Interview: Roberta Williams details her love for Colossal Cave
In part one of our interview series, learn about the significance of the original Colossal Cave Adventure and its preservation!
Throughout the history of gaming, we have seen lots of titles make waves for their time. From pioneers like Pong that captivated audiences with its simple yet revolutionary design to modern-day hits like Elden Ring that continue to capture the heart and soul of adventure gaming with immersive worlds, the video game industry is one of continuous evolution. However, there’s one game that’s legacy stretches into the historical careers of two of the gaming industries most prominent pioneers. That game is 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure.
Originally created by William Crowther and later by Don Woods, Colossal Cave 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 Sierra On-Line founders Ken and Roberta Williams.
After selling Sierra On-Line and being away from game development for nearly three decades, we learned in March that Ken and Roberta would be making their grand return to video games by returning to their roots. With Colossal Cave 3D Adventure, the duo plan to preserve what made the original title so special, while reimagining it with 3D graphics and virtual reality compatibility.
Part One: Preserving and remembering the original Colossal Cave Adventure
Ahead of the game’s fall launch for Meta Quest 2 and PC, we at Mega Visions got the chance to speak directly with Ken and Roberta. The two video game legends shared how their story of returning to game development began, and where that journey is at today.
In part one of our mini-series, you can learn all about how the original Adventure started their careers. In addition, you can also find out where you can play the original game for yourself and the importance of its preservation.
Beginning an original Adventure
Mega Visions: Ken, Roberta, thank you both for sitting down to chat about your upcoming 3D reimagining of Colossal Cave Adventure. I understand that the original 1975 game really sparked your interest in games. Could you talk a little bit about how that began—from playing that game to developing your own?
Roberta: Yeah, well that was a long time ago. It was early 1980. The reason I was playing this game—it wasn’t called Colossal Cave yet, it was called Adventure—and I just had a baby. And I wasn’t working at the time. Ken was a programming manager for some company, but he was doing some contract programming work as well in the evening.
So, he had a TRS-80 that he was bringing home to work at night. He also worked for a children’s hospital in Los Angeles at night. And not with the TRS-80, but he was bringing home a Teletime machine. It’s like a modem; it was a way to sign in through the telephone lines to the IBM mainframe down in the children’s hospital.
Ken Williams makes a life-changing discovery
Roberta: He found that there were some games on their mainframe, and one of them was Advent. Well, what’s that? So, he clicked on it, and he saw that he was standing at the end of a road in front of a small building and was surrounded by a forest. And then it said, “Type in one or two words to communicate, and I’ll take you through.”
So, he did, and he started going through it. Then he called me over. He said, “Hey, come over here! This looks kind of interesting. Let’s see what this is.” So, we both started playing it together for a little while, and pretty soon I sort of nudged him out of the way and said, “Well, let me do this.” And I started playing it.
And then he says, “Well, you can do this during the day while I’m at my real job.” So I did, and I played it for quite some time. At this point, I don’t remember how long. I would say it was at least a couple weeks, maybe a month. I was constantly playing this.
So, I got to the end of it. I played through it enough that I was able to get the 350 points, which was the original number of points. I felt really good about that and wanted to play more like it.
But there were none like it. There were some very simple text adventure games out there at the time, but they were nothing like this game. Well, I got so attached to this, so addicted to this thing that it felt very odd to me that I would’ve been so attracted to it.
Origins: How a Colossal Cave inspired a colossal game development company
Roberta: 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.”
I had a lot of fun with this, and I had an idea. It turned out to be Mystery House. So, I just sat down. I had this big huge 3×2′ piece of paper, and I just started doodling on it, and drawing, and mapping, and putting together ideas. It became my game Mystery House.
Then, I had to talk Ken into programming it for me. We had an Apple 2 by this time. We splurged for Christmas of 1979 and got an Apple 2. And we found out that this game was actually on the Apple 2, and it was being sold by Microsoft. And it was also being sold by Apple.
They each had their own copy of this game. One was Apple’s Adventure, and one was Microsoft Adventure. So, that was kind of it. That was really the beginning of adventure gaming. That’s what this game was all about. Will Crowther and Don Woods developed this game, and it really established the genre.
But it also established my career because this is what lured me into trying to do this job. And then with Sierra On-Line, Ken and I partnered up and we put out Mystery House. Then, we went on to Wizard and the Princess. Then, I think I did Mission Asteroid, and then it just went on.
And that’s the beginning. That’s the importance of Colossal Cave. Later on, it was called Colossal Cave. I don’t know when exactly.
The importance of preserving the original Colossal Cave Adventure
Mega Visions: As someone who advocates for game preservation, I find it really cool that you embedded the original Colossal Cave Adventure on your website.
Can you explain the significance of making it easy for people to experience the original game first-hand in anticipation for your new reimagining of it? And what advice would you have to a brand-new player who’s never played a text-based game before to get started?
Roberta: Oh boy, I would just say that I would think it would be very interesting for people to do that. I think that, by doing that, I think they’re going to be surprised at what a great game it is. It definitely is not for the modern world.
When I played it, there were no computer games. Literally, there weren’t any. Well, I think there were football games with X’s and O’s—one team’s X’s and one’s O’s, and you could move them around and do football strategy. Those were turn-based too.
So, it was much easier to get pulled into this game then because there was a story and you were reading it, and it was easier to get pulled in. Today’s world, that’s going to be harder to get people to do it. How to get them, I would just say go in with an open mind. Know that you’re going into an old-fashioned text game.
Give it some time. Don’t just decide right off the bat that this is horrible; give it some time. I would give it at least an hour, couple of hours even, before you give up.
It’s such a great game. I really think that you might be surprised if you give it a couple of hours that you might get drawn into it. Not everybody, but there are those that are going to be surprised that they’re going to be drawn into it.
Roberta Williams reawakens her spirit for adventure
Roberta: It gets better and better as you get further into it, and you begin to see how much depth there is to the design of this game. When I started looking into it and getting back into it, knowing I had to translate this game for graphics and VR, I had to really get back into it. I had to understand every single nuance and angle of it. Oh, so much, so much.
It’s almost been like a hole and digging for gold. You’re digging down, and just further and further in, you’re finding more about it. From my standpoint, as a designer to have to translate it over, as opposed to a player, it’s amazing how deep this game is. How much there is to it.
As a player, you will find that out too as you stick with it. And you will appreciate it. I think that then, when you go to play it with our graphics, you will appreciate it that much more.
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 PC and Meta Quest 2.
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!
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!
And stay tuned as we publish more of the interview for our series, so you can learn even more about Ken and Roberta Williams’ journey back into game development!