Twisty Little Passages Not So a Classic Computer Game Much Alike: Applying the FRBR Model to

  1. 1. Matthew Kirschenbaum

    University of Maryland, College Park

  2. 2. Doug Reside

    University of Maryland, College Park

  3. 3. Neil Fraistat

    University of Maryland, College Park

  4. 4. Jerome McDonough

    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

  5. 5. Dennis Jerz

    Seton Hill University

Work text
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Humanities scholars have continually confronted
questions regarding the boundaries of the texts that
they study and the complex inter-relationships that can
exist among various editions, translations, and printings
—in short, the versions—of a work. While librarians
have long recognized the distinction between a work
as an intellectual creation and its embodiment within a
particular physical form (and the need to adequately describe
both), the publication of the Functional Requirements
for Bibliographic Records Final Report by the
IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for
Bibliographic Records (FRBR) marked a pronounced
increase in the level of attention that the library community
has devoted to these issues. In the decade since the
Final Report was issued, a tremendous amount of discussion
has occurred regarding FRBR’s interpretation and
its appropriate application within bibliographic systems.
At the same time, there has been almost no cross-communication
between humanities scholars engaged in the
kind of work described above (“textual studies” as it is
called) and library specialists.
As extraordinarily complicated as the relationships between
the various versions of a particular text can be
within the world of traditional manuscripts and print
publications, the move to electronic text, and in particular
highly interactive texts such as interactive fiction and
computer games, has rendered these relationships even
more vexed and difficult to describe adequately. Because
each individual or subsequent encounter with the same
interactive work can generate different output texts, the
adequacy of traditional descriptive models applied by lineeds to be carefully examined.
A fundamental component of any effort to preserve digital
resources is the development of systems to describe
and track the components of a digital work and to relate
works (and their physical embodiments) to each other,
including describing the provenance of manifestations
as a work evolves over time. As a test of existing library
practices, our project has been examining the application
of the FRBR entity-relationship model to computer
games and interactive fiction, including the seminal work
ADVENTURE. This paper will examine the difficulties
encountered by the project in seeking to apply the FRBR
entity relationship model within the realm of computer
games, and our project’s suggestions for “pretty good”
practices for the application of FRBR and traditional
bibliographic descriptive practices to this ever-evolving
electronic genre.
ADVENTURE, aka ADVENT or Colossal Cave, was
first written and programmed by Will Crowther in
1975, and then revised and extended by Don Woods tn
1977. It offered an underground fantasy world inspired
by Crowther’s experience as a caver in Kentucky‚Äôs
Mammoth Cave. ADVENTURE is a not a virtual world
merely in a casual, metaphoric sense, but in explicit formal
terms: the program contains a parser and a worldmodel
that tracks the state of the electronic space, for
example what objects are and are not in a user-avatar’s
possession and where the avatar is in a global environment
(Montfort 2003). While ADVENTURE was originally
played on a teletype machine, it achieved widespread
popularity and recognition when it was released
onto the nascent ARPANET. Its historical and cultural
significance is captured in Richard Powers’s novel Plowing
the Dark (2000) where the author describes a generation
of computer users united by their shared experience
of the Colossal Cave’s iconic virtual landmarks. This
alone would make ADVENTURE an extremely strong
candidate for the preservation work we are funded to
undertake. However, the recent recovery of the original
version of the game from backup tapes at Stanford
University—an event which received widespread notice
around the Web—lends the work fresh interest and appeal
(Jerz 2007).
After Woods published his significant revision to
Crowther’s original source code, numerous additional
development forks complicated ADVENTURE’s composition
history. The game has also been ported and migrated
across nearly every platform and operating system
that is extant. ADVENTURE can be played on an
Apple II and it can be played on the latest Mac OS. It
can be played on Linux systems and Windows. It can be
played on an iPod. Early on Microsoft released its own
proprietary version of the game, adding an extra room to
the underground caverns. Different scoring systems have
evolved, and fans can wrangle endlessly over which is
to be considered canonical. ADVENTURE thus presents
itself as a rich and complex digital object, not only for
its internal workings as a functioning program but as a
cultural artifact that has been continually reimplemented
and reinterpreted by a mature fan community.
FRBR is, at first glance, a promising mechanism for representing
this heritage. It is an entity-relationship model
