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Nerd Nostalgia: Looking Back at ZORK without being eaten by a Grue

West of House
You are standing in an open field west
of a white house, with a boarded front
There is a small mailbox here.

zork-screen_5If the above text is familiar to you, then you’ve played ZORK. For those who aren’t familiar, you may be asking, “What is a zork?” A “ZORK!” was merely an exclamation a group of MIT guys would shout through their dorm rooms.

So when they created a game, Zork was a perfectly fitting name. These MIT über-nerds got the idea for Zork from the first text-based video game, Adventure, which was created in 1976 by a Stanford student.

The MIT nerds weren’t impressed by the meager gaming contribution from Stanford nerds, with Adventure’s limited two-word command structure (“kill troll”) and all, so they wrote Zork to understand complete sentences (“kill troll with sword”).

In Zork you play an “adventurer” in a completely text-based game which begins near a white house and provides players with little instruction. A text-based video game like Zork is part of the genre which is also known as “interactive fiction,” and the defining feature is the absence of typical video game graphics. Instead, the game’s environments and the actions you take are described for you. Then using a series of simple commands, you direct the main character and the story unfolds.

If that sounds boring to you, then I hope you are eaten by a grue.

>Enter House

1Once inside the house, players find a number of objects, such as ancient brass lantern, an empty trophy case and an engraved sword. Then beneath a rug lies a trap door leading down into a dark cellar, which is one of several entrances to a vast subterranean land known as the Great Underground Empire.

The players must collect the the treasures of Zork and install them in the trophy case, encountering dangerous creatures like the aforementioned grue, an axe-wielding troll, a giant cyclops, and a nimble-fingered thief.

Zork also requires solving a variety of puzzles such as the navigation of two complex mazes and some intricate manipulations at Flood Control Dam #3, all of which are done via a simple > prompt. 

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Interestingly, most people didn’t have computers in 1977, so one might wonder who in the world even played Zork (I played on a mid-80s TRS-80). Zork was written for a room-sized mainframe available only at universities. For a while, the only way to play Zork was to log on to the MIT mainframe through ARPAnet, an early version of the internet, and run it remotely. People would hear about it through ARPANet only, making it an early viral sensation.

But as home computers were becoming more commonplace, a commercial version of Zork was released by Infocom, a company founded to create serious productivity software for the home and business market. But when they realized they didn’t actually have any of those programs written yet, they decided Zork sales could fund their future endeavors.

Eventually Zork was ported to just about every home computer like the Apple II, Atari and IBM, and it went on to sell over a million copies, so Infocom dropped the dream of writing productivity software, and instead cranked out sweet text-based adventures.

Infocom became known for their creative, addictive puzzles and mazes just like the ones in Zork. As a result, Infocom created a monthly newsletter called the New Zork Times, where they doled out clues, then later created hint books printed with invisible markers. Finally, they began creating physical items like maps and blueprints, or an empty plastic bag in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game that supposedly contained a microscopic space fleet. Gamers called these items “feelies.”

zork-screen_5Gamers at that time weren’t necessarily concerned about the latest snazzy graphics, and instead appreciated a deeper storyline, descriptions, and characters. Case in point, the Zork brand was later used to create additional sequels, like Return to Zork (1993), Zork Nemesis (1996), and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997). These new Zorks featured extensive graphics and full-motion video scenes starring actors. Hardcore Infocom fans would rather stick their heads in a grue hole than to acknowledge that these games even exist.

Thanks to the internet, good video games never die. Dozens of websites host an online version of Zork, and some even have it available for download. Modern gamers with a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops might be familiar with an Easter Egg on the main menu lets you play Zork on your Xbox, PS3, or Wii. You can also play Zork, as well as many new interactive fiction games — yes, people still make them today — by downloading the Frotz app for the iPhone/iPad.

Zork might simply be a piece of nerd nostalgia, but it will never truly die. As proof, a copy of it – conveniently on a floppy – is stored at the Smithsonian.