How Can I Play It?: The Zork Trilogy

Unsurprisingly, it's pretty easy to play a game with no graphics on a variety of platforms.

Our "How Can I Play It?" series lays out the best options for legitimately and legally playing the classic games we cover here at Retronauts, ideally on current platforms. 

Of all the games we've covered on recent podcasts, this week's Zork retrospective might actually be the easiest one to play along to. Infocom's original interactive text adventures have appeared on a ridiculous number of platforms through the years. Its accessibility comes down to a smart technical decision the series' creators made early on: Zork and other vintage Infocom games run in a sort of virtual engine, the Z-Machine. If you can get a Z-Machine running on a given system, you can basically load any Infocom game into it. This means it's pretty appealing for aspiring programmers to tinker with… and it also means that once you get Zork running, you can play a whole lot of other classics. Welcome down the rabbit hole.

The one drawback here is that technically, Zork isn't freeware. Creating a Z-Machine emulator or simulation is totally legal, but the code for individual games has never been released into the public domain. That said, the series' current owner, Activision, tends not to make a big deal about the game's distribution if there's no profit motive involved. That feels true to the series' origins as a collaborative, non-commercial project. It's always nice when corporate ownership doesn't completely smother the classic hacker mindset.

Zork in your browser

The great thing about Z-Machines is that, having been designed to run on computers running with single-digit kilobytes of RAM, it's no trouble at all for modern web browsers to run an interpreter in Flash or HTML 5 or whatever. A quick search for "play Zork" on Google will turn up pages of websites where you can play seamlessly in the page and even save your progress between sessions. Personally, I recommend going to the Internet Archive (aka, simply because I'm a big believer in the sincere preservationist spirit behind the site. Also, the folks running the Internet Archive have gone to the trouble of getting a Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemption for the games hosted there, which may be a technicality but nevertheless speaks to the goals and integrity of the venture.

You can find the Internet Archive's Zork page here.

Zork on personal computers

If you prefer playing offline, you have access to no end of Zork-friendly interpreters. Most of these are written to be multiplatform releases that support MS-DOS, Windows, Mac OS, various flavors of Unix, and sometimes even more esoteric or abandoned formats. You can find a massive list of these engines at the Interactive Fiction Archive.

Of all these interpreters, Frotz seems to have the best reputation. It's available for an absolutely ridiculous array of systems, though some platforms — such as Mac OS X — are woefully out of date and probably won't run on current versions of the operating system. For Mac users, Gargoyle comes highly recommended by IF literati.

Zork on mobile

Up until about three days ago, the best way to play Zork on iOS was with Lost Treasures of Infocom, a collection of nearly two dozen Z-machine games supported officially by Activision. Unfortunately, that support ended a while back, and the launch of the 64-bit-only iOS 11 this week means Lost Treasures is no longer officially supported — it's very likely mired forever in the 32-bit realm. 

Luckily, iOS users also have Frotz, which does support the new 64-bit operating system. There's a version for Android, too! 

Zork on modern consoles

You don't have many options if you want to play Zork on a current console; Z-machines tend to be open source applications, and consoles are closed platforms. There is a way to play the original Zork on Xbox One, though: The Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops includes Zork as an Easter egg at an in-game computer terminal. And yeah, Black Ops is backward-compatible on Xbox One. That's a pretty arcane and convoluted way to play a 40-year-old text adventure, but what can ya do.

And while it's not a modern console, my personal favorite "Why did they do that?" variant of Zork is the Infgmb intepreter. It runs on Game Boy. Finally, something worthwhile to do with that EverDrive GB of yours.

The later Zork games

If you're interested in playing later games in the Zork series, that's also pretty easy! GOG sells Windows-compatible versions of Zork Anthology (which we discussed in this episode), Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, and Zork: Grand Inquisitor

Don't fret, non-Windows types. Several of these games run in ScummVM, so you should be able to buy the GOG releases and get them running in the open-source interpreter. ScummVM runs on a variety of platforms, including OS X, UNIX, and jailbroken 32-bit iPhones.