Over the years a lot of games have scared me; I won’t lie. I screamed while playing Resident Evil. I never finished Silent Hill and refuse to attempt its sequels. I about wet myself trying to play Fatal Frame. Most recently I lost complete control of my mouse while playing F.E.A.R. But long before 3D graphics and immersive sound design, there was a game so vivid and real that I was afraid to go down to the basement to play anything at all.
Like many kids in the 80s, my videogames were relocated to an old TV in the basement. I spent countless hours after school and over the summer playing Spy Hunter, Chopper Command and River Raid on our Atari 2600. And then one day my father brought home a new box, a relatively new Atari 800XL computer. With a whopping 64K of memory it would be a lifesaver—able to teach us kids, manage finances and allow us all to create our own games.
In reality, none of us quite knew what to make of it. I can recall trying to cheat on my math homework by punching in simple equations. When my query of “2+2=?” returned a “bad command’ prompt I quickly went back to my cartridges. Not willing to let an investment go to waste, my father picked up a few games. I rooted through the stack of flimsy floppy disks and found one called Zork.
No matter who you are or when you played it, Zork is a complete shocker. With no visuals whatsoever (not even ASCII art), the game takes the linear written word and puts you right in the middle of a sprawling fantasy world. What starts out as a handful of text on a black screen quickly turns into quite possibly the most vivid experience in all of gaming (depending on how wild your imagination is). Be it by design, laziness or lack of system resources, the game’s descriptions are brief, forcing your mind’s eye to fill in a huge amount of detail.
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
Between the blazing white lines of text the glowing black screen becomes a field of parched, yellow knee-high grass. A gentle breeze rustles the blades and the air smells of wild pollens. Overhead birds screech and fight the wind. What do you see?
It doesn’t take long before you’re leaning closer to the screen, wildly typing commands to interact with this new world—half of it belonging to Infocom, half of it belonging to you.
Now imagine being a 10-year-old kid alone in a musty basement with a hyperactive imagination when you stumble onto a troll. Trapped on a perilous cliff with grisly death a few mistyped commands away, I remember running upstairs and hiding under the covers. I stopped playing Zork at that point, and when I could finally steel my nerves and go back downstairs I had to constantly remind myself that there was no axe-wielding troll behind the washer and dryer.
I find it amazing that in this day and age of high definition, super slow motion, artificially intelligent games, nothing comes close to the reality that Zork and I once created.
For: PC (but you can play the trilogy for free! http://www.infocom-if.org/downloads/downloads.html)