Taking stock of my Class of 1980, I have a mixed bag of diamonds-in-the-rough-at-best. Across the board, we see ambition and innovation that I think exceeds the actual quality of the work, the spirit of the Magnavox Odyssey  more than its honed descendant Pong : Pac-Man is overstimulating, Rogue is understimulating. House Of Usher is a hodge-podge of half-baked gameplay concepts, Zork is if anything overcooked but still uneven like the proverbial Pittsburgh Rare steak, both kinda lose track of themselves in the pursuit of worldbuilding. The exception is Berzerk, which keeps its technological innovation very much the side dish to its game design — not that it’s rote, just that it’s tight and focused on arcade shooting action. Warren Robinett’s Adventure  is on the most restrictive hardware of the whole bunch, designed not for mainframes or even PCs or bespoke arcade cabinets, but for the humble, peripheral Atari 2600, intended initially for ports of single-screen, singular-activity arcade games and already 3 years old. On this hardware, Adventure incorporates some of the most striking and groundbreaking bits and pieces of the 1980 games I’ve covered: It has the personable and unique AIs of Pac-Man, including in bat form the thief from Zork with which it also shares puzzle-solving and a systemic focus, the monster-slaying dungeon-crawling kept fresh through randomization of Rogue, the top-down contiguous world broken into separate screens of House Of Usher, all with the pace, maze, and chase of Berzerk. (It’s also worth noting that though it was released in 1980, apparently it was developed in 78 or 79.) Adventure, in merging simple arcade action and complex computer adventuring, becomes the prototypical console game. In only a couple of years, its approach will be so predominant that to speak of “action-adventure” games is downright meaninglessness.
To its contemporary audience, however, it’s all such a novel idea that the manual spends time on explaining basic peek-a-boo concepts, like going “off the screen” and onto another. It doesn’t exactly help that the graphics of Adventure, even among its contemporaries, are charming but infamously hard to decipher: Those ]purple brackets[ are meant to be a bridge that lets me walk over walls that I can also just… pick up? Is that an arrow, a spear, or a sword? Is that a dragon, a duck, or Fhqwhgads? The cover tells us they are dragons, and the manual tells us they are named “Yorgle,” “Rhindle,” and “Grundle,” which mostly just feels like rolling your hand across a keyboard and then pronouncing what you get, but the latter ties us directly to Beowulf’s dragon and Grendel-slaying, along with the enchanted chalice it is our ultimate goal to get. The milleu here is that of the high-fantasy Crusading King, although the entire game takes place within one kingdom so it’s not much of a crusade, more like St. George on a pest control operation. On the first “skill level,” you begin at a castle just as yellow as you are, to which you must return with your prize treasure with a demonstrative lock-and-key puzzle gating your way to your Rorschach implement of violence. It’s basically a long tutorial for getting your sea legs with regards to the graphics, the movement, the items, the inter-dependencies of the progression. Only on skill level 2 does the real game begin: the full map is unraveled and the bat is introduced.
The bat plays the same role as the thief last week in Zork. What really makes this implementation memorable, though, is the way it barely if at all respects the conventions of on-stage and off. The thief will occasionally move items from one room to another, but mainly makes scene-stealing appearances leaning in the wings when you enter a room. The bat, on the other hand, never stops screwing everything up and pays as far as I can tell absolutely no heed to your current spatial positioning. The similar, and likewise flying, dragons will chase you between rooms, ignoring walls that you cannot, until you leave their respective zones, which is the big leap over House Of Usher’s similar gameworld modelling, where the monsters could not chase you out of their rooms.
It also demonstrates its thoroughgoing commitment to emergent chaos. Every item in the world is governed by its own consistent rules and then set loose on the map. The magnet is a perfect example: it attracts items that are metal, so it functions as a way to kind of carry more than one thing, or for its stated intention, which is to extract vital items from positions that they can not be gotten back from because of unforeseeable circumstances and especially the bat. It’s actually downright frustrating, if comical, to be constantly stymied in absolutely everything by this wildly unpredictable bat who steals the victory right out of your hands and replaces it with a bridge. And if the bat has something you want, it can be easier to just grab it out of the air than grab what it has! The whole game’s mix of real-time reaction, extremely rudimentary puzzles, consistent rules, and relentless enemies makes for an extremely madcap experience. Skill level 3 reaches the apotheosis of this ridiculousness by turning Adventure into a Roguelike, completely randomizing the locations of all items and enemies, even completely disregarding solvability. The chalice could be in the castle it needs to be in… along with the key needed to unlock it. The first time I tried it, I was almost immediately eaten by a dragon on spawn, then the dragon I was inside was abducted by the bat. Absolutely hilarious, and I just can’t be sure if I love it or hate it, although it doesn’t seem to care about me. Peak 1980, in a way.
