Thank You, Zork

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About a week ago I discovered that someone has put the original Zork computer game online. (It should be noted that my productivity has crashed mightily since this discovery.) I’ve also found many of the text adventure games made for the Commodore Vic-20 and 64 that I had as a kid. Holy cow, it’s a trip down amnesia lane.

For those who are not as ancient as me and may have no idea what I’m talking about, these games are not anything like modern video games. They are text adventure games (sometimes known as story-driven games). There are no pictures; you use words to navigate the worlds of the game. You can input things like, “Climb tree,” “Read book,” or “Stab monster with knife” and the game will tell you what happens. Then you make your next choice and progress through the game.

If anything, text adventure games are closer cousins to role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons than they are to video games. The difference is that you can play on your own because the computer runs the game instead of requiring someone to act as the dungeon master. In printed form, the closest cousin is the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. In either case, you make a choice or carry out an action and the game/book changes based on that choice.

Zork was the best known of these games, but there were bunches of them. Some of my favorites were part of the Adventureland series designed by Scott Adams (not the Dilbert creator). The best ones featured great writing and distinctive voices, just like the best books. Text adventures peaked in the late 80’s and declined as graphics took over the video game market. There aren’t too many around these days, but there are some indie developers still turning them out.

As I’ve been playing Zork over the past week, I’ve realized that I actually owe quite a bit to these games of my youth. While I won’t say that they “made me a writer,” they definitely helped develop some skills that I still use to this day. What do I owe Zork and its compatriots?

Improved reading comprehension skills.

Text adventure games relied on, duh, reading. More than basic reading, they required you to remember what you read. As you progressed through the game, you’d have to remember where you were, what was in the room with you, and where you’d been. This was helped some by the next skill, storyboarding,  but the more you could read, process, and remember, the better off you were. This helped me in school, but it helps me now as I track the tiny details of research and editing.


These games led me to produce very early versions of the storyboards I use today. In order to keep track of details, players would often draw maps and make notes about the places/people they visited in the game. I still do this today to help me keep track of all of the characters and locations in a book as I write it.

Tracking an entire story using only my imagination.

In Zork and its cousins, all you had was text. There were no pictures, no visual navigation. Just like in a book, the action happened in your imagination and it was up to you to keep track of the story and all the details. Sure, you could storyboard for help, but your imagination filled in all the gaps and made a complete narrative. Now that I’m a writer, the ability to keep an entire story in my head and “see” it as it plays out in nothing but text is a huge advantage.

Streamlining a story.

These games were not heavy on narrative. Most of the descriptive paragraphs were short. (Some weren’t even paragraphs. Just sentences.) The writers stripped out everything that wasn’t essential and created a streamlined story. Your imagination filled in most of the details. I don’t want my stories to be that streamlined, but playing those games imparted some important lessons about accomplishing more with less.

Boosting Creativity & Problem Solving Skills.

Zork presented a lot of opportunities to develop creativity and problem solving skills. You had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps in the story, draw maps and other resources to track your progress, solve the problems presented by the game using a very limited framework, and navigate the world of the game. All of these things forced you to think. You couldn’t just go mindlessly charging through the game. You needed a plan and ways to track your progress. Otherwise, it was too easy to get lost and stuck in a loop. Today I use those same skills to think through the problems presented by a book and to plan out an entire series so I don’t get stuck in a loop.

Funny how, when we’re growing up and killing time (and avoiding homework), we don’t realize how much we’re shaping our futures. But looking back from the distance of decades, I can see what those games did for me. (They weren’t rotting my brain as my mother believed!) Even had I not become a writer, they still taught me some useful skills. So thanks, Zork. You taught me well.

Use Your Words

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