Zork [1980]

As far as Popular Game History is concerned, Zork [1980] is the first and last text adventure game (“interactive fiction” sadly never fully filtering out to mass consciousness,) a cute stage-setting for the graphical adventure genre that completely superseded it on technical grounds. This is a perception deeply beholden to a progress narrative and commercial success being the barometer on notability I spoke about last week, which is also why I’m playing the 1980 personal computer version and not the mainframe version. The next work your geek-on-the-street might be able to summon to their memory is the likewise successful Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [1984], which is also very accurately categorized as a “text adventure” and shares a sensibility with Zork, just dialed up. The genre is at large perceived as existing entirely of varying shades of irreverent sarcasm and incredibly obscure puzzles. Which isn’t entirely period-inaccurate… but is still unfortunate.

The New Rap Language – Spoonie Gee & The Treacherous Three [1980], delightful linguistic-technical achievements pushing its nascent genre to dazzling new heights. I like both rap and text adventures because I love to be insulted in the second person.

I get the distinct sense, though, that the puzzles were if anything an impediment to commercial success, if not to Zork then to future works in the genre. Hitchhiker’s Guide had a hot property attached, and Zork… Like Myst [1993] 13 years later, or Spacewar [1962] 18 years earlier, Zork was a tech demo game foremost, whatever its other virtues or vices. Zork was often sold with new microcomputers as a handy, flashy, captivating snapshot of possibility, its expressive prose and so-sophisticated-we-still-use-it-40-years-later natural language parser (not to mention its less obvious behind-the-scenes technical genius in circumventing memory limits) being that much more impressive than the two-word implementation of other text adventures or the blocky semi-abstract art and slow loading of contemporary graphical computer games. I’d place money that Zork, like Myst, sold a lot of copies but was only deeply played by a particular, passionate niche that was a small percentage of owners. There is hard data on how many players (self-selected and interested in indie games) were willing to stick it out with completely unrelated later Interactive Fiction game Starborn [2011] by Juhana Leinonen that pegs early discouragement with the parser as a killer of interest, and only about a quarter of players as completing, and I’d guess that Zork’s ratio would be much, much lower, as a longer, harder game with a more complicated parser and large install base. (UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that this is a pretty textbook case of How Not To Use Data. It comes from a small sample in a vastly different context and it’s speciously cherry-picked to support my gut feeling. My gut feeling still stands, but my art critique must stand as opinion, not using poor science as its crutch to authority. Apologies.)

In other words, the first 20 minutes is where Zork makes its money and stakes its claim to fame. That is to say, the aboveground area. In my article on Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77], which is such an overt and constantly-referenced inspiration on Zork that it’s completely fair to categorize Zork as a fangame, I commented on how direct the aboveground area was, a tutorializing funnel into the underground. The experience of sitting down with Zork for the first time, unfamiliar with the genre, is completely different despite the superficial similarities of setting (the clearing with a hatch, the forest, the house with a lamp) because the priorities of emphasis are worlds apart. Instead of linearity with only enough branching to introduce the notion, Zork’s opening is an invitation to freedom, to play that’s unconstrained by such things as “goals.” Lightheadedly and lightheartedly, you wander and count leaves and climb trees and jump and greet the computer and cuss at it and generally, authentically marvel at just how deeply implemented the game is, how funny and charming it can be. It’s a glimpse of the dream I had as a child of text adventures being ridiculously open-ended stories where you were the prime actor, a hint of the promise that AI Dungeon [2019] would later make good on. Not that text parser grammar doesn’t take quite some getting ahold of — when it’s very particular about lighting matches or referring to the air pump not as simply a pump, it’s a reminder that the authors’ generation also contains the teachers who would ask me “I don’t know, CAN you go to the bathroom?” On the other hand, the stubborn exactitude does lead to some solid pratfall gags when you’re willing to play along and laugh at yourself. Despite the complete difference in design philosophy, Zork’s aboveground serves a similar purpose in teaching you a part of that design philosophy. To progress in Zork’s underground, you will indeed need to experimentally and sometimes methodically poke and prod the parser, typing in just about any off-the-wall notion that comes to mind.

