1978: Pirate Adventure

Pirate Adventure
a.k.a Pirate's Cove, Adventure #2
by Alexis and Scott Adams
Completed: December 1978
Language: BASIC
Platform: TRS-80

Opening Text:

I am in a Flat in london. Visible items:

Flight of stairs. Sign says: "Bring *TREASURES* here, say: SCORE". Bottle of rum. Rug. Safety sneakers. Sack of crackers.

  -------> Tell me what to do?

[Note: contains spoilery discussion of many of the game’s puzzles.]

In the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of 1970s hackers, a popular tale was the one about the wife or girlfriend who just didn’t get it. So-called “computer widows” didn’t or couldn’t understand what was so interesting about the bulky machines and the code they ran—or so the stories went—and sometimes lashed out in “hysterical” ways. One particular oft-retold anecdote went like this:

One day she had finally had it. I came home to find that she had put all my disks... in the oven. I was not going to program anymore, she said, unless I spent some time with her. Luckily, [she] had been so mad that she’d forgotten to turn the oven on!

Like all stories, these were shared because they reinforced myths the listeners wanted to believe. The corollaries implied by the words—that women were too emotionally unstable for the world of computers, or too scatterbrained to carry out even simple plans—were rarely examined. Behind this particular story (which did happen, more or less) lies a pretty obvious truth: the woman in it had intended, of course, for the oven to be off. It wasn’t a botched execution. It was a threat.

Her name had been Irene Reuben, although she went by “Alexis” and had taken her husband’s name along with his disks. In 1977 she was an ambitious young Floridian with long black hair, a broad smile, a big body and bigger dreams. At twenty, she already had her own mail-order business selling cookbooks and recipes, and had helped manage a restaurant chain while also studying psychology at Miami/Dade Community College. While working for an early computer dating service, she had pulled one particular profile submission out of the queue to respond to herself: an adorable goateed geek with a riot of curly hair named Scott Adams. The two were engaged months later and married not long after.

Husband Scott was soon to embark on a quixotic project that only makes sense in the context of that particular year of 1977, when it was becoming possible at last to compute at home. Affordable home computer kits for enthusiasts had started appearing by 1975, but the release in ‘77 of the Commodore PET, the Apple II, and the TRS-80 had begun to take microcomputers mainstream. No longer did you need access to a university or company mainframe to run code: for a thousand dollars or less you could have your very own silicon. But what could you actually do with those micros? Their minuscule memory and graphics capabilities meant they were considered little more than expensive toys by most “real” hackers. The idea of running a game more complex than Tic-Tac-Toe on one seemed laughable. Zork had taken up nearly a megabyte of space on a PDP-10 mainframe. What could you possibly create for a far slower machine with only a few thousand bytes of memory? This paragraph alone would have filled up half the available space on a 2K machine.

Adventure arrived that year on the mainframe at Scott’s office, and like thousands of others he became briefly obsessed with it. He would come into work early and stay late to play, every day, until he solved it. He wanted to share the game with friends but couldn’t, since only badged employees were allowed inside; so he started to wonder what it would take to make something like Adventure for a microcomputer. He mentioned this plan to his friends: “fortunately,” he later recalled, “I was not daunted by their laughter.”

When an upgrade for the TRS-80 came out in 1978 that gave it an improved BASIC and 16K of memory—enough to store about ten printed pages of code and data—Adams saw his moment. A systems programmer first and foremost, he began by devising a minuscule engine that could read an adventure definition from a data file and execute it. The engine had only the bare minimum necessary to reproduce the spirit of the earlier adventures—a simple two-word parser, a baked-in set of possible conditional checks, sixteen binary flags to track game state, and a minimalist aesthetic for its descriptions and messages: tiny as the engine was, there was little room left over for the evocative descriptions and complex behaviors seen on the mainframes. Scott’s game would have to entertain more through its mechanics than its prose. He built a simple editor to create and modify the data format his engine would read—a primitive game construction kit—and by the end of 1978, he’d finished the first game for his system. He called it Adventureland.

