Gaming Made Me: Colossal Cave Adventure

Young Leigh herself, and an Apple IIe

This week in Gaming Made Me, our series of highly subjective game retrospectives, Leigh Alexander documents the profound escapism and giddy cartography offered by Colossal Cave Adventure, aka Adventure, aka ADVENT – aka the first-ever adventure game.

I’ve lived in New York City for nearly nine years now, and yet I still can become so easily disoriented in the grids of Manhattan. Nearly every time the subway stairs eject me blinking into the aboveground sun, I don’t know which way is north; I stagger for landmarks, and I am shaking my iPhone to dislodge the compass interference that will tell me which way to turn. My map reading skills are horrific.

It wasn’t always this way. As a child I was a cartographer of imaginary worlds, drawing maps by hand for my best friend Charlotte and I to play with.

I often mapped the woodlands of the neighborhood in which I grew up: a suburban Massachusetts loop of peaceful little homes surrounded by the kind of greenery I took for granted as a kid, not knowing yet how rare it was, how distant a memory it would be once the ruthless asphalt and metal of the big city became my adult home.

I am sure Liberty Hill Circle is neither as vast nor as magical as it was to my young mind, but to my memory Charlotte and I had great trees that breathed, forbidding encampments for imaginary tribal people, and “rivers” – muddy gullies in the woods between homes that sometimes had crude planks for bridges. Trails were to be followed, walls scaled, and any unusual object, from abandoned toys to simple garbage, had the possibility of being invested with magic. They were faerie crowns, they were clues in a murder mystery, they were signposts for travelers.

Once, we got lost, having come out of the woods on a thoroughfare a few blocks away, and we walked back and forth bawling loudly until someone came out of their house and directed us how to get home. With all the wandering we did, I remain impressed that was the only time we lost our path, and that that was the only trouble we’d ever really gotten into (aside from a mud-ruined sneaker or a missed dinner or two).

But then, my childhood world was one long continuum of maps, forests, and secret places. After we got done playing outside, Charlotte and I would escape the summer heat by retreating into her basement, a magic space in its own right: Her father, who to my memory was a mad scientist, kept all his things down here, hulking bookshelves full of calculus texts that might as well have been bibles in a foreign language (but were ideal for playing “teenager”), a fascinating bin of many-colored wires in tiny looped bundles, an old brown and orange couch set whose foam cushions were better for forts than for sitting. From the basement rafter, a painted rope swing in the shape of a horse that Charlotte’s father had built for her and her brothers.

The cool space was more than a reprieve from the heat. The most important thing in it was a PC the size of a refrigerator, with a great big shelf for disks the size of pizza boxes. It was an ark, a monolith, and its screen was the sort of primitive green-text display that made me feel, even in the 1980s, as if I were a programmer in an ancient language just to tell it to RUN, driving a blinking bright-green cursor across a swamp-colored screen. We had computers at home, but the Commodore 64 and Apple IIe on which I played my adventures had flat floppy disks, graphics in a few colors, and did not loom nearly so large, either physically or in my impressionable mind.

There was only one game. Appropriately for us neighborhood-explorers, for us mapmakers, it was launched by typing ADVENTURE.

The game began you at a house by the woods, with a mailbox, a trail to a grate, not unlike the wandering explorations we undertook on our own in our simple neighborhood. It explicated all of this entirely as text, of course. It understood typed commands, ordinal directions and simple instructions, GET, DROP, OPEN. At the time I was about six or seven years old, and I believed I was training to be an adventurer of some kind, a discoverer of hidden lands, or maybe even a scientist like Charlotte’s father, capable of communing with primeval programming, of drawing maps on dot matrix printer paper of the worlds within the machine that only I could read.

Sometimes as we played, in the other room her father undertook the synthesis of sapphires with heated instruments (the result: dull stones that looked nothing like the faceted blue gems I imagined) – I can’t to this day imagine how one synthesizes sapphires, but the sound of something lit and spark-throwing in the next room and the cool, labored breathing of the PC-fridge were the backdrop to the hours we spent in that basement, two little girls side by side bathed in the screen’s green light, drawing maps of N, S, E, W, jotting notes on now-iconic commands like XYZZY and the less-repeated PLUGH (but oh, how we were creeped by the hollow voice that cried it).

