Franchise Festival #108 – Zork

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll be parsing the history of Zork. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Table of Contents

Zork: The Great Underground Empire (1980)
Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981)
Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982)
Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987)
Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988)
Return to Zork (1993)
Zork Nemesis (1996)
Zork: The Great Underground Empire (1997)


The world’s first piece of interactive fiction, the PDP-10 mainframe computer’s Adventure, was written in the FORTRAN programming language by Will Crowther as a creative way to connect with his young daughters through its textual rendering of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. He shared it with his coworkers at Bolt, Beranek and Newman in early 1976, where it caught the attention of a Stanford graduate student named Don Woods. Woods requested and received Crowther’s blessing to produce an expanded edition featuring creatures and light combat mechanics drawn from Dungeons and Dragons. This version of the game was even more popular than the original, spreading like wildfire through the United States’ nascent PC network and inspiring a group of programmers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to produce their own unlicensed follow-up.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire (1980)

Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling began developing Zork in 1977. Initial prototypes built for the PDP-10 iterated on Crowther and Woods’ work by introducing an advanced text parser that could make sense of adjectives and phrases rather than just nouns and verbs. These prototypes were so successful among MIT staff, as well as remote users of the cutting-edge ARPANET system, that the team founded game development studio Infocom in 1979. Infocom finally took the project public with a commercial edition released on 8-inch floppy diskettes for TRS-80 computers in 1980. 

The 1977 PDP-10 Mainframe version of Zork, seen here, doesn’t differ dramatically in appearance from its 1980 commercial release. Note how the player character’s inventory is displayed. Source: MobyGames

Due to memory restrictions on consumer PCs, the commercial version of Zork was published in three parts. The first of these, Zork: The Great Underground Empire, sees players beginning their adventure near a white house in the middle of a forest. They can test the world’s boundaries by exploring the woods or enter the house to descend into a subterranean abyss. Smart players quickly find that producing a map using graph paper is key to success, as the world is expansive enough that it can be easy to become hopelessly lost.

Zork‘s famous opening screen as rendered on an Amiga. Source: MobyGames

Dangers range from standard fantasy enemies like trolls, who can be challenged in one-on-one combat using weapons found in the environment, to unique creatures like the grue, an iconic foe that instantly eats the player character if they spend too much time in dark areas without lighting a lantern. The player character can acquire items using the ‘take’ command and then review their holdings by typing ‘inventory.’ Though the initial objective is unclear, the adventure ends when the player finds all Twenty Treasures of Zork and places them into a trophy case. The plot is slim and largely played for laughs, with the titular Great Underground Empire of Quendor having fallen into decline due to poor leadership.

The grue makes its reappearance in a 2001 browser adaptation of Zork called Dungeon. Source: MobyGames

While its initial TRS-80 release sold well, ports to the Apple II, Atari ST, and other hardware configurations during the early 1980s definitively established Infocom as a leading developer of text adventures. In contrast to expectations, sales of Zork actually increased every year from 1980 to 1984. Sequels were soon to follow.

Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981)

Zork II was published for a host of computer platforms beginning in 1981; these include the TRS-80, Apple II, DOS, and more. None differ significantly from the earliest edition, as they are all pure text adventures featuring no illustrations or animations. Owing to its status as the second part of a three-part series originally circulated as a complete product on ARPANET in the late ’70s, Zork II is mechanically identical to its direct predecessor, though it offers nearly twice as many (often humorous) ways for the player character to die.

The Amstrad PCW version of Zork II features green text on a black background. Source: MobyGames

The story picks up immediately after the conclusion of Zork. The player character escapes the tunnels beneath Zork‘s white house and delves into a new region called the Barrow. Sadly, the lack of any above-ground exploration makes the game seem a bit more claustrophobic than the previous title. The antagonistic Wizard of Frobozz, on the other hand, is more detailed than the thief that harried the player character in Zork and deepens what limited lore exists in Infocom’s flagship property. Progress is still tied to the accumulation of artifacts, but these now facilitate access to new areas rather than being a straightforward collection quest.

Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982)

Zork III is the final part of Infocom’s original project. While the studio had launched a new intellectual property (IP) called Deadline in the year between the release of Zork II and Zork III, the latter would not differ in any meaningful way from its predecessor; even feelies, bonus physical items that Infocom had begun distributing as pack-ins with Deadline to enhance the experience, are absent from the original 1982 PC releases of Zork III.

