is impossible to explore the history of Infocom without first examining the game
that started it all, Zork. Were it not for Zork and its programmers,
Infocom as a company would not be the same as it was. The Zork series was
the first electronic version of interactive fiction to really take off, despite
it not being the first made or developed, and despite the unfortunate fact that
Zork is relatively unknown amongst the young gaming population today, there
are still those who remember the days of grues and maze adventures. But for the
rest of you, that which do not recognize the name "Zork," you
had better read this article, lest you be eaten by a grue.
arose from humble beginnings in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the
brainchild of then students Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, who were obsessed with
an earlier text-based game, "Colossal Cave," also known as "Adventure,"
as well as the famous "pen and paper" role-playing game (RPG) series
"Dungeons and Dragons." After seeing that such an RPG could be
programmed electronically, Lebling was convinced that a better version of "Colossal
Cave" could be made, and he and Blank set out to make one. Originally,
they developed their own programming language to achieve their goal, called MDL,
affectionately pronounced "muddle." During the development of MDL's
parsers, another student named Tim Anderson took the code and fuddled around with
it, and built a simple game featuring four rooms the user could "explore"
in order to test the MDL code. Now armed with working code, the Zork party
extended its ranks to its fourth member, Bruce Daniels, and together they set
out to tackle the programming of Zork.
For the next few years the
group spent long hours drawing out detailed maps and designing intricate puzzles.
As this was a project "for the fun of it," the group has no qualms about
incorporating outside influences into their game. For example, early on in Zork,
the hero comes across "an elfish sword of great antiquity" that glows
bright blue whenever danger is imminent, much like Bilbo Baggins' sword Sting
in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Another example is the game's use of
the term "grue," an idea taken from Jack Vance's book The Dying Earth.
In Zork, if one enters "What is a grue?" into the command prompt,
you will get the following:
grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite
diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light.
No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome
jaws to tell the tale.|
grue of Zork takes the place of pits in "Colossal Cave,"
where you die in both cases if you are left wandering in the dark without a light
source. It is rather interesting to note that originally the grue concept did
not exist, and that the idea of falling down a pit in the dark, the idea originally
taken from Colossal Cave, was used, but it was later noted that these pits
appeared to exist in "unlikely places," such as in the attic of the
"white house" in Zork, and the idea of the grue was adopted and
implemented. Another Zork concept "borrowed" from "Colossal
Cave" was the idea of finding and retrieving treasures, only rather than
finding treasures in a cave, in Zork you find them in a large underground
And what about the name? The name "Zork," originated
from a well-known nonsense term in the computer hacker community at the time,
which the group had traditionally named all of their works-in-progress. The name
was going to be changed to "Dungeon," in lieu of the plot of
the game, in which the adventurer traveled far below the earth by means of a dungeon
hidden under a house, but the fear of copyright problems led the group to keep
the name Zork.
By 1979, the Zork group was drawing its
project to a close - but the group kept finding more and more puzzles and rooms
to add, continually expanding the game. On top of that, the game was being continually
changed and edited, based on feedback from other MIT students who tested the game.
When the game was finally deemed finished, its total file size was more than 1
Mb - a monstrous size at a time when normal home computers were only able to manage
The gang joined forces with Al Vezza, an MIT professor interested
in starting up a software company. Anderson, Lebling and Blank had grown so accustomed
to working with one another that they had no problem accepting Vezza's invitation.
They, along with Joel Berez, Mike Broos, Scott Cutler, Stu Galley, JCR Licklider,
and Chris Reeve formed Infocom in its infancy, with the initial idea of producing
and selling computer software, the specifics of which no one seemed to agree on.
Eventually, Anderson and Lebling lobbied the idea to release Zork to the
public through the company, since it was already completed and debugged, and the
idea was readily and enthusiastically accepted. However, in order to accomplish
this, Infocom had to face the hurdle of fitting its 1Mb mainframe game onto the
smaller home machines. This hurdle was accomplished with two massive steps by
Infocom: the first step was to create a multiformat emulator called the "Z-Machine
Interpretive Program" (or ZIP) for each type of home computer that would
run a virtual processor to compress text and file size as well as run the "Zork
Implementation Language" (or ZIL). (ZIL was actually an updated version of
Lebling's MDL parser.) Even with the new emulator, Zork was still much
too large for home computers, which led to Infocom's second step: breaking the
game up into three separate parts, editing it accordingly. Last but not least,
the Zork programmers hid an "Easter egg" in the game, where if the user
ever tried to "summon Implementers," the game would show Dave Lebling
and Marc Blank looking surprised at this "bug" in the game and working
frantically to fix it.
The first part of Zork became Zork I,
and Infocom, wanting a more established company to promote and distribute Zork
I, asked Personal Software (later known as VisiCorp) to distribute Zork.
Personal Software gladly agreed, and Zork I was available in stores for
most home computers by December 1980. It sold. It even sold well. What made Zork
I sell so well? The majority of sources will tell you a very simple reason
- it was great fun to play. Solving the extremely challenging puzzles without
the aid or crutch of a graphical interface brought users a sense of accomplishment,
and the game's witty dialogue made Zork I one of the most amusing games
on the market, as well.
Zork I sold over 7,500 copies before Infocom
began buying it back. Why, you ask? In effect, Personal Software marketed the
game with an infamous "mustachioed warrior," misleading the public into
thinking that Zork was another Zelda-esque sword fighting game.
Infocom wanted to market the game as what it really was - an adventure game, and
after buying back the remaining $32,000 worth of Zork I left on shelves,
it repackaged the game to a simple brick layout and changed the game's tagline
from "ZORK is more than an adventure" To "Your greatest
challenge lies ahead - and downwards." When Zork I went back on the
shelves October 1981, and the following month the second installment of Zork,
Zork II was released, and by the end of 1981, Infocom pulled up $160,000
in Zork sales. The Zork games gave Infocom the financial boost to
expand their company and become an established name in text-based games and eventually
database software (even though their database project "Cornerstone"
was a massive flop). Infocom went on to produce more text-based games, over forty-eight,
including the third installment of Zork in 1982, and later Beyond Zork
and Zork Zero, before the company eventually went under in 1989, despite
its takeover by Activision.
Now that you are aware, remember your flashlight
please refrain from being eaten by a grue!
From the Top of Its Game: The Story of Infocom, Inc."
Taken offline May 5th, 2006
Dot Eaters: Classic Video Game History"
Taken offline May 5th, 2006
"Infocom: The Next Dimension."
Retro Gamer. Issue 10
"Infocom Company History"
Taken offline May 5th, 2006
Information about Jack Vance taken from