Tim Anderson | Marc Blank | Bruce Daniels | Dave Lebling
ROOTS: An influential work that helped shape the nature and direction of metroidvania game design… and countless other games, as well. While not a metroidvania in and of itself, this essential precursor defined the workings of exploratory gameplay and persistent imaginary worlds.
Zork: The Great Underground Empire
1977 | The original roots of Metroidvania
I had the good fortune to interview Dave Lebling about the creation of Zork earlier this year — a rare opportunity to spend an hour with one of the designers of one of the most influential video games of all time and simply talk, without any PR overseers and without any ulterior motives beyond simply exploring the genesis of one of the medium’s landmark classics. Even months ago, I was already formulating this retrospective in my mind, the idea that Zork helped pave the way way for the “metroidvania” subgenre of video games.
Of course, on its surface, the idea that the two could be related seems almost completely daft. A metroidvania game, by the definition people such as myself have imposed on this entirely artificial portmanteau of two proper nouns themselves coined within the past 30 years, involves twitch reactions and twitchy action: Platform gaming, built around combat and exploration, often with RPG-like systems of character development and an ever-growing arsenal of weapons at the player’s command. Zork, on the other hand, is a game built entirely in text, its world rendered in prose and its gameplay unfolding through dialogue prompts.
The connection, of course, comes from the RPG element. Metroidvania games often end up being lumped into the “action RPG” category, and while Zork decidedly lacks for action elements, role-playing games inspired its very existence. Lebling and friends set out to create a satisfying computer adaptation of tabletop role-playing experiences like Dungeons & Dragons, and the direction they settled on took its cues from the limitations of 1970s technology — as M.I.T. students, they had access to networked minicomputers that offered far more memory, storage, and processing power than contemporary home consoles like the Odyssey2 and Atari 2600, albeit no graphical capabilities to speak of — and the small amount of precedent that existed at the time.
Namely, Zork took its main cues from William Crowther’s seminal text game Colossal Cave Adventure, aka ADVENT or Adventure. The difference was that while Adventure began life as a virtual simulation of an actual series of caverns that Crowther and his friends enjoyed exploring in real life, the creators of Zork set out to construct an imaginary world full of fantastic traps, lost empires, and impossible creatures.
In the process, they incorporated elements reminiscent of an RPG campaign, but not in the sense that a Final Fantasy or Dragon Age fan would think of. Zork lacked random encounters, its environment populated only by a handful of other living creatures: A Cyclops, a thief, a bird singing in the distance. It was more reminiscent of a D&D specialty module like Tomb of Horrors, with the programmers playing the role of dungeon master, using a text parser as their proxy. The challenge in Zork lay not only in besting a few harrowing combat encounters but more in unlocking the secrets of the labyrinth, the nature of the ancient puzzles, and the layout of the world in general. While compact, Zork’s world could be remarkably complex, riddled with one-way passages and tricky interconnections that demanded attentive play and, yes, the ability to draw a map.
Though separated by 20 years and fundamental differences in play style and design, Zork and Symphony of the Night share a definite spiritual connection.
What really holds Zork together, above all else, isn’t just the cleverness of its writing — it was witty, sure, but later text adventures would advance the format well beyond this work’s terse snark. No, it was the world itself: The expansive, complex, interlocking, detail-laden, and frequently baffling Great Underground Empire itself. Subsequent chapters of Zork would build up the lore and legacy of the GUE, but those tales were standing on the shoulders of this magnificently realized space. The text-based nature of Zork liberated its creators to shape the GUE to their needs; though the world consisted of dozens of separate spaces to explore, those “rooms” varied in scale and nature from the cramped attic of an abandoned cabin to cavernous locales whose ceiling sat well beyond the ability of the player’s meager torchlight to cut through the gloom.
And perhaps more importantly, the world offered persistence. Players could drop an item only to come back hours later and find it where they had left it. Switches remain switched, and opened passages remained accessible. Defeat the Cyclops and it would remain forever dead; dispatch the Thief and he’d no longer bar doors behind you or sneak up on you and steal your hard-won possessions. Meanwhile, players could gather items they found in the course of their adventure; some simply counted toward the score tally, while others served an important purpose somewhere in the world. The player himself (or herself — it’s never specified, and the Tom Selleck-looking dude on the early boxes is apocryphal at best) had limited inventory space, which made the simple task of inventory management itself a devious puzzle. Knowing where to take a tool and when to drop it, and determining the most efficient route and dropoff points to prevent squandering your limited torchlight, proved to be every bit as essential to completing Zork as simply figuring out what the tools did and how they’d interact with the world.
The parallels to proper Metroidvania games shouldn’t be difficult to map out, here. The genre has always placed a heavy emphasis on using tools and devices to gain access to initially inaccessible areas. Exploration and problem-solving separate metroidvania games from standard run-and-jump platformers. At their most mundane, metroidvanias simply mimic Super Metroid by giving you colored doors that can only be opened with a specific weapon or device, but you’ll just as often come across games like Symphony of the Night which demand you gain new powers like flight and super-jumps in order to open up those difficult locations.
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the teams behind seminal metroidvania creations like, you know, Metroid and Castlevania had Zork in mind as they sat down to build their complex levels and progressive character skills systems. Rather, Zork most likely exerted its influence more indirectly, by pioneering concepts like expansive game maps, persistence of characters and environments, and the use of tools and skills to conquer an imaginary world. Its innovations set the stage for elements of exploration and RPGs (and narratives in general) to work their way into other genres as the video game media matured and diversified. If you want to understand the workings of action RPGs, there’s no better place to begin than here.