Archive for the Interactive Fiction Category

My parents bought my Uncle Kenny’s Commodore 64 for me back in 1985. If I remember correctly the sound chip had blown out, so the first thing we they did was have it fixed. Sixteen years later, I still own (and use) that same Commodore computer.

I’ve owned dozens of other Commodore computers over the years (many of which are sitting out in my garage, acting as “donor machines”) but I can always tell my main one apart from the others for a couple of reasons. One being, many years ago one of my friends modified mine for me by adding a manual reset button to the side of the case. I can also tell it’s my old standby because there are no screws anywhere holding it together. I used to take the thing apart so often that I finally quit screwing it back together. Every memory I have of playing games, calling BBSes, or causing electronic mischief in general on my Commodore 64 took place on this specific machine.

The computer “nook” in our new house has a long built-in desk with enough room to house two or three computers. After getting my main workstation up and running, I determined the corner space would be a perfect spot for my old Commodore. Despite being outdated in every way imaginable, it’s still a fun system to play games on.

After getting my old Commodore up and running, I ran it through some paces by playing a few games on it. It wasn’t long before Mason stuck his curious mop of hair in the doorway to investigate the antiquated beeps and blips coming from my room. The two of us spent about an hour playing old classics like Moon Patrol and Burgertime. Some of the other games he wasn’t able to get into as easily, but he really liked the ones where we played together, both as a team and as head-to-head opponents. I’ll have to dig out some more two-player games for us to try in the near future.

Last night, he came back. “Can I play Moon Patrol again?” he asked. What sweeter words has a child ever asked his father? After several rounds of Moon Patrol, he went back for some more Burgertime.

I don’t expect Mason to grow up being a big fan of Commodore computers like I am. Someday he’ll have his own misty-eyed moments about the days when hard drives were measured in terabytes, and maybe he’ll spend his weekends searching thrift stores for old Nintendo DS units. But right now he’s getting a kick out of 30-year-old games that I enjoyed as a kid, and I’m getting a kick out of that.

On July 27th, 1981, Microsoft took their modified/rebranded version of QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) and released it as MS-DOS — Microsoft’s Disk Operating System.

(If you have not seen Triumph of the Nerds yet, do so.)

In 1980 we had a TRS-80 III that used TR-DOS. We moved to an Apple compatible machine in 1982, and picked up an IBM XT a year or two after that. I learned my way around DOS at a pretty early age, as being able to change drives, navigate through directory structures and launch executables were all skills needed to play and copy games.

I don’t ever remember using DOS 1.0, but our IBM PC Jr. shipped with DOS 2.1 and I remember those diskettes vividly. It’s funny what memories stick with you. I remember using DOS 3.3 for a long time, but don’t remember 4.0 at all. I do remember using version 5, and all the different versions of 6 — 6.0, 6.2, 6.21, and 6.22.

If you ever want to hear an old school PC guy groan, mention EDLIN. EDLIN was the old DOS-based editor (EDit LINe) before EDIT was released with DOS 5.0. EDLIN was finally dropped from Vista/Win7 but was included all the way up to Windows XP. If you’re still running XP, I dare you to go to a command line and type “EDLIN FILE.TXT” and see what you can get to work. It’s like a less user-friendly version of VI, if you can imagine such a thing.

One of the major limitations of DOS was its 8.3 file name structure. This meant every file on your computer was limited to a name no longer than 8 characters with a 3 character extension. Instead of “Rob’s List of Favorite Songs.txt”, you might have “rsnglst1.txt”. Multiply that times a thousand and you can see how without good directory structures, it was often difficult to find old files. Early versions of DOS had a bug which prevented two files from having the same name even if they were in different directories. Back then you could easily hide files from other users, using the attrib +h command. DOS was full of little tricks.

