Spelunking the history of Adventure


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Get Lamp, Jason Scott's documentary on the history of text adventures is interactive fiction, is comprehensive, spanning two DVDs and multiple episodes.

But it doesn't cover everything, nor should it: any published work has to retain its focus or else spiral out of control, losing everyone's interest along the way. Fortunately, as with everything else in life, for that which we want to know more about, there's the Internet.

Most impressive is Julian Dibbell's 5,000+ words dissertation on the life and times of Stephen Bishop, a slave in pre-Civil War Kentucky. That doesn't sound like a text adventure tale, but it is in fact the origin of Colossal Cave. Bishop was assigned the role of tour guide of Mammoth Cave, the cavern that served as the basis for the original text adventure. Bishop wasn't merely a spelunker, though, but an imaginative and empathetic storyteller who brought the cave to life with the creative names and yarns he spun for his tourists. Consider this example:

Bishop made the most of this ability to size people up, making sure all comers got the spectacle they felt they'd paid for. Most were easily satisfied; others came hungry to explore uncharted cave. Bishop catered to them all, at times bringing the more adventurous along with him on his discoveries — at others, apparently, letting them think they were discovering territory he had in fact already surveyed. As expert as he was in exploring, in other words, he was expert, too, in delivering what was then a novel sort of product but is now known familiarly (to students of latemodern marketing culture, anyway) as the commodified experience.

A map of the entire Colossal Cave, courtesy Mari Michaelis.Those qualities could be just as easily ascribed to Will Crowther, who, almost 150 years later, also brought people to Colossal Cave, except in digital form. Having previously been married to the woman with whom he'd explored Mammoth Cave, the place naturally held memories that made it difficult to revisit after the divorce. With his introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, Crowther thought he might meld his two pastimes into a new game he could play with his children. Thus was born Colossal Cave.

Dibbell's work is a brilliant and sweeping narrative, reminding us of the recurring themes of exploration and imagination throughout humanity's history, how unrelated threads can weave together, and how much older are stories are than we often realize. It's well worth the time of any gamer or historian — or just anyone who can appreciate an engrossing story.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)