Today's release of "The Days Before Daventry" starts the series of "From Monochrome to Monarchy: The History of King's Quest" articles by David Craddock.
In 1972, the same year in which Atari's release of Pong laid the foundation for what would one day become a multi-billion-dollar industry, computer programmer William Crowther and his wife Patricia were more likely to be found exploring the depths of caves than playing arcade games (...) As he [William] meticulously composed plotter-line-drawing maps of the sprawling caverns he and his wife had traversed, William allowed his imagination to run wild, christening each area with whimsical names such as "The Hall of the Mountain King" and "Twopit Room". The release of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 fueled William's already active imagination.
The Days Before Daventry
by David Craddock
The Father of Adventure Games
In 1972, the same year in which Atari's release of Pong laid the foundation for what would one day become a multi-billion-dollar industry, computer programmer William Crowther and his wife Patricia were more likely to be found exploring the depths of caves than playing arcade games. By day, the Crowthers earned a living at Boston-based Bolt, Beranek and Newman, where William, a programmer, was hard at work on an assembly language program for the routers used in creating Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPAnet), the forefather of the Internet. But at the end of the day, William and Patricia would shed their respectable day jobs in favor of comfortable clothing and spelunking equipment before venturing into their most challenging array of caverns: the Mammoth and Flint Ridge cave systems in Kentucky. When not creeping and scampering through the two then-unconnected networks of caverns1, the Crowthers meticulously documented and mapped their forays and supplied the information to the Cave Research Foundation, an American non-profit organization dedicated to cave research, discovery and exploration.
William was entranced with the sights and sounds of the caves. As he meticulously composed plotter-line-drawing maps of the sprawling caverns he and his wife had traversed, William allowed his imagination to run wild, christening each area with whimsical names such as "The Hall of the Mountain King"2 and "Twopit Room"3. The release of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 fueled William's already active imagination. Captivated by the pen-and-paper role-playing game's limitless possibilities and fantastical adventures, William became known among his circle of gamers as "Willie the Thief"4.
In 1975, reality caught up with William. The Crowthers divorced, and their two daughters went to live with Patricia. William missed his daughters terribly, but rather than sink into a mire of loneliness, he set about building a project for the girls to enjoy when they came to visit. Armed with knowledge of FORTRAN, a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10 computer, and the stacks of documents and maps he'd composed while spelunking through Kentucky's caves, William wrote lines and lines of code that eventually comprised Adventure, the first computer adventure game.
Devoid of graphics, players interacted with Adventure by reading a description of their current location. Simple commands such as "GO IN" and "YES" were entered into the game's text parser. If the parser was able to comprehend the command, it would be executed, and a new block of text describing the next area in the caves would be displayed. Just as he had hoped, William's daughters found the game enjoyable; but they weren't the only ones who gleaned enjoyment from their father's work. Adventure's text-based rendition of the caves was so complete that some cavers were able to easily navigate the caves based solely on Crowther's virtual rendition.
"On a survey trip to Bedquilt," explained Mel Park, an avid caver who often explored with the Crowthers, "a member of my party mentioned she would one day like to go on a trip to Colossal Cave, where she understood the game ADVENTURE was set. 'No,' I said, 'the game is based on Bedquilt Cave and we are going there now.' Throughout the cave, she kept up a constant narrative, based on her encyclopedic knowledge of the game. In the Complex Room (renamed Swiss Cheese Room in Advent) she scrambled off in a direction I had never been. 'I just had to see Witt's End,' she said upon returning. 'It was exactly as I expected.'"5
From Online to On-Line
Over the next several years, Adventure was passed from computer to computer via the early stages of the Internet, a practice which enabled it to extend beyond its circle of cavers intimately familiar with its subject matter. It was pure happenstance that saw a young computer programmer named Ken Williams acquire a copy of the game, but the chance occurrence was the beginning of a surge of innovation for the fledgling adventure game genre that would last almost 20 years.
