I don’t know whether to be turned off by the new Colossal Cave or charmed by it. Here’s a game that originally came out in 1976, and was played entirely in text – printed on paper, in some cases – and it’s been remade in 3D. The caves you once explored in your imagination are now rendered around you.
Except, the text guidance is still here too, only it’s now narrated. So as you walk around the new 3D world, an eye icon and narrator also give you the old cues you no longer really need. “You are in a large cave,” for instance.
But there’s also something about the way it works. Colossal Cave behaves like a stop-start kind of adventure game, a point-and-click. There’s an inventory and you use things on other things. You can’t even open a door until you switch to the hand icon and ‘use’ it, and the same is true of ladders. There’s no jumping, no crouching, and the game locks you in place when you encounter someone while they run through a short animation of some kind.
It’s like seeing the kind of 3D world we know so well these days but being held back from exploring it with the fluidity we’re used to. It’s as though Colossal Cave, for all it wants to be new, can’t shake off the past.
But there’s a good reason for this! There’s a whole backstory to the game you have to know about. It revolves around Ken and Roberta Williams, who created Sierra On-Line back in the 80s and were the OG video game mega-company before the familiar names of today came along. Ken ran the business, Roberta made the games. And it all started for them with Colossal Cave – Roberta played it and never looked back.
That empire, though, fell apart. Ken was super-stressed so Roberta convinced him to back out of the company, and a buyout was followed by fraud investigations – nothing to do with the Williams – and the whole thing collapsed. Very dramatic. And then, maybe because of it, Ken and Roberta completely walked away from games – and I do mean completely. They didn’t even so much as pick up a game in the decades since. They got into boating instead and became explorers.
Then, though, came lockdown, and it was in lockdown that Ken got bored and started tinkering around making a game, and Roberta couldn’t help but see it over his shoulder. And one day, she couldn’t take it any more, and was lured into making sure it was done properly, which meant her taking over the project and game. And that game, you’ve probably guessed it, is this one, Colossal Cave 3D.
I know all of this because I did a podcast with Ken and Roberta recently, and what really stood out was talking to Roberta and hearing about how fearless she’s been in the face of a very male-oriented industry, and in an industry where so much of what she wanted to do, hadn’t been done. She had to pave the way. And every King’s Quest series did. The prospect of her returning to adventure games, then, was exciting to me.
But how could she make a modern adventure game if she hadn’t played one for 25 years – wouldn’t her designs be incredibly out of date? What worried me more was hearing the Williams say they weren’t aware of anything done in those intervening years that they felt intimidated by – they still thought they could do better. The brazenness! But that’s them – that’s the spirit that made them so successful with Sierra On-Line. Perhaps they can come back and pick up where they left off.
In a way, they have. Not in the sense they’ve created the kind of game we expect in 2023, but because they’ve created something that feels like it comes from the ’90s. Even the graphics, which are new, look dated. Colossal Cave 3D looks old, moves old, behaves old. When you put it next to a game like Edith Finch, there is no comparison.
But I also find it fascinating, because which other game today will trap you in a maze and offer no explanation of what you have to do to get out? There’s nothing here, no conciliation to any of the hand-holding we’ve come to expect in games. There are just clues scattered around, maps, and your mind. Try things and then try again: it’s the old-school way. And once you settle into that rhythm, there is a nostalgic pleasure in it.
Can I recommend it? I don’t know if I can, and I haven’t played anywhere near enough for this to be a review. Clearly, the game won’t be for everybody. But if anything I’ve said twangs a chord of interest in you, maybe that’s enough. Think of it as a curio. It’s even in VR, if that’s your thing.