The Wizard's Tower

Zork the Great and Powerful

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Welcome to The Wizard’s Tower, a regular Retro Now feature covering the history and development of computer ‘adventure games’, the programmers, the publishers and the games themselves. Each week, the Wizard opens his Book of Lore to look at a different aspect of adventure gaming, as well as reviewing individual games from time to time.

Last week, the Wizard looked back through the Mysts of Tyme to shed light on the first-ever commercial adventure game, Adventureland, which in 1978 launched the games career of a most legendary adventure programmer Scott Adams, and his company Adventure International.

For years after, one of their greatest competitors was another equally legendary company, Infocom. And Infocom’s first, and perhaps most famous, adventure game was Zork, whose tale is told on this week’s page from the Wizard’s Book of Lore.


Deep in the bowels of Colossal Cave

4.3 BSD from the University of Wisconsin, running Zork and displaying the introductory leaflet for 'Dungeon' (courtesy Wikipedia)

4.3 BSD from the University of Wisconsin, running Zork and displaying the introductory leaflet for ‘Dungeon’ (courtesy Wikipedia)

Adventureland was inspired by the first ever adventure game, Colossal Cave, and so it was that Zork, or Dungeon as it was first known, came to pass. But rather than being created on a mere microcomputer, Zork’s origin was to be found, as with the original, deep within the cavernous bowels of a mainframe computer, a DEC PDP-10.

The first version of Zork, a greatly updated version of Colossal Cave, was written in 1977–1979 as Dungeon, using the MDL programming language, and was authored by a whole team of programmers – including Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling— all of whom were members of the Dynamic Modelling Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MDL, often referred to as ‘Muddle’, was a LISP-based system offering powerful string manipulation features, which made it possible for Zork to be much more advanced than the original Crowther and Woods Adventure.  While superficially similar in terms of their use of text commands for input and being essentially based on exploration, Zork allowed longer and more specific commands than Adventure. This latest game also used a completely new map made up of multiple areas, each with their own set of puzzles and stories.


Three is a magic number

Zork was originally so big in its mainframe implementation (by the standards of the time) that it had to be split up intro three separate but linked games so that it could be ported to early microcomputers such as the Apple II, Commodore Pet and Tandy TRS-80. Those three seminal games were Zork: The Great Underground Empire – Part I (later known as Zork I), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz, and Zork III: The Dungeon Master. They would lead, eventually, to the foundation of another empire, that of one of the most famous adventure game companies of all time, Infocom.

Box front of the Mac version of the Zork Trilogy

Box front of the Mac version of the Zork Trilogy

This next step in text adventure games would be a step up in depth and quality, not just because the three-game format permitted richer and deeper storytelling, but because the program’s text parser (command interpreter) not only recognised simple two-word commands but also some prepositions and conjunctions. Compare, for example, ‘hit troll’ to ‘hit the troll with the Elvish sword’. This allowed the player greater interactivity with the game and a higher quality of story to be told.  This does not mean that the story always makes complete sense, having some rather incongruous elements, and a sometimes weird sense of humour which became part of Infocom’s stock in trade.


From adventurer to dungeon master

Without wishing to lay down too much of a breadcrumb trail for all you bold adventurers who may be contemplating entering the world of Zork for the first time, I shall endeavour to give a flavour of the first episode of the adventure, Zork I.

Zork, aka Dungeon, is said to be set in ‘…the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground’. You, the player, are a nameless adventurer, ‘…venturing into this dangerous land in search of wealth and adventure’. Over all three successive games, you must seek to inherit the title of Dungeon Master.

At the White House. What will you do?

At the White House. What will you do?

Zork I begins above ground, near a white house in a small, self-contained area.  The house may yield numerous intriguing objects, including an Elvish sword of great antiquity. A rug hides a trap door leading down, down into a dark cellar, an entrance to the ‘dungeons’ of the ‘Great Underground Empire’ (aka GUE), and so your adventure begins. But keep your wits about you, or it may end sooner than you think!

These dungeons, which it is your task to successfully explore, house numerous weird and unusual objects and creatures, and comprise many strange locations. Some of those things which you find along your way are, as you might expect, referred to in sequel games and others by Infocom, which is all part of the fun. Always lurking in the background is the game’s fictional conglomerate, ‘FrobozzCo International’, whose often humorous products you will inevitably come across, from time to time, within all the Zork Trilogy games.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to return from exploring the GUE alive and having collected all of the treasures which you will need to complete each adventure. Finding the treasures requires solving a variety of puzzles such as the navigation of mazes and some intricate manipulations. The ultimate goal of Zork I is to collect all ‘Twenty Treasures of Zork’ and install them in a trophy case, whereupon the player will be granted the title of ‘Master Adventurer’ and the way to the beginning of Zork II will be revealed…


Get lantern…

Being underground, you will often need a source of light to pick up and use, and these are many and varied amongst the Zork games.  For example, a pair of candles, or a battery-powered brass lantern, both of which will only last so long before plunging the player into darkness… If you end up navigating through the dark, you may be grabbed and eaten by a carnivorous creature known as a ‘grue’, thus ending your adventure in an abrupt and grisly fashion.  Unless, of course, you have a grue repellent spray on hand…


In the company of adventurers


The Infocom Imps (Computer Game Review. April, 1996)

The Infocom Imps (Computer Game Review. April, 1996)

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Zork went through several mainframe versions between 1977-78 before three members of the original team, who by then were known as the ‘imps’, joined forces to found Infocom as a general programming firm.  Marc Blank and Joel Berez had both moved to Pittsburgh and kept in touch, thinking about the future of Zork. When word reached them of the formation of Infocom, they convinced their former colleagues that it would be possible to sell Zork as a commercial product for the new home computers, albeit they were far less powerful, with simpler programming languages and storage systems.

To get round these hardware and software difficulties, Berez and Blank devised their own computer programming language known as ‘Zork Implementation Language’, or ‘ZIL’, running within a virtual machine known as the Z-machine. The Z-machine would be ported to various platforms in shells known as the Z-machine Interpreter Program or ZIP. The first ZIP was built in 1979.  The storage issue required the cutting down of the game until it would fit on a floppy disk, with Dave Lebling drawing a circle on the original Zork map and retaining and remodelling around 100 locations from the original, leaving the rest of the map for the sequel games.

With Blank and Berez returning to Boston, Berez became the president of Infocom. At the end of 1979 they purchased a Tandy TRS-80 micro, for which Scott Cutler brought up a ZIP in early 1980. The team began looking for ways to market the game and initially turned to Personal Software (aka PS), the distributors of VisiCalc and probably the first software distribution firm for micros. PS demonstrated Zork in February, arranging an agreement between the two firms in June, and sales began in December, with the rest becoming history.

What an adventure!


Be ye an adventurer bold?

The Wizard would love to hear about your favourite adventures, past and present, and invites you to comment below. He is also on the lookout for newly published retro adventure games, so please do contact him if you are a developer looking for a review!

Next week the Wizard will cast his scrying glass over the first ever graphic adventure game, Mystery House for the Apple II, created by husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams in 1980.  It was  to be the first in a long line of classics from their then-new company, another early giant of adventure gaming, On-Line Systems, later to be known as Sierra On-Line.

Meanwhile, why not make a bee-line over to and begin your own next adventure with a version of Zork I, playable online?  Or even visit Infocom Downloads and pick up a version for PC or Mac?



Contact The Wizard

You can contact The Wizard, Stuart Williams, by dragon messenger, by smoke signal, or by email to:



Wizard’s Tower picture used courtesy of Greg Blake:

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