Zork: Genre/Setting

Maybe I’m drawing a blank, but is there a term describing the genre or setting of Zork games? Question arose when looking something up about Zork: Grand Inquisitor but should apply to most Zork games. There’s fantasy elements of course, but there’s also a subway, loudspeakers, and electric alarm systems. Graham Nelson once coined the “lazy medieval” term for “anything prior to the invention of gunpowder” - is there a similar term describing the mixed bag setting the Zork games play in?

I’ve heard “kitchen-sink fantasy” which captures the overall eclecticism, but of course Zork has a pretty specific take on that general idea so there might be a more tailored description out there.


Zork’s setting (I am only talking about the Infocom games) is affected by these conditions:

  • Four authors with different interests
  • The world was assembled organically by grafting the varied parts together

I think it was first a process and second an aesthetic.

Nelson’s discussion of the cave game is excellent, but it doesn’t really address your question.

I’ve heard of “kitchen sink fantasy” too, but I think Zork is its own specific thing. I would call a similar setting “Zorkian.”


You could possibly go with “low fantasy”?

Low fantasy , or intrusion fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy fiction in which magical events intrude on an otherwise-normal world.

High fantasy is set in an alternative , fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the “real” or “primary” world. … By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set on Earth, the primary or real world, or a rational and familiar fictional world with the inclusion of magical elements.

“Kitchen sink fantasy” is a term I’ve never heard before, but a quick Google search shows it might be an okay choice. “Low fantasy” sounds intriguing at first, but with my very basic knowledge of the Zork universe I would have said it’s rather about Flood Control Dam #3 intruding on an otherwise fantasy world.

Anachronism Stew?

“High fantasy” and “low fantasy” are old-fashioned terms – Wikipedia says Lloyd Alexander in 1970, which is the very beginning of the post-Tolkien(*) fantasy genre explosion. The idea at that point was to distinguish between entirely new imagined worlds (Tolkien, etc) and magic erupting in our world (Susan Cooper, except The Dark Is Rising was 1973. I wonder what Alexander’s example was in 1970. Alan Garner I bet.)

(Probably ten minutes later someone pointed out “portal fantasy”, where the only trace of magic in our world is a doorway to an entirely new imagined world.)

“High” and “low” sounds like a judgement, so these days we tend to just say “secondary-world fantasy” and “this-world fantasy”. (“Urban fantasy” tried to usurp the latter term in the 80s and 90s, but that label has obvious problems, starting with the fact that it’s sometimes rural.)

Anyhow, the very beginnings of Zork make a certain effort at hidden-world fantasy, which is another axis entirely. The Great Underground Empire is implied to be a secret kingdom – part of our world but hidden away and isolated. (A grand tradition going back to Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle.) But of course this was only variably consistent, and by the Enchanter trilogy they were inventing an entire magical world.

As to the style, it was playing modern and fantasy tropes against each other for laughs. What ever you want to call that.

Dating of course not from the original publication of Tolkien’s books, but from the first mass-market US edition in 1965.

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It really is as simple as that. Zork began with four smart young people who were, as their primary goal, trying to laugh and have fun.

Would “magical-realism” be a more modern term for what “low fantasy” is nowadays possibly? (IE Pan’s Labyrinth) Though Zork doesn’t necessarily take place on “Earth,” there are recognizable elements of fantasy swords and magical spells and also of contemporary realism like mailboxes and warning labels.

I had always understood Zork as a satire of the fantasy genre - or more precisely satire of the real world via the fantasy genre lens.

Magical realism implies a certain surreal approach. Not all low fantasy is surreal. (The branch that started with Anne Rice, vampire cops and werewolf private eyes and so on, is hardheadedly realistic once you accept the fantasy premise.)

There’s also an argument that Magical Realism is a specific literary movement in Latin America – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel, etc – and shouldn’t be expanded to cover surrealistic fantasy as a general category. I don’t know enough about it to say whether that makes sense.

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There’s also the soft vs hard fantasy axis. I’m not sure how the Zork series would be classified. I think it starts off pretty soft, but maybe gets harder? I haven’t played the Enchanter trilogy yet.

So it comes in at ‘Inverted Creme Brulee’ on that axis.


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I don’t have a good term at hand to describe it, but I always felt Zork rode in with a number of like-minded humorous fantasy offerings of the time, like D&D, Myth Adventures, Bored of the Rings, and so on. These were a dog’s breakfast in terms of internal consistency, and more about using fantasy as a kind of comfort zone to play in.

(Duke Nukem 3D had a similar vibe, although obviously a very different setting and genre.)

Zork also preserved a lot of contemporaneous MIT hacker humor that’s sui generis in the realm of video games, or any other mass-market entertainment I’m familiar with.

I don’t know if you’re going to find a single suitable cubbyhole to slot Zork into. Kitchen-sink fantasy crossed with anachronism stew? Gonzo fantasy?

I wouldn’t use “magical realism.”

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Gonzo fantasy?

Hrhr. :slight_smile: Imho “gonzo fantasy” is a very suitable term to describe The Forces of Krill. “Oh, I found the A of B, I can use it to defeat the C of D and become the new E of F!” - “Generic fantasy” sounds so pejorative, “gonzo fantasy” is much better! :slight_smile:

Oh shit, I have insulted Steve Meretzky…

Thank you Tobias for making me snort out coffee from my nostrils! (I believe the correct transliteration of the sound in Calvin & Hobbes would be something like “CHNORTLLL”)

First time I saw the C&H cartoon with the T-rex in the F14 (I must have been around 15) I laughed until I cried.


Colossal Cave spin-off? That does make it sound like Knott’s Landing or George And Mildred however.