Zork 1 Review: A Fully Realized Fantasy

Among the canon of early text adventures, there is none more revered than the Zork trilogy.  It takes the immersive complexity of the original Colossal Cave Adventure and adds a combat system and a backstory steeped in the mythology of classic fantasy literature.  

The original Zork dates back to 1977 and was a single game with a vast world map, but the version best known today is a three-part Infocom series, released from 1980 - 1982.  The first installment, which I'm reviewing here, is titled, Zork: The Great Underground Empire - Part I.  It takes the player through an underworld maze, with vast waterways controlled by an ancient dam.  

As in most early text adventures, the player is tasked with collecting treasures from the game world.  Zork II and Zork III gradually deemphasized treasure collecting, perhaps because developers felt that it was unromantic to be motivated by greed, but I would argue that it hardly matters in Zork I.  The true beauty of the game is in exploring its world, regardless of the pretext.

One notable improvement from its predecessors is the addition of turn-based combat.  Unlike in role-playing games, however, the variables that determine the outcome of combat are completely invisible to the player. Combatants simply take turns attacking and the game reports the outcome of each attack.  By keeping a separation between the player and the factors that determine combat outcomes, it maintains the perception of a world that is mostly beyond the player's control.  The helplessness you feel when a thief makes off with one of your most valuable treasures cannot be assuaged with the knowledge of a superior strength or dexterity statistic.  Rather, you are left merely with the hope that you will encounter him again and that circumstances will allow the recovery of your lost item.  Zork cannot be tamed or mastered, merely navigated.  

And navigation is no simple thing, either.  Much like Colossal Cave Adventure before it, Zork I includes many passageways that don't continue in the direction they started; that is, going east will sometimes take you to a room to the southwest or north.  Fortunately, it is all internally self-consistent, so as long as you are careful to map the connections the first time you follow them, you should be able to find your way.

Unlike many similar games of the era, communicating with the command parser is fairly straightforward.  Zork I is the first game to use the Infocom five-word command parser, a system that has been much praised by fans of interactive fiction.  Instead of typing "CHOP TREE" and then responding to the question, "WITH WHAT?", you can now just type "CHOP TREE WITH AXE".  It has many other improvements compared to its three-word counterparts, including the ability to handle multi-word nouns, multi-part commands, and numerical quantities, just to name a few.  

The command parser is certainly impressive from the technical standpoint, but I have found that early text adventures benefit less from the sophistication of the parser than from careful consideration of the words that a player might use.  It's okay if hewing a tree with an axe takes two separate commands, as it would with a three-word parser, as long as the game is programmed to accept similar verbs that I might use.  For example, "CHOP TREE WITH AXE" should achieve the same thing as "CUT TREE WITH AXE".  Fortunately, Zork I does fine on this score as well.

But for all of its polish, what really puts Zork a cut above the rest is imagination.  Trudging through the depths of the maze, you can't help but feel that you're exploring a world with a rich history, and that the wonders you do encounter are but the tip of a long-buried iceberg.  And the greatest wonder of all is where this world emerges from -- an unassuming cabin at the edge of the forest.  

That the bastion of an ancient civilization could sit beneath the floorboards of an abandoned cabin is a romance I like to indulge myself, whenever I go out exploring the world.  That such ancient ruins might also contain trolls, a cyclops, and the gates to hell itself... well, that is the true stuff of fantasy.


  1. What a great game. I can't even put a number on the amount of hours I spent playing Zork (and sequels).


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