Zork: a Treatise on Story

The screen on the Commodore 64 was green and the cursor a blinking box instead of the humble line. The game cartridge was a cassette or a floppy disk—I disremember so many years later—and the computer whirred when I put it in. There were no images, no animation. Only text that popped up in pixels that would send my eyes swimming now, white on a black background, as if there are only two ways of seeing the world, and for the first text-based video games, there was.

The game began with your unnamed player standing in an open field west of a white house. In the small mailbox lay a leaflet that welcomed you to the game. You moved by typing commands: /walk /climb /go down stairs /kill troll. Each typed command unrolled more of the described world, assuming you could find the right words to do the unrolling. By circling the house—/east /south /west—you came upon a window slightly opened, through which you must /enter. Inside the house was a trophy case, the implied objective to fill the case with treasure. To the west stood a door with strange gothic lettering and a staircase that led to pitch darkness, where you were warned, if you typed the command to go that way, that you were likely to be eaten by a grue. Beneath the oriental rug lay a trapdoor and below the trapdoor the Great Underground Empire spread out, a world of treasures and trolls, and with only simple commands, a sword of great antiquity, and a lantern lying on the table, the player ventured forth into the darkness.

What drew me to the game was the unknown of the Great Underground Empire, a phrase that conjured images of vast lairs lurking beneath my feet. In those lairs lay treasure and though the treasure consisted only of words—a jeweled scarab, a silver chalice, a clockwork canary—words, I found then, were enough. At nine or ten I was already seeking out some escape—from the oppressiveness of church, the monotony of school, the emptiness of our house after my parents’ divorce—and any book or video game describing some imagined world would work. The white house in the middle of an open field seemed an appropriate starting point. That your character had no name seemed appropriate as well, as if any time before the first text appeared on the screen and the cursor stood blinking, waiting for your words, did not matter. Any time before now had no place in this world.

But despite the images the details on the screen drug up and the hours I spent attempting to /enter or /eat or /examine, the game was frustrating. You typed /turn or /take or /attack and the text unfurled a little further, offering new areas with new clues, but the clues never told you where to go or what to do when you got there. Each new area was only another puzzle to solve amid the sparse text prompts and endless error messages.

/You can’t do that, the game told you when you typed in commands the software did not recognize, and lying on the floor of your parents’ empty bedroom or looking out the windows of your third grade classroom, you had to wonder why not, what was holding you back.

/You don’t know how to do that, the game spelled out, and /I don’t know the word /drag and /The door is already open, error messages which forced you to consider what words might work in each situation, substituting /move for /drag or /carry for /kick. Each error forced you to learn the language, find new ways to tell the computer what you wanted your character to do. Most of the game was exploration, turning to the four corners to see what each command called forth, whether a candle or a coffin or a room filled with coal. Any advancement came from trial and error, from interacting with the environment and the few objects you found in each cave or cold passage, and if you persevered, kept typing, kept trying, the Great Underground Empire stretched out below like Hemingway’s icebergs, descriptions detailing dozens of corridors, rooms filled with paintings and mirrors and books that exorcised demons.

The wary player learned to save the game regularly, so that in the case of an untimely death, or coming to a point where he was unable to continue, any progress would not be lost. There were many such moments. A thief roamed the dungeons of the GUE, randomly appearing to /steal any treasure the player had gathered, the loss of which might make him /start over. A troll with a bloody battle axe lurked in the long halls and the player was forced to /fight or /flee. In the darkness there lived a grue that would /kill the player if he ran out of light, and any room could become a dead end if you couldn’t find the right command to solve whatever mystery the room held.

I never made it far in the game. I don’t remember much besides the rain on the windows as I played during recess, or the quiet of the cold house, broken only by the clacking of keys, after I got home from school. I do remember the frustration of trying to find the hidden world, of being unable to come up with the commands that would have allowed me to unlock its secrets, which might have helped me, I thought then, to understand what went on beneath the surface of the world in which I lived. But I could only be told /You can’t do that so many times before I quit. It was too hard to figure out what to do next so that the story might keep moving forward, and when I did figure out what to do, there was still a chance my character would be killed, left alone in the darkness for the grue or torn apart by the bloody troll.

Since the late ’70s when Zork came out, video games have advanced from text to simple images to side-scrollers to turn-based to immersive worlds wherein the player may live a second life. The images have become so crisp and clear that one might pretend to be in another world, but I still carry with me a fondness for the old type of text-based games. As a writer I am playing a different kind of game, trying to find the treasure not in the hidden world, but in the one we are forced to figure out every day. Much of the time I am told that I don’t know how to do that, either by an external editor or an internal one who can’t come up with the right words. Much of the time I am struggling through the darkness, hoping the grue does not eat me. All writing is trial and error, and much of it is terror, but there are treasures to be found if one learns the language, if he follows the path stretching before him, if he ignores errors and keeps lighting the darkness while dealing with the danger.

/Save often.