This is an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.
A rubber mat saying ‘Welcome to Zork!’ lies by the door
This is the opening scene of Zork, and believe it or not, in it’s total freedom of interaction, it’s sheer number of possibilities, it’s one of the most important and iconic moments in gaming! As Dave Mee explains in his excellent potted history of the Interactive Fiction genre (which you can read here), games like Zork ‘sent people to another place, where they could explore, read, and contemplate at their leisure; log in, spend some time in the game, then log out.’
So, what do you do first? Some people will try lifting the mat. Some will open the mailbox. Some will try and force their way into the house whilst others run off into a nearby forest looking for something else to do. For it’s time, this was an overwhelming amount of player choice. It must have felt something like taking your first steps into a massive open world game like Skyrim or GTA V with all those hours of gameplay stretching out before you.
Intrigued? Jump straight into the world of Zork now via your browser or read on if you need a bit more convincing…
The idea of a game consisting of white writing on a black background may seem incredibly unattractive now, but Zork was a BIG seller, a triple-A blockbuster of its day. It was the best-selling game of 1982, with 32,000 copies sold by the first half of that year, going on to sell over 2,000,000 units in five years. As the game itself reminds us early on, ‘no PDP10 should be without a copy.’
However, unless you were lucky enough to have had access to a computer at the time or happen to be one of those that discovered it as a playable easter egg in a certain 2010 shoot em up, it’s probably unlikely that you’ve actually played Zork…
Zork begins with the classic Interactive Fiction trope of being locked outside of a house with no obvious entrance. Once you are inside, things become even stranger, leading to hidden chambers, impossible spaces, raging rivers and a particularly ‘smelly’ room, all of which are potentially life-threatening, presenting a vast array of ways to die (28 in total).
Playing it again in 2015, some of the words that spring to mind include:
Mysterious – there is no back-story, description of your character or reason why you are playing.
Compelling – though it’s actually quite hard to die, you’ll find yourself backtracking or restarting often in the hope of finding something new.
Obtuse – as with many games of the time, it feels like some of the puzzles require you to read the designers’ minds in order to complete them.
Knowing – this is a game that constantly reminds you that you are in a game via jokes, in-game advertisements and non-sensical descriptions.
Big – you really will need to draw a map to keep track of where you’ve been and where you’re going.
I was too busy crawling around on the floor to play Zork when it was originally released, only discovering it later as something of a legend amongst older kids at school. Instead I became hooked through early 80’s classroom favourites Lost Frog and Merlin’s Tower. These were vaguely terrifying games of dubious educational quality, rendered in chunky, brightly-coloured text that lived on the BBC Micro computer in the library. If we were lucky, we would be granted access to it for 10 minutes per week – nowhere near long enough to solve it’s impenetrable mysteries.
I also delved heavily into Interactive Fiction’s printed relative, the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book. Fighting Fantasy was clearly the best of the lot, followed by the Usborne and Bantam series (You’re Going to Die being a typical title). I was also drawn to plenty of not-so-good licensed titles like Transformers – Desert of Danger (featuring illegal booze smuggling and graphic deaths at the hands of a razor-toothed wolfbot). You can play that one here.
For me, Zork still feels incredibly distinctive and well drawn, despite having no visuals. In fact, this graphical absence makes it feel a lot more personal and engaging than many games that I’ve played since. Lots of current game developers are trying to achieve the goal of making a game that plays differently for everyone, whether through procedural generation (No Mans Sky, Minecraft, Spelunky) or emergent gameplay (GTA, Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed etc) but in many ways, Zork was doing this 35 years ago!
It’s worth mentioning too, that in those days games would often arrive packaged with ‘Feelies’ to increase the feeling of immersion in the game. These were forerunners of today’s ‘collectors editions’, offering both an incentive to buy the game and some objects that may or may not aid you in completing it. Compare the two packages below for example.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984) offered:
- A pin-on button with “Don’t Panic!” printed in large, friendly letters
- A small plastic packet containing “pocket fluff” (a cottonball)
- Order for destruction of Arthur Dent’s house
- Order for destruction of Earth written in “Vogon” (actually an English cryptogram written in a thinly-disguised Cyrillic alphabet. The text was nearly identical to that of the English Order for Destruction)
- Official Microscopic Space Fleet (an empty plastic bag)
- “Peril Sensitive Sunglasses” (a pair of opaque black cardboard “sunglasses”)
- How Many Times Has This Happened to You?, an advertising brochure for the fictional guidebook/encyclopedia The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- No tea
Compare with this year’s Metal Gear Solid V ‘collector’s edition’:
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
- 24cm Replica of Snake’s Bionic Arm
- Exclusive Collector’s Edition packaging
- Original Steelbook
- Behind the scenes Blu-Ray Documentary and Trailers
- Weapons pack including 4 guns and 4 personal ballistic shields
- Cardboard box pack including 3 boxes
- Snake costume pack including 4 camouflage fatigue outfits
- MGO items: Metal Gear Rex Helmet, AM MRS-4 Gold Assault Rifle, WU S. Gold Pistol
- Metal Gear Online XP boost
So, to conclude, Zork is the most perfect introduction to Interactive Fiction that you could wish for and one of the games that most clearly defines the genre. It contains many of the tropes and conventions of later games that we now take for granted such as:
- A ‘gear gated’ map – certain sections will only open after finding particular objects
- Action packed combat with fantastic creatures
- Photo-realistic environments (depending on how good your imagination is).
- Bad jokes (some in the form of references to obscure mathematics).
- An inventory of objects both useful and entirely useless.
Though not without it’s flaws, Zork remains supremely playable, totally mysterious and slightly frustrating as ever; a true classic which any serious gamer must experience…
Homework for the Text Adventure Time Workshop Teams
So you’ve heard what I think, now here’s a bit of homework. Find a friend and a computer, tablet or phone (a chunky keyboard is suggested for an authentic playing experience), follow the link below and see how far you can get within 60mins. Try to avoid googling the solution if at all possible (we’ll know if you’re cheating).
If possible, make a few notes:
- What is is like to play and how difficult or easy did you find it?
- Writing style; how well can you picture the environments? Is there enough variety or does it all get a bit samey?
- Is there a strong enough story? Did the story draw you on through the game?
- How did you feel about the characters?
- Is there enough choice – did you feel your actions made a difference?
- At what point did you stop playing / give up / throw the keyboard at the wall?
- Try drawing a map. It might save you a lot of time getting lost and backtracking.
- Type HELP for a list of common commands
- Move around by typing compass direction (N for North, SE for South East) and going Up and Down.
- Useful words: LOOK, EXAMINE, INVENTORY, READ, OPEN, TAKE, DROP, MOVE
Let us know how you get on and feel free to post your own review!
P.S. In case you were wondering, The word “Zork” is a nonsense word, often used by MIT hacker as the name for any unfinished program until they were ready to be installed on the system.