Zork (1977, PDP)

By Flashman85 / June 13, 2008


Zork is a text adventure that was released in 1977, in which you play as a nameless adventurer in search of treasure. Throughout the game you will navigate confusing mazes, solve tricky puzzles, and overcome the likes of a cyclops and a troll. Zork has been extremely influential in gaming history and culture, and numerous games set in its universe have followed after it. To a modern audience, the game might not look like much: its visuals consist of nothing more than a black screen with text, there are no sounds or music whatsoever, and the entire game takes up only a few hundred kilobytes on one's hard drive. I'll spare you the hype and tell it like it is: Zork is a fantastic and challenging game that easily deserves all the praise it's been given, but it very well might not be your cup of tea.
   Your enjoyment of the game may or may not hinge upon the absence of graphics. If you're not into reading books and using your imagination, this might be bothersome for you, and if you prefer to let a game show you everything so you don't need to think at all, then you probably shouldn't be playing adventure games in the first place. Don't worry about the game being all text; it's not like playing a Tolkien book. The descriptions of the various locations, objects, and characters are just detailed enough to give you a pretty good idea of what everything looks like, but not so wordy that you can't keep track of what's going on. In fact, you can set the text output to verbose, brief, or super-brief, depending on how much you want to read.
   Your enjoyment might also hinge upon the fact that Zork uses a text parser interface, but it's a darn good one. Not only can you type commands such as TAKE SWORD, but you can also perform multiple actions with just one line of text, such as TAKE SWORD AND LANTERN or simply TAKE ALL, grabbing everything in a room that's not nailed down or otherwise unobtainable. Movement is also controlled by commands, so you GO NORTHEAST instead of pressing keys to move in that direction. As a side note, you'll certainly need a map (or an astounding memory) to keep track of the many locations you visit; passages twist and turn, meaning that you might leave a room from the east and enter the next room from the south, which makes it very easy to get lost.

