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A Brief History of Zork

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Zork is a text-based video game, a genre also known as “interactive fiction,” whose defining feature is the absence of typical video game graphics. Instead, the game’s environments and the actions you take are described for you. For example, the first line of Zork is, “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.” Using a series of simple commands, you direct the main character to do something, like “open mailbox.” To which the game will reply, “Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.” Naturally, you would then “take leaflet,” “read leaflet”, and then maybe “walk east” to get to the house. The story unfolds from there as you collect items, like a sword, a lantern, rope, and other adventuring necessities, before entering a vast, underground cave where you’ll face enemies inspired by The Lord of the Rings, like elves, trolls, and the darkness-lurking grue.

How old is Zork?

Zork was written between 1977 and 1979 by MIT students Tim Anderson, Bruce Daniels, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank.

The young geeks got the idea for Zork from the first 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). Adventure was created in 1976 by Will Crowther, a student at Stanford, as a simulation of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, with a few Tolkien-esque fantasy elements thrown in by fellow Stanfordite Don Woods. The MIT guys weren’t impressed with Adventure’s limited two-word command structure (“kill troll”), so they wrote Zork to understand complete sentences (“kill troll with sword”).

Most people didn’t have computers back then, so who played Zork?

Originally, Zork and Adventure were both written for the PDP-10, a room-sized computer mainframe that was popular with universities in the late-1970s. Adventure was written in a very common programming language called FORTRAN, so copies of the game spread rapidly among mainframe users. Zork, however, was written with MDL, a more specialized language that wasn’t as popular. So, for a while, the only way to play Zork was to log on to the MIT PDP-10 through ARPAnet, an early version of the internet, and run it remotely. Zork was never officially announced to the world; people just heard about it through ARPANet, making it an early viral sensation.

Just as home computers were becoming more commonplace, a commercial version of Zork was released by Infocom, a company founded by Anderson, Lebling and Blank. However, they didn’t initially intend to sell Zork. They set out to create serious productivity software for the home and business market, but when they realized they didn’t actually have any of those programs written yet, they decided Zork sales could fund their future endeavors.

Since the game was too big to operate on these early home computers, they had to break it into three parts: Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981), and Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982). Although Zork was first released for the TRS-80 computer, it was eventually ported to just about every home computer, like Apple II, Atari Computers, and the IBM PC. It was a pretty big hit, selling over a million copies.

The success of Zork compelled Infocom to forget their original plan of creating business software and focus on text video games throughout much of the 1980s, releasing over 40 games across a variety of fictional genres. Of course some of these games were Zork sequels and spin-offs, like the Enchanter trilogy (1983-1985), Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987), and the prequel, Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988).

What made Zork such a hit?

There are quite a few things that set Zork and other Infocom games apart from the competition. For one, Infocom games had creative, addictive puzzles and mazes that drove players batty. Some gamers even wrote Infocom letters, asking for a hint to help them get past particularly tough brain teasers. This became so common that Infocom created a monthly newsletter for fans, called the New Zork Times, where they doled out clues, but also told players about upcoming games. Later, Infocom sold Invisiclues hint books. The books were printed with invisible ink that could only be revealed with a special marker, so players could get clues as-needed without spoiling anything farther in the game.

Marketing was also a huge factor in Infocom’s success. In the early 80s, computer games were mainly sold through mail order or at specialized computer stores. Zork and other Infocom titles, though, also graced the shelves of bookstores. Readers weren’t necessarily concerned about the latest whiz-bang graphics, but they did appreciate the deeper storyline, descriptions, and characters available with Infocom titles. In fact, Infocom became so well known for its writing that when Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was approached to adapt his novel as a video game, he said he wouldn't work with anyone but Infocom. The resulting Hitchhiker's game, released in 1984, became one of Infocom’s biggest sellers.

Image credit: The Infocom Gallery

Finally, during the development of the 1982 mystery game Deadline, the programmers realized they couldn’t fit everything into the game. So they created a portfolio of physical items, like mock crime scene photos and police reports, and included them in the box with the game’s 5.25” floppy disks. Players remarked that these “feelies,” as they became known, added to the overall game experience, so Infocom started including them with all their titles. Sometimes feelies were useful, like maps and blueprints, while others were simply there for fun, like an empty plastic bag in the Hitchhiker's Guide game that supposedly contained a microscopic space fleet.

Image credit: The Staging Point

To capitalize on the success of feelies, new editions of the Zork games were released with items like travel brochures to fictional lands, a guide to an underground amusement park, a history of the Great Underground Empire, shares of FrobozzCo stock, and even a Zorkmid coin, the official currency of the Great Underground Empire. As you might expect, many fans purchased the Zork series all over again, just so they could add the feelies to their collection.

Is Infocom still around?

Sadly, no. In 1984 they finally got around to working on serious business software and released a database program called Cornerstone. The company sank a lot of money into Cornerstone’s development, but it wasn’t very well received by consumers. On the verge of bankruptcy, Infocom accepted a buy-out offer in 1986 from Activision, the company behind video game classics like Pitfall and Chopper Command. Unfortunately, due to the increased emphasis on graphics in video games, as well as poor management at Activision, Infocom was shuttered in 1989.

After closing Infocom, Activision continued to use the beloved Infocom name and Zork brand to create additional sequels, like Return to Zork (1993), Zork Nemesis (1996), and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997). These games were a big departure from the original text-only gameplay. The new Zorks featured extensive graphics and even full-motion video scenes starring actors, like Dirk Benedict, Rip Taylor, and Michael McKean. Hardcore Infocom fans generally don't even acknowledge that these games exist.

What does 'Zork' mean?

The word 'Zork' doesn’t really mean anything. It's just a nonsense word the MIT guys sometimes used as an exclamation (“Zork!”), but also as a placeholder name for a program that was still being written. However, the game was briefly called Dungeon, until TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, threatened to sue. They reverted back to Zork and the name simply stuck.

Does anyone remember Zork?

Just about anyone who had a computer in the early 1980s played Zork or one of its Infocom progeny. In addition, because of its mainframe origins, it was a big hit with early hackers and programmers, who included references to the game in their own programs. Zork is also a major topic of the 2010 documentary, Get Lamp, an in-depth history of the interactive fiction genre, including interviews with almost all of the major pioneers of text adventures.

Perhaps one of Zork's longest lasting legacies is the grue, a “sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth,” whose insatiable appetite for adventurers is only tempered by its fear of light from a lamp. One of the most famous lines from Zork — “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue” — can be found referenced all over the internet, in old and new video games, and in nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot's homage to Zork, "It is Pitch Dark" (the music video even has a cameo from Steve Meretzky, one of the lead game designers at Infocom).

Can you still play Zork?

Thanks to the internet, good video games never die. A quick Google search will lead you to hundreds of websites that host an online version of Zork, and some even have it available for download. If you’re a modern gamer with a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops, an Easter Egg on the main menu lets you play Zork on your Xbox, PS3, or Wii. (Bonus: If you find it, you’ll get the “Eaten by a Grue” achievement.) You can also play Zork, as well as many new interactive fiction games — yes, people still make them — by downloading the Frotz app for the iPhone/iPad.

Were you ever eaten by a grue? Tell us your favorite Zork memories in the comments below!

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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