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The History of Zork

Zork 1

Dear Zork Fan,

Thirty years ago the first Star Wars movie was packing throngs of curious people into crowded movie theaters across the country. Everybody was hungry to experience the promise of something fresh, something very different from the usual cop movie or off-beat comedy gracing the silver screen.

As Star Wars was very loudly and very clearly changing the landscape of science fiction movies and the genre of science fiction itself, four young men in a computer lab at MIT were very quietly playing their part in creating an industry that would ultimately dwarf the glamorous movie industry itself.

Who were those four young men?

Three of them were MIT students -- Marc Blank, Tim Anderson and Bruce Daniels.

They were joined by Dave Lebling, an MIT staff member from the Division of Sponsored Research.

What were they cooking up in that computer lab at MIT?

Zork.

Computer users on the scene back then and straight through the 1980s were delighted by the unique new dimension in fiction the creators of Zork Implemented.

Zork is the cornerstone of interactive fiction because it was Zork that greatly advanced the work of Crowther and Woods' Adventure, the very first work of interactive fiction.

Zork was the fantasy adventure title that brought the entire medium we now know as interactive fiction to the masses.

Zork was the king of the hill of computer games for years. It remains a text adventure game of legendary proportions to this day.

No one doubts this will always be true.

Playing Zork was my very first experience with a computer. That encounter changed me and inspired forever after. Read more about that at http://www.malinche.net/company.html

Zork was the game me and all my friends raved over for years as Zork 1, Zork 2, Zork 3, Enchanter and all the rest were released.

We would check the computer stores week after week looking for the next release. We'd hold Zork parties as our parents patiently accommodated us with the relief of knowing we were reading and expanding our minds.

If only that were true of the youth today who play computer games with no social or intellectual redeeming virtues of any kind to the detriment of the players.

That's why I declare June 2007 the Month of Zork.

Zork played a pivotal role not only in the formative years of me and my friends but of the computer industry itself.

At this Zork tribute page you can check out some super-rare pictures, try your hand at the original Zork (called Dungeon at the time), and discover the rich history of Zork and have the chance to sign up and win some really neat Zork stuff we're giving away all month long.

This is a birthday party like no other and you're invited!

Interactive Fiction is Born

On June 2, 1977 the original Zork was born in the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science.  Starting out with the original name of Zork (a nonsense word like "foo" or "bar") , it was renamed by The Four Implementers to Dungeon to make the game's title more meaningful. This brought on some legal tussling with TSR (The Dungeons and Dragons people at the time). This legal encounter led to the peaceful name change back to Zork - it's original name.

According to Grandmaster Tim Anderson "Zork was originally called Zork. It was renamed to Dungeon in a fit of tastelessness later on, then renamed back in response to a threatening letter from the D&D guy's lawyers. I found the response from MIT's lawyers extremely entertaining, but I don't think anyone wanted to fight for the right to use a bad name."

(Fun fact -- This would not be the first legal wrangling for Infocom where names are concerned. The Infocom customer newsletter was called The New Zork Times.  The New York Times wasn't amused leading to the newsletter being renamed to The Status Line.)

Zork was written in a language called MDL (pronounced muddle and is short for MIT Design Language), a descendent of the Lisp programming language. In the brief time that Zork was known as Dungeon, the Fortran version of Dungeon was widely circulated which caused the name Dungeon to stick in some circles and sectors to this day.

(Fun fact -- Malinche uses a modern version of Lisp in developing the iPod versions of our interactive fiction titles.)

It took thirty years for us to be able to nail down the precise date when Zork (Dungeon) first become a viable, complete game thanks to input that came directly from Grandmaster Dave Lebling.  Here is what he wrote in response to Howard's own probing and prodding:

"My memory of it is it started in early June. I came back from a vacation and beta-tested it. The previous "test-run" to see how well the parser and such would work would have been in April or May.

Update: I spelunked in some of my old records, and found a bit of map of  the earliest part of Muddle Zork, I believe in Tim's handwriting. It was  drawn on the back of a printout of ROOMS 52 (author MARC, printed by BKD) which was dated June 2, 1977. Knowing how quickly things changed,  I doubt ROOMS 1 could have been too much earlier."

The original Zork was designed on a huge computer called a PDP-10 (more specifically MT-DM PDP-10 and in fact a KA-10, the least powerful PDP-10)

This was at the dawn of the home computer market where "cheap" pre-assembled computers started at about $1,000 and massive computers like the PDP-10 could only be purchased by universities, corporations and government departments with deep pockets.

Due to legal, financial and technical considerations that had to be addressed to make Infocom a viable corporation, it was not until 1980 that Zork made its first appearance on a microcomputer -- the TRS-80 Model I.

