Reflecting on Zork and Activision

Matt Barton's picture

As some of you may know, I've been a bit busy of late drafting a retrospective piece about Zork for GamaSutra. Although I initially had problems getting in touch with the famous "imps" (Zork programmers, short for "implementors"), I finally managed to hit the jackpot. I've got interview material with Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky, Nick Montfort, and hopefully Dave Lebling (waiting for response). I was also in touch with Mike Dornbrook, who authored the Invisiclues, and whom I thought could offer some unique insights (I'm still hoping he'll come through).

So, what's the "dirt" on Zork? As far as I can tell, the real "dirt" seems to surround their being bought by Activision in 1986. Depending on how you look at it, Activision either "modernized" or "exploited" the Zork franchise by publishing a line of so-so graphical adventure games (Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, Zork: Grand Inquisitor). I had fun with Zork: Grand Inquisitor, but, granted, I wouldn't presume to compare it to the original text adventures (it seemed too much of a Myst clone). What's interesting is how the different imps feel about Activision's doings. At least one seems to be taking the standard David Crane approach (regarding Pitfall); it's their property now, who cares? Others are more negative, especially Lebling, who remarked in an earlier interview on ACG that they were "exploiting" the brand.

Here are the various responses I've received so far about Activision. I emailed every imp I could find, as well as Howard Sherman (of Malinche Entertainment) and Nick Montfort, author of Twisty Little Passages. By the way, if you haven't read TLP, I highly recommend doing so--Nick is a fantastic writer who really cares about getting the facts straight. It's a triumph.

Lebling remarked that Activision is "exploiting a well-known trademark that they own." Do you feel similarly? What are your thoughts on this matter?

Marc Blank: When Activision was run by Bruce Davis (in the late 80's), I'm sure you couldn't find anyone at Infocom with anything good to say about them. But that's well in the past.

Steve Meretzky: Referring to Zork, I assume? That must be an old comment; Activision hasn’t done anything with Zork since Grand Inquisitor, and that has to be about 10 years ago, right? Anyway, I’ll assume you’re asking how I felt about Activision producing the various graphical Zork adventures during the 90s. I have mixed feelings about the games in terms of their quality and their adherence to the lore and the tone of the original games; some were better as games in general; some were better as “Zork” games (in terms of fitting in with the earlier games); and not necessarily the same games excelled in each category. But whether these games qualified as “exploiting” the brand, I guess I’d say so, but I don’t feel like Activision was sullying something pure and noble; we were exploiting the brand ourselves with games like Brian’s Beyond Zork and my Zork Zero.

If you’re asking about my overall feelings on the Activision acquision and later shutdown, I’d say that I have no problems with Activision as an organization; that would be silly. I have issues with some people who were at Activision – well, one person in particular – but he is long gone. I will say that Jim Levy, who was one of the founders of Activision and was CEO at the time of the Infocom acquisition, was extremely well liked and respected at Infocom; I just want to make clear that I’m not referring to Jim earlier in this paragraph.

Howard Sherman: Grandmaster Lebling is mostly right. Activision did seek to exploit the Zork franchise but they did deliver value in exchange. Return to Zork and Zork: Grand Inquisitor were fun adventure games. Return to Zork was a blast for fans like me who were curious to see how a modern-day Zork would play out. Zork: Grand Inquisitor did an excellent job capturing the spirit of Zork albeit in a graphical universe. But Zork, in the classical sense as a text adventure game, was not served except for Zork: The Undiscovered Underground. I can't say I blame Activision as such; they were proceeding as they thought best. Text adventure games were never in their business plan. They feel, as does every computer game publisher, that text adventure games are not feasible. Fortunately, my company, Malinche Entertainment, came along to fill the void in commercial text adventure game entertainment and proved them all wrong.

I still haven't heard back from Dave Lebling or Tim Anderson, but will update this blog when I do. From what I've been able to read between the lines, there were many "personal conflicts" between Infocom and Activision, but it seems like everyone has "moved on" to some extent.

So why does any of this matter? Well, many people blame the fall of Infocom on either a severe blunder with their database app Cornerstone, or just a widespread feeling among gamers that text adventures were obsolete. I'm not entirely buying either of these. I can't speak for everyone, but I wouldn't have had a problem buying a new Zork text adventure in the late 80s, or in the 1990s, or even today for that matter. Indeed, I'd be very interested to see how far parsing technology has come, and how well a true grandmaster of the genre could work with these tools to create a truly amazing experience. Yes, I know, I haven't exactly been keeping up with modern IF as much as I'd like. Still, there'd be something magical about buying a brand new Steve Meretzky text adventure.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you think Zork works better as a text or graphic adventure? Can any purely text adventure thrive or even survive in today's game market, or is the genre truly obsolete (albeit still favored by a very small niche audience?) While I doubt that any modern text adventure could ever make as much money as the latest triple-A title, I sincerely believe that a particularly well-written and implemented game could attract enough attention to make good money for its author/s. I think the key would be a truly fantastic parser that could come up with an intelligent response to just about anything, as well as an engrossing story, mesmerizing environment, and likeable characters. My guess is that pulling off such a feat would require at least as much work as a modern graphical game, if not more to really get it right. What do you think?


Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Some comments or IF food for thought...

I have to say, that even without "commercial" development money and resources, IF technology has been slowly improved since the 90's. The interpreters are as portable as ever and the quality of the writing - obviously when you waft through all the sub-A level stuff - is as great as it ever was as well. The question becomes, how much better can you make the technology without changing the essence of what IF means? After all, the Zork model is as much an albatross as it is a blessing. I think one of your comments, Matt, points to the answer - that the way the technology can be improved is via the parser. I think the most exciting possibility beyond increasing understandable word count, is to apply a form of artificial intelligence. If you can make the "machine" be able to actively interpret what the typer is trying to convey, then IF will finally leapfrog the model that was perfected by the late 80's (while there have been the aforementioned improvements from the 90's to today, those improvements have been incremental, rather than fundamental).

I bet if there was a technological "revolution" like behind-the-scene AI AND a mainstream commercial developer/publisher combination, one of the original masters mentioned above would come back again (and let's not forget, they did pretty much come back for "Zork: The Undiscovered Underground", even though it was based on the classical model).

Finally, if I ever get around to it someday, I still think the idea of selling modern IF in bookstores as interactive books (in a book binding with pages) for play on all the devices that are supported today has some merit if the sales levels only have to be at book levels, rather than software levels!

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)

yakumo9275's picture
Joined: 12/26/2006
ugh. howard sherman. please

ugh. howard sherman. please dont use 'implementor' and his name in the same sentence, I just about threw up.

-- Stu --

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Howard Sherman
yakumo9275 wrote:

ugh. howard sherman. please dont use 'implementor' and his name in the same sentence, I just about threw up.

I've heard this reaction before, but don't have any context. He seems like a great guy to me. What exactly is the issue?


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