Man Week: Zork – The original beardpullingly hard game

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Before the J-RPG’s, before the massive expanses of Ultima, before the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, there was one game that made nerds all over the world pull their beards in frustration. The year was 1977 and computer games hadn’t really reached the homes yet. A small group of nerds over at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) were messing around with a DEC PDP-10 and thought of an idea. What if they used this awesome machine to entertain people? They immediately started typing away their MDL-code and spent every moment of spare time doing so. Two years later, they had a game made entirely of text, but with a vast world, rich in characters and an immersive story.

So goes the tale of the birth of Zork, a name originally given at MIT for programs that weren’t finished yet, but due to it’s original name, Dungeon, being too similar to Dungeons & Dragons (that was released in 1974), they decided to keep the “work name” of the game.

Zork, unlike many other fantasy games, takes place now, whenever now may be. This helps the player to get immersed in the game, as it feels like a natural transition.From here, your actions take you inside a cellar, that in turn leads you to an underground dungeon, the ruins of an ancient place, where adventures awaits you. There are riches to be found, monsters to slay and if you survive, there are many stories to tell your future grandchildren about.

You sit down in front of your computer and read this novel of text coming up on your screen, are asked to decide what you want to do, but it’s not a multiple choice game, it is a free choice game. You type in what you want to try and do, and the game is programmed to respond as good as it can to what you type, making you control the main character in a way most games before and since won’t let you. You are part of the story-writer as you type your response to the environment in a natural way and the game interprets your actions.

For example, you start with the following:

You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded
front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

From here it’s up to you to take action, you get no other prompts until you do something. A natural response would be “I open the mailbox” and the game continues from there.

Zork has a cult following, for many reasons. It is the first game of its kind and it is to this day one of the most advanced games out there. In it’s simplicity, using only texts to describe the world and text to control, it still have very advanced features.  The game was hacked during early development and the code was spread and remade in several languages for several systems. This event has made the game a central piece of hacker history and hackers would often use Zork references in their code.

The game is also popular amongst computer mathematicians, as it is the earliest reference to the number 69105. The number might not seem so special, but from a computer mathematicians perspective it holds a very special property: 69 in decimal (Base10) is 105 in octal (Base8) and 69 in hexadecimal (Base16) is 105 in decimal. There are other numbers that hold these properties too, but 69,105 is the highest. The number appears early in the game, when the player encounter a pile of leaves. If the player decides to count the leaves, there are 69 105 leaves in the pile. This later became an in-joke in many of Infocoms other games, often revealed in the same way, by counting a pile of something.

Because the game is entirely made of text, it might be hard to navigate, even if you try to draw a map of it. It was calculated that a map of the whole world would take up at over 100 A4 paper sheets. This, along with mazes with moving walls, crumbling passageways and near-unbeatable foes makes this game frustratingly hard. You really feel the mortality when you know that the next step you take can lead to your undoing in any of many gruesome ways.

If you are brave enough, the game can nowadays be played directly in your browser. There are many adaptations out there, for example this site, that was one of the first PHP adaptations of the game. To really make the game hard, even in todays age of information, many versions of the game contains slight differences, making it near impossible to beat if you’re using a walkthrough. There are at least as many versions of the game as there are versions of the walkthroughs, so unless you know exactly which version the walkthrough is for, the only thing it could help you with is to serve as a novel if you can’t be bothered to play the game. However, if you do beat the game on your own, you truly deserve the title of Dungeon Master, as will be bestowed upon you upon exiting the ancient kingdom with riches and your life intact.

2 thoughts on “Man Week: Zork – The original beardpullingly hard game

  1. Many other games followed in this stead. Games like “Battletoads” in the 1080’s gained a cult following for ‘the water section’. Now we only have “Dark/Demon Souls”

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