Revisiting: ‘ZORK I’ (1981)

ScreenCritics goes back to the days of text with the original ZORK, ZORK I. What is this strange game and what is it’s legacy?

In gaming, there is one known fact. Games have graphics, whether they be simple graphics made of ASCII text or big complicated real-time 3D graphics. However, this wasn’t always the case — and it’s a good thing too! If there were graphics way back at the beginning of the era of games, there probably wouldn’t be an industry today because the games of yesterday wouldn’t be much more than a few static pictures in a slideshow-like presentation, ala the CD-I game Flowers of Robert Maplethorpe.

Luckily for everyone who likes interactivity and doesn’t like slideshows that masquerade as games, there was the age of text adventure games, which lasted from the mid 1970’s to the end of the 1980’s, though graphic games did begin appearing later in this era.

Though not the first text-adventure game, one of the most important — if not the most important — in terms of both legacy and influence is Infocom’s Zork series.

Originally programmed by four students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the school mainframe, the game, which rapidly became massively popular on campuses became the framework for their soon to be founded company’s first release; though it would take editing and a re-name for that to happen. Originally named Dungeon, the name was changed over both legal fears and possible confusion over the already existing Dungeon game.

For it’s commercial release, the game, which was far to large for any home computer, was split into multiple games. All of the new smaller games had minute changes made to ensure they could all work, mostly rerouting pathways and moving objects around the environment.

ZORK, released as a trilogy of games (though later games would be added) in 1981, 1982 and 1983, was ported to practically every computer of the time. It has appeared more recently though, on both modern computers and consoles, and as Easter eggs, such as in Call of Duty: Black Ops.

At this point, you may be asking “But what was the gameplay like?” Well, that was simple. The player simply typed in a command, such as TAKE LEAFLET FROM MAILBOX or HIT TROLL WITH ELVISH SWORD. The game would then give them feedback in the form of text, telling the output (Usually along the lines of “Taken.” or “Clang! Crash! The troll parries. The troll’s axe barely misses your ear.”) This was actually a major technical innovation as the game understood more than the previous standards of simple one or two word commands such as HIT TROLL or TAKE LEAFLET, meaning that more complex commands and puzzles implemented and played.

Besides the game’s revolutionary parser, the game also boasted long detailed descriptions, which along with a healthy dose of imagination, provided everything a player needed to play the game. ZORK I contains little in terms of storyline with only a bare bones plot consisting of trying to collect numerous treasures (such as a trident, bag of gold and a painting) in a long, twisty and complex multi-levelled underground empire. Most of the game’s significant complexity and re-playability are direct results of it’s puzzles and random elements, most notably the first real game antagonist, the simply named Thief.

The Thief, a nasty piece of work, was guaranteed to ruin the day of any adventurer who comes across him. This is in no small part due to his impressive knife skills, kleptomaniac habits (though the player isn’t much better, as is the case of most adventure games) and his random movements. Silent and deadly, he’ll sneak into the room, steal your stuff, occasionally kill you, and vanish in just a few moves unless you wisely leave the room first or give him something valuable to appease him.

Besides the Thief, the puzzles ZORK I contained are simple at first sight though many have slightly more complex elements and plenty of ways to screw them — and your playthrough — up. However, the first ZORK’s puzzles aren’t nearly as complex or sadistic as later text-adventure games, especially those of it’s fellow Infocom game Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Another of the elements that made the original Zork challenging (and more than occasionally irritating) was its then infamous maze, which without a map or a very good player memory could forever trap the player in it’s twisty passageways.

It would be sacrilegious though to talk about ZORK I, or indeed the whole Zork series, without talking about one of the game’s most lasting icons, the dreaded and dangerous Grue.

Created to force the player to always have a light source, Grues were deadly, sharp-toothed red eyed creatures of the shadow which would, after a few turns in rooms without light, quickly dispatch the player for no other reason then because they could. You couldn’t fight them, meaning that players were required to have one of the numerous light sources or be in outside in the sunlight to avoid the game-ending claws.

The game, which was notoriously tricky for the time, was a huge success and due to it’s difficulty, they ended up selling, for $9.95, a hint booklet to replace a 1-900 line. The booklet, which was called an InvisiClue, featured questions about various problems, rooms, and mazes within the game and, in invisible ink (hense the name InvisiClues), the answers. The player would just have to highlight the boxes with the included revealer pen and have a clue, with more obvious ones coming the more boxes you revealed for that question. Eventually, this booklet would sell nearly 200,000 copies itself, but that would be just a small fraction of the first Zork’s sales.

One of the most important games of all time, being saved by the Library of Congress as being culturally significant within videogames, and being named one of the most significant games of all time by magazines and newspapers alike, has sold over 1,000,000 copies since it’s release. These combined make ZORK I, along with it’s two original sequels required to understand gaming’s roots and history.

ZORK I, currently controlled by Activision-Blizzard, is available freely on the Treasures of Infocom iOS app, along with other sources. It’s well worth a trip through the underground empire’s first game for any videogame player today for it’s historical importance and as a look at the previous era of games.

It is definitely something that should be checked out: the game still stands up today, and as a grandfather of today’s games, should be part of the pilgrimage every gamer makes to understand what games are and why they are what they are today.

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