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ZORK alive: Text-based adventure games find continuing life on the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 21, 2007
(Issue 2551, ROFL, FYI, IMHO, etc. – acronyms, abbreviations, popular new slang terms)

When I first began writing the On-Line San Diego column in January of 1992, the way the vast majority of us went online was via the dial-up bulletin board system, or BBS. The World Wide Web was still being tested by Timothy Berners-Lee at his CERN lab, and so even if you had an Internet account, you were using a Unix line-item command to telnet or ftp.

And when we played games online, they were – for the most part – text-based line-command interface games. In other words, when we played "TradeWars 2002" or "Barren Realms Elite," we were given a menu of possible commands – M to move or I to list inventory.

Sounds low-tech, but it was a ton of fun.

Even then, though, it was a bit old-school: Mac, Atari and Amiga users were already used to high-end graphics in their gaming ("Falcon 3.0" was the killer flight sim on these Motorola 680x0-based 16-bit machines back then, and if "Falcon" was just not as good on the Windows '386 boxes, "Prince of Persia" made Windows look as sweet as the competition). Even before that, we'd been playing arcade-style games on 8-bit computers, going back to the Apple II.

But we'd also played text-based adventure games on our 8-bits – not because they didn't have graphics capabilities (because they did, even better than the 16-bit IBM PCs running DOS), but because games like "ZORK" were completely and utterly addictive.

Addictive to the point that "ZORK" was, for many years, the best-selling game going. Even today, its 4 million or so copies sold remains very respectable – more so when you realize how many fewer people owned home computers in the late 1970s and early '80s.

What was "ZORK" like?

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded up front door.

There is a small mailbox here.

And so you type "open mailbox" or "north" and the adventure begins.

Still going

Today's modern personal computers, both Windows and Mac, offer graphical capabilities we couldn't even dream of in the 1980s. And yet, there are still those who seek out and play text-based interactive fiction games.

For starters, you can now play "ZORK" online. Here you'll find Java-based versions of all three "ZORK" games, plus the classic "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Nothing to download, nothing to recompile to run on your modern PC. Just play – and you can even save and restore games. Pretty cool.

But if you've played all these, or if you quickly get through them and the dozen or so other classic Infocom titles to be found here, there are new interactive fiction adventure games being written all the time.

The best place to find the new games is at the Interactive Fiction Competition web site.

From this site, you can download and play all the winning entries since 1995. The competition is actually sponsored by a Usenet community – The newsgroup was created as most newsgroups are, as a way for a small group of like-minded folk to fan the flames of their shared passion – in this case, for the old Infocom text adventures. (In addition to the "ZORK" series, Infocom is probably best remembered for the 1985 classic "A Mind Forever Voyaging.")

Just as fans of the old Atari VCS / 2600 game console have ended up with new games for their system being created through the 1990s (and perhaps even now) by independent developers with a love for that format, so the have gotten a dozen or so new text-based adventure games each year through the contest. Not all of them – perhaps none – have been up to the standards of "ZORK," but talented, creative people have found it worth their while to invest dozens of hours creating new games for their fellow fans.

And one gets the feeling that text-based adventure games will be with us for many years to come, with new ones continuing to be added to the canon.