Revisiting 'Zork': What We Lost in the Transition to Visual Games

Text-based adventures were written as much as they were designed, employing tantalizing adjectives to create a sense of the world


In my mind, the house is clapboard, with a black, precisely shingled roof and shutters in a bit of disrepair. The sky is always an intangible, faded blue, and the forest surrounding the clearing is dark green. In other words, it's always summer -- and hot, since I imagine the house surrounded by long, tan, untrampled grass.

The front door is boarded -- I pictured some plywood, though I didn't think about it much. There's the mailbox: a standard issue, gunmetal-gray, Quonset-shaped affair, slightly askew on its pole. And in the mailbox, of course, is a leaflet.

Zork was the first game I remember playing on my family's IBM PC, sometime in the early 1980s. It's hard to convey, for those who didn't go through a similar epiphany, what it was like to look into a screen empty but for a few lines of spare green text:

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

For a kid that wasn't into fantasy books, I didn't approach it as an adventurer. I approached the game as me: I'm standing in front of a house, not unlike my own, a wrapped gift that you have to figure out how to unwrap. It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure in which no other pages were suggested. Here's where you are, kid. Now what?

What we forget, what was lost with the transition to visual games, is how literary the experience was. A quick catalog of words I learned from text adventures -- mostly from Infocom, the granddaddy of the genre: menhir, footpad, topiary, lapis lazuli. The games were written as much as they were designed; tantalizing adjectives to create a sense of the world, sometimes-obscure nouns to describe things which may not exist in real-life. They sampled from literature as well: one game, A Mind Forever Voyaging, used an excerpt from "The Raven" as an interlude.

Deep into the darkness, peering,
Long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal
Ever dared to dream before.

No English class ever inspired an appreciation for meter more than did those lines.

Another word I learned playing these games was "verbose" -- which served as the command to tell the game to keep providing full descriptions each time you returned to a particular room, instead of the default, trimmed-down versions that kept the game moving forward. Along with a pen and paper to draw a map of the areas you'd explored, it was wise to keep a dictionary handy, too.

I was particularly partial to Infocom's mystery games, given that my time away from the computer was spent in a constant loop between my house and the library, checking out every possible Christie, Holmes and Hardy book. But the games made me the detective, poring over every brief description for hours, literally, looking for something I may have missed. They prompted independent study: a casual mention of Arsenic and Old Lace in one game made me, at times when I was truly stumped, desperate to see the film. Is this a clue? Is this something I should know?

One of the first stories I ever wrote was a mystery, about a "Latin-looking" man who I described navigating his house by the direction in which he walked. ("He headed east from the dining room into the kitchen.") For me, that was the natural way to let the reader understand the world: drawing a mental map so that, should he need to, he'd know how to get back to the dining room to scour for clues.

The best games were those that left the conclusion open-ended, like Zork. When completed, you're back out in front of that house, but a barrow has appeared in the field. (Barrow, noun: A mountain or mound.) At the time I didn't know that this was a cop-out, that Zork was never intended to be the portal into an entire world of Flatheads and grues and that the barrow was a clunky transition to Zork 2. For me, the appearance of that barrow in that field -- rising tall above my head, with a door that opened to a passage underground -- meant that my imagination could keep stepping outside of its own limits, that something else lay ahead.

There was an entire dictionary, after all -- and an infinite number of ways those words could be thrown together to create stories. For the time being, I was content to let Infocom do that heavy lifting.

Image: Philip Bump.