Zork III begins on the Endless Stair but soon branches out into increasingly fantastical locales. This is the Macintosh version. Source: MobyGames

The player assumes the role of the same character from earlier titles as they move beyond Zork II‘s Endless Stair and collect another handful of artifacts in a bid to inherit the role of Dungeon Master. The elvish sword, a Tolkien-esque weapon acquired in the opening minutes of Zork, and brass lantern remain central to progress and even unlocks one of the game’s final puzzles. The most noteworthy mechanical wrinkle is a new timed event in which an earthquake blocks access to one plot-critical item but opens access to others once 130 turns have passed; if the player has not yet obtained a key from the Key Room at this time, they are forced to reload from an earlier point and try again.

Some ports, like the one available on Radioshack’s TRS-80 Color Computer (“CoCo”), suffer from descriptions that can’t fit on a single screen. Source: MobyGames

Zork III brought the original commercial text adventure to its conclusion and sold nearly as well as its predecessors. Reviewers were similarly kind, claiming that this was the best of the three. Infocom would put the series on hiatus for a few years, though, as it explored tales set in the same universe (the Enchanter trilogy, 1983-1985) and new licensed IPs like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984).

Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987)

Beyond Zork was developed primarily by Infocom’s Brian Moriarty and made available for the Apple, Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh, Commodore 128, and IBM platforms in September 1987. It would be the series’ first title to feature the feelies for which Infocom had become known, including a map and guidebook used to identify monster weaknesses. This was intended to dissuade piracy, as an original copy of the game is needed to avoid tedious trial and error.

Character stat sheet as depicted in the DOS version. Source: MobyGames

Though actions in Beyond Zork still depend on the player’s use of an impressively complex text parser, graphical embellishments make the experience more richly detailed than any earlier series entry. Combat values like health are now clearly reflected in a section of the user interface (UI). As in Wizardry (1981), the player now has an opportunity to assign points to various character attributes at the start of the game and enhance these by leveling up through the accumulation of experience points from battles.

Procedural generation of the game’s expansive underworld, in which the player’s avatar seeks to defeat a sinister Ur-Grue and retrieve the Coconut of Quendor, encourages multiple playthroughs following an initial run. Optional content is gated behind challenges which require the player character to have an especially high value in one of their attributes; since the player can only increase attributes so much on any given run, trying out different character builds results in new areas to explore. The game’s ending likewise hinges on the player character’s compassion stat.

The red and white color scheme of the Atari ST version is pretty spooky. Note the presence of an auto-mapping feature in the upper-right of the screen. Source: MobyGames

Reception was divided largely along the lines of critics who enjoyed a greater emphasis on RPG combat and those who missed earlier adventures’ more freeform exploration. Nearly everyone appreciated the robust UI and inclusion of text macros, however. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of Infocom’s ill-advised Cornerstone database software in 1985 led to major layoffs and a subsequent acquisition by rapidly-expanding boutique studio Activision. Future Zork titles would be developed by an entirely new team following this merger.

Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz (1988)

Zork Zero began development in early 1987 under the direction of Steve Meretzky, an Infocom writer who had risen to fame for his uproarious collaboration with Douglas Adams on the studio’s interactive adaptation of Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Brian Moriarty would leave Infocom for LucasArts midway through 1988, presaging Meretzky’s departure shortly after Zork Zero‘s release on Macintosh PCs in October of the same year. Though Activision considered Infocom games to be among its most important releases, the conglomerate was increasingly hard-pressed to retain the staff who designed them.

Playing Double Fanucci in the DOS version of Zork Zero. Source: MobyGames

Zork Zero represents a major departure from its predecessors. It omits the stat-heavy RPG combat of Beyond Zork in favor of a return to text-driven exploration, but also introduces on-screen mapping, a hint system, and even graphical minigames. Among the latter is Double Fanucci, a card game that had been referenced but never depicted in prior titles, that can only be won by using a strategy outlined in a physical calendar packaged alongside the game.

The plot is more expansive than fans had become accustomed to. Set before the events of the original Zork trilogy, Zork Zero allows players to meet the foolish Lord Dimwit Flathead and see the apogee of the Great Underground Empire firsthand. Dangling threads from throughout the series’ history, including the origins of the white house from Zork‘s opening sequence, are finally explained (for better or worse).

