Killing the dragon in “Adventure”

Moments Lost

“Moments Lost” is a blog series where I deconstruct a single moment from a narrative game, of any vintage, and talk through how and why it works.

The Game: The Crowther/Woods Adventure pioneered the genres later known as interactive fiction and adventure games. It was originally written in FORTRAN on a PDP-10 timeshare mainframe by caver Will Crowther, and became famous in the version expanded and released in 1977 by grad student Don Woods. A profusion of alternate versions exist; this article is based on a DOS port of the original which sticks close to the original text; a web-accessible version is also very similar. This article will spoil several early puzzles in the game.

“Adventure” on an early home computer. Photo courtesy Celcom/Wikimedia Commons.

Adventure pioneered the notion of a narrator describing an explorable world to the player in natural language, and the player using English commands like GO WEST or GET BOTTLE to respond. It’s hard to impress how revolutionary this was at the time, and how influential it was on the first generation to get regular access to computers.

The Moment: After you’ve solved the game’s first few challenges, you come to this worrisome sight:

A HUGE GREEN FIERCE DRAGON BARS THE WAY!

The words mirror another test you must previously have passed to get here:

A HUGE GREEN FIERCE SNAKE BARS THE WAY!

Getting past the snake is one of the game’s first real puzzles. Commands like KILL SNAKE (or, once one finds such a weapon, THROW AXE) are non-starters: “ATTACKING THE SNAKE BOTH DOESN’T WORK AND IS VERY DANGEROUS.” Nor can you squeeze past the snake into the deeper cave system before dealing with it. The solution involves caging a small bird, bringing it to the snake and then freeing it; the bird somewhat surprisingly drives the snake away in “AN ASTOUNDING FLURRY.”

Caging the bird in the first place was its own puzzle. A few rooms before the bird the player would have noticed a birdcage, but also “A THREE FOOT BLACK ROD WITH A RUSTY STAR ON AN END.” So far the objects encountered (some food, water, a lamp, a set of keys, and the birdcage) have all seemed useful; so the player has most likely taken them all. But if you’re holding the rod, you can’t catch the bird. You have to drop it, or leave it in another location, to do so.

Why does this work? Why would one think to try this? Those carefully reading the in-game instructions might have noticed this clue:

I KNOW ABOUT A FEW SPECIAL OBJECTS, LIKE A BLACK ROD HIDDEN IN THE CAVE. THESE OBJECTS CAN BE MANIPULATED USING SOME OF THE ACTION WORDS THAT I KNOW. …THE OBJECTS HAVE SIDE EFFECTS; FOR INSTANCE, THE ROD SCARES THE BIRD.

Possibly intended as gatekeeping to ensure players read the instructions, this puzzle teaches us that both text and metatext — words other than those narrating the story world — can be important to advancing. Both it and the snake puzzle establish that obstacles may require complex solutions: that Adventure will be no cakewalk.

Shortly after the snake we come to the dragon, described with almost identical language and a mechanically similar obstacle: it seems to block access to more of the cave, you can’t just slip past it, and attempts to kill it through conventional means are fruitless: “THE AXE BOUNCES HARMLESSLY OFF THE DRAGON’S THICK SCALES.”

And so we come to the moment, which is this:

>KILL DRAGON
WITH WHAT? YOUR BARE HANDS?
>YES
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE JUST VANQUISHED A DRAGON WITH YOUR BARE HANDS! (UNBELIEVABLE, ISN’T IT?)

The moment in Kevin Black’s DOS port.

This delightful moment (apparently added by Crowther) may not have received enough credit for Adventure’s wild popularity from 1977 through the ’80s and its influence on a generation of computer and gaming pioneers. The response does several things at once. First, it’s a release of tension, making trivial what the player assumes will be a major challenge. Structurally, it takes literally an answer to a rhetorical question, an unexpected surprise, and one not foreshadowed by earlier interactions (typing YES or NO at other points in the game results, untruthfully, in “I DON’T KNOW THAT WORD.”)

The borderline magical feel of a computer transcending its limitations would later be characterized as a double-edged sword for parser IF, but especially in the early days of computing people wanted to believe in the magic. Tracy Kidder’s 1981 The Soul of a New Machine, one of the first books to (briefly) discuss Adventure, reacted to a similar moment of cleverness from the game while playing in a post-midnight tour by a programmer with a “sneaky smile”:

“How did the computer know to do that?”
“I don’t know,” said Alsing, coyly. “Sometimes it’s perceptive, other times just dumb.”
The dragon made the cover of Microsoft’s port and several others.

The dragon moment is also a metatextual joke. By not actually describing how this bare-handed victory is accomplished, by calling it “unbelievable,” the winking implication is that we are meant to read this not as something that literally happened, but as the narrator having a bit of fun with us. The dragon has been removed as an obstacle not because of bravery, but cheekiness. Another of Adventure’s famous moments, the twisty maze of little passages, also relies on a metatextual clue: the key to solving the maze is to notice the ordering of its descriptive words, a property which a character embedded in the fictional space would not be able to perceive.

More than anything else, the moment is memorable. An older relative who’s never been much for computer games has fond memories of tackling Adventure in the early ’80s with a sibling (both adults at the time). I’ve heard some version of this story many times:

“We were lost in the cave, and we came to this troll. And (laughs) we had no idea what to do. So we type, KILL TROLL. And it says “How are you supposed to do that? With your bare hands?” And we say, YES. And it worked! (laughs again)”

Time has shifted some particulars, but forty years later the moment’s beats are still remembered perfectly. Killing the dragon with your bare hands symbolized not only the leap forward in user-friendliness computers were making, but also the nascent possibilities for interactive narrative’s capacity to surprise, subvert, and be playful—qualities we’re still chasing, all this time later.

Additional Reading: Much has been written about Adventure over the years, but Dennis Jerz’s comprehensive “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave” and Jimmy Maher’s annotated playthrough of Crowther’s original version are both great reads.