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A Brief History of Zork

Zork is a text-based video game, a genre also known as “interactive fiction,” whose defining feature is the absence of typical video game graphics. Instead, the game’s environments and the actions you take are described for you. For example, the first line of Zork is, “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.” Using a series of simple commands, you direct the main character to do something, like “open mailbox.” To which the game will reply, “Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.” Naturally, you would then “take leaflet,” “read leaflet”, and then maybe “walk east” to get to the house. The story unfolds from there as you collect items, like a sword, a lantern, rope, and other adventuring necessities, before entering a vast, underground cave where you’ll face enemies inspired by The Lord of the Rings, like elves, trolls, and the darkness-lurking grue.

How old is Zork?

Zork was written between 1977 and 1979 by MIT students Tim Anderson, Bruce Daniels, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank.

The young geeks got the idea for Zork from the first text-based video game, Adventure (also called Colossal Cave Adventure or ADVENT, because the computer it ran on could only use so many letters in the command line). Adventure was created in 1976 by Will Crowther, a student at Stanford, as a simulation of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, with a few Tolkien-esque fantasy elements thrown in by fellow Stanfordite Don Woods. The MIT guys weren’t impressed with Adventure’s limited two-word command structure (“kill troll”), so they wrote Zork to understand complete sentences (“kill troll with sword”).

Most people didn’t have computers back then, so who played Zork?

Originally, Zork and Adventure were both written for the PDP-10, a room-sized computer mainframe that was popular with universities in the late-1970s. Adventure was written in a very common programming language called FORTRAN, so copies of the game spread rapidly among mainframe users. Zork, however, was written with MDL, a more specialized language that wasn’t as popular. So, for a while, the only way to play Zork was to log on to the MIT PDP-10 through ARPAnet, an early version of the internet, and run it remotely. Zork was never officially announced to the world; people just heard about it through ARPANet, making it an early viral sensation.

Just as home computers were becoming more commonplace, a commercial version of Zork was released by Infocom, a company founded by Anderson, Lebling and Blank. However, they didn’t initially intend to sell Zork. They set out to create serious productivity software for the home and business market, but when they realized they didn’t actually have any of those programs written yet, they decided Zork sales could fund their future endeavors.

Since the game was too big to operate on these early home computers, they had to break it into three parts: Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (1980), Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981), and Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982). Although Zork was first released for the TRS-80 computer, it was eventually ported to just about every home computer, like Apple II, Atari Computers, and the IBM PC. It was a pretty big hit, selling over a million copies.

The success of Zork compelled Infocom to forget their original plan of creating business software and focus on text video games throughout much of the 1980s, releasing over 40 games across a variety of fictional genres. Of course some of these games were Zork sequels and spin-offs, like the Enchanter trilogy (1983-1985), Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987), and the prequel, Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988).

What made Zork such a hit?

There are quite a few things that set Zork and other Infocom games apart from the competition. For one, Infocom games had creative, addictive puzzles and mazes that drove players batty. Some gamers even wrote Infocom letters, asking for a hint to help them get past particularly tough brain teasers. This became so common that Infocom created a monthly newsletter for fans, called the New Zork Times, where they doled out clues, but also told players about upcoming games. Later, Infocom sold Invisiclues hint books. The books were printed with invisible ink that could only be revealed with a special marker, so players could get clues as-needed without spoiling anything farther in the game.

Marketing was also a huge factor in Infocom’s success. In the early 80s, computer games were mainly sold through mail order or at specialized computer stores. Zork and other Infocom titles, though, also graced the shelves of bookstores. Readers weren’t necessarily concerned about the latest whiz-bang graphics, but they did appreciate the deeper storyline, descriptions, and characters available with Infocom titles. In fact, Infocom became so well known for its writing that when Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was approached to adapt his novel as a video game, he said he wouldn't work with anyone but Infocom. The resulting Hitchhiker's game, released in 1984, became one of Infocom’s biggest sellers.

Image credit: The Infocom Gallery

Finally, during the development of the 1982 mystery game Deadline, the programmers realized they couldn’t fit everything into the game. So they created a portfolio of physical items, like mock crime scene photos and police reports, and included them in the box with the game’s 5.25” floppy disks. Players remarked that these “feelies,” as they became known, added to the overall game experience, so Infocom started including them with all their titles. Sometimes feelies were useful, like maps and blueprints, while others were simply there for fun, like an empty plastic bag in the Hitchhiker's Guide game that supposedly contained a microscopic space fleet.

