This past March, the news first broke that Ken and Roberta Williams would helm the development of a Colossal Cave Adventure remake. After nearly three decades away from the video game industry, this momentous return left fans awestruck and excited. Now, as we near the game’s release window of Fall 2022, here is everything we know about Colossal Cave – Reimagined by Roberta Williams.
A colossal return to the gaming industry
The founders of Sierra On-Line Ken and Roberta Williams are undoubtedly two of the most influential pioneers in video games. Beginning with early titles in 1980 like Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess, the Williams went on to create a company many retro gamers would say helped define their childhoods throughout the ’80s and 90’s. However, in 1996 for the price of one billion dollars, they sold Sierra On-Line.
In the year’s since, Ken and Roberta spent years travelling around the world, visiting 27 different countries. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, halting their travels. Stuck at home, the two had time to reflect and each wrote a book.
Ken’s book, in particular, Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings detailed the rise and fall of Sierra, and gave him a restored interest in games. Initially, Ken’s return started as just a pet project toying around with and learning Unity 3D Engine. However, once Unity themselves heard the news, the project ballooned into a massive return to the gaming industry for both Ken and Roberta Williams.
Ken and Roberta Williams return to their roots
So, out of all the projects Ken and Roberta could have chosen for their grand return to game development, why did they pick Colossal Cave Adventure? Simply put, the original text adventure is the game that started it all.
Originally created by William Crowther and later by Don Woods, 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure (AKA ADVENT and Adventure) is a text-based game that spawned an entire genre of adventure games. From titles like Rogue to Zork, the influence of this humble text adventure left a lasting legacy. However, two of the most notable people Colossal Cave Adventure influenced are none-other than Ken and Roberta Williams themselves.
Roberta first played the game in 1979 after her husband discovered the program on an IBM mainframe he brought home from work. From that point, Roberta became hooked on the title. However, after finishing the game, Roberta wanted more. The problem was that this game was one of a kind. Therefore, she set out to design her own game (Mystery House) to fill that void.
Well, I got so attached to this [Colossal Cave Adventure], so addicted to this thing that it felt very odd to me that I would’ve been so attracted to it. I thought in my mind that I couldn’t be the only one like this. There’s got to be others like me. I mean, this is not usual for me. So I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to try to design my own game because this is fun!”Roberta Williams
From there, the rest is history. So, when Ken decided he wanted to make a new game after all these years, it felt right to return back to Colossal Cave. Although the project started off small, as companies like Unity got involved in the process, Roberta eventually jumped on board to helm the game’s design. Now, Ken and Roberta are both helming the brand new development team of Cygnus Entertainment, with 29 employees on the roster.
Bringing the text to life in virtual reality
One of the most eyebrow raising elements about the reimagining of Colossal Cave is the transition from a text-based game to a virtual reality title with 3D graphics. And according to Roberta herself, translating the original game and redesigning it with visuals has been the hardest part of the process.
In a recent interview with Mega Visions, she explains how the biggest challenge to redesigning a game so classic is staying true to the source material. For a game with such a historical—and in her case, personal—importance, being respectful and faithful to the text became Roberta’s top priority.
You had to treat it with kid gloves, and you had to really think about how you’re going to handle this. How are you going to take a game that’s very famous and historical and treat it right? And what does that mean?Roberta Williams
In the interview, Roberta went on to explain that her solution was to study the original source code of Colossal Cave Adventure. While reading the original code from Will Crowther and Don Woods, she explains that for detailed room descriptions, she took every word into account. Working with the artists, Roberta would make sure that all of the visuals looked exactly as the text described them to be.
However, Roberta also adds that unfortunately, not every description had a ton of detail. For instance, the Hall of the Mountain King was one room that gave her and the other artists trouble. With little to work from, Roberta Williams needed to use a little more creative liberty to replicate the room and stay true to the atmosphere of Colossal Cave.
Continuing the example of the Hall of the Mountain King, Roberta states that to figure out what the Hall would look like, she first needed to know who the Mountain King was. From there, she set off to develop a backstory for the character that would communicate how the room would ultimately look.
We sort of made up the Hall of the Mountain King as it’s sort of part of an ancient civilization that used to live in the cave eons and eons ago… …So, we just call it the Hall of the Mountain King Civilization. They had their areas in there and what they were, their architecture so to speak, even though you’re in a cave.Roberta Williams
How Colossal Cave – Reimagined preserves the gameplay of the original
Preserving the integrity of the original text adventure didn’t end with bringing the room descriptions to life with 3D graphics. According to Roberta, the most important element to get right was the gameplay. For that reason, she made sure that everything from the puzzles to the inventory objects, and even the scoring system is identical to the 1976 classic.
It’s one thing to spiffy up all the graphics and add some nice touches, but it’s another thing to change the game design. I didn’t want to touch that at all.Roberta Williams
However, this led to another design challenge: combat. As the original Colossal Cave Adventure is entirely text, all of the combat encounters feature turn-based events. However, for a game boasting a real-time 3D interactive environment, remaking the game with turn-based combat just didn’t feel right.
One example Roberta points to involves the moment when a dwarf throws a knife at you.
When it’s text, and he [the dwarf] throws a knife at you, and you can throw an axe, but you got something to do in the meantime, you’re actually pretty glad when you get back and he’s still there waiting for you. But you don’t see him, and it’s a big difference when you’re looking at him.Roberta Williams
One solution that Roberta just didn’t see as an option was implementing a skill-based aiming mechanic to respond. That’s because she wants to retain the original game’s calculations that determine the outcomes of combat encounters. Instead, the ultimate solution to retain the point-and-click gameplay was to implement a timer.
In the game, players will face multiple combat encounters that will require quick decisions. For instance, when you encounter the dwarf in the game, he will still throw the knife at you. Based on the same calculation from 1976, the knife will either kill you or miss.
If it misses, you then have five seconds to go into your inventory and grab your axe. Roberta also explains that going into your inventory does pause the timer. However, the timer continues as soon as you re-enter the game. From there, you have a limited time to press the button that throws your axe to hit the dwarf. This is just one of many similar encounters players will run into in Colossal Cave – Reimagined by Roberta Williams.
Colossal Cave – Reimagined by Roberta Williams journeys out this fall!
Colossal Cave – Reimagined by Roberta Williams is developed and published by Cygnus Entertainment. It launches for Nintendo Switch, PC and Meta Quest 2 this fall. For an even narrower window, Ken and Roberta told me they estimate it will release in November.
You can also play the original Colossal Cave Adventure for free on Cygnus Entertainment’s official website. You can experience the game that started it all for yourselves today with the fully-embedded text game!
In case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our exclusive interview series with Ken and Roberta! Also, don’t forget to check back on Monday for Part 3 in our interview series to hear from Ken on his journey back into game development.
What do you think about Colossal Cave? Are you excited to see the game’s reimagining by Ken and Roberta Williams? Have you played the original text adventure? As always, share your thoughts with us in the comments!