In the dawn of Internet time, a spelunker and computer programmer named William Crowther was looking for something to do to take his mind off his pending divorce. An avid Dungeons and Dragons fan, Crowther decided to put together a computer game he thought his daughters might enjoy, a fantastic crawl through an underground world loosely based on Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. He wrote a program that accepted commands in broken English — "GO NORTH", "GET LANTERN" — and called it Adventure. Adventure, also known as Colossal Cave, was a success with his children; it was also a success with the (then quite small) Internet community. Passed from user to user and computer to computer, it eventually reached Stanford’s not-yet-storied SAIL system. In 1976, a SAIL user and game fanatic named Don Woods fell in love, got in touch with Crowther (through the simple and then tolerable expedient of mailing the "crowther" account on every machine on the Internet), and rewrote the game in C. A year later, a handful of MIT Adventure fans wrote a substantially upgraded homage called Zork; when they founded a company named Infocom a few years later and were looking for a product, they reached back to Zork, and the text adventure game was born. The great adventure game boom was dead within the decade (although Level 9, the UK’s leading adventure game developer, lasted until 1991). In 1987, Infocom (having sold itself to the much larger and less specialized game publisher Activision) published its first game to incorporate graphics. In 1989, the Infocom name was permanently retired, leaving a legacy of a few duds and a handful of masterpieces. Did text adventures become too complex for their own good? Did Myst whet people’s appetites for stunning graphics and encourage a shift to first-person shooters like Tomb Raider? Did the limitations of the genre — both in terms of the parsers used and of the storylines that worked well within the format — limit the potential audience? Accounts differ, but the adventure game has been on its way out for more than a while.

The Infocom "Z-code" format was reverse engineered, however, and today the open "Inform" standard is a cornerstone of a small but lively hobbyist community. The authors that are left spend time thinking about why they do it, why they care about an art form that a few thousand people, tops, care about. People like Emily Short and Adam Cadre are theorists, as well as practicioners. Some of their most acclaimed work — Cadre’s award-winning Photopia (described by the author as, among other things, an attempt to do a game in the style of Quantum and Woody writer Christopher J. Priest), Short’s Galatea — entirely eschew the features that made adventure games games: a series of obstacles, usually solvable through logic, that stood in the way of the larger goal toward which the protagonist progressed.

Two of Infocom’s science fiction games — Steve Meretsky‘s classic A Mind Forever Voyaging, which begins with the protagonist discovering that he is not a person but a computer simulation, and Brian Moriarty‘s time-travel yarn Trinity — hit the adventure game/interactive fiction. They were well-written short fiction wedged into a new medium not altogether suited for fictional endeavors. Trinity, in particular, had tropes that seemed at odds with the medium; there were some very nicely done set piece puzzles, including one involving the paper cranes of Hiroshima, but the game, with its slightly disjointed and hallucinatory story of a man propelled out of time by World War III, seemed more comfortable as fiction then as a game. (A Mind Forever Voyaging had fewer puzzles, but the narrative structure as a whole was a puzzle of sorts.) If you’re not crawling through the Underground Empire or the Stellar Patrol’s spaceship with your surroundings duly reported in second-person prose, is it still a game? There has been, for many years, a movement among the hobbyists to replace the name "text adventures" with "interactive fiction."

Most non-arcade games that retain a rabid fan base years after they’ve become technically obsolote fall into one of two categories. They have a obsessively complex world that’s been built up around them (Nethack, say, or tabletop roleplaying games), or they have a simple rule set with much greater depth in the gameplay and strategy than you’d expect on first glance (games like M.U.L.E., or the boardgames that many of my friends adore). Text adventure games don’t really fit either of these categories, quite. As a classic piece of criticism and theory puts it, their goal is to avoid crimes against mimesis. They are telling a story (with puzzles, most likely), and it is the goal of the author to never once induce the player to think about the artifice and contraints of the system used to tell it.

A new type of game has sprung up in the past few years. Call it unfiction or alternative reality gaming — the idea is that a narrative is strung together on the Internet (and possibly even to a limited extent in the physical world) which participants can unpack using exactly the same research tools and conspiracy-minded obsession over detail that they would for a real-life mystery. Cloudmakers, the community that sprang up around the game run for the A.I. promotional campaign, and the Jawbreakers, dedicated to solving a game called "Lockjaw", show how this game can be done right. Hidden meanings deduced from users’ IP addresses! Unprotected directories left on web servers! Brute force attempts to solve dictionary-word passwords! When the game is a game, everything is simple. You play until you’ve solved it and won. When the game is possibly real, as with Pink Floyd’s Publius Enigma), there’s more of a problem.

Trinity was the story of a man catapulted back in time by a nuclear holocaust looking to stop a war. The strange case of John Titor is the story of a man catapulted back in time after a nuclear holocaust looking to chat with a bunch of curious Internet users. It’s the most credible part of his story, in fact; ignoring the "A Sound of Thunder" questions about what changing the past would do, would a soldier, a man who claims to have experienced a truly horrific childhood brought about directly by the decadence of contemporary American society, have really cared much about trying to save us? "Mozart in Mirrorshades" and "The Pure Product" called this aspect of human nature correctly, I’m afraid. The communities that sprung up around Titor’s claims — that he was a soldier from 2036 sent back to collect a necessary piece of computer equipment, that there was nothing he could do to prevent the civil war that would engulf America in 2005 and the subsequent nuclear holocaust, that his time machine was powered by a small black hole, that he frankly didn’t like us very much — go back and forth on the issues. Can internal inconsistancies be found? Can we tell if one of Titor’s relatives worked for IBM? If so, when and where? Is his time machine credible? What about the post-apocalyptic society he describes? Does Titor’s IP address remain on record anywhere? The truth will come out in 2005, when America does or doesn’t plunge into a horrific spasm of self-destruction, ended quite untidily by Russia dropping a bunch of nuclear bombs on the nation’s major cities. Until then, it’s not a game; Titor has neglected to leave us that one hanging thread that will enable us to answer the question definitively one way or another.

Titor’s theme — of urban, leftist decadence, and a spiritually purer (if devastated and poorer) America regrowing from the heartland — is too neat to be really credible. It sounds lifted from libertarian- or right-wing-leaning science fiction; the Wikipedia fingers Alas, Babylon, but the idea plays out to some extent in everything from Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold to Left Behind. As Maciej Ceglowski noted insightfully, Titor chose a good audience:

Do you really want to face down a discussion board full of paranoid libertarians and tell them that 2025 will see the birth of world government, universal health care for everyone, clean energy and a reduction in Third World debt? Zzzz… Or do you want to tell them to stockpile water, learn to clean their guns, not trust the government, and stay away from cities?

It was an audience that was not necessarily predisposed to poke holes in his underlying theology. It was an audience willing to ignore the constraints of the medium, to suspend disbelief. We read stories by strangers, stories in which we can take a part. How many stories are there in which we can — if we’re very clever, if we seize on the most important and least obvious clues — save the world (or at least ourselves)? What happier ending could there be?