Zork I: Looting Simulator ’80

Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980)
Implemented by Dave Lebling and Marc Blank

A depiction of the white house from Zork I. In this drawing, it is a ramshackle house with a mailbox in front and a forest behind it. Zork describes the house quite differently: "The house is a beautiful colonial house which is painted white. It is clear that the owners must have been extremely wealthy."
A rather inaccurate (in terms of the source text) depiction of Zork I‘s white house. Retrieved from the Zork User’s Group Invisiclues booklet, courtesy of MoCAGH

Packaging and Documentation

Link to MoCAGH exhibit, Zork (Personal Software)
Link to MoCAGH exhibit, Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (folio edition)
Link to MoCAGH exhibit, Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (grey box edition)
(For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new window/tab)
Link to Infocom Documentation Project Invisiclues Map
Link to Infocom Documentation Project Invisiclues (thanks to Parchment)
Link to the Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Zork I


(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post)

Rooms: 110
Vocabulary: 697
Takeable Objects: 60
Size: 76KB
Total Word Count (outputted text): 14360

Opening Crawl

ZORK I: The Great Underground Empire
Infocom interactive fiction - a fantasy story
Copyright (c) 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
ZORK is a registered trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 119 / Serial number 880429

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.

Zork I: A Critical Introduction

The misleading cover of the first Zork release. It features a bare-legged, helmeted warrior in scale mail fighting a cowering kobold-like figure with a colonial mansion in the background.
A rather humorous failure to represent Zork I‘s content or character from the cover of its first published edition.

The story as I understand it is this: now that Marc Blank and Joel Berez had devised a way to port a massive one megabyte program to microcomputers, it was time to get the band back together. Blank and Berez joined Dave Lebling and Tim Anderson at Infocom, and soon the porting effort was underway. Lebling took a look at the map for Dungeon, carved out a large chunk, and decided that it would be the map of Zork I‘s game world. Comparing text dumps of Zork I and Dungeon reveal that the former is largely a straightforward port of the latter. Some of the room connections have changed, but little else has.

One might reasonably ask: why review Zork I at all? Why not talk about Dungeon and be done with it? There are many good reasons to focus on the commercial releases rather than Dungeon:

  • The commercial releases have the larger cultural footprint. Nobody from The New York Times wrote about Dungeon.
  • Omission and inclusion are artistic choices.
  • Dungeon is a bloated mess, and the commercial releases benefit from smaller and more focused (relatively speaking, that is) maps.
  • Because the games were released chronologically–a year apart each–there is an opportunity to look for signs of an evolving sense of craft.

Despite accurate claims that Zork offers little in the way of plot, characterization, or coherent worldbuilding, there remains much to interpret. Since, in an existential sense, one is what one does, by the end of the Zork trilogy the protagonist–henceforth called the Adventurer–will have done quite a lot. By extension, they will BE quite a lot. The question of the Adventurer’s motives will be a major point of analysis throughout the trilogy. Future additions to Zork II and Zork III will underscore the importance of this line of inquiry.

Zork: Reading as a Type of Play

So far as the mass market goes, it would be Zork I–not ADVENT–that many home computer owners would encounter as their first–and perhaps only–text adventure. It was a massively successful commercial product that exposed customers to the experience of agentic reading. A player/reader could only consume the text that their actions had uncovered. There is a push/pull between evaluating the text as a game as opposed to text-as-text. Compared to the popular line of Choose Your Own Adventure books, which also became a pop culture phenomenon in the early 1980’s, Zork I emphasized granular choice over story. Zork‘s story, such as it is, emerges as a cumulation of small, moment-to-moment decisions. While the protagonists of CYOA are defined characters with backgrounds, personalities, and clear motives, the Adventurer embodies a sort of distilled existentialism. Without apparent origin, personality, or even motivation, the Adventure is only the sum of their actions. Since progress in Zork is gated behind specific choices, the question of who this person is or isn’t is teased out as the player makes choices.

Further Implications of Agentic Reading in Zork I

A line drawing of the thief from Zork I. He is holding a knife. His clothes are only shown as an outline, it appears that his jacket has twin tails, like a formal tuxedo.
Zork I’s thief, as interpreted by the Zork Users Group (development ink courtesy of previous owner). Retrieved from MoCAGH.

The idea of a story being gated behind player action was not new to ADVENT, let alone Zork I. Early arcade games–even apparently abstract ones like Breakout, had protagonists with specific–if uncomplicated–goals. Due to technological limitations, exposition was usually conveyed via cabinet art. These stories, however, almost always end badly. The story of Missile Command, for instance, the story is of the commander of three anti-missile batteries. They must defend cities from nuclear attack, but eventually they succumb. Like most arcade games at the time, it is a story of failure. Player skill determines how long the cities hold out, but eventually the screen flashes a concluding “THE END” message on the screen. The Space Invaders eventually reach earth, the ghosts catch Ms. Pac-Man for the last time, and so forth.

An artist's interpretation of the world of Zork I. It shows an above ground area with a mansion and a river. Below it, underground, is a round dome--like a rotunda. A troll charges for from off stage. Further below, the thief lurks--a silhouette in shadow. Further below lies a flaming pit where the shadows of the dead writhe in torment.
The wonderfully evocative Zork Users Group poster for Zork I. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

RPGs and adventure games were different in that they often had endings. While these were often rudimentary, they still had arcs in a way arcade games did not. They were nevertheless games first and story second. While Infocom would soon promise to “involve you more in the story more than other computer games do,” this was, at the time, a low bar. Zork I felt like more of a story than, say, ADVENT or Mystery House because it had a clear narrative voice (and was sufficiently verbose for it to matter), and, despite its chaotic map, was set in a location that invited a sort of interpretive excavation. For instance: what kind of place is the Great Underground Empire, and what does it mean that the Adventurer is horsing around down there?

While it may exhibit many of the features of a deliberately fictive venture, Zork I is unambiguously a game on its surface, and a gamey-game-game at that. To most readers, Zork is primarily a place for puzzles to go. The fact that it is surprisingly laden with subtext, cultural assertions, and hidden literary seriousness may go unnoticed, given its narrator’s insistent wisecracking. It seems to mean something in spite of itself.

Next: Zork I’s Product Packaging and “Plot”

Additional ReadingJimmy Maher’s posts about the history of Zork as a commercial product

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