When Mitch Patenaude’s family first bought an IBM PC in the early 1980s, he quickly became hooked on a game called Colossal Cave Adventure. The game was one of the first works of interactive fiction: you typed in a command — “go south,” for instance — and it would respond with text that advanced the quest.
Patenaude eventually moved on to Zork, another text-based classic, and then to similar games of the era. And eventually, of course, his attention shifted to school, to engineering jobs at Google and Facebook, and to starting a family.
But over the past few years, Patenaude has found time to slowly hack a rotary phone from the 1950s to run Zork.
Patenaude bought the phone on eBay for about $15 and installed an inexpensive C.H.I.P. board, which is a modular computer similar to a Raspberry Pi. It has no screen; to play Zork and other text games, the player speaks commands into the handset and listens for the computer’s synthesized response.
In honor of an iconic Zork villain, he calls it Dial-A-Grue.
“This is very much a project of whimsy rather than a useful tool,” Patenaude said. “But it’s also a project of nostalgia, because I played these games as a kid, and I wanted a way to play them in a new way.”
Patenaude isn’t the first hardware hacker to run retro software on an unusual platform. Other enthusiasts have rigged up a graphing calculator to play Doom, a Gameboy 3DS to boot Windows 95, and even projected Tetris onto the side of a large MIT building. Text-based adventure games themselves have seen something of a comeback in recent years thanks to an active homebrew scene and open source tools for creating new interactive fiction.
“The barrier to entry for a lot of games with story and narrative is that the budget required to make something like Deus Ex is just insane because of the graphics,” he said. “This does away with that and makes it all about the story and the structure and how you interact with the world.”
Jon Christian is a writer in Somerville, Massachusetts.