The Great Campaign Ch. III – Zork I (1980)

Part of the Great Campaign – A Playthrough of the Greatest RPGs Ever

Developer: Infocom (known for Zork and other interactive fiction series)
Release Year: 1980 (“Forerunner” title)

My Playthrough:

    • System: PC (DOS box)
    • Version: DOS (1982)
    • RPG Tags: Text-based
    • Hours Played: <5
    • Completion Status: Completed

Legacy

The third official entry to the Great Campaign series here on the Good Gamer Society blog is an old-school classic, Zork. As a younger millennial, this game was too old to be mainstream for me growing up (or any ’80s game for that matter), but I know for a number of people this is where their love for gaming started. As one of the first meaty adventure games, Zork impacted hundreds if not thousands of games in the future, tantalizing players with a large world to explore, difficult puzzles, and interesting lore.

Zork is probably one of the most controversial titles to put on a “Greatest RPG” list because… it’s not really an RPG by most definitions. There’s little narrative, little meaningful choice or customization, no experience or real battles, etc. However, I included it on the list because the impact it had on the concept of adventure and exploration in video games is something that influenced every RPG on this list.

Where’s the RPG?

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As mentioned, there’s not too much “RPG” in Zork. However, there’s a good bit of lore here, especially if you read the manual. I’m not sure if that should be counted or not, but I read the manual, and it’s hilarious, and detailed. More than that, Zork was a foundational game in terms of exploration, an important component of many future RPGs. Following from that, there’s not much “dialogue” but the writing itself is well done and often humorous. Lastly, there is a good sense of progression as the player gathers various items and solves puzzles to acquire the various treasures.

msdos_zork1

My thoughts

I was really excited to sit down and play some Zork, understanding its legacy. I had never touched it before, but had heard about it, especially in that Call of Duty: Black Ops easter egg and in the book Ready Player One. As a “Forerunner” title in the Campaign, I had not committed to finishing it, but wanted to try, and at least get a good taste of it.

I booted it up in DOS box and happily began roaming around. Did I mention this is a text-based game? I figured out basic commands like north, east, west, open, etc., on my own. I discovered a forest, how to get into a house, and a hatch leading down into the depths. Then I found a troll, and it killed me. This game is HARD. I reloaded a bunch (after figuring out how to do that!). After trolling around (no pun intended) for a little bit more, I discovered a number of new areas, including a maze, a dam (nearby which I managed to trap myself in a room of rising water and perish), and a balcony perched over a large room. And, I got totally stuck.

Really, it’s 100% my fault. This was my first lesson in “old games put a lot of important stuff in the manual”. I looked around and found a Zork I manual and took some time, at least an hour or two, reading that through. As mentioned before, it was pretty entertaining. But it also contained a huge number of extremely important tips and commands. With this new knowledge in tow, I was able to make some progress! It was very satisfying to figure out that I could use very specific commands to tie a rope to that balcony I had found earlier, and make my way down to the large room. I managed to pocket some interesting items, only to have some jerk thief steal them from me. In the end, I absolutely got stuck again and I had no idea what to do.

At that point I felt like I had gotten a good taste of the game, but that it was going to be a huge, long effort to figure out this stuff on my own. But, I was very interested in seeing more of what Zork had to offer. So I used a step-by-step guide to get me through the rest. I discovered that I had not even figured out the end goal of the game, which is to collect 20 treasures scattered around the world. There are a lot of neat locations and solutions to puzzles in this game, but I do not understand how gamers in the ’80s did it without a guide on their own. Navigating a maze, carefully moving items around to prevent dying to a gas-filled chamber, executing a specific set of commands with specific items to quell some demons, and a lot more was needed to finish the game.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time with Zork, and I can definitely understand how this type of game captivated a number of people during its time. And I also appreciate the influence on adventure and exploration this game had on future RPGs. But, I’m happy that games have evolved as a medium since then.

Verdict

Retrospective Quality: 4/5
– A detailed and complex 1980 text adventure
Timelessness: 2/5
– The obtuse puzzle solutions, unforgiving difficulty, and lack of graphics do not age well
RPG Soul: 1/5
– Few RPG mechanics aside from a general spirit of adventure, exploration, and some sense of progression
Influence: 5/5
–  Gave life to the idea of being able to have epic adventures on your PC, impacting many video games going forward

Great Campaign Level: Lv. 12 Veteran

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