Image credit: The Staging Point

To capitalize on the success of feelies, new editions of the Zork games were released with items like travel brochures to fictional lands, a guide to an underground amusement park, a history of the Great Underground Empire, shares of FrobozzCo stock, and even a Zorkmid coin, the official currency of the Great Underground Empire. As you might expect, many fans purchased the Zork series all over again, just so they could add the feelies to their collection.

Is Infocom still around?

Sadly, no. In 1984 they finally got around to working on serious business software and released a database program called Cornerstone. The company sank a lot of money into Cornerstone’s development, but it wasn’t very well received by consumers. On the verge of bankruptcy, Infocom accepted a buy-out offer in 1986 from Activision, the company behind video game classics like Pitfall and Chopper Command. Unfortunately, due to the increased emphasis on graphics in video games, as well as poor management at Activision, Infocom was shuttered in 1989.

After closing Infocom, Activision continued to use the beloved Infocom name and Zork brand to create additional sequels, like Return to Zork (1993), Zork Nemesis (1996), and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997). These games were a big departure from the original text-only gameplay. The new Zorks featured extensive graphics and even full-motion video scenes starring actors, like Dirk Benedict, Rip Taylor, and Michael McKean. Hardcore Infocom fans generally don't even acknowledge that these games exist.

What does 'Zork' mean?

The word 'Zork' doesn’t really mean anything. It's just a nonsense word the MIT guys sometimes used as an exclamation (“Zork!”), but also as a placeholder name for a program that was still being written. However, the game was briefly called Dungeon, until TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, threatened to sue. They reverted back to Zork and the name simply stuck.

Does anyone remember Zork?

Just about anyone who had a computer in the early 1980s played Zork or one of its Infocom progeny. In addition, because of its mainframe origins, it was a big hit with early hackers and programmers, who included references to the game in their own programs. Zork is also a major topic of the 2010 documentary, Get Lamp, an in-depth history of the interactive fiction genre, including interviews with almost all of the major pioneers of text adventures.

Perhaps one of Zork's longest lasting legacies is the grue, a “sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth,” whose insatiable appetite for adventurers is only tempered by its fear of light from a lamp. One of the most famous lines from Zork — “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue” — can be found referenced all over the internet, in old and new video games, and in nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot's homage to Zork, "It is Pitch Dark" (the music video even has a cameo from Steve Meretzky, one of the lead game designers at Infocom).

Can you still play Zork?

Thanks to the internet, good video games never die. A quick Google search will lead you to hundreds of websites that host an online version of Zork, and some even have it available for download. If you’re a modern gamer with a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops, an Easter Egg on the main menu lets you play Zork on your Xbox, PS3, or Wii. (Bonus: If you find it, you’ll get the “Eaten by a Grue” achievement.) You can also play Zork, as well as many new interactive fiction games — yes, people still make them — by downloading the Frotz app for the iPhone/iPad.

Were you ever eaten by a grue? Tell us your favorite Zork memories in the comments below!

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Pop Culture
The Strange Hidden Link Between Silent Hill and Kindergarten Cop
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Universal Pictures

by Ryan Lambie

At first glance, Kindergarten Cop and Silent Hill don't seem to have much in common—aside from both being products of the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade came Kindergarten Cop, the hit comedy directed by Ivan Reitman and starring larger-than-life action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the decade’s end came Silent Hill, Konami’s best-selling survival horror game that sent shivers down PlayStation owners’ spines.

As pop culture artifacts go, they’re as different as oil and water. Yet eagle-eyed players may have noticed a strange hidden link between the video game and the goofy family comedy.

In Silent Hill, you control Harry Mason, a father hunting for his daughter Cheryl in the eerily deserted town of the title. Needless to say, the things Mason uncovers are strange and very, very gruesome. Early on in the game, Harry stumbles on a school—Midwich Elementary School, to be precise—which might spark a hint of déjà vu as soon as you approach its stone steps. The building’s double doors and distinctive archway appear to have been taken directly from Kindergarten Cop’s Astoria Elementary School.

Could it be a coincidence?

Well, further clues can be found as you venture inside. As well as encountering creepy gray children and other horrors, you’ll notice that its walls are decorated with numerous posters. Some of those posters—including a particularly distinctive one with a dog on it—also decorated the halls of the school in Kindergarten Cop.

