GO NE: My text adventures

You are in a low attic space, filled with taped-up cardboard boxes of all sizes. At your feet, a large box has been pulled out and its tape ripped open. To the N an open hatch leads back into the BEDROOM. The space continues under the eaves to the E and W. A chink of light emerges from a recess to the S.
> OPEN BOX
You open the large cardboard box.

A few years back, my parents moved out of the house they'd lived in since my early teens. I visited them as they were clearing out the house's many nooks and crawl-spaces. My mother had extracted a box containing relics of a whey-faced computer nerd who lived in the house until the late 80s. (Reader, this was me.) 

We opened the box and delved inside. Mice had been at some of the contents, and everything smelled like the bottom of a hamster cage; but some items had survived unscathed, including the rare first issue of UNFOLDABLE FUTURE MAGAZINE, featuring the not-at-all-Judge-Dredd-like SERGEANT KILLER, plus DEADLY JACK and the oddly phallic STARSHIP 2000.

But the largest and most exciting treasure was my old Sharp MZ-80K computer. This 48K powerhouse was launched in the UK in November 1979, challenging the dominance of the PET and the TRS-80 – in part because of its sleek, iconic design. I know that seems hard to believe in a world whose standards for industrial design have been conditioned by Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive, but at the time this was like owning a functional chunk of the USS Enterprise.

It was built by one of the world's leading makers of electronic cash registers, which to be honest showed, in the boxy casing of its screen and its expanse of plasticky keys. I loved that keyboard. Just as the best calculators were those with at least 30 buttons I didn't know how to use, so a computer with 78 keys, at least half of them labelled with what appeared to be letters from the Klingon alphabet, was clearly superior to the more consumer-friendly offerings of Commodore and other rival manufacturers. As I say, I was a nerd.

You have stepped into a maze. Glowing amber lines hang in the air around you, forming rudimentary walls and doorways. the perspective is extreme, unreal. The routes to N, S and E are blocked by blank walls. A passageway stretches to the W, with branches off it.
> GO W
You enter 3-D Maze by Matthew Blakstad.

Also included in the box was a copy of my first published work. I reproduce this in its entirety here. it's from the February, 1983 edition of Computer and Video Games Magazine.  

 

For anyone under the age of 30 who is baffled at seeing computer code reproduced line by line in a printed magazine, this is how we early hobbyists exchanged our work: by typing up each others' programmes from printed copies, samizdat style – or if we were lucky, swapping cassette tapes on which the software was encoded using the same rapid shrieks and squeals that would later be familiar from dial-up Internet connections. The most advanced among us downloaded software from the BBC text information service CEEFAX, onto their Acorn computers; but that still seemed like witchcraft to me.

In spite of the extreme friction involved in such primitive forms of transmission, code promulgated far and wide, unfettered by big brother notions like intellectual property rights. As in DNA transcription, the replication of information was often perfect; but here, the error rates were much higher, due to our limited typing skills and the sheer length of the blocks of code we doggedly transcribed. So the process resulted in more than its fair share of mutants. Any quirks or glitches created this way could, if the software actually ran, survive into future generations. Other, savvier, users would modify and improve the code deliberately. And so a new form of evolution began.

It was through this painstaking retyping of other people's code that I figured out how to write my own software. As I typed, I reverse-engineered algorithms and ganked new tricks with strings and arrays. I was never any good, but I was committed; and over time I developed the skills to create new worlds – worlds that I could myself inhabit. My MZ-80K became gamespace, dungeon master and team-mate in one.

So when, in late 1982, I received a postcard telling me that the maze game I'd recently sent in to C&VG Magazine would shortly appear in print, I was thrilled. Now my code would be read and transcribed – and PLAYED – by thousands of nerds like me. They even sent me payment for my work: a 50p voucher. You heard me right: 50 new pence. Which for the work in question, equated to a 33p page rate. And they say freelance writing doesn't pay.

Though I blush to look at it now, my programme made a decent fist at rendering an animated 3-D maze using just text characters, typed in from my Mr Sulu keyboard. I remember the moment when I'd hacked out the glitches and ran it for the first time. I typed RUN MAZE. The screen cleared, then a blank wall appeared, its edges picked out in orange light. I hit a key and spun to my right. I pressed another and stepped forward into the maze array.

  My 3-D maze game (reconstruction!)

 

My 3-D maze game (reconstruction!)

Next, I tried to teach the machine to design its own mazes; but I soon gave up. Partly because it was hard. Partly because I wanted to design the mazes, for others to explore. Unlike some of my peers, I don't think I was ever interested in programming for its own sake. I just wanted to know enough to create these navigable worlds whose drama could unfold one step at a time. This is also the motivation of all the supremely gifted storytellers who now design computer games. Not the thrill of honing new, more efficient graphics routines, but the magic of imbuing a false world with such vibrant life, that users can't help but explore it.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.
> ENTER BUILDING
You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring. There are some keys on the ground here. There is a small brass lamp nearby. There is food here.

