Zork: The Great Underground Empire

zork(This is part of my journey playing through Zork.  You can follow the entire series on the Nostalgia Lanes page.)

So the poll for Bio Break’s next classic game safari wrapped up with… a tie.  Both Zork and Beyond Good & Evil netted the same amount of votes, leaving me to be the tie-breaker.  While I am looking forward to revisiting BG&E at some point, I’m going to go with Zork for a few reasons: I’ve never played it, it’s a classic, and it was one of the granddaddies of the adventure genre.

Yes, it’s true, I never played Zork.  I honestly wasn’t that aware of it as a game until much later.  However, I was the owner of some of the Zork choose-your-own-adventure books and read them a lot in my childhood.  So that’s where I’m coming from in this series: I never played the game but I am somewhat aware of the setting thanks to the books.

Before King’s Quest and its successors took the realm of adventure gaming into colorful graphics, adventure titles were solely text.  Infocom specialized in these during the 80s, including the Zork series, Planetfall, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  But Zork, the studio’s first “interactive fiction,” has a special place in video game history.

So here’s the deal: Since I’ve never played Zork, I’m aiming to experience it like someone would have back in the 80s.  I’m not using a walkthrough, but I am using a notebook to map out the game.  We’ll see how far I can get in two weeks, eh?  If you want to play along with me, there’s an online version that’s free.

* * * * *

libraryI’m starting my adventure not with the game itself, but by reading the manual.  Man, they used to know how to write really cool game manuals back in the day.  Considering that you didn’t have the internet to consult, manuals were often your greatest source of clues and background information on the game world.

The Zork manual opens with a pretty hilarious (and revealing) testimonial page, then dives into the fictional history of the world.  I really like the fake library card with stamps that prefaces the deal.

The history is pretty amusing, particularly the discussion questions at the end of every chapter (“Would you have left a job as a rope salesman to become King of Quendor? List the pros and cons.”).  It tells the tale of a power-mad king who discovered a large system of underground caverns and decided to build an empire there. (“What would it be like to live underground? If there are any caves near your home, spend a week underground to see what it’s like.”)  It also mentions the start of the Frobozz company, which becomes this cheeky conglomerate that runs through the series.

One of the king’s descendents dubbed the Great Underground Empire (GUE) and authorized truly unnecessary projects that far outspent the empire’s resources.  (“Try to collect 10 zorkmids from everyone on your block, telling them that the money will be used to erect a giant statue of yourself. Use force if necessary. See if the others on your block begin to resent you.”)  This, of course, led to the fall of the empire.

OK, one more quote because I can’t stop laughing at these: “Collect several horses for yourself and your classmates. Ride through the center of your town, pillaging stores, burning homes and slaughtering young children and old women. Afterwards, ask people around town what it was like to live in a lawless state.”

Man, if only our textbooks would’ve been this interesting!

The rest of the manual covers the ins and outs of Zork’s game mechanics.  Most of it is common sense, especially if you’ve played a game since 1980, but I imagine that it could’ve been overwhelming to some at the time.  I did appreciate the refresher, especially regarding how Zork processes input commands and some of the specific commands (like “diagnose” to have the computer give you an update on your condition).

I guess the only thing that’s left is… to start playing!

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5 thoughts on “Zork: The Great Underground Empire

  1. Yay ,Zork!

    I actually bought that game at the college bookstore back when I was a freshman. It was the Apple II version, but the box looked pretty much the same. Now to see how you fare.

  2. Pingback: Writing Interactive Stories | doug --- off the record

  3. Zork, yes! Good on you for reading the manual. You’ll be ready should Halliday’s Egg from Ready Player One every become a reality.

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