Historical review of Zork

I don’t think this link has popped up here:

The author has been going through early “historically important” videogames. (Not the first person to do that, but so what?) They hit Zork 1 last week.

I don’t necessarily agree with every point in the article, but it’s a good point of view from someone who hasn’t been hanging out in this forum for 25 years. For example – spoilers for the end of the essay – I hadn’t considered the pretty-explicit comparison between the thief (described as an aristocratic gentleman) and your role as an utterly indiscriminate common plunderer.


Thanks. I liked the article.

1 Like

It is an interesting article but my eyes go crossed at the comparison between player dedication to Zork, Myst, and Starborn among the early adopters of those games.

Zork: A game that cost you $100 in 2020 dollars. Is one of the few things you can actually do with the very very expensive computer you bought.

Myst: A game that cost you $80 in 2020 dollars, not to mention the price of the CD-ROM drive you might have bought in order to play it. Is one of many, many things you can actually do with the very expensive computer you own, because by now modems are relatively cheap, piracy is convenient, and even if you live within the lines, there are countless diversions at your local or chain computer shop.

Starborn: A game that cost you $0 in 2020 dollars and which you can play on a netbook which might have cost you less than a full-service dye job at a reputable salon. You are on the Internet, where everything else in the world which has ever been is. Leaving this experience and never looking back is always an option and one you’ll never have to think about again.


Whoof…I specifically remember buying and learning to install my first CD-Rom drive (from a Babbages!) to play Day of the Tentacle with voice, and got the bonuses of Myst, The 7th Guest, and the Deluxe Edition of System Shock.

This was actually true. Zork landed at the exact right time when people had computers without graphic capability and the high word-count was valued when games with plot were mostly scraping the bones of things like Oregon Trail or Wizardry and Ultima. Infocom was the transitional step. I bought all my Infocom games from Waldenbooks in the mall.

1 Like

Moving north you encounter the real notice that you’ve crossed a threshold into a different game with different intentions and a different implied audience, a menacing troll who must be slain with your Elvish sword to pass, a quintessentially gamey and artificial scenario. Originally, this was a kind of verb-x-preposition-y puzzle where you would throw the troll a knife and it would eat it and die, a demonstrative model in violent skin of the basic inventory riddle you faced time and time again in Colossal Cave Adventure (the plant literally crying out for water,) but not actually as much in Zork, though still present. It was redesigned as an even more D&D inspired situation that might use the same syntax but was, instead of gesturing towards what I’ll call for lack of a better word “cleverness,” requiring the most direct, blunt, violent solution.

What is this describing? Was there a version of Dungeon or Zork where the troll would eat the knife/sword?

I think this reviewer has inadvertently sort of blended Colossal Cave and Zork together in their mind. Which makes sense - they both are games where you explore a cave for treasure below a building on the surface level. Zork fixed a lot of what was obtuse and annoying about CC if you can consider it a remake.

When I was reading the review I also had trouble discerning discrete events from Zork and knowing whether the author was correct or not because it’s been so long since I actually played. This would actually be a good “Dis or Dat” question in You Don’t Know Jack: “Choose whether each event happened in Colossal Cave, Zork, or Both!”

Yeah, looks like it’s always been in Zork 1. 20% chance if you throw a weapon, I think.

1 Like

>throw knife at troll
The troll, who is remarkably coordinated, catches the nasty knife and eats it hungrily. Poor troll, he dies from an internal hemorrhage and his carcass disappears in a sinister black fog.
Your sword is no longer glowing.

But this is not in mainframe Zork, so the article has the timeline backwards.

I remember an interview with the Implementors, somewhere long ago, where it was mentioned how they introduced D&D-style random combat into Zork/Dungeon. They said the troll originally had a classic puzzle solution that worked 100% of the time—throw a thing, the troll eats it, throw the knife, the troll eats it and dies—but they scrapped that and replaced it with dice rolls and (behind-the-scenes) stat tracking to be a bit more RPG-like.

Oh, interesting. Either the interviewee was misremembering, or “originally” was in a version of MDL Zork which we don’t have.

