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Aspects of Zork I

In early 1980's Europe the games released by American publisher Infocom were not encountered often. Their titles were disk-based; on the Eastern shores of the Atlantic the majority of software for home computers was distributed on cassette due to the high cost of disk drives in these years. Additionally, some of the machines they ran on, while common in the United States, were not always the most popular in homes in this part of the World - the Commodore 64 being a notable exception. Perhaps because of their obscurity there was a alluring mystique attached to Infocom's text adventures. The ZORK logo

They had a fantastic parser, it was said. They had their roots in a time when writing computer games was a diversion and these games could then only be played on room-filling mainframes. And the name Infocom is almost synonymous with Zork; it was their first game, it was a dungeon-crawl, it reportedly had a troll in it.


A brief history of Zork development
Playing the game
Publication overview and some notes for collectors
Solution and maps (spoiler alert!)

A brief history of Zork development

The first version of Zork was written in the late seventies on a Digital PDP-10 mainframe at MIT by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling of the Dynamic Modeling Group. As related by Lebling, the inspiration to write their adventure game came from the appearance of Crowther and Woods' Colossal Cave Adventure on mainframes on the ARPANET (famously halting all work for two weeks while everyone was playing Cave).

Digital PDP-10 hardware
An overview of Digital PDP-10 hardware (source: Digital Equipment Corporation, one would suppose), the platform on which the original Zork would be developed and played.

Development of the original Zork was done in MDL, a descendant of LISP that was developed at the Dynamic Modeling Group. Eventually the game's parser could understand more complex sentences than Colossal Cave's could (the latter was limited to commands of one or two words, and considered the first five characters of each word only), the game was renamed to Dungeon and renamed back to Zork, a creature called "grue" was introduced, and many puzzles were invented.

Members of the faculty founded Infocom in 1979, originally as a company that could produce any kind of software (for an interesting story see the documentary Get Lamp by Jason Scott). Seemingly for convenience, Zork was the first title to be published, as it already was a finished product. However, as it had been developed on a PDP-10 and had naturally grown to fit the resources available on such a mainframe, Zork would not fit on the the much smaller microcomputers of the day that consumers would have at home, such as the Apple II or the Tandy TRS-80. For this reason the game was split into three parts (Zorks I, II, and III), and an early type of virtual machine called the "Z-machine" was developed that would interpret compact and portable game code written in a specialized language called ZIL (Zork Implementation Language). To have the game work on a particular machine, it needed to run a Z-machine (or ZIP - Zork Interpreter Program), and the game code te be run by the Z-machine. Eventually ZIPs came out for more than 20 different computer platforms during Infocom's lifetime.

Playing the game

The first time I met Zork I was as a budget version for the Commodore 64, published in 1983 by Commodore according to the blurb on the back of the simple folder that serves as packaging. When loaded, the game surprises the player by presenting itself in vanilla C64 Basic 2.0 aesthetics: forty columns, twenty-five lines of light-blue-on-dark-blue text. The BASIC screen editor is still present here, judging from the fact that the cursor and clr/home keys work (and may confuse the parser when used).

Zork I opening screen on C64
The opening screen of the 1983 Commodore 64 version of Zork I; played through the VICE emulator.

At the start of the game the player is placed in front of a large colonial house situated in a forest, but like the subtitle of the game indicates - Your greatest challenge lies ahead - and downwards - the work is mostly found subterranean. The user guide tells us "Zork I: The Great Underground Empire confronts you with perils and predicaments ranging from the mystical to the macabre, as you strive to discover the Twenty Treasures of ZORK and escape with them and your life!" That's all the background story the player is given in the short booklet accompanying the earlier versions of Zork I (although there is mention of unfriendly beings in the labyrinth and that you will therefore need a weapon). Zork I is a 350-points, 20-treasures cave crawl. The rest of the manual is concerned with explaining the concepts of playing text adventures.

The way to the underground world is not very difficult to find, and locating the first treasures is a relatively smooth affair. These must then be brought back to the surface and placed in a trophy case in order to obtain all associated points. To do so initially requires a somewhat tedious procedure, involving a constricted one-way passage through which the player can bring not more than two inventory items. The player may however find another route as he continues his survey of the Great Underground Empire.

He will also sooner or later encounter his main adversary, the thief. This sinister person is a wandering inhabitant of the caves and underground passages and will purloin items from the player when encountered. Collected treasures, weapons, or perhaps the essential light source, nothing seems to be safe. His arrival is sudden and he cannot initially be neutralized. Zork I shows its nondeterministic nature here; that is to say that it is not certain what the outcome will be of a hostile confrontation between the player and other creatures. Take the (minor spoiler) confrontation with the troll for example. This role-playing aspect is not always used in other works of interactive fiction and requires the player to "save, and save often." Notably the thief (stealing or fighting) has an unpredictable effect on the prospects of winning the game and with today's player's sensibilities might be regarded as an irritant.