I'm in a hidden grove. Visible items:

*JEWELED FRUIT*. Sign says "Paul's place."

     Some obvious exits are: NORTH EAST

  -------> Tell me what to do? GET FRUIT
  -------> Tell me what to do? EAST

I am in a dismal swamp. Visible items:

Cypress tree. Evil smelling mud. Swamp gas.
Patches of "OILY" slime. Chiggers.

   Some obvious exits are: NORTH EAST WEST

  -------> Tell me what to do?

While a far cry from the glorious sentences and complex puzzles of mainframe Adventures, Scott was thrilled that he’d managed to do the impossible and capture a spark of their magic on a microcomputer. But his new marriage was already in trouble. When he’d spent those early mornings and late nights at the office playing Adventure, he’d told his wife he was slammed with a big work project, rather than admit he was spending his free time with a pack of murderous dwarves and not with her. And when he brought his obsession home, the situation only worsened:

Alexis was pregnant with our first child when I was writing Adventureland and she was becoming upset with me. I was spending all kinds of hours on the computer. I would come home from work, jump on the computer until midnight, then get up and work on the program from six to eight in the morning before I left for work.

Alexis started lashing out, hiding Scott’s disks around the house, and eventually, yes, in the oven. Scott’s hobby must have seemed a pointless waste of time, not to mention a thoughtless one while they were trying to start a family together. She finally gave him an ultimatum. When Scott finished his first adventure game, he promised it would be his last.

But then something happened. Scott shared copies of the game on cassette tape at local computer club meet-ups, and micro owners went wild for it. There was simply nothing else like it yet available for home machines. He took out ads in the backs of computer magazines, and the game sold. Alexis began to see her husband’s Sisyphean project in a different light. It was a product, a business opportunity: a chance to tap into a massively under-served market. This was more of a leap than modern audiences might intuitively understand: in 1978, only big companies like IBM had a reputation for selling software—though a little startup named Micro-Soft was hoping to change that—and the only software sold was meant for business, not entertainment. Sure, hobbyists had made a few bucks here and there selling amusing programs out of magazines, and the arcade and videogame console industries were beginning to take off. But Zork wouldn't hit the market for two more years, and the idea of a company selling games for primitive microcomputers was still laughable.

As an entrepreneur, Alexis may have seen the enormous potential her husband’s game represented. She wanted in. “Once we had sold a few copies,” Scott later remembered, “Alexis decided she wanted to do one.” Six months pregnant, she began to collaborate with her husband on a second adventure.

The cleverness of Scott’s engine meant that a second game was far easier to make than the first. Alexis had no programming experience, but building a new game would largely be a matter of setting up a new world of rooms, objects, and rules in Scott’s database editor. The two devised a method of collaboration:

She would supply the ideas. She’d say, “There’s a cave,” and I’d say, “What do you see in the cave?” “A door,” she’d answer. “Why can’t we open the door?” “There’s a pit of crocodiles in front of the door.” “How can we get past the crocodile?” “Well, maybe the crocodiles are hungry.” “Great, let’s put some fish out in the ocean”...

It only took a few weeks to design and encode the new game with Alexis’s ideas and Scott’s editor: and then there were two products to sell.

* Welcome to Adventure number 2: "Pirate Adventure" by Alexis & Scott Adams, dedicated: Ted Heeren & Paul Sharland. Remember you can always ask for "HELP".

The Adamses started advertising the pair of adventures more aggressively. One day in early 1979, Alexis answered the phone to an electronics store manager in Chicago who wanted fifty copies. Smoothly, she and Scott negotiated a price and closed the deal. Working through the weekend, they made fifty duplicates of the master cassette tape—by hand, one at a time—and dutifully shipped a box of them off. A week later, the manager called back, annoyed. He needed some kind of packaging for the tapes to sell them. At a loss, the Adamses called plastic bag manufacturers to get quotes, but couldn’t find anyone interested in an order size less than 10,000 units. And then the couple hit on a novel solution, right in front of their noses: a box of plastic baby bottle liners for their newborn. A cassette tape fit perfectly inside one. They stapled business cards to the top, punched a hole in them so the bag could hang on a pegboard, and in the process created the first retail packaging for a computer game. The company they would soon found, Adventure International, would be the first in the world to exclusively sell them.

