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To say that Zork is an influential adventure game is like saying the Iliad is an influential poem. At some point, the question is not so much one of “influences” but rather of laying foundations. Although the game’s mechanics have no doubt been surpassed by later parsers, no one can deny the incalculable influence Zork has extended across a broad spectrum of games and genres. Could we have Myst without Zork? What about Doom or Ultima? All of these games borrow and pay homage, whether directly or indirectly, acknowledged or not, from the type of gameplay found in Zork.
The player is still exploring spaces, finding affordances, and overcoming obstacles. The only crucial differences are the ways these activities are represented on the screen, and the way they are selected by the player. In the first case, rooms and actions are described with text rather than graphics. In the second, players use their keyboards to input commands in the form of words and sentences rather than mouse clicks or arrow keys. For example, if the player “goes north” in Doom by pressing the up arrow key, players in Zork simply type “go north” or simply “n.” To say that the former method is objectively superior or more “immersive” than the latter seems foolhardy at best.
“Sometimes I see the same sort of humor and irreverence of Zork popping up in games, for example in some of the NPC dialogue or quest names in World of Warcraft, and I like to think that that’s the influence of Zork in particular and the Infocom games in general.” – Steve Meretzky
“The MMOs are the most Zork-like, but the lineage is more through the side door: MMOs like Everquest and World of Warcraft are descended from MUDs, which were inspired by Adventure and Zork. MMOs have genetic material from a lot of sources, though.” – Dave Lebling
“I don't discern any influence, frankly.” – Marc Blank
What Zork seemed to contribute more than anything was the idea that the computer could simulate a rich virtual environment much, much larger and nuanced than the playing fields seen in games like Spacewar! or Pac-Man. Furthermore, the game demonstrated the literary potential of the computer. Thousands upon thousands of gamers have been charmed by the wit and elegance of Zork’s many descriptions. Perhaps more than anything, though, these games offered players the illusion of total freedom. Instead of merely selecting a few set commands from a menu, Zork encouraged players to imagine infinite possibilities.
For most players, a great deal of the fun was simply experimenting with strange commands to see if the developers had anticipated them. For example, typing HELLO results in, “Nice weather we’re having lately” or “Good day.” Type JUMP, and you’re told, “Very good. Now you can do to the second grade.” On the other hand, typing “HELP” results in “I don’t know the word ‘help,’” a response which seems to have unintended significance. You can try out the results of curse words yourself.
There have been many claims made over the years (particularly by disgruntled fans of interactive fiction) that their games are simply more intellectually challenging, and that the reason so many modern gamers don’t like them is that they simply aren’t intelligent or refined enough to appreciate them. The very idea of a graphical adventure game is repugnant, fit only for dolts and small children. While I don’t share this view, as someone who teaches writing, I can certainly understand its appeal.
For what could possibly teach people the power of the written word better than a text adventure game, where typing words is literally the only way to make things happen? On the other hand, I’ve never bought the argument that a textual description requires more imagination than a graphic. It seems to me that the same sort of thing is going on in my head whether I see the word “mailbox” or see one represented on the screen. To make sense of either, I have to have some sort of familiarity with the concept of mailboxes, and imagine the possible reasons why the mailbox is there and what role it could play in the game. It’s an argument at least as old as Plato, and not one that I find very helpful.
“Graphic adventures were awful looking back in the day, but that's certainly no longer an issue. I think text adventures were simply an excellent fit for those early days of PC's, but that they simply aren't competitive now as entertainment.” – Marc Blank
“I could name a few good graphical adventures, but none that I know of suggest ways that we could reorganize our society, as A Mind Forever Voyaging does, and none are as powerful on the surface and beneath the surface as is, for instance, Bad Machine. That said, I don't object to graphical games at all, and I don't think there's a sharp divide between them and text-based IF. Text-based games can shade off into graphical ones.” – Nick Montfort
What, then, is the true advantage of a text adventure over a graphical one? For me, the answer to this question lies entirely in the perceived freedom and intelligence of the parser. It’s nice to be able to interact with a game in such a thoroughly compelling manner. And it’s here that I see the future of Zork, or the future of any text-based interactive narrative. The key is an increasingly sophisticated parser, with enough artificial intelligence to make convincing responses to anything the player might type; it would be as though there was an actual person or “dungeon master” on the other side of the screen.
It is true that such technology is far beyond what we currently have available, but consider how far graphics technology has come since 1980. What if the same level of exponential growth had occurred in Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing? “The things that interest me,” writes Montfort, “are advancing the state of the art, tackling simulation and language in new ways, and doing important work within our culture.” Perhaps what we’ll find beyond Zork is not better graphics, but the wily Dungeon Master himself.