GDC 2014 - Zork Post-Mortem

Zork post-mortem
Zork post-mortem

For longtime adventure fans, the lexicon associated with the text adventure Zork and the company founded to publish it, Infocom, have become legend. Many gamers still recoil at the thought of the grues lurking in the dark, fondly recall the arcane magic words necessary to survive in the Great Underground Empire, and laugh about the fallen Flathead empire. Even the term “Implementor” to refer to an Infocom designer has become not only a part of gaming history, but a powerful artifact from the beginning of digital storytelling.

From top: Dave Lebling, Mark Blank, Tim Anderson and Bruce Daniels, circa 1980

On a Thursday evening in downtown San Francisco, Dave Lebling, one of the founders of Infocom and also one of the original Implementors, hosted a post-mortem to discuss the origins and legacy of 1977’s Zork. Lebling would go on to write and design several more text adventures for Infocom, including classics such as Starcross, Suspect, Spellbreaker, The Lurking Horror and James Clavell’s Shogun. To this day, however, Zork remains the highest-selling and most iconic game that Infocom published and is rightly considered the spiritual godfather of all gaming. What many people aren’t aware of, however, is that Zork is in fact a spiritual successor itself.

As Lebling approached the podium in front of a crowd that included other Infocom luminaries such as Steve Meretzky, Bob Bates, and Michael Dornbrook, as well as text adventure historian and Get Lamp director Jason Scott, he began by asking how many people had ever played a text adventure. Although the response was nearly unanimous, Lebling began by explaining the format and origins of the text adventure (or “interactive fiction,” the term which Infocom would coin and is now the commonly accepted moniker for text-based adventure games). “A text adventure,” Lebling said, “is a game you play entirely by telling the computer what to do and the computer tells you what happens. It’s kind of like playing D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) except with a DM (dungeon master) who is really stupid, but also a DM who is totally without any qualms about killing the player.”

The original designers/Implementors of Zork all met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In addition to Lebling, the original Zork team included Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Tim Anderson. All would eventually become important players in the establishment of Infocom.  

Lebling explained that to understand the beginning of Zork, you had to understand the timeframe when it was created. “The late ‘70s were kind of like today in some ways. While we have Downtown Abbey they had Upstairs, Downstairs. We have 12 Years a Slave, they had Roots. We had Star Wars both times. Star Wars came out during the month we started on Zork.”

In addition to the aesthetic sensibilities of the times, the original Zork team had to deal with the technological limitations of the period, although at the time, MIT’s collection of equipment seemed like a gold mine to the young students. Even the university’s PDP-10, which the group would use to code Zork, and its whopping 2 MB of storage seemed like an embarrassment of riches. In addition, MIT’s mainframes were all networked through the ARPANET, a precursor to today’s Internet, which allowed remote users to access applications through smaller terminals not much different in size than today’s desktop PCs. The ability to access Zork remotely would eventually help to build an original, and dedicated, user group for the game.

The PDP-10 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

The greatest influence on Zork, however, was the first text adventure game: Will Crowther’s and Don Woods’s aptly named Adventure. Crowther, an avid caver, wrote Adventure in 1976 as a program to share his experiences exploring Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system with his daughters. A year later, Stanford University graduate student Woods discovered the game and asked Crowther for permission to expand and improve upon the original.

Adventure was the father of us all,” said Lebling, as he showed a slide of the personal map that he drew for the game’s twisty little passages. “It allowed you to crawl through Colossal Cave in Kentucky. I think the official name of it was the Bedquilt Cave. If you ever manage to go to that cave, people report that it is exactly like that part of the game. All the parts of Adventure that describe caves are real-life descriptions. Don was more of a game type… so he started putting in treasures, enemies, puzzles and magic words, cheering elves and dwarves. It made it more of a fun game.” When Woods released the new version of Adventure on the ARPANET, according to Lebling, “for two weeks, all work stopped.”

Lebling's personal map of Adventure's cave system [click for full image]

As enjoyable as the game was, Lebling and his colleagues also felt the game, and specifically the parser which the player used to interact with the game world, was fairly primitive. Adventure’s parser could only understand two words at a time and had a rather limited vocabulary.

Stanford and MIT have always been bitter rivals within the scientific and research fields, and Lebling noted that this competition provided even more motivation for him and for his MIT colleagues to outdo Woods’s work in improving the nascent adventure genre.

They did already have experience creating and coding games. They had created a game called Maze which wasn’t unlike a primitive first-person shooter, in which the player navigated a maze while fighting fellow players or computer-controlled robots. They had also designed the classic monster hunting game, Hunt the Wumpus, as well as a crowd-sourced trivia game which brought them a growing audience interested in their work.

Lebling himself wrote the team’s very first attempt at a true text adventure, although it wasn’t until he went on a vacation that Blank, Anderson and Daniels took over and worked on vastly enhancing the parser’s ability to recognize and comprehend textual input. “One of the puzzles involved putting a [toy musical] band in a bandbox, and when you did put the band in the bandbox, it played ‘Hail to the Chief,’ said Lebling. “That was one of the more exciting puzzles – but notice ‘put band in bandbox.’ It had a three word parser!”

An iteration of Zork's dungeon map, January 1981 [click for full image]

Unfortunately, this original four-room adventure has been lost to history but it allowed the group to believe they were capable of building the better, more advanced adventure they had dreamed of, so they began work on Zork. Lebling showed the original notes from the initial design for the game – which included some of the elements and puzzles the team wanted to include: a troll, a cyclops (a Blank contribution inspired by The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), a reservoir, an echo room, and pit traps. Anderson was “obsessed” with the idea of a thief who would torment the player throughout the journey.

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May 3, 2014

“Zork…is rightly considered the spiritual godfather of all gaming.”
Seriously? Can you show who considers it as such?

May 3, 2014

I’m sure he meant the spiritual godfather of adventure gaming

May 3, 2014

Wow. That map of the game world… it’s permanently embedded in my head. My company bought a Digital Equipment Co. (DEC) Microvax ca. 1986, and the precursor to Zork, Dungeon, came with it. My colleagues and I spent the guts of 3 months of evenings trying to collectively get through it. What fond memories!

Round Room. Chasm View. Flood Control Dam #3. It’s all there, just as I remembered it from almost 30 years ago. Now *that* is nostalgia.

May 4, 2014

7 points.

May 7, 2014

Thank you for researching and writing this beautiful piece - brought back many memories and was a great read for this big Infocom fan! Wink

Kazmajik Kazmajik
May 8, 2014

Great article! I’ll never forget the day my Dad brought a copy of Zork home because he thought it looked interesting. Boy was that an understatement. I stayed up late nights, got up extra early before school so I could have as much game playing time as possible. The descriptions, the humor, the possibilities seemed endless. Every day I would think of something new to try in the game, and the game always had an interesting response. I probably still have my hand-drawn maps somewhere, on lined notebook paper done in pencil and with much erasing. Good times.

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