History of Zork Now Available on Gamasutra: Read Full Interviews Here!

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Matt Barton's picture

Gamasutra has now published my article on the History of Zork! Go check it out; it's loaded with plenty of facts, screenshots, and quotations from the authors. I had earlier promised to offer the interviews I conducted with the implementors and other folks here on Armchair. You'll find them below, organized more or less in a "round table" progression. Enjoy!

Note: Dave Lebling and Marc Blank are two of the original implementors who worked on Zork. Steve Meretzky came in later, and wrote several of the most successful Infocom games. Howard Sherman is president of a modern-day IF publishing company named Malinche Entertainment. Nick Montfort is the author of a book about IF called Twisty Little Passages. David Cornelson is president of Textfyre, another very exciting project aiming to re-introduce text adventures to the commercial sector.

In an early interview, Dave Lebling remarked that Activision "is exploiting a trademark that they own." I'm intrigued by this response. Do you feel negatively towards what Activision did with the Zork franchise? What would you have done differently? Please be scandalous.

Dave Lebling: I was just being accurate; Activision had paid a fair amount of money for Infocom, and they were hoping to get something out of it. By then (I think I wrote that around the time the Activision Zork graphic adventures were being published), it wasn't even the same management team; the old Activision had been acquired by the current owners and been through a planned Chapter 11. I think the major thing I would have done differently at that time would have been to try to involve the Infocom authors in the writing of the new Zorks, and to try to keep up the Infocom level of quality and polish; some of their efforts were pretty feeble.

But they were trying to keep alive the adventure game, which was pretty much dying by then anyway. Of course they also managed to involve us in a years-long court case involving the terms of the acquisition, and I think all of us still have pretty negative feelings about that. Like many of their business decisions leading up to their bankruptcy, it was pretty short-sighted. They didn't really know what to do with what they had bought (not just Infocom, they bought a lot of companies then, and didn't make a success of any of them). Some of their management had opposed the acquisition all along, so what ensued when things didn't work out well from their decisions was to enter the common vicious circle of cutbacks, layoffs, loss of morale, people leaving, and so on.

Keep in mind that by purchasing Infocom, Activision, for all that they had no clue what do with what they had bought, kept the company and the Infocom team going for several years. Had that not happened Infocom would have gone under in short order.

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.

David Cornelson: If I were Dave Lebling, I would feel the same way. As a fan of the text versions of the Zork series, I was appalled at the direction they took the franchise with the point and click adventure games. Grand Inquisitor was close to the old “feel” of the Infocom material, but even that’s a stretch. The truth is, Activision has never really paid much attention to the text gaming world and for obvious reasons. If you can make a video game that sells 500,000 copies or make a text game that sells 50,000, which one are you going to focus on? It’s really a no-brainer from a big corporation gaming company.

That said, I believe they missed and continue to miss an opportunity. How hard would it be to spin off a subsidiary to do high quality Infocom style text games? Not very hard at all. Would it make a bazillion dollars? Probably not. But what if they could get rights to a big book or movie series like Harry Potter, The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica? The possibility of a sizable profit go up dramatically.

But as far as I can tell, the Infocom material is all buried at Activision and we’re unlikely to ever see Zork again. I’ve been trying. I’ve contacted Laird Malemed and Justin Berenbaum at Activision to attempt to acquire licensing rights to the Infocom material, but Laird sent me to Justin and Justin hasn’t replied. My guess is they just don’t care to spend time on it. Textfyre would bring the traditions of Zork back. We would respectfully revive that world with creative and high quality interactive fiction games.

Do you see a binary opposition between IF and graphic adventure games? If so, is this opposition necessary, or is it possible to bridge or overcome it? Are text and graphic adventures two distinct genres of videogames, or is there overlap? Are graphical adventure games necessarily "more advanced" than text?

Dave Lebling: They are two genres, or two different mediums. There is overlap, in that most text and graphic adventure games are puzzle games, but even the puzzles have to be quite different. A lot of text adventure puzzles involve figuring out that an object, described less than fully, is really something else. When you can see the object, that mystery is solved immediately. Just as movies and books both have plots, characters, settings, but that doesn't mean a book is a movie or vice versa.

Graphical games are more technically advanced, at least as far as their graphics go. Infocom's games were more advanced internally in the game environment than most graphic adventures. I haven't had the privilege of looking at the guts of a current game, but I'm sure that the graphics and the internal structure are pretty complex and "advanced." Modern MMOs have impressive game-action scripting engines, for example. We did some stuff like that (the timers and NPC movement in the mystery games come to mind) but encounter scripting in Everquest or World of Warcraft is pretty advanced.

