Colossal Cave (2023)

Colossal Cave (2023), based on Colossal Cave Adventure (1977) by Will Crowther and Don Woods, designed by Ken and Roberta Williams, developed and published by Cygnus Entertainment

There's a tremendous amount of history behind Colossal Cave. It was, in fact, originally called Colossal Cave Adventure when it was originally created by Will Crowther way back in 1976. This small text-based game was later expanded more by Don Woods and finally, in the 1980s it ended up in the hands of young Roberta Williams, for whom it gave a spark of creating games of her own. This she did with her husband Ken and the company they formed was no other than Sierra On-Line. Her first game was Mystery House, but her most famous one is King's Quest.

And Roberta Williams wasn't the only one who was inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure. In fact, the game loaned a name for the whole genre that was and still is, known as adventure games. They might be very different from the simple treasure hunt the originator was, but still for a good while in the 1980s, many of the games, including King's Quest, were just that, treasure hunts, until people started asking if there could be more, like story for example.

After Ken And Roberta left Sierra in the latter half of the 1990s, they withdrew from the games business, retiring to sail their boat all over the world. Cue forward a couple of decades and the covid caused the world to stop and Ken noticed that he was in a need of a project. First, he wrote a book about his Sierra years (as a side note, Roberta Willams wrote a book as well but I've not read that one.). But the covid continued and he thought he'd finally check out what was going on in the business he left behind decades ago.

After getting into Unity, he was mulling over a game he could do Roberta presented the idea of remaking the game that started their career. And here we are, in 2023, 47 years after the release of the original game, the couple who in so many ways contributed to the modern game industry has released a remake of a game that inspired them. The aim was to keep the design as close as possible to the original. In fact, it's so close, that if you look at walkthroughs of the original text game, you can get help on this 3D remake.

There's not much of a story in Colossal Cave. You are an adventurer, who enters Colossal Cave. It hides 15 treasures you need to find, but there are many obstacles on the way. Dark caverns, mazes, monsters, murderous dwarves and thieving pirates. And your inventory is limited as well, which means you have to figure out what items to take with you to get the treasures you intend to bring back to the surface.

The very first thing you see is an old well house. From there, you can find a couple of items you need later on in the caves, some sooner, some later. For the maximum score, you need to gather the treasures and bring them back to the well-house. But you also get points by simply locating them.

Really, the main goal of the game is to get the maximum 350 points. This is harder than it sounds. In the very beginning, the game asks if you want help. If you do, it docks you some points instantly, but taking the offered help is advised, especially if you are playing the game for the 1st time, as it makes the invaluable lantern last longer, making the experience more forgiving. After solving the game for the 1st time, you can then venture forth normally.

Another modern concession is the automap, which removes the need to map the game manually with pen and paper. Of course, you can still do that if you want. Hell, you can even use the old Colossal Cave Adventure maps to proceed in the game if you happen to have them around from when you played the original back in the 1970s. After completing the game, you can also choose to use the map you opened up during the previous game. This is a particularly nice feature.

Obviously, a lot has changed technically since the 1976 original mainframe version of the game. The biggest difference is, that instead of controlling the game via a text parser and seeing the game only as written passages, you can now see the whole world in 3D graphics. The game is wholly presented as a 1st person game, so you also move around with a standard WASD setup and use the mouse to interact with the world. 

I can only assume, that this modern form makes the game far easier than it was in its original form. Especially navigating the mazes is a tedious experience in text games. In this new version, you just take a heading of your always visible compass and check your maps. 

The puzzles are quite reasonable as well. There are a handful of puzzles that rely on randomization, like finding some of the magic words you need and some of the mazes are intentionally built to mess up your sense of direction. But, as it is, the modern presentation of these puzzles makes them far easier to approach, as for example the randomly found magic words can now be more easily stumbled upon while you just run around. And for the next gameplay, you know what to expect to find and where.

I expected that I'd dislike the game on the ground of it being based on such an archaic design. In 1976, computer games weren't really even in their infancy yet, so the design working this well on a modern iteration is really mesmerizing. 

Graphically, Colossal Cave isn't a terrible-looking game, but you can tell it was a game made on a budget and by a smaller team. Most of the surroundings look very nice, but you can tell many of the characters you meet could have needed some additional work. Not only for design but for animation as well. This was never a game that was going to fight against AAA titles though and nothing about it looks horrendous.

Voice acting, what there is, is well done. Most of the voice work is on the shoulders of  Jason Cryer, who is narrating the descriptions you had to read in the original game. He has a very nice voice that fits the game like a glove. There's some additional voice acting as well, but none of it is notable of the narrator.

Voice acting aside, the game is sadly rather silent. Sure enough, there are the voices you'd expect to hear in a cave, like footsteps on stone, howling find and dripping stalagmites, but as far as music goes, there's very little of it. There are some short tunes here and there, but a more proper ambient soundtrack would have been a nice addition. 

When comes to platforms, Ken and Roberta went all in with Colossal Cave 3D in their attempts of bringing it to modern audiences. It's available for consoles and virtual devices as well. As Roberta and ken themselves put it, they wanted to bring the game to new audiences and they've certainly done that. If this is something modern gamers are looking for is an entirely different matter, but as for game preservation goes, this is some great work.

Playing Colossal Cave does rise up an interesting question. The question of, what if some other classic tex adventures would be brought to modern platforms similarly. Say, like the classic games by Infocom or Magnetic Scroll for example. History is filled with well-written text adventures that could be brought back in this manner. 

Colossal Cave is, by all counts, a faithful recreation of one of the oldest text adventure games made. In that sense, many of its design aspects are rooted in history, but still, it is surprising how well the game plays even now. Many of its aspects may sound tedious, but none of it actually feels like bad or dated game design, which is really surprising. Even its reliance on trial and error works nicely, as it turns the whole experience into more of a metagame, where you play the game to learn its rules so you can beat it by knowing in advance how it plays.

It's also refreshing in the sense, that Colossal Cave doesn't pretend to be something more than it is. At its core, it's a simple treasure hunt game and it doesn't try to hide that by attempts of padding with additional narrative. It's proudly what it is and it is doing its head held high. It might not be a game for everyone, but if you are willing to give it a try, you might be pleasantly surprised, just like I was.

Another bonus from this project is the knowledge, that even having been away from the games business for 2 decades, Ken and Roberta still have what it takes to create games. I have no idea if they'll continue tinkering in the games business. I do hope so, as there's still a place in this world for games designed by Roberta Williams.

You can get Colossal Cave for consoles, VR and PC. The usual sources for PC players are GOG and Steam.