The Apple II version is less visually complex than its DOS contemporary, but it features all of the same content. Source: MobyGames

Zork Zero reviewed well, with critics drawing particular attention to its complexity and quality-of-life features, even as the text adventure genre was dying out in favor of computer games with more extensive on-screen visuals. Ports to the Amiga and Apple II in 1989 were similarly well-received. Sadly, Infocom was on its last legs; Activision had demanded an impossibly high number of annual products from the small studio and moved their offices from Massachusetts to California. The rise of graphics-heavy software, never Infocom’s specialty, and the comparatively high costs of developing for the DOS platform led Activision to fully shutter Infocom by the end of 1989.

Return to Zork (1993)

28-year-old Bobby Kotick, in an effort to revitalize Activision’s flagging fortunes upon his takeover of the company in 1991, fired all 200 Activision employees and hired on hundreds more as he focused on rebuilding the studio using its most popular legacy properties. With Infocom nothing more than a label used for promotion, development responsibilities for its next Zork project yet again fell to a new group of designers. Freelancer Doug Barnett, whose most prominent credit from a decade in the industry so far was Cinemaware strategy/action hybrid Lords of the Rising Sun (1989), was brought on to spearhead production in spite of his unfamiliarity with the adventure game genre.

We finally get a visual depiction of Zork‘s famous white house in the intro to Return to Zork. Source: MobyGames

Producer Eddie Dombrower was asked to right the ship when Barnett’s initial prototype disappointed executives. Unfortunately, Dombrower forced the development team to complicate puzzles due to criticism received for the comparatively simplistic puzzles of Activision’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 (1992); a later interview with technical leader William Volk by the Digital Antiquarian suggests an even more capricious motivation for the game’s brutal puzzle design: “people hated Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 — panned it… so we decided to wreak revenge on the entire industry by making Return to Zork completely unfair.”

An attitude selection bar at the left determines how conversations play out. Source: MobyGames

In a nod to the zeitgeist of the era, Return to Zork is a graphical adventure game featuring full-motion video and includes no text parser at all. Players instead move around the world by clicking at the edge of the screen and interact with it by tapping objects or people of interest. Actors, including Twin Peaks‘ Robyn Lively and The Wonder Years‘ Jason Hervey, appear as characters to whom the unseen player character can speak. In an effort to make players feel as though they are fully inhabiting the first-person perspective, they choose one of three attitudes for their avatar’s unwritten response rather than selecting from specific dialogue options. 

“What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?” No joke – this is Jason Hervey as the Troll King. Source: Giant Bomb

A critical drubbing from high-profile reviewers like Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpio would not keep Return to Zork from becoming the series’ best-selling entry upon its release for DOS and Macintosh platforms on then-cutting-edge CD-ROM format in 1993. Ports to the FM Towns, PC-98, PC-FX, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn followed over the next three years, though these were exclusive to Japan. Activision’s surprising strategy of ditching Zork‘s traditional text parser in favor of the FMV format popularized by Myst (1993) had successfully established a template for the next phase of the series.

Zork Nemesis (1996)

Zombie Studios, founded by Joanna Alexander and Mark Long in 1994, was hired to produce the next Zork adventure for Activision. A circulating design document confirms that development began in 1995 and that the core concept was a three-act narrative structure rather than a series of interlocking puzzles. This manual likewise reveals Zombie Studios’ intent to double down on Return to Zork‘s live-action footage by “combining the most dynamic and cutting edge talent in the game industry with the vast talent pool of Hollywood.”

With Nemesis, Zork went full-Myst. Source: MobyGames

A $3,500,000 budget led to the most technologically advanced Zork yet, albeit at the expense of mechanical complexity. Puzzles based on real locations inspired by art designer Mark Long’s experience traveling the world are intended to offer multiple solutions but are often more focused on visual fidelity than providing a mentally-stimulating challenge. Unlike the still screens of Return to Zork, Zork Nemesis‘ Z-Vision engine features a first-person perspective that can rotate 360 degrees during some scenes. The new Forbidden Lands setting conveys an uncharacteristically serious tone for the franchise following 15 years of humor.

Many puzzles come down to using a collected object on an environmental feature. Source: MobyGames

Upon its 1996 release for Windows and Macintosh PCs, Zork Nemesis delivered massive sales in spite of waning interest in pre-rendered graphical adventure games. The critical reception was mixed, on the other hand, reflecting the disparity between the game’s ambitious presentation and its middling gameplay. Activision’s gamble on reinventing the series’ tone and mechanics for a new generation of players was inexplicably continuing to pay off.

Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997)

Activision opted to develop Zork: Grand Inquisitor internally rather than contracting a second-party studio. Due to its use of the Zork Nemesis game engine, production took a shorter period of time than either of its direct predecessors. This also allowed the developers, under the leadership of director Laird M. Malamed and designer Margaret Stohl, to retain a strong audio/visual component while not compromising its puzzle mechanics. A pack-in bonus text adventure called Zork: The Undiscovered Underground, developed by Infocom co-founder Dave Lebling at the request of Activision, reminded players how far the series had come over the past two decades.

The inventory remains as useful as ever in Grand Inquisitor. Source: MobyGames

Set between the events of Zork Nemesis and Return to Zork, Grand Inquisitor sees players going on a quest to free Quendor from the despotic Inquisition. They take on the role of AFGNCAAP, a salesperson for the Frobozz Electric Company, though the seemingly absurd name actually serves as an acronym for Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person; Zork’s tradition of a more or less blank avatar is preserved despite the game’s otherwise narrative-heavy adventure. Non-player characters like the Grand Inquisitor and the unseen Dalboz of Gurth, respectively played by the scenery-chewing Erick Avari and Michael McKean, are left to define much of the series’ return to its earlier comedic tone.

McKean is unseen since his character inhabits a lamp, but Avari gets plenty of over-the-top facetime. Source: Rock Paper Shotgun

Grand Inquisitor launched on Windows PCs to the poorest reviews in series’ history. Sales were likewise less than anticipated, as the interest in traditional adventure games had begun to dry up by the late 1990s. New technology, especially the rise of dedicated 3dfx graphics cards from 1996 on, meant that developers could now render virtual worlds in real time with a much richer degree of interaction than was present in the pre-rendered worlds of Myst and Zork


Zork‘s first spinoff, Enchanter (1983), was originally planned as Zork IV before being renamed and retooled around a new protagonist. Designed by Mark Blank and Dave Lebling, it is set within the same universe as Zork and shares much of the tone and gameplay of its source material. Rather than engaging in combat primarily through melee attacks, however, Enchanter allows the player character to cast spells that they’ve copied from scrolls into their spellbook. Only a limited number of spells can be loaded into the player character’s memory at any given time, forcing players to strategize based on the puzzles and enemies they encounter. Survival elements, including the need to maintain a supply of food and drink, also differentiate Enchanter from the original Zork trilogy. A universally positive reception led Infocom to respectively publish sequels Sorcerer and Spellbreaker in 1984 and 1985.

Some of the imagery in Zork Quest, like this bird attack from The Crystal of Doom, could be pretty abstract due to color limitations. Source: MobyGames

Two interactive comic books, Assault on Egreth Castle (1988) and The Crystal of Doom (1989), were next released for the Apple II under the Zork Quest sub-series following Infocom’s acquisition by Activision. Player control in these titles is limited to shifting from one character’s perspective to another in order to see all sides of story events. The comics otherwise feature no ability to impact their narratives, which are depicted using text and still images that fade into one another.

Legends of Zork featured a rather busy interface. Source: MobyGames

Legends of Zork, a browser-based role-playing game, launched by Irish studio Jolt Online Gaming in 2009 in collaboration with Activision, was perhaps the series’ strangest spinoff. Players created a character for free and were then given a fixed number of action points to explore the remnants of the Great Underground Empire; as in other free-to-play games of the era, additional action points could be acquired by paying real-world currency. Legends of Zork compared unfavorably to contemporary browser RPGs like the hilarious Kingdom of Loathing, however, and was shut down by Jolt Online Gaming in 2011.


Zork wasn’t the first text adventure, but it was a successful refinement of the model established by Adventure. Impressively, it survived the fall of Infocom and managed to flourish as a similarly compelling refinement of the 1990s graphical adventure genre. Adapting it to a still-more action-oriented setting in the era of 3D graphics cards and first-person experiences influenced by Valve’s Half-Life (1998) may have been a bridge too far for the property, though, and Activision abandoned it after Zork: Grand Inquisitor underperformed. Happily, the entire series remains available to purchase on CDProjekt’s Good Old Games service through the wizardry of the DOSBox emulator. New fans are even now still discovering the simple joys of a fantasy world in which their imagination produces better landscapes and characters than those rendered by cutting-edge hardware.

What do you think about Zork? Which is your favorite series entry? Why did it fade away after 1997? Did you ever try out the short-lived browser-based spinoff? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series – Season 2 Episode 3: Resident Evil 3 (with Special Guest SuperNamu) is now available! If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon.

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #109: Monster Hunter – September 24
  • #110: Luigi’s Mansion – October 8
  • #111: Dead Space – October 22
  • #112: Assassin’s Creed – November 5
  • #113: Breath of Fire – November 19