I think in terms of where adventure games are now, MMOs are today's adventure games: they are puzzle-oriented (they just call them quests), involve exploration, have some amount of text (which most people don't even read, of course), and try to tell a story (which most people ignore in favor of the puzzles). Of course most of the puzzles are about coupon-collection, but then, a lot of ours were as well.

Marc Blank: They are simply different types of games. Graphic adventures were awful looking back in the day, but that's certainly no longer an issue. I think text adventures were simply an excellent fit for those early days of PC's, but that they simply aren't competitive now as entertainment. I don't play graphic adventures, and never have, so I have no favorite.

Steve Meretzky: Similar, except of course that novels continue to exist as a commercial art form, and in fact are thriving, whereas text games do not currently exist as a commercial medium, only as a hobbyist community. So while everyone said that movies would replace books and TV would replace movies, those earlier forms all lived on and co-existed, while that wasn’t the case with IF.
Best graphical adventure to date … this will come down to people’s definition of what qualifies as a graphical adventure game, but I’ll say The Fool’s Errand. While some might say that the environment of the game is too abstract to qualify, I think the game has puzzles and tells a story, and in my book it’s an adventure game. And wonderful.

Howard Sherman: Text adventure games are not video games by definition. There is no opposition between text-only games and graphical ones. To those who are purely graphically-oriented there is no such thing as a text game. It's an incredible thing to witness, really. Crossword Puzzles are games but can you imagine any kid anywhere sitting down with a pencil and a lot of determination to see a crossword puzzle through to the end? The value of what a game is lies with the prospective player of that game.

As for movies lets extend the comparison to include television shows. A talented author can provide insights and elaboration that improve the dimensions of a story that are not possible with the time and budgetary constraints present in film productions. The written word can do so much more than any visual depiction. How does one condense the fantastic Lord of The Rings saga into three films without losing a few things along the way?

Nick Montfort: I could name a few good graphical adventures, but none that I know of suggest ways that we could reorganize our society, as A Mind Forever Voyaging does, and none are as powerful on the surface and beneath the surface as is, for instance, Bad Machine. That said, I don't object to graphical games at all, and I don't think there's a sharp divide between them and text-based IF. Text-based games can shade off into graphical ones.

David Cornelson: I think this has been the mistake that everyone has made for the last twenty years. They were _never_ comparable. Video adventure games were just based on a new and very different technology. One that happened to capture the imagination of many people and many gaming companies. My analogy is this. So you’re a fisherman near the ocean. You’ve spent most of your time near the shore catching small, but tasty fish. Then someone comes along in a big boat and shows you how to go out and catch bigger and also tasty fish. Now you’re swept away by the big boat, but really, the big fish and the little fish aren’t all that different. This is what happened to text adventures. They got swept away by a bigger technology. People would still buy IF games, but not if you put them next to the video games. Now, put them next to a book or in a Starbuck’s or Panera Bread shop. then see what happens.

I have a friend; Dr. William Kolomyjec. He has a very serious background in researching how people learn. I was at a dinner party at his house a few weeks ago and he was lamenting the fall of cognitive learning skills and the rise of reactive learning skills. We’re teaching our kids to learn by trial and error, not by reason and thought (with a little trial and error mixed in).

I think graphical adventures, although entertaining, offer almost nothing else in value. They don’t provoke thought. They don’t educate. They don’t do anything but ask you to use your hands and follow a very narrow path to success by trial and error. On the other hand text adventures, or interactive fiction, offers a deep connection to a player’s intellect. Kids are very in tune with their brains. They really do like to think and be challenged by puzzles and logic and they love to read good stories. If you hand them a gamepad and a console, that trait will very quickly be eradicated. But if instead you challenged that intellect and fed it, I think interactive fiction could be a very popular medium.

What is the best text adventure game ever made? What's the best graphic adventure? Is the best yet to come?

Dave Lebling: What do you mean by best? Best story would probably be "Trinity." Best puzzles would be (I say modestly) "Zork II" (ignoring the "Baseball Maze") or "Enchanter." Most successful commercially would be "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." I have no idea what the best graphic adventure would be; I haven't played enough of them. Judging by its commercial success, you'd have to say "Myst," even though in the end it just exposed how shallow the "carry this number from here to there" and "push the right button" type of puzzle was in a graphical setting. I enjoyed the Legend Entertainment games a lot, because they held on to some of what we had done at Infocom.

