Zork on an iPhone

Zork was one of the first interactive fiction computer games and an early descendant of Colossal Cave Adventure. The first version of Zork was written in 1977–1979 on a DEC PDP-10 computer by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling, and implemented in the MDL programming language. All four were members of the MIT Dynamic Modelling Group.

"Zork" was originally MIT hacker slang for an unfinished program. The implementors briefly named the completed game Dungeon, but changed it back to Zork after receiving a trademark violation notice from the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. Zork has also been adapted to a book series.

Three of the original Zork programmers joined with others to found Infocom in 1979. That company adapted the PDP-10 Zork into Zork I-III, a trilogy of games for most popular small computers of the era, including the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Commodore Plus/4, the Atari 8-bit family, the TRS-80, CP/M systems and the IBM PC. Zork I was published on 5¼" and 8" floppy disks. Joel Berez and Marc Blank developed a specialized virtual machine to run Zork I, called the Z-machine. The first "Z-machine Interpreter Program" ZIP for a small computer was written by Scott Cutler for the TRS-80. The trilogy was written in ZIL, which stands for "Zork Implementation Language", a language similar to LISP. Personal Software published what would become the first part of the trilogy under the name Zork when it was first released in 1980, but Infocom later handled the distribution of that game and their subsequent games. Part of the reason for splitting Zork into three different games was that, unlike the PDP systems the original ran on, micros did not have enough memory and disk storage to handle the entirety of the original game. In the process, more content was added to Zork to make each game stand on its own. A version of Zork I was issued as a hidden 'easter egg' in Call of Duty: Black Ops, a video game produced as a collaboration between Activision and Treyarch in November 2010. It has exactly the same text and rules as the original.

Zork distinguished itself in its genre as an especially rich game, in terms of both the quality of the storytelling and the sophistication of its text parser, which was not limited to simple verb-noun commands ("hit troll"), but some prepositions and conjunctions ("hit the troll with the Elvish sword").



Zork is set in "the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground". The player is a nameless adventurer "who is venturing into this dangerous land in search of wealth and adventure".[1] The goal is to return from the "Great Underground Empire" alive with the treasures,[2] ultimately inheriting the title of Dungeon Master. The dungeons are stocked with many novel creatures, objects and locations, among them grues, zorkmids, and Flood Control Dam #3—all of which are referenced by subsequent Infocom text adventures.

FrobozzCo International is a fictional monopolous conglomerate from the game.[3] FrobozzCo products are littered throughout all Zork games, often with humorous effect.

Zork series

The original Zork Trilogy

Later additions to the series

All these are text-only unless otherwise noted.

  • The Enchanter trilogy:
    • Enchanter (1983, Infocom)
    • Sorcerer (1984, Infocom)
    • Spellbreaker (1985, Infocom)
  • Games that take place somewhere in the Zork universe:
    • Wishbringer: The Magick Stone of Dreams (1985, Infocom)
  • The Zork Quest series:
    • Zork Quest: Assault on Egreth Castle (1988, Infocom, interactive computer comic book)
    • Zork Quest: The Crystal of Doom (1989, Infocom, interactive computer comic book)
  • The Zork Anthology comprises the original Zork Trilogy plus:
    • Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987, Infocom)
    • Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988, Infocom, text with some graphics)

After a six year hiatus, the following games were produced:

  • Return to Zork (1993, Infocom/Activision, graphical)
  • The Philosopher's Stone (Activision, unfinished text prequel to Zork Nemesis)
  • Zork Nemesis: The Forbidden Lands (1996, Activision, graphical)
  • Zork: The Undiscovered Underground (1997, written by Michael Berlyn and Marc Blank (original Infocom implementors) and released by Activision to promote the release of Zork Grand Inquisitor)
  • Zork Grand Inquisitor (1997, Activision, graphical)

The Enchanter trilogy and Wishbringer occupy somewhat unusual positions within the Zork universe. Enchanter was originally developed as Zork IV; Infocom decided to instead release it separately, however, and it became the basis of a new trilogy. (In each trilogy, there is a sense of assumed continuity; that is, the player's character in Zork III is assumed to have experienced the events of Zork I and Zork II. Similarly, events from Enchanter are referenced in Sorcerer and Spellbreaker; but the Enchanter character is not assumed to be the same one from the Zork trilogy. In fact, in Enchanter the player's character encounters the Adventurer from Zork, who helps the player's character solve a puzzle in the game.) Although Wishbringer was never officially linked to the Zork series, the game is generally agreed to be "Zorkian" due to its use of magic and several terms and names from established Zork games.