DOS also came with BASIC, which is what I and probably most computer people my age first programmed in. My programs were pretty crude and horrible, but they were fun to write. Like most kids I wrote a lot of simple math programs and bad games. Probably the most advanced thing I ever programmed in BASIC was a Dungeons and Dragons character generator. It started out life as just a simple blank character sheet form, but ended up as a program that would randomly generate both playable characters (PCs) and non-playable characters (NPCs) for use in adventures.

DOS also allowed you to link commands together in batch files. 30 years later I am still using batch files — I use them every single day at work, in fact. While other Microsoft scripting solutions like VB Scripting and Powershell have since been released, there’s still something to be said for a batch file that can be slapped out in seconds and save me hours worth of work. My home backups and several other scheduled maintenance tasks are all batch files.

Those of you who were really into computers back then remember the trials and tribulations of editing your config.sys and autoexec.bat files to get everything just right. Many of us had multiple configurations to choose from, depending on if we were playing games or not. Some games needed EMS; some needed XMS. It was all a balancing act that involved deciding just how much RAM you wanted to set aside for different processes and drivers. Today’s crop of point-and-click users would have been lost. (Think “getting a wireless router to work times 100”.) When I worked at Best Buy in late 94/early 95, people would bring their machines in after purchasing a game and pay $39.95 for me to configure their machines to play it.

One of the last additions to DOS that I remember was DBLSPACE, a utility that MAGICALLY “doubled” the size of users’ hard drives’. Really what they did was compress compressible files on the fly. In 1994, Stac Electronics sued Microsoft for including DoubleSpace with DOS, claiming that the code was based on their own STACKER code (a competing product that Microsoft had at one time considered buying). According to Wikipedia Stac Electronics was awarded $120 million dollars, Microsoft was awarded $13 million in a counterclaim, and ultimately the suit was settled when Microsoft “[made] a $39.9 million investment in Stac Electronics, and additionally [paid] Stac about $43 million in royalties on their patents.”

The first version of Windows I ever used, Windows 3.1, sat literally on top of DOS. Windows 95, however, booted directly into Windows and for the first time, I didn’t get to see DOS before I saw Windows. The first time I installed Windows 95, I put a shortcut to CMD.EXE in the startup folder so that when Windows 95 launched, I would be treated to a DOS prompt. Old habits die hard.

Like I said, I still use DOS today. I wrote Batch-o-Matic specifically to work with DOS Batch files. Over the years Microsoft has tried to wean us off of DOS by incorporating fewer features with every new operating system they release, but as long as I can leverage “the little command line that could”, I’ll continue doing so.

Happy 30th Birthday, MS-DOS!


I passed on the opportunity to have dinner with Robb Sherwin back in 2007 when the two of us were (separately) attending the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. “He’s funny, you’re funny, come have dinner with us,” said mutual friend Jason Scott. Unfortunately I already had plans to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame with other friends of mine that evening, so I had to decline the offer. Their pack of nerds went one way, my pack of nerds went another, and fate was postponed for a couple of years.

Since then, Sherwin and I became mutual fans of each another’s work. He purchased my book Commodork and gave it glowing review. I, in turn, fell in love with Sherwin’s writing style, both in his text adventures and on his multiple websites. In June of 2010 while visiting Denver, I was able to swing by Sherwin’s place and check out his collection of arcade games; earlier this summer while visiting the Oklahoma Video Game Expo, he was able to check out mine. Along with our mutual love of classic arcade games, we also share common interests in old computers, video games, and of course, text adventures.

Summary: Robb Sherwin and I know one other. If you’re looking for a completely neutral and unbiased review of Cryptozookeeper, this may not be the one for you. (That being said, I’ll still be writing it.)

And now, on with the review.


Like most gamers, I drifted away from the world of text adventures around the time graphics, sound and joysticks were invented. I played my share of text-based games in the early 1980s, but quickly moved on to “the graphical stuff” and didn’t revisit the genre until my interest was re-piqued by Jason Scott’s documentary Get Lamp.