All these 1980 games have also had mazes in part or in whole. Mazes are kinda the essence of gamified geography. Not only are like, half of these games obviously pulling directly out of Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77], this one being another attempt at translation as per the title’s indication, but it’s intuitive enough even without the common ancestor. It’s navigation made needlessly, flagrantly, artificially complicated and difficult, yet quite surmountable, with satisfying solutions. That’s why we put lab rats in these cognitive playgrounds, so they can have a fun good time, like in the Skinner Box. The mazes of Adventure are particularly interesting for their arrangement, or rather, re-arrangement. Though the four of them consist of only 3 to 5 screens, they are extended by adopting the “spreadsheet” tactic of arbitrary connections that the 1977 expansion of CCA used and that is truly only available to computerized mazes. Because it’s graphical and you are speeding through it, you are much less likely to notice its underlying logic, just get the idea that you got turned around or gather the impression of a larger, maybe fluid maze. They’re small enough that you don’t try to map it or hold the whole thing in your head, you just solve it and then remember your route.
In the two orange mazes, the possibility of complete knowledge is further foreclosed by a darkness mechanic, in which only a small spotlight around the player’s avatar is illuminated. This limit on the uber-privileged top-down view identifies the player more deeply with that Magnavox Odyssey square the player draws on the TV screen as a perspective character, not just a cursor like a laser pointer at the screen. It’s worth considering how the Atari 2600 draws to the CRT television. A CRT TV projects light beams created by running varying amounts of electrons into phosphor, projected into a shadow mask, which creates that grid effect that you’ve seen if you were ever a kid that got far too close to the screen, and you are protected from the radiation by the heavy glass shielding. If you have had a quite old television, you might even be familiar with adjusting the vertical and the horizontal holds, and how the image squashes down to a small light when it turns off — manipulating the horizontal and vertical holds of this small square of light, and then getting up to three on the screen at once, was exactly the technical insight that led to the Magnavox Odyssey. The Atari 2600, in contrast to that and to the way a broadcast projection works by (if I am not mistaken) flashing entire frames at once like a filmstrip, renders its graphics in rows from the top down. Programmers would use this to draw more moving items on the screen than the 2600 technically supported, by having it draw sprites on alternate cycles of the light pen and hoping phosphor blur compensated, creating an infamous flickering effect. In Adventure, there is no true darkness: the backdrop is always grey, not the empty blackness of the unlit CRT TV. It’s an artificial mockery of darkness made entirely of light, instead of drawing light into the darkness, which would become the only way of electric dark come the dominance of the LCD screen.
In the influential physics of pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, it was scientifically held that we saw not by our eyes absorbing light, but by emitting it out and getting it back, like echolocation — that we were all actively projecting and reaching out into the universe instead of passively receiving and observing, that we all had a fire in our eyes. Modern science tells us that this is, instead, the condition of the TV screen over us. In the influential metaphysics of 1100s Islamic philosopher Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, we get an expansion of the Quran’s mystic-favoring Verse Of Light into an elaborated hierarchy of power and knowledge that comes to be called Illuminationism. The Light of Lights, drawing here on the First Cause proof of a divine creation from the Aristotelian and Avicennan [“Peripatetic”] thought Suhrawardi nominally opposes, shines on and through the universe casting shadows, reflecting various differing intensities of that light, like how a TV conjures its images of dragons and caves and castles by simple gradation of light levels onto the shadow mask. Knowledge works the same way, Suhrawardi holds: by direct apprehension. Well, let there be light! We sit before the TV and see and are seen by its radioactive glow and enter a strange loop, dancing together in the magic five-point circle from screen to eye to brain to hand to console and back to summon dragons. If only there were no shadows, no glass shield, we could really burn diving into the bath of radiation and become one none and done! Our most devoted and intrepid explorers of these Platonic caves, such as the influential graphical exegesis of gaming philosopher Adam Clayton, age 15, can hold a pixel the color of darkness, transport it to the altar with another object nearby to complete the ritual, and, passing through the electric threshold, directly apprehend the name of the game’s First Cause creator etched in lightning over the claimant parasite Atari. Yet even Clayton was blind to the meaning of these strange glyphs. He sent a letter narcing to his object of worship, the Atari corporation, the one with a brand in a bull market, in return praying for a product catalog so he could offer them further tribute. Fie!
Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than cis white males, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over, even if the news cycle has moved on. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.