Like many early text games, the business of solving Zork's puzzles doesn't take place in the context of an unfolding story. There are however elements in the description of the environment that give some insight in the geographical situation of the Great Underground Empire, such as Flood Control Dam #3, the Flathead mountains, the Frigid river streaming along the White Cliffs, and other landmarks. These and the history of the GUE are only properly put in order in the background information provided by the material in the Grey Box Zork I package, and further elaborated upon in the later Zork installments and the Enchanter trilogy.

Publication overview and some notes for collectors

The publication history of Zork is long and varied. Following below is a enumeration of different guises in which the venerable game has been seen in shops, with some pictures of items in my own collection. Has any game received such diverse packaging? (For more detailed information, the Infocom Fact Sheet holds an impressive amount of information about Zork and other Infocom releases over the years.)

"Barbarian" Zork by Personal Software

The first version of Zork I for microcomputers was not distributed by Infocom itself, but by Personal Software (who are also known for Visicalc, another famous title) in 1980. The "Barbarian" image originates from the cover of this printing. In the Personal Software advertisement shown on the right we see the barbarian - presumably the player himself - amongst glittering treasure, angrily brandishing a large sword against some axe-wielding anthropomorphic and clearly agitated creature (it must be the troll then). Approaching from behind is what we may assume is a grue, despite the presence of light. Of note is that the game is called simply "Zork" here, not Zork I. Zork II was not yet published. Advertisement for Zork I in the Personal Software Barbarian edition

This difficult to find and coveted incarnation came out for Tandy TRS-80 in 1980, and was sold in a so-called "baggie" - a zip-loc plastic bag - with a 5.25" floppy disk and a manual (printed in the Radio Shack TRS-80 style with the logo on the front, as it was licensed to the Tandy corporation). One year later, an Apple II version was introduced, this time in a proper cardboard box but with the same artwork. The story file is is possibly release 15, at least the Apple II version.

Blister package

By 1982 and the time Zork II was to be published, Infocom had taken over the marketing and packaging of their own software. A new low-cost format was introduced: the shop-friendly blister package. A cardboard back and a plastic transparent front, between which a disk and a manual is placed. The game could not be opened without breaking the package. The manual is quite brief and only a very short description of the game's aim is given, along with instructions for playing a text adventure. Apart from Zork II and Zork III, no other Infocom titles came out in this form.

About as difficult to find as Barbarian Zork, but significantly lower in price (still rather costly). Came out at least for Atari 8-bit and Apple II, and likely others. This is possibly release 25 and/or 26.

Blister package contents
Contents of the blister package version of Zork I, sans blister. From left to right: a system guide for Apple II computers, a player's manual, an Infocom brochure, and a 5.25" floppy disk (label mottled over the years).

Commodore repackaging

Commodore Business Machines marketed their own repackaging of Zork I and a number of other early Infocom titles. There were two variations, one of which is shown to the right. The front of the folder shows a rather ghoulish interpretation of some unknown scene of the game. The included manual contains the same information as the one accompanying the blister package edition.

Frequently found on auction sites, and usually the least expensive one. Contains release 30 and came out in 1983.
Zork I in the Commodore edition

CBM folder contents
Contents of the Commodore repackaging of Zork I. Cardboard folder, 5.25" floppy disk in a Commodore-branded sleeve, brief manual.

Grey box

The iconic grey box version of the game; 25 of the 35 canonical Infocom text adventures came out in this format. It consisted of a cardboard box, the front cover of which opens like a book and has the user's manual attached to the inside. The rest of the box is a compartment that holds a floppy disk, possibly some props ("feelies") related to the game, and brochures and promotional material from Infocom. This version of Zork I is the only one to offer background information of the world in which the game takes place. It includes a map of Aragain, and the attached manual gives an outline of the history of the Great Underground Empire and the Flathead dynasty. Zork I in the grey box edition

This is the edition to get if you would have only one in your collection. It seems to have appeared in 1984 and involves release 88 of the game. Not altogether uncommon, which is not surprising considering the success Infocom had with this title by this time. It's also the box format that saw the widest range of supported systems.

Grey box contents
Contents of the grey box Zork I, with a 5.25" floppy disk in an Infocom-branded sleeve in the middle. Further goodies, starting from top left: grey box (shown opened), plastic tray lid, registration form, hint ordering form, Infocom brochure, loading instructions (in this case for Atari 8-bit machines), and a map of the vicinity of the White House.

Solid Gold edition

Budget release by Infocom. A simple folder, but still quite reminiscent of the grey box. None of the extended contents of the latter is included however. This packaging does have the redeeming feature of bringing a new release of the story; the non-sequentially correct release 52. The advertised enhancement here being a built-in hint system that obviates the need to acquire hint books. The Commodore 64 version also runs on the C128 natively, in 80 columns text.

Came out for C64/C128, MS-DOS, and Macintosh, and perhaps others. Not too common, but also not the most collectible.
Solid Gold edition of Zork I

Solid Gold folder contents
The Solid Gold edition for C64 and C128. Clockwise from top left: folder with diskette, instruction manual, operating instructions for c64, operating instructions for C128, ordering information for Infocomics and for Zork II and III.