Born in 1954, Ken lived in Los Angeles with his young wife, Roberta. Ken and Roberta had fallen in love and married young on November 1972 -- he at 19, she at 18. The couple's first child, a son, D.J., was born in 1973. To support his growing family, Ken, a computer programmer, took on a full-time job in addition to three freelance jobs6. Despite his heavy workload, the couple was barely able to stay afloat, but Roberta, who stayed at home to take care of D.J., was able and willing to pitch in when needed. "Roberta was by no means a computer geek, however, she was somewhat atypical, in that she did work as a computer operator and at one point as a computer programmer," Ken explained in a 2006 interview with Adventure Classic Gaming. "Whereas I was a programmer because I love computers, she was a programmer out of economic necessity (that's the polite way of saying ‘we needed the money').7"
In 1979, Ken left his full-time job to found his own independent contracting firm, which he christened On-Line Systems. While developing a tax program using an IBM mainframe, Ken chanced upon a catalogue of Apple II software. Rummaging through the floppy disks, he came across a computer game called Adventure. Knowing that Roberta loved a good story, Ken lugged home a terminal and a copy of Adventure to show his wife. The couple popped in the disk and instantly became immersed in the vivid world that William Crowther had created almost eight years prior. Eager for more adventuring, Roberta scoured computer stores throughout San Fernando Valley for other games of Adventure's ilk but found precious little. Irked, Roberta did what most creative individuals tend to do when little desired material exists for them to enjoy: she created something of her own.
An avid fan of fairy tales and stories of all kinds, Roberta let her imagination wander and quickly devised a chilling mystery inspired by the works of mystery writer Agatha Christie.8 Her game, entitled Mystery House, would begin outside an abandoned Victorian mansion. After entering the creepy abode, the protagonist would find himself locked inside with seven other individuals. As the tale unfolds, bodies--those of the player's unwitting house guests--begin to appear, leaving the player to deduce whodunit before he becomes the final victim.
While Roberta busily filled pads of paper with the contents of her imagination, Ken was spending time at his younger brother Larry's, who had just purchased an Apple II computer.9 Praised for its plastic case, built-in keyboard, color graphics, dual floppy disk drives and compactness, Ken's first reaction to the machine was to dismiss it as a toy. Over time, Ken acknowledged its potential and decided to write a FORTRAN compiler with the help of five programmers.10 Roberta saw creative opportunity in her husband's new Apple II. While she was occasionally able to help her husband with his projects, Roberta knew she didn't possess the skill to write her game on her own. To make her vision a reality, she would need Ken's help, but she worried her busy husband, who hadn't been nearly as enthralled by Adventure as she had, might not take her idea seriously. Turning on the charm, Roberta wined and dined her husband at their favorite steakhouse, The Plank House.11 After a bit of imbibing, Roberta made her pitch: she would write the narrative for Mystery House, he would write its code. Engaged by his wife's idea, Ken agreed. Every evening after work for the next several months, Ken hunkered down at the table to write the code that would power Mystery House while Roberta carefully crafted her script for the Apple II game.
Though inspired by the detail Adventure had conveyed to her solely by text, Roberta believed imagery would engage players even further. Ken agreed, and the Williams pooled their money to purchase a Versawriter12, a board made of plexiglass with a maneuverable arm attached. On the tip of the arm was an electronic eye. After connecting the Versawriter to a computer, a paper containing a sketch could be placed on the peripheral's board, and the artist maneuvered the arm, which created a graphic on the computer. While thrilled with their purchase, the Williams encountered a hurdle: no software existed that allowed communication between computer and Versawriter. Ken flexed his creative muscle and composed a custom-made drawing program for his wife's use13. The result would be the first adventure game to ever incorporate graphics14.
Each Mystery House screen consisted of scenes drawn with two-dimensional white lines displayed on a black background. Though rudimentary, objects and locales were easily discernible and, when in doubt, the on-screen text handily identified anything of note. Like Adventure before it, Mystery House required players to enter text that would be digested by a parser. Although the parser used by Mystery House was considered of lower quality than that of Zork15, a text adventure game developed by MIT students and fellow Adventure enthusiasts16, it was still functional enough to accept intuitive commands such as "look" and the four compass directions that moved the player in the given direction.
