Logo for Zork I, a computer game by Inform

Enter the Great Underground Empire

Zork and Infocom - A New Kind of Fiction

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Infocom 1980

Released in October 1984, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure becomes an immediate success, selling over a quarter of a million copies. Described by Adams as “inspired” by his book rather than an adaptation of it, the game rides the top of the game charts for months, and is Infocom’s second-best seller, topped only by the company’s Zork.

While faithful to the tone of the books, the game revels in breaking as many of the cardinal rules then established in interactive fiction, including outright lying to the player about available directions to travel in, and even what the player is able to see. In fact, Hitchhiker’s is cruelly obtuse, often requiring players to initiate actions outside of any offered information in the game, and at many times only those with knowledge of events in the books would know what to do. It also appears to be a favourite torture of Adams to let you miss some critical piece of equipment during a scene that would cause the game to dead-end later, with no recourse but to reload a save or replay the game. It also offers long, drawn-out sequences, such as the maddening Babel Fish Puzzle, which gains such notoriety that Infocom itself sells the official I Got the Babel Fish t-shirt. The ultimate goals of the game are unclear, except perhaps to retain your sanity as you play it. Hitchhiker’s is so hard, in fact, that even reviewers in computer game magazines are stumped; Jack Powell and Michael Ciraolo, reviewing the game for Antic magazine in its May 1985 issue, openly admit that they were stuck at a puzzle that delayed publication of their review for a month, and they STILL hadn’t completed the game. At times it seems that Hitchhikers was purposefully created as a ploy by Infocom to sell more of their Invisiclue hint books.

The Hitchhiker’s game is no fluff piece, however, but a fitting entry to Guide lore. Soul-crushingly frustrating, but fitting none-the-less.

 

Puzzle brutalities aside, the game is an interesting extension of the Hitchhiker’s cannon, extending the book metaphor by featuring the literary device of footnotes that offer asides to the action. The actual Hitchhiker’s Guide is an inventory item in the game and features plenty of articles for the player to consult about. The game also takes a philosophical bent, with “no tea” being an inventory item that the player at one point drops after getting some real tea, and is eventually able to carry both tea and no tea at the same time after some synaptic calisthenics. Random events also serve to keep subsequent playthroughs interesting. The game is also strangely obsessed with fluff of all kinds. To the extent that the feelies that accompany the game packaging include a bag of pocket lint, as well as perpetually-darkened Peril Sensitive Sunglasses and a microscopic battle fleet (empty ziplock bag). The Hitchhiker’s game is no fluff-piece, however, but a fitting entry to Guide lore. Soul-crushingly frustrating, but fitting none-the-less.

 

NEXT WINDOW PLEASE

With the resounding success of the Hitchhiker’s game, it’s no wonder that Infocom is anxious for a sequel. The problem is that Adams is tired of producing sequels of his Hitchhiker’s material, and suggests instead Bureaucracy, an original game idea based on his real-life frustrations at trying to get his bank and utility companies to acknowledge a change-of-address after moving apartments in London. Infocom, having signed Adams on the idea that he would be bringing his popular Hitchhiker’s material with him, balks at the idea, but eventually, comes to terms with producing an original work with Adams.

Outside of forming the initial concept, however, Adams begins to let the project be bumped by other commitments, and so he eventually taps long-time friend Michael Bywater to finish the project. In line with the initial concept by Adams, the game has the protagonist jumping through hoops to accomplish the most simple tasks, such as withdrawing money from a bank, purchasing an airline ticket or even just ordering food at a restaurant. The ultimate goal, of course, is to get the bank to recognize a change-of-address card.

It is less the Kafka-esque, paranoid nightmare it wants to be than an annoying, tortuous exercise in tedium..

