If you truly want to understand me, you need know only one word: XYZZY.
My father was a Signal Corps officer in the US Army. I really had no idea what this meant when we deployed to Germany in the early 80’s but I do recall the day that I got to go to work with my dad for the first time. He was a busy man so my day at work with him largely entailed me sitting by myself with the occasional soldier checking in on me to see if I wanted something from a vending machine or knew where the restrooms were.
My father placed me in front of a dumb terminal that tied into the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet for the uninitiated. Were you to see it then you would know that it was the barest of base metal frameworks as compared to the lustrous and lavish trappings it now maintains. The Major, Dad, gave me some instructions about how to execute programs and he gave me a list of executables he recommended for somebody looking to while away their day at work with their father by poking around the world’s largest, and seemingly most secure, computer network.
I sat there staring at the terminal prompt, an irridescent green smallness in a sea of CRT blackness, infinite in its potential but equally impossible to comprehend. I looked around at the “room” in which I sat, which was, in fact, a massive camouflage-painted trailer that could be hauled by a semi-truck. The walls were a sour sort of greenish white and the neon overheads leeched life from the very air itself. Sterile, crowded with equipment, and a pervasive hum of generators faintly vibrated all around.
I did not know then that this vessel would become the womb of my future.
I tapped those first tentative strokes. Soon, I began to get my sea legs, trying commands, scanning the manual, looking at the list of programs, whatever that meant, that my father had given me. One of those executables was called ADVENT. So I decided to give it a whirl. And when I ran ADVENT, my life was transformed. Appropriately named, eh?
In fact, the program’s full name was Adventure, but owing to the limitation of the Operating System I was using, it had to be abbreviated to the six characters inscribed so firmly in my psyche.
And so I spent the day exploring the magical (albeit textual) world of what would one day become known as the Colossal Cave, an interactive text game (an interactive fiction as they are known today), based on the geography of the Mammoth Cave system sprinkled with a few puzzles and some Tolkien-inspired fantasy. The game presents you with some text describing your environment and the things that populate it, and you then interact with the environment by typing commands, which, ideally, inspire the program to reply with new text moving the game forward, but often simply thwarting you with its limited understanding of the english language.
As it happened I was both enamored of the english language and of all things fantastic and speculative, such as Tolkien-inspired material. I had recently been introduced to Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, but, because my four brothers were all disinclined to spend hours at a time on a perfectly good weekend inside at a table talking about doing things when they could be outside actually doing them, I seldom had anyone to play with.
This game, which I spent the remainder of the day playing and would subsequently finagle trips to work with my father for the expressed purpose of completing my quest, introduced me to what so many others would discover about the power of computer gaming. Like a book, a game could transport you into another world, but this book was interactive.
And so I went home and thought about what I had experienced and had an idea. I could use a casette recorder to describe an environment and present several options to the listener. Then the listener could fast-forward or rewind to the a specified value on the player’s counter, press play from that point and receive new descriptions and new options based on their choices. I set about scripting my story, describing rooms, and planning out how much tape I would need to capture the descriptions and at what point on the counter the player would need to be to begin describing text. I recorded the text and began testing my idea.
It was difficult, it never really worked. But I had so much fun doing it.
Evidently my passion was fairly obvious to my father who, that Christmas, gave the family a personal computer by the name of Commodore 64. I had only just seen an IBM PC a month or so before and had been astounded, not only at its utility, but its price. I thought there was no way we could ever afford such a thing. But Commodore changed all of that. And my dad gave the family its first computer. It went more or less straight to my room and I was effectively the only person who ever used it.
And how, did I use it.
Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, a Flock of Seagulls, and more blared for hours on end as I taught myself to code in BASIC and began converting my ideas from the cassette player approach over to the C64. It was around that time that I got my hands on a copy of Infocom’s Zork and realized that my capabilities to write text parsers were somewhat lacking. But, again, I loved doing it. How I couldn’t wait to get the next copy of BYTE, Popular Computing, or COMPUTE!’s Gazette so I could rush to the type-in programs and start learning more.
It never occurred to me then that my passion would, some years later, put me in front of a computer professionally, starting with a stint in the military as a systems automation specialist followed by what is now decades worth of software development adventures. The art of software development, the craft, has changed in so many ways since then, but then in some very simple ways remains identical. I didn’t know that when I was using my cassette recorder with the intent to create interactive games I was, in essence, programming and, more importantly, working to create an experience for users.
So, the Adventure continues. My quest is to capture some of the genuine joy I felt at discovering what Adventure had in store for me back then and bake that into the software products that I develop today.
I’ve never lost the love I cultivated back then, but still, every now and again, I wish I could say a magic word and go back to that little room in Germany and see the world-changing events beginning to unfold and experience the headlong rush into destiny that I experienced then.