Later compilations and current availability

Zork can run on modern Z-machine interpreters, as well as the older models it was made for originally.

Among the games bundled in The Lost Treasures of Infocom, published in 1991 by Activision under the Infocom brand, were the original Zork trilogy, the Enchanter trilogy, Beyond Zork and Zork Zero. A second bundle published in 1992, The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, contained Wishbringer and ten other non-Zork-related games.

Activision's 1996 compilation, Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom, includes all the text-based Zork games; the Zork and Enchanter trilogies, Wishbringer, Beyond Zork and Zork Zero.

Activision briefly offered free downloads of Zork I as part of the promotion of Zork: Nemesis, and Zork II and Zork III as part of the promotion for Zork Grand Inquisitor, as well as a new adventure: Zork: The Undiscovered Underground.

Of six novels published as "Infocom Books" by Avon Books between 1989–1991, four were directly based on Zork: The Zork Chronicles by George Alec Effinger (1990), The Lost City of Zork by Robin W. Bailey (1991), Wishbringer by Craig Shaw Gardner and Enchanter, also by Bailey.

In 2006, an over-the-phone version of Zork entitled Zasterisk entered beta testing. Programmed by Simon Ditner using Asterisk and the Festival Speech Synthesis System, players can call in and play Zork over the phone by speaking voice commands. The results are read back by the automated text-to-voice synthesis system. It is now known as Zoip, a reference to VoIP.[4]

The latest installation of the Zork series is Legends of Zork, a persistent browser-based MMORPG, which was released on April 1, 2009.

2010 saw Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, and Mini-Zork formatted specifically for the Amazon Kindle – with more interactive text adventures promised for the platform.[5]

A full version of Zork I is playable on a computer terminal in the interrogation room in the 2010 game Call of Duty: Black Ops where it unlocks the achievement or bronze trophy (Xbox 360 or PS3, respectively) called "Eaten by a Grue."[6]

Since January 18, 2011 Zork Anthology (featuring Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero and Planetfall) is internationally available at Good Old Games, in a form of digital download.

On June 22, 2011 the original Zork trilogy, along with downloadable maps and walk-through guides, were made available on the Iron Realms website.[7]


In the Zork games, the player is not limited to verb-noun commands, such as "take lamp", "open mailbox", and so forth. Instead, the parser supports more sophisticated sentences such as "put the lamp and sword in the case", "look under the rug", and "drop all except lantern". The game understands many common verbs, including "take", "drop", "examine", "attack", "climb", "open", "close", "count", and many more. The games also support commands to the game directly (rather than taking actions within the fictional setting of the game) such as "save" and "restore", "script" and "unscript" (which begin and end a text transcript of the game text), "restart", and "quit".[8]

In all of the Zork text adventures, the following commands apply:

> n, s, e, w

Short for "go north", "go south", etc.

> nw, ne, sw, se

Short for "go northwest", "go southwest", etc.

> u and d

Short for "go up" and "go down"

> i

Reveals a player's inventory

> verbose

Gives full descriptions after each command (rather than omitting details already given to the player)

> score

Displays the player's current score, number of moves, and ranking


In late 1977 a hacker obtained a copy of the Zork source code, which was subsequently spread.[9] The leaked Zork source code was later used by Bob Supnik, a programmer from Digital Equipment Corporation, to create a Fortran IV port, which allowed the game to run on the smaller DEC PDP-11.[10] Late 1977 the Zork authors had decided to rename Zork to Dungeon, and Supnik subsequently released his port as Dungeon in January 1978.[11][12] Somewhere in 1978 the Zork developers received notice from Tactical Studies Rules, who claimed that the name Dungeon infringed their trademark rights, and they subsequently changed the name back to Zork.[13] When Zork became a commercial product at Infocom, Infocom agreed that if an Infocom copyright notice was put on the Fortran version, noncommercial distribution would be allowed. This Fortran version, and C translations thereof, have been included in several Linux distributions.