The interview in question is http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/infocom/articles/NZT-Zorkhistory.txt .

It says that the change in question was Fall 1977. The earlier Zork source we have is December 1977, so indeed, we don’t have it! My apologies for casting aspersions. :)

The “throw knife at troll” solution was added back in the commercial Zork 1, but with only a 20% chance of success, it’s not really a puzzle solution. Plus you lose the knife! So it’s (now) a “fun” alternate interaction, not an intended way to finish the game.


Hello everybody! Thank you for reading my article. Every time I write on IF, it really has a tremendous response, and I’m very grateful to the community for that.

It also makes me a little nervous that I need to step my game up in the future. I registered mainly to say: @jcompton, you are bang-on. I used bad, specious, cherry-picked data to support my gut intuition. I will add a note about that post-haste, it feels disingenuous to simply remove it.

As for the troll: Zarf found my source for thinking “> throw knife at troll” had been removed outright. I’m no code-diver, but I did check the command myself, got immediately killed for it, and figured it was just a custom death message that acknowledged a little creativity or knowledge of the old solution. This, I feel, kinda underlines my point about randomness muddying the waters of player feedback especially at this crucial early juncture.


I always thought of the troll as essentially a demonstration of the sword’s glowing mechanic – that it glows when enemies are nearby, then fades out again if an enemy disappears. It’s fairly blatant the game wants you to go into combat there, and this also preps for the fact the thief really can eventually be defeated in combat, even if it’s not obvious at an early stage.

Fun article on House of Usher, too. I sort that game as “action-adventure” but I also sort survival horror as a subgenre of action-adventure, so that works for me.

Thank you for the acknowledgment. I’d be more interested in seeing you clarify/expand on the point you’re trying to make than apologize for shoehorning some data, though.

My bigger concern was the way you seemed to blur the very different contexts in which those games were played and how their early adopters would view them as investments/amusements.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs does a nice job setting the stage with our hypothetical Zork I early adopter:

[The Apple II] looks like a product, it looks like something you could buy in a store, and indeed, thousands of Americans run out and buy it. And they have this brand new experience that Americans had never had before, the experience of going out and buying an incredibly expensive piece of machinery, setting it all up correctly, turning it on…and nothing happens.

It just goes:

<<mimics the sound of an Apple II booting up, disk drive whirring, then mimes a cursor blinking>>

Zork I is one of just a relative handful of respites from the endlessly, pointlessly blinking cursor.

So yes, I don’t think you can accurately reach conclusions about a Zork I buyer from a pioneering Starborn player. And yes I agree with you that the completion rate of Zork I is probably fairly low (certainly “fairly low without help”.)

But I feel like you aren’t capturing the context in which sitting down at Zork and being subjected to every abuse, every whim, every “nyah, we’re MIT engineering grads and you’re not” was almost literally the only thing that very expensive computer was good for.

I guess I would like to see you expand on the question: so what? So what if (let’s say) we agree that it’s likely that only one-in-six Zork I buyers finished it subject to whatever list of constraints we set (no hints, within a year of purchase, whatever). What does that mean about the game? About the players? About something else?

My “so what” is that for some players, just participating in the hype surrounding games like Zork and Myst was sufficient. “I am part of the personal computer/multimedia revolution.” Engaging in those games, even if they got hopelessly stuck, was plenty good enough, because they got to feel a part of something new and exciting.

(sidebar, genuine question: is CCA as shorthand for Colossal Cave Adventure something that has been used elsewhere, or are you trying to coin it? When I think of shorthand for That Crowther/Woods/etc. Game With a Lantern, I think of “advent.”)

I changed the channel on the Zork review early. It mostly missed the mark.

I started out with an Altair and CP/M. I signed dozens or receipt/NDAs to purchase TRS-80 hardware and software. Though I played games, my main focus was using computing power to give me an edge in my consulting business. Scripsit, TAPCIS, Wordstar, Visicalc, Lotus, and some tedious Peachtree accounting program. I once had a working spreadsheet for the status of hundreds of compartments on an aircraft carrier. Sublogic’s FS-1 Flight Simulator on cassette tape was my favorite. Unbelieveable!

