Zork: The Great Underground Empire Retrospective

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When considering the “birth of videogames,” most people default to the 1972 arcade release Pong. If you ask the internet, it’ll take you back down an even longer road into the 1940’s to Edward Condon and his computer that played Nim at the World’s Fair. Lately, a heavily nostalgic trend has hit the gaming community hard and doesn’t show any signs of slowing, first with re-makes of old classics and then straight up ports of original games to new consoles. Players now have the ability to relive their Sonic and Final Fantasy childhoods without having to drag out and hook up an old console.  We’re happily gobbling up all our old classics on sites like Steam or GOG.com, taking a break from our modern cinematic masterpieces and relishing in lower graphics, poorer sound quality, and sometimes gimmicky storytelling.

I’m okay with that.

zork_00Nostalgia is a funny thing. We all have that one game that we so vividly remember, the one that “did it” for us and made us gamers. Maybe it was Pong or Space Invaders, or maybe you entered the scene later with your NES and a handful of cartridges, or even later in the mid-90’s in the hey-day of PC RPGs. Whatever the game and whatever your reasons, it will always hold that singularly cherished space in your heart. You know you’re thinking about it, and you’re smiling, and that’s okay.

For me, it was Zork.

Zork may just be the singularly most-referenced game on the planet (okay… that’s probably a biased opinion, but it’s at least in the top 5). Zork appears even as recently as Call of Duty: Ghosts, where zork.exe files appear during an in-game PC download, and Call of Duty: Black Ops, where players can unlock an Easter egg to be able to play the first game in its entirety. Doing so nets you an achievement: “Eaten by a Grue.”

We’ll talk about Grues later, don’t worry.

Lovable Sheldon Cooper on the CBS hit comedy The Big Bang Theory talks about Zork or is seen playing a Zork-like game in at least three episodes. If you can hang around in popular culture references for 37 years, the odds are that you’ve done something right.

But let’s back up a few steps, here; we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Zork is a text-based adventure game, also known as “interactive fiction,” whose defining feature is an absence of graphics. This might send some of the younger ones out there screaming into the streets, but bear with me, it’s worth it. By typing in commands via the command prompt, the player could direct the nameless player-analogue to “go east,” “open the door,” or “open brown bag, eat lunch.”

In fact, one of the reasons that Zork was created in the first place was that its predecessor, Adventure (AKA Colossal Cave Adventure or ADVENT) could only use a limited number of letters on the command line. MIT programmers Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling wrote an incredibly sophisticated text parser which was not just limited to simple verb-noun commands, like “kill troll,” but recognized a range of prepositions and conjunctions, allowing players control enough to “kill the troll with the elvish sword.” It may seem fairly primitive now, but in the early days of what was essentially an RPG, this coding opened up a much larger realm of possibility for writers and players alike.

The game was written between 1977-1979 and for the PDP-10, a mainframe computer the size of an entire room that was typical in colleges. Home computing wasn’t quite a fully realized concept just yet, and so the only way to play games like Adventure or Zork were to log into the university mainframe (a really, really young version of the internet), which was not something everyone had access to. In fact, because Zork was never effectively marketed in its early years, it could be considered one of the first viral sensations, living in college mainframes and spreading from player to player by word of mouth.

Lebling and Blank, along with MIT programmers Albert Vezza and Joel Berez, founded the company Infocom in 1979. Their purpose with Infocom was to produce software for the home computing market as it started to grow, but since they didn’t actually have any of these programs written yet, they sold Zork in order to fund the company. Funny story: Zork was so large that it had to be split up into three separate games — Zork I: The Great Underground Empire, Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz, and Zork III: The Dungeon Master. A recent download of these three games reveals a whopping space hog of just over 62 KB. We’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

The amazing success of the Zork series caused Infocom to ditch their original plans for home computer software and focused firmly on developing more games. Under that label, 41 total games were released between 1980 and 1989 — amazing, really, when we consider now that some games remain in development for longer periods than that.

But enough of the nitty-gritty back story stuff. Let’s get into the meat and potatoes of what makes Zork truly amazing.

The premise of the game isn’t necessarily all that clear, particularly if you’re not one of those people that likes to read the manual, which is why taking the time to look around, take notes, and even make maps using graph paper really helps you become vested in the game. You are a nameless adventurer who is standing outside the white house with its boarded up windows and mailbox, wondering what to do and where to go in this strange land. The game never tells you what to do or where to go. The only information the player is given is on the back of the box, where it suggests that you “plunge far below the surface of the earth in search of the incomparable Treasures of Zork.”