 

The game starts, in true bureaucratic form, by having the player fill out a “software license application” form for the game, providing humorous comments as you fill in lines such as your last name, name of boy/girlfriend, and whether the player is male or female. The game will then reference you using the opposite of the information provided, such as calling you Mr. if you put your sex down as female. Throughout the game, the blood pressure of the player is shown on the top right of the screen, rising as annoyances occur or when the player enters an invalid command. It is possible to die of an aneurysm if the player lets this rise too high without taking a cooling off period. Following a lead from Hitchhiker’s, the game throws many random events at the player.

Unfortunately, the prose in Bureaucracy is a bit twee, and the humour often comes off as forced. It moves from ridiculous to just plain stupid for convenience sake, offering up the idea of having to give a long, drawn-out food order in a restaurant to the waitstaff multiple times as the height of hilarity. It is less the Kafka-esque, paranoid nightmare it wants to be than an annoying, tortuous exercise in tedium. That might be the ultimate point of Bureaucracy, but does that make it an enjoyable game to play? The public doesn’t think so, as the game sells well under the numbers that Hitchhiker’s did.

Bureaucracy is Adams’ last game for Infocom, although he does continue in the medium, assisting on projects such as LucasArt’s computer game movie tie-in Labyrinth.  Adams eventually forms a digital media company along with Richard Creasey and Robbie Stamp in 1996 called The Digital Village, and from this partnership comes the extravagant CD-ROM adventure game Starship Titanic.  In 2001, at the age of 49, Adams is rudely taken from us after suffering a heart attack.

This passage leads to a dead end.

As for Infocom, the late 80′s usher in faster processors, more advanced graphical capabilities, and more RAM, leading to improved graphics and sound supplanting text as the canvas of adventure game creation. A lot of resources are also poured into a new Business Products division, with a new programming staff and marketing team to support Infocom’s deviation from their comfort zone of sophisticated adventure games and into business software. Two years in the making, the new division produces powerful and streamlined database software Cornerstone, released in 1985. Originally priced at $495, not even an eventual slashing of price down to $99 can persuade the business community to buy volume software from a “games company”. As Cornerstone fails to catch fire, the company finds itself in financial hot water. Announced on February 19, 1986, Infocom is purchased by Atari 2600 pioneers Activision for 7.5 million, paid mostly in company stock options. The announcement also pledges that the two businesses will remain separate and that Infocom will retain its facilities in Cambridge.

 

Over 1987 Infocom grosses $10 million, with over two million units sold of the original trilogy of Zork games alone. That year the company also releases Beyond Zork, created in a little over a year by Brian Moriarty. Infocom’s first step in the evolution of their tex-adventure paradigm, Tasking players to embark on a quest for the magical Coconut of Quendor, Beyond Zork is the company’s first game with a graphical user interface, along with an onscreen map that changes as the players move from room to room. It also explores the realm of the role-playing game by assigning percentage statistics to seven attributes: Endurance, Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Compassion, Luck and Armor Class. Raising these skills to a certain level is required to solve certain puzzles. The player also has a choice of choosing between a male and female character, who is referred to personally throughout the game. Besides the onscreen, updating map, the “enhanced mode” features of the game include mouse support for computers that have one, for clicking on the map to move to adjacent areas. Users can also pin information to a window on the screen, allowing them to constantly keep track of such info as their inventory or the current room description. While the on-screen mapping and extra visual flourishes with the text are designed to make the text adventure easier to play, Infocom purists can revert to the no-nonsense display style of previous games if they prefer. There is also the ability to assign command strings to the function keys of your computer, and even the option to rename characters and objects. To make things even less frustrating while wandering around the Kingdom of Quendor, an undo function is available, even if the last command has resulted in your untimely demise. Be warned, however: if, when you perish, you happen to type out any popular swear words, you’ll take a -1 to your Intelligence rating. The geography and items (and their uses) are randomized from game to game, in order to keep players on their toes and increase the replayability of the adventure.

