all of those bytes, too. Not enough to show a picture of Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal these days.
I sent it off to a few publishers – Melbourne House, who published The Hobbit, was top of the list. Naturally everyone turned it down.
Simply put, expectations had moved on – The Hobbit had raised the bar too much for poor old me. And the game was just too hard for anyone except me and my friend to play. (I mean, does nobody know what a hammer cage is? Apparently not!)
I stopped writing adventure games, shortly before the rest of the world did. Instead I helped my Maths teacher earn money from kiddie pirates instead. (I wrote Microdrive 1, entirely in assembler, and hacked a gazillion games for him so he could sell photocopied sheets explaining how to copy them onto Microdrive.) The other teachers envied his flash car. I was once accused (by another pupil) of being his son, after he gave me a lift into school one morning. He paid me a pittance. More like slave labour really.
Oh, this seems to have turned into a poorly researched chapter of my autobiography. That seems a little premature. Why did I start this nonsense?
Oh yes. Adventure games. Except today they go by the fancier moniker “interactive fiction”. And to write them, you just download Inform 7 and start scribbling characters, locations, objects and plot at it. Literally: you type things like “The hammer cage is east of the sports field” and it creates two spatially related locations for you.
It’s a brilliant idea: things pop into existence when you mention them. And it’s a user interface that fits. You’re still writing a program, of course, but the high-level language you’re using sure ain’t Basic.
On the one hand, bah, kids today etc. But I say this while surreptitiously downloading it and wondering where my design for The School might be…