Playing Zork is a bit like reading an alternate ending or Choose Your Own Adventure book. The reader, or in this case player, has partial control over the outcome. Also, much like a novel Zork offers players a limited description of the setting and plot, allowing them to use their imagination. Being a game, and one which is very much a story, the experience of playing Zork can be used to better understand the game-like world in Neuromancer. Playing Zork offers a good start for contextualizing Neuromancer through its emphasis on the insignificance of death and its ability to make players engage with the narrative.
In video games, death is inconsequential. For example when a player dies in Zork, he is simply revived and transported to another location; he could also just restart the game. When a grue killed me while playing Zork, it actually allowed me to escape obstacles that were before inhibiting my progression. My death placed me somewhere I had not yet been able to reach and allowed me to think differently about the commands I was giving my character. Similarly, in Neuromancer death is insignificant to Case. Though it is not definite whether he is suicidal or not, if he were to die it would be no big deal: “‘He want to kill me, Julie?’ ‘Not that I know of.’ Deane shrugged. They might have been discussing the price of ginger” (Gibson 13). Because death has little importance in the novel, Case takes risks that he might not have otherwise had he been more concerned for his life. In a video game, a player might risk his character’s life more than he would his own because death has no consequence apart from the restart of play. There is further evidence of the nonchalance of death in Neuromancer in its terminology for hotel rooms, “The coffins were three meters long, the oval hatches a meter wide and just under a meter and a half tall…[there was a] brown temperfoam slab that was both floor and bed…” (Gibson 20). Illustrating the hotel room, a place where people stay all the time, as a coffin desensitizes the significance of death in the novel. Death is no longer something to be avoided at all costs but almost a joke. By comparing the similar meanings of death in Zork and Neuromancer one is better able to relate to the world in the novel. Connecting the experience of death when playing video games to the way that Case feels about death in the novel allows readers to better grasp why he is so unconcerned about his survival.
Today, many video games are very visual and involve hand-eye coordination. Over thirty years old, Zork offers a unique experience for players from one they might have when playing a newer game. It focuses more on players engaging in dialogue with the adventurer than visual stimulation, encouraging players to use their imagination and giving them time to think about their next move. The game also gives players limited information about the setting and plot, which further fosters the use of creative thinking. Neuromancer is quite descriptive; however, the unfamiliar language used in its depictions of the world limit the reader’s understanding. For example this description of Case entering Molly’s mind is quite disorienting because of its unusual terminology, “He jacked in and triggered his program. ‘Mainline,’ breathed the link man, his voice the only sound as Case plunged through the glowing strata of Sense/Net ice. Good. Check Molly. He hit the simstim and flipped into her sensorium” (Gibson 60). At the same time, this causes readers to become active participants. The reader must connect characters and events by himself in order to understand the story. Playing a narrative game like Zork helps contextualize a novel like Neuromancer by showing how engaging with the text and thinking creatively while reading can make a story more interesting and thought provoking. Instead of passively reading the story, one is at the same time connecting incomplete information from prior in the novel to the later information that is given. Though the reader is not in total control and is certainly guided by the text, he has the ability to influence the outcome.
Zork and Neuromancer are comparable narratives that help to contextualize one another. Though both explore unfamiliar worlds, their engagement with the player/reader allows him to relate to and participate in the meaning of the text. Death is insignificant in video games, and likewise Case feels it is an underwhelming threat. Relating these two attitudes helps the reader better understand this generally un-relatable perspective of death. Furthermore, the structure of Zork, which establishes an interactive relationship between the gamer and the character, offers an approach to the reading of Neuromancer. Engaging with the sometimes confusing language and situations in the novel makes the reader active as opposed to passive. He can develop his own understanding of these worlds instead of having them defined for him. These two narratives elucidate each other’s otherworldly environments.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1986.