Then you go down the trap door, which gets barred behind you, and are likely to be eaten by a grue. It’s an instant and memorable declaration of implacable, mysterious hostility, but easily enough sidestepped. Moving north you encounter the real notice that you’ve crossed a threshold into a different game with different intentions and a different implied audience, a menacing troll who must be slain with your Elvish sword to pass, a quintessentially gamey and artificial scenario. Originally, this was a kind of verb-x-preposition-y puzzle where you would throw the troll a knife and it would eat it and die, a demonstrative model in violent skin of the basic inventory riddle you faced time and time again in Colossal Cave Adventure (the plant literally crying out for water,) but not actually as much in Zork, though still present. (UPDATE: It was also pointed out that this solution is still in the game, but with a very low success rate of 20%, so it never worked for me.) It was redesigned as an even more D&D inspired situation that might use the same syntax but was, instead of gesturing towards what I’ll call for lack of a better word “cleverness,” requiring the most direct, blunt, violent solution. Moreover, you’ll need to repeat your command multiple times and it’s randomly effective, just like in Rogue [1980] or for that matter any number of RPGs. In other words, you can divine the correct action from the wide range of possibility that has just been illustrated to you, and you could get negative feedback in the form of it not working so badly that you die, which should send you back to the drawing board because insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result. Yes, this kind of randomized combat mechanic was in CCA too… but it wasn’t the curtain-raising tone-setter.

The placement of the troll is sloppy, and whether you have a bad virginal experience with this encounter or not, it’s still an early-game teaching moment, and what it teaches you about the Zork to come is that despite the generally considerate and pliable design a cut above the competition (borne of an development environment that essentially iterated based on observed user input in what would be the direct forerunner to game development QA processes,) its structure is in places haphazard and sometimes carelessly indifferent to the home audience experience. To quote Jimmy Maher on its sequel Return To Zork [1993], “all of its ideas [on graceful technical implementation] are undone by a complete disinterest in the fundamentals of game design on the part of the novelty-seeking technologists who created it” — although the original does not get this bad a condition consistently, it’s still no smooth ride to solve. There’s the infamous “Odysseus” puzzle, but more typical “oh come on” moments would be a) opening the gate to Hades which requires three unhinted actions and moreover in one specific order that offers (to my experience) no feedback when you’re on the right track in the wrong order, or b) how the boat is initially described as a folded-up piece of plastic with a valve and the puzzle (such as it is) is seeing past the obtuse description, wordier than the under-description you might see in a Scott Adams adventure and thus feeling all the more intentional a literary tease. The area I found the easiest to solve (and this game is divided into areas) was the coal mine, with its elementary and legible “vampires don’t like garlic” pun and its sensible winch replacing one of CCA’s magic words. I was surprised to read later it was originally designed later than the rest of the game to be the more challenging area, perhaps a signal of the group’s growing facility with user-friendly design.

The fact that Zork’s Great Underground Empire has a solution or even an audience most of the time seems essentially secondary if not entirely incidental to the programmers’ world-modelling parser-building project, many of the puzzles seeming designed around exploring and expanding what the underlying homemade coding language can do. There’s a talking syntax explained in the manual that, due to Zork [1980] being a slice off of “Mainframe” Zork [1977-80], is never to my experience actually usable — even in the puzzle solution wherein you say something to a character! (This feels like a bit of a tell about the in-world positioning of the parser, shifting suddenly from the player’s attempts at narration to a conversational model like we’ve hopped into Eliza [1966]. In CCA you might “say” a magic word just by entering it, in Zork you can strike up a mock-dialogue with the program itself; at its best this creates a casual bedtime-story oral atmosphere, at its worst it creates confusion like that.) Opening the dam or digging a hole is a more gussied-up version of opening a door and an inverted iteration on the plant crying for water, but due to the overall deeper implementation and set-dressing, they feel like a more substantial change of the environment, carving into its land and getting a tactile sense of the place through its deformation, which asserts your power, your ownership of this environment. The boat is a boast that they figured out how to make vehicles work, and you need to bring the sceptre along with you (which is easy to figure out only if you have already played CCA to completion like the original intended audience,) but loose in your inventory it will pop the boat, so you also need to use their spiffy container system. This is a game by and for engineers — these are, after all, the exact same people who solved Colossal Cave Adventure with a last-resort homebrewed machine-language debugger, an extreme exaggeration of the comparison I made from solving an adventure game to programmer’s bughunting, and then decided they liked that so much they wanted an even harder version of the same problem to give to others. It’s not coincidental that many of the puzzles in the game are themselves challenging you to discern how to identify and operate technology, such as the easy-bake oven in the coal mine that takes a screwdriver as its ignition key.

