Read this excellent article about the making of Zork, the iconic 1977 text adventure

Originally published at: Read this excellent article about the making of Zork, the iconic 1977 text adventure | Boing Boing

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But a player base consisting almost entirely of university hackers expected challenging problems: too simple, and they would have stopped playing. Today’s games are made for broader audiences used to far less friction.

There was also a nice community aspect of sharing hints with friends, and those hints travelling across the country by literal word of mouth. Some of the puzzles and tasks may have been esoteric, but there the diversity of skills and knowledge in that player base meant that someone would eventually figure them all out.


If anyone needs a time sink, Jimmy Maher’s ‘Digital Antiquarian’ is a treasure trove of stories about interactive fiction from the mid-1970s onwards:

The original ‘Adventure’: » Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 1 The Digital Antiquarian

and the original ‘Zork’: » Zork on the PDP-10 The Digital Antiquarian

I’m still blown away that my humble Commodore 64 was running a virtual machine when I played (badly) those Infocom games - all in less memory than a modern email.


Zork wasn’t my first adventure game, but it was Infocom’s games that made the biggest impression on me.

Zork was groundbreaking in many ways and was a lot of fun, but yes it was brutal and unforgiving. A not uncommon trait of games back then. A lot of the anachronisms mentioned in the article were also common in games of that period. Many of Infocom’s later games are far better in terms of both playability and consistency. Many of them are also very underappreciated as Zork gets all the glory for being the first of them.

The z-machine itself, which the article over-simplifies in calling it “Zork’s engine”, was a brilliant bit of computing.


All I remember was the reaction to the command “molest corpses”. And those solutions were nothing compared to stuff in “The Pawn” or even H2G2 (“show the door both tea and not-tea”?)


I recall playing Zork on an IBM 370 mainframe running VM in the late 1980s. (I’m sure we were not supposed to!)

It was a very tedious game.

I spent years playing H2G2, and eventually had to resort to spoilers to beat it. Still one of my favorite games of all time.


i played it on both my university’s dec vax 11 mainframe and on a friends altair kit computer.

it was diverting if not exactly fun.

my friend with the altair printed out the code for the game to try to figure out how to get through it.


What he meant was that Zork itself runs in a virtual machine. All Infocom games were written for a theoretical computer called the z-machine. The game executable you launch was really a virtual machine implementation of the z-machine and the “game” was in a bytecode file shipped with the executable. This allowed Infocom to publish all their games on the many many platforms available back then.

They only needed to write the interpreter for each platform once, and each game was written once and compiled into bytecode and shipped with the appropriate interpreter for a platform. Write once, run anywhere! Over a decade before Java existed.

The z-machine was, I believe, also the first recorded use of virtual memory (paging) on a microcomputer.


Another one from that era:


Did Eddie Murphy know this game?

“VM” was the other IBM mainframe operating system - the one that wasn’t MVS - in those days. Used internally in IBM for many things, including the office system (email, calendar, etc).

It was indeed a system called Virtual Machine and it did exactly what you might think.

I’m aware. Zork itself is also (always) in a virtual machine, so you were running a vm inside a vm.

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