When we filled one piece of green-striped printer paper we taped another to it, sketching and sprawling a map smudged with the sharp-scented rubber cement that I restlessly played with whenever it wasn’t my turn at the keys. I imagined that the nasty little dwarves that periodically appeared to throw knives at you smelled of rubber cement when they disappeared into puffs of smoke.

Sometimes it was enough to talk about it as we walked in the real-life woods, wondering what marvelous truths the game’s ending would reveal just as much as we wondered what artifact lay around the next corner of our latest exploration trip. In school I wrote short books that were influenced by the game, sprawling and structureless narratives that led a first-person narrator from one challenge to the next. I liked to think there would be a horse in the game at some point, an abandoned castle.

The terse text lent itself to that kind of dreaming. The game was littered with treasure objects: a Ming vase, a pearl, an emerald, clearly meant to be carried, but for what purpose? Points? Why were we in a cave, for what were we searching, to what end? Why was there a pirate? We never asked. We never even thought about it. It was about the exploration, and we cared only about how to get to the next room, and how to put it all in order.

We never finished the game, of course. It was probably too challenging for a couple of six or seven year-olds. Or even eight or nine year-olds, since we played for years. I was nine when my parents and I moved me to a different neighborhood, and while I quickly co-opted the other neighborhood kids into after-school gaming adventures with me, it was never the same. The language had been laid out in my early life, and everything else was just evolutions upon it, imitations thereof.

Along with a going-away present of puffy shirt paint — it was then 1991! — Charlotte gave me a farewell card that depicted a long, hazardous route to a barred door. It was meant to be humorous (“YOU’RE LEAVING? WELL, THERE’S THE DOOR!”) but when I dredged it out of a memory box just a few months ago, all I could think of was that she was suggesting one more obstacle to overcome, one more puzzle to unpuzzle, key to find.

When I was young, I knew nothing of someone named Will Crowther or of the title ‘Colossal Cave’, as Adventure is more commonly known. I only learned this later, on Wikipedia, which claims that one of my first adventure games was the first adventure game. Granddaddy, people call it, as if I were taught what’s a Ming vase and how to draw maps of catacombs by some kindly old patriarch, equally mysterious and terrible, some old-generation parent that built his children’s survival skills by setting them off in the wild on their own.

And when I was young I didn’t know to wonder what it was all for, the purpose or order of the objects, why a bent and star-crowned rod found in a cave should have teleportation powers, what lament all those sepulchral voices were singing. It wasn’t simply that I was too young to have got my head around the game; it was that I hadn’t learned game design yet, how to work out that conversation between the designer and myself wherein my role was to divine what Granddaddy wanted me to do.

I know all that stuff now, just as I know that the edition of the game we played, on that pizza-sized slab of disk, had a filesize not much bigger than the file I’ll create in the writing of this. I know that Colossal Cave Adventure was a crude relic, an early experiment, and I even know, from having read others’ work on it, that it has no real objective except to gather points and treasures like in any of a million disappointing design skeletons I could probably dredge up today.

And I know I could finish it in about a half hour, learn the ending of an adventure I spent years of my young life on. I would snap it up quicker than normal, probably, because that call-and-response between the designer and the player has become so evident to me.

I know all of this because my business is to write about games, to know their innards and to answer them, to map their making. And that’s also why I know that Colossal Cave Adventure engineered my immersion entirely by accident, through sparse threads of language that didn’t care about things like “critical response” that didn’t really exist yet.

Which is why I won’t go back to it. In my mind it’s no primitive text file, but a basement chamber full of greenlit memories, beloved documents, the experience that spawned a hundred short stories and led me to look more closely at the lace detail of a leaf’s vein, to lend magic to a child’s discarded pail found in the woods or to the haphazard placement of a board across a muddy rut. In my mind the trails of my childhood backyard lead seamlessly into Crowther’s mazelike, forbidding caverns, rooms with names like Bedquilt, Misty and Slab Room.

I found Charlotte on Facebook and considered contacting her for the purposes of this article, to see what she remembered of the Colossal Caves and if it’d changed her (we haven’t spoken since I was a kid). But then as I refreshed my memory through reading, I found this account, which says Crowther created the game as a way to share with his daughters the spelunking experiences he’d enjoyed with his wife before they divorced.

