Heirloom Software: the Past as Adventure

Thursday, 07 September 2017 - 12:17 PM

Through the years, I've spent what might seem to some people an inordinate amount of time cleaning up and preserving ancient software. My Retrocomputing Museum page archives any number of computer languages and games that might seem utterly obsolete.

I preserve this material because I think there are very good reasons to care about it. Sometimes these old designs reveal unexpected artistry, surprising approaches that can help us break free of assumptions and limits we didn't know we were carrying.

But just as important, cultures understand themselves through their history and their artifacts, and this is no less true of programming cultures than of any other kind. If you're a computer hacker, great works of heirloom software are your heritage as surely as Old Master paintings are a visual artist's; knowing about them enriches you and helps solidify your relationship to your craft.

For exactly re-creating historical computing experiences, not much can beat running the original binary executables on a software emulator for their host hardware. There are small but flourishing groups of re-creationists who do that sort of thing for dozens of different historical computers.

But that's not what I'm here to write about today, because I don't find that kind of museumization very interesting. It doesn't typically yield deep insight into the old code, nor into the thinking of its designers. For that—to have the experience parallel to appreciating an Old Master painting fully—you need not just a running program but source code you can read.

Therefore, I've always been more interested in forward-porting heirloom source code so it can be run and studied in modern environments. I don't necessarily even consider it vital to retain the original language of implementation; the important goals, in my view, are 1) to preserve the original design in a way that makes it possible to study that design as a work of craft and art, and 2) to replicate as nearly as possible the UI of the original so casual explorers not interested in dipping into source code can at least get a feel for the experiences had by its original users.

Now I'll get specific and talk about Colossal Cave Adventure.

This game, still known as ADVENT to many of its fans because it was written on an operating system that supported only monocase filenames at most six characters long, is one of the great early classics of software. Written in 1976–77, it was the very first text adventure game. It's also the direct ancestor of every rogue-like dungeon simulation, and through those the indirect ancestor of a pretty large percentage of the games being written even today.

If you're of a certain age, the following opening sequence will bring back some fond memories:

Original Article