The Enduring Legacy of Zork


Elizabeth Woyke in the MIT Technology Review:

Vibrant, witty writing set Zork apart. It had no graphics, but lines like “Phosphorescent mosses, fed by a trickle of water from some unseen source above, make [the crystal grotto] glow and sparkle with every color of the rainbow” helped players envision the “Great Underground Empire” they were exploring as they brandished such weapons as glowing “Elvish swords.” “We played with language just like we played with computers,” says Daniels. Wordplay also cropped up in irreverent character names such as “Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive” and “The Wizard of Frobozz.”

Within weeks of its creation, Zork’s clever writing and inventive puzzles attracted players from across the U.S. and England. “The MIT machines were a nerd magnet for kids who had access to the ARPANET,” says Anderson. “They would see someone running something called Zork, rummage around in the MIT file system, find and play the game, and tell their friends.” The MIT mainframe operating system (called ITS) let Zork’s creators remotely watch users type in real time, which revealed common mistakes. “If we found a lot of people using a word the game didn’t support, we would add it as a synonym,” says Daniels.

The four kept refining and expanding Zork until February 1979. A few months later, three of them, plus seven other Dynamic Modeling Group members, founded the software company Infocom. Its first product: a modified version of Zork, split into three parts, released over three years, to fit PCs’ limited memory size and processing power.

Nearly 40 years later, those PC games, which ran on everything from the Apple II to the Commodore 64 in their 1980s heyday, are available online—and still inspire technologists.

More here.