It hit me hard. Colossal Cave Adventure is a love letter to the things that don’t exist anymore; little me, little Charlotte. I cannot read maps anymore; I managed to grow up with no sense of direction. I live in a place where nothing is green, where everything is ordered chaos, the hollow voices tell me nothing, and I turn in circles like a compass who wants north, or like a girl who wants her father.

But I have the memory to hold onto of a time when neither the world nor computer games needed to have objectives or solutions to be loved. I have the knowledge that a field of possibility can be born from a few terse lines.

I didn’t contact Charlotte; I want to leave the memory untouched. So that we will always both be Crowther’s daughters, too.

You can play various versions of Colossal Cave yourself here.


  1. BlueMaxima says:

    May I recommend you the EAMON text adventure system on Apple II? It had easily 200 adventures for it – it was like an RPG, you loaded in a tape, played an adventure, loaded a main tape and did stuff like an RPG, and go back out for adventures.
    link to
    link to

    It’s so addictive because I can play it on my Pandora any time I want – I’ve done like 12 adventures already. (

  2. westyfield says:

    Just a heads-up, the external links “played my adventures” (paragraph 7) and “this account” (paragraph 22) don’t work. They lead to this RPS article: link to

    Great Gaming Made Me, by the way!

  3. wu wei says:

    I was a big fan of Level 9 back when I owned an Amstrad 6128; their version has always been the one that I think of. Time to drag out an emulator and revisit the trilogy.

    • dadioflex says:

      Level 9 for me too on a BBC B, oft discussed at the “computer lab” at school when I was a teen. I know I don’t have the patience for text adventures anymore so there’s no point me even looking for an emulator, but a lot of those L9 games were magical at the time. Oddly I never really played many Scott Adams or Infocom games.

      The article was a truly quality piece of writing. I love when stuff like this comes out of nowhere and affects me.

  4. Dozer says:

    This is a very touching article. Thanks! I loved playing adventure games when I was little – I don’t think I ever completed any. I did learn to build them in BASIC on the Amstrad CPC though; that was fun.

  5. juandemarco says:

    This is easily one of the best articles I’ve read about videogames. I can relate to it on so many levels. I never played Colossal Cave, I hardly ever played any text-based adventure, but I had similar experiences with other games during the early years of my life.
    My response to this is: thank you. By sharing your memories you brought back mine as well, and it’s always nice to reminisce once in a while.

  6. Gabe McGrath says:

    I was late in getting a Commodore 64. It must have been 1986 or so.
    But strangely enough, the 2nd hand C64 I got came with “Collossal Cave” on cassette, which was released much earlier.

    I played it and played it, but I’d always get stuck wthin ‘the maze of twisty passages, all alike’.

    I’m not going to look up a walkthrough. I’m going to start mapping it again, 25 years later, and beat the bastard.
    This game may have ‘made’ some people, but I think it ‘broke’ me, at least in terms of adventure games in my formative years.

    It’s time to break the curse, once and for all.
    (*Cue Bruckenheimer-style orchestra swell, and me walking in slow mo, out of the sunset…..)

  7. Faldrath says:

    Aw, I think you should have contacted her. Good friendships are more real than games.

    • Torgen says:

      Does Facebook serve *any* purpose, other than that of finding people you used to know and wanting them to have not changed? I prefer memories.

  8. Lars Westergren says:

    That was beautiful. Horray for good writing.

  9. James G says:

    Thank you,

    Colossal cave is also one of the ‘games wot made me,’ and, curiously, games wot made my parents as well.

    I first stumbled across the game on the Spectrum, under the name “The Very Big Cave Adventure,” which in addition to the descriptions, added crudely drawn vector graphics. It wasn’t exactly true to the Crowther and Woods version, although took the general structure. Enough that my Dad recognised it immediately, and suddenly the game wasn’t just exploring a cave system, but also exploring a bit of my parent’s past, coming back to an area years later, changed, but still fundamentally recognisable.

    “Don’t take the rod yet, there is a bird further on, its is scared of it,” my Dad said, before the bird itself advised me that clearly I must have played the game before, as I didn’t have the rod. It then flew off anyway, “Oh,” may Dad said, “You used to be able to catch him.” When I was little, all this was fields. The bird still came to our aid against the snake later, but not before we had crawled through caverns that weren’t there before.

