[Gamasutra is proud to be partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present detailed official histories of each of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon. The Canon "provides a starting-point for the difficult task of preserving this history inspired by the role of that the U.S. National Film Registry has played for film culture and history", and Matteo Bittanti, Christopher Grant, Henry Lowood, Steve Meretzky, and Warren Spector revealed the inaugural honorees at GDC 2007. This second piece takes a look back at one of the grandfathers of interactive fiction and story-based games, in Infocom's text-based classic Zork.]
Zork. For some, the name conjures up little more than a dim notion of the “primitive” era of home computing, back when graphics technology was so lacking that desperate gamers were willing to buy games even if they consisted entirely of text. For this group, the entire genre of “adventure games,” or “interactive fiction,” or whatever you wish to call it, was simply making a virtue of necessity. Gamers didn’t have access to good graphics technology, so they had to make do without it. Once the technology allowed for more “compelling” graphical experiences, of course this quaint text-only genre would go extinct. As for playing Zork today—you’re kidding, right? The text adventure is dead, kaput, deceased, expired, gone to meet the great developer in the sky. This genre is an ex-genre.
For others, though, the name Zork still makes their Elven swords glow blue. To them, saying that Zork is obsolete makes no more sense than saying J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring trilogy is obsolete. Why do people still read Tolkien or any other novelists when there are so many movies and channels available on TV? If graphics and animation are so essential, then why haven’t comics and pop-up books long overtaken “plain text” novels on the New York Times best seller list? It isn’t difficult to see that humans aren’t exactly uniform or predictable in their preference for a given mode of entertainment. One size does not fit all, nor should it. Unfortunately, although movies and television never caused the novel to go out of production, graphical video games do seem to have caused the extinction of the text adventure. Or have they?
“The majority of people that play computer games today do not even entertain the notion that text adventure games are games at all. In their minds ‘games=graphics’; If they see a jumble of text on their screen they're much more likely to think their computer crashed than consider the possibility they're playing a game.” – Howard Sherman, President of Malinche Entertainment
“Modern gamers have seen and played a whole range of games since 1989, and of course to them Zork is a pretty strange experience; it's retro, it's hard to get into, it's not graphical. I'm pleased that people still play the games, given all the time that has passed and all the advances in software and hardware.” – Dave Lebling, Infocom Implementer
However, perhaps this is not a simple matter of cause and effect. Perhaps it’s wrong to assume that the availability of good graphics technology caused the decline of games like Zork. If “interactive fiction” has migrated to the margins of the computer gaming industry, it could be due simply to a lack of good marketing, not evidence of some inherent limitation of the genre. It’s quite possible that one day, when enough gamers are at last disillusioned with the latest 128-bit smoke and mirror show, interactive fiction titles will again enjoy the lucrative rewards won by Infocom during the heyday of the Zork trilogy. After all, the treasures of Zork are still there beneath the old white house, awaiting their discovery by new generations of gamers. Zork is not obsolete; merely under appreciated. Perhaps Zork is not the past of gaming, but its future.
“Poetry is a vibrant, essential part of American culture and many other cultures, although there is really no market at all for it. (Some companies publish poetry books, but practically no one makes a living as a poet, even if they have won the Nobel Prize.) I think IF will be a vibrant, essential part of digital media and literature even if no one manages to sell it.” – Nick Montfort, author of Twisty Little Passages
It’s quite likely that no computer game in history has ever inspired as much prose as Zork, even if we omit the billions of commands inputted by legions of over-caffeinated hunt-and-peckers. Zork and other text-based adventure games have long been the darling of academics writing about games, such as Brenda Laurel and Janet Murray.
No doubt, many of those early visitors to The Great Underground Empire felt they were experiencing the Future of the Novel. Developers and critics dreamed of a day when interactive fiction games would sit alongside their older brothers on the shelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble, and standing proudly alongside Thomas Pynchon and Norman Mailer in the reading queues of the literati. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have happened--at least, not yet. The question is, why? What, if anything, is really beyond Zork?
“Zork is all text—that means no graphics. None are needed. The authors have not skimped on the vividly detailed descriptions of each location; descriptions to which not even Atari graphics could do complete justice.” –David P. Stone in Computer Gaming World, Mar-Apr 1983
“I think of them more as thematic crossword puzzles.” – Marc Blank, former Infocom Implementer
Anyone truly interested in Zork and interactive fiction will want to read Nick Montfort’s excellent Twisty Little Passages, Graham Nelson’s A Short History of Interactive Fiction, and Tim Anderson’s own History of Zork. What I intend to do here is focus less on the developmental history of the game and more on its impact, particularly on the ways it has influenced modern adventure and role-playing games.
My goal is to persuade you that the text adventure is still a viable genre for modern gamers, even in an age when software and hardware developers are making breakthrough after breakthrough in graphics and animation. I want to talk about the game developer that put its “graphics where the sun don’t shine.”