The absence of traditional video game graphics is what sets text-based video games like Zork apart as a genre. You don’t actually do anything in this game; rather, the locations and the things you do are explained to you. For instance, in Zork’s opening sentence, you read, “You are standing in an open field west of a white home, with a barred front door.” A tiny mailbox can be found in this spot.
It’s possible to give the main character simple instructions, such as “open mailbox,” to accomplish a goal. The game will respond, “The small mailbox contains a booklet when opened.” The next steps are to “take a leaflet,” “read the leaflet,” and possibly “go east” to the residence.
From there, the plot develops as you acquire weapons and supplies like a sword, a light, a rope, and other essentials for an underground adventure, where you’ll battle opponents reminiscent of those from The Lord of the Rings, such as elves, trolls, and the ever-dreadful grue.
How old is Zork?
Zork was developed by Tim Anderson, Bruce Daniels, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank, all of whom were enrolled at MIT in the late ’70s.
To create Zork, the young nerds looked to the pioneering text-based video game, Adventure (also called Colossal Cave Adventure or ADVENT, because the computer it ran on could only use so many letters in the command line).
In 1976, Stanford student Will Crowther built Adventure as a recreation of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave with some Tolkien-esque fantasy features added by his friend and fellow student, Don Woods. They found Adventure’s two-word command syntax (“kill troll”) limiting, so they coded Zork to comprehend whole phrases (“kill troll with the sword”).
Most people didn’t have computers back then, so who played Zork?
Zork and Adventure both had their beginnings on the PDP-10, a large mainframe computer used mostly in colleges in the late 1970s. Since Adventure was built in the ubiquitous computer language FORTRAN, it quickly became a mainframe favourite. Zork, on the other hand, was coded in MDL, a less widespread but more specialised language.
To play Zork, users had to connect to the MIT PDP-10 through ARPAnet, an early form of the internet, and run the programme remotely. It was through ARPANet that word about Zork spread, making it one of the first Internet sensations despite never having been formally announced to the public.
Infocom, founded by Anderson, Lebling, and Blank, developed a commercial version of Zork just as personal computers were becoming more commonplace. But they hadn’t planned on selling Zork at first. Intent on making genuine productivity software for the home and commercial sector, they concluded that proceeds from the sale of Zork could finance their future initiatives until they found they had no such applications built.
Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981), and Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1983) were released in three sections because the game was too large to run on these early home computers (1982). Zork was originally released for the TRS-80, but it was ported to nearly every home computer afterwards. As you may imagine, it was a huge success, selling over a million copies.
In the years following Zork’s breakthrough, Infocom abandoned its plans to develop business software in favour of developing text adventures, publishing more than 40 games in a wide range of fictional genres. The Enchanter trilogy (1983–1985), Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987), and Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1990) are all Zork sequels and spin-offs (1988).
What made Zork such a hit?
Zork and other Infocom games are distinguished from their rivals in numerous ways. To begin with, Infocom games were notorious for their mind-bending mazes and ingenious riddles, which drove players absolutely bonkers. There were even cases where players wrote into Infocom pleading for a cheat to assist them through a particularly challenging puzzle.
Because of this, Infocom started sending out a newsletter to its followers every month called the New York Times, in which it not only provided hints for upcoming games but also announced them. In subsequent years, Infocom peddled Invisiclues hint books. To prevent participants from getting too far ahead of themselves, the books had clues printed in invisible ink that could be uncovered with a special marker.
Infocom also owes a great deal of its success to its marketing efforts. To purchase a computer game in the early 1980s, you had to either use a mail order or visit a store that specialised in selling such products. However, you could also find Zork and other Infocom titles in bookstores.
Readers weren’t particularly interested in the most cutting-edge visuals, but they did value Infocom’s richer storylines, descriptions, and characters. Infocom’s reputation for quality writing grew to the point where Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams refused to collaborate with any other company on a video game adaptation of his work. The resulting Hitchhiker’s game was one of Infocom’s most successful titles when it was published in 1984.
The developers of the 1982 mystery game Deadline eventually came to terms with the fact that they simply couldn’t include everything they’d hoped to. To accompany the 5.25″ floppy discs, they packaged a portfolio of physical artefacts, such as staged photographs and fake police records, to enhance the immersion of the game.
After receiving positive feedback from players, Infocom began bundling these “feelies” (as they were later dubbed) with each of its games. Maps and plans were examples of practical feelies, but a plastic bag in the Hitchhiker’s Guide game purported to contain a miniature space fleet was just for comic effect.
Zork titles were re-released with a variety of feelies thrown in to cash in on the trend, including travel brochures to made-up countries, a guide to an underground amusement park, a history of the Great Underground Empire, stock in FrobozzCo, and a Zorkmid coin. Naturally, many enthusiasts repurchased the Zork books once again merely to have the chance to buy the feelies.
Is Infocom still around?
I’m afraid not. By 1984, they had begun developing real business software, and by 1984, they had created a database programme named Cornerstone. The corporation invested heavily in developing Cornerstone, but it was met with lukewarm customer response. Infocom, which produced such masterpieces as Pitfall and Chopper Command, accepted a buyout bid from Activision in 1986, just before the company would have gone bankrupt otherwise.
Infocom went out of business in 1989 because of the industry’s shift toward 3D graphics and because of mismanagement on the part of Activision.
After Infocom’s demise, Activision developed several Zork successors, including Return to Zork (1993), Zork Nemesis (1996), and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (2000). (1997). From the traditional text-based gameplay, these games represented a radical departure.
The new Zork included elaborate visuals, including full-motion video scenes with performers like Dirk Benedict, Rip Taylor, and Michael McKean. True believers in Infocom tend to ignore the existence of such games altogether.
What does ‘Zork’ mean?
The word ‘Zork’ doesn’t truly imply anything. It’s just a made-up word that the MIT men used as an exclamation (“Zork!”) and later as the working title for their unfinished programme. Nonetheless, Dungeon was the game’s name before Dungeons & Dragons’ parent company, TSR, threatened legal action. Once they started using Zork again, they never changed back.
Does anyone remember Zork?
Zork and its Infocom offspring were staples in the early 1980s home computer culture. Due to its popularity among pioneering hackers and programmers, the game was frequently referenced in its early work. The 2010 documentary Get Lamp provides an in-depth history of the interactive fiction genre and has interviews with nearly all of the genre’s key pioneers, including Zork.
The grue, a “sinister, lurking presence in the dark corners on earth,” is one of Zork’s most enduring legacies. Its voracious hunger for explorers is only tempered by its fear of light from a lamp. A classic line from Zork: “It is completely dark.
” All throughout the internet, in both classic and modern video games, and even in nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot’s homage to Zork, “It is Pitch Dark,” you may find references to the phrase “You are likely to be eaten by a grue” (the music video even has a cameo from Steve Meretzky, one of the lead game designers at Infocom).
Can you still play Zork?
The longevity of great video games is ensured by the internet. There are literally hundreds of websites that feature an online version of Zork, and some of them even have downloadable versions. For modern gamers who own a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops, there is an Easter Egg in the game’s main menu that allows you to play Zork on your Xbox, PS3, or Wii.
(An added bonus is that locating it will earn you the “Eaten by a Grue” accomplishment.) The Frotz app for the iPhone and iPad allows you to play Zork and many more modern interactive fiction games (yes, people still design them).
Have you ever had a grue meal? Leave a comment and share your fondest Zork recollections with the world!