Hunt the Wumpus is often mentioned in books about gaming history as a semi-precursor to IF. This position does not seem entirely deserved: Wumpus was just one of many mainframe-based text-based games. Every computer game was a text-based game for a while regardless of genre, in the mainframe days (PLATO, PDP), and while Adventure was very special it sprang from pre-existing hotbed of invention. There were already many, many text-driven games, like tic tac toe, etc, in the days of Hunt of the Wumpus. It was not a lone precursor: it was part of an entire ecosystem of precursors, most of which were not culturally fossilised and have thus been largely forgotten.
It might also surprise some to know that most major genres of early arcade video games had direct precursors in the much less culturally fossilised world of arcade mechanical games. People tend to think that video games were born and then differentiated into different arcade gaming genres, but the different arcade gaming genres (shooter, fighter, flight sim, tank game) preceded the invention of video games. They first evolved in a weird, rich world of Rube Goldberg-style physics gaming that might seem entirely foreign to those who grew up on MAME – almost like the gaming traditions of an alien planet beyond the range of the MAME-o-scope. (And it’s orbited by an exotic, late-acquired moon of Discrete Logic video games, which are also beyond the range of our MAME-o-scope.) 8)
The early video games are all just attempts to recreate mechanical games in video. It was almost entirely an imitative world at first. It was when video games started to leverage the one thing a mechanical game cannot do: memorise a long history of player choices instead of just reacting off the most recent one – that they began to pull ahead and the mechanical games became truly obsolete. The first game to really leverage this well was Space Invaders, with its enemy formations and shields both preserving the consequences of player choices. (There was a slight precursor to Space Invaders released by Midway in 1977 called M-4 – this game also had shields that would remember the consequences of player choices.)
Before M-4 and Space Invaders there were tons of video games in which one or two things flew past the screen at a time and you had to shoot them. And before that there were tons of MECHANICAL games in which one or two things flew past under the glass at a time and you had to shoot them. So people think that video games revoultionised things, but they revolutionised nothing. It was computer memory that revolutionised games, not a video display, and thus until that capability was fully leveraged there was no actual marketplace revolution and mechanical games were still around and popular in the days of Pong and all its imitators. Look not to Pong, etc – it was a mere recreation of a game that was superior as a mechanical game, anyway. Look to Space Invaders.
The preservation of the consequences of player choice is absolutely paramount to the power of computer entertainment. Graphical twitch game designers learned this lesson early and well (look at Pac Man – there is a game designer produced maze but there is also a player-modified maze of remaining pellets).
I feel as if interactive fiction designers, however, have still not truly internalised this lesson, to this very day. They still think their job is telling a story with choices in it; but actually what players desire from them is the deep capture and preservation of narrative choices without a continuity error and a set of feedbacks constructed from as creatively mixed a stew of the player’s prior choices as possible. The failure to learn and apply this wisdom effectively in a narrative context is plenty sufficient explanation for the market failures of interactive fiction over the years. (Making every event almost entirely a consequence of only the player’s most recent command is sadly a fair-enough description of the vast majority of games in the IFDB – face it, interactive fiction is largely still stuck in the pre-Space Invaders era of handling player choice. Even Mass Effect falls afoul of this litmus test! 99% of the so-called ‘narrative’ choices in Mass Effect have one immediate consequence and then are heard from no more.)
To be fair, though, long-term preservation of the consequences of player choices is an extraordinary difficult task in the narrative realm, and thus it makes sense that finding the best ways to nail it would take decades of experimentation by multiple communities.
But we aren’t actually there yet. To my knowledge, this community has not actually produced a model for preserving player choices narratively that rings as clearly ‘right’ and points the way to future development as sharply as Space Invaders did for the graphic sim. (This should be enormously exciting to you if you are an explorer, because it means there is still a frontier.)
[Extensively re-edited and extended as of April 12 9:13 AM EST but I didn’t correct anything so apologies for sloppy sentence structure.]