Mastertronic repackaging

British publisher Mastertronic reissued ten Infocom games as a budget titles. This reissue is a step back from the lavish heights of the grey box days, but the simple little square box does harken back to the gray box through the horizontal lines on the cover. The manual is as brief as the old Commodore and blister package ones; surprisingly, the map is included. Came out for Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and MS-DOS, and judging from the description in the manual, they may be different releases of the story file. Prices vary somewhat, but should be lower than the older editions. Mastertronic edition of Zork I

Mastertronic box contents
Contents of the Mastertronic box. Clockwise from top left: back of box, map of Aragain, 3.5" disk (for Amiga), short manual.

Sega Saturn Zork I

In 1996 a rewrite of Zork I was published in Japan for the Sega Saturn console. There is no mention of Infocom on the box, only Zork I and Activision, but in the manual Marc Blank and Dave Lebling are listed as the original authors. This version featured limited graphics and music, and presumably the player controls his character using a menu-driven interface. This CD is not at all hard to find, but some collectors will want to make sure that the spine card is included -- a staple of Japanese content on optical media. Mastertronic edition of Zork I

Mastertronic box contents
Contents of the Sega Saturn version. Clockwise from top: instruction manual, CD in jewel case, registration card, spine card, and (presumably) help line information.

The Zork Trilogy

This is Infocom's own compendium of the original three Zork games, I, II, and III. Infocom published other trilogies, but this is the only one that was issued as a single grey box. Almost all game materials of the individual grey box editions are included, except the contents of the manuals of Zorks II and III. But if you already have the individual constituent grey box titles in your possession and are no completist, there is still a reason for which the trilogy could be a worthy addition to your collection, and that is the inclusion of a real Zorkmid. The coin of the realm, the currency unit of the Great Underground Empire. Zork Trilogy

This coin was originally intended to be included with Zork I, but manufacturing issues interfered (the coin is shown in the illustration on the back of the Zork I box though) and it eventually ended up in the Trilogy. Note: Make sure you get the right Zork Trilogy - in the grey box - and that the coin is actually present.

Zorkmid coin
The desirable Zorkmid.

Zork witnessed the rise and decline of many architectures. As may be expected from a game that gained popularity in the early age of home computing with its great diversity of systems, Zork I - or rather the virtual machine in which it could exist - was ported to many platforms. A capable system sporting at least 32kiB of RAM and a disk drive had a good chance of being able to run Zork, and below is an illustration of this; the opening screens of various versions of Zork I on various 1980's computers.

Zork I opening screen on Apple II, Release 15, 1980Zork I opening screen on Tandy TRS-80 Model III, Release 25Zork I opening screen on Apple II, Release 26
Zork I opening screen on Atari 800, Release 26Zork I opening screen on C64, Release 30Zork I opening screen on MS-DOS, Release 88
Zork I opening screen on Apple IIe, Release 88Zork I opening screen on Tatung Einstein, Release 88Zork I opening screen on Commodore Plus 4, Release 88
Zork I opening screen on Apple Macintosh, Release 88 (font set to Chicago)Zork I opening screen on Atari ST, Release 88Zork I opening screen on Amstrad CPC, Release 88
Zork I opening screen on Amiga, Release 88Zork I opening screen on C64, Release 52Zork I opening screen on C128, Release 52
The opening screens of various versions of Zork I on a multitude of platforms; do you recognize yours? "Mouse over" for particulars, click on a screen to zoom, or here for a list.

Solution and maps (spoiler alert!)

Below you will find my own map and walkthrough for Zork I. Plenty of people have made these things already, of course, and long ago too, such as the map issued by the Zork Users Group. Nevertheless I think it is simply part of the interactive fiction experience to draw your own. The writing of a walkthrough is probably not normally part of a game; let's say that I simply like to document this sort of things, a tendency not dissimilar to keeping the banknotes in my wallet ordered by serial number.

Pawn map Images
Full map of Zork I, showing all rooms and most objects. Based on release 52 and drawn using Dia. Zork I walkthrough, organized in 12 parts. Includes list of treasures.

Some topographical magic has not been made explicit in this map: the connection between the Treasure Room and the Temple, the "prayer" link from the Temple to the surface, and the link between the two Mirror Rooms.

As mentioned earlier, the thief is a primary adversary in Zork I. He can easily ruin the player's chances of finishing the game, but at the same time it is not possible to reach the end without him. At any rate it would be best if he could be avoided in the early stages of the game. Unix Frotz is a respected interpreter for Infocom and Inform games that offers a number of debugging options that can be set before running. The -o switch allows you to follow object movement. Using this it is possible to construct an itinerary of the thief (and be amazed by his erratic jumps and geographical antics). Perhaps there are even some safe spots on the map, just like in Pacman.


(Originally written 2017/03/24)