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What Lies Beyond: Doorways in Gaming
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What Lies Beyond: Doorways in Gaming

June 10, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

Zork I

The original adventure game, Crowther and Woods' Colossal Cave, featured no doors to speak of, having been modeled after the natural rock formations in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. But the mainframe Dungeon's more familiar descendant Zork I features a couple of doors of note.

The Doors

The first Zorkian door, in a sign of things to come, is a total red herring -- the little white house that memorably serves as the player's entry to the Great Underground Empire has a front door, but it's boarded up and can't actually be opened. Later, inside the house, under the living room rug, we discover a second door, a trap door in the floor.

The Experience

The first door distracts us from realizing that we have to go around to the side, force open the kitchen window, and sneak in that way. And when we open the second door, and descend into the darkness, the game is seriously afoot, as...

The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it.

This Is Your Brain On...

The front door of the little white house provides a tempting gateway, but the designers pull the rug out from under our expectations right away. This door, this frustrating door that can never be opened, isn't really a dead end. What it's doing under our primitive hoods is setting up the desire to get inside the house -- after all, if there's a door blocking our way, there must be something desirable behind it. And after trying various magical incantations, random inventory item applications, and physical violence, we sooner or later begin to suspect that there might be another way into the house. Solving that simple puzzle by going in through the kitchen window instead is the player's first real accomplishment in the game, and when we see the other side of the door from the living room, we can put a mental pin in this task -- front door, breached; little white house, explored; check!

Zork's second door is more scary than satisfying -- in a scant 60 characters of vintage ASCII text, the world aboveground is left behind and we are trapped in the darkness below. This is the classical example -- the trap door unexpectedly closes behind us, courtesy of an invisible (though not inaudible) agency, and it marks a clear point of departure. We can't go back, and we don't know what lies ahead; our brains automatically reset, ready for anything, and our pulse rate picks up a little. If we have the magical sword in hand, it begins to glow as danger approaches; if we neglected to bring it along, our adventure is likely to be rather short. Nothing we have done up to this point matters much, really -- at least, that's how our brains react.


The coin-op video game industry was developing rapidly when Exidy's 1981 title Venture took a major step forward, implementing meaningful, perspective-changing doorways for perhaps the first time in visual video game form.

The Doors

As the game begins, our bow-wielding hero Winky is a tiny red dot, wandering through monster-infested hallways where we can only see the outlines of rooms and clearly delineated entry points:

The Experience

When Winky enters a doorway, the view zooms dramatically into the room, where we discover what fresh hell awaits our grinning avatar:

Winky has to pick up the treasure and escape, shooting or avoiding anything that stands in his way, before the game's timer sends one of the wandering hall monsters in for the kill.

This Is Your Brain On...

Each door in Venture leads to a new experience -- while each room predictably features a treasure to collect, guarded by monsters or moving obstacles, we don't really know what to expect unless we've visited in a previous life.

The moment when the perspective shifts inward forces a quick and necessary reset on the player's mental framework -- we can't really see what's going on until the new room fills the screen, and by that time we're already in danger. And when we exit the room, any feeling of victory is short-lived, as the perspective zooms back out and we go through another mental reset, immediately dodging the hall monsters again. Winky is always under threat, and the constant travel through doorways means that our brains never quite get to rest. 

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

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