A player who loaded the Pirate Adventure cassette into their TRS-80’s memory—a process that took upwards of twenty minutes—began the game in a modern-day London flat. On a shelf is a book with a curious inscription:

The book is in bad condition but I can make out the title: "Treasure Island". There's a word written in blood in the flyleaf: "YOHO" and a message:  "Long John Silver left 2 treasures on Treasure Island"

Saying the magic word YOHO transports you to a tropical island with crocodiles, snakes, caves, and a drunken pirate. But the goal of the game is rather unusual for the time, and Scott, writing in 1980, credited this to Alexis:

[W]e created an Adventure that was different from any that had ever been written before. Instead of simply searching for treasures in this Adventure, you now had an added ingredient—a “mission.” (In this case, you had to figure out how to build a pirate’s ship!)

Ship parts are scattered around the landscape, and most of the game’s puzzles involve collecting and reassembling them. Completing the ship lets you sail to the legendary Treasure Island itself, but the bulk of the game is the challenge of getting there. For the first time, an adventure game was about something other than just a treasure hunt.

I am in a sandy beach on a tropical isle. Visible items:

Small ship's keel and mast. Sand. Lagoon. Sign in the sand says: "Welcome to Pirates Island, watch out for the tide!".

     Some obvious exits are: EAST

  -------> Tell me what to do? BUILD SHIP
I've no plans!
  -------> Tell me what to do? E

I am in a meadow. Visible items:

Mongoose. Grass shack.

     Some obvious exits are: EAST WEST

  -------> Tell me what to do? LOOK MONGOOSE
I see nothing special
  -------> Tell me what to do? GET MONGOOSE
  -------> Tell me what to do? GO SHACK

I am in a grass shack. Visible items:

Wicked looking pirate. Treasure chest. Parrot.

     Some obvious exits are: WEST

  -------> Tell me what to do? OPEN CHEST
Pirate won't let me
The parrot crys: `Check the chest matey`

The Adamses were less interested than earlier adventure authors in violence and combat, perhaps because unlike most predecessors they hadn’t played Dungeons & Dragons and been influenced by its integral combat mechanics. Pirate Adventure has no weapons and no fights. There’s a pirate, but unlike earlier NPCs he’s less a rival than a besotted companion. A bottle of rum distracts him away from his treasure chest (which contains the required ship plans) and he wanders off with it. Later, when you need a crew for your completed ship, you can find him sleeping off his excesses back in your London flat:

I am in a musty attic. Visible items:

Pirate's duffel bag. Empty bottle. Sleeping pirate. Rum bottle smashed into pieces. Sign "Opposite of LIGHT is Unlight".

     Some obvious exits are: WEST

  -------> Tell me what to do? WAKE PIRATE
Pirate awakens and says "Aye matey we be casting off soon"

The pirate accompanies you on your journey to recover Long John Silver’s treasures, but remains more interested in booze than gold. When it’s time to leave the island with your loot, you can find him sleeping off another bender in a graveyard.

The game’s puzzles are mostly simpler than the challenges from earlier games designed by hackers to stump their peers. The player can type HELP for in-game hints, and the pirate’s parrot also dispenses advice. Reduced in scope from the sprawling mainframe games, Pirate Adventure has only twenty-six rooms and a handful of obstacles, which shrinks the possibility space and helps make the game easier to solve. Points of confusion more often come from the primitive parser and terse messages, which could obscure clear understanding of obstacles or situations. At its best, the minimalist prose has a unique charm all its own: a world not lushly drawn in sentences, but lightly sketched with functional nouns and verbs.

I am in a pit. Visible items:

Mean and hungry looking crocodiles. Locked door.

