Teleport to the 70’s to learn about the original cheat code.
Although most of us learn that the magic words are “please” and “thank you” from a young age, pioneer programmer and MIT student William Crowther had other ideas.
Despite being best known for creating one of the very first interactive fiction (IF) games Colossal Cave Adventure in 1975, Crowther actually has a much more important claim to fame: whilst working for research firm BBN (Bolt Beranek and Newman) he was one of the original developers of ARPANet, a precursor to the modern day Internet.
When he wasn’t busy giving the web to the world, Crowther and his wife Pat used to enjoy ‘spelunking’ or ‘caving’ as it’s more commonly known. They put their programming knowledge to good use, employing an early teleprinter in their home to map out their caving network.
This teleprinter was connected to a BBN PDP-10 mainframe. After he and his wife divorced, Crowther stopped caving altogether and began development on the text game that would cement his status in video game legend.
Originally started as a pet project so he’d have something to do with his daughters, Colossal Cave Adventure or ‘Adventure’ as it was known contained a number of original quirks. It wasn’t the first IF adventure, or even the first one to be set in a cave system. That honour belongs to 1973’s Hunt the Wumpus.
Still, Crowther used his knowledge of caving to map the game out on very similar lines to the real-life Bedquilt cave system in Kentucky. Some of the items available for pickup in the game, such as an axe wielded by an angry dwarf were also inspired by finds he’d made during his time spelunking.
Tourists at the Mammoth Cave National Park. The nearby Bedquilt cave system served as the inspiration for the layout of ‘Adventure’.
As you may have guessed from the presence of the dwarf, Crowther was also a huge fan of Dungeons & Dragons, so also drew on elements of this for the play. If you’ve played any IF before, you’ll know that movement is non-linear i.e. you can move from room to room with commands like NORTH, SOUTH, EAST and WEST. (Usually shortened to N, S, E, W)
The early text adventure games had a crude AI which could also respond to basic commands such as TAKE KEYS. In the game, one of the very first essential items you need to pick up is a lamp. The 2010 documentary Get Lamp, which covers the history of text adventure games was named in its honour.
Initially Crowther just showed off the game to some of his D&D buddies, who began playing it for hours on end, as well as suggested ways to improve the code. Shortly afterwards, Crowther placed the game’s code on the BBN mainframe and went away for a month’s vacation. On his return he found it was all over the early Internet.
When Stanford student and Don Woods & his friend John Gilbert discovered the game, they spent all night playing it, making hand drawn maps and cracking open Adventure’s source code to try and get extra points. Woods would later go on to make an expanded version of the game with extra features like a scoring system, an irate dragon and perhaps most brilliantly an underground vending machine which sold fresh batteries for the player’s lamp.
Adventure forces you to think outside the box. Here you have to release a bird you captured earlier to get past a dangerous snake.
Let’s get xyzzy
It seemed that everyone was impressed with Crowther’s video-game inventiveness with the exception of the people for whom he’d originally made the game: his family.
In a 2002 telephone interview, Crowther’s sister Betty, who was one of the original play-testers of Adventure, stated: “I was bored having to go through all the steps every time, and I said, ‘I want to go directly into the game.’ She then added, ‘Ecks-why-zee-zee-why!’”
Betty’s impatience led Crowther to create a shortcut in the game. If a player entered the first building in the game, they could type the command ‘xyzzy’ to be instantly teleported into the cave system.
You can enter the caves the long way round by unlocking a grate and climbing down but it’s easier to use xyzzy to teleport there from the first building.
It’s not entirely clear where this nonsense magic word came from. Crowther himself claims he, “...made it up out of whole cloth for the game.”
He later added in a 2007 interview:
“Magic words should look queer, and yet somehow be pronounceable - XYZZY seemed pretty good that way. I was considering working for XEROX at the time, which probably suggested starting with an X.”
Although it’s the most famous, ‘xyzzy’ actually isn’t the only magic word in the game. Entering the onomatopoeic words ‘PUGH’ and ‘PLOVER’ in the right rooms will also transport the player to and from the cave location ‘Y2’ and an empty room where they can unload all the heavy treasure they’ve gathered.
Crowther had just created the first built-in cheat codes in computer game history.
One of the notable points about the ‘xyzzy’ cheat code, is that it’s not optional. Although it’s possible to enter the caves in Adventure through unlocking a grate and climbing down, if you do this you can’t complete the game with the maximum possible score.
This means if you’re unfamiliar with the magic word, you have to enter the caves in the usual way until you come across a room with a magic wand and a helpful message telling you all about what xyzzy can do for you, as shown in the video above.
If you try to use the magic word elsewhere in the game, you’ll see the message “nothing happens”. As many pioneering programmers played Adventure, it’s hardly surprising that they started to ‘riff’ on this theme.
One popular way to do this was to allow users to enter ‘xyzzy’ into the command line of operating systems or programs, only for the system to tell you “nothing happens” too.
Running ‘/xyzzy/ in the Windows mIRC client will result in the message ‘nothing happens’ just as if you tried to use the magic word in the wrong area of Adventure.
The magic word also continues to have a great legacy as a cheat. Typing it into Minesweeper on older versions of Microsoft Windows will have the game warn you which squares hold mines before you click on them.
Using ‘xyzzy’ in older versions of Minesweeper displays a small coloured pixel at the top left of the screen to warn you if a square contains a mine before you click.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Crowther’s creation though, is the establishment of the annual ‘Xyzzy’ awards, which recognise outstanding contributions in the field of Interactive Fiction. Similar to the Academy Awards there are a number of categories such as “Best Game”, “Best Writing”, “Best Story”, “Best Individual Puzzle” and so on.
The 2021 Xyzzy Awards “Best Game”, What Heard Heard of, Ghost guessed by Amanda Walker displays poetry if you type in the magic word. Type it again for more verses.
CONGRATULATIONS! 100/100 You have successfully read through the history of the first magic word in computer games. Although originally coded in FORTRAN Adventure was quickly ported to the BASIC programming language to be played on the Sinclair ZX series of home consoles. Check out Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a visual compendium for our definitive guide on all the ZX Spectrum had to offer.