As I sat down, turned on my laptop, and began to type this essay I couldn’t help but question everything I’ve ever known about reality. Could I actually be in a virtual world that is plugged into a human body under my control as I type away these very sentences? Of course not. This isn’t The Matrix, and I’m certainly not Neo. But after reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer it wouldn’t be an unusual reaction if your imagination were to run away similarly to mine. Even in the computer game Zork there are parallels with Neuromancer because the player gets to assume the identity of an unknown adventurer exploring a mythological world. At first glance, Neuromancer and Zork may seem unrelated, but if you look further there is actually a mutualistic relationship between book and game.
In 1977, four young, ambitious college students from M.I.T. began developing an interactive role-playing computer game called Zork. Based on a predecessor game like Colossal Cave Adventure, the developers felt Zork was a unique experience entirely, and labeled it “computerized fantasy simulation.” Students who were attending M.I.T. then and were privileged enough to play Zork mostly responded favorably to this innovation in gaming. Player’s would engage in gameplay for countless hours in hopes of obtaining treasures or potentially battling a Cyclops. Their obsessions resulted in taking an innocent game and making it into a cult classic. The fascination of interacting within another reality is in a sense no different than what Case does throughout Neuromancer. From the onset of the novel, the reader is exposed to a dark dystopian underworld known as Chiba City. Our protagonist Case, a former “console cowboy” was considered one of the young bright hackers of his time, until he stole from his employers. They retaliated by injecting a nerve-crippling mycotoxin, essentially paralyzing him from jacking into the Matrix (cyberspace). But entering cyberspace was like being able to breathe for Case. Gibson expresses Case’s withdraws when he writes, “A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the Matrix In his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void…” (4). Case is obsessively concerned with jacking back in and exploring virtual reality again. He practically has a tone of disgust in his voice when he talks about the city (reality) because he much prefers the Matrix. It’s not until Case meets Molly and Armitage where he is presented the opportunity to get back into the cyberspace world—the one he’s been dreaming of. Gibson expresses Case’s obsession as he writes “Seven days and he’d jack in. If he closed his eyes now he’d see the matrix” (37). Similarly to the kids who enjoyed the thrills of playing Zork in the late 70’s as a means to escape the real world, Case himself is so far gone with his escape of reality as he is always dreaming or reminded of what it is like in the Matrix.
By playing Zork we’re allowed the opportunity to experience escapism at its finest. The start of the game is nothing more than a black screen with white text: You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here. The house and mailbox make for an obvious start to this game. Zork is a way where we can interact with a game and actually have it interact back to us. We use our commands so that the parser can allow our exploration of a virtual world to begin. Some people, such as myself, create a mental representation of the scenery that is described at certain points throughout Zork. We start to assimilate into the role of this adventurer, and essentially we become the player inside the game because we dictate what actions occur by our creative responses. As we begin to type commands, occasionally the parser has a difficult time interpreting what we mean and will state “I don’t understand that.” Similarly in Neuromancer, Case is frequently interacting with the ROM of McCoy Pauley, also known as Dixie Flatline, his mentor in his former hacker days. In Case’s first encounter with Dixie it kind of reminded me of instances where I had played a game and I was doing something wrong which in return kept giving me a hint or a negative response by some means. Each time Case initially said something to Dixie it almost prompted an unrelated or confused response from the construct, just as if we were playing Zork and it replied it didn't understand (Gibson 78). I think the connection between Zork and Neuromancer is one that actually helps us somewhat grasp an understanding of what Case feels like as he gets jacked in to the Matrix. No, not in the literal sense of seeing and visualizing a grandiose world around us, but our own personal experience of envisioning the layout while we play. We enjoy the feeling of having our own control within a separate allegorical world as this unknown character, just like Case does in his own world. I feel it helps us appreciate the simplicity of Zork and even more so what Case is feeling with his desire to get back into the Matrix.
By understanding the background and play of Zork and at the same time reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the reader is influenced by the gameplay, and the gameplay is influenced by reader. These concepts go hand in hand when trying to understand the nature of virtual reality gaming and Gibson’s Matrix alike. After reading the book or playing the Zork one can’t help but imagine the words of Morpheus: “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
Barton, Matt. "Examine Zork." Gamasutra. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2014. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1499/the_history_of_zork.php?print=1>.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.