It was 1975. Will Crowther was working for Bolt, Beranek and Crowther, the Boston firm that built the ARPANET – the packet network that eventually morphed into the Internet. When he wasn't programming routers or playing Dungeons and Dragons, Will spent much of his time exploring and mapping Kentucky's imaginatively-named Mammoth Cave System. Wanting a way to reconnect with his daughters, who were then living with his estranged wife, Will decided to create a fun cave exploration experience he could share with the girls – without, you know, dropping them down a hole in the ground. It took him 700 lines of FORTRAN to create the first version of Colossal Cave Adventure, which later became simply Adventure. 

His daughters loved the game, and so did the friends they shared it with – and the code soon transmitted itself through the computing community, through the same rough-shod channels Ive already described. In particular, someone kept installing it on university networks in the depth of night. I'm reminded of how the gardener Ellen Wilmott used to covertly sprinkle seeds of her favourite silver-grey thistle, Eryngium Giganticum, amidst other people's planting, eventually making it a staple of the English garden. It's now called Miss Wilmott's Ghost.

Colossal Cave Adventure became a staple, too. Soon everyone – including me – was exploring its linked locations, searching for clues in Crowther's pithy plain-text descriptions, collecting and using the scattered items; and shrieking in frustration when we found our way into the chain of seemingly identical underground chambers that linked the first and second acts of the story:

You are in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike
> GO N
You are in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike
> GO N
You are in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike

...and so on.

This classic Adventure game – along with the growing popularity of dynamic multi-user spaces where people could create their own stories – soon spawned a whole new genre of explorable text adventures. I was obsessed with them: The Hobbit; Douglas' Adams' own adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy; The Incredible Hulk (which began with puny Bruce Banner tied to a chair, unable to move. Can you guess what instruction you needed to type to start the game? – If you're stumped, there's a cheat sheet here.) I spent hours exploring these open-world games, even when I'd completed the game. When they started adding pictures, and then animations, to the games, I still enjoyed them; but to be honest I've always been kind of OG about the pared-down simplicity of text-only games. Like radio, they had the best pictures.

Just as I learned to programme by copying code, I unwittingly picked up important skills as I played these games over and over. How to hold in place the multiple threads of a narrative; how to think through the eyes of a new user coming fresh to a world; how to tease out clues and red herrings. I use all these skills today, though I haven't built a game in decades. These days I write a different kind of text adventure. They're called novels.

This isn't a metaphor. I'm not making a case for 'creative writing is to coding as the world is to a stage.' I'm saying that whenI write fiction I'm using many of the same processes I once used to write code. This is how things are wired for me. I can't speak for other writers. But I came to writing late-ish, after a lifetime working in digital media, and all this stuff was already wired into my brain. I don't think this is a coincidence. I believe that my ten thousand hours creating on-screen experiences was part of my apprenticeship as a novelist.

Which, to reach at last the nub of these meandering recollections, is why I get so frustrated when people assume that one aspect of my life is somehow in contrast to the other. To me, this is just another insidious manifestation of the Two Cultures lie.

The route-one image of a computer nerd – the pasty-faced outcast hammering away at a keyboard in his bedroom – is set in opposition to more culturally-valid, artistic pursuits. Oh yeah? Have you ever met a writer? believe me, we tick all those boxes. The very things it takes to be a computer nerd – an obsession with creating and exploring virtual environments; the rigour and late-night screen-burn sessions that are so vital to writing code of any quality – are also attributes of the writer. So why does it rankle with so many people when I say that they're the same? Why do we still insist our novelists should confirm to an unrealistic template manufactured in the romantic era? Why can't we accept that writers are also massive nerds?

The 'arts'-v-'sciences' opposition is, of course, baked into us early. A curriculum that forces teenagers to choose between the two is the tip of the iceberg. What we should beware of far more are the social rules that define our young selves – just as they try to do with our gender identities. We're told from an early age that we're one thing or the other and we can't be both. In a million tiny ways, we're forced to choose and we learn to tread a specific path, to the exclusion of others we might have followed and profited from. 

Perhaps I should say, we were forced to choose. I don't have kids myself, but I'm excited at how a new generation of Raspberry Pi-toting kids is bucking this 'nerd v creative' bullcrap once and for all. I only wish that kind of tool, those communities, had been around when I was setting out. Ditto the internet, and all the alternative ways of defining yourself it has to offer. Plus downloading open source code beats the hell out of typing out all that BASIC by hand.

You are at a fork in the path. To the N is the Path of the Arts with its bookshops and microbreweries, and coffee shops run by bearded men. To the E, the Path of the Sciences is lined with comic shops, game arcades and branches of Maplin.
> GO NE
You leave the path.