     Some obvious exits are: UP

  -------> Tell me what to do? OPEN DOOR
Crocs stop me
  -------> Tell me what to do? INVENTORY
I'm carrying the following: Large blood soaked book. Sack of crackers. Lit torch. Matches. Fish.
  -------> Tell me what to do? EAT CRACKER
  -------> Tell me what to do? DROP FISH
Crocs eat fish and leave

But the tiny engine could also be maddeningly frustrating. A problem common to all parser-driven games—not knowing which words the program will understand—is worsened by a platform without spare room for extra synonyms or helpful descriptions:

  -------> Tell me what to do? FEED FISH
I must be stupid, but I just don't understand what you mean
  -------> Tell me what to do? FIGHT CROCS
I don't know how to "FIGHT" something.
  -------> Tell me what to do? EXAMINE CROCS
I see nothing special
  -------> Tell me what to do? DODGE CROCS
I don't know how to "DODGE" something.

The simple parser could make it hard to express yourself even when you knew what you wanted to do:

  -------> Tell me what to do? READ MAP
Its a map to Treasure Island. At the bottom it says:     "30 paces then dig!"
  -------> Tell me what to do? TAKE 30 PACES
It's beyond my Power to do that.
  -------> Tell me what to do? 30 PACES
I don't know how to "30" something.
  -------> Tell me what to do? PACE
I need a direction too.
  -------> Tell me what to do? PACE NORTH
I can't go in THAT direction.
  -------> Tell me what to do? PACE 30
I walked off 30 paces.

Today’s players can also fail to appreciate the incredible tedium of playing any game on a 1978 microcomputer. That twenty-minute load time to read in the data from cassette was only the beginning. The original BASIC version of the engine (before Scott rewrote it in assembler) took agonizing fistfuls of seconds to process each command. Saving your game took four minutes, not counting the setup time of preparing a blank cassette to save it to; and to restore that game required first restarting the system and reloading the entire program again from scratch, and then loading in your save game from the second tape—another thirty minutes of your life, gone forever. “No wonder Adams could advertise that Adventureland would take weeks or months to complete,” quipped game historian Jimmy Maher.

But despite their limitations, the Adams adventure games had a head start over almost any other competition, and their company paved the way for much of the first generation of computer gaming giants. Doug Carlston became Adventure International’s first outside author with his game Galactic Empire; he’d use the proceeds to start his own software company, Brøderbund. Another young man who became Adventure International’s West Coast distributor, Ken Williams, would soon found a company with his wife Roberta later called Sierra On-Line: Roberta’s 1980 game Mystery House and her later King’s Quests would become the ancestors of graphical adventure games. She and Ken took their inspiration in part from the visible success of another power couple selling their adventures to the growing microcomputer audience.

From the second half of 1979 through the early 1980s, Adventure International became the game industry’s first success story, and Alexis was integral to its growth. She “handles most of the business” as the corporate vice president and general manager, Scott noted at the time, and “has been intimately involved in all aspects... from the very beginning”; she “is as active in the company as I am” and had “a tremendous say in the direction of the company” [sources: 1 2 3 4]. Sales grew at a steady and then an explosive rate, as the couple expanded their catalog to include dozens of games by other authors, eventually employing a staff of more than forty people. At one point nearly half of them were women. Scott’s simple engine was easy to port to new platforms, so as the early home computer marketplace fragmented into over a dozen different systems, Adventure International’s games could run on them all.

The Adamses worked hard to build an audience and a network of distributors: in one year alone they traveled to thirty-eight different trade shows and computer expos. The couple gained a reputation as good souls in a sometimes cutthroat industry. At one trade show, Roberta Williams had to track down Adventure International’s booth to ask why the then-larger company kept sending customers over to buy Sierra’s games: “Aren’t we supposed to be competitors?” she asked.

“They make an odd couple as they stand together” in their booth, Doug Carlston remembered: “Scott is a tall, goateed, curly-haired fellow... His wife, Alexis, is distinctly shorter and more heavy-set.” Many men in the industry no doubt noticed Alexis not only for her gender, but her size. Compared to Roberta Williams, whose long golden hair and slim figure came straight out of a storybook, she didn't look like the popular conception of a princess, or a game designer. She wrote in later years that her weight had been a frequent source of stress and anxiety during her career in games, and became a proponent of "size acceptance," founding a group called Bigger and Better working against the erasure of people like her from media and public consciousness. It's still important today to remember that when you picture a game executive, a designer, or an interactive fiction pioneer, you can picture someone like Alexis, too.

