While students at MIT, Zork‘s authors set out to expand on Adventure, a shareware game (surely to be featured at a later date) which was bouncing around academic mainframes during the late 1970s. Named for the term used to describe uncompleted programs, Zork was later renamed Dungeon until TSR, publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, threatened to sue. Under its original title, Zork I was commercially released in 1980 to great success. Players were not only captivated by the expansive world, they also loved the sophisticated way the game used language. The sarcastic humor of the game (“It seems that the brick has other properties than weight, namely the ability to blow you to smithereens”) and the command structures that flowed much more like conventional English made for a fun and linguistically rich experience.
For many of us, text adventures like Zork were among the first interactions with personal computers. The lack of graphics allowed players’ imaginations to conjure up landscapes in a resolution higher than anything a green phosphor monitor could render. What’s more, the strange jargon and logical structures of these games were doorways into exploring the catacombs of computer programming! It wasn’t long after my first experience in the Great Underground Empire that I set out to create my own realm. At the time, BASIC was the only language that I knew so I cobbled my own dungeon crawl from a series of IF-THEN-ELSE statements and variable inputs. That short game, something only its 10-year-old creator might have appreciated, never reached Zork‘s scale of course. The awe and wonder that it inspired, however, can still be felt every time I find myself standing in that open field looking again at that curiously boarded-up white house.
Taken from the Infocom text adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging, the command SUPERBRIEF displayed “the name of a place you have entered, even if you have never been there before.” It is also the title of Kristopher Purzycki’s weekly bit where he reflects upon the earliest PC games, their development, and their significance within the history of the medium.