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The History Of Zork
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The History Of Zork

by Matt Barton [PC]

June 28, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

Examine Zork

An Only Slightly Fatigable History of Zork

Zork began life in much the same way as many of the early computer games; that is, as a fruitful, informal collaboration by starry-eyed, college students. Indeed, it’s easy (if, perhaps, a bit misleading) to compare the development of Zork with that of another classic computer game, Spacewar!.

Zork was developed by four members of the MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group, whereas Spacewar! was developed by members of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. Both teams were excited about the possibility of computer games, and both were fueled by the adrenaline-rush of successful hacks and making a habit out of doing what others felt couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be done. However, the authors of Zork had a much different vision of the future of computer games than the hackers responsible for Spacewar!. For, although Spacewar! paved the way for graphical “twitch” games, Zork was a game for folks who preferred prose to pyrotechnics.

The authors of the mainframe Zork , Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling, begun writing the program in 1977 for use on a DEC PDP-10 computer, the same computer used by Will Crowther and Don Woods to create Colossal Cave Adventure (Spacewar! was programmed on the earlier PDP-1). The PDP-10 was a mainframe computer that was much more powerful than any home computer of the time, though much too large and expensive for most consumers.

The few home computers that existed were so woefully underpowered compared to mainframes like the PDP-10 that most of the early game developers had little interest in trying to restrict or sell their software; if you had access to one of these behemoths, chances are you could get easily acquire games like Colossal Cave Adventure using the ARPANET, the progenitor to the internet.

The “imps,” as they would later style themselves, were enchanted with the aforementioned Colossal Cave Adventure, also known as Adventure or simply Advent (I prefer the more descriptive title). Colossal Cave is certainly a groundbreaking game, both in the figurative and literal sense—the author and his wife were dedicated cavers, and Crowther based much of the game on an actual cave system in Kentucky. Although many critics tend to overlook this caving connection, I think it’s important if we want to fully understand the appeal of games like Colossal Cave and Zork.

Surely it is not a coincidence that both games are focused on the type of thrilling exploration one finds as a caver or urban explorer. To my mind, these games are less “interactive novels” than “interactive maps” (or “interactive worlds” to use language popularized by Cyan). Another interesting “coincidence” here is that the first jigsaw puzzle ever sold was of a map (see Daniel McAdam’s History of Jigsaw Puzzles). It seems that maps and puzzles have been associated from very early times!

Although exploration games can be rendered with graphics instead of text, this eliminates much of the freedom (or at least the illusion of such) allowed by text—a point I’ll return to later. As for Crowther, his purported intention for creating the game was chiefly as a way to share some of his enjoyment of caving and the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons with his two estranged daughters. It’s easy for critics, perhaps avid D&D players themselves, to get so fixated on this fantasy role-playing connection that they overlook the influence of caving.

“I’ve always loved maps, and my favorite games were the ones that required me to do meticulous mapping. But I don’t think map-making and adventure games are joined at the hip; while mapping was a big part of game like Zork and Starcross, it was much less an issue in games like Deadline and The Witness, and not at all in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which was Infocom’s second most successful game, after Zork).” – Steve Meretzky, former Infocom Implementer

“Exploration is critical, of course, but map-making was mainly required because the adventure games had no visuals. But frankly, it’s a nuisance…” – Marc Blank

“I've never drawn a map of any text adventure game I've played.” – Howard Sherman

Colossal Cave established many of the conventions and principles upon which almost all subsequent text adventures are based, such as the familiar structure of rooms and objects, inventory, point system, and input structure (“OPEN DOOR”, “GO NORTH” etc.) The game also introduced several elements inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous works, including dwarves and magic (I might note that Tolkien was always drawing maps himself). To get through the game, players frequently sketched out their own graphical maps of the areas they explored. Colossal Cave also famously introduced the “non-Euclidean maze,” or a series of identically described rooms.

The only way players can navigate these mazes (besides cheating) is to drop breadcrumbs, or objects whose placement in a room will alter its description (thus allowing the player to retrace steps). The game also requires players not merely to collect treasures, but to deposit them in the proper location to earn points (the same feature shows up in Zork). Although Colossal Cave was certainly a breakthrough, it didn’t take long for hackers to master it. Some hackers went a step beyond; they had sighted a new vista and wanted to explore its possibilities to the fullest.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

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