The Fortran version of Dungeon was widely available on DEC VAXes, being one of the most popular items distributed by DECUS. It went through multiple modifications both to incorporate more features from the original and to track changes in the MDL version. In the late 1980s, the Fortran version was extensively rewritten for VAX Fortran and became fully compatible with the last MDL release. It had one extra joke: an apparent entrance to the Mill (a reference to DEC's headquarters) that was, in fact, impassable.

It also had a gdt command (game debugging technique, a reference to the DDT debugger) which enabled the player to move any object (including the player) to any room. Use of gdt required answering a random question requiring deep knowledge of the game. The game's response to a wrong answer (“A booming voice says ‘Wrong, cretin!’ and you notice that you have turned into a pile of dust”) appears in many "fortune cookie" databases.

The FORTRAN version was also included in the distribution media for some Data General operating systems. It was used as an acceptance test to verify that the OS had been correctly installed. Being able to compile, link, and run the program demonstrated that all of the run-time libraries, compiler, and link editor were installed in the correct locations.

See also


  1. ^ Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. Zork Trilogy Instruction Manual. Infocom. 1984. p. 11.
  2. ^ Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. Zork Trilogy Instruction Manual. Infocom. 1984. p. 11.
  3. ^ Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. Zork Trilogy Instruction Manual. Infocom. 1984. p. cover.
  4. ^ Kerner, Sean Michael (2007-05-04). "Zork Returns! Thanks to Open Source Asterisk PBX". internetnews. http://www.internetnews.com/dev-news/article.php/3675671. Retrieved 2007-05-05. 
  5. ^ Citizen, Jessica (2010-10-08). "Kindle: Text Adventures in the 21st Century". GamePron. http://www.gamepron.com/news/2010/10/07/kindle-text-adventures-in-the-21st-century/. Retrieved 2010-10-09. 
  6. ^ Citizen, Jessica (2010-11-09). "You got some Zork in my CoD: Black Ops!". GamePron. http://www.gamepron.com/news/2010/11/09/you-got-some-zork-in-my-cod-black-ops/. Retrieved 2010-11-09. 
  7. ^ "Iron Realms Entertainment hosts Zork Trilogy with downloadable .PDF maps.". http://www.ironrealms.com/zork. 
  8. ^ "Infocom Documentation Project: Manuals". http://infodoc.plover.net/manuals/. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  9. ^ Tim Anderson (1985). "The History of Zork". http://www.csd.uwo.ca/Infocom/Articles/NZT/zorkhist.html. "We tried two approaches to protecting the sources (remember, there was no protection of any sort on DM): they were normally kept encrypted; and we patched the system to protect the directory where we kept the sources (named CFS, for either "Charles F. Stanley" or "Computer Fantasy and Simulation"). This worked pretty well, but was finally beaten by a system hacker from Digital: using some archaic ITS documentation (there's never been any other kind), he was able to figure out how to modify the running operating system." 
  10. ^ Roger Firth (2002). "InfLight – Inform debugging". http://www.firthworks.com/roger/inflight/process.html. "At the MIT AI-Lab, Mark Blank, Tim Anderson et al played Adventure; they were sure that if an adventure game could be written in FORTRAN, a better one could be done in MDL (a Lisp-like language). The result, around 1978, was Dungeon, (from which Bob Supnik at DEC created a FORTRAN version); the MDL original, however, was soon renamed Zork." 
  11. ^ Michael Feir (2007). "Zork Turns 30". http://www.malinche.net/zork.html. "In the brief time that Zork was known as Dungeon, the Fortran version of Dungeon was widely circulated which caused the name Dungeon to stick in some circles and sectors to this day." 
  12. ^ Peter Scheyen (1996). "Dungeon". http://www.csd.uwo.ca/Infocom/dungeon.html. "Version FORTRAN IV Zork (Dungeon) Release Date January 1978 Authors A somewhat paranoid DEC engineer" 
  13. ^ Tim Anderson (1985). "The History of Zork". http://www.csd.uwo.ca/Infocom/Articles/NZT/zorkhist.html. "Fortunately for us, a certain company (which shall remain nameless) decided to claim that it had trademark rights to the name Dungeon, as a result of certain games that it sold. We didn't agree (and MIT had some very expensive lawyers on retainer who agreed with us), but it encouraged us to do the right thing, and not hide our "Zorks" under a bushel." 

External links

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