Return to Zork

(This column was written in April of 1994 for Electronic Entertainment magazine, but never got published because the editor who had asked for it left the publication.)

Get Zorked!

In my youth, I spent an amazing amount of time playing computer games, both in the arcade that was next to the computer store I worked at part time, as well as on my trusty TRS-80 and Apple II computers. As time went on, I got around to writing some action video games myself (you can probably find my Fleet Sweep game for CGA equipped PCs in the shareware archives at your local computer store, but don’t rush out to get it – it’s a bit dated).

While I enjoyed playing them, video games generally left me feeling rather empty – a lot of repetitive action, and usually not much of a sense of accomplishment once you cleared a level. Perhaps I’ve been jaded, because what really entranced me were “Adventure” games, in particular text versions of these type of games. I recently had chance to play some of the more new-fangled versions of these adventure games, including Return to Zork, by Activision, which combines action video sequences, digitized speech, and a  graphical user interface to provide a whole new way of interpreting and interacting with an adventure game. Now, before you start turning the page because you don’t want to  read about yet another gushing Return to Zork review, I should tell you that I wasn’t that thrilled with what I saw, and explaining why is going to require delving into a rough history of adventure games.

How Adventure Games Came To Be…
In the heydays of mainframes, graphics weren’t to be had on your local terminal – only text was available, and that was even slow to show on your screen (or even worse, your printer terminal). Obviously, programmers needed some form of entertainment, and adventure games resulted.

An adventure game is oriented around a key element, namely the “goal”. The goal can consist of something you’re trying to achieve (such as a number of points) or solve (such as a mystery or murder). Getting to the goal requires moving from place to place, and taking certain actions. Each place is described in flowing text as you enter it. You need to be read such descriptions carefully because they contain information about various objects that may be located in that place, as well as details about all the different exits from the place (necessary to get from one place to another). Items found or observed in one place may be used in another place to solve some puzzle (i.e. a hatpin from the closet of the mansion may open a locked door in the dungeon).

Navigating around a text adventure game was simple enough – you just entered two word commands, such as GET HATPIN, GO NORTH, UNLOCK DOOR, LOOK NOTE, etc. And since adventure games needed only to display and accept text, they were perfect for the computing environments of a couple of decades ago. Probably the first such game, called “Adventure” (hence the name of the genre), featured secret passwords, a treasure stealing pirate, axe throwing dwarves, a magic beanstalk, and even a giant. Next came the original Zork, and its claim to fame was more complexity and depth, a little randomness (a combat sequence with a troll that could actually result in your death – or at least the death of your adventuring character), and MDL, a new input parser that expanded the commands from two word sequences into complex phrases (i.e. PICK UP THE AXE, THEN THROW IT AT THE TROLL). Of course, simpler two commands still worked for the less keyboard happy. I used to “break” into DEC’s computers just to play this game.

With the appearance of the first commercial PCs (the TRS-80 and Apple II computers), other text adventure games hit the market from a variety of sources. Among the most popular were the Scott Adams adventure series and a series from a 12-year old kid who published under the Mad Hatter Software label (this was before floppy disks became popular and all these were shipped on cassette tapes!). Microsoft then got into the market with the original Adventure, and Infocom brought out Zork, both for these early PCs.

On the Apple II, in particular, Sierra On-Line produced a number of graphically oriented adventure games where text was combined with pictures for each location, but commands still needed to be entered via text commands.

As the IBM PC came into existence and near immediate popularity, these games moved onto that platform as well. Infocom followed up with Zork II and Zork III, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (styled after the popular book), Enchanter, Planetfall, and over two dozen other adventure style games before slowly fading quietly into the scenery before being purchased by Activision in 1987. The closest Infocom got to a graphics adventure was Zork 0, which made the text look a little prettier and incorporated several pictures and interactive, graphical thinking games.

