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January 12, 2006

Trans-medial Appropriations: Putting the “Orc” in Zork

*Please leave any suggestions for improvement*

When the text adventure game Zork displays the text of the first scene, there is a strange impression that this is familiar. A house? A mailbox? The world constructed in this simulation fantasy not only blurs very modern human aspects of life, but also appropriates many facets of the classic Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkein. The world is very nature-oriented and dark—almost a gothic appeal.

The first level of the world is littered with contrasts of light and dark, similar to the contrasts found in the books and also in the movies. One part of the forest area in this level is “dimly lit” with “large trees all around.” Other parts will say “there appears to be sunlight to the east.” There are also many over-arching views as in the Tolkein series. The “canyon view” in Zork was reminiscent of the many mountain views of Middle-Earth.

The world Zork also extends downward, as in the Lord of the Rings series. The entry into the first trap door can be compared to the Mines of Moria or the downward plots in the Caverns of Isengard. Not to mention the fact that the sword (an “elvish” sword, noting the spelling is identical to that of Tolkein) from the room above glows blue with the presence of a troll. The first troll you meet is not very friendly. And the way the troll is described (“nasty looking” and “brandishing a bloody axe”) instantly gives the impression of an orc.

There are other Tolkeinian elements. The great cathedral in the game is similar to the great halls of the kings in the Lord of the Rings. There is also a hellish and demonic section of this underworld. It is a gate guarded by demons, vaguely resembling the demon in the Bridge of Khazad-Dum.

The little pickpocket prowling around the bottoms is like a slightly-altered version of Smeagol. Throughout the game, there is this certain expectancy to hear the figure cry out “My Precious!” Thus, the comparison is striking, down to the detail of the Smeagol-like character. By establishing contrast, rendering darkness, and creating demonic and diabolical creatures, Zork has created, essentially a world like Tolkein’s fantasy setting. The creation of this world was clearly influenced in many ways by Tolkein’s world of Middle-Earth, a very effective setting that has proven that certain qualities of one medium can transcend the medium.

Posted by EvanReynolds at January 12, 2006 3:29 PM

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I see, but I was thinking in more general terms about the protagonist of this adventure (namely, hobbits in general). Gollum was also a hobbit, so in either case it works. I just have to make sure that this comes across in my writing.

The reason I think of the nameless adventurer more as a hobbit is because of the cues of the game: “you might get eaten by a grue,” the sword glows blue, etc. And of course, Bilbo Baggins also went on such adventures seeking treasure (mostly in the prequel).

IF games don’t give the name of the character, but they do immerse the player in the character to add to the puzzle. So, I see the namelessness of the protagonist mainly as a convention independant of the fiction. Though, I must admit the way the first troll was described did have a voice similar to Gollum: “Nasty orcses!”

Posted by: Evan at January 14, 2006 5:39 PM

I just had a thought… since the PC in text adventure games is usually rewarded for collecting objects, isn’t the PC (known by text-adventure fans as the “nameless adventurer”) really more like Gollum than anybody else? Our score goes up if we locate treasures and put them in the trophy case. IT doesn’t even seem to be OUR trophy case — it’s just a case we happen to find.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 13, 2006 9:22 PM

Great work, Evan! The LOTR also makes quite a big deal of inventory — that is, items carried, and specific uses for each.

Other common features included locked doors, mazes, maps, and the general physicality of the space we are invited to inhabit.

Courtney Booker wrote an article that touches on Tolkein in Adventure. I don’t think it mentions Zork, but you might still find it useful.


Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 12, 2006 4:02 PM

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