The Zork white house in Return to Zork

From text to textures. The iconic white house, in Return to Zork 1993

Zork and Infocom - A New Kind of Fiction

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Infocom 1980

It is pitch dark.  You are likely to be eaten by a Grue.

Two hopeless devotees to Crowther and Wood’s computer text game Adventure are Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, part of the Dynamic Modelling Group at MIT. Lebling has already created his own games on the school’s PDP-10 computer, including a take on the venerable Spacewar! by Steve Russell, as well as Maze, a graphical game where two players move around a maze shooting each other. In order to assist with his obsession with paper-and-dice game Dungeons & Dragons, he writes a D&D assistance program to automate bookkeeping for the game. He also collaborates with Blank and another programmer, Tim Anderson, to create a trivia game that users can contribute to and holds a database of over 1000 questions.

Click button to play a version of the original Colossal Cave Adventure, on MS-DOS

Adventure arrives on MIT’s computer in the Library for Computer Science in early 1977 via the Arpanet, a precursor to the modern Internet. Productivity grinds to a halt as the entire MIT computer community sucks up all the time on the PDP-10s playing it. By May, Adventure has been solved, and Lebling and company feel the need to pursue a more difficult challenge: create an even better adventure game. On the PDP-10 they program a two-word text parser system comparable to the one in Adventure in MDL (Muddle) code, a LISP inspired computer language developed at MIT that counts Christopher Reeve as one of the primary developers, who ends up as vice-president of software of the company later set up around their efforts. They then write a four-room game around the parser system, containing around 10-12 problems to solve. This primordial Zork contains a band, a bandstand, and perhaps as a nod to the election of Jimmy Carter as U.S. President, a peanut room (where outside, the band plays Hail to the Chief), as well as a “chamber full of deadlines”.

This first preliminary experiment is ultimately discarded. With Blank finished with his undergraduate studies and off to medical school at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Lebling, Anderson and fellow student Bruce Daniels soon begin work on a more serious attempt. Blank drives up from New York to Boston every weekend to help work on the project. Lebling devises the geographical lay of the land, both upper and lower, as well as composes the expansive descriptions of the locations. More intricate problems to be solved are also sussed out, utilizing a programming technique from MIT’s artificial-intelligence lab that is eventually labeled the Interlogic system, which allows users to input complex sentences as commands, including the use of prepositions and adjectives which allow users to get very specific with their actions. This is opposed to the standard two-word verb-noun parsers found in games like Adventure. Unable to think up a suitable title for the new project, Blank dubs it Zork, a nonsense word used around the Computer Science lab at MIT as a handy (and swear-free) expletive, as well as a placeholder title used for works-in-progress. It is intended that Zork be given a more meaningful title later, although eventually, the name sticks. This borrowing of hacker terms also results in the naming of a large landmass in the Zork games, Frobozz… as in the Wizard of Frobozz, a character that features in the sequel Zork II. The hacker root of the term is “frob”: a small item or thingamabob. When the group finish their first pass at the program in June of 1977, they have a working game about half the size of what eventually becomes Zork I, but in place are most of the trappings of the soon-to-become-legend Great Underground Empire, including the dreaded Grue, a dark-dwelling creature who’s name is borrowed by Lebling from a monster found in the fantasy works of Jack Vance.

Infocom staff, 1982. Back row, L to R: Chris Reeve, J.C.R. Licklider, Gabrielle Accord, president Joel Berez, Scott Cutler, Michael Berlyn. Front row, L to R: Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Steve Meretsky.

Infocom, 1982 – The most awkward staff photo? Back row, L to R: Chris Reeve, J.C.R. Licklider, Gabrielle Accord, president Joel Berez, Scott Cutler, Michael Berlyn. Front row, L to R: Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky.

The game also allows for containers to hold things, NPC characters or “actors” who can wander about and pursue their own agenda, multiple solutions to certain problems and also allows for the passage of time and the triggering of timed events. Sitting on MIT’s PDP-10, Zork (briefly renamed Dungeon before it’s made apparent this conflicts with the 1975 board game Dungeon! by TSR) undergoes a burst of popularity at the school. Hundreds of users become fixated on the game, as well as “net randoms” who log in from outside across the Arpanet. The developers use the many suggestions that pour in for improvements and puzzle additions to the game. Even a multiplayer version of Zork is toyed with, although nothing comes of it. With over 200 rooms to explore and a vocabulary of almost 1000 words, the final puzzle is added to Zork in February of 1979. Around the same time, Dynamic Modelling System lab director Al Vezza, hoping to monetize some of the technology being developed there, creates a company called Infocom, initially operating out of a post-office box in the MIT-adjacent Kendall Square section of Cambridge, Mass.. Also helping form this new venture is Chris Reeve and Stu Galley. They all  start off by kicking in a grand total of $11,500 to the company coffers. Realizing the marketability of Zork, Blank and fellow former Dynamic Modelling System denizen Joel Berez, then earning a business degree at MIT’s Sloan Management School, bring Zork to Vezza, and it becomes the company’s first product. As the game hits the one-megabyte size wall in the MDL language, the final mainframe update is made in January 1981.