There’s a reason the genre tends to identify with the more modern term “Interactive Fiction” versus the classic label of “Text Adventure”: Cryptozookeeper is roughly 600 megabytes in size, mostly due to the game’s graphics and 70-song soundtrack. To put that in perspective, the entire text of the Bible is 1.2 megabytes. (For the Devil sends the Beast with wrath, because he knows his downloads are short.) The game’s interface consists of four windows: a picture of who you’re talking to, a picture of where you’re at, a status update window, and the game’s text. Each of these windows are constantly changing depending on who you’re focused on and where you are, giving you a visual glimpse into the twisted world around you. This is not your father’s text adventure, in more ways than one.

In Cryptozookeeper players become William Ezekiel Vest, a man stuck in swarthy Christmas City, a town that’s part-nightmare, part-dark comedy. Things here are a little sick, a little twisted, and a little goofy in this place where the X-Files meets Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 3. In the game’s first location, players must solve a puzzle involving a dog named Puzzle. Assuming you outwit Igor Cytserz’s killer mutt, you’ll be gifted a vial of alien marrow from which DNA can be extracted. This package sets in motion a series of events in which Vest meets, interacts, and travels with multiple NPCs, traversing the city to find and collect DNA samples, all while solving classic IF puzzles along the way.

Midway through the game, Crypto morphs into a Monster Rancher-style game in which cryptids (creatures unknown to modern science) are created by mixing and matching your previously discovered DNA samples. Players have the freedom to create whatever kind and how ever many cryptids they want. Players will then spend time pitting these cryptids against other cryptids in order to level them up in order to finally face … well, I don’t know because I’m still leveling them up. But I’ll bet it’ll be a humdinger of a battle when I get there. While the battling cryptids contain varying attributes, the battles are mostly luck-based and randomly decided (I just had my Bigfoot unceremoniously defeated by an Aardvark). Fortunately your cryptids never truly “die” — instead they end up back at the pen, where they recuperate after a bit of resting.

The dialogue system used within Crypto is interesting in that the game-related topics each NPC knows about appear in color. (“I see you brought some DNA with you.”) The article on NPC conversations refers to this style as “hyperlinked replies”. The advantage of hyperlinked replies is, you’ll never walk away from an NPC without gaining all the knowledge you are supposed to receive. (Typing “Topics PERSON” will list any you missed.) The disadvantage of this style is, conversations quickly become a laundry list of topics to be checked off until none remain. To be honest I’ve played all the major IF conversational styles (“free form”, “menu driven”, and “hyperlinked”) and they all have advantages and disadvantages. While free form conversations feel the most interactive, they leave the most to chance (and can lead players down a slippery “guess the noun” slope).The other two don’t allow for as much freedom; then again, they don’t allow for as much floundering around, either. As an author, I can appreciate forced dialogue systems for no other fact than I would hate to waste exposition (or worse, a great joke) on dark nooks and crannies that players may never encounter. Worse yet, put a game-advancing tidbit in there and watch your players’ progress grind to a halt.

Like all of Robb Sherwin’s games, the world of and characters within Christmas City is a conglomeration of pop culture references and technobabble. Sherwin entertains as earnestly as he offends. There are jokes about baseball and stigmata and trolls who edit Wikipedia entries. Not every joke sticks and I doubt everyone will get all the references (I know I missed some), but the ones I did get made me laugh. As with his previous games, Sherwin’s strong suit continues to be his writing.

If there’s any downside to Cryptozookeeper it’s that parts of it are insanely hard. I struggled with some of the puzzles for days, which, in all honesty, could be more of a reflection on my relative inexperience and re-introduction to text-based games than on the game. Some of the puzzles took me days to solve, and at least one side-plot involving an exorcism (I can’t tell if solving it was integral to “beating” the game yet or not) I can honestly say I have would never, ever solved on my own. This particular puzzle boils down to coming up with a single word, which I ultimately came up with after pleading with the author via e-mail. Cryptozookeeper may be enjoyed by beginning gamers, but it probably won’t be defeated by one.

