Maybe you remember the Infocom games (interactive fiction). Maybe you have Frotz installed on your computer or on your iThing. Maybe you’ve seen the @YouAreCarrying bot. Maybe you asked it for your inventory. I did. I am carrying a medium drill bit, a grue suit, a validation stamp, a laser-assisted monkey wrench, a broken brass lantern, and a large knife. Well, I dropped the broken brass lantern. It was broken. Enzo drew me with my things.


I bring plenty of game devices when I travel, but actually playing games on a plane is tricky. I can’t really relax or focus on a plane. That doesn’t stop me from trying, though, and while flying yesterday I tried the original MIT version of Zork as bundled with Frotz for iOS.

It’s been a while, but I’ve put in my time with text adventures. When I was a kid my dad and I played Pirate Adventure, a terse game you couldn’t even start the bulk of the game until you figured out that you were supposed to go out on a windowsill and SAY YOHO. (Sorry, spoiler?) I don’t think I’d ever played Zork, but I had played a clever parody called Pork.

Here’s the thing about Zork: like most of the text adventures that followed it, it’s based around a series of rooms with a text description and some number of cardinal-direction exits. But, going east from room A to room B doesn’t mean that you can go west from room B to room A. In fact, that is often not the case. As per the map shown above (full version here you might go South from the Cellar and end up in “West of Chasm”, but going North would then take you to “North/South Crawl”, and North again would bring you back to “West of Chasm”. It makes sense looking at this map, but it didn’t when I was trying to visualize the landscape in my head at 30,000 feet. For that matter, I wasn’t sure how I could be on the side of a volcano, walk east, and end up in an “Egyptian room” with a golden coffin. I guess you’re not supposed to assume that when you “go east” you’re going to someplace directly adjacent.

So my theory is that the weirdness of the map, and trying to figure out where the hell you are exactly, is the challenge of the game. This is a game designed to be played at a dumb terminal connected to a mainframe at MIT, with a pad of paper next to the terminal. Luckily it was developed on a mainframe at MIT. In theory it’s a miracle of technology that you can now play it on an iPad in an airplane, but I don’t know if you should.

Some aspects of games really do become obsolete, even if the games themselves are still good. I can’t comfortably play “vanilla” Doom because it doesn’t let you look up or down with the mouse, even though there’s nothing really up there to look at. It’s just something I expect from my shooters now. I think Zork-style challenge is similarly obsolete, even though going into a dungeon and looking for treasures is perennial.

Are modern text adventures worth trying? I know they’re called “interactive fiction” now, which does very little to convince me, but I want to believe. I tried a couple of them briefly, and there was one where you were I guess playing as an orc, which meant that it said “Me not see that here” instead of the usual, and I wasn’t super impressed.