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Something about Interactive Fiction


In their 2000 paper, “Down From the Top of Its Game: The Story of Infocom, Inc.,” Briceno, et al. trace the rise and fall of Infocom from its MIT origins through its shift towards business software (Cornerstone) and the Activision buyout. In 1977, the students with Dynamic Modeling (a small group under MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science) were chiefly unimpressed with Adventure’s two-word parser limitation. Using Muddle (MDL), a LISP-derived programming language, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Tim Anderson, and Bruce Daniels wrote, programmed, and tested a Digital Equipment’s PDP-10 mainframe game called Zork. The PDP-10 was accessible from servers worldwide and supported six players at a time. It was rare that a slot was available, as players from around the world were eager to explore the Great Underground Empire.

Unlike Adventure, Zork’s parser wasn’t limited to two-word input. Briceno, et al. point out that players could, “hit the ugly troll with the double-bladed axe.” To the parser, this would have been the same as “hit the troll with the axe” or “kill the troll with the axe.” The parser also recognized more inputs from the player, and was able to generate some logical responses rather than returning confusing error messages. In terms of gameplay, Zork offered more, especially in forms of opponents. Adventure confounded players with a stream of dwarves and a pirate who directed players towards the endgame; Zork introduced a thief (in addition to trolls, grues and other monsters) who could thwart the player’s treasure-hunting or kill the player. Zork also presented longer gameplay with greater variation and a sense of humor.

Conversely, interactive fiction author and critic Graham Nelson wrote in “The Craft of Adventure,” “`Zork' is an imitation of the original, based not on real caves but on Crowther's descriptions. `Zork' is better laid out as a game but not as convincing, and in places a caricature: too tidy, with no blind alleys, no secret canyons.” Zork’s Implementors called the parser “fairly stupid” in response to the help command. However, a 1987 article in the New York Times provides some hindsight into why Zork became a classic: “[it is] uncommonly literate and witty. Its parser…is amazing to those with little computer experience.”

Zork was not the only mainframe-based work of interactive fiction to follow Adventure. Montfort’s survey mentions FisK, Lugi, Martian Adventure, Mystery Mansion, Haunt, and others (including Acheton out of England’s Cambridge University, possibly the first non-US interactive fiction game). Aside from Adventure, though, Zork was one of the few mainframe games to cross over to the home computer market.

Continued: Adventure Comes Home

Table of Contents: Something about Interactive Fiction