What’s Zork Divided by Three?

The sticky question of authorship.

It All Started in Pittsburgh…

Massachusetts Insititute of Technology alumni Marc Blank and Joel Berez both found themselves in Pittsburgh following their respective graduations. Berez, who graduated in 1977, was working for his family’s business. Blank, a more recent graduate, had moved to Pittsburgh for his medical residency. As the story goes, they got together to reminisce about hacking, MIT, and Zork. Somehow, Zork always seemed to come up. I won’t reinvent Jimmy Maher’s wheel, here, but if you haven’t read his account of Zork‘s transformation from freeware to commercial product, you can find it here (first), here (second), and here (third).

The short version is that Blank and Berez came up with a design in which Zork’s compiled story code could run within a virtual machine. This VM was called the “Z-Machine.” This is a very meaningful development from a history of game development perspective, but I would like to draw attention to two specific points. The first is that the Z-Machine was, by design, abstracted from the executing computer’s hardware. This meant that games developed for the Z-Machine would not, generally speaking, handle machine-specific features like sound and graphics well, if at all. The second, and closely related, consideration is that the games were highly optimized for operating within the Z-Machine. Common code could be consolidated in the VM, resulting in a very efficient size-on-disk for commercial games.

Why focus on these two points? Size constraints, optimization requirements, target platforms, and so forth are all influencing factors. They are, in other words, rhetorical features of the Zork trilogy as we know it.

The Rhetorical Situation of the Commercial Zork Games

As we discussed last time, I think it’s productive to identify some defining rhetorical features of the commercial Zork games. Here are some meaningful qualities and considerations, grouped into three broad categories:

  • Authors: This is an interesting one to think about. While Infocom ultimately credited Marc Blank and Dave Lebling for authorship of the commercial Zork games, there’s a surprising absence of clarity regarding authorship in early Infocom’s releases. There’s also the question of what happened to Bruce Daniels and Tim Anderson, who were both named co-authors of Dungeon. I think it is fair to say that, to the average consumer, authorship of the Zork trilogy was indeterminate. This was not unusual. In fact, one of the many things that distinguished new Atari 2600 developer Activision was its tendency to recognize authorship with a photo and personalized note (embedded below).
  • Audience: Home computers in 1980 were, financially speaking, beyond the reach of many American consumers. Zork‘s initial audience was almost certainly above average in terms of income. I’m comfortable guessing that many players had college educations, too. This would change, of course, with the advent of relatively affordable Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 computers, as they helped to democratize the world of home computing. For now, let’s say that audience was largely educated and had access to disposable income.
  • Content: Like its source text Dungeon, the content of the Zork trilogy evolved over time. There are some key differences, though. Dungeon evolved in tiny increments as contributed by members of a team. Zork, on the other hand, evolved episodically, generally in large chunks, by single contributors (Marc Blank or, alternatively, Dave Lebling). This development style would naturally evolve into Infocom’s auteur ethos, which tended to elevate the efforts of individual authorship.
A short note from Steve Cartwright, designer of MegaMania. This was included in the manual for the Atari 2600 game of the same name. At the bottom of the note is his signed name in cursive letters.
An example of early Activision’s practice of recognizing game authorship from the MegaMania manual.

More on Authorship

Authorship is possibly the most important non-technical distinction between Dungeon and Zork. Before delving into that, though, let’s distinguish between two types of authorial influence. The first and most visible sort is recognition of the author-as-author. Since most of our exposure to Infocom packaging will be via the “gray box” format, which consistently contained an “about the author[s]” blurb in their manuals, we may not realize than initial folio pressings (and articles in the New Zork Times) have no mention of their authors whatsoever. There may be recognition within the game, but no external recognition. For instance, the packaging for Deadline does not read, “An Interlogic mystery from Marc Blank, the co-author of the critically acclaimed Zork series of games!” or some such thing. The New Zork Times announcement of Deadline makes no mention of Marc Blank. While Infocom had best-selling games in those days, it did not, rhetorically speaking, have best-selling authors.

In this sense, Mike Berlyn was Infocom’s first public-facing author, as his name was published in both the New Zork Times and in Suspended‘s manual. In fact, more was written about him than was the protagonist of that game, but that is a conversation we must defer.