Zork as Originally Packaged

The Original Zork came in a plastic bag and this full-sized manual

From then on, Infocom was on a bobsled run of market dominance of the home computer game market right from the beginning.  Within three years, Zork 1, Zork 2, Zork 3 and other Infocom titles were available on almost every computing platform of the time; Atari, Commodore, Apple, TRS-80, Texas Instruments, IBM PC, and a dozen or more other platforms ranging from CP/M to proprietary systems like the Epson QX-10.

On almost any top ten list Zork would be there at the top of the list - for years. When all was said and done a million or more copies of the Zork trilogy were sold; a mind-boggling achievement in the 1980s and an impressive feat today that few games can accomplish.

Zork was the first computer game to make being a geek cool, suave and sexy; Playboy featured Zork as product of the year in 1982.

Zork Founder

This picture is of Zork Implementor Tim Anderson taken in April 1985 during moving day from 55 Wheeler Street Cambridge, MA to 125 Cambridge Park Drive in the same town.

The picture right below is of Grandmaster Dave Lebling pretending to shut down the DEC 20 (a massively powerful computer at the time used to develop Infocom games.)

Zork Founders

The picture above this one is of Grandmaster Marc Blank pretending to shut down the hard drives to the DEC 20.  This last one here is of Founder Tim Anderson actually shutting down the DEC nicknamed Fred.

Please note the pictures above are NOT of "The Shutdown Party of '89" as originally stated.  Thanks to Grandmaster Anderson for setting the record straight.

The Founder added that the shutdown documented above was due to the fact that Infocom switched to development in A/UX (Unix) on Mac IIs with file service from a Sun. The migration to this new environment paved the way for graphics and sound to be introduced into later Infocom titles. The existing DEC-20 environment, with their limited VT-100 terminals, made graphic and sound development completely impossible.

Sadly, Infocom's implementation of sound and graphics to their legendary text adventure games was deemed as too little too late as Mister Anderson tells it.

The pictures below clearly depict the mirth and merriment of Infocom...

In order of appearance below:

1) Grandmaster Steve Meretzky at the fateful "shutdown party" in '89

2) The legendary Infocom crab races held on Friday afternoons

3) Joel Berez the President of Infocom on the left and Paul DiLascia, a Cornerstone programmer on the right during a merry barbecue quite some time before the fateful shutdown. 

Infocom Founders

Alas, Infocom's days have passed but unbeknownst to all at the time an even brighter future for interactive fiction was yet to come almost as if the Coconut of Quendor were real...

The Zork Tradition Continues...

Zork Lives On!

Following in the footsteps of the original Infocom Implementors, Malinche blazes new trails in publishing interactive fiction in the legendary Infocom tradition.

For any fan of Zork who wishes there was more, Malinche's world-famous Pentari series is a Wishbringer.

Malinche's next-generation Implementor Howard Sherman has vowed that Malinche will never close its doors or allow itself to be acquired by another company so long as he lives.

Thanks to Grandmaster Sherman's Navy SEAL training program and very healthy diet, interactive fiction fans can count on dozens of new text adventure games in the years ahead.

Zork Resources

Play The Original Zork (Dungeon) Online

(This is the same text adventure game people were playing thirty years ago...)

Zork (Dungeon) Information on the Infocom Page

Zork 1 Information on the Infocom Homepage

Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Zork

Download Zork 1

The Zork Library

Within An Old White House

by Michael Feir

I sat before my great machine, and gave a woeful sigh, Countless icons filled the screen, but none would catch my eye.

Each icon ran a game I owned, from Doom to Daggerfall, But none of these could rescue me, for I had won them all.

My case was grave and serious, since I could not afford, To purchase any other games and keep from being bored.

My bank account was empty and my credit cards all maxed, Any game worth paying for would be so steeply taxed.

Desperately, I donned my helmet, and got upon my bike, And aimlessly, I rode along the paths where others hike.

Within the woods, I lost my way, far from the beaten trail, Darkness neared, then stars appeared! My legs began to fail.  

Fearful of the woods at night, I slowly peddled on, Searching for a sheltered site where I could rest till dawn.

I came upon a small white house, its entrance boarded closed, With all my might, I could not pass the obstacle they posed.

To have safe haven near at hand with access thusly blocked, Was very hard for me to stand, With helpless rage, I rocked.

I paced in fury around the house, and hadn't gone too far, When all at once, fate smiled on me, A window swung ajar.

With ebbing strength I forced it wide enough to clamber through. A kitchen lay around me with its table set for two.

Physically exhausted, I collapsed into a chair, An older man walked in and took the other that was there.

