Ken and Roberta Williams were happily retired.
“People kept asking if we’d do another game. We said no, and we meant it,” Ken tells me as the three of us sit in the lobby of Seattle’s Theodore Hotel, just across from PAX West. The couple are celebrating 50 years of marriage this year.
Legendary co-founders of Sierra On-Line and arguably the “parents” of the entire adventure game genre, Ken and Roberta Williams retired from the video game industry in 1999, bought a big enough boat to live and have never looked back.
“We were doing a real-life adventure. We’ve been to 27 countries with two little dogs, and we would have kept doing it if not for that COVID thing,” Ken tells me with a look of jovial frustration.
“So we went home,” Roberta interjects.
“(During COVID) I was bored,” Ken confesses. ‘(Roberta) said I should write a book. I was going to write about anything but Sierra, but Sierra was all I knew. So it got me thinking about games and…’ Ken pauses, ‘and then I suggested colossal cave! “, ends Roberta.
Adventure in a colossal cave
For those who don’t know, as I myself was, Adventure in a colossal cave is a text-based adventure developed by caver Will Crowther in 1976. It was discovered a year later by programmer Don Woods, who expanded the game, adding fantasy elements and more complex puzzles.
Building Woods became the obsession of a young Roberta Williams, who convinced her programmer husband Ken to help build a similar type of game but to her design – Mystery House. It was a success, and the pair quickly shifted the focus of their fledgling business from enterprise software to gaming. The Sierra On-Line empire that dominated the PC gaming landscape of the 80s and 90s was born.
Nowadays, Ken had tinkered with his colossal cave redo for a few months with the idea of reaching out to an editor who dwells vaguely in the back of his mind. But it is a fortuitous meeting with the artist Marcus Mera that will give shape to the project.
“I started on the game but didn’t have an artist at the time,” Ken explains. “I was doing a presentation and Marcus happened to be presenting after me. We were in the green room getting ready to talk. He mentioned he was an artist and I said, “Hey, I’m making a game!” He said, “Do you want an artist?” And I said, “of course!” So he started doing the art of my game, and it was just going to be him and me.
‘I don’t even know why they thought they could make a game like colossal cave, (just) the two of them,” Roberta says in disbelief. ‘I said you can’t do this for colossal cave. If you want to do it, it has to be done well.
With that, Roberta came on board as creative lead and a team of over 30 people was soon hired for the project.
Despite the move to a modern 3D engine, preserving the integrity of Crowther and Woods’ work remained absolutely essential for everyone involved, especially Roberta.
“It’s a very elegant design,” says Roberta. “It’s really good, and I think it didn’t really get the credit it deserved. It says ‘Reimagined by Roberta Williams’, I’m not the designer. I don’t claim to be It’s their design, it’s their game.
“I actually found it harder to make this game than my own games, because when you design your own game, you design it the way you want.”
Practical work with the reinvented colossal cave
I must have a long read of Redesigned colossal cavewith the Nintendo Switch and Meta Quest 2 VR versions of the game at PAX West 2022, and can attest to the fact that despite the shift to first-person 3D, the game remains firmly rooted in text-adventure design sensibilities to the old one.
Exploring and interacting with inventory items through trial and error is the mainstay of the gaming experience. Actually I’m Dead immediately just a few minutes into my first gaming session as I didn’t equip the light when I set foot in the cave.
I never felt bored or frustrated while playing, even as someone who didn’t grow up with these kinds of games. There’s just something truly charming and wonderful about the whole experience, like seeing the very foundations of video game medium laid out before you to explore and play at your leisure.
The Switch version of the game lets players navigate the environment with a standard control scheme, while the VR version uses a controller-based point-to-point navigation system with full head tracking for looking around. Both versions performed very well, but the VR version definitely has the edge, in terms of immersive atmosphere.
The game will undoubtedly not appeal to everyone due to its old-school sensibilities, but Ken and Roberta Williams are totally okay with that.
“If I was still running Sierra, I don’t know if I would have done this or not. This game is designed to preserve the story,” says Ken. ‘We’re not going to have a bigger car. not a bigger boat. Ultimately, we might sooner or later, but we’re not trying to build a big company.
“It really is a labor of love. That’s what I would call it,” chimes Roberta.
“We’ve seen a few bugs as we go along, because we’re getting so close to the source, and usually we kind of let them in,” adds Ken.
“We look into the source and if it’s there, we do it,” Roberta continues.
“I think I’m a pretty good person to have done that because I revered the game so much,” adds Roberta. “It was important to me that if we’re going to do this, we do it right and really introduce it to today’s players and they see it because it’s just something that needs to be seen.” It’s historic, it’s iconic, it’s classic and it shouldn’t be forgotten.
Colossal cave reimagined by Roberta Williams is set to release later this year on Nintendo Switch, Epic Games Store, and Meta Quest 2.