From the text to the puzzles, Cryptozookeeper is a challenging game. It’s a game that engages players on multiple cylinders. I’m guessing the subject matter, language, and puzzles may not strike a nerve with all IF gamers, but for the ones it does, Cryptozookeeper is a guaranteed good time.

Link: Cryptozookeeper

I can think of three reasons why anybody would rent table space at a video game convention. The first is, you own a video game store. Those guys are there to sell games and promote their stores. The second reason is, you’re a video game collector looking to (a) sell video games (often duplicate titles from your own collection) and (b) trade video games with other vendors. And then there are people like me — people who rent table space for the sole purpose of showing off things.

At OVGE 2004 I displayed my collection of vintage console copiers (old devices used to dump cartridge ROM data to floppy disks). It was my first year as an exhibitor at OVGE, and I went all out by decorating my table with a “pirate” theme. (To this day, people at the show still refer to me as “the guy that did the pirate table”.) In 2005, I put together a Star Wars-themed table. Both years I had multiple people ask, “Yeah, but what are you selling?”

OVGE 2004: The Pirate Theme.

OVGE 2005: The Star Wars Theme.

For the 2011 show, with the public’s interest in text adventures possibly the highest it’s been in the past 20 years, I put together a display I referred to as GET TEXT. Get Text consisted of three parts: half a dozen computers running text adventures, a bunch of text adventure-related memorabilia … and Robb Sherwin (of fame) who generously flew out to Oklahoma on his own dime specifically to attend OVGE 2011 and promote his new game, Cryptozookeeper.

Sherwin arrived in Oklahoma City late Friday evening. That night we ate cheap tacos and stayed up way too late talking about video games. We went to bed around 1am, and woke up a little after 5am to load up the truck and drive to OVGE in Tulsa, picking up my buddy Jeff before hitting the turnpike.

(For the record, I cannot state strongly enough how important Jeff is to the show. Jeff is the rock that allows me to roam around, talk to people, take pictures, and let my Attention Deficit Order run wild. He calms me down before the show, helps me focus, helps me set up my displays, and If I’m gone from the table too long, he puts on my name tag and signs books for people until I get back. Without Jeff, my table would consistently suck. I thank him every year for all he does, but really, if you’ve ever enjoyed any of my displays over the past five years, you should thank him too.)

Enough with the gushing; on with the display.

Not seen in this picture is my Commodore 64 system. Starting next to it, I had an Apple IIc, a DOS machine, an Amiga 600, a TRS-80 Model 4P (portable/luggable), an iPad, and a Windows 7 machine.

(Nerdy details: the Commodore alternated between running two Scott Adams games, Adventureland and The Hulk. The Apple II was running Oo-topos and
Indiana Jones in Revenge of The Ancients. The DOS machine (an Acer netbook running DOSBox; yes, I cheated) ran a couple of different text adventures, including my own game, Hangar 22. The Amiga 600 was running The Pawn and Guild of Thieves, both by Magnetic Scrolls. The TRS-80 4P ran Zork on its green screen all day long. On the iPad I had installed Frotz and was running Hangar 22. The last machine was a Windows 7 laptop, running Robb Sherwin’s Cryptozookeeper.)

When I was coming up with the theme for my table, I expected a few of the attending adults to say, “I remember those!” and for everybody else (specifically everyone under the age of 30) to point and laugh and guffaw at such old and outdated technology.

Instead, what I saw, was this:

… and this …

… and this …

Consistently throughout the day, someone was on at least one or more of the machines. Often times, the people playing the games were young children. Although I failed to capture it on film, at one point in time there were people on all six computers. Seriously, how cool is that? Surely my table was the only place in the world that day where six strangers stood side by side, pecking away at text adventures on vintage hardware.

The two machines that seemed to get the most use throughout the day were the Commodore 64, and surprisingly, the TRS-80. I think the TRS-80’s allure was its green screen and decidedly retro styling. The Commodore 64 is always a hit, and both of the games I ran on it had color graphics as well, which may have drawn people to it. The least popular platform (surprisingly) was the iPad. I’m not sure if people weren’t comfortable in picking it up, but I don’t think anybody did. Maybe they were just being polite.

Robb Sherwin and I spent much of the day talking to visitors about text adventures: about Robb’s game, about my game, and often just about old games in general. Some of the older visitors’ eyes would light up as them remembered old games they used to play. One guy mentioned the classic Broderbund title The Ancient Art of War, which we all discussed. Man, I used to play that game all the time my Dad’s IBM PC Jr. I was so terrible at that game that I’m sure Sun Tzu rolled over in his grave every time I booted it up, but boy was it fun.

I do have to confess to one bit of light-hearted tomfoolery I had at the show. It involved this:

Prior to the show, I advertised that I would be selling copies of Jason Scott’s text adventure documentary Get Lamp at the show. Unfortunately Jason wasn’t able to ship any copies of the movie to me in time for the show. I brought my own copy of the film and displayed it next to the lamp my Dad got me for Christmas. The first couple of times people asked me if the lamp I had on display was the lamp from Get Lamp, I told them no. Then, I started telling people it was. Then, I made a small hand-written sign, declaring it as the official film prop. This continued throughout the day. Over a dozen people approached me, asked if I had copies of Get Lamp for sale, saw the lamp, read the sign, and then took a picture of the lamp. If you are one of those people, I apologize for tricking you. :)

Robb Sherwin, taking a stab at the original Zork. He was not fooled by my imposter lamp.

Also prior to the show, I advertised that I would have (a) free CDs full of text adventures to give away, or that (b) if you brought by a USB stick, I would fill it with text adventures. Due to woefully poor planning on my part, I ran out of CDs an hour into the show. I did have approximately a dozen people take me up on my USB offer, which we awesome. I also promised a couple of people that I would put the cache of text games online for download — I’ll do that tonight.

For most of the day, my view of the show looked like this:

People of varying ages, gathered around machines, playing text adventures. If that doesn’t sound like a good time, I don’t know what does.

Thanks to Robb Sherwin for coming out and sharing his game Cryptozooker with the crowd, Jeff Martin for all the help and assistance, and Brian Green from for loaning me his TRS-80, Amiga 600, and various software packages for the show. Without help from these three fellows, “Get Text” would have been “Get Poop”. Thanks again, guys.

For more pictures from the show, check out my 2011 OVGE Photo Album.

EDIT: Robb Sherwin wrote his own thoughts about the show over at Caltrops.

The 8th (!) annual Oklahoma Video Game Expo (OVGE) will take place this Saturday at the Spirit Bank Event Center in Tulsa, OK.

Out of the seven OVGE shows (there was no show in 2007) I’ve had a table at five of them, each year with a different theme. So far I’ve done Console Copiers (2004), Star Wars games (2005), Commodork (2006), Invading Spaces (2008), and “Stuff For Sale!” (2009). This year I’ll be doing GET TEXT, a tribute to text adventures.

GET TEXT will consist of several retro computers (Commodore 64, Apple II, Amiga 1200, DOS) running classic text adventures. I’ll also have a couple of modern computers running text adventures, including the iPad!

There will be two brand new text adventures available at my table. The first is the official debut of my brand new game, HANGAR 22. The second is CRYPTOZOOKEEPER, the new graphical text adventure from Robb Sherwin. Robb will be sharing my table with me, signing autographs. Robb was an interviewee in Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventures, GET LAMP. Of course I’ll have copies of my books Commodork and Invading Spaces on hand. There may be some other things for sale at the table as well. I don’t know. The show’s still four days away, gimmie a break. I’ll decide by Friday night.

