Zork I: The Great Underground Empire. Black screen. Stern white letters. The rapid blinking of a white cursor bar anxiously awaits an input, an order. You are sitting in a stiff wooden chair and the arctic air of the Hillman Library. Your winter jacket is zipped up to your chin and your headphones are dangling from your ears. Little notes scratched into your wooden cubicle distract your attention momentarily – Jackie loves Jeffrey and Dr. Newman is a bitch and Philosophy sucks and oh, there’s that classy, artistic rendering of a penis. Glad to know we are all mature adults.
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox there.
The blinking cursor. Go east, you tell it, and you are sucked into the world of Zork – the world of jewel-encrusted eggs in a bird’s nest, grates that aren’t very interesting to kick, ancient brass lanterns that lead you down secret passageways past grues and Cyclops.
Playing Zork allows you to physically experience the cyberspacial world of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. As we trace our steps from the dimly lit forest, through the open window of a white house, through a trap door hidden by a rug, and finally arrive at an underground land, we do so as a vague and somewhat faceless explorer. As we enter the world of Zork, we, to varying degrees, dissociate ourselves and take on a new identity. Yet just as much we change personas, we remain ourselves. While I am in the game, I don’t really picture myself moving through the forest nor climbing the unusually large tree. Instead, I just see the scenery change around me as I think and type commands into my laptop. The sniffley-guy two seats away from me pulls me back into the reality of chemistry chapters to outline, and essays to write, and exams to study for.
When I first read Neuromancer, I could never understand Case’s overzealous desire to regain access to the Matrix. I never really understood the general attraction for science-fiction novels – the imagination, the fantastic but improbable future worlds. Why couldn’t Case just be satisfied with the “normal” world of Chiba? Why can’t we all be content with our realities? I realized that the answer came down to the contemplation of identity. I had never experienced myself in a virtual world until I played Zork. Growing up with older brothers I had played the 007, Spyhunters, Halo, Call of Duty, and Assassin’s Creed video games, but I was always the guy in the screen. With Zork the plane of the virtual world starts at the edge of your face, not a television screen that’s twenty, or maybe five, feet away. You aren’t just in the game, you are the game. In Zork my eyes and my mind move through the virtual world. There is an interesting dynamic between the preservation of identity and the blurring of identity. A logical person is still logical in the world of Zork, and an illogical person probably spends ten minutes looking under the rug, looking in the empty trophy case, looking on top of the trophy case, and then returning to the rug which is still too heavy to lift but has an alluring object underneath of it. In Zork, you, not the back of some soldier’s head, get to go on an adventure, get to experience things you never have before. Escalate a few technologically-complex levels and you are Case zapping in to the Matrix. You can have the rush of adrenaline and the butterflies in your stomach without experiencing any actual danger. You can be the invincible, infallible, untouchable person that you spent your youth bluffing. Driven by the unknown and the motivation to complete a goal –whether it ist o collect the jewels or to hack into Sense/Net and steal the ROM – your Zork persona and the character of Case become addicted to the virtual world.