Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Roberta and Ken Williams are making a VR Colossal Cave

I am not at GDC. I miss GDC. I miss the narrative summit talks; I miss the indie and narrative game dev crowd at Golden Gate Pub. I also miss the game showcases. Not the triple-wazoo giant-booth nonsense, but the interesting stuff: the IGF showcase, alt.ctrl.gdc, the Indie Megabooth (sadly on hiatus).
Here's interesting:

Photo by Ryan Stevens
Ken and Roberta Williams, the founders of pioneering game development studio Sierra Online, are getting back into the game (so to speak) with a graphical remake of the groundbreaking text adventure Colossal Cave. [...]
"We have completely recreated Colossal Cave for the millions of fans that grew up with it and a new generation of gamers," Ken Williams said. "It takes place in a fully immersive 3D and VR environment for a realistic cave exploration experience that is intended for the whole family."
-- PCGamer, March 21
There's a teaser web site with an FAQ and some concept art (or screenshots?) They're aiming at Quest 2 for VR, plus regular PC and Mac ports.
GDC is their big reveal; they've got a VR demo running. Ryan Stevens captured a few seconds of video in this tweet. (Thanks to Ryan for alerting me to the GDC demo, by the way. Ryan was an IF community regular and IFComp competitor back in the day.)
That's definitely a steel grating! about all I can say.

So what do we think of this?
If you're a retired adventure-game legend, and you want to perk up and work on a fun game idea, do it! That's awesome. The IF world is powered by fun experiments.
When I heard that the Williamses were working on VR Colossal Cave, I admit that my reaction was similar to Robb Sherwin's:
Oh. Are they.
-- Robb Sherwin, thread, March 21
After all, I've been recompiling Adventure regularly for years. It's one my standard Inform compiler tests. (Thus the amusing bug I ran into recently.) I barely think about it as a game any more.
But this is unfair. Porting, modding, and extending Colossal Cave is a very old IF tradition. Take a peek at this family tree of Adventure versions. It's a tangle! People have done all sorts of stuff to this game.
This raises the question of which version the Williamses are working with. The "standard" is the 1977 Crowther and Woods edition, originally written in Fortran. All the versions labelled "350" on the chart are ports of this. Higher-numbered versions are extended with new rooms, objects, and puzzles. (The number is the game's final score. This makes a handy index because everybody who added new content awarded points for completing it, thus increasing the total score.)
(Thanks to Mike Arnautov for rescuing this family-tree page, by the way. The original site at fell over recently.)
But these are mostly text updates; they retain the classic Adventure parser. A couple are illustrated. As far as I know, nobody has done fully graphical version of Colossal Cave.
...Okay, yes, everybody knows that Atari Adventure was sort of a graphical port of Adventure. But that's a pretty free adaptation.
But that's the point, isn't it? We think of Colossal Cave as a cave simulation, but so much of its charm is wordplay. The giant clam that turns out to be a misnamed oyster. The maze rooms that are distinguished by sentence structure. The insight that the graffito "FEE FIE FOE FOO" is four typable magic words. The dragon's yes-and.
In a graphical environment, how do we render the confusing exits of Witt's End? How do we show that your inventory matters in the Tight Squeeze? Can you really not move around in the dark?
These are interesting questions! You can have fun thinking about them. I hope Roberta and Ken have had fun thinking about them. But I'd say that the best answers are going to point to a free adaptation of the game.
For example, consider the rough stone steps which lead up the dome. First of all, "dome" is a cave term -- it's not meant to be architecture. The "steps", in Crowther's original vision, would have been random rock edges that provided a route to scramble up. This becomes impossible while carrying a heavy gold nugget. Okay, reasonable.
But we don't have to translate the command UP as a simple action, do we? Graphical games excel at intricate climbing mechanics. (The 3D Prince of Persia and so on.) A graphical spelunking game could be primarily about crawling, climbing, wriggling around the underworld. After all, that's what real-world caving is like! Then it's just plain harder to climb with the nugget. (Not to mention the birdcage, the bulky Persian carpet... why can you get them up the steps?)
This would be a fun game. Some pits are climbable, some aren't -- you have to search for handholds and footholds. Passages might be hidden or hard to reach. The balance and distribution of your possessions matters. (Again, the Tight Squeeze.) Puzzles could be about shifting rocks or finding climbing gear. (More beanstalk plants? Surely there's more than one way to use that mechanic.)
If you really want to convey the caving experience, make the player survey passages and draw marker symbols like "Y2"...
I'm not saying you need to adapt Adventure this way! But it opens up interesting possibilities, doesn't it?
A couple of years ago, I mentioned the idea of adapting Myst into a text adventure. Same issue, backwards! What actions are available? How do you adapt the puzzles? You'd really want to rethink a lot of them and invent some brand-new ones.
Well, I don't know what the Williamses did. They're not me. So I guess I'll find out when Colossal Cave 3D Adventure ships. (This summer, or maybe fall -- the web site says both.) I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. Something like Crytek's "The Climb" but set in a cave and with more narrative sheen would be incredible (for me personally, anyway). I suspect the Williams adaptation is going to be more literal, but definitely fun to think about adaptation and affordances. I'm interested to see how they make a game as outsiders to an industry they originally helped create.

  2. It's _kind of_ already had a VR adaptation. Pyramid 2000 is the TRS-80 clone from 1979 that cuts out a lots of the material and makes it Egyptian themed (but otherwise is clearly a 1-1 mapping) and there's a VR port of that:

    1. I had no idea. That is wonderful and terrible.

    2. According to a post on the Pyramid VR Steam forum, they were going to do Zork next. Though that was years ago, and given the mixed reviews I can't say I'm sorry.

  3. The colossal cave i really want to see it's one that replicates the true geography of the real mammoth cave that advent was based on, preferably starting from a 3d scan of the actual cave. I know the text version so well I would love to really feel it.

  4. > I am not at GDC.

    Pretty much everybody I know who went to GDC came home with symptoms. I don't think it was all COVID -- some of them never tested positive -- but that just means there were *multiple* bugs circulating.

    Gonna be a long time before I feel safe attending any large event that doesn't require both masks and vaccination.