I’m going to be compiling and burning a limited number of CDs to give away at the show that will contain lots of free text adventures, including HANGAR 22 and CRYPTOZOOKEEPER. If I run out of CDs, anyone stopping by with a USB memory stick can also get a copy.

If you’re on the fence about attending, check out these photo albums of previous OVGE shows. The show is always great fun, with lots of old and new games to play and buy. The OneUps will be playing a free show at 3pm. They were great last year and I look forward to seeing them again this year!


Hangar 22, my first text adventure, is essentially done! Thanks to everybody who has helped me test thus far. The final release will probably be Friday. If you’d like to play it now (and help me by testing things out), here are two ways to play it.

01. Play the game online. For some reason, the people hosting Parchment (the online IF engine) are disallowing Internet Explorer. If you run IE, this link won’t work for you. If you run Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or IE9, then this should work. (UPDATED: Link currently does not work with versions of Internet Explorer before IE9. The developers are aware of the issue and are looking into it — thanks Danni!)

02. Download an interpreter and the game. This will take two steps. If you run Windows, you will need to first download a copy of Windows Frotz. Once you install Frotz, you will be able to click-on and play text adventures. Then, you’ll need to download a copy of Hangar 22. Once you have the file saved on your computer, double-click it and Frotz should launch the game.

Over the weekend at one of those “City-wide Garage Sales”, I found the following book:

The Book of Adventure Games, by Kim Schuette, was released in 1985. The cover pretty much has it all: caves, a fire-breathing dragon, an overflowing treasure chest, and (of course) a lamp. Everybody’s got a lamp.

The Book of Adventure Games contains entries for approximately 80 adventure games. Each entry contains a description of the game, a picture, maps, and a complete walk-thru list of commands. The walk-thru “spoilers” have been relocated to the back of the book away from the maps, but I can’t imagine wanting to look at one without the other.

Most of the early Scott Adams and Infocom games can be found here. A few graphical adventures, such as Wizardry and Ultima, also have entries complete with maps. I sure wish I had known about this book back in 1985!

The book’s introduction contains several one-page articles dealing with adventure games, such as “History of Adventures”, “What Makes a Good Adventure?”, “How to Tackle an Adventure Game”, and so on. It’s definitely interesting to read the perspective of adventure games from 1985. There are warnings that players may get frustrated by many of the games’ limited two-word parsers. The “History of Adventures” talks briefly about Dungeons and Dragons and mainframe computers before mentioning familiar milestones: Scott Adams’ cassette adventures, Colossal Cave, Roberta Williams’ Mystery House, and of course, Infocom (specifically, Deadline).

According to Amazon, a sequel to this book (The Book of Adventure Games II) was released later that same year (1985) and is readily available on the used market. Looks like I might need to own the pair!

Last week I gave myself two weeks to complete Hanger 22, my first “official” text adventure. Things are moving along, and I expect to meet my self-imposed deadline.

The game’s story takes place over two days. Other than minor wordsmithing, “Day One” is essentially complete. All the objects and game mechanics within Day One are in place, but each time I re-read through the text I make minor tweaks to streamline the text and tighten the jokes. For “Day Two”, the second half of the game, all the rooms have been created and, more importantly, all the game logic has been worked out on paper. At this point it’s just a matter of sitting down and finishing the programming.

The hardest part about programming a text adventure isn’t the code that responds to what a player “should” do. It’s the code that reacts to what a player “might” do (but shouldn’t) that turns out to be tedious — much more so than with a traditional video game. Take Pac-Man, for example. When programming a Pac-Clone, you would need to program what happens when Pac-Man eats a dot, when a ghost touches Pac-Man, and so on. You would not have to program in what happens if Pac-Man gets tired of running, calls time-out, and decides to ask the Ghosts if they would like to go get some coffee instead. In Pac-Man, the player does not have the ability to do that. In Interactive Fiction however, players have the entire English language at their disposal. Players can (and will) try things you may or may not have thought of, and the way those events are handled can be the difference between an enjoyable game and a frustrating experience.