    My Mum was first introduced to the game in Bath University, playing it on the university network (such as it was back then) with a friend when their gliding sessions were cancelled. She later played it with my Dad, on the C64 shortly before I was born. They never could open the pearl, and the game remained unfinished.

    But like Leigh, the game captured my imagination, and I’d find myself crawling through similar sets of caverns in the garden. Unlike Leigh, I have gone back to it several times, and find that the exploration of the caves still reflects on the exploration of the history behind the game itself. The variations and versions I never played, and the places I never reached, somehow capture all the magic of the places I did explore. I can’t remember a tower, or even a volcano, but somehow they still sit on the mental map of this place I explored when younger, and the revisits are never quite with the same version, so I feel much like my Dad must have done. There used to be a Woolworths there.

  10. dsch says:


  11. Sire says:

    I haven’t watched it (yet) but I believe the new documentary about text adventures also tells the story of Colossal Cave. Nostalgia!
    link to

    • Harbour Master says:

      You know, I bought a copy of Get Lamp when it came out but I still haven’t had the time and sit down and watch it… I still plan on writing about it.

      My entire family sat down and played Colossal Adventure when we were young. Mum, Dad, my sister. It’s experiences like those that made me believe in video games being great for bonding and families.

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      You should watch it – it’s good.

  12. luminosity says:

    Fantastic article — the best ‘gaming made me’, yet!

  13. Antsy says:

    The games we played back then were so basic and yet in retrospect seem powerfully magical and evoke strong, emotional memories in nearly everyone I speak to about them.

    The content was sparse in those early games. I firmly believe that it was the worlds and characters we created ourselves, as we played them, that evoke such strong feelings when remembering these games.

    • gwathdring says:

      Mmm. I still do that with a lot of modern games. As an example, what I miss most about the long Mako journeys from Mass Effect was the conversations the characters had while traveling planetisde. Things they saw or said that were as telling to me about the characters as any of the written dialog in the game. Those segments told me who these people were, what they did on days off. It wouldn’t have always been good dialog if it were taken from my imagination to the game script, but it quite often was; it filled in the gaps during combat as well, as Shepard hastily barked orders while his companions fanned into a room of Geth. In Fallout 3, my runaway imagination revives that moment of delightful surprise in the character and speech of Fawkes as he shares his thoughts with the Restorer of Faith on their journeys through the waste.

      I can’t link it back to a single game, or a single book or even a single friend. But I remember fighting imaginary Ghouls and crawling through lost temples until leaving the wooded trails of my elementary school for junior high, also losing the extra hours of play from when my mother dropped us off at a latchkey kids program on her way to work. I know that a strange sort of belief and superstition still sits with me, more selective in its attentions and imaginings but coming alive when the lighting is right, or the wording. Though I don’t have an origin story, those childhood play sessions developed a keen sense of atmosphere. Sometimes we didn’t have a very good story to tell each other, or great characters, but if we got the sense of the world right, it still felt transporting. And still does now. Whenever I play a game that nails the feel of a world, however much I criticize it aloud or online, while I play, most of the gaps and frustrations are filled in by my imagination as though I am paying as much for the seeds to grow a universe as much as a first person shooter or adventure game.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Yes yes yes. I think the one thing the vast majority of computer/video game designers don’t quite understand is the power of imagination. It’s so much more potent and emotionally effective than any artificial, external creation. This is why I adore H. P. Lovecraft, though I’m not a horror fan in general.

      Older games evoked imagination partly by necessity of primitive graphics, but also in the choices they offered. Both are significantly more difficult to do in a detailed 3D world.

      I just don’t get that feeling from computer games anymore. I do from pen&paper RPGs.

  14. broklynite says:

    Speaking as a Manhattanite, there are one or two things I do to get my orientation. First, the exits will often (though not always) say something like NE corner, which can help. The other thing is to squint over a block and see whether the street number increases or decreases, which tells me if it is up or down. A lot of other natives I know seem to have an innate 6th sense to know which way to go, but I never had that myself, so this is what I have to do.

  15. Xanadu says:

    Text adventures were great. Acornsoft’s early ones on the BBC micro especially.
    The combination of difficulty and brutal humour you don’t get anymore:
    You have been eaten by a giant spider in the dark.
    Oh dear. You appear to have been turned into a cabbage leaf.
    You are dead. Would you like to try again?