That’s it: the focus of the first installment is to gather the twenty treasures of The Great Underground Empire and ensconce them in the glass trophy case found inside the white house (which is the starting point to your adventure and is itself one of the entrances to the GUE). There are puzzles to solve and monsters to avoid — fairly standard adventure fare, to say the least.

What, you wanted more? Sorry, but that’s it. There’s no complicated back story, no convoluted character development, nothing. You, as the character, don’t have a name, or description, or any reason for coming to the land of Zork. In fact, the character analog is never seen or referenced, and typing, “Look me,” will give you a list of your current inventory. Like a novel, you tend to place yourself in the role of adventurer, so it’s really you wandering the tunnels and labyrinths of the Great Underground Empire searching for treasure and glory. You don’t have to pretend to be some angst-driven character on the path of revenge, and you don’t have to try to “get into the mind” of a character that you’ve never met before by watching a drawn out cinematic. This is your adventure.

So, what does Zork mean, anyway? Where did it come from? Well, in reality, the term “zork” was used to identify an unfinished program or an incomplete line of code. Early on when Zork was to be marketed as a game, the developers wanted to call it Dungeon. After a brief trademark battle with a certain Dungeons & Dragons company, they decided to stick with Zork. That’s better, anyway, since Dungeon sounds terribly boring and doesn’t really encompass all that Zork is: it’s not just a dungeon, it’s an experience.

It should be obvious when I say this but I’ll say it anyway: Zork is a text-based adventure and what makes it so decidedly perfect is the writing. It’s not difficult writing, either, so if you’re worried about spending too long reading and not enough time adventuring, fear not. Nowhere in-game will you be challenged by lengthy adjectives or hit with massive walls of text that may take forever to read. Infocom rated its games based on the difficulty of the puzzles rather than the difficulty of reading the text. Their recommended introduction to interactive fiction begins at age 9. Now I love to read, but when I watched my mother or older brother play, or when I was around 8 years old when I started playing them myself, I hated reading; hated it with a fiery passion.

But I loved Zork. Its simple storytelling is absolutely magical, because the serene forest, the twisty maze, the cyclops’ room, the mirror room, the rapid falls, the coal mines, and the caves of the GUE are all whatever I imagine them to be. It’s my Zork, which is different from your Zork, which is different than your brother’s Zork, and I love that; we’re all seeing our own personal cinema and we don’t need all the new-fangled fancy-schmancy graphics to be lost in our own fantasy worlds. In fact, that’s really the definition of interactive fiction: a book that you can be a part of. It’s sort of like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, except you don’t need to keep your fingers between the pages of all the options you could go back and take when you inevitably die.

The best example of interactive fiction’s aesthetic adaptability is the Grue. The Grue is a “game over” scenario, as well as being an integral part of any puzzles that need a light source of some kind. At any time during the game, entering an unlit room without a working light source on your person will trigger this response: “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a Grue.” After anywhere between one and three attempted moves if you do not immediately turn on your light source, you will be eaten by that Grue and forced to load your last save (you did save…right?).

But what is the Grue? Well, asking the game yields: “The Grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the Earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No Grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.” The Grue is the sinister thing in the darkness that sends us running in terror up the basement steps, or makes us turn on every single light when we’re home alone, or that little voice that tells us there’s probably an axe murderer lurking behind us. The Grue is your own personal fear of whatever creepy crawly comes to get you in the dark. My Grue was always a gryphon, for some reason, but a gryphon that wouldn’t hesitate to rip our your larynx if you lingered alone in the dark for too long. In their current state, video games have lost that kind of personalization, because we see whatever it is the creators want us to see, rather than seeing what we can envision ourselves.