"I don't get many visits," Said the hermit with a chortle, "Eccentricity compelled me to board up their standard portal."

"Rest here, my weary traveler, Feel free to help yourself." He motioned to a bunch of tasty food upon a shelf.  

We ate and talked of many games, our claims to private glory, Of reality's far too frequent stings, and of my tragic story,

He conversed with great intelligence, in a diction quaint and kind, His thoughtfulness would always be engraved into my mind.

At length he rose up from his place, and headed off to bed, First showing me a couch where I could lay my weary head,

I rested well that starlit night, but had some freakish dreams, Of darkened realms deep underground, explored by lantern beams.

My brass lamp shone on wonders, an  many terrors too, My ears took in a dragon's roar, and the gurgles of a grue!

I walked across a rainbow, above a waterfall, And ballooned up a volcano's core, behind an icy wall.

Waking from my dreams, I was quite startled through and through, To discover that a part of them seemed absolutely true!

I looked around the living room, and as the hermit snored, I saw a trophy case, a rug, a lantern and strange sword!  

And as the morning sun came up, bestowing warmth and light, The hermit came with rueful cheer and asked about my night.

I told him all that I had dreamed, and requested he explain, This world that I had visited, so full of joy and pain.

He moved aside the oriental rug upon the floor, I gaped in disbelief when this revealed a closed trapdoor.

I helped him heave it open, since the effort made him frown, He took the lantern from its place, and with me ventured down.

The cellar in which we found ourselves brimmed with forgotten junk, Amid the mess, the man possessed a rusty iron trunk,

I helped him hoist the tarnished box into the living room, He opened it with care and took its contents from their tomb.

The old computer he unveiled was piteous to behold, I would have laughed had he not shown it reverence due to gold,

He plugged it in and turned it on, Its screen was black and white, Its ancient disks could not hold more than half a megabyte.  

"The tale I have to tell you happened in the recent past," "There was a firm whose every game was intricate and vast,"

"For years they were successful, and proceeded with aplomb," "But I doubt you've ever heard of them, for they were Infocom."

"Zork was where you were last night, They made that universe," "It inspired many gleeful shouts, and many a-vengeful curse."

"Just give me half a moment, and I'll show you what I mean," "These days what you will shortly view is all too rarely seen."

He put a disk into the drive, and entered a command, And while the system worked he placed a book into my hand.

My fascination grew quite strong as I began to find, Details of the fantastic place which occupied my mind.

I closed the book and found that I was thoroughly ignored, The world could end, but he'd still bend before that old keyboard,

My anger quickly cooled and gave me cause for private shame, Our ages were quite different, but our passions were the same.

Despite my small deduction, I still felt rather vexed, When I looked to see my dreamscape and discovered only text!

"Take the very best in modern sound and animation," "And what is there will not compare with your imagination."

Doubtfully, I played his game, My choice was quickly made, I had to find more of these games so rare and seldom played,  

I almost asked the hermit why this company had died, But the answer cut me to the bone before I even tried.

These pioneers were swept aside by new technology, Graphic games won market shares for their simplicity,

Time turned its page upon this age of thought-provoking fun, And Pac-man's maze became the craze obsessing everyone.

"The look upon your face tells me you've understood my story," "You comprehend what caused the end of Infocom's brief glory."

"But don't despair, Just be aware they've left a legacy," "Their games have been preserved upon the Masterpiece CD!"

"And if you can't afford to buy a copy of it yet," "Loyal fans have made new games and placed them on the Net!"

"And though their works are gratis, they are to a large degree," "Free from major glitches, and quite high in quality."

"Return now to your youthful life with my earnest benediction," "And do be sure you search the web for interactive fiction."

The End.

Michael Feir Creator and former editor of Audyssey Magazine: 1996-2004

Special thanks to Dave Lebling, Tim Anderson, Marc Blank and former Infocom employees and beta testers for their valuable input in making this Zork tribute as accurate as possible.

The Zork Giveaway

We were giving away Zork t-shirts, Zork games and copies of Pentari: First Light; Malinche's first text adventure game rendered in the Zork tradition throughout the month of June in the year 2007.

The Zork Giveaway is Now Closed.

We will notify all winners via email and announce all winners on this webpage within two weeks.

Zork Giveaway Winners

The Final Tally as of July 24th, 2007

Alex K - The grand prize winner of The Zork Anthology

Bill M. - He won a copy of Pentari: First Light, a modern text adventure game in the Zork tradition

Matt H - Won a spiffy Zork t-shirt

David F - Also received a wardrobe-enhancing Zork t-shirt

Matt F - Scored a copy of Pentari: First Light

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