You see a market here.

Meanwhile, the microcomputer is born. As systems like Tandy’s TRS-80 and the Apple II begin to catch on with the public, the Zork team sees a way that their new company could actually start selling something. Finding the medical profession not to his taste, between the summer of 1979 to spring of 1980, Blank and Lebling work on an ingenious system to move Zork from mainframe to home computer by creating a special language that would run on an emulator, able to operate in any computer environment. The Z-Machine is invented as a non-existent processor that will run the new, compressed Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), a stripped-down version of MDL, which is a machine-independent programming language. Each PC will run its own Z-Machine Interpreter Program (ZIP) to interpret the Z-Machine instructions and run the games. Development is done outside of MIT on a DEC-20, rented from Digital Corporation. The system also allows for ten to one compression of the game data. Even so, Zork is still way too large to fit into the minuscule 100K or so storage of most personal computer floppy discs, so it is split into two separate programs: The Great Underground Empire, Part I and The Great Underground Empire, Part II. A little bit of the legacy program also ends up in Zork III, although that game is mostly newly developed problems and locations. At 70K each, the split-up game data nicely fits on the floppy disks of the early personal computers, with a few extra problems thrown in to round out each package.

You find a Zork.

Snap of the Commodore 64 version of Zork I, a computer text adventure game by Infocom 1982

Zork I on the Commodore 64

In 1979, after extensive refinements and bug testing, and sporting a 600-word parser vocabulary, Zork I is deemed finished. Despite all the effort to squeeze Zork into the confines of the burgeoning personal computer market, Infocom makes its first sale of Zork I with its version for the PDP-11. This platform is hardly a growing concern, however, so Infocom starts to shop the micro-computer version around for a distributor. One possibility floated is Microsoft, but upon contacting them Joel Berez learns that they are already selling a version of Adventure, for the TRS-80 and Apple II, via their Consumer Products division. Infocom then finds someone in the neighbourhood: Personal Software Inc., aka Visicorp (makers of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for PCs), of Cambridge, Mass. A pioneering company in the publishing of software developed by others, Zork wasn’t the first piece of entertainment software from Personal Software; The Electric Paintbrush (author Ken Anderson), Bridge Challenger (author George Duisman), Time Trek (author Brad Templeton) and perhaps most notably Microchess, by Peter Jennings, are also put out by Personal Software. Company co-founder Dan Fylstra is already familiar with Zork, having previously played it on a computer while studying at the Harvard Business School. Reaching an agreement with PS in June of 1980, Blank and crew cash their first royalty cheque as Zork for the TRS-80 Model I hits the streets in time for Christmas. In 1980, working for Apple, Bruce Daniels creates a ZIP for the game for the Apple II. Under the Personal Software label, 6000 copies of Zork sell for the Apple II in eight months, and a total of 10,000 overall. Including later re-issues of of the original Zork, Infocom’s flagship product ends up as the top selling recreational software of the time, selling over a million copies worldwide for a wide variety of computer platforms, and undergoes at least 75 version revisions as the company strives to continually correct errors found by players.