Do a bit more hunting, and you’ll eventually find a medicine cabinet clearly modeled on one glimpsed in the movie. Most creepily of all, you’ll even encounter a yellow school bus that looks remarkably similar to the one in the film (though this one has clearly seen better days).

Silent Hill's references to the movie are subtle—certainly subtle enough for them to pass the majority of players by—but far too numerous to be a coincidence. When word of the link between game and film began to emerge in 2012, some even joked that Konami’s Silent Hill was a sequel to Kindergarten Cop. So what’s really going on?

When Silent Hill was in early development back in 1996, director Keiichiro Toyama set out to make a game that was infused with influences from some of his favorite American films and TV shows. “What I am a fan of is occult stuff and UFO stories and so on; that and I had watched a lot of David Lynch films," he told Polygon in 2013. "So it was really a matter of me taking what was on my shelves and taking the more horror-oriented aspects of what I found.”

A scene from 'Silent Hill'
Divine Tokyoska, Flickr

In an interview with IGN much further back, in 2001, a member of Silent Hill’s staff also stated, “We draw our influences from all over—fiction, movies, manga, new and old.”

So while Kindergarten Cop is perhaps the most outlandish movie reference in Silent Hill, it’s by no means the only one. Cafe5to2, another prominent location in the game, is taken straight from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Elsewhere, you might spot a newspaper headline which references The Silence Of The Lambs (“Bill Skins Fifth”). Look carefully, and you'll also find nods to such films as The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and 12 Monkeys.

Similarly, the town’s streets are all named after respected sci-fi and horror novelists, with Robert Bloch, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson among the most obvious. Oh, and Midwich, the name of the school? That’s taken from the classic 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, twice adapted for the screen as The Village Of The Damned in 1960 and 1995.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Kindergarten Cop'
Universal Pictures

The reference to Kindergarten Cop could, therefore, have been a sly joke on the part of Silent Hill’s creators—because what could be stranger than modeling something in a horror game on a family-friendly comedy? But there could be an even more innocent explanation: that Kindergarten Cop spends so long inside an ordinary American school simply gave Toyama and his team plenty of material to reference when building their game.

Whatever the reasons, the Kindergarten Cop reference ranks highly among the most strange and unexpected film connections in the history of the video game medium. Incidentally, the original movie's exteriors used a real school, John Jacob Astor Elementary in Astoria, Oregon. According to a 1991 article in People Magazine, the school's 400 fourth grade students were paid $35 per day to appear in Kindergarten Cop as extras.

It’s worth pointing out that the school is far less scary a place than the video game location it unwittingly inspired, and to the best of our knowledge, doesn't have an undercover cop named John Kimble serving as a teacher there, either.

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entertainment
8 Surprising Facts About Bubble Bobble
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by Ryan Lambie

Originally released in 1986, Bubble Bobble is a colorful platform video game with a fiendishly addictive two player co-op mode, which quickly became an arcade hit for Taito. Widely ported to home computers and consoles, Bubble Bobble marked the start of a long-running series of sequels and spin-offs that is still remembered fondly today. Here are a few things you might not know about the '80s classic that started it all.

1. IT HAS ITS ROOTS IN AN EARLY 1980s TITLE.

Before Bubble Bobble, there was Chack’n Pop, a far more obscure platform game released by Taito in 1983. Some of Bubble Bobble’s ideas appear here in nascent form: a single-screen platform game where the player controls a weird chicken-like creature (the Chack’n of the title). The aim is to retrieve a heart from one corner of the maze-like screen before rushing back to the top.

Some of the mechanics are a bit strange: Chack’n’s primary attack is a grenade-like weapon, which is quite difficult to control. Nevertheless, many of the enemies and collectible items are identical to those in Taito’s later classic—the purple enemies called Monstas make their first appearance here, while two levels in Bubble Bobble directly reference Chack'n Pop.

2. IT WAS AIMED AT COUPLES.

Bubble Bobble was designed by Fukio Mitsuji, who joined Taito in his mid-20s and initially worked on such games as Super Dead Heat, Land Sea Air Squad, and the (very good) vertical shooter Halley’s Comet. For his next game, however, Mitsuji wanted to create something very different from the experiences commonly found in arcades at the time. Noticing that arcades in Japan were commonly frequented by men, he wanted to create a game that couples could enjoy together.

"Back then, women were rarely seen in Japanese arcades," Mitsuji later said in a video interview for the video game compilation, Taito Legends. "So I thought bringing more couples would help solve this issue. That's why I designed cute characters and included cooperative play in Bubble Bobble."