Authorship of Zork was indeterminate in another sense. The original Dungeon is credited to Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Tim Anderson, and Bruce Daniels, but initial forays into commercial publication both added and subtracted from and to that number. The original Personal Software version of Zork I (probably, the provenance is not certain) had, like all other versions, a mailbox containing a leaflet in the starting room (West of House) that documented version information. That version’s leaflet reads as follows:

     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!

    The original ZORK was created by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling. It was inspired by the ADVENTURE game of Crowther and Woods. This version was created by Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Joel Berez, and Scott Cutler.

    (c) Copyright 1979 & 1980 Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.

Joel Berez, as we know, helped design the Z-Machine architecture, but did not write any content for the Zork games. Scott Cutler was on Infocom’s first board and built the first microcomputer interpreter for the Z-Machine (TRS-80 in this case). Since we do not have available all contiguous releases for Zork I, we can only say that sometime between 1980 and 1982, the leaflet changed:

     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!

    Copyright 1982 by Infocom, Inc.
          All rights reserved.
  ZORK is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.

Fortunately, despite some gaps in Zork I‘s publication history, we know from Zork II that things have been (and would be) clarified. The “US News and Dungeon Report” (found in the Gazebo) changes only in terms of its copyright dates between initial and Masterpiece releases:

** U.S. News and Dungeon Report **


Our correspondents report that a world-famous and battle-hardened adventurer has been seen in the vicinity of the Great Underground Empire. Local grues have been reported sharpening their (slavering) fangs....

"Zork: The Wizard of Frobozz" was written by Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, and is (c) Copyright 1981 by Infocom, Inc.

Besides being a bit of interesting trivia, these distinctions are important in that we see Infocom defining “authorship” in terms of content creation rather than platform or architectural design. Such distinctions would not have been completely clear in 1981, and Infocom’s move in this direction is a noteworthy moment in video game history. It is certainly a change from the DMG days of Dungeon, wherein content arguably played second fiddle to technical innovation and parser development.

These shifts dovetail with Marc Blank’s own desire to hire authors to write Infocom content. His initial experiment with this practice was the hiring of Mike Berlyn, who would become, in terms of printed, out-of-game material, Infocom’s first “author.” This all precedes Infocom’s rebranding as “interactive fiction,” a term which I feel some critics have prematurely dismissed as mere marketing.

Back to our subject: the migration from hacker-built community content (Dungeon) to for-profit microcomputer fare features, in its background, Infocom’s own wrestling with the meaning of authorship: what are the implications of shifting away from technical design to content creation? How did these shifts impact Infocom’s plan to “port” a mainframe application to home platforms? We have a perfect opportunity to examine this phenomenon in detail:

  • Zork I: content is almost directly ported over
  • Zork II: Significant additions by Dave Lebling
  • Zork III: Even greater amount of authorial distinction, including changes to narrative voice

Authorship, as considered in terms of rhetorical situation, trends toward individuation and content-driven (rather than technical) sophistication in Infocom’s early years. In fact, by the release of Zork II, Infocom had begun to exclude technical work from its authorial credits. This separation was not limited to crucial technical contributors such as Cutler and Berez. Seasoned implementer Marc Blank, for instance, received no credit for his substantial programming contributions to Suspended.


Next time, we’ll continue by assessing the growing sense of authorial individuation in the Zork trilogy, focusing on what Lebling and Blank added to Zork II and Zork III. These changes are crucial to my argument that Zork is, along with the Enchanter trilogy, a separate and complete storyline distinct from other games that self-identify as “Zork.”

Mike Berlyn

I think many of you have heard that Mike Berlyn recently passed away. While he had a long career in game development, I should note here that he was the author of two of Infocom’s most audacious and innovative games: Suspended and Infidel. I’ve written extensively about both, and I think both are misunderstood by too many players. Even as recently as last year, some readers seemed to resent the thwarted power fantasies at the center of both games, to which I’ll say that while this certainly wasn’t clear in 1983, I consider video games an art form that has no narrative obligation toward fantasy fulfillment.

I think the best way to remember someone is to share our memories of them, so I will just say that his games brought me joy, gave me occasion to think about worthwhile things, and were a delight to share with others through my writing.

I wish Mike Berlyn, a giant in the history of narrative video games, safe travels.

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