Click button to play Zork I: The Great Underground Empire on the Apple II

Early logo for Infocom, a computer text adventure maker

Early logo design for Infocom, undated

Logo prototype for Infocom, maker of computer text adventures

Prototype Infocom logo, undated

Logo prototype for Infocom, maker of computer text adventures

Prototype Infocom logo, undated

Logo prototype for Infocom, maker of computer text adventures

Prototype Infocom logo, undated

Logo for Infocom, makers of home computer text adventures, circa 1982

Infocom logo, final design

While considering the release of Part II of Zork, the Infocom group becomes unhappy about PS’s lackluster support for Zork I, and soon learn that Personal Software is planning to drop their entertainment software line while transforming into a new company called VisiCorp. Infocom thusly acquires the rights back for their game and decides to wade into the daunting waters of software game publishing, finding time-shared factory space and an HQ at 6 Faneuil Hall Marketplace: a one-room 8×10 office in the Boston area. Bankrolling the venture is money from the founders, as well as bank loans they themselves guarantee. Bringing on marketing manager Mort Rosenthal, with Joel Berez installed as Infocom president and Al Vezza as CEO, they hang up their shingle and make their debuts as software publishers with Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz in 1981. The Zork trilogy is concluded with Zork III: The Dungeon Master produced over the course of a year and released in 1982. This is also the same year that published author Michael Berlyn joins Infocom as a game designer or Implementer (IMP). Creating the diabolically difficult Suspended (1983), as well as co-authoring Infidel and Cutthroats with Jerry Wolper, Berlyn would leave the company in 1986 and, among other things, create the Bubsy games for Accolade.

Click button to play Zork III: The Dungeon Master on the good old Commodore 64

There are ten games based in the Zork world eventually produced in total, and Infocom goes on to become one of the biggest computer game companies in the industry, making over 35 games for over 23 different computer platforms. To give a stark example of the impact Infocom will have on the games market, consider the sales chart for the week of November 19, 1984 from Softsel, an international distributor of computer products. On this influential “Hotlist’, one single company has produced a full third of the 30 games listed under the top recreation products: Infocom. By the holiday season of 1985, the original Zork I has spent an astounding 169 weeks on the Softsel Top 20.

Zork map

A complete map for Zork I, from the pages of Atari User magazine. Click to see whole map

Let me draw a large breath and list the various computers they support, due to the clever Z-Machine interpreter system: Apple II, C64, Atari 8-bit line, DEC Rainbow, DECmate, DEC RT-11, HP 150, HP 110, NEC PC-8000 and APC, IBM-PC, PCjr., KAYPRO II, CP/M compatibles, TI Professional, TI 99/4A, Tandy 2000, TRS-80 CoCo, TRS-80 Models I and II and even a version for the “luggable” portable Osborne I. Another computer model that runs the games is the Apple III… on which Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, obsessively plays Infocom games. In an interview in People magazine, Ride claims that “Zork is going to drive me to my knees.” In order to produce all this addictive content, a game implementer or imp will usually take from four to six months to create a game, programming it on a DEC 20 computer that is affectionately referred to around the office as ‘Fred’. The development process starts out similarly to the initial creation of a movie screenplay: a treatment is written up, although larger than that of the typical film; usually 10-20 pages of plot, events and characters. One aspect of computer adventure gaming that the IMPS at Infocom obsess on is the world that the player will inhabit in any particular game, and that available puzzles, actions and characters within that world consistently behave and adhere to the corresponding  internal rules for that world. The design process is a fairly communal effort at Infocom, with treatments passed around in regular brainstorming sessions to keep things fresh and inject new ideas. As can be imagined with a company that produces fairly complicated text adventure games, testing and quality assurance is a lengthy and arduous process, with a game going through three testing phases: alpha, beta, and finally gamma or a releasable state.

You Feel a Package.

Infocom also attempts some innovation with their packaging, such as the plastic UFO-shaped container for Lebling’s1982 game Starcross, and a large box with a featureless plastic face mask staring out at the customer for Suspended. This game packaging is conceived by the Creative Services department inside Infocom, and designed by external communications services company Giardini/Russell, of Watertown, Mass. They are the ones responsible for many aspects of Infocom’s design motif, including the stony Zork games title font, the copy found in Infocom’s striking advertisements, and what are termed “feelies”. These are tokens, forms, pamphlets and other items included with the games, that serve two purposes: to give players some additional colour to the narrative while playing, and since they often contain critical information on playing serve as a kind of physical copy protection. Infocom pushes this aspect of the included documentation by having the information printed on oddly-coloured paper and folded in strange ways to thwart photocopying.