Partly because of this, I have implemented both HINT and CHEAT commands into Hanger 22. One of the most frustrating things in a game for me is not knowing what to do or where to go. In Hanger 22, when a player types HINT, the game will respond with a location-specific “nudge” to get the player back on track. In most of the puzzle areas, players will be able to type CHEAT to get the solution of the puzzle. Every location will respond to HINT, but not every one will contain CHEAT information. I think some people enjoy figuring stuff out while other people enjoy beating the game, so I’m hoping this system meets both groups’ needs.

When I mentioned the game before, a few people asked what I was programming the game in and what system(s) it would be playable on. Hanger 22 is being written in Inform 6, which means it will be playable on every major operating system, most mobile devices, and also through your web browser. If you want to play Hanger 22, you will be able to.

My parents brought home our first home Pong console in the fall of 1977, shortly after I turned four-years-old. The following year we upgraded to a Magnavox Odyssey 2, and in 1979 we purchased an Atari 2600. I have literally been playing video games my entire life; I’m a grown up gamer that grew up gaming. I’ve watched the video game technology grow and expand infinitely, back from its humble monochrome roots in the late 1970s to the hi-definition graphics, digital surround sound audio, and online multi-player gaming experiences we take for granted today.

When you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast the new with the old. As a technical kind of guy this often plays itself out in numbers. Comparing the processing power and storage capacity of today’s modern marvels to the systems of yesteryear results in some mind-blowing revelations. I once downloaded a zip file that contained the ROMs of every Atari 2600 game known at that time. The file was 3 megabytes in size. A complete archive of every official US Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is slightly larger at just over 100 megabytes. Realizing that I have enough memory to store complete copies of the Atari 2600, NES, SNES and Sega Genesis game libraries on my phone reminds us of how far we’ve come in the couple of decades. In the year 2000, I had a Nokia cell phone that was capable of playing a port of Snake (an arcade game from 1976). Ten years later, I bought an iPhone that plays Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (THPS2).

Cramming a skateboarding game originally designed to play on the Sony PlayStation into an iPhone requires a level of technical wizardry that is impressive, but not surprising. If you really want to understand what technical wizardry is — if you really want to learn about a world where every byte (nay, bit!) counted, you’ll need to go back almost 30 years to the Atari 2600 platform. While it is indeed impressive that in 2010 Activision was able to render a three-dimensional world in which you can maneuver a virtual Tony Hawk around in, it is more impressive to me that in 1982 Activision released Pitfall!, a game that contained 32 treasures spread across 255 unique rooms containing varying combinations tar pits, water holes, quicksand, rolling logs, campfires, snapping crocodiles, scorpions and swinging vines … all in 4k worth of code.

If that last fact made your jaw drop, or caused you to smile, or sent chills down your spine, or got any sort of physical reaction out of you at all … then Racing the Beam is for you.

Written by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam chronicles (in technical depth) the development of six seminal Atari 2600 games: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. With the development of each game, readers are exposed to the capabilities (read: limitations) of the Atari 2600 platform. From a hardware perspective the 2600 was developed to play variations of Combat and Pong, and only contained the ability to render five moving objects (two players, two bullets, one ball) at a time, and had 128 bytes of RAM in which to do it. The random, colorful explosions in Yars’ Revenge and the smooth, parallax scrolling in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back become all the more impressive in that context. In order to perform some of those complicated tasks, programmers found themselves literally racing the television’s electron beam down the television display.

