Video game archaeologists still baffled by Entombed code

A new report from the BBC details a recent investigation by a pair of video game archaeologists into the 1982 Atari 2600 maze game, Entombed.

John Aycock and Tara Copplestone from the University of York decided to try and focus on working out how Entombed’s code managed to consistently build its navigable 2D maze for a new project, and ended up unable to figure it out due to a series of odd roadblocks.

“It was a very deep rabbit hole,” Aycock said. “As I dug into this maze algorithm, it became clear that this was something that seemed to be fairly unique to this maze game.”

Though Entombed’s maze is generated in a sequence automatically by the algorithm, “the fundamental logic that determines the next square is locked in a table of possible values written into the game’s code. Depending on the values of the five-square tile, the table tells the game to deposit either wall, no wall or a random choice between the two” but no one has been able to unpick how the table was constructed.

“The abnormality of the table was just quite striking,” said Copplestone. “I think there’s this assumption that when we find things, we know what they are – if we pull a spearhead out of the ground, we know what it is. (But) more often than not, we have no idea what’s happening.”

After trying and failing to completely retro-engineer the table, Aycock and Copplestone even interviewed one of Entombed’s producers, Steve Sidley, but he admits he “couldn’t unscramble it” either. He told the duo that the programmer who developed it told him that the code “came upon him when he was drunk and whacked out of his brain” but no one has been able to contact this programmer for further information yet.

The entire Entombed report is well worth checking out, so follow the white rabbit.

Wireframe #22 is out now

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