Zork Source Code Is A Master Class In Game Developer Trolling

Zork Source Code Is A Master Class In Game Developer Trolling
Image: Digital Games Museum

When I think about retro games, forget Mario, Sonic or even Tetris. I think Zork. The quirky text adventure, published by Personal Software (and then Infocom) back in 1980, screwed with players in many, many ways (when it wasn’t sending grues after them). I thought I knew its best secrets — that is until prominent developer Ryan C. Gordon‏ revealed the granddaddy of them all… and the most underhanded use of randomness I’ve seen in a game for a while.

According to Gordon, while Zork checks the player’s item count to determine if they’re carrying too much, it also uses a random roll just to mess with the player. The roll used a number between 0 and 100, forcing players to keep trying to pick things up until it finally worked.

I was sceptical at first — surely a system as important as inventory wouldn’t be so cavalier with capacity? My scepticism grew when searches of Zork‘s MDL code from MIT and the public domain source from Infocom came up empty.

But, after checking various sources of decompiled code from Zork, it does indeed appear the game would fire out an overburdened message based solely on randomness.

Here are the relevant lines from the decompiled Zork assembly:

L0007: JE              G78,#5d [FALSE] L0008
       CALL            R0240 (G6f) -> L01
       JG              L01,G3b [FALSE] L0008
       MUL             L01,G3a -> L03
       RANDOM          #64 -> -(SP)
       JG              L03,(SP)+ [FALSE] L0008
       PRINT           "You're holding too many things already!"
L0008: INSERT_OBJ      G76,G6f
       SET_ATTR        G76,#03
       CALL            R0013 -> -(SP)
       CALL            R0235 (G76) -> -(SP)

The random call uses “64”, a hexadecimal (base 16) value, which converts to 100 in decimal (base 10).

And here’s the disassembled code Gordon found on the Wayback Machine, which includes comments:

     if( Verb ~= ##Take ) ?label8;
     num_items = CCount(player);
     if( num_items if( weight 
     move noun to player;
     give noun visited;

I knew Zork didn’t play fair sometimes, but this is next level.

[GitHub, via Twitter]