    Happy times.

    I still won’t go near Gorgonzola after Philosopher’s Quest.

    • gwathdring says:

      Death by transmutation into cabbage leaf is perhaps the most fantastic in-game death I’ve ever heard of. :)

      I vaguely remember some similarly bizarre and delightful moments on Discworld MUD back in the day. That thing was amazing. The detail that was put into the city. Dear god, the Library was amazing … it was so easy to get lost when North, South, East and West suddenly turned into a context sensitive Forward, Backward, Left, and Right. It was an elegant way of making the Library feel disorienting and mysterious fitting of a place filled with books that rattle at their chains or disappear while you’re reading them. I never put enough time in to kill anything beyond rats, or cast any particularly awesome spells on wizard character. My second character joined the assassins guild and worked a fair way up through missions. Good times.

    • arccos says:

      <a href="link to MUD is still around today. I never got very far, since it can be pretty confusing, but it definitely is something special.

  16. noom says:

    I’ve said it here before but I’ll say it again. I’m eternally grateful that I grew up playing the kind of games that were around in the 80s/90s. That combination of the kind of surreal quality that old games had due to technical limitations, and a childish ability to accept those games and see them not with the cynical understanding of adulthood, but as entire coherant worlds means I have some pretty incredible memories from that time in my life that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I don’t think my imagination would work in quite the same way these days if it hadn’t been that way.

  17. Zeewolf says:

    Loved this article.

  18. Casimir's Blake says:

    Nice article, a shame then that it only serves to highlight the state of gaming today. Very, very few games are now made to be immersive, let alone allow exploration without holding your hand. I’m hoping Skyrim will satisfy this particular desire (call it a craving for those of us till waiting for King’s Field 5, since Demon’s Souls was a repetitive, semi-linear hack & slash), but I’m not holding out much hope.

    Indie and mobile games are clearly the place to look for those of us that miss such things in gaming, but it takes a lot of time and effort to hand-carve a world worth playing around in.

  19. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Having my gaming firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, about the only text-based adventure game I’ve played is Digital: A Love Story. And I can imagine what kind of magic you’re talking about.

    Lovely article.

  20. Navagon says:

    A wonderful article. Thank you!

  21. DrGonzo says:

    it seems to be only apple users who feel the need to refer to their phones by the brand name. Well I wrote this on my phone. What is it? You don’t care, owning one doesn’t make me cool,and I’m not doing their advertising for them.

    • Vinraith says:

      Eh, going on about their over-priced gadgetry just makes them that much easier to spot.

    • MD says:

      Sometimes the brand name just seems like the most natural noun to use. It might ultimately be down to good marketing, but it doesn’t mean the person in question is showing off.

      I don’t have an iPhone, but if I was talking about my iPod for some reason, I’d probably say ‘my iPod’ rather than ‘my mp3 player’. See also ‘Walkman’ instead of ‘personal stereo’, ‘Blackberry’ instead of ‘smartphone’ or ‘Zune’ instead of ‘portable media player’.

      When the brand name has wide recognition and is easy to say, and the product has a distinct reputation (deserved or otherwise) rather than being considered a generic example of its type, people will tend to refer to it by name.

  22. noom says:

    Also, as far as text adventures go: Knight Ork. What a game.

  23. Curvespace says:

    Speechless. Thanks for distilling so closely my own experiences of childhood and of Colossal Cave. I played it at around the same age, holed-up in my bedroom in front of an Amiga 1000, steadfastly refusing to open the curtains lest it break the spell of my imagination. If it were a good day my mother would insist I go outside, so I’d wander the fields and hedgerows with friends, kicking aside the long grass in a vain attempt to find a grate where we could start the adventure for real.

  24. Christopha says:

    Nothing beat graph paper for mapping games..

    Oh C64 I miss you.

    • Antsy says:

      I made off with reams of graph paper from science class when I was playing Bards Tale :p

  25. PoulWrist says:

    Nice article :) made me reminisce a bit on the good parts of my own childhood.

