#20 Zork I

Posted: 11th November 2011 by Mulholland in Games
Tags: , , ,

99th played so far

Genre: Adventure
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1980
Developer: Infocom
Publisher: Personal Software

Much like how The Mighty Boosh promises to take you on a journey through time and space it is time for us at Pong and Beyond to drag you kicking and screaming back to a time when adventure games depended on us actually inputting text in order to progress!

That’s right people, the point-and-click adventures like Maniac Mansion and Sam and Max Hit The Road were just a glint in the milkman’s eye (or whatever the equivalent is for the illegitimate children of game developers) when this bad boy hit the shelves back in 1980… if you actually remember playing this as a contemporary I would like to personally welcome you to this blog and hope to meet you in the comments section after we attempt to share our thoughts.

Our Thoughts

I must apologise to our readers for the short write up. Unfortunately, text-based games take away one main part that we can focus on for games: the graphics. Even so, games like this are supposed to evoke at least some of the imagery from the descriptions it gives you, so we’ll need to see whether they were good enough for us.

The fact it is so easy to get lost despite the fact that you are constantly moving back and forth does not say that much. However, there is only so much you can do with a few sentences of description and (to give them credit) they do a great job at setting the scene. Part of the reason for this is, at the same time, that it abbreviates these descriptions so they don’t get in the way. Good if you have been playing the game for longer (and you will need to), but not as much when you’re still trying to get your bearings. What also does not help is that to do anything you need to input most instructions, with directions being the obvious exception, in basic sentences. It took me a long time to work out the instructions the game would understand to let me climb down and out of the attic.

Of course, the commands are a staple of the text adventure genre, with a number of basic shortcuts being universally accepted and in other cases, some might say figuring out what to do is part of the puzzle. Still, it is something that requires learning, and this is part of the learning curve that makes it so much more difficult to get into these games – it’s a time investment that’s harder to justify. There have been similar text adventures I got into a long time ago, but even I just can’t normally bring myself to do it, it annoyed me too.

Aside from the historical value of Zork I and the fact that it helped inspire and inform the adventure games which followed I cannot think of much to really recommend playing this game. I don’t entirely agree with that. This game is a lot harder to get into than most, especially when you’re not used to these kinds of games, but when you do, you find that there’s a set of complicated puzzles in this game.

There is a large world with many things you can do and try, and responses to many sillier options (they don’t think of everything… but they thought of a lot). Many puzzles have multiple solutions and there are plenty of red herrings leading you around. It’s not a game you can finish in one go – you’ll die often and have to keep retrying to get further, but that’s part of the fun of these games. You need to try to figure out what to do and how to do it. That’s not to everyone’s taste, and is a sign of the times as well (early computer wizards playing the game on their university’s mainframe, who often, after finishing the puzzles, go in and add their own).

This game is the earliest release of Infocom’s long legacy of text adventures, and as such, it’s a bit more disjointed and less story based than their later games. Descriptions will become longer and more in depth and there are more explanations that aren’t as relevant, but give you more of a story. Here, you’re an adventurer who’s collecting treasures – the twenty treasures of Zork – to get a treasure map that will get you to a stone barrow – the barrier between this game and the next. Other games in the series explain more on why and what, and what happens next, but as it is, that’s all there is to do.

Obviously, these twenty treasures are each reached through their own puzzle, only vaguely related at times. I suppose it’s not much… but then again, plenty of more recent games offer less of a story anyway. This doesn’t mean much now, but it’s something to think about when trying out later instalment. If you want to get into the world of text adventures, go for other games – they have more of a story to draw you in, and are usually a bit friendlier. But if you want to get the original, tough enough puzzles, Zork will do you well. Or you can just read a fantasy novel, at least then you won’t spend a lot of time reading your way through circles. But you won’t be the one running away from grues then, not as much…

Still, in order to progress along their way different mediums tend to borrow from one another in order to start the ball rolling. In order to bring adventures into the world of gaming they had to borrow from the old-fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure book series but within a matter of years graphics were up to snuff and the modern adventure game was born. The fact that I had little patience with those books probably says a lot for why I did not get on well with Zork I.

In the end, though it is a trailblazer and I am sure that with some knowledge of the standard language and a decent pad this would have been a better experience. However, for someone whose first gaming memory is Sonic The Hedgehog on the Sega Game Gear this will never have the sense of nostalgia that many other older gamers will experience. It’s impressive, but really not for me.

The comparison to a Choose Your Own Adventure book gives a limited indication of what the game contains. The options in Zork are many more at any point than the few such a book offers – as said, the game often offers multiple solutions, and makes good use of time based puzzles, such as a lake emptying, as well as NPCs acting independent from you (the Thief might well be the first such gaming character).

It’s something you have to get into, I agree there – whether it’s because that’s where you’re started, or because you got used to it later. But with the multitude of options available, this might be the first game to show how a computer can be used for more storytelling than just ‘kill the enemies’, that shows in adventures, RPGs, MUDs (and through that MMORPGs) and possibly many other games that featured more than a basic plot.

Final Thoughts

As you may have noticed, I’m fond of this. To be honest, this is as much a fondness for the genre – I have plenty of memories of chasing down a vampire lord in a game whose name I don’t even remember. And despite Colossal Caves, this was the first commercial success.

It’s a game that might not appeal to the masses anymore, and playing this without a walkthrough may, these days, appeal even less to most (in fact, Infocom starting offering hintbooks for sale soon after the release of the game, knowing how difficult their games could get). But unlike Little Computer People, a game too boring to appeal to us now, the puzzles are as tough as ever, and I’m sure those who are interested in solving such puzzles will enjoy working it out.

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