The most unfriendly aspect, though, is the much-ballyhooed thief. Like CCA’s pirate or dwarf, this is a figure of animate malice stealing your shit and trying to kill you, who you become the twin of in your own murder and robbery of them. Their death, unlike yours, is permanent and significant. And I don’t mean in a savescum sense: the thief ran out of second chances a long time ago, the game textually will revive you from ghost to corporeal one, twice, three times if you die, perhaps inspired by baseball’s 3 strikes system. Also ahead-of-its-time gamey is that you have to level up (by increasing score, by collecting treasure) before you can successfully kill the thief. His inevitable death is in a sense foreshadowed (serving the dual purpose of a literary device and a player hint) by his introduction stating his “bag will be taken only over his dead body,” and poignantly the thief’s only spoken line: “Do unto others before…” You have to finish the sentence yourself, fittingly and cyclically. The pirate only gets two lines, and is sketched in the most broad & cartoonish of strokes within them (“Shiver me timbers!”) feeling all the more like a programmed puppet in comparison. The thief gets much more description, and what is there is a subtle, sly character instead of a stock caricature. They are of “essentially genteel upbringing” and “good breeding” that they sometimes forget, and when the third-person narrative attentively adopts a stylistic voice with which to describe them, they lean casually, nod ruefully, and your duels are described as “contretemps.” Alas though, they are a “lean and hungry gentlemen” — the implication being that they are only driven to their criminal path out of base desperation. This is a laudable sympathetically-depicted villain, but why must the sympathy be contingent on their once being rich? Well…

Zork’s Great Underground Empire has been frequently accused even by its creators of having an incoherent aesthetic, a map of jumbled contradictions sitting thoughtlessly side by side, but… its bifuricated environment does actually add up to something. Where CCA was a love letter to nature and full of Tolkien-by-way-of-D&D magic, Zork pulls from a) the post-industrial aesthetic of decrepit unused machinery, ransacked art galleries, boarded-up abandoned houses, and b) allusions to ancient Greek & in one location Egyptian mythology through an American pop cultural lens — I think Ray Harryhausen’s sword-and-sandals sensibility here is actually more prominent than the Tolkien stuff. The coffin of Ramses II, the cyclops that is infamous for being beaten by bungled reference to Odysseus, you examine the magic mirror and the game tells you you’re ugly in a funny inversion of Narcissus, Hades serving as the Christian Hell, et cetera, even the requisite maze can be seen in this light. The caves could be Plato’s. Zork ties together the faded glory of left-behind Appalachia with the epic grandeur of antiquity, a unique fusion that draws the temporally furthest strands of the “Western civilization” construct together just to show it destroyed, mirroring on a larger thematic scale how the thief is drawn as an aristocratic gentlemen driven down into desperate, criminal poverty. It’s kind of reminiscent of how House Of Usher [1980] and Berzerk [1980] find their decayed horror in the science they are products of. It’s unclear if we’re in some kind of soft Fall-of-Rome post-apocalypse or if the Flathead Empire is just asleep at the wheel when it comes to governing; given the origins of the Grue it’s clear that Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books were an influence, but the decay is nowhere like that drastic. This could be mined for pathos, a fantasy milieu that’s less a premonition than placing the conditions of deprivation people in modern-day America right alongside the mythical grounding it uses to legitimize itself as a post-hoc centuries-long continuity, but instead you and the game just laugh through the ashes, romping and disregarding the larger picture to focus on the small and momentary, suggesting to me your character and their viewpoint is from the next generation after the thief, a native who sees not what was but only what is. What this scene-setting does is recontextualize the treasure hunt not as colonialist raiding — with the exception of the aforementioned Egyptian area, where you of course steal all the rites of the dead because that’s what Egypt is for from the eyes and pens of white American computer nerds for an audience they believe to be exactly like themselves — but as barbarism in a world where nothing matters anymore and everyone is just fighting over shiny scraps.

Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than cis white males, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over, even if the news cycle has moved on. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.

8 thoughts on “Zork [1980]

  1. Greetings. So much discussion of Interactive Fiction is primarily concerned with the history of its technology, its originating corporate culture, or its authors. Now that Jimmy Maher has covered that ground so effectively and comprehensively, I am happy to find writers that take a different tack. Your writeups on this and other Infocom titles have been fantastic. I particularly find your comments regarding materialism, class, and labor to be novel and convincing. I hope that, in the near future, I can say something as interesting about the thief.

