Tactical Nuclear Device

Back when 300 baud dial-up was new – yeah, that’s a long time ago, all right – we had a “guest” login to a mainframe where a friend worked. He had administrative privileges and, being the generous sort, we were “in”.

One of the games we played was Adventure, or as we would later learn its correct name, Colossal Cave.

Regardless, it was the first “text adventure” game. The directions were minimal and, after the briefest of introductions, you just started trying things and slowly worked out what to do.

I won’t bore you with the play. Suffice it to say we burned a lot of paper in that old Texas Instruments Silent 700 terminal in the several months it took to master the game. (One of the magic words is “XYZZY” and that’s been the license plate on our car for decades. There’s even an [xyzzy.com][2] website from which you can download a ZIP file and play the game on your own computer.)

There were several copycat adventure games, some better, some worse. One of those was a version we played on a different computer for a while. It had the interesting property of being “extensible” by any player. That is, if you were playing and didn’t like something in the game, or wanted a new way out of the current location, you could type-in a magic word and, voila, you were editing the game’s internals. You could add a new exit, create a new object for players to find and use, change the description of any location and, well, do just about anything you wish.

The only problem was, there was no backup copy. If the change you made broke something, there was no going back.

One day, I was playing the game as I drank my morning coffee and found a whole new wing had been added by someone. I rattled about through several rooms wondering what other goodies the mystery author had left and, sure enough, when I went into one room, the game said:

  • “There is a tactical nuclear device here. It has a big red button on it.”

So I typed, “push button”.

The computer sat there, silent. It said nothing.

I took a sip of coffee and started getting a little uneasy as the quiet stretched out with nothing coming out of the computer.

Finally, another engineer who sat three cubicles away and was in the middle of some real work, asked in a loud voice,

“Is something wrong with the computer?”

It only took a few minutes to figure out that all our work files and all the programs on the computer were gone. The computer and all its disk drives had been wiped completely clean. Not one bit of data was left.

Bet’cha don’t get that kind’a play in today’s action games!


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