Sierra On-Line went off to produce the ever popular (and growing) King’s Quest series. On the Mac, Leisure Suit Larry captivated game players and raised some controversy as the first popular adult oriented adventure game. Each one of these games provided hours (or even days and weeks) of enjoyment to people who liked solving complex puzzles. It may be obvious that adventure games never made it big in the arcades (or in home entertainment systems, for that matter) because of their inherent complexity (and therefore the length of time they take to play). Dragon’s Lair, the world’s first Laser Disc game, was probably the closest thing to an arcade adventure game we’ll ever see. This meant that while action games got lots of exposure among non-computer users, adventures suffered from lack of recognition in the open market.

Today, PC adventure games have made a comeback, thanks to newer versions (i.e. new plots and puzzles) of King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Return to Zork. The adventures are getting more complex as well, but not in plot as much as in the human interface to such games. Return to Zork probably sets the new standard adventure games will need to compete with, and as a standalone entertainment product, is an amazing and impressive piece of work. But, even though Return to Zork offers a significant challenge and numerous brain teasers, it lacks some of the benefits I perceive text adventures as having.

The Hidden Benefits Of Text Adventures
Text Adventures vs. Graphical Adventures – it’s a comparison that evokes the quietly dying argument of what’s better for a person: Reading a book or watching the book cast as a television movie?

As I see it, text adventures provide skills valuable in today’s computer oriented world, skills which you may not even realize you are honing, but skill which will help you in everyday life.

Among the most important skills taught is typing, not necessarily traditional touch-typing, mind you, but typing nonetheless, and accurately, at that! After all, the game isn’t going to understand what GRT KNIFW means. Typing is a must in Western society today, with keyboards being the primary input mechanism for computers. And, spelling skills improve as well.

Reading skills are also enhanced, as you need to comprehend what’s being described and be able retain it for later use. It’s also a great way to expand your vocabulary. For example, do you know what a “rebus” is? Zork recently forced me to use my dictionary to look up “rebus” (if you don’t know its meaning, I’d suggest looking it up – you’ll be surprised to discover that you already know what a rebus is).

Providing canned graphical images instead of place descriptions is something that I find really limits the imagination. This is where the argument of Reading vs. TV comes into play most strongly. With images in your face, your imagination takes a back seat. However, when reading a description, you’ll get to use and expand your imagination to picture what the place looks like – something even the best artist is not going to be able to match exactly. Without imagination, and imagination building tools, we’ll all ultimately become mindless automatons, accepting what’s put in front of us, and never attempting to seek beyond that.

Text adventures (and the same actually does still hold true for many graphically oriented adventures) help build mapping skills. After all, there’s generally a limit to what objects you can carry in your personal inventory, which means you may have to leave certain objects where you found them, only to have to try to locate them again later once you realize you need them. How are you going to find them without either a map or at least very good direction skills?

Finally, in general, I’ve found that text adventures require more thought than graphical adventures. For example, in Return to Zork, when you select an object to manipulate, you are given a list of options of things you can do with that object. In text adventures, there are no such artificial boundaries. You have build your intuitive skills to determine how certain objects may be used, by experimenting with the objects, the written language, and your imagination. All this leads to more thought.

I’m not trying to knock graphical adventures here, but I think that in all our excitement to embrace the latest graphical and aural technologies, we’re forgetting some important roots, and the educational (or “skill-building”, to be more ’90s) value of those roots. Text adventures are excellent challenging, educational, and entertaining games for your whole family to play with, individually or by applying team effort.

Dig out those old disks, search the shareware archives, and give some text adventures a try. For the best of that genre though, Activision has taken all the old Infocom adventures, and repackaged them in two volumes, aptly named The Lost Treasures Of Infocom, I & II. Volume I offers 20 adventures, and Volume II offers 11 adventures (14 on the CD-ROM), priced at $49.95 and $29.95 for diskette versions, respectively. And, for some reason I can’t fathom, $10 more each for the CD-ROM versions. I rate these two collections of adventures an impressive, earth-shaking 7.5 on the Richter Scale.