Zork (original MUDDLE mainframe version)   20 comments


ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever
seen by mortal man. Hardened adventurers have run screaming from the terrors contained within!

In ZORK the intrepid explorer delves into the forgotten secrets of a lost labyrinth deep in the bowels of the earth,
searching for vast treasures long hidden from prying eyes, treasures guarded by fearsome monsters and diabolical traps!

No PDP-10 should be without one!

PDP-10, picture by Michael L. Umbricht

I wanted to play the next adventure game chronologically after the Crowther and Woods Adventure, but the history of mainframe games (on monstrosities like the PDP-10) is so murky it was difficult to tell what should come next. For one thing, the mainframe games did not have “release dates” — they were works in progress and in some cases earlier versions were more well-known than later versions. If it took 4 years to write something should I be using the end date or the start date? What if the later changes were only minor things dealing with source ports?

Additionally, even with testimony from the original authors, memories are foggy about exact years (something Dennis Jerz struggled with in his Adventure article) and the early history of electronic games tends to the wildly inaccurate anyway.

Fortunately, in 1985 the New Zork Times published a “History of Zork” which not only mentions not only years but months, so aside from one exception (which I will place next chronologically) it’s fairly clear Zork came next after Adventure.

Specifically, in early 1977 after the Crowther and Woods Adventure had gone viral on the ARPAnet (precursor to the Internet) and a group at MIT (Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling) got the urge to write their own game:

Dave wrote (in MUDDLE) a command parser that was almost as smart as Adventure’s; Marc and I [Tim Anderson], who were both in the habit of hacking all night, took advantage of this to write a prototype four-room game. It has long since vanished. There was a band, a bandbox, a peanut room (the band was outside the door, playing “Hail to the Chief”), and a “chamber filled with deadlines.”

This led through the summer and the fall of 1977 to progress on what was at the time called Zork, until Robert M. Supnik got the notion to translate Zork from MUDDLE to FORTRAN:

At any rate, shortly after the Great Blizzard of ’78 he had a working version, initially for PDP-11s. Since it was in FORTRAN, it could run on practically anything, and by now it has.

At the same time the name got changed from Zork to Dungeon because as Tim writes: “Zork was too much of a nonsense word, not descriptive of the game”. This held for around a year when:

Fortunately for us, a certain company (which shall remain nameless) decided to claim that it had trademark rights to the name Dungeon, as a result of certain games that it sold. We didn’t agree (and MIT had some very expensive lawyers on retainer who agreed with us), but it encouraged us to do the right thing, and not hide our “Zorks” under a bushel.

(He’s referring to TSR and its boardgame Dungeon! from 1975.)

So the name got changed back to Zork, and the rest is history which I’ll sum up via original logo and box art rather than words:

(Image from the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.)

(Image from Ye Olde Infocom Shoppe.)

Just like Adventure there’s a bevy of ports, but I’m going to go with one based off the original MUDDLE code (rather than the FORTRAN rewrite) into Z-code by Ethan Dicks called ZDungeon. I compared it with the mainframe version on Twenex and it is accurate enough for me to be happy.

Actual gameplay will start in my the next post!

Posted March 31, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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20 responses to “Zork (original MUDDLE mainframe version)

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  1. That original Zork box art has always amused me immensely. Even by the standards of early computer game boxes it’s completely out of step with the content of the actual game. I never would have imagined the Nameless Adventurer to look like THAT.

  2. The picture of the PDP is deceiving. Only one of the vertical cabinets housed the actual CPU. The rest were tape drives, network cards, modems, peripheral cards, wiring, and who knows what else. The disk drives (http://www.digitalbits.org/data/media/pages/1170-1.jpg – note box on right) were very large and had a stack of plates.

    I did homework on PDP-11’s in 1978 in middle school. Played Dungeon on a paper terminal at 300 Baud (LA32).

    I remember the 11/84 in 1989 being the size of a large PC.

    Anyway…Dungeon took me and several other students an entire semester to solve. There were a couple different groups and we were all trying to be the first to solve it. Eventually someone solved it and hints were passed out. I remember numerous maps drawn on the back of green bar paper.

    Good times.

    • To be fair, I’d consider the drives etc. to be important. But yes, it seems like the image ought to come with a disclaimer or something.

      Thanks for sharing your story! Do you have any original printouts / maps still floating around somewhere?

  3. We do have the technology to play the original MDL/Muddle Zork on PCs, thanks to Matthew Russotto’s work: see


  4. Yes, I’ve had little to say about Mystery Mansion… its is worth more attention than it’s gotten.

  5. I’m glad I never saw the game cover until now. That guy looks a bit absurd, and the cover shows more monsters than you actually fight.

    • All early computer game stuff is goofy that way. It’s non-canon, I’m sure. The “real” cover (which you know) doesn’t depict the adventurer at all so the player can fill it with their imagination.

    • And what the Dickens is that mansion doing there? Is that supposed to be the “white house”? Never! That had all of three rooms!

  6. Pingback: Zork: Ports « Renga in Blue

  7. “Dave wrote (in MUDDLE) a command parser that was almost as smart as Adventure’s”

    If he says so, I’m sure it must be true of the earliest parser, but not long after that it (the Muddle version, probably the Fortran translation too) was significantly smarter than Adventure’s.

    • One specific turning point that gets mentioned in this Zork post-mortem by Lebling is the switch from a two word parser to accepting longer input:

      Lebling himself wrote the team’s very first attempt at a true text adventure, although it wasn’t until he went on a vacation that Blank, Anderson and Daniels took over and worked on vastly enhancing the parser’s ability to recognize and comprehend textual input. “One of the puzzles involved putting a [toy musical] band in a bandbox, and when you did put the band in the bandbox, it played ‘Hail to the Chief,’ said Lebling. “That was one of the more exciting puzzles – but notice ‘put band in bandbox.’ It had a three word parser!”

  8. It seems as though the “history of Zork” link is broken, when I click on it I get a “not found” error. Is there another copy anywhere?

  9. Pingback: Zork I: Kishōtenketsu | Renga in Blue

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