Zork Through the Ages

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Zork was not the very first text adventure-- that honor belongs to a game called Adventure-- but it was the first big hit, and countless computer gamers started their careers standing in front of its boarded-up white house.

It was actually very simple by interactive fiction standards. Players loaded up supplies at the house, then headed down into the ruins of the Great Underground Empire to collect treasure, dodging grues and navigating the famous twisty little passages.

Actually what most people played was not the original Zork but Infocom's repackaging, which broke up a single game into a trilogy. Infocom later added Zork Zero, set when the Empire was strong, which filled in lots of backstory and locations, plus introducing the incomprehensibly complex card game of Double Fanucci.

Memories of Zork remained so indelible that other Infocom adventures had references. The zorkmid became the standard currency of text fantasy settings. The pulp adventure Leather Goddesses of Phobos had Mars on the marsmid, and when it was time to take a turn into Lovecraftian territory, The Lurking Horror was set at a university bearing suspicious resemblances to MIT, but known in the game as GUE Tech.

Infocom was eventually acquired by Activision as adventure games started to incorporate more and more graphics, and an attempt to breed the flexibility of text commands together with the exciting new ability to incorporate CGI and actors resulted in Return to Zork. I remember playing this and not liking it much because the new interface felt unwieldy. In retrospect, it managed it about as well as any game ever would, and I'd like to go back and play it through again someday, if I can reconstruct myself a Windows 95 system.

Return to Zork also had the misfortune of appearing after the introduction of live actors and real sets, but before the realization that games were going to need to have much more serious art direction and budgets, resulting in, erm, uneven production values. One moment there's some fairly cool CGI, the next, you're at the community-theater level.

However, that era had passed before the creation of the next installment, Zork: Nemesis. Now the hot standard-setting game was The 7th Guest, which some of you may recall was a mildly gory horror story. Zork, on the other hand, while offering the occasional opportunity to be eaten by a monster, was generally light. This did not stop Activision demanding that Zork: Nemesis must meet the standard of the moment. The resulting feeling of discombobulation was rather like if Warner Brothers had said, "We're really interested in this Twilight series, and we need a name actor to play the male lead to make extra sure we pack the crowds in. How about Jim Carrey?"

How thoroughly did they go down the horror path? Well, I remember one bit in a mortuary, where the solution to the puzzle was to unpack a corpse, run it through a guillotine, then take the head and stick it in the mysterious infernal device, which was to be used to interrogate it. I remember this part particularly well because the moment when I figured this out was the moment before I said, "You have got to be kidding me!" and turned the game off for good.

Next came Zork Grand Inquisitor, which some have claimed returned the series to humorous form. I never played it because I was still mad at Activision over Zork: Nemesis. After that, things went quiet for a long time.

And then, just recently, I stumbled across a promotion involving Legends of Zork, an online game. Makes sense, doesn't it, that a game which has been applied to every big trend in its industry would eventually wind up as a massively multiplayer online RPG? Ah, well, that's not quite what's happened to it. Instead, the makers, Jolt Online, have pulled it into the newly invented category of "casual MMO".

A session in your typical MMORPG is like a computer-mediated version of a tabletop RPG with lots and lots of players. You have a character with a specialty and a race and all sorts of customized skills trained to various degrees. You've equip your armor and weapons which all have various complicated bonuses, and you walk through the virtual world to the area you want to explore. You then move through it room by room, fighting specific monsters with a variety of tactics, usually with the aid of some friends who have their own highly specialized characters.

Here is how the casual MMO works: You click on a map area where you want to go hunting. A random encounters pops up. The game does a few calculations and rolls percentile dice. If the roll fails, you lose a hit point. If it succeeds, you kill the monster. Then another window pops up telling you you've picked up zorkmids or items. Click a different button to go back to your base, and you automatically sell your loot (you can't use anything you pick up) and get healed to full.

If you want to form a group, you go to the Group Adventuring tab, click something to start an adventure, and are assigned random characters of about your level to accompany you. Then you get e-mails over the next couple days telling you that the group adventure is going on.

There's a very basic skill system-- one point per level, with which you can fully learn one skill-- and a mechanic for getting general bonuses based on collecting Double Fanucci cards. There are lots of little trophies to earn for, say, killing a certain number of monsters, or buying a really expensive piece of armor, but it's still oddly unsatisfying.

For the reason, we must turn to Dr. Richard Bartle's online player types. There are four, each looking for a different kind of gaming experience, which he calls Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, and Killer.

Achievers are there to get the most points, the shiniest armor, the biggest bonuses. They're about equivalent to what the tabletop world calls munchkins.

Explorers want to figure the whole game out. They want to find all the hidden locations, solve all the puzzles, reverse-engineer the whole magic system.

Socializers are less interested in the actual adventuring than the hanging-out-with-friends aspect. They're happy to log in and just spend most of the time hanging out on the game channels or in the clan hall and chatting.

Killers, which we also now call griefers, are in it to annoy people. They're the people who like to show up just as you're resting up for that final run on the turbonium dragon and kill you instead.

So here's the semi-problem with Legends of Zork: It's 100% achiever-oriented. Having no way to interact directly in real-time with other players leaves both socializers and killers cold. Explorers don't have much to figure out beyond the (fairly simple) Double Fanucci system and the occasional quest (every 5 levels) the game throws their way. The rest is all just building up XP and occasionally buying better equipment.

Dr. Bartle used to have a quiz available online where you could find out how strongly you express his various personality types. It rated me as heavily skewed toward Achiever and Explorer. So while I'm frustrated by the utter randomness of the encounter system, I'm happy to report that after only a couple months of minimal time investment, I've managed to get myself ranked 7269th out of 420,455 players. My fellow achievers: check it out.

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