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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 4 of 6 Next

Indeed, for many of the more obscure platforms, Infocom’s lineup was the best (if not the only) games available. No matter what type of computer you had, you could always buy a copy of Zork. This fact no doubt offered them considerable leverage in the terrifically diversified home computer market of the early 1980s, when consumers could pick from dozens of different machines, each with its own advantages and disadvantages (cost, speed, memory, ease-of-use, expandability, software library, etc.)

Infocom also lured gamers with innovative packaging and “feelies,” or small items included with the disks and manuals. Usually these items were added to complement the game’s theme, such as the “Peril Sensitive Sunglasses” included with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Other feelies served to curtail illegal distribution. For instance, without the QX-17-T Assignment Completion Form, players would not be able to input the coordinates needed to access the space station in Stationfall. Sadly, the ambiance achieved by the clever packaging and feelies are incapable of being “emulated,” and players really wanting to get the full experience would do well to own an original boxed copy.

“You have to mention the revolution to packaging and marketing. [Even] while the Zork games were just a manual and a disk in a blister pack, [they] were well ahead of all other software of its time, which came in Ziplock bags, often with a Xeroxed manual.” – Steve Meretzky

“Our other key innovation was to market our games to adults, but that's another, much longer story.” – Dave Lebling

The three classic Zork games are The Underground Empire (1980), The Wizard of Frobozz (1981), and The Dungeon Master (1982). Although these games are based on parts of the massive mainframe version, the imps worked hard to make each game more coherent, such as the aforementioned plot structure of Wizard of Frobozz. Now, players had to do more than just find all the treasures—they had to find a way to bring the story to its natural resolution.

No doubt to the angst of many parents worried about the “Satanism” of so much fantasy role-playing, this story culminates in giving ten treasures to a demon, who takes them as payment for performing one critical task. The game is also noted for two infamously difficult puzzles called the “Bank of Zork Vault” and the “Oddly-Angled Room.” The final game in the trilogy, The Dungeon Master, takes leave of much of the humor and opts for a more solemn and gloomy tone; one reviewer calls it “brooding.” Instead of merely hunting for loot, the player must find items that allow him (or her) to take on the role of Dungeon Master.

In 1983, Infocom released Enchanter, the first of another trilogy of games set in the Zork universe. These games were much more focused on magic and spell-casting than Zork, but retained much of the humor and excellent writing. Sorcerer (1984) and Spellbreaker (1985) round out the series. Each entry in the series is increasingly difficult, to the point that some critics complained that Spellbreaker was a contrived effort to boost sales of Infocom’s InvisiClues books.

Infocom’s Zork and Enchanter trilogies were fabulous successes, and the company followed up with several other classics (see Wikipedia for a full list). To make a long story short, Infocom’s business was booming, and its superior interactive fiction titles earned them enough zorkmids to build their own empire, not to mention throw incredible promotional parties, including the legendary “murder mystery party” thrown at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for Suspect. Infocom even hired a troupe of actors and let participants indulge in some “live action role-playing” to solve the murder. Infocom was at their zenith.

Unfortunately, the bottom was about to fall out of the boat. From the beginning, Infocom was not intended solely to develop and publish games (one thinks of countless rock and pop bands dreaming of producing “serious” music with the London Philharmonic). Although their text adventure games had sold amazingly well, Infocom wasn’t satisfied—they were convinced they were destined for bigger and better things. The albatross flopping around Infocom’s corridors was a relational-database called Cornerstone. Cornerstone sounded like a brilliant idea—everyone knew that database software had revolutionary potential for business, but the current offerings were far too complex for the average user. Infocom saw an opportunity, and felt that the same virtual machine strategy they used for Zork would work well for Cornerstone.

Unfortunately, by the time Cornerstone hit the shelves, the “IBM Compatible,” now known simply (and tellingly) as the “PC,” was the overwhelmingly dominant platform for business; portability was no longer an issue. Furthermore, the virtual machine setup reduced its speed, and it lacked several of the advanced features that made its rival database programs worth learning in the first place. The program was not a success, and several critics remarked that its name was apt—it sat on store shelves like a stone. Infocom had foolishly invested so heavily in the product, however, that they were unable to recover, and in 1986 the company was acquired by Activision.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next

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