3. THE GAME WAS AN EARLY CO-OP.

Mitsuji’s concept was unusual for its time. If two-player games existed at all in '80s arcades, they were usually competitive and violent. The four-player Gauntlet, released in 1985, warned that “shots do not hurt other players—yet ...”, while 1987’s seminal beat-'em-up Double Dragon ended with its players fighting to the death over the woman they had just rescued.

Bubble Bobble, on the other hand, had a far lighter atmosphere. While players could compete over the items that appeared on the screen, the game encouraged cooperation rather than aggression. Indeed, the only way to get to Bubble Bobble’s true ending was for two players to work together.

4. IT CONTAINS HIDDEN EXTRAS.

As well as the game’s central concept—which involves spitting bubbles at enemies to capture them before bursting the bubbles to finish them off—Mitsuji packed in all kinds of bonuses and hidden extras among Bubble Bobble’s 100 levels. The hardest to find are the three hidden rooms, which can only be unlocked by reaching levels 20, 30, and 40 without losing a life, and then entering a special door.

Full of jewels to collect, these hidden rooms also contained coded messages, which, when deciphered, gave clues as to how to complete the game. “If you want to get back your love of truth you must help each other until the last,” for example, hinted that you could only complete Bubble Bobble with two players.

5. NUMBERS WERE IMPORTANT.

There are hidden depths to Bubble Bobble that will only become obvious after long hours of play, such as the way items are linked to certain digits in your score. If the two penultimate numbers of a player’s score are identical—so, 5880, for example—then higher-scoring items will appear once the level’s completed. Similarly, rounds ending with a 0 or a 5 will also generate rarer bonuses.

6. THERE WERE MULTIPLE ENDINGS.

Bubble Bobble may look cute, with its cartoon dinosaurs and bouncy theme tune, but it’s also a tough game to crack. Later levels can only be completed by mastering tricky techniques, like riding on bubbles to get out of otherwise inescapable pits. The cruelest twist comes at the end, where a single player will be told, after 100 levels of action, to “come here with your friend.”

Even in two-player mode, the game has to be completed twice in order to see the true ending; get through the first 100 levels, and “Super Mode” is unlocked, where the same 100 levels are made faster and more difficult to complete. At a time where most games either didn’t have a conclusion, or concluded with a simple “Congratulations!” message, Bubble Bobble’s multiple endings were quite unusual. And the ending you’re rewarded with when completing the Super Mode is very strange indeed...

7. IT WAS ALL ABOUT FAMILY TIES.

The plot of Bubble Bobble sees its two brothers, Bubby and Bobby, turned into bubble-blowing dragons, while their girlfriends have been kidnapped by the evil Baron von Blubba. Completing the game once reveals what’s called the “Happy End,” where the heroes are reunited with their girlfriends and turned back into humans. But complete the game’s Super Mode, and you’re treated to an unexpected twist: the huge boss you’ve just defeated—the hooded, bottle-throwing Super Drunk—is revealed to be Bubby and Bobby’s parents, who must have been transformed by the same grim magic that turned the heroes into dragons. It’s a surreal—and even quite dark, depending on your interpretation—ending to a classic game.

8. THE SERIES IS STILL GOING STRONG.

The popularity of Bubble Bobble quickly made it one of the most widely-ported games of its era. It appeared on such computers and consoles as the ZX Spectrum, the Amiga, the NES, and Sega Master System—even the Game Boy got its own monochrome, handheld version of the game. Bubble Bobble’s success also prompted Taito to create a string of loose sequels and spin-offs, including Rainbow Islands, Parasol Stars and Bubble Bobble Symphony. The spin-off series are still going strong, with recent installments hitting the Nintendo DS, Wii, and Xbox in recent years.

But Mitsuji himself only worked on the first sequel to Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands (1987), a wonderful single-player platform game that differed wildly from its predecessor in terms of mechanics and pace. Mitsuji also created three other games for Taito— Syvalion, Darius II, and Volfied—before he left the company in the early 1990s. His last game came in 1991—an obscure yet delightful platform puzzler called Popils for the Sega Game Gear, which contained much of the elegant simplicity of Bubble Bobble.

For the remainder of his life, Mitsuji taught game design, before he passed away at the tragically young age of 48 in 2008. It was a sad loss for the video game industry, for sure, but his most famous creation delighted a generation of players with its lighter-than-air action. More than 30 years later, Bubble Bobble remains an out-and-out classic.

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