   To cut down on the typing, you can enter abbreviated versions of several commands, such as merely typing the letter S to go south. Having options for how to enter commands is beneficial for more than one reason: not only does it spare you from typing a single command word (such as EXAMINE) over and over, but it also prevents the adventure from degrading into a frustrating session of guessing the exact wording. The game's vast knowledge of synonyms ensures that you have several ways to get your point across: in battle, for instance, you might choose to ATTACK, FIGHT, KILL, STAB, or SLAY your opponent. The text parser is one of the best I've seen, and the feedback you get from it is generally intelligent and often helpful, even if you're going about things completely the wrong way.
   Another positive aspect about this particular text parser is that there are so many fun things you can do and so many extra commands that do not help to advance the story in any way but yield some very funny results. Try typing JUMP or SCREAM or ATTACK THE HOUSE; type LOOK AT ME, KISS ME, TAKE ME, and EAT ME for more laughs. If you're the masochistic type, there are plenty of ways to kill yourself off with the various commands at your disposal; for starters, it is in fact possible to die by throwing an ordinary pile of leaves at yourself. True fact.
   As is to be expected, you can die by jumping off of cliffs and by taking too much damage from enemies (you don't have hit points, but the game keeps track of how heavily you're wounded, which affects your ability to carry items and attack foes). If you die, you normally get brought back to life with your items taken away and a point deduction from your score, so it is possible to continue, but it's better to restore a saved game and try again that way. Death, though, is not necessarily the leading cause of failure in Zork. Your management of items and the objects around you can do you in.
   Unlike later adventure games such as Sierra's Quest series, your inventory space is very limited here. You are very likely to come across more than one puzzle that you just can't solve, only to realize you need an item that you left way back somewhere else, causing a hefty amount of backtracking. Fortunately, backtracking usually isn't too much of a hassle if you have a good map; if you know the route back, you can type in (for example) W.S.D to instantly go west, then south, then down to where you want to go, all in a single command. One of the benefits of a text-based adventure is that you don't have to wait for your character to walk across a room; it happens instantly.
   Still, unless you know exactly what you're doing, there's always the prospect of breaking, losing, or otherwise misusing a critical inventory item or object in a room. You could potentially get halfway through the adventure before you determine that, in order to continue, you need the garlic that you ate two minutes into the game. To make matters worse, there's a thief that appears sporadically to steal your items. If you're like me, you'll be paranoid about using anything or leaving anything behind, in case you need it later. It turns out that most items have some purpose, even if it's a minor one that isn't required to complete the game.
   There are a few things you need to do at the beginning of the game to be able to proceed (such as grabbing a light source so you won't be devoured in the darkness by a lurking grue), but once those are out of the way, you are free to start exploring wherever you want to explore, though you will need to perform certain tasks and collect certain items before you can enter some of the areas. Perhaps you'll poke around the forest for anything interesting, or maybe you'll visit beautiful Flood Control Dam #3, or you could even dare to navigate the maze of twisty little passages.
   Ah, yes. The mazes. Zork features some very confusing mazes that take advantage of the lack of graphics and the fact that leaving a room from one direction doesn't necessarily pop you out where you'd expect it to. In addition to the mazes, your brain will be challenged by a number of puzzles, ranging from getting into an inflatable raft without poking a hole in it to opening a delicate jeweled egg without breaking it. The puzzles are challenging, but they are also intuitive and fair, they sometimes have multiple solutions, and there are enough clues available for you to figure everything out on your own if you explore, experiment (after saving, of course), and think about things long enough. Because there are so many different places to go at any given time, you can usually leave a puzzle that you can't figure out and come back to it at your leisure.
   You never have to worry about solving puzzles quickly in real time; in-game time is measured by how many moves you make, so you could sit at the command prompt for three seconds before you type in a command to attack the troll that just hit you, and the same amount of time will have passed in-game as if you would have waited three hours to attack the troll. There are a few situations where every move you make counts (such as when you are in battle with said troll), but usually you can take your time to explore and solve puzzles. The only caveat is that the lantern will eventually run out of power (it takes a long while, though), so there is a little bit of a limit to how many commands you can frivolously enter when you're relying on the lantern for light.
   The main problem people have getting into Zork besides the interface being archaic, is that the puzzles can be quite obtuse. For the first-time player, it's easy to get stuck right at the beginning of the game. The first step is to check under the rug for a trap door, but there's not a single clue to do so. It's easy to assume that it's just a room decoration, along with the trophy case, which is also a key feature of the room. The game can be quite frustrating to those who aren't willing to experiment with anything and everything, make maps, discuss findings with friends, etc. So, why even bother with it today, you ask?
   It's still easy to appreciate the game because of way the designers implemented everything. What they did was think about a lot of different things that players would attempt during the course of playing. The game is filled with secrets and surprises. The designers knew that players would do a lot of experimenting on their quest to complete the game as well as satisfy curiosity, and they rewarded the players for it, something that a lot of "open world" games today are still trying to perfect. You could do a lot of interesting things in Zork that, while serving no purpose in helping you complete the game, or sometimes even hindering you if you did something stupid, would almost always make you laugh. The game would allow you to do a lot of crazy things. Do you want to count the leaves in a pile? Go ahead. Do you want to cuss like a sailor? Zork won't like it, but it'll let you. Everything from opening an iron grate from underneath without moving the pile of leaves hiding it, addressing the game by name, asking about game features and characters, and even committing suicide, the designers and their staff of Implementors (their title given to those who create text adventures) seemed to be one step ahead of you with a witty response. This is the magic of what makes text adventures interesting! The illusion that the game will let you do just about anything, and you'll at the least get a satisfying response.
   Really, there's nothing bad about the game; the text parser is highly intelligent, the writing is adequately descriptive and elegant, the puzzles are excellent, there's plenty of freedom to explore, and there's a lot of humor. If you're not fond of text parsers, prefer objectives clearer than "go get some treasure", and dislike such a great degree of freedom to explore, then maybe you won't like the game as much. The same is true of the lack of graphics and sound, the need to draw maps, the limited amount of items allowed in your inventory, the possibility of dooming yourself to failure without realizing it, and the lack of a driving story: for some people, these things are perfectly fine, or even desirable; for other people, these things keep the game from being as enjoyable as it could be.
   For my part, I enjoyed playing Zork. I strongly recommend trying out the game at least once, regardless of your adventure game preferences; it's now a free download, and you can spend as little as five minutes playing and still make notable progress. If you are willing to take the time to explore the world of Zork, draw the maps, and figure out the puzzles on your own (c'mon, you can do it), then you will find Zork to be a strangely engrossing and very satisfying game.

Zork is Insomnia's 1977 Game of the Year.

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