Time is rarely kind to computer games. Advances in hardware, software and programming science come so quickly that older games often pale in comparison with titles boasting the latest in graphics and sound. The current hit titles have a way of pushing last year's favorites into the background.
One of the few exceptions to the rule is Infocom's super-selling trilogy of text adventures, Zork I, II and III. To date Zork I alone has sold about a quarter of a million copies, an incredible feat when one considers that sales of 100,000 mark a superhit computer game. Part of the games' success is due to their imagination-gripping prose style and it certainly doesn't hurt that they can be played on the Apple II, IBM-PC, Atari computers, TI Professional computers, the TI 99/4A, the Osborne, TRS-80 Model III, NEC computers, and any systems operating on CP/M or MS DOS bases.
Zork is widely acknowledged as the definitive text adventure game. For those who've experienced a program of this type, a text adventure is played using only words: The computer prints a description of the location, and the player responds by typing in a response. For example, in Zork, everytime a player enters an unlit area, the computer warns, "You have entered a dark place, It is likely you will be eaten by a grue." If the player doesn't find a light source fast, he or she soon learns that computers don't lie!
Zork I is the introduction to the underground empire, challenging gamers to find and explore the subterranean ruins of an ancient civilization. The object is to plunder what treasures remain in the catacombs and live to tell the tale. But the player isn't the only explorer. A hungry-looking thief is after the same rich bounty, and he's a formidable enemy.
The second Zork takes players even further into the bowels of the earth, there to discover the secrets of sorcery. Though the thief doesn't appear in this game - (can it be he knows his limits?) - an evil wizard pops up randomly, casting spells to impede the player's progress. This is a more complicated game than the first, requiring adventurers to slay a dragon, placate a demon, and solve the mystery of the colored orbs, to name just a few simple tasks needed to best the wizard in the end.
Zork III is the final chapter in tha saga, and it's by far the most difficult to master. Experience points (the score) are few and far between, but it's worth all the trouble in the end when the gamer comes face to face with the ultimate foe - the Dungeon Master himself.
Like all Infocom games, Zork I, II and III are programmed with the Interlogic system, making the machine capable of understanding complex sentences and multiple commands ("Get the book, then walk north" instead of "Get book", "N", for example) Each game is complete an in and of itself, and players don't have to master one adventure in order to start the next. All are fun to play individually. But taken as a trilogy, Zork is the most complete, satisfying adventure on the market today.
For those of you who've forgotten the Dark Ages of computer gaming (the late 1970's), the original Zork was the brainchild of Joel Berez, Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, who met while doing ther undergraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Though Marc eventually graduated and moved to New York (where he attended the Albert Einstein College of Medicine), he devoted his weekends to commuting back to M.I.T, where the three toiled till the wee hours on the school's mainframe computer.
By mid-1978, the complete Zork adventure had become a legend among computer lovers "in the know", and student Zorkies dialed the M.I.T. mainframe from college terminals all over the country. Encouraged by the adventure's unbelievable popularity, Marc abandoned his internship, Joel became his own boss, and in 1979, Infocom was born.
The first order was to scale Zork down to fit the memory limitations of a 48K home computer. While Zork I retains only about 60% of its oringinal bulk, most of the best-loved brain-teasers remain intact - as does the original "Interlogic" programming.
To test the new, slimmed down version, Marc, Dave and Joel enlisted the help of their former M.I.T. roomie, Mike Dornbrook. Despite the fact that Mike worked at M.I.T.'s Lab for Computer Science, he had never played any video or computer game. That made him the perfect guinea pig. (Mike has yet to drop a quarter in an arcade machine.)
As the origianl Infocom play-tester, Mike found himself fielding frantic letters and phone calls from harried Zork players who had come across insurmountable problems. Although he concientiously answered each and every inquiry, it got a little boring to answer the same 30 or so questions again and again. Even establishing an Infocom hint service, which gave out sage advice for $2 a question, wasn't enough.
To compound Mike's dilemma, graduation time from M.I.T. rolled around, and it was time for him to move off to the University of Chicago's business administration program. Uneasy about abandoning Zork players completely, Mike tried to convince the others to hire a replacement for him. Impossible, he was told. After all, Infocom was a fledgling company, and there was already too much to do in the areas of production, distribution, and design for Zork's sequels. How could they hire a full-time staffer just to answer the mail?
Dornbrook countered with a compromise: If Infocom would let him borrow its trademark and establish the Zork User's Group, everyone would benefit. His original intention was to operate the business out of his Chicago dorm room, but it proved easier to wax his father out of retirement and set up an office in nearby Milwaukee.
The Zork User's Group had a humble beginning. The junior and senior Dornbrooks catered to a small but faithful following, providing almost the only support available to any computer adventurers. The company devised and sold complete maps for Zork I and its sequels, sent out new game announcements and insider's information, and answered an increasing volume of clue inquiries.
In 1982, after Infocom had begun enclosing information on the Zork User's Group in each game package, the player questions finally grew too numerous to handle. Mike realized he needed a more efficient means of helping Zorkies in need.
After experimenting with sealed envelope kits, scrape-off clues made like instant lottery tickets, and a number of other ideas, Mike was stumped.
At a party, a friend suggested using invisible ink, which could be made visible by running a special developing pen over the hidden answers. Mike loved the idea and immediately tried to get started on it - only to find a major obstacle in his path: Where to find a company to produce the books? It turned out there are only two manufacturers in the U.S. capable of printing up "latent image process" books, a fact Mike discovered after exercising the same sort of perserverance that helps him slove adventure games. Luckily, one of the printers was nearby.
The hint booklets, called "Invisiclues", are now available for all three Zork adventures. Their apperance caused a minor sensation and have contibuted to the games' popularity. Gamers used to writing software companies, or simply shelving their adventure games when stumped, no longer have to tear their hair indefinitely. The answers were there for those who wanted to find them, but hidden well enough for those who didn't. Each book was packaged with a developing marker, which the gamer passes over a particular section to answer specific questions printed in the booklet. To make things a little less obvious, dummy questions are liberally sprinkled in to keep players from learning about still-undiscovered areas just by reading all the questions.
The Invisiclues concept took off like a shot, and late last year Mike Dornbrook joined the full-time staff of Infocom. Although officially, the Zork User's Group has been dissolved, would-be Zorkies need not worry - Mike is overseeing Infocom's takeover of all User's Group functions, expanding clue and map support to cover all of Infocom's releases.
As it stands now, each time a gamer buys an Infocom game, he or she finds a coupon insinde. With the coupon, an Invisiclue booklet and complete map can be bought for $4.95 (what it costs Infocom). Without the piece of paper, though, the set goes for $8.95, a move Infocom hopes will discourage software pirates.
With Infocom's money and resources behind the clue booklets, the packages and maps are being redesigned (in look only - the content remains the same) to be consistent with the company's other high-quality accessories. A customer newsletter is also on the horizon, with its format derive from Mike Dornbrook's "New Zork Times". Posters, T-shirts, and other Zork-related souvenirs are also planned.
With their brain-testing challenge and beautifully-written descriptions, plus the availability of on-the-spot aid for frustrated adventurers, it's no wonder that Zorks I, II and III have become classics in their time.
Thanks to Michael Kurz for transcribing and donating this article.