Sunday 20 December 2020

Zork I (1980)

Introduced December 1980

Although early microcomputers came in all sorts of different and incompatible varieties, they had a few things in common. Specifically, they didn’t have much in the way of memory and if they had graphics capabilities they were pretty rudimentary. Early computer games therefore required a bit of imagination, and one great example of where this was the case if the Zork series of text adventures from Infocom.

Zork running on an ADM31 terminal
Zork running on an ADM31 terminal

Originally designed as a follow-on from the 1970s “Colossal Cave” adventure, Zork (in those days just called “Dungeon”) was developed for the DEC PDP-10 (a 36-bit minicomputer system) and was written in a version of LISP called MDL. Computers like these tended to have a relatively large amount of memory and decent hard disk storage, so the game itself grew quite large and complex. And just like Colossal Cave, Dungeon was very popular amongst people with access to the expensive computing equipment required to run it.

The next step by the authors – Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels – was to port the game (now called “Zork”) to the ever-expanding range of microcomputers on offer. Some compromises had to be made due to the small amount of memory these machines had, and the original minicomputer game was rewritten into three episodes.

The creators formed a company to market the game called Infocom, and set about the challenge of rewriting the game. The approach was a novel one for the time – the Zork game itself was written in its own language called “ZIL”, which ran in a virtual environment called a “Z Machine”. This meant that the game (and others based on the same technology) could be easily ported to any compatible platform that had a Z Machine coded for it. Infocom partnered with the distributors of VisiCalc to sell the game, and by 1980 it was ready for the wider world.

You could call the finished product either an adventure game or a piece of interactive fiction. Rich text descriptions, clever natural-language parsing and complex gameplay made Zork a compelling proposition. The player starts in a field next to a white house, which turns out to be the gateway to an underground layer full of treasure and monsters – including the infamous “Grue” who would kill the adventurer if they wandered around in the dark. By solving a series of puzzles, mazes and other challenges, the player could bring all the treasure back to a cabinet in the house and thus win the game.

Sharp-eyed people may notice that this Kaypro II is accompanied by the Amiga version of Zork I
Sharp-eyed people may notice that this Kaypro II is accompanied by the Amiga version of Zork I

Sales were good, and as word got around – and the software was ported to more devices – the popularity began to grow throughout the 1980s. Zork II & III were released in 1982 and a wide variety of other games were released in the ZIL platform, including 1984’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” designed in conjunction with Douglas Adams. As a novel twist, some of these games included “feelies” which were physical objects in the box that would form part of the puzzles in the games.

Even as rivals tried to come up with graphical adventures, Infocom’s position remained very strong. But Infocom wanted to move beyond being just a games company, and in 1985 they launched a novel database product called Cornerstone. It wasn’t a success and Infocom was taken over by Activision, which ensured the short-term survival of the company… but in the end Activision didn’t really understand the Infocom brand and by the end of the 1980s development of text adventures had ceased, although there was a brief renaissance in the mid-1990s when several Infocom games compilations were released.

Because of the portable nature of the game, it’s possible to play Zork online for free. Be warned though – you may find that once you start, you won’t be able to stop playing until you’ve solved it all.

Image credits:
CyberHades via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Marcin Wichary via Flickr - CC BY 2.0


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