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The Legacy of Zork and its Ties to Infocom
by Camille N. Moreno

It 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.

Zork 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:

The 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.

The 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 cavern.

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 32 Kb.

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 and...
please refrain from being eaten by a grue!


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Taken offline May 5th, 2006

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Taken offline May 5th, 2006

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Taken offline May 5th, 2006

Information about Jack Vance taken from


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