Zork -- Blank and Lebling (1977)


Whereas "Adventure" (Crowther and Woods 1976) began as a simulation of a real cave, "Zork" began as a simulation of "Adventure".

Of this first crop of games, `Adventure' remains the best, mainly because it has its roots in a simulation. This is why it is so atmospheric, more so than any other game for a decade after. The Great Underground Empire of `Zork' is an imitation of the original, based not on real caves but on Crowther's descriptions. `Zork' is better laid out as a game but not as convincing, and in places a caricature: too tidy, with no blind alleys, no secret canyons. Its mythology is similarly less well-grounded: the long-gone Flathead dynasty, beginning in a few throwaway jokes, ended up downright tiresome in the later sequels, when the `legend of the Flatheads' had become, by default, the distinguishing feature of `Zorkness'. (Nelson, "The Craft of Adventure" 2 11)

Zork begins just as "Adventure" does, in a forest clearing, near a building. Both games feature puzzles involving locked grates, lethargic dragons, and mazes. One game features a wandering thief, the other a wandering pirate; one features a menacing dwarf, the other a menacing troll. Zork is unique, however, in that as the gamer solves the initial puzzles, gradually a back story begins to emerge. The Zork series (and the Enchanter series which followed later) were set in the ruins of the Great Underground Empire, once ruled by the Flathead clan. While later games would develop this theme into full-blown conflicts between white and black alchemy, or between magic and technology, the Flathead references in the original games were little more than comic asides.

Before they formed a company to market their game, the Zork designers (current or former MIT students) described the value of their creation:

The interest in playing Zork (or any other CFS game) is two-fold. First, the object of the game is usually to collect treasure, and this may be done only by solving problems; in the above example, the player would garner 10 points by being clever enough to open the window and enter the house. (Zork itself has more than two dozen distinct problems to solve, some presented in several stages.) Second, a great deal of the enjoyment of such games is derived by probing their responses in a sort of informal Turing test: "I wonder what it will say if I do this?" The players (and designers) delight in clever (or unexpected) responses to otherwise useless actions. (Lebling et al., 4)

Although they christened the genre as "Computerized Fantasy Simulation" or CFS, the term did not stick. Indeed, while "Adventure" and "Zork" do involve Tolkeinesque caving expeditions, the programming technique could be used to tell different kinds of narratives (as Anderson et al. mention in a section called "The future of comptuer fantasy simulation games".

Students at M.I.T. responded so favorably to the mainframe version of Zork that a professor at the institute, Al Vezza, encouraged the group to form a corporation. On June 22, 1979, the professor and his star pupils (Berez, Blank and Lebling) formed Infocom for the express purpose of developing Zork for the personal computer market. Its success was followed by Starcross (a science fiction adventure which came packaged in its own flying saucer) and two Zork sequels (Zork II and Zork III). (Wilson, as transcribed by Jeff Somers)


Fig. Zork 1-1

ZORK I: The Great Underground empire
Copyright (c) 1981, 1982, 1983 Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
ZORK is a registered trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Revision 88 / Serial number 840726

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

>open mailbox
Opening the mailbox reveals a leaflet.

>read leaflet

ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be without one!"

In early IF, on the rare occasions when another character turns up in the simulated world, it usually means trouble. The following transcript shows part of an encounter with "a nasty-looking troll". Note the Tolkien-inspired blue glow on the sword.

Fig. Zork 1-2

The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it.

You are in a dark and damp cellar with a narrow passageway leading north, and a crawlway to the south. On the west is the bottom of a steep metal ramp which is unclimbable.
Your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow.


The Troll Room
This is a small room with passages to the east and south and a forbidding hole leading west. Bloodstains and deep scratches (perhaps made by an axe) mar the walls.
A nasty-looking troll, brandishing a bloody axe, blocks all passages out of the room.

Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.
The troll swings his azxe, but it misses.

>swing sword
The troll swings, you parry, but the force of his blow knocks your sword away.

>get sword

The troll hits you with a glancing blow, and you are momentarily stunned.

>kill troll with sword
The troll is staggered, and drops to his knees.
The troll slowly regains his feet.




Dennis G. Jerz