  26. FKD says:

    I have to agree with everyone else who loves these articles, and also the ones who feel that this was probably the best yet. I think part of it (atleast for me) is that it is not just showing how games have affected you NOW, but it harkens back to the old days when we were all kids wandering around behind houses, playing in bits of woods as our imaginations ran rampant. I am a big frequenter of my childhood memories and missing the “simpler” times and it was nice to see that I am not the only one who looks back on it in such a way.

    At first when I saw that the author had found her old friend on Facebook my heart swelled at the idea of them contacting each other all these years later, and then at the same time there was a part of me that agreed with the direction she eventually took. Sometimes it is nice to keep things as memories. Just the other day I was talking with someone at work about how we had found old friends on there and how shocked we were at the degree that some of them had changed, and in some cases it is quite sad really. And in the end, all it does is remind you that you are getting older (atleast for me!) and I can certainly do without any more reminders of that! :/ It kind of reminds me of the end of Edward Scissorhands, where the young girl is now a grandmother recounting her tales to her granddaughter. When the granddaughter asks why she does not just go back up there and see him again, she replies that she would rather him remember her the way she was.

  27. Tetragrammaton says:

    Splendid article – Thanks Leigh!

  28. ghiacciato says:

    Beautifully written, indeed. Thank you for sharing these memories.

  29. WombatDeath says:

    I remember a holiday in Devon where my Dad was playing this on my Amstrad. Over a period of a couple of weeks he drew all the maps, figured out the puzzles and finally got the last piece of treasure into the cabin, at which point the game crashed. He was rather displeased, as I recall.

  30. Dao Jones says:

    Wow! Excellent article! And all I played on my C64 was stupid Spy vs Spy and watching my dad play some typing game amazed at his speed. :-\


  31. HeavyHarris says:

    This made me sad =[

  32. terry says:

    Marvellous writing. I had a similar experience with “The Hobbit” – there was something about the limited presentation, writing and mechanics that implied a far grander and richer environment that you only ever caught a glimpse of. Gandalf took the map from you not because an irritating routine made him do it every so often, he was mulling over the runes. That dreadful drop into a dim valley, depicted by a few lines winding round the side of a mountain? Yeah, you couldn’t fall off it, but was ominous and exciting simply for being there, and being so very dreadful. And pale bulbous eyes – who could be scared of a few lines of text implying you’re being stalked? But it was terribly involving and dangerous.

    Perhaps the game acting as your interpreter of the world was what made seem more urgent and affecting, I never felt that I had control over the world, just the actions of the interpreter. It gave a vulnerability and sense of being a small cog in a big machine, rather than the world-revolves-around-the-hero-of-Kvatch of these days.
    Never really played Colossal Cave, but I did very much enjoy Jewels of Darkness when my family got our first PC. I remember scrawling xyzzy(?) on a piece of paper but failing to realise the significance when I was maybe 5 or 6, so presumably didn’t get far.

  33. DrGonzo says:

    You are correct, but I don’t think that changes my point. Its just good marketing. It fits their lifestyle and to an extent defines them as a person.

  34. crusty1 says:

    Well the first proper video game that amazed me was….SPACE INVADERS! Not suprising really as it was the first main stream arcade game and appeared in our local newagents in the late 70’s.
    I remember one 16 year old lad playing it & getting a massive high score. Next week he was killed on his motor bike, only the high score remained as evidence to us that he existed………

  35. Lucifalle says:

    This sounds almost exactly like my childhood! Except that I grew up playing the point and click adventure games of the early-mid nineties with my younger sister. We lived in the Swedish countryside back then, and every day seemed like a brand new adventure. Oh the wonderful memories…
    I’ve recently entered a text adventure phase of my life. I haven’t played Adventure yet, perhaps that should be next on my list.
    A truly well written article, thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
    I’m feeling all nostalgic now :’)

  36. kriegsman says:

    Great piece – thank you!

    I, also, mapped ADVENTURE by hand, circa 1987. It was truly a labor of love.
    link to

  37. J. Kulhavy says:

    Text adventures can do things that CGI-intensive games cannot. In particular, I think some forms of mimesis are better induced through written description than through pictures.Colossal Adventure was one of the first computer games I ever played, and I can still “see” the rusty iron rod and feel the weight of it in my hand. Similarly, I can see the reflection of my brass lamp on the facets of the plover’s egg-sized emerald.