What Is Zork?

Zork I played in Gargoyle

Zork is a series of classic video games in the genre known as adventure games, which are about exploring strange places, solving mysterious puzzles, and surviving bizarre scenarios. Other classic examples of this genre include Myst, King's Quest and Monkey Island.

Zork has a few things that make it unique from those later games, though. It is actually one of the oldest computer game franchises, with the first game making its public debut in 1980. Because of this, newcomers to the series might be shocked to discover upon loading up the original game that there's not a single graphic in sight. The early games in the series are an example of a sub-genre of adventures known as text adventures or interactive fiction. What this means is that the game takes place in a turn-based environment where the game will display text on the screen as if you were reading a book, and then you, playing the part of the main character of the story, will type in what you want your character to do next in the story. It's sort of like a Choose-Your-Own Adventure book, but much more open to exploration and experimentation.

Speaking with Trembyle in Return to Zork

This text-based interface allowed for player interaction that seemed limitless as there was a deep richness of detail to the descriptions given to the player. The environments described by the game drew players into this world like no other game could. For example, imagine playing Zork and coming upon a room with a painting of Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive. The game could just say, "It's a painting of the last king of the land." Most text adventures, especially at that time, would be satisfied with such a simple description, but what made Zork (and other Infocom adventures) stand out from the pack was their attention to detail. Zork wouldn't be satisfied with the previous description. It would tell you what kind of painting it was. It would tell an amusing anecdote about the creation of the painting. It would tell you about the king's quirks. That is where the richness of the world came from: the love of entertaining the player even when they weren't making progress.

Later Zork games did eventually shift into a graphics-based system, but the hardcore fans still remember the text-based games fondly. The graphical adventures began with Return to Zork, which kept Zork at the forefront of technology as being the first PC game released on CD-ROM and the first video game to incorporate digitized video for its characters. While the graphical games changed from a text input to a mouse input, the games still retained the richness of the world that defined Zork games. All those little amusing details remained and the world was still filled with many places to explore and things to find, just like in previous games.

Zork's famous white house in Zork Grand Inquisitor

If you are interested in trying out Zork, I recommend you go to GOG.com, which is a digital distribution website for games, like Steam except they specialize in re-publishing classic games running on modern hardware. At that site, if you sign up for an account (which is absolutely free), you can purchase several of the Zork games. If you are not interested in the text-based games, I recommend you start with Zork Grand Inquisitor, arguably the best of the Zork graphical games. If you do wish to take the plunge into text adventures, there is a collection of Zork text adventure games available as well, called The Zork Anthology.

See other books in the Zork Library for more information about Zork and more locations where you can buy copies of the games. Once you have the games, learn more about getting them running.

Thanks to the following members of our forum for help with the article: Arjak and Nowhere Gaming.

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