The Adamses eventually started organizing their own conventions, and opened a chain of computer stores in Orlando, where Alexis liked to keep tabs on the customer base:

I love working in the retail store, even these days. It gives me a chance to learn what people really want... The immediate feedback has proven invaluable to our product development. We have a network of several hundred local play-testers. When a new product is about to be released, these people are given copies to check thoroughly. They are one of the reasons our products are so well-known for being bug-free.

Alexis continued to broker deals for the expanding company, even through two more pregnancies and six office moves in three years. In 1983 she negotiated a license to the game rights for 20th Century Fox’s big sci-fi film of the year, Buckaroo Banzai, and contributed to the game adapted from it. At the end of that year Adventure International landed exclusive rights for ten years to make computer games based on Marvel Comics characters—a deal that a few decades later would have been unimaginably valuable. Scott dedicated the first of his Marvel adventures to Alexis.

While her husband’s name was the only one on the box—the company crafted a mystique around Scott as a solo adventure-making genius—Alexis contributed to a number of the titles Adventure International produced. Some games credit her as a co-creator on their title screens, if nowhere else, and one gives her sole billing there: 1979’s Voodoo Castle. A few other women designers had published games by that year—Carol Shaw at Atari was one—but almost none had been given a visible credit: Alexis was among the first. In a contemporary interview Scott noted that she built the game “95% on her own” after learning how to use his database system herself: this also probably makes her the first non-programmer in history to use a domain-specific tool to create a digital game. She dedicated Voodoo Castle “to all moms!” and it featured multiple female characters, including “Medium Maegen,” a hint-dispensing spiritualist named after her daughter. Medium Maegen may be the first woman with dialogue in a video game, appearing years before most other contenders.

For a time Adventure International’s growth prospects seemed limitless, but a few bad deals, the 1983 videogame crash, and a sluggish approach to incorporating graphics drove the company out of business by the middle of the decade. Alexis and Scott would divorce not long after. While Scott has rarely mentioned his ex-wife in interviews since, he has often cited both Voodoo Castle and Pirate Adventure as some of the company’s best-remembered titles, the latter being the only of their games to ever warrant a sequel. Alexis, who almost never spoke to the press during or after the company’s heyday, passed away in 2008 from health complications, only 51 years old. Over time, her part in Adventure International’s success has been largely forgotten. Most histories of the company barely mention her.

But period sources make it clear that Alexis played a huge part in the rise of the world’s first computer game company. She was more than just the madwoman who put her husband’s masterpiece in the oven. The meal, in fact, could not have been served without her.

Next week: A middle-aged lawyer lets his kids choose what happens next in their bedtime story, planting the seeds for a new kind of book that would become “as contagious as chicken pox.”

Early microcomputer games require some gritting of teeth for modern players to enjoy, but if you want to try Pirate Adventure for yourself, here’s an online version of the ZX Spectrum release. You could also try downloading the Scottkit emulator to play in a more forgiving UI. A not particularly readable version of the source code was published in Byte in 1980.

Tremendous thanks to @GameDevHistory for compiling an incredible Twitter thread on Alexis Adams, one of the only other major research projects I know of that highlights her contributions. Doug Carlston’s 1985 book “Software People: Inside the Computer Business” was also invaluable for personal recollections of Alexis and Scott. Most quotations from the Adamses not attributed inline are from this 1983 Softalk feature. Thanks to the Internet Archive for preserving so many early computing magazines which were pivotal sources for this article, to the Museum of Play for the image, and to Jason Dyer for tracking down a quote. Scott Adams’ latest venture can be found at clopas.net, and you can still donate to the charity identified in Alexis’s obituary fighting Addison's disease and adrenoleukodystrophy.