Games were icing on the cake when I could spare the time. I gave one of my early computers to my younger brother. He wore it out playing games. I think Myst turned out to be his ultimate favorite.

Later, I can remember buying CDs at the big box store with collections of Infocom games.

Game authors stretched hardware capability. They are the true geniuses of programming. Still are! A number of them frequent this forum every day.


It was very different for me. My first experience was with a school friend’s TRS-80 playing Temple of Raaka-tu that we picked up in a Radio Shack after school one day. I was hooked instantly.

I didn’t get my first computer until '83. When I finally got my Vic-20, the first thing I played were the Scott Adams cartridges, starting with Pirate’s Cove, which I really enjoyed. I first discovered Zork on my cousin’s shiny new Mac in '84. I fondly remember playing through the first sections of Zork as a thunderstorm raged outside in the dark and we sat in an alcove in his dad’s comfy home office. Later, after upgrading to a C-64 I started playing the Infocom titles, finishing probably nearly half of Infocom’s repertoire without help or hints. I do remember being stuck on Zork II for what seemed an eternity though.

As much as I was also an eager fan of Myst and other early cd-rom titles there were always tons of other things to do on my trusty Commodore computers, even in those earlier days.

1 Like

Yeah, there’s a bit of a gap between 1980 (when Zork 1 was legitimately a unique technological marvel) and 1984 (when there was a bustling graphical videogame industry, even if the pixels were the size of your thumb).

And yet Zork remained the best-selling Infocom game until Douglas Adams showed up with his already-massively-popular book franchise.

Were people still buying Zork for the puzzles? Because it was the title that got (and stayed) popularly recognizable? To write thief slashfic? (Okay, probably not that.)

Even for those of us who were buying each new Infocom game as it launched, it’s hard to answer this. After all, I only bought Zork 1 once. (Or rather, my dad bought it…) I never would have guessed at the time that it outsold the later titles.

True. I played Raaka-tu in '81. In 1980 I was playing Adventure on my Atari VCS, and one of those old Star Trek games on a TRS-80 at school.

Edit: I’m proud to say I found the secret room in Adventure all by myself before ever hearing of its existence. :grinning:

First, the sidebar: It’s a bit active to say I was “trying to coin” an acronym. I couldn’t call it just Adventure like I’d like because of the Warren Robinett game, but Colossal Cave Adventure was a fistful to write every time, so I just went with my immediate instinct and felt it clear enough for any reader. I knew it was also sometimes called “ADVENT” after its file name, but that’s both longer to type and takes some explaining. Didn’t occur to me I was heretofore marking myself as an outsider. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

Secondly: what does it mean if players don’t finish Zork? Well, I think partial readings of uncompleted games must surely be valid readings too. Those player experiences happened and you can talk intelligibly about them. When it comes to gigantic games or very randomized games, you don’t even really have much choice to exclude incomplete knowledge from the discussion. I don’t remember right now who said it, but they said that the ending to every infinite-content game is “and then I got bored and stopped playing. The End.” People nevertheless still enjoy their time with those games. I hope players who don’t finish Zork still get something out of it.

Whether they did or didn’t, I can’t speak for them, but I do know there’s not one generalized true answer. That’s the blur. If anything, I’m thinking in the future I should do less speculating on how games may have been received by the general public, and if I do, less specifically. In this thread alone, we can read how computer enthusiasts, office workers, and children all had unique, personally-specific relationships to computer games, and there’s certainly more where that came from.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t going to be born for another 15 years. I wasn’t there, I never held the romance and void of a text UI computer prompt. I’m playing and processing these games for the first time as I go along. I try to research history not to speak definitively but so that I’m (hopefully) not violently ripping art from all its context and sense just so I can look down my nose and talk out my ass, but direct attentive apprehension of the times are gonna beat my photocopy of it almost every time. I can certainly improve as a writer when it comes to that contextualization, though, and I appreciate your constructive criticism bringing it to my attention.

1 Like

I was born in 1984, and my dad had me try to play Zork as a kid. I think I never even got into the basement, lol. But I did enjoy my time with the game.