Zork I: Thief in a Box

Reading Zork I: The Great Underground Empire cover to cover

All the Pretty Boxes

While Infocom would eventually be known for the quality and inventiveness of their product packaging, their earliest releases were typical computer store fare. The hilariously inappropriate original release by Personal Software at least came in a box with a generously-sized forty-page manual. The next, self-published format came in a “blister pack:” a diskette and a manual held against cardboard backing by a plastic shell. Later blister packs may or may not have included system-specific instructions, registration cards, and product catalogs. These releases are now referred to as “folio” editions. Additionally, Dysan and Commodore published their own versions. The manuals for each of these editions ranged from 7-11 pages. It should be noted that the longest, 11-page manual is for the first Infocom-published release of Zork I. Some of those extra pages contain information specific to the Apple II system that would later be printed on a packed-in reference card, instead.

Zork I’s Packaging as Context

In a previous post, I promised to consider only first, self-published editions for this project. I do think it would be interesting to consider how these artifacts evolved as Infocom accumulated wealth, prestige, and what we call today platform. Ultimately, though, there’s enough work here to do as it is. That work, today, involves an assessment of in-manual and on-box texts to what a player might know and expect before spinning up the disk.

On the front of Apple II first printing of Zork I (pictured above), the cover insert reads:

Your greatest challenge lies ahead–and downwards.
ZORK I
Apple II 16-Sector
INFOCOM

While the stone blocks and reinforced wooden door have a mildly ominous D&D flair to them, there is ultimately nothing to suggest what a Zork is or why it might be challenging. Given the number of intelligent people involved–Infocom’s copy agency would prove essential to their success–it’s hard to see the cover as anything but deliberately inscrutable. Flipping over the blister pack, a reader is greated by a line drawing of the blocks-and-door Zork logo. Underneath, there is a decent amount of text:

Until you’ve entered the world of Zork, you’ve never truly adventured underground.

Both Zork I and Zork II are designed so that you’ll experience their challenges in the most realistic sense. You can communicate in complete sentences rather than two-word commands, with the largest vocabulary and widest range of command options in the genre. Because Zork’s mysteries are the most intricate you’ll ever encounter, it will take all your intellectual abilities to survive and emerge victorious from the underground. And because the challenges change with every move you’ll make, each time you enter Zork you’ll face new intrigues.

Zork I: The Great Underground Empire confronts you with perils and predicaments ranging from the mystical to the macabre, as you strive to discover the Twenty Treasures of Zork and escape with them with your life.

Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz takes you into new depths of the subterranean realm. There you’ll meet the Wizard, who will attempt to confound your quest with his capricious powers.

Zork I and II both run on Apple IIs with a 16-sector disk drive.

[warranty and copyright statements omitted]

A potential buyer, it would seem, would know more about the technology of Zork I than its world or protagonist. In fact, there is no protagonist, only a “you.” There are twenty treasures to find, and I suppose it goes without saying that no one, especially not you, need further motivation to find them. Wealth, after all, is its own reward.

How to Zork: The Folio Manual for Zork I

Most of the folio manual is dedicated to the mechanics of play: types of commands, examples of syntax, and certain and metagame commands (saving a game for instance). The text from the back of the package is reprinted on the first page. There is, though, a single column on page 7 that affords useful context. The first elaborates on the package’s stated game objective:

In Part I of The Great Underground Empire you are near a great underground labyrinth, which is reputed to contain vast quantities of treasure. No doubt, you wish to acquire some of it. In order to receive full credit for treasure, you must deposit it safely in the trophy case.

“No doubt,” we are told, we will want it. It isn’t clear how or why this “you” has come to be where they are, or if there are limits to what they would do to get these treasures. Or, for that matter, why they would put it inside a house they don’t own instead of carting it back home and giving a chunk to the Frobozz Magic Yacht Company. Zork I, in its packaging and documentation, characterizes itself as a kind of ritualized acquisitiveness, less interested in having than in wanting and getting. The aim of Zork, it would seem, is not satisfaction.

The Adventurer’s opposite number, the comparatively dissatisfied thief, is described as follows:

Beware of the thief! He is a dastardly anti-social type and a skilled pickpocket. Watch out for your valuable possessions when he is near.

What does it mean to be “anti-social” in an underground labyrinth? And what, if any, valuable possessions will be legitimately the Adventurer’s? Will someone give them to them? In any case, the reader has been duly warned: beware the thief.

A Brief Summary of the Events of Zork I

At the opening of Zork I, an adventurer stands before a white house. The house is hemmed in by “impassable” mountains and “impenetrable” forests, so it has presumably been a long and difficult journey. Presumably, a “civilization” lies beyond these natural boundaries, but nature could not keep the Adventurer away from this place. It is a bit like a 19th-century adventure tale: a protagonist journeys far from the comforts of society, penetrates inhospitable terrain, and takes whatever they have courage and strength to take. It is striking to find the house–the only building to be found here–described as such:

>examine house
The house is a beautiful colonial house which is painted white. It is clear that the owners must have been extremely wealthy.

“Colonial” is an interesting choice of words, considering the Adventurer’s errand–finding and taking things of valuable in a distant land.

Below the house lies the package-promised underground labyrinth. There two intelligent (one more than the other) bipeds prove hostile. Their hostility is hardly surprising, given that the Adventurer is there to loot their home. Killing these residents is a necessary step on your path to glory. Unsurprisingly, the thief–your promised rival–is the more dangerous opponent–but fall they must (Note: as in the next article, the cyclops is not included in this analysis. I suppose one reason is that its fate is inconsequential–it has no canonical state at the end of the game. Still, it is a definite oversight to omit him. Thanks to Jake Wildstrom for pointing this out).

The Great Underground Empire is a bit like Eliot’s The Waste Land–a collage of fractured cultural imagery. One finds the Implementers riffing off of Tolkien, Jack Vance, Homer, H. Rider Haggard, Gary Gygax, The King James Bible, 70’s hacker jokes, business and advertising discourse, and, of course, ADVENT.

The Adventurer wanders the large, mostly open map of Zork I solving problems. It should become clear at some point that this game takes place in the ruins of a fallen civilization. People once lived and worked here and now the place is strangely empty. Navigating locations as varied as a coal mine, a land of the dead, an “Egyptian” temple, an infuriating maze, a raging river, and a painter’s studio, the Adventurer solves many challenging puzzles, ultimately collecting every single thing of value. In the end, they have thoroughly looted the place, presumably walking over a grave or two in the process.

Next–Self-Invention, Greed, and the Colonizing Impulse: Final Thoughts on Zork I

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