capable of discriminating among changes to the substance
or “content” of the work, as well as it’s physical
embodiment in particular carrier media. In a traditional
FRBR representation, one might start with the work that
is Hamlet. The different versions of the play that are extant
are the work’s expressions. These expressions are
realized in manifestations, i.e. the folios and quartos
that have survived, as well as the more modern editions
based upon those sources. A discrete artifact that one
holds in hand, for example the copy of the Arden Shakespeare
sitting nearby on my bookshelf, is an item. At the
same time, certain long-standing challenges present even
with more traditional applications of the FRBR model.
For example, there is no formal consensus on how much
of the work has to change before a new expression is declared.
Catalogers (for FRBR is primarily a cataloger’s
tool) are asked to rely upon common sense, community
practice, and other heuristics.
In the case of an electronic object, the complications proliferate
almost exponentially (Renear 2006). At first it
might seem that all versions of ADVENTURE should
be the “Work,” a particular instance of the game (the last
version modified by Don Woods, for instance) should be
the “Expression,” a particular file with a unique MD5
hash should be the “Manifestation,” and an individual
copy of that file (perhaps on a Commodore 64 664 Block
disk) would be the “Item.” But what if the text read by
the reader is exactly the same, but the underlying code
is different? These variants might be simple (a non-compiled
comment added to the Fortran code), peripheral
(such as the ability to recognize “x” as a synonym for
the command “examine”), or very large (a port of the
code from Fortran to BASIC). Should these code level
variants be considered different expressions? To further
complicate matters, what if the Fortran code was exactly
the same but compiled to two different chips? For example,
an IBM mainframe and a Commodore 64 might
both have a Fortran compiler, but the two compilers will
interpret the Fortran to a different set of set instructions.
It might also be the case that two Fortran compilers designed by different compilers will generate slightly
different machine language. Should these compiled executables,
different in their binary structure but based on
the same Fortran, represent different “Manifestations” or
different “Expressions”?
Finally, even two files with exactly the same MD5 signature
participate in a larger software environment at
runtime. The drivers that run the video interface, the
keyboard, the memory, and the disk drives arguably become
part of ADVENTURE when the user is playing the
game. For instance, the experience of playing the game
using the 6507 chip in a Commodore 64 hooked up to
a black and white television may be different than the
experience of playing the game on the same chip in a
Commodore SX64 (the all-in-one machine some felt fit
to call “portable”). Should the software environment on
which the binary is executed be a part of the classification
scheme at all?
We have applied the FRBR model to three different and
specific instances of ADVENTURE: the source and data
files as retrieved on April 27, 2008 at 6:01 pm from Dennis
Jerz’s server (,
the DOS Windows executable of these files edited to
compile under GNU g77, a free FORTRAN compiler
(, and
a pirated copy of “Apple Adventure” on a 5 1/4” diskette
in one of the project members’ personal possession. This
work will be presented in the course of the paper, together
with rationale and discussion in the context of the
kind of issues enumerated above. We will also discuss
the significance of this work for the broader digital humanities
community, especially in so far as it represents
the intersection of library and information science, textual
studies, and software forensics.
As more and more libraries and repositories begin the
process of collecting born-digital object, they will invariably
encounter material that transcends the boundaries
of documents, email, and other more or less conventional
forms of electronic records. ADVENTURE, as
both a working computer program and as a virtual world,
as well as an artifact with widespread popular interest,
is a harbinger of the kind of content which increasingly
need to be accessioned, cataloged, and described. FRBR
represents the library community’s best effort to date to
distinguish between different versions and editions of a
work. We believe the work discussed represents an important
test case for FRBR’s applicability to complex
born-digital objects.
Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records Final
Report, IFLA (1998):
Jerz, Dennis (2007). “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal
Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original ‘Adventure’
in Code and in Kentucky.” Digital Humanities
Quarterly 1.2:
Montfort, Nick (2003). Twisty Little Passages: An Approach
to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Powers, Richard (2000). Plowing the Dark. Farrar,
Strauss, Giroux.
Renear, Allen. “Is An XML document a FRBR Manifestation
or a FRBR Expression? — Both, Because
FRBR Entities are not Types, but Roles.” Proceedings
of Extreme Markup Languages 2006: http://idealliance.
EML2 006Renear01.html#tod0e5

Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None