Programmers at computer game company Infocom, hiding behind Suspended masks

Some top Infocom programmers frozen in time behind packaging for Infocom game Suspended, 1984

Computer game company Infocom programmers: Stu Galley, Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky and Michael Berlyn

The programmers unmasked! L-R Stu Galley, Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky and Michael Berlyn, 1984

The company eventually standardizes its outer packaging, mostly due to pressure from retailers who want the company’s products to sit nicely on their shelves. Starting with Cutthroats in 1984, Infocom games are presented in 9″x7″x1″ thin boxes that open like books, to further the idea of interactive fiction. Gamers needn’t worry though: the “feelies” that so enhance the gameplay experience are still present inside. Steve Meretzky’s 1986 adult-leaning SF comedy game Leather Goddesses of Phobos goes so far as to win the award for Best Game Packaging, given to it by the Software Publishers Association. This “adult” interactive adventure starts off as just the provocative title: Meretzky sneaks into a room before an Infocom beer and pizza party and writes the title down on the whiteboard as a joke, inserting it into a list of games that the company has already produced. It becomes a kind of meme with his fellow Infocom IMPs, who when presented with the oft-asked question “So, what are you working on next?”, lacking a more concrete response would simply answer “Leather Goddesses of Phobos!”. When Meretzky finally follows through on his threat to actually make the game, it features ‘Tame’, “Suggestive’ and ‘Lewd’ modes, equating to G, PG and R movie ratings, each selectable in the game by users. Included in the award-winning packaging is a ‘Scratch ‘N Sniff’ card, containing six distinctive scratch areas to which users would be prompted to activate and smell at various points during the game. During development, Meretzky himself would run around Infocom with the samples, pestering employees to guess what the smells were. There is a point and click graphical adventure sequel to the game released by Infocom/Activision in 1992, and forget filling your nose, there is no scratch ‘n sniff. However, the title for it is quite a load for your mouth – Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X! You’ve really got to think that Infocom was making a comment on the elongated subtitles to Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry games with that one.

Click button to play the completely inappropriate Leather Goddesses of Phobos, IBM-PC version

Infocom ad for its computer games, 1986

Infocom stinks up the place: Leather Goddesses and other games of 1986

Feelies for Infocom text adventure Suspended

The ‘feelies’ of Suspended, by Micheal Berlyn. Electrodes not included, 1983

You find a clue.

Supporting the growing legion of Zork fans with maps and a 1-800 hint line is the Zork User’s Group, created by Mike Dornbrook in October of 1981. As Infocom’s first paid employee, he had helped his former M.I.T. roomies with play testing Zork at an exorbitant rate of $6/hr while it resided on that institution’s mainframe. Brought in without any previous knowledge at all on computer games to lend a fresh perspective, Dornbrook initially withheld his deepening love of Infocom games from his employers, for fear they would stop paying him to play them. While heading ZUG, initially not officially affiliated with Infocom, Dornbrook is also the editor of The New Zork Times, a newsletter started in  mid-1982 and sent out to gamers on Infocom’s mailing list. Upon a not-so-friendly notice from the lawyers from The New York Times, this publication’s name is eventually changed to The Status Line.

Zork User's Group map of Zork I, a computer adventure game by Infocom

ZUG map of Zork I

ZUG becomes the organization that Infocom refers to when it comes to hints for Zork, and as such Dornbrook is rapidly overcome by phone calls and letters from harried Zork gamers, stuck on one part of the games or another. To alleviate this, he develops the InvisiClues hint books for the Zork trilogy in April of 1982. These offer scaled hints to problems in the game, from vague suggestions to outright answers, written in invisible ink that users can reveal in order of specificity with a special pen packaged with each book. Conceiving of the idea, Dornbrook then calls around the country trying to find a publisher that can print invisible ink… until he comes around full circle to the place of his first inquiries, printing and office supply company A. B. Dick. Re-explaining his needs, they finally realize he is talking about their latent imaging process, where the printed words are hidden until activated by a non-toxic citrus-based marker.

ad for the Zork Users Group

1982 ad for the Zork Users Group

Mike Dornbrook holds an ad for computer text adventure game company Infocom

Product manager Mike Dornbrook holds up an ad for Infocom games, 1984

Ad for Infocom, a computer game company, 1984

Incomplete, for now. Ad for Infocom, 1984

In the initial InvisiClues hint book covering Zork I, there are 175 hints in response to 75 questions, including treasure locations as well as trivia tidbits about the game. The books rapidly become as popular as the games themselves, and after Dornbrook gets his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in June of 1983, he goes to work at Infocom as product manager for entertainment products. Infocom takes over the functions of ZUG in late 1983; by the time of this merging, ZUG has 20,000 members, four employees, and is taking 1000 orders a week for the game and other sundry paraphernalia like the “I’d Rather be Zorking” bumper sticker. InvisiClues books are subsequently made for most every Infocom game of the era, and make their way onto retail shelves as well as available via mail-order through ZUG.

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