Infocom was about telling interactive stories. As technology advances, the ability to tell a story with a computer advances as well. Right now, computer stories aren't really very interactive, the ways of interacting are pretty feeble, and the emphasis is in different areas (coupon-collecting, for example). However, people are still interested in truly interactive games. Some are game writers, some are in academia, some are elsewhere. They are pushing language understanding, knowledge representation, and software design in directions that will eventually make it possible to write interactive stories (probably, given our societal biases, these will be interactive movies, but whatever). So, the best is yet to come.

David Cornelson: Impossible question. I played Zork (I knew it as Dungeon) on a paper terminal connected by coupler modem to a PDP 11/70 over 110/300 baud phone lines. That experience led me to making a career of developing business computer applications. If I leave out that sentimentality, I’d have pick a couple of old Infocom games, specifically Hitchhikers, Planetfall, and Sorcerer as my favorites. The new generation of authors has produced some games that I love. I would say Babel, a game by Ian Finley, is my favorite contemporary game.

I’ve played a few graphic adventures, but they bore me. No matter how compelling the underlying story, eventually you’re hitting a button over and over or firing the same set of spells at some demons. That repetitiveness is exactly the sort of thing I think drags graphic adventures down and the reason I have always leaned toward interactive fiction. If I had to pick, Baldur’s Gate II was as good as it gets for me. But that’s still not that great.

The best is most certainly yet to come. Eventually you will be able to talk to a game and the characters will be looking you in the eye. I shiver at the thought of developing stories in that medium. That will truly be an incredible experience both as an author and as a game player. And it won’t just be games. Imagine you’re walking down the street and an actor pops up in an LCD and beckons you over to talk. The computer senses you, your gender, your weight, and uses simple AI tricks to offer you an appealing character to sell you something. It adjusts on the fly if it senses any irritation. The next time it will know you and eventually it will be your friend. This is a little bit of “Minority Report”, but I think this technology is not too far off. Not far off at all.

When you look at games being made and sold today, where and to what extent do you see the influence of Zork? On the flip side, how do you think modern gamers experiencing Zork for the first time today differ from those who played it back in the 80s?

Dave Lebling: I see very few games today that are directly influenced by Zork other than culturally. Most games are either FPS types, or Ultima-style dungeon crawls, or MMOs. The MMOs are the most Zork-like, as I suggested above, but the lineage is more through the side door: MMOs like Everquest and World of Warcraft are descended from MUDs, which were inspired by Adventure and Zork. MMOs have genetic material from a lot of sources, though.

Modern gamers have seen and played a whole range of games since 1989, and of course to them Zork is a pretty strange experience; it's retro, it's hard to get into, it's not graphical. I'm pleased that people still play the games, given all the time that has passed and all the advances in software and hardware.

Steve Meretzky: Sometimes I see the same sort of humor and irreverence of Zork popping up in games, for example in some of the NPC dialogue or quest names in WoW, and I like to think that that’s the influence of Zork in particular and the Infocom games in general.
And without adventure games leading the way, I’m not sure you’d see storytelling elements so widespread in other genres.

Probably the biggest difference for someone playing an IF game today is the easy availability of hints and walkthroughs. When players where first playing this games in the late 70s and early 80s, there was no Web to search and, in the early days, not even hintbooks to buy. So you figured it out yourself, or tried to get a friend to help, and this made the entire experience way more consuming. But there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Marc Blank: I don't discern any influence, frankly. As far as gamers looking at text adventures for the first time, I suspect they are surprised by the depth and variety of the experiences available.

Howard Sherman: Sadly, I do not see any of Zork's influence on the games of today apart from the games Malinche publishes. The majority of people that play computer games today do not even entertain the notion that text adventure games are games at all. In their minds "games=graphics." If they see a jumble of text on their screen they're much more likely to think their computer crashed than consider the possibility they're playing a game. Malinche's primary experiences with gamers has proven this time and again.

Nick Montfort: Zork has been very influential. That game (and later, the trilogy for personal computers) added vehicles and actors to IF as well as a real villain, the thief. Modern gamers playing Zork for the first time are going to be confused, because the context is completely different. People no longer use the command line to load programs from disk, and they no longer learn how to program in BASIC when they buy their computer. Still, I think the basic idea in the Zork interface is a conversation, not an archaic command-line interaction, so I think there is a timeless quality to Zork.

