Zork and the Birth of Self-Deprecating Video Games

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As an art form, video games are often valued somewhere between college admissions essays and Stalin. Dismissed as either insipid or evil, they have long languished out of the critical spotlight. But games can be creative. They can be interesting. They can be thought-provoking. And most importantly for this site, they can be funny. In this column, I’ll be looking at the games that make players laugh. Whether through clever writing or hilarious gameplay, these titles are a wonderful look into what the medium can do after you save the princess.

Zork, Infocom — 1980

“It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.”

That’s the funniest sentence ever written in a video game. Stick with me here.

On its face, it’s relatively boring flavor text. The first sentence describes the scene. The second sentence the consequences of the first sentence.

But Zork itself is a text adventure. It’s a game that takes place entirely in your imagination. You type what you want to do, “Go North; Take Lamp; Open Window,” and the game tells you whether or not you succeed. It’s one of the earliest forms of adventure games and still holds an extremely popular and extremely creative community of writers.

But in context, Zork’s grue line is brilliant. The gameplay — at least, back in 1980 — was white or green text on a dark background. The screen was already pitch black. You were already being asked to imagine what you couldn’t see. The game then asked you to imagine darkness on the dark screen and to imagine a monster you couldn’t see, even though you already couldn’t see it. Do you see what they did there? Infocom was messing with the player’s perceptions.

Zork was one of the first games about games.

What many people forget about Zork, especially considering the much sillier titles that appeared later in the series, is how well it struck a balance between sombre adventure and hilarious romp. The opening of the game itself it quiet and simple, creating a sense of foreboding.

“You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.” Yet when you open the mailbox and read the leaflet inside, you get an over-the-top description selling you on the adventure you’ve already paid money to play.

“”WELCOME TO ZORK!

ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be without one!”

This self-awareness was innovative at the time. To be fair, games have always been slightly aware of themselves. You see this when a crowned king says something like, “Press X to jump! That’s it! Use the right trigger to strike! Save my kingdom and talk to me if you want to save your game.”

But Zork used humor to balance the cheesy seriousness that was already developing in video games. Most adventure games wanted to be another “Lord of the Rings,” if not in actions then at least in tone. Yet Zork’s included booklet, The Great Underground Empire: A History, by “Froboz Mumbar,” reveals a sort of Douglas Adams-inspired weirdness that establishes a world that can be both mysterious and comical.

Even moments of disconnect with the game could create off-beat moments. Text adventures, especially in 1980, could only understand so many words and phrases. A missing or misspelled phrase would most often result in a simple, “I don’t know the word,” and the word you had just written.

But when you type in words such as “fuck” or “shit” — which of course you did — you’d get the response, “Such language in a high-class establishment like this!”

Is that a stupid joke? Yes. But in that joke, Zork made humor part of the gameplay. Sure, the world was funny. Sure, the writing was sharp for the time. But Zork wanted the player to be involved in the comedy. Even when making mistakes or dying or swearing, Zork included the player in its jokes. Even if you were a faceless adventurer, your funny actions elicited funny responses.

In all honesty, Zork is nowhere near the funniest game in the world. It’s not even the funniest text adventure. Time hasn’t been extremely kind to its sense of humor, which is a bit heavy on the ‘80s-nerdy side. Many of the references only make sense to kids who worked on old mainframes. But it established a world with equal parts drama and comedy, which would influence titles from Monkey Island to WarCraft.

Better yet, think of it as video games’ first pie in the face.

Try it now.

“Andy Grossman” works in the video game industry.