In Slate, Rebecca Onion has an interview with a historian of capitalism who has retraced the history of “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels — it’s a lot of fun. In it, they talk about how the format of Choose Your Own Adventure, dismissed by publishers at first and then adopted enthusiastically a decade later, was akin to the plot structure of early computer games. Now, I liked Choose Your Own Adventure as much as anybody, but what I really loved was the text-based Infocom game, Zork.
They even made Zork themed Choose Your Own Adventure books, but I really loved the game. It was the problem solving aspect that most intrigued me, though. It was the worldbuilding.
In the originally Zork trilogy (later wildly augmented and expanded into an entire universe of other games) you’re an adventurer who descends into the ruins of The Great Underground Empire, a kingdom founded by and overseen by the royal Flathead dynasty until it collapsed and was abandoned by everybody but dangerous creatures and mischief-making loners. As you explore the kingdom and gather treasure, avoiding the slavering fangs of deadly Grue, you advance from adventurer to supplanting the Wizard of Frobozz and to eventually claiming the mantle of Dungeon Master.
There were no graphics. It was simple keyboard commands and text descriptions. But the three games added up to something of a comic fantasy novel, with pithy nods to 80s culture and working conditions in the early consumer tech industry.
Zork had mind bending puzzles, including mazes in total darkness that you had to map out for yourself. For some, that was the appeal. I loved reading about the Flatheads, though, and trying to figure out where the Grue came from or how the various companies like Frobozzco international was formed.
Man, if they made a new Zork, I’d buy it.