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What We Talk About When We Talk About Zork, January 21, 2013
Looking at the back of the 1984 "grey box" release of Infocom's "Zork I," you, a prospective player, are promised that "during your amazing journey, you'íll come face to face with creatures so outlandish, they defy description. And youíll wander through an underground domain so vast, it can offer you new surprises no matter how many times you explore it." What a thing, all those years ago, to be told. We are also, helpfully, told what Interactive Fiction is: "You can talk to the story, typing in full English sentences. And the story talks right back, communicating entirely in vividly descriptive prose." Earlier (1983) promotional packing for the Commodore 64 focuses more on the technical possibilities of "Zork I," and provides a short matrix of what were most certainly impressive possibilities at the time--a vocabulary of "600+ words," "35-40 hrs." of play time, and a "multiple save feature." Players of available "hi-res" adventures like "The Wizard and the Princess," would find the promised vocabulary an incredible offering. The 1983 packing, in itself, is far more communicative than the 1981 "Barbarian Package" released by Personal Software, which came in a plastic bag and featured a heavily-muscled, bare-legged gentleman swinging a sword at a cowering, tan-skinned humanoid creature. This misleading illustration is accompanied by hardly any text at all save the requirements for operating the software: "For Model III BASIC TRS-80 with 32K and One Disk Drive." What one finds, considering the early history of Infocom's promotional material, is a company learning to explain what it is and what its products are. What on earth was this thing? The term "IF" itself had yet to be coined in 1981.
Enter the contemporary reviewer, who most likely has no such difficulties. Instead, many writers understandably take for granted that a reader will know just what IF is, and focus on whether "Zork 1" is a good game and attempt to answer the question of whether or not, as a piece of IF, it "holds up" in comparison to the works of today. "Holding up" is a problematic thing to measure. Certainly, were one able to visit the Globe Theater of Elizabethian times, one could complain that the actor portraying Ophelia is a man, but complaining thus would reveal a lack of understanding. "Zork 1" lacks the "AGAIN" command and many other modern conveniences, but pointing out said absences, while a helpful heads-up to the prospective player, is a misdirection, unless additionally explaining that "Zork's" publisher later invented these conveniences. One would hardly fault Intel for producing the Pentium II before producing the Pentium III.
Whether the modern player can ENJOY "Zork 1," then, is really a question about the player as opposed to one about "Zork." Can one adequately bring to to the GUE an understanding of IF's history? Can one know and marvel at the difference between, as an example, "Zork 1" and Sierra's "The Wizard and the Princess?" Can one, quite simply, accept "Zork 1" on "Zork 1's" terms? If not, players will probably find more rewarding entertainment elsewhere. If so, then there is much to do and enjoy in "Zork 1." The game world is vast, and many puzzles are quite challenging, affording a real sense of satisfaction when solved. Most of them do, that is. Some seemed, even at the time, unfair, especially when considering the fact that the most-readily available hints were, pre-InvisiClues, available via postal mail. Even guessing at the objective of "Zork 1" is difficult at first. The playfulness of the narrator will either amuse or grate, depending on the player's perspective--at times the narrator seems the primary antagonist.
Easily rendering the game unwinnable? Check. Save and restore combat? O mai oui. Guess the verb? Yes indeed. Inventory management? Certainly. One-dimensional NPC's? Present. "Zork" does not speak contemporary IF, in the same way that John Donne did not write in contemporary English. Donne is not for everyone, and neither is "Zork." Recommending "Zork," again, is a question of what interests a reader of IF. It ultimately has nothing to do with "Zork," which is and always will be "Zork"--the first but not best large example of z-code and all that it promises.
Perhaps a compelling piece of meta-IF could be crafted to simulate the experience of an early-eighties player confronting a game that troubles itself to provide responses to commands that do not advance the story, or includes objects as complex as the jewel-encrusted egg. Barring that, the player will have to bring his or her own sense of history to the piece, which may or may not be sufficient motivation to see beyond its now-dated technical and narrative techniques. Not every fan of "Black Ops" likes "Space Invaders," no matter how great an improvement it is, technically, over "Pong." Those who wish to know the giant upon whose shoulders "Anchorhead" stands will enjoy seeing firstand, or at least appreciate, how far IF has come, though one hardly need love "Zork" to love "Anchorhead." Which type of IF reader are you?
I myself still like "Pong," and occasionally see, depicted in hideous, pale blue text, a brief description of that silly white house and its boarded door. I see it in my dreams, all these years later. Five stars.
Again, from the 1984 packaging: "For the first time, youíre more than a passive reader." Does what it says on the tin.