Beyond Zork is followed up the next year by Zork Zero, designed by Steve Meretzky. Created over the course of 18 months, the game continues the march to integrated graphics with an onscreen map, visual puzzles to play and graphical flourishes around and inside the text prose. In 1993 Activision gives the GUE the full graphical treatment in the rather shaky Return to Zork, featuring all of the multimedia bells and whistles now available through the emerging CD-ROM market. 1996 sees the release of Zork: Nemesis, with the 360 degrees “Z-Vision” graphics engine and an improved user interface. The game does, however, eschew the humour that made the original Zorks great for a more darker tone. Activision gets back on track with Zork: Grand Inquisitor in 1997, where the Zorky humour is back in full force.

Ad for Zork: Grand Inquisitor, a video game by Activision 1997

Ad for Zork: Grand Inquisitor, 1997

 

The Passage Ends Here

Befitting its literary aspirations, the Zork universe is also fleshed out in tree-killer book form, starting with a series of “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” type books, the likes of which influenced Interactive Fiction to start with. Here referred to as “A What-Do-I-Do-Now Book”, they are authored by S. Eric Meretzky, a more fancily titled and aforementioned Steve Meretzky. They are named Zork: The Forces of Krill (1983), Zork: The Malifestro Quest (1983), Zork: The Cavern of Doom (1983), and Zork: Conquest at Quendor (1984). As expected, readers are presented with perilous situations and given a choice of action which results in being directed to a page in the book where the outcome is described. These are followed by full novel tie-ins published by Avon Books between 1988 and 1991. First, comes 1988′s Wishbringer, a novelization of the original Infocom game from 1985, by Craig Shaw Gardner. The novelization of Enchanter, Infocom’s 1983 release, comes from Robin W. Bailey in 1989. Standalone stories The Zork Chronicles (George Alec Effinger, 1990) and The Lost City of Zork (Robin W. Bailey, 1991) continue to flesh out the ever-expanding world of the Great Underground Empire.  logo_stop

 

 

 


Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)



“What’s the Future of Online Gaming?” Next Generation, July 1996, pp. 6–10. 1996 image of Brian Moriarty in front of a server rack
“News.” Computer Gamer, Sept. 1985, pp. 4–4. Image of Douglas Adams holding a towel
Ceccola, Russ. “64 and 128 Software Reviews: Beyond Zork.” Commodore May 1988: 22+. Print. Game implementor Brian Moriarty remarked, “The reason for the interface is to use the full power of the machine as well as to make Beyond Zork easier to play. Moriarty spent exactly one year and three days in readying Beyond Zork for a discrimination world.
Katz, Arnie. “Inside Gaming.” Editorial. Electronic Games Aug. 1983: 84-86. Electronic Games Magazine (August 1983). Internet Archive. Web. 06 Feb. 2016. “The original version [of Zork] had 10 or 12 individual problem situations,” says Blank, “and input was in the traditional verb-noun format since we used a two-word parser.”Adams, Roe R., III. “Exec Infocom” Adventures in Excellence.” Softalk Oct. 1982: 35-40. Softalk V3n02 Oct 1982. Internet Archive, 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Dec. 2015. That’s where Lebling comes in. “I’m in charge of the purple prose; and I did the geographical design of Zork I.” By June 1977, the first version of the mainframe Zork was finished. “So how did I (Blank) write Zork, in Boston, From New York? Easy. I used to drive up every weekend and work with Tim on it.” Berez, at that time, was in the Sloane Management School at MIT earning his business degree. They took the idea to Vezza, who agreed to let Zork be Infocom’s first venture. From the summer of 1979 to the spring of 1980, Blank wrote the compiler and Lebling wrote the assembler or the new language. During this time, Zork for the micro was being developed independent of MIT on rented space on a DEC-2 from Digital Equipment. “We talked to Dan Fylstra from Personal Software about Zork. Tuned out that when Dan had been in business school in Boston, he had played Zork on my computer while doing a thesis. So he knew what Zork was all about.” Personal underwent a corporate metamorphosis into VisiCorp. The new image involved VisiCorp’s dropping all its game lines and concentrating on business programs, so Infocom took back the rights to market the Zork line. “We took our first office last September in the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston. It was only one room…”
The New Zork Times, “Zork Users Group Will Shut Down”, pg. 1, Summer 1983. “…Mike, the founder of the Zork Users Group, is getting his M.B.A. in June and going to work for Infocom in August as product manager for entertainment products.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 22 2015.
Electronic Fun with Computers and Games, “EF’s Gamemakers: Who Dunnit?”, Marc Blank interview by Randi Hacker, pgs. 39-42, 94-97, Oct 1983. “…a language and a system that would enable us to get and incredible amount of compression and what we eventually got was about 10 to one.”. “Then we split the game into two games which became Zork I and II.”.  Retrieved from the Internet Archive, EFWCG collection, Sep 9, 2015.
Mobygames
Image of Zork history book and map from the Infocom Documentation Project, Manuals, Zork I, retrieved Sep 25 2015.
New Zork Times, “InfoNews Roundup: New Packaging”, pg.1, Summer 1984. “We believe that we have created the most innovative package in the industry. Measuring 9″ by 7″ by 1″…” “The package opens like a book…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 23 2015.

