Creating An 8-Bit Text Adventure – A Developer Diary, Part 1

Developer’s Diary: Day 1 – 6th June 2017

My first ever computer was the Commodore Vic 20. Bought for me as a Christmas present by my parents, I remember it clearly as I went with them to choose what computer I was getting that year. It was September and I could choose between the Vic 20 and a 16k Spectrum. I wasn’t particular taken with the rubber keyboard of Sinclair’s offering, so the Vic 20 it was.

It was a long, frustrating wait knowing that there was a Vic 20 waiting for me, but it gave me time to save up to buy some games of my own to go with the bundled titles I was looking forward to playing. Eventually I’d saved up the massive amount (at the time) of £24.99 to buy the cartridge game Adventureland – a text adventure written by Scott Adams and it was a game that was going to change my life forever…

Ever since that day (or at least the day I first played it), I’ve had a passion for adventure games, and I’d even say that my love of gaming generally grew from Adventureland. I picked up all five of Scott’s games on the Vic 20 and when I moved on to the Commodore 64 progressed to his wider range there as well as a plethora of other adventures. My gaming tastes were far more varied than that and they are still to this day, but I can remember sitting there for hours engrossed in the worlds created by these adventure writers.

So much so that when it was released for the C64, I took the plunge and bought the Graphic Adventure Creator from Incentive Software. Finally, I thought to myself, I could write adventures of my own to share with my friends. As is usually the case with creative tools like this, the intentions are great but the reality isn’t quite the same and despite doing some initial work, game mapping and planning I never really got too far. And then I sold my C64 to upgrade to the Amiga and I thought nothing more of it.

That is until a year or so ago. While sorting through some boxes, I found my original notes, almost 30 years later. While there wasn’t a lot to work with, they were still there intact along with my maps and everything else. I’d bought a second Commodore 64 and even most of my old software (including the Graphic Adventure Creator) and wondered about going back to the keyboard again. Time was my enemy though and once more things didn’t go any further.

Until now. As some of you know, my fellow Infinite Frontiers team member Marcos Codas recently released his first Android game, Kuatia. It had been a dream of his to release a game and it got me thinking. If Marcos can do this, then why should I let anything get in my way of doing what I set out to do 30 years ago? I’ve got a working Commodore 64, I’ve got the software, and I can certainly come up with ideas or revisit my original outlines and look at it from an adult viewpoint.

So here I am, starting my journey afresh. Since the 80s I’ve moved on a lot as a games collector. I’m no longer the Commodore fan I was but instead I’m enthusiastic about a more diverse range of retro computing and games systems and have a huge collection of computers and consoles. Set up alongside my Commodore 64 is my relatively recent acquisition of a ZX Spectrum +2 and with the Graphic Adventure Creator being available for both platforms I decided to write the game for both.

Using GAC seems to be relatively straightforward. Most of it is based on setting up word and object lists used for the adventure, room lists and descriptions and then creating lists of conditions for the adventure generally and room specific ones. Each of these is effectively a short statement that will feel familiar to anyone who ever used BASIC for programming in the 80s or 90s so while it doesn’t really need any programming knowledge to create the games, a little background in BASIC helps!

I knew I was going to need help testing the game so I turned to Facebook, specifically the 8 Bit Text Adventures Group to see if anyone was willing to help. The initial feedback not only spurred me on, but I’ve had offers of help including one offer to help port it to the Amstrad as well (which also had a version of the Graphic Adventure Creator available. I honestly would never have thought back in the 80s that I’d be looking at writing a game for three systems…!

To make my life easier I decided on a few things from the start. First, despite the software being called the Graphic Adventure Creator, I was keeping it as text only. Firstly, I’m no artist so with all the will in the world it would end up being a pixelated mess but more importantly it would use valuable memory space and make porting more difficult.

I also decided at the very start that I wouldn’t use the Commodore 64 for development initial but instead create the game on the PC using Word. While that may seem like utter madness, there is logic to it. Despite having a comfortable keyboard, I can write and edit text faster on the PC than I can with the C64. I’ve got a spell-checker to hand and can even work on the game in any room in the house using my laptop if I need to. Crucially, if I’m porting the game to other platforms I need to be able access all of the data easily. If I can see a printout that just needs to be typed onto another machine, that’s a lot easier than trying to copy it from one screen to another and would shave days off the conversion time if not weeks.

And that brings me to this first step. Rather than jumping straight in and writing the game as I went along I wanted to do this properly and planning it out far better than in my youth. Now it doesn’t really help that I have a rather chaotic approach to things as a writer and I often write articles, reviews and everything else in a completely random order. My mind moves from paragraph to paragraph, adding thoughts as they come into my head no matter where they are meant to be in the piece that I am writing and I quite frequently stop myself in mid sentence to go off and write something elsewhere in an article only to come back to the beginning or middle later on. It works well for me though and I have a feeling that creating this game is going to be no different.

But I need some form of structure if the game is going to work so I’m trying to take at least some form of ordered approach. All of my notes, and all of the data that will need to be entered into the Graphic Adventure Creator are going to be stored logically in separate Word files but before even starting on those I set out to plan the basic concept of the game.

So day one took on the plotting. The core story behind the game, where the character was, what had happened leading up to the point where the player takes control, the setting and the core objective to the game itself. I’d decided early on that I wanted the player to be up against a time limit so I had to figure out a logical way to work that into the story and what would happen to the player when that time runs out.

Most importantly how would the game be completed? Usually text adventures would have a fixed goal that the player needs to reach – solve a mystery, find hidden treasure, that sort of thing. In this instance I wanted to try to do something different and offer multiple endings (ambitious I know with this being my first adventure). Without giving any of the plot away, so far I’ve worked out a couple of pages of notes with at least three endings penciled in with varying degrees of success / failure for the player.

So overall the first day wasn’t too bad. GAC isn’t as daunting as I remember it to be and sitting down I don’t think the actual technical side of producing the game will be the difficult part. The tough aspect will be down to writing the game itself and creating all of the puzzles. Now that’s another matter altogether…

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: