The Joys of Zork

I recently joined the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) in our area to find out more about what is happening in the computer gaming world these days, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear folks talking nostalgically about old-school computer games such as Ultima, Wizardry, Zelda, and yes, Zork.

I remember buying Zork for our brand-spanking-new Apple II+ computer back in 1980, and my brother and I were promptly hooked.  No beautifully-rendered 3D graphics, no fully-orchestrated soundtrack, not even movable Pong paddles, just plain, all-caps text and a steadily blinking cursor beneath:

WEST OF HOUSE

YOU ARE IN AN OPEN FIELD, WEST OF A WHITE HOUSE WITH A BOARDED FRONT DOOR. THERE IS A SMALL MAILBOX HERE.

The way you interacted with the game was more like trial-and-error than anything else, but the player could navigate through the locations by typing in a direction, n – north, s – south, e – east, or w – west, and then for more complex navigation, ne – northeast, u – up, d- down.  Each time you typed in that direction, an updated description would display, so if you typed e – east, you’d get an updated description of that white house.  With the mailbox, could try typing in “OPEN MAILBOX,” and see what happened.  If you guessed right, you were rewarded with a lovely description of what was inside – “INSIDE THE MAILBOX, YOU SEE A LEAFLET.”  Of course “read leaflet” produced a welcome message to the game: “WELCOME TO ZORK!   ZORK IS A GAME OF ADVENTURE, DANGER, AND LOW CUNNING. ..”

Things progressed on from there, with the player being able to pick up, manipulate and keep items as he ventured through the descriptive scenes.  The rooms became more complex, the puzzles trickier.  This is what is called today interactive fiction, and, though it is now masked by high-end graphics it is still a model used in today’s modern games.   But now all those descriptive bits of text are supplemented and often completely replaced, by characters and landscapes rendered by highly-skilled artists, voice actors and animators.

Those who believe games have progressed mightily since the days of Zork would be absolutely right.  With today’s graphic cards, even the most amazing scenes from a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie can be rendered in game-time.  Skyrim is almost like playing a movie at times, immersing the user in the middle of the action so fully that you actually feel like you are fighting a dragon.

But game developers would be fools to discount the deceptive simplicity of Zork.  In fact, one of the reasons we remember these low-end games so fondly is that the first developers did so much with so little.  However, the foremost reason we love Zork is the same reason we love reading – a passage of text asks us to use our imagination to render the scene.  While many will say that the movie version of Lord of the Rings did a nice job of adapting the books, far fewer would say that the movie perfectly captured the scenes we created as we read.

Zork took reading to a place it hadn’t been before.  Unlike the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you could pick one of 3 or 4 choices and follow the book to its next section, Zork allowed you to pick up and manipulate objects, and then use them to unlock other parts of the story.  Figuring out that the key you found in the chest could be used in the lock of the secret door you found in the next room allowed you to access the passage (and hidden rooms) beyond it.  So instead of being led through a canned storyline with limited options, you were actually participating in the story – making things happen.  For a simple text game, this was a huge breakthrough; the player of the game was being asked to figure out these puzzles along the way.

A small aside here: a free, downloadable program called Inform is available today, which allows you to create your own interactive stories.  It’s even being used in the classroom to teach students literacy and develop problem-solving skills.

Fast forward to 1991 and the game Myst.   In many ways, Myst is the zen-like counterpart of Zork.  Instead of pure text, Myst was pure audio-visual, released at a time when personal computer power was growing exponentially.  The player is literally dropped into an alien world with little explanation, and travels about that world figuring out where he is and how to get back home.  Like Zork, Myst asked the player to figure out objects and devices in the game to unlock the story, but unlike Zork, those objects were rendered only with audio and video – no text at all to explain things.  You simply clicked on a device, saw how it reacted visually and listened for audio clues.  No time pressure at all to solve the mystery, and no monsters attacking you if you failed, but if you wanted to advance to the next part of the story, you had to figure out the purpose of a device.  These alien devices always seemed familiar, but were different enough from any modern-day device that it took trial and error to understand how they operated – solving these puzzles required a nice mix of left- and right-brain thinking.

Both Zork and Myst are unlike the modern day “first-person-shooter,” and even many multiplayer RPG games, in that players are not mashing a joystick or keyboard to kill the bad guys before they kill you.  There is no time pressure at all – you are left to solve the mystery in your own time and leisure.  But the story of these games was compelling enough to keep you playing.  What is behind that secret door?  What does this strange device do?  Why was it created?  And the player was asked to use her noggin to get those answers.

Both Zork and Myst get categorized as “puzzle games” by today’s gamers, and there are those who actively hate this type of gaming – my guess is that those who prefer action shooters are not terribly attracted to mystery or story games.  And for the impatient, there’s also the lure of the internet, where the answer to every puzzle is often posted in step-by-step detail.

I would argue that games have shifted strongly toward the action-based, lead-the-player-by-the-nose style of gaming, with story firmly relegated to background dressing.  “Stories and puzzles are the sidelines for the folks who like that sort of stuff.”  Many players admit they rarely read the quest text in World of Warcraft; they simply accept the quest, follow the pointers to the location on the map where they have to kill the bad buy, then return to hand in the quest – never even knowing the reason why they did it.  This is a shame.

When we first played those early games, the sheer joy of the game was solving the central plotline mystery.  Of course, this was pre-internet, when you did not have the luxury of simply looking up the solution, but even if it were to exist at that time, the real fun in the game was solving those mysteries yourselves, taking lots of notes, and poring over the clues.  It was also the way we liked to create our tabletop games, and the best adventures were the ones that had a nice mix of puzzle solving and action.  There’s some current games that are bringing back the storyline to these games – Bioware does a nice job with their games (Neverwinter Nights, DragonAge, Mass Effect), and Bethesda with their Oblivion series.  But I’m looking for a bit more from all the modern games I am seeing, and I hope these newer designers, as they bring us the next generation of these games, look to the simplicity of a game like Zork for part of the answer.

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One thought on “The Joys of Zork

  1. gretch05 says:

    That’s also the difference between a New York Times crossword puzzle and all others.

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