David Cornelson: I don’t see Zork influence in any games. The humor and ingenuity of the Infocom writers is still unchallenged in my book. As for people that find Zork now, it’s usually a very quick trip and delete. This is because they’ve been trained to play using a reactionary set of tools. I’m not saying their dumb. I’m saying their cognitive skills were never introduced to game play and therefore they don’t see the appeal of a text game.

Infocom is legendary for porting their games to so many platforms, many of which were as obscure then as now. Was this just good business sense, or was the desire to reach so many platforms part of the "hacker" ethos at Infocom? Did the porting and conversion process influence any part of game development?

Dave Lebling: It was good business sense, at least initially. It's difficult today to remember how many diverse operating systems and hardware platforms existed twenty five years ago. We had a system that was (by design) easy to port, and we took advantage of it. The hacker ethos was part of why the system was designed well enough to make that possible, but it wasn't the driving force. Zork itself was written because of the hacker ethos, but the ports were good design and good business sense in a happy marriage.

The fact that we supported multiple platforms actually had some negative impacts, especially as the newer machines began to have more memory and better graphics. We had to write to the lowest common denominator, or spend time on each game fitting it to the different platforms. This became particularly difficult once we introduced any level of graphics (starting with the special character set used in "Beyond Zork"), and became horrendously painful with the last few adventures, which had (for
us) a ton of graphics and illustrations. As the market settled down to IBM-PC, Apple II, and Commodore 64, all the extra versions became more of an obligation than a benefit, and we dropped the ones you refer to as "obscure."

Marc Blank: It was making a virtue of necessity. We had to create a machine-independent language in order to fit the games on the PC's of the day. As a side effect, it was easy to port the entire catalog to any new system.

Steve Meretzky: Mostly just good business sense … it was so (relatively) easy to write an interpreter for a new computer, and then – voila! – the entire Infocom library was available on that machine. So it was cost effective even for machines like the NEC APC (with its huge 8” floppy disks) where a game might only sell two or three dozen copies.

The platforms that offered the greatest challenges where probably the ones that were the minimum systems at any point. In the very beginning, circa 1980, that was the TRS-80 Model I. But then after a couple of years we stopped supporting that, and something else became the new “problem child”. Toward the end of the 80s, it was the Apple II that was the biggest headache (whereas 8 or 9 years earlier, it had been one of the most powerful machines in the lineup).

Special mention should also go to the Commodore 64, for having such insanely awful disk drives. In addition to being about ¼ the speed of the next-slowest drive (which was probably the Atari 800 drive), they also burned out like crazy. We used to buy them by the gross.

What is the closest historical parallel to the adventure game? Adventure stories? Literary riddles? Puzzles? Maps? Do you agree with Nick Montfort that it's the literary riddle?

Dave Lebling: Puzzles and riddles, hands down. I think we always hoped to move things in a more literary direction, and we tried to make the puzzles have some good writing, but puzzles it is. Of course, the flip side is that while people remember the puzzles, they also remember things like the death of Floyd (in Planetfall) which were literary achievements, not puzzles at all.

Steve Meretzky: Only partially. Adventure games also include some important elements that aren’t present in literary riddles, such as exploration and a storyline. So while it’s a good analogy for one element of the classic adventure games, and while they both have a similar aesthetic and probably appeal to a similar demographic, the analogy only takes you so far.

Marc Blank: I think of them more as thematic crossword puzzles.

Howard Sherman: Not at all. I've never heard of a more off-base comparison in my life. Interactive fiction is a relatively new phenomena brought about by technology that makes first-person immersion into fiction possible. To say that the closest parallel to interactive fiction is the riddle is like saying that the closest parallel to a riveting work of fiction is a comic book. That's a very narrow, uninformed view of interactive fiction. The proposition of such a parallel is insulting to the interactive fiction medium and shows a lack of insight on the part of the author.

Nick Montfort: Yes, I still think the riddle is central as I think about IF and write new IF. If I experience really compelling "novels," "dramas," "landscapes," and so on, and I see that they accomplish things independently of the riddle and figuring out, I'll be willing to change my mind.

