Why am I writing about a video game that came out 35 years ago? A game that is five years older than myself? One that consists of nothing but short paragraphs of descriptive text? Well, because I played and beat it for the first time last week. And, that is reason enough. Zork is what is now called a work of interactive fiction but at the time of it’s release was called a computer game. If you played the game back when it was released for home PCs you either had a pirated version or found the game hanging on a store shelf in a little plastic baggie with a photocopied manual. Oddly, enough I sometimes think that we’re going back to that era with the tiny plastic cases and anemic manuals… Today? You can play the game just about anywhere: on your iPhone or this website’s 404 error page.
So why now? Why did I wait so long to play Zork? I know I’ve had a copy of the game in some form since 1995 but I don’t think I ever even found the entrance to the underground empire until last week. I finally decided to sit down and play the game, for real, after being reminded of it by Ready Player One. Zork never played a role in shaping me as a gamer. I do know though that it did shape many of the people who designed the games that did have a role in my young gaming life (though probably not as much as Colossal Cave which isn’t mentioned at all in RPO) Zork is one of those games that every gamer seems to know of, if only as the name of an old game. Some know that it was an influential early adventure game. Some have played it, some have managed to complete it. I’m going to say the majority of those people are over 30. The beginning of a new year seemed the appropriate time to tackle all the IF games I’ve known and read and talked about for years. I started with Zork because it’s the one that people make the most fuss about.
What I discovered first was that Interactive Fiction takes a certain state of mind. I couldn’t get into Zork thinking of it as just another video game. When I did I quickly found myself getting bored and checking my email or dicking around on Facebook. It took me some time to figure out why… What I think happened was I started thinking of Zork as less of a game and more of a book. With a video game my expectation is for the game to provide me with all the world-building and visual content and I move the story forward. IF like books expects you to do bring all the visual content and much of the world building. And just like when you want to dig into a book it helps to take notes with IF, in fact it’s probably mandatory. After I adjusted to creating my own mental map of the space you navigate in Zork (assisted by the quick map I sketched out as I played) and started taking notes as to what I was finding, and what objects I was interacting with and how I found that myself enjoying Zork.
Interactive Fiction has never been compelling to me. I grew up playing the generation of games that came after, ones by Sierra On-line and LucasArts. I always saw text-only as a defect but, it’s not it’s just different. Thinking about it visuals can be a crutch (Every student of Cinema knows this…) a crutch that limits the design of a game just as much as text-only can.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to get back to exploring the halls of George Underwood Edwards Institute of Technology.