So I Got Lost Before the Game Began

The game “Cave Adventure” by William Crowther widely accepted as a form of interactive fiction, this one in particular as the original interactive fiction game, but, as seen in the Aarseth reading, people debate on how it applies or fits into the idea of ergodic literature and cybertexts.

A lot of the debate falls on the word “nonlinear” that Aarseth uses as the defining characteristic of ergodic literature. In my opinion, I think that “Cave Adventure” is the premiere example of this idea of nonlinearity. Aarseth describes the conflict as in how people define the word nonlinear. In his view, most of society “focused on what was being read” while he “focused on what was being read from.” The way that I view this is that pieces of ergodic literature are databases of information, events, people, etc. Whilst traversing the text, one reads events in a linear manner, in that events happen one after another. However, in the grand scheme of the entire database, these events can come from anywhere within the database.

I think it’s also important to establish “Cave Adventure” as a text here. I think the common first reaction is to label the game as common RPG and not a text because it is something that you play and there are things that you control. However, according to Aarseth, they are similar (not exactly the same but similar) to “other literary phenomena” because they “produce verbal structures.” What sets this form of interactive fiction apart from both printed books and role playing games is that it combines aspects of both worlds.

Essentially most of Aarseth’s argument comes from how we define these literary objects. The quote that stood out to me the most from Aarseth was the following; “When much energy is spent on showing that P is a perfectly deserving type of Q, the more fundamental question of what P is will often be neglected.” Basically, if we keep trying to say that, for example, interactive fiction such as “Cave Adventure” is perfectly like other types of literature, we miss the point that interactive fiction is a standalone type of literature and has interesting characteristics that make it unique.

In this case, I think that “Cave Adventure” is defined by its nonlinearity. In this case, more than other forms of ergodic literature, the reader can visually see the nonlinear breaks because you no doubt will get lost and have to backtrack. This also erases the idea that the events happen linearly as well, especially after you read the same scene 4 times in a span of 10 minutes. For example, while I was playing the game, I got “lost” before even reaching the cave, wandering about and reading the same 4 scenes, yet thinking I was taking a different path every time. So, as the title implies, the story that I experienced included a grueling trek to find the cave in what was physically, within the database of the game, a pretty small area.

Thus “Cave Adventure becomes a literal form of Aarseth’s idea that ergodic literature is much like a multicursal labyrinth. The text takes quite a bit of effort to traverse, it’s almost impossible unless you take notes and map out the cave while playing. While a cave resembles a labyrinth because both contain mazes, the more important part is that when you make a decision, that decision makes other parts of the story (or cave) less accessible. This came out in my own experiences within the game. I played the game twice, giving myself a day apart between. While I died multiple times both days, I ended up in completely different parts of the cave without even trying that hard. The second day I reached a cavern I didn’t know exist that brought me through a brand new storyline.

This is the defining characteristic of ergodic literature. Yes the events you read happen linearly in a sense because they create a storyline. However, that storyline changes based on your decisions, an effort you, the reader, put into the story, something you cannot do with a printed book.


2 thoughts on “So I Got Lost Before the Game Began

  1. Hey Ryan,

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I think you did a great job encapsulating the most compelling points we discussed in class as well as some insightful connections to Aarseth’s work.

    You start off by addressing the position of “Colossal Cave Adventure” at the forefront of text adventure and perhaps ergodic literature as a whole. I agree that this particular piece is significant as a bridge between text and game, and as the impetus for a wave of text adventure-type works in the 1980s and 90s. While I can’t imagine that Aarseth would ever define a concept like ergodic literature with a single work – he concludes that his aim is only to “produce a framework” for the study of cybertext or ergodic literature – “Colossal Cave Adventure” certainly provides a valuable case study for examining some of the genre’s defining characteristics.

    In your third paragraph, you make a point to “establish “Cave Adventure” as a text”. This is an important assertion that prompted me to examine the reader’s role more carefully. As an active reader – not strictly a player – your role is to make choices in order to reveal the text. As we experienced firsthand, this is a highly demanding role. The reader must not only choose the direction in which he explores the text, he also must determine what directions to give in the first place. Personally, I struggled with the initial sequence of “Colossal Cave Adventure” simply because the commands I entered were not words that the program recognized. The author of an interactive text banks on his audience putting in significant effort. His job, then, is to craft a text which is engaging enough to encourage this level of persistence.

    But we don’t interact with ergodic literature in a vacuum. Hypertextuality applies here too, and so our interactions with a text such as “Colossal Cave Adventure” are informed by our exposure to video game conventions as well as elements of adventure fiction (explore the cave, find and use the keys, seek treasure, etc.). And once interactive fiction had matured into an established genre, it developed conventions of its own – “get lamp”, for example, or directional navigation.

    You conclude by emphasizing the role of the reader in ergodic literature. It’s true – without a reader making decisions, an interactive fiction like this one is simply a web of potential narratives, in the words of Nick Montfort. The reader is an indispensable part of interactive fiction as a process.


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