Ceccola, Russ. “Adventures at Infocom.” Commodore Jan. 1988: 70+. Print. Adventure appeared on M.I.T.’s ARPAnet in the Library for Computer Science about a decade ago. An imp usually takes four to six months to design a game. The Creative Services department is responsible for putting together the packaging for all Infocom games.Game designer Steve Meretzky followed people for days with these samples in hand urging them to guess what the smells were. An imp designs the game on a mainframe DEC 20 system. Director of Marketing Mike Dornbrook was the comany’s first tester. Steve Meretzky…started out as atesters with the company…
Antic, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” review, by Jack Powell and Michael Ciraolo, pg. 19, May 1985
Image of Marc Blank and Joel Berez together from MicroAdventurer, “Meet the men behind Infocom’s mask”, by Andrew Briggs, pgs. 10-11, Nov 1983
Compute!’s Gazette, “Inside View – Marc Blank”, by Kathy Yakal, pgs. 64 – 66, Vol.1 No.4, Oct 1983
XYZZYnews Home Page
The New Zork Times, “The History of Zork – The Final (?) Chapter: MIT, MDL, ZIL, ZIP” by Stu Galley, pgs. 4-5, Summer 1985. “…they [Joel Berez, Marc Blank] had to work for IOUs, since the company treasury – which started with only $11,500…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 24 2015. 
Time Magazine, “Computers: Putting Fiction on a Floppy”, by Philip Elmer-Dewitt, Monday Dec 5 1983
The Status Line (ne: The New Zork Times), “Infocom Weds Activision”, pg. 1, Spring 1986. “On February 19, 1986, Activision, Inc. announced that Infocom would be purchased by Activision, in a transaction valued at approximately $7.5 million. ” “…the newly merged couple will maintain their separate product development and marketing facilities in Mountain View, CA, and Cambridge, MA.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 24, 2015.
Colour Zork poster by David Ardito, copyright Zork Users Group. Retrieved from /vr/ – Retro Games, “Old School Game Art” by Anonymous, Sept 23 2015.
The New Zork Times, “More InvisiClues”, pg. 1, Fall 1982. “The InvisiClues booklet for Zork I includes over 175 hints (and answers) to over 75 questions…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, The New Zork Times collection, Sep 22 2015.
Schultz, Monte, and Steven Arrants. “Infocom Does It Again…And Again.” Review. Creative Computing Dec. 1983: 120-23. Print. Image of Planetfall packagingImage of Suspended packaging from Computer Fun, “Gnusto Ozmoo” by Randi Hacker, pgs. 30-34, 74, April 1984.
The New Zork Times, “The History of Zork – Second in a Series” by Tim Anderson, pgs. 3-5, Spring 1985. “The last puzzle was added in February of ’79.” “…the last mainframe update was created in January of ’81.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 24 2015.
Byte, “Zork and the Future of Computerized Fantasy Simulations” by P David Lebling, pgs. 172 -182, Dec 1980. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Byte magazine collection
“Infocom Authors – Mike Berlyn.” Infocom Authors – Mike Berlyn. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2016. …which, in 1982, brough Mike’s attention to a job offer from Infocom…New Zork Times, “Don’t Stick This in Your Ear”, pg. 1, Sprint 1985. “Now there’s a safer, more socially acceptable way to show your excitement about Hitchhiker’s, with an official Infocom “I GOT THE BABEL FISH” t-shirt.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 24 2015.
“Hotline: Consumer Beat.” Electronic Games July 1984: 14. Electronic Games – Volume 02 Number 13 (1984-07)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 09 Feb. 2016. Image of The Witness InvisiClues bookletComputer Gaming World, “Hobby & Industry News”, pg. 4, Oct 1983
Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe
Image of Mike Dombrook, and other information from Electronic Games, “The Challenge of Zork” by Tracie Forman, pgs. 54-57, Mar 1984. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection.
Adams, Roe R., III. “The Infinitely Improbable Doug Adams.” Electronic Games Apr. 1985: 22+. Electronic Games – Volume 03 Number 04 (1985-04)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. In fact, Douglas’ first introduction to Infocom was through playing Suspended, one of the company’s most mind-boggling games. (Yes, he solved it.) It occurred to him that here was a company with minds as devious and eccentric as his own.; Another creative locale was Huntsham Court, a hotel in the village of Huntsham, near Tiverton, Devon. Adams wrote So Long and Thanks for all the Fish there, and a lot of the electronic version of Hitchhiker’s as well.; Image of Douglas Adams with his thumb out.The New Zork Times, “Meet the Zork Users Group”, pg. 3, Summer 1983. “Mike started the Zork Users Group in October of 1981. He had been working at the MIT Lab for Computer Science and part-time for Infocom as the game-tester (their first paid employee).” “In September 1981, Mike left Cambridge to attend the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 22 2015.
The Interactive Fiction Archive
The New Zork Times, “A Zork by Any Other Name”, pg. 3, Winter 1984. “Blank chose Zork, a nonsense word commonly used at the MIT Lab for Computer Science as an all-purpose interjection” “…the original Zork had well over 200 rooms, a vocabulary of nearly 1000 words…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 23 2015.
Infocom
Image of Infocom booth at 1985 COMDEX from the New Zork Times, “InfoNews Roundup”, pg. 9, Winter 1985. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 24 2015. 
Box shot Return to Zork (Box shot – Front) | Abandonia – www.abandonia.com/en/boxshot/24295
Faye’s Shrine of Zork
Creative Computing, “How to Fit a Large Program Into a Small Machine” by Marc S. Blank and S.W. Galley, pgs. 80-87, Jul 1980. “The stripped-down version of MDL that resulted was named Zork Implementation Language (ZIL).” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Sep 30 2015.
Scott, Jason. Image of Michael Berlyn, circa 2006. Digital image. Get Lamp. Jason Scott, 25 Feb. 2006. Web. 31 Aug. 2016. <http://www.getlamp.com/>.Black & white image of Meretzky and Adams together, as well as other information from the New Zork Times, “The History of Zork – First in a Series” by Tim Anderson, pgs. 7, 11, Winter 1985. “In early 1977, Adventure swept the ARPAnet.” “When Adventure arrived at MIT, the reaction was typical: after everybody spent a lot of time doing noting but solving the game…” “By late May, Adventure had been solved…” Marc and I, who were both in the habit of hacking all night, took advantage of this to write a prototype four-room game. It has long since vanished. There was a band, a bandbox, a peanut room (that band was outside the door, playing ‘Hail to the Chief’, and a ‘chamber filled with deadlines’” “‘Zork’ was a nonsense word floating around…” “We tended to name our programs with the word ‘zork’ until they were ready to be installed on the system.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, NZT collection, Sep 23 2015.
“Microsoft’s New Consumer Division.” Intelligent Machines Journal 19 Dec. 1979: 7. Print. Microsoft Consumer Products’ initial offereing includes…Adventure for the TRS-80 and Apple II…

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