Hello, Javy Gwaltney here, Associate Editor for Game Informer. I currently putting together a series of deep dives into my ten favorite games of all time. You can read all about the origins, as well as the beginning of the series, here.

This week we’re going to be talking about my #9 pick: the text adventure Zork. Feel free to leave comments below and thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week on Wednesday at noon CST for #8.

Zork (1979)

Every genre has a genesis. Platformers have Mario. Action games have Space Invaders. Adventure games have Zork. This texture adventure might be the most important game you’ve likely never played. The game is neither the first text adventure, or even the best one but historically the game’s significance is inescapable. While Colossal Cave Adventure, the first true text adventure, introduced players to the genre as well as the idea of an interactive fantasy in the tradition of Lord of the Rings, Zork proved that adventure games could find an audience and be profitable.

Set in an underground empire, Zork puts players in the boots of an adventurer seeking wealth. Essentially a labyrinth filled with death and puzzles, the game requires players to seek out 20 treasures and leave the empire intact. Both a precursor to tile-based dungeon crawlers and point and click adventures, you can see the foundation for both genres as you play through Zork.

However, the game hasn’t aged well. It’s historically important but it’s hardly exciting and often frustrating due to the limited number of commands you have. However, I hold Zork in such high regard not just for its sweeping significance but also for where the game emerged in my life and how it shaped my career.

Back in 2013, I lived in Georgia. I claimed to be a writer but I’d only ever had one article published that I was paid for. I wrote a lot of bad fiction and had bad opinions about things that I wrote bad blog posts about. And then one day I noticed people I was following on social media were talking about this simple game making tool called Twine, developed by Chris Kilmas. The first version of Twine was, for all intents and purposes, a glorified text adventure maker. You opened the program and saw a grey screen with a couple of boxes thrown in. You could fill those boxes with text to create passages. You could create more boxes to house more passages and then connect them, even having one box lead to a multitude of passages for players to jump to depending on which hyperlink they clicked in the original box.

I had always been interested in the specifics of engineering interactivity and choice—one of the reason I love video games—and had grown up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, so I decided to make one myself. It was a short, surreal game set in a house in a cornfield with the protagonist being pursued by a mysterious killer. It was inspired by the works of Lynch and The Conjuring.

It was also quite bad, so bad we don’t ever need to talk about it again.

A snapshot of Twine in action.

Right. Anyway. I made a couple of short games and then decided to do something much larger, more ambitious: I wanted to make a full-on text adventure that someone could sit down and spend hours playing, exploring branches, seeing multiple endings. I wanted to simulate the feeling I had as an eight-year-old reading Goosebumps Choose Your Own Adventure, so I set out to do that. I researched what the best text adventures were and Zork was at the top of the list, so I played that.

Amidst a year that saw the releases of Grand Theft Auto V, The Last Of Us, and Bioshock Infinite, I played Zork nonstop. I took notes about my frustrations with the limits of the technology that created the game but I also took time to see the grand picture: an entire world created with nothing but a black box, some text, and handing the player some control over the protagonist’s actions. I loved how playful the game was, balancing bleak danger and even metahumor. For example, if you open a mailbox you come across in the first minute of the game, your character picks up an advertisement that reads “Zork is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning! In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be without one!” If you curse in Zork, the unnamed narrator/dungeon master will chide you. So much of the writing in Zork is well done. It’s not drowning the player in useless details, it’s not overwhelming. It’s purely economical, which is not often seen in fantasy fiction.

When I sat down to build my text adventure, inspired by Alien, I constantly returned to Zork and did comparisons. I spent over a year working on my game and released it in 2014. To my surprise people liked it a lot and were taken with the paths and how many endings there were, as well as the strength of the writing in spite of the characters essentially being archetypes. It was the first time in my life I wrote something I was immensely proud of, and a large part of how I got to that point was the hours I poured into Zork.

I started getting more work after The Terror Aboard The Speedwell came out. Paste took me on as a contributor and then Playboy let me write a column on text adventures called Word Games for nearly a year, eventually leading to my job here.

It may be a little harder to play than it once was and its shine might be dulled, but Zork’s influence is inescapable on both the evolution of the medium and on my own life. Every now and again I still get the itch to dive down into the underground kingdom in search of treasure. Perhaps I’ll make time this weekend to sneak around deadly Grues. If you should get the same urge, you can play the original game for free here.

Thanks for reading. See you next Wednesday to talk about #8.