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Where Mazes Came From

by Stephen Granade

Mazes. For some adventurers, a maze is an enjoyable challenge, offering them the chance to explore and map. For others, a maze is a waste of time, a relic of games past that should be left out.

For a long time, mazes were all but required in adventure games. But with the advent of graphic adventure games and the increasing sophistication of text adventure players, mazes fell out of fashion.

The Origin of Mazes

Be it clearly said: it is designers who like mazes ("Concocting such mazes is one of my delights" -- Peter Killworth); players do not like mazes.
          -- Graham Nelson, The Inform Designer's Manual, 4th Ed.

The history of adventure game mazes is concurrent with that of adventure games themselves: the first one appeared in Advent (sometimes called Colossal Cave). In that game, players who manage to cross a fissure soon find themselves faced with one of the most famous adventure game room descriptions:

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

Advent began life as a cave simulation written by Will Crowther. One feature many caves have is a section of rock honeycombed with passages hollowed out by meandering streams of water. Climbing through such passages can challenge the direction sense of the best cavers. You might start out moving north, but then find yourself travelling east before you know it. Some passages loop back on themselves, motion without progress.

So it is with the Maze of Twisty Passages in Advent. The room descriptions are all the same, leaving players without any clear sense of where they are. Rooms are not connected through matching directions. After moving north, you might have to travel west to return to your original room. And some directions loop back to the same room.

The trick to mapping the maze lay in distinguishing one room from another. The traditional method of doing so was to drop an item in each room, then move in a given direction. If the "new" room had the same item in it, you knew you'd looped back. Otherwise, you could drop a different item in the new room and keep moving. Eventually every room would have an item, making the task of distinguishing one room from another much easier.

There was a second maze in Advent, in which each of the room descriptions varied slightly. "You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all different." "You are in a little maze of twisty passages, all different." "You are in a twisty little maze of passages, all different." This maze didn't require the player to drop any items in order to map it, since the rooms were already distinguished by their descriptions.

Mutating Mazes

I've done my time with mazes, and I'm not interested in them any more. I don't want to have to drop things. I don't want to have to do a lot of laborious note-taking. "Hunter, in Darkness" can get away with having a maze, but only because mapping is not the solution. Any maze that does not have a clever, non-mapping solution, I don't care about.
          -- Emily Short

As the first text adventure, Advent defined a number of tropes which carried forward into countless games. Initially, a number of people modified Advent. One common modification was the addition of new mazes. The 550-point variant of Advent, written by David Platt in 1979, had an ice maze which differed from the Twisty Maze. Room connections were logical, in that travelling north then south would take you back to where you started. Instead, the maze had no obvious exit once entered. The key to escaping it was encoded in how the rooms were laid out.

For a short while, every adventure game that wasn't a direct modification of Advent was instead a near-recreation of that game. As such, they included mazes. Dungeon, which was later broken into Zork I, II, and III, had not only a traditional Advent-like maze but the infamous "baseball diamond" maze. The traditional maze in Dungeon had a gentleman thief, similar in function to Advent's pirate, who would wander the maze, picking up items you dropped in an effort to map it.

Acheton, one of the Phoenix games written at Cambridge, was Advent writ large. It weighed in at 162 objects and 403 locations, and had a number of mazes. Adam Atkinson, in responding to the question, "What's the longest maze you've ever found?" said, "The pillar maze in Acheton? The snake maze in Acheton? The lower levels of the mine in, er, Acheton? Not sure which maze is the longest I've seen, but I think I know which game probably contained it."

Most of the Phoenix games, in fact, contained mazes. Very quickly a Cold War of maze design was on, with authors inventing new and terrible ways to confuse players. Mazes which could be solved merely by mapping and dropping objects quickly were passé. In their place grew indicator mazes, ones which could be solved by use of an appropriate object which would show you what direction to take. Other twists were added. Monsters of Murdac had a "black hole maze," in which there was no light and dropped objects vanished, never to be found again. The only way to map the maze was to work out what possible exits each room had, and a number of rooms had identical exits.

Other game designers were not immune to maze madness. Snowball, by Level 9, boasted of being the largest game in existence at the time by virtue of its 7,000 rooms. However, some 6,800 of those formed a maze.

Mazes were so common in games that in his 1982 book "Writing BASIC Adventure Programs for the TRS-80," Frank DaCosta wrote, "An adventure program is hardly complete without a maze." Kim Schuette, in describing what makes a good adventure for her book "The Book of Adventure Games," said, "Take a look at your map. Is it logically laid out? Do the mazes have a reason for existence, or are they pointless? Are there too many mazes for the size and complexity of the game?" The existence of mazes in adventures was a given.

Waning Popularity

Between 1992 and 1994, several authors released full-length works. The quality of this new wave of amateur IF often matched Infocom's early games, and was sufficient to interest more people in IF and in the newsgroup. During this period people argued a lot about what made a good puzzle, and what made a good game.... To give you an idea of what it was like: during this time, arguments about whether or not mazes were good things to have were still fairly common.
          -- Dave Baggett

Designers' penchant for mazes could only last so long. The 1985 Magnetic Scrolls adventure The Pawn had a sign in front of its maze stating, "Warning: This maze is totally irrelevant to the adventure." This was completely true; in fact, the maze could be "solved" via the command >EXIT MAZE.

Concurrent with this increased sophistication of adventure game players was the rise of graphic adventures, which only hastened the maze's demise. Traversing terrain in graphic adventures in which you controlled an avatar, such as the Sierra and LucasArts games, took more time than it did in text adventures. This made graphic mazes much more tedious than their text counterparts.

Some graphic adventures have included mazes which hearken back to the ones in Advent and other early adventures. Myst had a maze which had a trick to it: you could solve it by mapping all of the locations, or you could pass through it without mapping if you realized the trick to the maze. More recently, Escape from Monkey Island used an indicator maze which was impassable if you did not have the correct object to show you what direction to go. And Stupid Invaders contained several mazes, including a full-blown hedge maze which had no shortcut (and, indeed, had a delaying tactic in the form of a snail which you had to ride); players and reviews were not kind to the game on this point.

Some recent text adventures have used mazes to good effect as well. But even Andrew Plotkin's Hunter, in Darkness, which won the 1999 XYZZY Award for "Best Individual Puzzle" on the strength of its maze, was heavily criticized for that same maze by many reviewers.

The chance of mazes completely vanishing from contemporary adventure games is small. However, it's doubtful that mazes will stage a comeback to reclaim their former status as required puzzle.

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