Zork I

by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling

Episode 1 of Zork
Zorkian, Cave crawl

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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful:
A canonical puzzle-fest, January 10, 2008
by Michael Roberts (Seattle, Washington)

Some modern reviewers have said Zork I is dated, and to some extent it is, although not in the usual way that computer games become dated, which is to say technologically. The technology of IF has improved over the years, certainly, but only incrementally; Zork I is, after all, written on basically the same Z-Machine that a lot of authors are still using today. Sure, parsers have gained a few niceties over the years, but the fact is that even the most sophisticated current parser is still an unnatural computer interface that you have to learn to use; Zork's parser is maybe 10% harder to learn than the current standards. Try digging out a video game from last year, let alone one from Zork's era, and see if they hold up as well.

The thing that makes Zork I look dated isn't the technology; it's the genre. Zork is a story-less treasure hunt in a big cave full of wacky incongruities and anachronisms; it's an unapologetic puzzle-fest; it's a slightly unfair, one-sided contest between a smirking author and a frustrated player. This sort of game went of out style years ago (among IF enthusiasts, I mean - the whole of IF went out of style even earlier among the broader gaming population). Some IFers look at it and say, good riddance: this sort of thing went out of style because it was inferior to what IF has evolved into. I tend to disagree; I think this sort of game actually went out of style because it was done to death, in large part by imitators of this very game. Zork I isn't inferior to modern IF; it's just different from modern IF.

The appeal of Zork I is that of a crossword, or of one of those evil little entangled-wire-loop puzzles. And the thing is, Zork has a ton of that kind of appeal. Once you get into the game, it's really good at doling out just enough positive feedback to keep you going, while keeping the challenges numerous and difficult. Maybe you have to have the right personality type, but if you do, it can become an obsession to beat the thing, to get that last lousy point. The game is unfair, but just a little; its designers had a good feel for just how far they could push their luck before players would feel cheated. It's the kind of game you really want to solve on your own, without looking at hints or walkthroughs, because it always feels like the answers are just within reach.

If you're still convinced that modern IF is just objectively superior to the likes of Zork I, here's something to consider. Modern IF dogma ranks immersiveness as one of the great virtues a work can have. Some look at Zork I's sparse room descriptions and irrational map and scoff. But Zork suggests that there's more to immersion than pretty descriptions. For many IFers, Zork I and its ilk have created some of the most intense subjective feelings of immersion they've had from any sort of game, just because they spent so much time walking back and forth and back and forth across the map. The obsessive play, I think, makes up for the thin text, and then some.

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Xervosh, September 8, 2010 (updated September 10, 2010) - Reply
"Modern IF dogma ranks immersiveness as one of the great virtues a work can have...For many IFers, Zork I and its ilk have created some of the most intense subjective feelings of immersion they've had from any sort of game, just because they spent so much time walking back and forth and back and forth across the map."

This is a sound observation. I've not played it since 1985 or so, yet I still have strong visual pictures in my mind of close to half the rooms. Puzzles I've solved in Zork, such as how to enter Hades, and how to find the Pot o' Gold, are some of my most triumphant moments in all of IF. Infocom games have an annoying tendency to be a little too difficult, leading one to getting stuck, but other than for the mazes (which I've never had any patience for), the difficulty level on Zork is perfect. I can't think of any other work of IF that does such a good job with balancing difficulty, so you don't get hopelessly stuck in perpetuity, and yet also get a steady stream of positive feedback (without just breezing through with too little effort). "Anchorhead" comes close.
Xervosh, September 10, 2010 - Reply
I decided to fire up the old Zork I again, after all these years, and see how well I could do (limiting myself to just utilizing the map only for the purposes of the two mazes...and for finding the Rainbow location above ground, as it turns out), and I was doing pretty good, up until the Cyclops room. I don't have the foggiest idea how to deal with the Cyclops...holy shitar! I think I just figured it out as I was typing that! Damn!
Xervosh, September 10, 2010 - Reply
It worked! Glorious!

(Leaving aside the fact the Thief killed me almost immediately thereafter; a mere detail).

So cool to solve a puzzle I'd long since forgotten all about (haven't played Zork I since Constantine Chernenko* was heading up the USSR, after all).

Flood Control Dam #3 gave me more trouble than I expected, too, for that matter, but I figured it out on my second try.

Now to really solve this thing for the first time in 25 years...

*Gorbachev's predecessor, for those who no longer recall ie., most people, I suspect.
Xervosh, September 10, 2010 - Reply
Well, after consulting no walk-thrus, I have managed to accumulate 348 out of 350 points (mainly on memory, but I had to figure some stuff out again). I'm quite sure I've collected all the treasures (there are no treasures worth only two points). So what the Hell?!? clearly, when I played this before, I managed to inadvertently score two extra points, without realizing it. Maybe you get two points for opening the grate? Otherwise I am perplexed beyond all imagining. The game should be solved! I never heard of being two points short in this game!
Xervosh, September 10, 2010 - Reply
Depressingly, in order to solve the game, I finally did have to consult a walk-thru for the final two points. As it turns out, there is a very minor treasure (worth one point when you collect it, and one point when you put it in the trophy case), which I had completely forgotten about. Like the Huge Diamond, it isn't actually located in any particular place when the game starts, ergo, its not displayed on the map. Damn. Still, 348 out of 350, after 25 years, ain't bad.
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