Zork I: The Great Underground Empire

Posted by Karen Tyers.
First posted on 10 May 1998. Last updated on 13 August 2009.
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Zork I: The Great Underground Empire
Zork I: The Great Underground Empire is the first game of the Zork trilogy.

Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (or Zork: The Great Underground Empire) is the original Zork game that starts it all. Back in the era of interactive fiction, everybody is writing games that try to compare to it but most fail miserably. Since then, this game has risen to become the poster child of text adventure.

The story of Zork takes place in the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground. You, as a dauntless treasure hunter, venture into this uncharted land in search of wealth and adventure. You have heard many strange tales about fabulous treasures, strange creatures and diabolical puzzles in this underground empire, and you want to locate all the treasures and place them safely in your own trophy case. You need to find some source of light, as the caverns are reputed to be very dark. You definitely need some form of weapons, as rumor has it that the surviving inhabitants are not at all friendly and are not above stealing things from you. So equip yourself and enter!

At the time of its release, the text parser in Zork I: The Great Underground Empire is considered to be the most flexible and user friendly interpreter available to play interactive fiction titles. It even holds up well even against the rare text parsers used in today's adventure titles. You can enter quite complex commands, including ones that are separated by a comma or various prepositions such as "and" or "except". Of course, as a text adventure, there is not a screen of graphics present. However, in my opinion, this is actually a bonus, as you can concentrate on the tasks in hand and not be sidetracked by eye candy.

The game is written by Marc Blank and David Lebling. It is based on the concept of interactive fiction told through a story interpreter pioneered by Infocom. The Infocom story interpreter is platform independent, and the game themselves are complied for a virtual computer architecture called the Z-Machine. There have been 12 versions of this game released since 1981 using five different versions of Z-Machine. The last version dated 1987-1988 uses Version 5 of Z-Machine. The game supports 110 rooms and 60 objects, with a vocabulary of 697 words and 6,798 opcodes.

I have replayed this game several times over in order to write this article, and I have found the gameplay to be as absorbing as it is the first time I have played many years ago. While on the whole it is very much a game of "find object and use object in the right place", it does not necessarily mean that it is a doodle. It is not at all! There are some quite tricky puzzles to be solved, and I have been stuck a few times even though that I am playing the game the second time around. Although the treasures in the game are easy to find, getting them back safely to the trophy case can be an entirely different matter. Certain puzzles must be be solved in order, but there is no clue as to what that order is—it is up to you to work it out. In some cases, timing is also important. The text descriptions can either be in "verbose" or "brief" mode. Even in the brief mode, there is still enough to keep pulling you further into the game. For me, the game defines the whole addictive syndrome of "must solve just one more piece of the puzzle" which other imitators never manage to capture.

For me, the best point of this game is that it is a pure text adventure. I always have a passion for interactive fiction. It enables you to free your imagination on the mystical world that surrounds you and not be confined by someone else's idea of what the fantasy world may look like. So if you are a fan of graphical adventures, you may find it difficult to get into this one. Unlike most graphics based adventure games, you really have to think to play instead of just clicking on anything that tickles your fancy. The only flaws in this game are the lack of an auto-map function and the incorporation of 2 dreaded mazes. Random death can also occur (digging in the sand) and appears unavoidable.

Full version of the Zork trilogy (including this game) is available as free download for a limited time in 1997 from Activision. The promotion is to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Zork trilogy and to welcome the release of the sequel Zork Grand Inquisitor. This game is perfect for all fans of text adventure who have yet to experience the magic of Zork. Not only can you have fun playing this game, you can also learn a lot about how the history of interactive fiction and how the adventure genre has since evolved. Zork I: The Great Underground Empire is a must for any text adventure fan, new or experienced. If you have not played Zork, you simply do not know what you have missed!

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