The Openness of Zork

Interactive fiction, or text adventures, are some of the oldest type of computer games.  Infocom’s Zork (1980) is one of the defining games of this genre, revolutionizing the basis of interactive fiction and computer-based games.  In Zork and similar text adventures, prompts are given to the player through elaborate textual descriptions, and the player interacts with the space by entering commands involving a verb (such as “take” or “go”) and an object (such as an item or direction of movement).  The nature of Zork lends to significant player immersion in the game through its intrinsic illusion of openness, brought about by Zork’s extensive word recognition (considered revolutionary for its time period) and graphic scenery descriptions that, piece by piece, build the game’s world in the player’s mind.

Zork was known in the early interactive fiction industry for being a game-changer (literally) in regards to word recognition.  The game recognizes thousands of commands and contains preset responses to numerous types of actions, even those that are wrong.  In one instance, when the player tries to break the trophy case using the sword, the game responds wittily by saying “Nice try!”  It tends to display a level of humorous sarcasm directed at the player when the player does other actions that seem out of place, such as using the sword to attack dead bodies or jumping into a pile of leaves.  This extensive responsiveness to virtually any action the player can think of doing on essentially any item makes the game feel very open and immersive to the player.  In today’s graphical video games, players are normally limited by the game’s mechanics on what they can do; items obtainable usually have specific roles and the player is unable to experiment with them, as they are generally explicitly described.  The command-centric nature of Zork is what allows it to present this unique characteristic of experimentation with each item’s function.  Experimentation with items in the universe is a primary element of Zork’s narrative; this fact is demonstrated by the near complete lack of instructions given to the player.

An example of Zork‘s witty answers to various actions. The game sarcastically tells me that I am old enough now to go to the second grade because I jumped into the pile of leaves.

Zork’s environmental immersiveness is driven by its stunningly graphic, novelistic descriptions of scenery.  While in some instances the game’s descriptions seem like a simplistic list of the characteristics of the space, in others it is evident the developers went to great lengths to use detailed imagery to describe the environments.  In these instances, Zork, as a text adventure, becomes much like a more conventional written form of narrative, conveying visual information in a textual manner.  It is this area where the term “interactive fiction” rings true in that the game serves as a form of literature, but the player’s interaction with the game is what progresses the story forward.  Combined with the game’s mechanics, which provide these descriptions procedurally room-by-room, the player is able to build the Zork’s expansive world mentally, piece-by-piece.  While it takes voluminous amounts of time on the game to actually get an idea of the entire world given its size and complexity, the player is able to quickly map out a rough idea of oft-traveled localities, such as the forest.  With the detailed descriptions in many areas, this allows the game to serve as a very immersive and challenging environment requiring a level of creativity and effort on the part of the player in attempting to advance further in the game.

Zork’s detailed description of its Great Canyon.

Zork itself highlighted a remarkable transformation of the interactive fiction genre of computer games, vastly increasing the level of complexity and depth of text adventure games.  Its developers integrated varied levels of textual descriptions which, combined with the nature of the mechanics of the textual adventure genre, produced a highly immersive environment.  The interactivity of Zork, through its recognition of countless actions (as well as its beloved witty responses) and promotion of experimentation, is unmatched among more modern forms of video games whose mechanics are largely limited in scope.

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