You are likely to be eaten by a grue. Such an admonition may not seem scary to you now, but when you’ve been immersed in Zork‘s world of text, you don’t need a description. You don’t even need graphics. You just need to get out of there!
Zork was the brainchild of three students at MIT, who first created it for the PDP-10 computer terminal, just like its inspiration Colossal Cave Adventure. At MIT “Zork” was a slang word meaning “unfinished software.” The creators meant for the game to be named “Dungeon” but reverted after receiving a notice of copyright infringement. Zork was later released on the Apple ][, Atari 8-bit computers, and the Commodore 64.
Despite lacking the modern luxury of advanced graphics that leave nothing to the imagination, a good text adventure still has the power to pull you in. Zork was definitely one of the better ones, even though you wouldn’t know it from their bland and unconvincing advertisements. Zork starts out ordinarily enough, with the only thing in sight being a mailbox. Look further, though, and you’ll slowly enter a world of adventure. Have a taste below.
I only wanted to show a small bit from the beginning so as not to take away from the experience of playing it yourself. The thing about video and computer games is that, unlike most other media, you cannot get the entire experience from just watching passively. Even if you were to perform the same moves I did in the video above (and I certainly hope you don’t) you would have a far different experience from just watching me do it. That’s one of the many great things about interactive fiction. Another great thing about interactive fiction is that in a nascent industry without rules, the possibilities are endless. It’s very cool to see what could happen when an idea was complemented with a tremendous amount of free time. In 1980 alone, we saw games as vastly different as Pac-Man and Zork. The former fast-paced, bright and colorful, and unwinnable; the latter slow, text-driven, free and open, and having an end goal. What I hope will happen as you’re reading these game appreciation articles is that one game will make you better appreciate another. After playing text adventures, I think it’s amazing how much Adventure was able to do without the use of a text parser.
One sign of a great game is that it influences more than it was influenced. Zork was directly influenced by Colossal Cave Adventure but stood on its own merits, then in turn had a huge impact not only on text adventures but on other genres as well. Its advanced text parser, which could recognize more than two words in a command, raised the bar for all future parsers. The phrase “You are likely to be eaten by a grue” became quite popular, in the same vein as “You have died of dysentery” from Oregon Trail. The game also brought something else new to the table: there were 26 different ways to die. This, no doubt, struck Roberta Williams like a lightning bolt of inspiration. It’s the only way to explain all of Sierra Games’ cruel, almost sadistic affinity for killing you. (mirror) How better to sell strategy guides? I mean, if you crossed the bridge too many times and broke it because you had the audacity to explore in an adventure game, it’s your own darn fault. Enjoy no longer being able to pass the game, sucker! Thanks for the $19.95! Oh, wait. I haven’t gotten to King’s Quest yet.
Infocom struck gold with Zork but when making its sequels fell into the common 1980s trap of including, well, traps. For whatever reason, whether it was because they thought a fair challenge was too uninteresting, or because they wanted to sell guides, Infocom diluted Zork II and Zork III with dead ends, reducing them to not-so-excellent levels. Zork II for example had a carousel that would lead the player to a random room and in order to progress to the desired room without wasting hours of time the player would have to save the game, enter the carousel, then load the save and try again until succeeding. There was no way of knowing this beforehand, however. Zork III had a randomly-occurring earthquake that would prevent the player from finishing the game if it happened. It also had a maze that, well, let’s just say I pity those who tried it without any help. This was unfortunately a very common complaint about text adventures (and graphical adventures) in general, so don’t be surprised when I don’t do an article on any other adventures any time soon.
What was with 80s adventure games and mazes? The Mask of the Sun had an end-game maze that went on forever. This was, of course, long after you were supposed to pick up a flute, without which you can’t beat the game (mirror) (or go back to retrieve it and try again). Geez, maybe these games weren’t popular because gamers wanted a game that didn’t despise them with the passion of a thousand scorned lovers.
Zork unfortunately doesn’t have the same legacy today as its contemporaries, but there is still a small yet dedicated base of players who look fondly back on it, among them being the Brothers Chaps. A parody of text adventures called Thy Dungeonman appeared in sbemail 94 and was later made into a fully playable game. It’s just a funny knock-off, but still a good example of what a text adventure can do. Teachers have taken notice of this, using Zork as required playing in their classes. MIT also uses Zork, though considering they were the ones who created it I don’t think we ought to be too surprised.
So how can you experience this timeless gaming classic? Well, Good Old Games is selling the Zork Anthology for only $6.00 here. If you’re economically challenged, Infocom actually offers Zork for free here. Er, perhaps I should have told you that first, before you bought it. Nah, that’s fine. It won’t kill you. Many browser-based versions are also available, such as this one. Now you have no excuse for not playing it.