Each game discussed within the book marks a milestone in the life of the Atari 2600, whether it’s the evolution of text adventures into a graphical environment (Adventure), the birth of movie licensed-games (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), or the genre of arcade-to-console conversions (Pac-Man). None of these games were developed within a vacuum, and the book does a good job of encapsulating not only the technical achievements of each game, but also the historical context in which they were developed. The chapter about Yars’ Revenge, for example, talks about the game’s roots as a port of Star Castle, and compares and contrasts the game with Atari’s Asteroids. The game’s Easter Egg, the code used for the seemingly random level-ending explosions, and its unique sonic landscape are all discussed in detail.

At multiple times throughout the book, Racing the Beam reminds us that these classic games weren’t compiled by teams of skilled programmers, but rather were labors of love, quite often imagined, developed, and programmed by a single individual. While general concepts and technical knowledge was passed along between programmers, because of the way these games were designed it was difficult to recycle and/or share specific code among projects. The concept of having different people work on graphics, sound, and gameplay mechanics would not come to pass for a few more years. The book does a good job of introducing us to these men behind the keyboards.

Racing the Beam is not always an easy read. While the anecdotes and memories documented within are both interesting and informative, the book occasionally delves deep into the technical hows-and-whys involved in producing these games. I encountered some conversational hurdles as I waded through information regarding Atari’s TIA chip (the 2600’s sound and graphics chip), clock cycles and horizontal and vertical blanks — interesting Jeopardy material to be sure, but definitely deeper reading than your average light-hearted romp down retrospective lane.

Upon finishing this book you will never again look at the background trees in Pitfall or Pac-Man’s flashing ghosts in the same way. While not an encapsulating history of the Atari 2600 itself, Racing the Beam does an excellent job of explaining the demonstrating the hurdles and limitations early programmers had to overcome in order to create great video games.

(One final thought: this review contains almost 6,000 characters, approximately 2,000 more than any of the Atari 2600 games dissected in Racing the Beam. Food for thought.)

Earlier this year Jason Scott released Get Lamp, his “text adventure/interactive fiction” documentary. (If you missed it, I wrote an interactive review of it.) Before the documentary was released, I pre-paid for two copies: one for me, and one for my dad — after all, it was Dad who got me into computers and text adventures in the first place.

This morning for Christmas, I got a box from Dad. Inside the box was a treasure chest. The treasure chest was wrapped twice with a chain, and the chain was fastened with a combination lock that uses letters instead of numbers. Also inside the box was this:

A map. The map to the original text adventure, Colossal Cave, to be exact. On the right hand side of the map, the following handwritten note had been added:

To quote Sherlock Holmes, “The game was afoot.” Dad mentioned that the note was a code, and added, “you wrote one like it one time.”

After Dad left, I sat on the couch for almost half an hour with my brain’s wheels turning. Five numbers. At first I thought it might be a math puzzle, but why would each number want you to subtract one digit? Plus, I’ve never written a code like that. What I did write one time, however, was eCoder Ring, a simple encryption program using one-time pads. My initial thought was that the numbers might respond to pages on somehow, but that didn’t seem likely. A good one-time pad code requires that both the encoder and the decoder possess the same source material (the “key”). And immediately it hit me, the book I know both of us owned.

Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie by Rob O’Hara. Me.

None of the numbers went over 178 (the number of pages in Commodork), so that was a good sign. I quickly thumbed through the book and, using the big numbers as page numbers and the small numbers (all ones) as character locations, I came up with the following letters: B A S S R.


I ran back to the living room and spun the dials with my thumbs. Could that be the combination? The lock clicked open. It worked! Dropping the lock and casting the chains aside, the chest then opened to reveal …

A lamp! A brass lamp!

For those who haven’t seen it, in the background of nearly every interview on Get Lamp (approximately 70 of the film’s 80 interviews) sits a brass lamp. Dad said he wasn’t sure if the lamp belonged to Jason or had been some sort of promotional item handed out by Infocom that all these people owned, but either way, he figured, I would want to own one too. The lantern appearing in the film is Jason’s, and Dad was right — I did want to own one.

And now I do.