Text and early adventure games in the 80s
Even in their most primitive text-only form, PC-based games have had a richness and quality in their storytelling that is almost unmatched by console and arcade games, at least during the 80s.
Text-based adventure games had begun to appear in the early 70s, pioneered by programmers like William Crowther who co-created ‘Colossal Cave Adventure’, regarded by many as the very first text-adventure. As there was no HDMI or progressive scan on early PC computers, the visuals of these games had to be comprised entirely of either green or white text on a black screen. Of course writers and developers refused to allow technological limitations hinder the development of games that were not only entertaining but also thoughtful.
Progenitor games such as ‘Zork’ (which went on to spawn numerous sequels and spin-offs) allowed users to explore relatively detailed and complex worlds, through text and command input. These early text games could largely be considered as early interactive novels and featured the ability for users to journey through the story using basic commands such as ‘open mailbox’ or ‘take lamp’ as well as directional short-hand such as N, S, E, W for compass points or U and D to move up or down.
In 1980, a software studio called Sierra On-Line appeared in the emerging PC gaming world. Sierra was owned and operated by husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams and the pair had been hard at work on a text-adventure that also featured graphics. After three months of solid development, ‘Mystery House’ was launched. Despite the fact that the graphics were static, limited to only a few colours and were essentially little more than crude line art, the game was a massive success. It sold over 15,000 copies and is now considered to be one of the most important and influential games of all time.
At this time, PC gaming was almost the exclusive domain of hobbyists and hardcore geeks, due largely to the cost of early microcomputers. Despite this, the success of games like ‘Mystery House’ propelled writers and developers to produce new games and the computer companies began to develop cheaper, better computers, which were targeted at consumers. By the middle of the decade home computer technology had started to hit significant benchmarks. Systems such as the Apple II had helped evolve PC games from monochrome text adventure to immersive 16-colour psuedo-3D environments.
In the summer of 1984, Sierra On-Line released ‘Kings Quest’, which became an immediate blockbuster hit and another significant benchmark in the development of PC gaming. ‘Kings Quest’ saw over 2.5 million copies sold and spawned eight successful sequels. The complexity of both gameplay and graphics as well as the richness of the storytelling were again unprecedented in computer gaming. Like ‘Mystery House’, ‘Kings Quest’ was written by Roberta Williams.
With these new advances in game engines and animations, text adventures had evolved into simply ‘adventure games’ and the mid to late 80s were a golden era for this type of game. A plethora of new titles and development teams appeared after ‘Kings Quest’, including George Lucas’ new PC division LucasArts, who began releasing cutting-edge film tie-ins as well as introducing all new characters and concepts.
New computer systems began appearing which offered users the ability to not only play games, but to publish documents, create computer graphics and organize their day to day lives. Atari, Radio Shack, Tandy, Commodore, IBM and Apple all entered or returned to the market with revolutionary consumer machines.
Many of these early personal computers possessed features that the consoles and arcade machines of the time lacked including more memory, better graphics and more sophisticated sound capabilities. By the end of the decade developers were able to build their games in full 3D environments such as those used in ‘Wolfenstein 3D’.
Additionally, PCs used floppy discs and cassette tapes instead of cartridges, which meant that gamers now had a writable storage medium which enabled them to save their gaming progress. Of course this also meant that games and programs were now able to be pirated and distributed.
Of all the PC systems that defined computer gaming in the 80s, the most prized and significant is perhaps the Commodore 64. The C64 emerged as something of a computer/console hybrid. While it was a more than capable spreadsheet and word-processing machine (as well as animation and music tool) the C64 was primarily used for gaming and numerous popular titles were developed exclusively for it.
The genius of the C64 was that it was stocked in retail stores rather than boutique electronic stores like most early PCs. It could also be simply plugged into an existing television, which made it extremely desirable for families without any computer knowledge. As a result of the successful marketing, competitive pricing and the quality of the machinery, the C64 went on to sell over 30 million units, making it the best-selling single PC model of all time. The C64 effectively revolutionized the industry and brought computer technology into the home.