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Infocom Text Adventures

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Welcome to Zork.
West of House.
You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

Go North

North of House
You are facing the north side of a white house. There is no door here, and all the windows are barred.


Behind House
You are behind the white house. In one corner of the house there is a small window which is slightly ajar.

Open the Window

With great effort, you open the window far enough to allow entry.

Go In

You are in the kitchen of the white house. A table seems to have been used recently for the preparation of food. A passage leads to the west, and a dark staircase can be seen leading upward. To the east is a small window which is open.
On the table is an elongated brown sack, smelling of hot peppers.
A bottle is sitting on the table.
The glass bottle contains:
A quantity of water

The History of Infocom

Thus begins the interactive fiction game Zork. While Zork was not the first text adventure game of its type, it was certainly one of the best ever created. Zork exists because of two other excellent games: Dungeons and Dragons, a role-playing fantasy game invented by Dave Ameson and Gary Gygax; and Adventure, a computerized fantasy simulation game written by Wil Crowther and expanded by Don Woods. When MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science acquired a copy of Adventure, the 'Implementors', as they later came to be known, decided to write a better, more complex game of their own.

The members of the group, Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels and Tim Anderson, began with the intention of creating a text adventure game called Dungeon. Dungeon was completed in June 1977 and strained the capabilities of the mainframe it was designed for, a PDP-10. Personal computers were just becoming available to the public, so when the creators of Dungeon graduated from MIT, they formed their own company to tap into this growing market.

Infocom began with only US$11,500 and the program Dungeon, which they had created at MIT. Its original mainframe program was too large for personal computers of the time, so Marc Blank and Joel Berez took on the task of compressing the computer instructions that ran the game. Dave Lebling was responsible for reducing the size of the game and cutting the Zork storyline into three parts. During this time, Personal Software Inc bought the rights to release Zork for the TRS-80. They marketed the game poorly - the cover featured a greasy barbarian swinging a sword at some orcish creature. Infocom was able to buy back the rights to distribute and began marketing the game to other platforms. Zork: The Great Underground Empire Parts I and II were released in 1980 for the Apple II, Atari, and Amiga, and were an instant success. Three years later, Zork 3 was released. Dave Lebling had this to say about those early years at Infocom:

It was great fun. It was the kind of fun that I think [you have] when you are simultaneously young and doing something that no one has never done before and succeeding at it, which is even better.

Playing the Game

One of the unique qualities of text adventure games, and especially Infocom games, was the difficulty of the puzzles offered for the player. Modern graphic adventures don't have the levels of complexity that text adventures offered. In a text adventure, the player might be asked to repair a faulty valve, fix an alien machine, feed a cheese sandwich to a dog, or control robots through vision or hearing alone. Today's gamers encounter mostly Doom-style shoot-everything or click-everything puzzles, which require very little intellectual power. One of the Implementors, Marc Blank, commented:

I think the other thing - it's more of a gaming thing - is when it comes to point-and-click interfaces or interfaces where you're either picking words or picking objects, I think the one thing that gets lost is the sense that you could do anything and the sense you could use any word or any verb [in the text adventure games] and it might work. So there is a sense of open-endedness [in the text adventure game] and the possibility that you could do anything. I think that is lost.

Infocom's unique multiple-word parser allowed players to use complex sentences. Other text adventures of the time period used limited two or three-word parsers, and small vocabularies. Zork's vocabulary includes 908 words, 71 of which are actions. 'Professor' Brian Moriarty, creator of Wishbringer and Trinity, said:

... the game had this intelligent parser which could actually parse more interesting sentences than simply verb/noun. You could have verb/noun and indirect object and other new stuff. And it was just so classy and exciting... So I got the fever and I knew I wanted to do this.

The point of any Infocom game, of course, was to solve the puzzles and win the game. Each solution gave the gamer a certain number of points; in Zork, opening the window to enter the white house was worth five points. Gaining points was also a way to lead the gamer toward the correct solution. Almost all Infocom games included a trophy case where the treasures gathered during the game could be stored. Experienced Infocom gamers learned to make maps of the mazes and dungeons. The truly stumped could purchase the Invisiclues booklet, which offered amusing and sarcastic answers to the problems.

Infocom games were fun not only because of the puzzles they offered, but because of their clever responses to otherwise useless actions. Any Infocom game would respond to the question: 'What is a grue?' with the response:

The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.

The word 'xyzzy', which in Adventure would transport you from one place to another, became an in-joke for the Implementors of Infocom. Zork would recognise the nonsense word and respond with 'A hollow voice replies, 'Fool!'. The phrase 'Hello, sailor' elicited 'Hello, yourself' from the game. 'Kiss me' would get different responses from different Infocom games. In the Infocom version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the game would respond with 'This is family oriented programming!'. In Zork, the game responded with 'I'd rather kiss a pig'. There seemed to be a virtually unlimited range of responses; only rarely would it respond with the phrase 'I don't know what (unknown word) means'.

Infocom's Greatest Hits

Zork I, II, and III - Of all the games Infocom created, Zork was by far the most complex. No other text adventure game offered multiple solutions to the puzzles. Zork II and III weren't quite as complex, although the puzzles they offered were certainly difficult to solve.

Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker - Enchanter was created in the style of Zork, but with a fantasy twist. This was the first text adventure to express the passage of time; the player was required to eat, drink, and sleep in order to continue playing. Failure to eat or drink would result in death from thirst/starvation. As a bumbling student wizard, the gamer explored various locations in search of spells and items. In Sorcerer, its sequel, our protagonist utilizes his newly learned skills. Spellbreaker was created as a deliberately difficult sequel to Enchanter - a challenge to the fans of Infocom. Dave Lebling said about his creation:

Spellbreaker was intended to be a nasty, vicious and cruel, hard game (laughs) and it succeeded in that (laughs).

Starcross - One of the best text adventures ever created, Starcross was a science fiction story in the form of a text adventure. As the story opens, the player finds that they're on the bridge of an asteroid mining ship. They encounter a most unusual asteroid that turns out to be inhabited. This was one of the first games to utilize copy protection - to continue playing past a certain point, players were required to enter coordinates from a map that came with the game. Released by Activision, the game was packaged in a box that looked like a spaceship.

Planetfall - This opens with our protagonist on his knees, scrubbing dutifully away at the deck. Soon the ship explodes, and with some quick thinking, our hero manages to escape in a pod and lands on the surface of the nearest planet. Unfortunately for him, this planet is deserted because of a plague - a plague that is still virulent. With some luck, and the help of the endearing little robot, Floyd, he can get the communications equipment on the planet operational and get help before it's too late. Stationfall is the amusing sequel to this adventure.

A Mind Forever Voyaging - Artificial intelligence created to save the present by looking into the future. Limited in scope but original in concept, the player had the choice of living in the AI's head - access to climate and traffic controls, but very little interaction, or entering into the artificial universe and experiencing what was to be found there.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos - It's 1936 in Sandusky, Ohio, and you've just been kidnapped by minions of the Leather Goddesses and transported to Phobos. Together with your loyal Earth companion, you'll solve several puzzles and defeat the Goddesses and save humanity. This game is slightly naughty (gamers can specify how naughty they want the game to be by typing in a code word) and very amusing.

Suspended - One of the most inventive of the text adventures, the gamer has to solve puzzles using robots scattered in various locations. One robot (Iris) can see, Poet can look, Waldo can manipulate objects, etc. The gamer's only sensory input is from these robots, so many of the puzzles have to be solved using two or more at once. It requires some imaginative thinking to solve the puzzles in this game.

Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - The interactive text-adventure version of this long-running series. Its packaging included an illustrated booklet with pictures of the guide, a 'Don't Panic' badge, Joo Janta sunglasses, fluff, a microscopic space fleet, demolition orders, and no tea. Adams describes the text adventure as:

... bearing as much relationship to the books as 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' does to 'Hamlet'... It gets the player going and lulled into a false sense of security. And then all hell breaks loose and it goes through the most extraordinary number of directions. The game just glances at events that were a major part of the books, while things I used as one line throw-aways are those that I use for the game's set pieces. The reason was to keep me interested in doing it, and I wanted to make it fair for the people who haven't read the books. So readers and non-readers were, as much as possible, on an equal footing ... the game is equally difficult for both.

On the release of the Hitchhiker's Guide, it became the best-selling adventure game in America, selling over a quarter of a million copies.

Bureaucracy - Another Douglas Adams-inspired adventure game. This game is unusual in the pantheon of text adventures; probably the only game where the player's character can die of a heart attack by making a typo. The objective is to get the bank to accept a change-of-address card. This game is based upon a real-life story; Douglas Adams had been sent an American Express card, but because of an address change, wasn't allowed to use it properly. They eventually sent an apology and a new card to him, but sent it to the wrong address!

Activision has released several collections of Infocom games, available to run on almost any platform. If you don't already have a collection, act quickly - Activision will soon be discontinuing its production of the collected games. There are still several individuals selling collections on the Web.

The Fall of Infocom

From ideological differences to poor financial planning, there are many reasons why Infocom eventually went bankrupt. Zork was released as a way to make money while Infocom developed the project they had intended to do from the beginning; a business software program called Cornerstone. Cornerstone was created and released, but sold poorly. This was costly for Infocom, and was the reason why Activision was able to buy them out. Looking back, Meretzky suggests that perhaps he and his fellow Implementors should have gotten into graphics sooner, but he believes the getting into the business software side of the industry 'a huge mistake'. Their failure at marketing Cornerstone cut into their profits, and Activision dropped the business division of Infocom. But Infocom had not yet lost its appeal. From 1982-84 Infocom was experiencing its biggest success. Activision's takeover gave the company some focus and help with marketing. The games were selling well, and the fact that an Infocom game could be easily modified to run on any platform meant that all computer users could enjoy playing Infocom games. However, graphics were beginning to improve in quality, so in an attempt to compete, Infocom released eight games in 1986. None of the games sold very well and Infocom decided it was time to move into graphics. By this time, however, it was too late; text adventures were no longer selling. The Implementors scattered in different directions. Today, almost all are still creating computer games, but none have enjoyed the enormous success that Infocom experienced.

The Spirit Lives On

While Infocom has gone the way of many other computer software companies, the love of text adventures has not died. Today, people are writing their own adventures. Dave Lebling had this to say:

I follow the Internet newsgroups that talk about interactive fiction... and there are things there that allow you to write Infocom-style games. It isn't the syntax we used at Infocom, and I occasionally think, 'You know, download one of those and write something'.

Several newsgroups and websites are dedicated to the art of creating a text adventure (now called 'interactive' adventures), and contests are held for the best-written adventure.

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