Michał Sapka's website

Zork's Original Trilogy

It’s 1977, and one of the most influential games was released - Zork.

It’s 2023, and that name is largely forgotten. In the day of fast action shoot fest or, well, graphics, it’s hard to imagine something less appealing to the mass crowd. Zork was a text adventure in the spirit of Collosal Cave Adventure. Once a player starts a new game, he is greeted with short description:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here. just

Yep, it’s as good as it got back then. Computers were unable to display anything but text, and even this was problematic. Game creators were limited not only by displays but also by size. You could not fit big games in memory. So much so that Zork from mainframes was ported as three games (Zork I, II, and III) for personal computers. Nowadays, when a single webpage can weigh dozens of megabytes, it may be hard to comprehend, but hackers back then had to really think hard about what and how to include it.

So, we have a short description and input prompt. This is everything we need to tell a story and add some basic mechanics. We are in front of a house with a mailbox. How to open it? Simply, we type “open mailbox”

Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.

And voila, that’s the basic gist of Zork - you read some text, type some text, read some new text, and type some more text. Exciting!

Recently I’ve stumbled upon an older Reddit thread, which describes the tech behind it - which is very interesting. Everything in the game is a “Thing” - the mailbox, the leaflet, the room we are in, and even a player. Each thing can be placed inside another, so the room here contains the Mailbox. Things can also have properties that describe them more - like having a description, so you can `look at mailbox:

The small mailbox contains:
A leaflet

There are also dedicated properties that allow for context-based action, like read leaflet


ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it, you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be without one!”

Note the (taken) - things can move between things, and the Player has the leaflet. Later in the game, we also have fights. If you ignore the lack of graphics, you have all the ingredients of a modern adventure game.

A full playthrough of Zork 1 takes bellow 3 hours, but those will be difficult three hours. There is even a song about it-and a great one indeed.

It Is Pitch Dark by MC Frontalot on Youtube

In order to finish the game without a walk-thru (so have some fun), you must master a wholly forgotten map-making skill. You move between rooms by going NORTH, WEST, and so on. It’s impossible not to get lost. Most mortals will be happy with a grid paper, but who would we be if some of us would not take it to the extreme? Some maps are wall-worthy!

Zork 1 map from the Zork Users Group, David Ardito and Steve Meretzky, 1982
Zork 1 map from the Zork Users Group, David Ardito and Steve Meretzky, 1982 [source]

You can play Zork on anything now, as your dishwasher is powerful enough. Even in the browser

The first trilogy was followed by direct text-based sequels, books, and a few Myst-inspired interactive slideshows.

some of which were strange. Here's Zork Nemesis
some of which were strange. Here's Zork Nemesis