The in-game humor has some of the wittiest one-line zingers that my family still quote today. Zork, and indeed all Infocom gameshave that straight-laced sarcastic punch, delivered in a short, sweet line of text that will absolutely make you snigger. If you are anywhere as remotely sarcastic as I am, you will appreciate everything that Zork‘s writing has to offer, and then some. Intertwined with the writing style are positively mind-bending puzzles that will cause hair pulling and a lot of unkind words to tumble from your mouth. The Zork team could be particularly sadistic, in that if you happened to lose an artifact that was essential to winning the game somehow, you would never know it; you might spend hours frantically trying everything you could to figure out how to open the next door and never be able to progress. In fact, in its early days, players would write to Infocom requesting hints so often, they began publishing a newsletter, the New Zork Times, in which they would reveal clues to some of the more popular questions. When I got my hands on the game, they began selling them with “Invisiclues” books, FAQs in which you would find your question and use a highlighter to reveal a brief hint about your objective. If that hint wasn’t enough, you could try the next, and the next, until eventually the answers were just straight out instructions on how to solve the puzzles.

The Zork universe was actually quite large and encompassed Infocom games in addition to the original Zork trilogy. The Enchanter series, Enchanter (1983), Sorcerer (1984), and Spellbreaker (1985), was written as a direct sequel. Additionally, Wishbringer (1985) also takes place in the same universe (and next to ZorkWishbringer is my second favorite). Later, Infocom released an anthology of the Zork series, which included four additional games Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987), Zork Quest: Assault on Ergeth Castle (1988), Zork Quest: The Crystal of Doom (1988), and Zero Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988). If you’re a true Infocom fan, you stop counting Zork games after this, though the company did go on to make four more games after Zork Zero before closing up shop completely in 1989.

Infocom was purchased by Activision in the early 90’s and released four more Zork titles: Return to Zork (1993), Zork Nemesis: The Forbidden Lands (1996), Zork: The Undiscovered Underground (1997), and Zork Grand Inquisitor (1997). Hardcore Infocom loyalists don’t even acknowledge the existence of these games, but if you do, that brings the Zork count up to fifteen including those games that take place within the same universe. That amount of staying power is pretty incredible, considering the vastness of the universe and the sheer amount of boggling puzzles to code. If you want an easy introduction into what Zork is but the idea of the text-based adventure fills you with dread, look up Grand Inquisitor. Out of all the more modern games, it best illustrates the passion and heart of Zork and you just can’t beat the tongue-in-cheek humor.

As if all that awesome wasn’t enough, Infocom also included extra bits and bobs in their game boxes, something players at the time called “feelies.” They added absolutely nothing to the game play, but it gave players an extra little something that brought the universe closer to the real world. These feelies might include a Zorkmid (the official currency of the Zork universe), or items from other great Infocom titles, like the glow-in-the-dark moonstone (Enchanter), or the empty plastic baggie that held the Official Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Microscopic Space Fleet. It was the earliest I can remember games coming with feelies, and they were pretty standard across all the Infocom games. Nowadays, you have to buy the super-duper-ultra-deluxe-platinum-edition to get that level of awesome. Speaking of Hitchiker, when Douglas Adams was approached and asked if he would make his award winning book series into a video game, he said he would only talk to the folks at Infocom. So don’t take my word for it, take Adams’.

If you want to experience Zork or any of the original Infocom games nowadays (and if you’re not a Call of Duty fan), you’ll probably need to be running a virtual PC on your machine. The Infocom executables just won’t work with current versions of Windows, so a virtual machine with Win 95 on it will be your best bet. Or, if you don’t want to go through all the effort, just Google Zork online and you’ll find dozens of sites that run the full game without the hassle. If you never got to know Zork when it was new, it is one game that absolutely must to jump to the top of your bucket list — and you’ll probably appreciate more of the humor and wit than if you played it first at 10 years old, like I did.

zork_grueZork is, perhaps, the singularly most nostalgic game in my personal repertoire. It’s so ingrained into my life and into my family that I’m not sure where we’d be without it — yes, for real, I mean that. I even have a needlework, done by my sister, with the aforementioned Grue quote, the white house, and the elvish sword of antiquity. No, seriously! It’s an actual thing. Even though I cannot count the endless times I was killed by the cyclops, or that jerk thief took all my hard earned treasures, or the immeasurable time I spent staring out across Flood Control Dam #3 desperately trying to figure out how to cross it, the notion of Zork will always make me smile that wistful smile of days-gone-by.

Just don’t forget your lantern.

Jenna Fraser
A New England born, Boston native, Jenna says "wicked" with reckless abandon. She loves video games almost as much as she loves words and to say that she has an obsession with Queen would be the biggest understatement of all time.
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