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  2. Sorry, I also meant to ask: what’s behind all these old game reviews? I’m having a little trouble getting my head around them. They’re part history, part speculation, and part ‘review as if you just played them,’ with an odd juxtaposition of knowing the history and context in which they were released, yet judging them within today’s landscape of narrative and game design theory.

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    1. I actually am playing all these games for the first time as I go, and also learning to write as I go. This post was a big learning experience thanks to other people’s on-point criticisms, and I want to speculate less going forward. I hope I don’t come across as trying to speak with authority. I guess my background is that I haven’t played many games at all, but I’m also not going in blind enough for that to be some novel draw: I’ve always loved reading about the history and theory of games.

      So when I’m writing, I’m trying to merge those two tendencies I enjoy reading. Games-As-Art critique that goes past consumer review is heavily slanted towards theoretical work on a general topic that flits about from game to game, or to examining titles from the 3D era on if not outright new releases only. A lot of great work being done (like on, say, Re:Bind) is in active skepticism to concepts of some canonical pantheon of games about which all discussion must be centered. I’m very sympathetic to that point of view! Hence House Of Usher, The Prisoner, and more to come. Thing is, I haven’t had any experience with this canon and… well, I’d like to. I love lists and approaching things chronologically is satisfying to me. Forming thoughts and opinions of one’s own about titles people have at least heard of is also kinda the bedrock of most coherent critical conversation. Like, I believe that Illmatic has been far, far too centered and overchampioned in discussions of hip-hop music, but it would be outright foolish to say that if I hadn’t listened to much hip-hop and/or Illmatic itself.

      I also think that these old, famous games, despite the feeling in the air that they’ve been talked to death, often haven’t actually had the same kind of examination that has been put on offer for fresher titles yet. When straight histories talk about old famous games, they can often end up instrumentalizing them, using them as trivial tokens in a grander narrative. Mystery House is a quick beat in the Sierra story, or Castle Wolfenstein is notable only in terms of Wolfenstein 3D which is notable only in terms of Doom, or Metal Slug is an object of personal childhood nostalgia. It’s my conviction that video games were always art, but like, The Oregon Trail sure doesn’t get treated like it. (Sidenote: I think this all super doesn’t apply to interactive fiction! I still want to play through them, though, and I think the discussion of games can be very enriched by considering the interactive fiction scene as a vital part of the fabric instead of a niche.)

      As for the background info: I think it’s foolish to hypothetically sever a critique of a game from what little we loosely know of its production, distribution, reception, and historical context, but all the same I’m no historian nor was I there. I can’t really tell you about what a game was like in 1980 or even 2010. I can only offer my fair perspective on what a game was like to my mind in 2020. That’s hopefully at least interesting.


      1. Thank you for all of that – really, really useful in helping me understand the context of these write-ups. Are you just posting them here, or do you link to them from a Twitter account or something? I’m afraid I haven’t been maintaining an RSS reader or anything, but would be interested in knowing when you update, particularly on titles I’m familiar with.


  3. > I’d place money that Zork, like Myst,
    > sold a lot of copies but was only deeply
    > played by a particular, passionate niche
    > that was a small percentage of owners.

    Admittedly, my story is also merely one data point, but I remember my blue-collar single-income household dropping some precious money on these when I was a kid to play on our Commodore 64. Not just Zork I, but the trilogy, plus others. My parents spent hours playing them with me, beginning around age 8 or 9. It helped me learn to type and built a really impressive vocabulary for someone so young. I used to beg for the new titles when they came out, even though they cost $30-40 each (in 1980s money). I don’t know if my parents sunk that money because they found the games educational for me, or because they enjoyed them too, or a bit of both.

    I would write us off as being ‘niche’, but I remember in fifth grade that we had copies of this on the IBM XTs in the school’s computer lab, and I know I wasn’t the only one who played it on rainy days when we couldn’t go outside for recess. Sounds odd to say this, but my familiarity with Zork actually got me in with some of the richer, cooler kids in middle school. I would probably not have spoken to a few of them otherwise.

    Later, my mother and I would continue to bond over Myst and its successors.

    Come to think of it, just three days ago my mum sent me a link to this article, thinking I would enjoy it (it’s pretty basic, but the point is, she’s still using Zork as a way to bond forty years later: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/a-brief-history-of-zork ).

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