The Main (Narrative) Frame: From Zork to Zork

They keep pulling me back in!

Previously, on Gold Machine…

I have asserted that there is a finite, six-episode video game epic that I have chosen to call “The Zork Saga.” Why would I do that, and by whose authority? I hope that the “why” might be clearer by the end of this or the next installment of Gold Machine. So far as authority goes: who would stop me, or anyone else, from trying to think about something critically? Less dramatically: any thinking person can say for themselves what a text means and make a case for it if they wish. I have the authority that any reader or member of an audience might, which ought to be sufficient.

Regarding the “why” of it, I think it would be constructive to compare the PDP version of Zork (which I will call Dungeon from here on, just to keep things clear) with the three commercially released games of the Zork trilogy. The rhetorical situations of the two games are quite different. As a reminder, the rhetorical situation of a text is usually presented as a triangle. In this case, let’s say the three vertices are audience, author, and subject.

The Rhetorical Situation of Dungeon

  • Authors: Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Tim Anderson. Who were these people? MIT students (all graduate students, I think) who were associated in some way with the Laboratory for Computer Science’s Dynamic Modeling Group. Blank’s association with DMG was rather loose: he was in medical school at the time. The others, though, wrote software for MIT’s government contracts, primarily with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Readers curious about the DMG’s association with (D)ARPA might enjoy part eight of Jimmy Maher’s series “A Web Around the World.”
  • Audience: Fellow hackers at universities and large corporations that might have access to a mainframe computer. Compared to what we consider a video gaming audience today, this is a fairly specialized group that would likely be familiar with Adventure by Crowther and Woods.
  • Subject: an unnamed adventurer gathers treasures from a mostly fantasy environment with some notable anachronisms or genre mashups. This subject matter evolved over time, since Dungeon was released in increments.

The conditions of Dungeon‘s creation were, in fact, directly at odds with its commercial reconfiguration as three pieces of shrink-wrapped software. It was largely a game by programmers for programmers, and, until the time of Infocom’s founding, its creators made no efforts to conceal or secure it. In fact, Dungeon was freely available to anyone with the available resources (mainframe access) and knowhow (finding the content on ARPANET). It was, in other words, created in a context that is often (not always!) similar to the interactive fiction scene of today.

Separate from Dungeon‘s merits as a text or even as a game was the joy its authors experienced coming up with solutions to technical problems.

Note that a primary motivation behind creating Dungeon was making something more technically sophisticated than Adventure, a game which almost every player of Dungeon would have encountered. Separate from Dungeon‘s merits as a text or even as a game was the joy its authors experienced coming up with solutions to technical problems. For instance, the inflatable raft is not merely present in Dungeon because it might be fun for players, it is also there because Marc Blank wanted to come up with a way to implement vehicles. It was a game that was fun for its authors, too.

Unpeeling the Onion

The actual process of writing Dungeon was incremental and iterative. The initial genesis of Dungeon, which consisted of an attempt to make a better parser than that of Adventure, is well documented (Maher as well as the accounts of Infocom’s own Stu Galley and Tim Anderson). In addition to its rhetorical situation as discussed above, the way in which it grew, from its core outward, can be measured in terms of both its content as well as its technical evolution. This is an approach that, again, could only succeed in the hacker culture from which it emerged.

A tantalizing look at the evolution of Dungeon over time can be found in a discussion thread at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, wherein a poster collects and publishes various issues of “US News and Dungeon Report” contained within available sources and binaries. The “Report” was used as an informal change log, or readme, or developer’s update document that could be found in-game. It is likely that many of these documents are lost, but reviewing what is available can at least give a sense of the relationship between authors and players. That specific post is here, or you can start at the beginning of the thread, which is most certainly worthwhile in its entirety.

That authorial process, which consisted of technical innovations, puzzle design, and bug fixing, was modular–not in a craft sense, as I’ve said that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is modular–but as a consequence of having multiple persons working on multiple things in both technical and creative senses. While I have never seen (please get in touch if you have one) a list of Zorkian provenances, I feel comfortable saying that the various non-sequiturs and anachronisms that greatly contribute to Zork‘s charm are not part of some calculated, authorial strategy. Dungeon is just something that can happen when talented, smart people get together to do something fun.

Zork: For the Fans

I think it is fair to characterize Dungeon as a sort of fan-made sequel to Adventure. It was made as a response to Adventure, and its 1970s audience would play it in the adventure gaming context established by it. This, too, is a feature unique to Dungeon. The extent to which these two landmark computer games, sharing neither authors nor publishers, converse with one another is highly unusual in pre-1990s interactive fiction, and has to be seen as a benefit of existing in the non-commercial hacker scene of its time.

I think it is fair to characterize Dungeon as a sort of fan-made sequel to Adventure.

The largest omission from the commercial Zork games that was present in Dungeon was (someone correct me if I’m mistaken!) the Dungeon Master’s Quiz that was part of the endgame. We can talk about why that omission makes sense in the next update, but for now I’d like to consider it within the context of a fan or community game. A quiz makes perfect sense in that context, in that it is not a test of problem solving, exploration, or map-making. Rather, it is a test of player knowledge that will separate mere players from fans. Since readers who have only experienced the commercial version of Zork are readers of Gold Machine, I’ll quote the relevant passage here (I retrieved this text dump of what is identified as Version 1 from the Zork Library),:

     "I am the Master of the Dungeon, whose task it is to insure [sic] that none but the most scholarly and masterful adventurers are admitted into the secret realms of the Dungeon.  To ascertain whether you meet the stringent requirements laid down by the Great Implementers, I will ask three questions which should be easy for one of your reputed excellence to answer.  You have undoubtedly discovered their answers during your travels through the Dungeon. Should you answer each of these questions correctly within five attempts, then I am obliged to acknowledge your skill and daring and admit you to these regions. 

The booming voice asks:
(asks any three questions)
(1)	"From which room can one enter the robber's hideaway without passing through the cyclops room?" Treasure
(2)	"Beside the Temple, to which room is it possible to go from the Altar?" Forest
(3)	"What is the minimum specified value of the Zork treasures, in Zorkmids?" 30003
(4)	"What object is of use in determining the function of the iced cakes?" Flask
(5)	"What can be done to the Mirror that is useful?" Touch
(6)	"The taking of which object offends the ghosts?" Skeleton
(7)	"What object in the Dungeon is haunted?" Rusty Knife
(8)	"In which room is 'Hello, Sailor!' useful?" None

The finished, final version of Dungeon was written by fans, for fans in two senses of the word. Its players and authors were fans of Adventure. Moreover, because of the iterative way in which it was developed, Dungeon was in a sense written for fans of itself, of Dungeon. Zork‘s tendency toward self-reference (perhaps peaking in Enchanter‘s send-up of the Adventurer), was a persistent and defining trait that was core to Dungeon and its successors. It can be expressed simply and directly:

At your service!

Zork It One More Time

Just as we discussed the rhetorical situation of Dungeon in this installment of Gold Machine, the next post will be concerned with the rhetorical situation of the commercial Zork Trilogy. The differences reflect a new degree of narrative sophistication from both Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, which makes it possible to read Zork not only as a patchwork of puzzles and non-sequiturs, but as a complex cultural artifact whose greatest failing was an unwillingness to let go of the past.

If you missed Gold Machine’s early Zork Content, check out the table of contents for more!

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