David Cornelson: Books. I’ve read Nick’s book and I know he believes that the interest in IF is related to puzzles and I agree at some level, but I really believe that books are the main comparable influence. The written word is very powerful when done properly. The magic of an IF puzzle doesn’t work without the pixie dust of a finely crafted set of prose. The Babel fish puzzle in Hitchhiker’s is an excellent example. If that puzzle had been written entirely straight, sans the Adam’s patented humor, it would have been irritating. Instead it was brilliant. Possibly the greatest IF puzzle ever, but only because of the _words_, not the puzzle itself.

What do you see as the key innovations Zork made to the adventure game genre (particularly in regards to Colossal Cave Adventure)?

Dave Lebling: We designed a system tailored to writing adventure games. Instead of a one-off, even from the beginning we wrote Zork as collection of library and reuse-oriented code. This was long enough ago that real libraries and real reuse were just being born, but as we went from game to game, we improved and tailored the "system" so that a new game got a lot of its code from previous games, and the process was comparatively simple for the author. Today, one could do a much better job on this, and I understand that systems like Inform have done so. We also were the first to allow games to be larger than the computer's memory, I believe. This innovation let us run on many different memory sizes without writing to a lowest common denominator, so it was extremely important.

Our other key innovation was to market our games to adults, but that's another, much longer story.

Marc Blank: The parser was far ahead of other adventure games and the environment was far better simulated (due to the fact that it was written in an object-oriented way). In many ways, Infocom's games were far ahead of their time.

Steve Meretzky: Foremost, the parser, the ability to type in full sentences instead of just two word commands. Secondly, the humor and quality writing. And, starting with Zork II, the introduction of storylines to adventure games. Finally, I think you have to mention the revolution to packaging and marketing. While the Zork games were just a manual and a disk in a blister pack, that was well ahead of all other software of its time, which came in ziplock bags, often with a Xeroxed manual. And then Deadline raised the packaging bar another notch or two. And on the marketing side, everyone who was around in those days remembers ads like “We’re Writing Them As Fast As We Can” and “We Stick Our Graphics Where the Sun Don’t Shine”.

Howard Sherman: The parser. Infocom propelled the concept of Colossal Cave forward through the evolution of the parser. The rudimentary verb-noun model (e.g. KILL DWARF, TAKE BIRD, etc.) was greatly expanded. Apart from the parser, the Zork series was the first to build upon a true plot which fully matured with the Enchanter series.

Nick Montfort: I'll mention one of them: Zork introduced an actual villain, the thief, who opposed the player character during the initial exploration of the dungeon, who could be exploited to solve a puzzle, and who had to be confronted and defeated. This was a real character with the functions of a character as seen in literature, not the mere anthropomorphic obstacle that was seen in Adventure.

David Cornelson: Adventure and Zork are very similar in nature. I think these two games brought to the game player the ability to be a part of a setting that previously was impossible. The closest capability came from a talented author pulling the reader in for a good yarn, but text adventures took that feeling of “being there” one step further.

What is the one thing that you fear journalists or historians will get wrong when they talk about Zork and the history of IF?

Dave Lebling: So far, except for failing to get all the details of Infocom's history as a business correct, they've done a pretty good job. Where they tend to go wrong on the games themselves is to overemphasize the importance of our parser. You can't blame them for that, because we pushed it hard as a "unique feature" as well. What was at least as important was coming up with good writing, good stories, and rich environments.

David Cornelson: They will say that video games killed the medium and that after the 1980’s, it had no appeal beyond the hobbyist community. I believe so strongly that this is a sneaky falsehood that I’m betting a great deal of time and effort on proving that it’s not true. If I’m successful with Textfyre, even moderately, that will be enough proof for me. If I could ever convince Activision to license the Infocom material, I could really do some great things. And if I am successful in a big way (100,000+ games sold in a year), I might just be able to convince a big author to let Textfyre develop a series of games for their beloved characters. The idea of bringing Harry Potter to interactive fiction is one that appeals the most. I think a Harry Potter IF series would be an enormous success. Especially since I would expect Ms. Rowling to do the writing herself and have some very talented game designers helping. Imagine a new Harry Potter IF game every 6 months. The lines at Borders would be endless and a text adventure would be the number one game in the world.

I've been studying the connection between maps and adventure games quite a bit in the past few months. Most interestingly, I've found that the very first jigsaw puzzle ever sold was a map--the idea was to use the puzzle to teach geography. I'm also struck by how Crowther was a caver, and how much of his CCA was based on his actual caving experience. It seems to me that the "imps" were very much into "urban exporation," particularly in the lesser accessible areas of MIT. Do you see a connection between map-making, exploration, and so on in adventure games? If so, how important is this connection in understanding the appeal of the adventure game?

