Before Intel Quad Processors, Solid State Drives and DDR Ram Chips… in days long past when home computers could run on no more memory than that of a digital watch, video games relied on imagination and storytelling instead of flashy graphics. Such was the (solid) state of gaming. While Zork may have been written in BASIC, and been an all-text game, it nevertheless fired the imaginations of gamers everywhere.
Zork: Some History
Between 1977-1979, a group of programmers at MIT developed a game that was part game/part interactive story. Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels and Dave Lebling were fans of a video game created in 1976 by Will Crowther at Stanford called Colossal Cave Adventure.
Both games were written for the PDP-10 computer mainframe, a computer the size of a room. What began as a competition between United States universities would lead to the birth of a gaming genre.
Once home computers became financially viable, the team from MIT founded Infocom. With an initial plan to write, develop and sell business software they decided that the success of justified converting it to (the existing) home computer platforms would provide them income to develop their more business oriented software.
Due to restraints of the software formats, Zork began life as a game of three parts, Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981) and Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982). The game was ported to Commodore 64, Atari 8-Bit, CP/M and IBM PC systems. By 1984 the games had sold 250,000 copies, 680,000 copies by 1986. The success of these games led Infocom to change their plans and to concentrate on text adventures throughout the 1980’s.
You find a golden egg
The premise of Zork I? Exploring the remains of a ruined empire buried deep beneath the earth, in pursuit of wealth and adventure. The way yon intrepid explorer accomplished this was through (after reading the given text description of the given room they were in) interacting by means of simple text commands. For example, “Kill troll with nasty knife,” “Open door,” “Go north.”
Zork’s appeal derived from its creative puzzles and detailed “room” descriptions which confronted the players. Demand for help by players was such that Infocom created a New Zork Times monthly newsletter for fans, which they could also use to provide information on future titles. The complex mazes and puzzles of the text adventure led to many players creating their own maps to the game where they could see where ‘Go North’ would lead them and help find treasure.
The success of the games and customer desire for adventures led Infocom to become the leader in this genre of games in the 1980’s. The success of Zork led to the Deadline (1982), Enchanter Trilogy (1983-85), Planetfall (1983), Leather Goddesses of Phobos (1986) and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1984), the latter a case where Infocom was specifically asked to adapt the book by the author Douglas Adams. Such success led to the development of sequels and spin offs of Zork, Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987) and Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988).
After The Empire
In 1984 Infocom used their money and success to go back to their initial plan in developing business software, resulting in their database application Cornerstone. The poor reception from consumers and the development costs left Infocom near bankruptcy, and Activision bought the company in 1986.
With the evolving gaming industry and desire for more graphically advanced games, text based adventures struggled to compete and Activision eventually closed the developer down in 1989. Although Activision would continue to use the Zork brand to develop more modern games, they would have little to do with original titles.
If you want to give the game a go, then a simple Google search will find many sites which allow you to play a version of Zork. The game also plays a major part in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) where an interactive version of the game is the second part of the quest for Halliday’s Easter Egg. It will be interesting to see if Steven Spielberg was enough of a fan to keep the level in the 2018 movie.