Interview: Ken & Roberta Williams on Colossal Cave

We’re doing a big four-part interview with Ken & Roberta Williams this week to mark the launch of their reimagining of Colossal Cave, talking about their Sierra days, the historic significance of the original game, their return to game design and how they adapted the game for VR. In this part, we’re talking about Colossal Cave, but you can skip ahead and back using the links below.

  • To read more about Ken and Roberta’s days at Sierra, click here
  • To read more about Ken and Roberta’s return to game design, click here
  • To read more about how Colossal Cave was adapted for VR, click here

What makes Colossal Cave Adventure stand out from other text adventures?

Roberta: It’s the one that started my career. I had just had my second baby and I wasn’t working at the time, so I guess you could say I was a bored housewife at that moment with two little kids. Ken brought home a teletype machine that had the ability as a router to call into this big corporate computer through the telephone line, and we discovered there was a game on-line there, and it was Colossal Cave – called Adventure in those days. I started playing it and totally got into it and played it until I saw everything and got every point. I was obsessed by it and I wanted to play more like it after that.

There was a little company called Adventure International that was also creating text adventure games at that time, but in my opinion those never quite stood up to the wonderful design of Colossal Cave. I don’t think there’s any comparison to its design, and I have said that I think that even my designs are not as good as this one, as a pure game with strategy and so many levels of play and ways to play it. It’s so different from the storytelling-type of adventure games that I eventually evolved towards. Now that I’m actually redoing this game, I’m revisiting it and seeing the levels of strategy and the total gameplay and exploration aspect of it and it’s brilliant. It even makes me wonder if the storytelling part of designing an adventure game is all that good of an invention or evolution.

Crawl

As far as other text adventures. I never really played Zork and never really played any of Infocom’s games, mainly because I was busy playing my own games. There’s something about being a game designer and creating your own games – you tend to get caught up in your own business and your world around it, and you forget and lose a bit of the desire to want to play other games. I did, but not text adventures. I’d check out games to find out about new technology and interfaces, just to get some ideas of the competition out there before I’d start designing – but it was more work and research than playing the games.

After we sold the company in 1996 I was still working on King’s Quest 8 in 1997, but that was my last year of working and after that I was out. I never looked at a single game all those years, and neither did Ken, until now. So for games that inspired me, I’d have to go way back. I did like Lucasarts’ games, like Monkey Island and Loom – I loved that game. I also enjoyed Myst, but didn’t really play that many games.

What are the biggest design hurdles in transcribing or reimagining text adventure like Colossal Cave Adventure to a visual format?

Roberta: Oh, there’s so many, you wouldn’t believe. I really think this is the second-most difficult game I’ve ever worked on. I’d probably put Phantasmagoria first as the most difficult one, with technical challenges and working with actors. This would easily be the second, and I really thought when we started it that it would be easy, because there was already a design. All we have to do is put pictures to it, right? What was I thinking? It’s been very tough, because I’ve learned how deep in levels of strategy and gameplay Colossal Cave is. It’s not at all just a simple linear kind of game or storyline and there are so many ways to play it and there’s so much depth to it. To this day I’m still discovering things about it – subtle little things that are all over this game.

Understanding this game from top to bottom was the first challenge, and then I had to get into the head of the original designers, questioning how they did it a certain way and how I’d do it if I were designing it. In some places they gave us good descriptions of each part of the cave, and in other places they gave very little description. I loved it when they gave us good descriptions because then we could just design a cave chamber around what they said, but in other places it was “you’re in a passage with five exits” and we had to figure out how to make that interesting.

Mysterious Figure

Most of the game takes place inside a cave, and there are a lot of rooms and passages inside a big game – so how do you make all this cave stuff interesting and mix it up? How do we add to it, without taking away from its original feel in playing it? I wanted to approach this game with the idea that if you played this game in the past as a text game, you were creating the graphics your mind, as you would with a book. I had to design it the way I imagined it when playing it, and that’s not easy. I don’t know if we accomplished it or not, but that’s one of the things we really had to think about.

And then there’s the story, because the first thing I asked myself going into this was “what’s the story? what’s the goal here?”, and it’s interesting because I never really asked myself these things when I first started playing it. Of course back in 1980 I had never played a computer game ever before either, so I didn’t even know there could be a story. Now, I have an entire career of crafting stories for a living, so I felt the need to try and inject some story into it. But also not really, because if I did too much, it would not be what it is, so it’s tricky! Everything about taking Colossal Cave and making it into a modern game is very very tricky, because you’re trying to keep it what it is, historically, but you’re trying to bring it to modern sensibilities of 3D graphics, animations, sounds and music.

Does this one feel like more of a personal journey?

Roberta: Of course, I’m really attached to this game, and have been from the very beginning. It’s what jettisoned me into this business and if I had never played Colossal Cave I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you because you’d have no idea who I was. I don’t know what I’d be and where I would’ve gone or what I’d have done. I don’t think Sierra would have existed, so Colossal Cave started it all, and I have discovered that Colossal Cave really was behind many people’s inspirations who were going into the video game business at that time. I can tell you Ron Gilbert’s one of them, as I was recently on a panel with him where he talked about his experience playing Colossal Cave as an eighth grader at summer camp. He loved it and spent the whole summer playing it, and that’s what really propelled him into wanting to be a computer game designer, just like me.

So this game is not just a catapult for me, but also for many others. It’s an important game and I feel very honored to be doing this. And I must say, the original designers were Will Crowther and Don Woods, who came along later and worked with Will to make it what it ultimately came to be. They should get credit and we’re giving them credit all the time. Ken has been in touch with Don Woods, and they’re both very interesting. Will Crowther was a student at MIT as a software engineer and he was working with artificial intelligence languages at the time there. But he was also one of the four contractors who were contracted by the US military to come up with the ARPAnet, which was the precursor to the internet.

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