Steve Meretzky: An interesting point. I’ve always loved maps, and my favorite games were the ones that required me to do meticulous mapping. But I don’t think map-making and adventure games are joined at the hip; while mapping was a big part of game like Zork and Starcross, it was much less an issue in games like Deadline and The Witness, and not at all in Hitchhiker’s (which was Infocom’s second most successful game, after Zork).

Marc Blank: No, not really. Exploration is critical, of course, but map-making was mainly required because the adventure games had no visuals. But frankly, it’s a nuisance…

Howard Sherman: I don't think so but please take my answer with a grain of salt as I wasn't there at the time. The exploration of MIT, as such, was only partially confirmed by Dave Lebling's Lurking Horror. Apart from that, I don't see the original Implementors as foregoing one particular gaming environment for another. If parts of Zork took place underground then let's remember that the Enchanter series occurred mostly above ground. Suspect, Witness and Deadline had entirely appropriate settings none of which struck me as being particularly urban in nature. Ditto for Planetfall and Stationfall, naturally.

From what I can tell the first generation Implementors "just" wrote truly fantastic interactive fiction titles and built the environment around the story. That's what I do, anyway.

The map of the gaming area is an interesting part of the experience to the degree that the player can better visualize where they are at any point in the story. I've never drawn a map of any text adventure game I've played. Occasionally I'd consult an Infocom map for confirmation of reference points I'd drawn in my own mind.

Nick Montfort: Interactive fiction is particularly strong when it comes to setting (as opposed to character or plot). Exploring, therefore, is a natural and interesting thing to do in IF. In almost all IF, the interactor has to figure out the system of the world -- how it works, what the laws of nature are. Often this means going to different locations and uncovering new, unusual things.

If you have time for one more question, I've thought of another that I'd really like to ask. How do you think a modern company publishing text-based IF should market their products? Could modern IF ever become popular among the general public (or at least the reading public) enough to warrant commercial publication?

Steve Meretzky: I think the downloadable pipeline for casual game content has some promise for commercially-viable IF. Given the demographics of that channel, a successful IF game would have to have the following properties:
* No (or very easy) puzzles
* Short playing times (perhaps 10% of classic IF)
* Very user-friendly (e.g. very information parser-failure messages, not just “Sorry, I didn’t understand that sentence”)
* Inexpensive ($15 to $20)

Howard Sherman: Interactive fiction is thriving under my tenure as the only active Implementor bringing new commercial interactive fiction to the masses. The ideal target audience for interactive fiction is as simple as the formula for success itself: give the reading public an intriguing story with interesting characters and a compelling plot that demands action on the part of the reader and that title cannot fail.

In general, modern Interactive Fiction needs to engage the mass-market or it is doomed to failure. Fortunately, Malinche will never allow this to happen.

Nick Montfort: Poetry is a vibrant, essential part of American culture and many other cultures, although there is really no market at all for it. (Some companies publish poetry books, but practically no one makes a living as a poet, even if they have won the Nobel Prize.) I think IF will be a vibrant, essential part of digital media and literature even if no one manages to sell it.

Interactive fiction simply doesn't need to be lucrative to be successful. One person can write a great IF piece in their spare time over a few months, which is more akin to how poetry gets written than to how blockbuster movies and video games get made. Whether people make money with IF or not, the things that interest me are if they're advancing the state of the art, if they're tackling simulation and language in new ways, and if they're doing important work within our culture. A profitable IF company could be a fine thing. But I would be much more excited by a compelling interactive fiction utopia, or some piece that provided a multiplicity of strange and interesting perspectives, or some game that made us think in other ways about how our world functions.

David Cornelson: My target market is kids. Kids at school. Kids in a library. Kids sitting in front of a computer with their parents. I’m talking about reading aged kids. The ones that are seven or eight years old through the teens. Some of the teenagers are lost to outside things, but a great many of those kids are book readers and good students. That’s the market I want to tap. I want their parents to see my games as both entertaining and educational. Not directly educational (at least not yet), but I want to convince parents that Textfyre games will develop their kids cognitive learning skills. I think there are a few core elements to making marketable interactive fiction too. The things that kids are drawn to are interesting characters, humorous consequences, and simple dramatic plays. If I can produce stories with those elements, I believe I can put a series of twenty games on a bookshelf in Borders that have the same world and the same characters and they will just as popular as the Magic Tree House, Captain Underpants, Nancy Drew, and similar series’. That’s the plan anyway.


Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
My Apologies to David Cornelson

In all the confusion of trying to get all of these responses into one document, I'm afraid I made a terrible omission--David Cornelson, founder of Textfyre--an exciting, up-and-coming new IF publisher--was left out. I have inserted his responses, though, and I highly encourage you to read them for their great insights.

Again, I humbly apologize to David!


Mat Tschirgi (not verified)
Zork GAGs

I never played the Zork GAGs, but was always a bit curious about them. I know Nemesis was very inspired by MYST as far as the puzzles go.

One Infocom game that's interesting is one of their last-- Shogun. It's based off the book by James Clavell and basically the puzzles make no sense unless you've read the 1000+ page book or play along with the in-game walkthrough. It has some nice artwork though and I'm sure someone could make a decent game based on the book if they tried a different take on things.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Zork GAGs and Infocom's later text and graphics games
Mat Tschirgi wrote:

I never played the Zork GAGs, but was always a bit curious about them. I know Nemesis was very inspired by MYST as far as the puzzles go.

One Infocom game that's interesting is one of their last-- Shogun. It's based off the book by James Clavell and basically the puzzles make no sense unless you've read the 1000+ page book or play along with the in-game walkthrough. It has some nice artwork though and I'm sure someone could make a decent game based on the book if they tried a different take on things.

I played Return to Zork with my girlfriend at the time (1995/6-ish, the PC CD-ROM non-Real Video version). With some hints, we were able to beat it. It actually was a big deal at the time and quite enjoyable, even with the likely purposely cheesy acting. As far as GAG's go, it was about my speed and to my tastes. Games like Myst never did anything for me and in fact I'm quite anti that type of game. I have yet to try the later Zork GAG's, though I certainly plan on it someday.

I had bought Arthur and Shogun for the Amiga back when that was my primary platform. I loved Arthur and save for one small hint that I probably didn't need, beat it entirely on my own (definitely more of a beginner or average-level difficulty). Very nice graphics. Shogun on the other hand, after being a big fan of the mini-series (never read the books), was something of a dissapointment, with hit-and-miss graphics and very linear and often unreasonable solutions to problems (and an unusual parser vocabulary that just threw items in there for fun that were rarely logically useable). I never did get very far.

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

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Myst and Zork
Mat Tschirgi wrote:

I never played the Zork GAGs, but was always a bit curious about them. I know Nemesis was very inspired by MYST as far as the puzzles go.

Well, Myst was so phenomenally successful that there's little mystery about why so many other GAGs imitated its formula. I didn't get a chance to play it until well after the CD-ROM and digitized graphics had lost their novelty, but I bet it really was startling then.

Now that I've played what feels like hundreds of GAGs, though, I have to say that the MYST series--even with its flaws--is one of the best overall GAG series. Indeed, I wish they would consider remaking the games and fixing some of the worst flaws, such as that stupid fish with a small button on his head in Riven, or that incredibly counter-intuitive mouse-motion over the snake in Myst IV.

The beauty of these games really is more in exploring the world and just indulging in the overall aesthetics. The music is always wonderful and the experience quite surreal; I often compare it to a Zen rock garden. Obviously, folks more familiar with the vivid, lively gameplay of games like Monkey Island or even Zork aren't going to cotton to Myst right away. There's not much humor, and the puzzles tend to be quite difficult logic puzzles.

Anyway, from what I've read in reviews, many people enjoy Activision's Zork gags. A few weeks ago I went back and played Zork: Grand Inquisitor again. Keep meaning to write a review of it! It is a very fun game, even if it's perhaps much less epic in scope than the Zork trilogy. I did have to use hints a few times, but not nearly as much as I would have playing the text adventures.

I just wish GAG developers would take the lead set in the new Sam & Max games and quit being so stingy with hints! I just agonized through a game called Beyond Atlantis, which was so stingy that I had to consult the hintsite at least a dozen times. In my opinion, you really can't have enough hints, and they should come from different sources (i.e., NPCs you can talk to, texts or clues you can find, suggestions from your character, etc.) In particular, the game ought to be able to recognize when you're stuck and have some means of setting you straight (such as a notebook with a list of current objectives).

The biggest mistake adventure game developers make is trying to make their game "difficult" by leaving out hints. All this does is make the player frustrated and want to quit.


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