On May 5, 1980, Mystery House was finished17. Hoping that others besides themselves craved more adventuring gaming, the Williams placed an ad for the game in Micro Magazine18, a computer periodical for enthusiasts. The response was tremendous. Anticipating high demand, Ken and Roberta mass produced copies of Mystery House on 5.25-inch floppy disks and dropped those, in addition to an instructions sheet, in Ziploc bags. "At the time I was a 25 year old 'kid' with no experience running a business," Ken reflected. "In today's competitive world, we wouldn't have survived six months. But at the time, we could get away with horrible packaging, selling products in zip-lock [sic] baggies, and no thought whatsoever given to things like brand image. At the time, I don't think we had much more strategy than just to have fun."19
In her 1999 interview with Adventure Classic Gaming, Roberta echoed a similar sentiment: "I was just an inspired 'creative person.' It just seemed like a fun thing to do at the time, and, if my game [Mystery House] made any money, then ... so much the better!"20
Priced at $24.9521 and released for sale in software shops scattered throughout Los Angeles County22, Mystery House quickly became a runaway hit for the Apple II, ultimately selling over 10,000 copies23 and eventually being acknowledged as one of the most important games of all time24. Foreseeing many more stories that they could tell, Ken and Roberta christened Mystery House the first title in an On-Line System-developed series of adventure games called Hi-Res Adventures25.
Once Upon a Time
Rather than again dip into her dark side for the next installment in On-Line's Hi-Res Adventure series, Roberta Williams chose to draw from the fairy tales she had cherished since childhood to create a world that encouraged a sense of whimsy rather than danger. Thus was the realm of Serenia born, a kingdom that would one day play host to a character that would arguably become Roberta's most beloved.
Just as Mystery House had innovated adventure games by displaying black-and-white line drawings to accompany text, Roberta Williams continued breaking ground with her new game, entitled Wizard and the Princess, by injecting the game with color. Such a move required technical finesse: because the Apple II was only capable of displaying six colors at a time, a graphic processing technique known as dithering had to be applied. Used to create an optical illusion that fools the eye into seeing more colors than those presented, dithering is accomplished by diffusing colored pixels. Picture a checkerboard pattern of red and blue squares. If the squares were to be gradually made smaller, the eye would eventually perceive the color violet due to the adjacent squares seeming to blend. The Apple II hardware was up to the task, and Serenia was portrayed in Roberta's intended vibrancy.
Other than color graphics, Wizard and the Princess played identically to Mystery House: the image was displayed above a text description of the player's current location; at the bottom of the screen was a prompt where the user inputted a simple two-word command. Regardless, Wizard and the Princess proved even more successful than its predecessor upon its release in 1980. The game, again made available on 5.25-inch floppies packaged in Zip-loc bags, went on to sell 60,000 copies26.
The Williams were understandably thrilled by the game's success, but the joy Roberta had experienced by dabbling in fairy tales had planted the seed for something even grander.
From Monochrome to Monarchy: The History of King's Quest - Part I
"The Days Before Daventry"
1. In September 1972, Patricia "Pat" Crowther was a part of the Cave Research Foundation expedition that completed the Final Connection, a mapping of the many caves under Flint Ridge, Kentucky that comprised the longest cave in the world. It was Patricia herself who completed the historic connection between the Mammoth and Flint Ridge system of caves. At only 115 pounds, Patricia's lithe frame allowed her to squeeze through tight spots her co-explorers refused to attempt. On September 9, Patricia squeezed through a junction aptly named The Tight Spot that connected the Mammoth and Flint Ridge caves. Her husband William was not part of the expedition. Source: Crowther, Patricia, The Grand Kentucky Junction: Memoirs (Cave Books, 1984)
26. Levy, Steven, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Penguin, 2001), p301.