Another look back: Text adventures and Infocom

If the graphics in the old arcade games were bad (as I talked about in a past blog post), the graphics in text adventure games were, well, horrible. Actually you can’t judge them because there were no graphics.

Text adventures for me, and for many others, started with this:

You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

That was how Infocom’s Zork I started. This game started what was to be a good run for a company that wrote good games without graphics – imagine that! We had to think, type our commands in plain english (no l33tsp33k). Ah, the days when command of our language meant something to gaming.

Infocom is long and gone (Activision bought the rights to their games a while back). You can still buy the Infocom games in shrink-wrap packaging through Amazon, but there’s other ways to enjoy them.

The gaming genre for text adventures is interactive fiction (IF). Most are built using something called a Z-machine interpreter. Z-code is a programming language which is perfectly suited for interactive fiction, and just about all Infocom games were written with it. There are many different versions of Z-code, and many different versions of interpreters, for just about every OS and platform.

If you want to know more about the history of Infocom, it’s games, and it’s people, go to the Infocom home page. Well, maybe not the Infocom home page, but the closest thing you’ll find to it. It includes links to download Zork I, II, and III (the only three Infocom games that Activision does not hold the rights for, and they are freely distributed now); a history of all the games, images of box covers, and so much more. I got lost in here for about an hour in an enthralling walk down memory lane.

Once you tire of the Zork trilogy (you did download it and play them all, right?), you have to buy the games… well, not really. I’m not condoning this, but… is actually a service where you can play 29 different IF games (and most of the most popular Infocom games) online via a Telnet connection. Simply telnet to, sign in with username zork (no password), and play the game you want to play. What better way to waste time at work – and your boss will think you’re coding some obscure programming language when he sees the archaic text-only interface on your screen!

For those that want to play the games when offline, you need to do two things. The first is to find, download, and install a Z-machine interperter. Then you need to download the Z-code files, which you open from the interpreter. Then you play.

There’s one place to find out how to find all items you need: This site is nothing short of fantastic. In addition to links to Z-code interpreters, it includes links to download Z-code files for the most popular Infocom games. And it includes the full content of the Invisiclues books for many games. (Invisiclues books were old cheat guides written in the form of FAQs. They came with a highlighter pen that would “reveal” the hidden clues. So high-tech! How I yearn for them. Damn parents made me throw out everything good.) And it includes a walkthrough for most games (if you just want to enjoy reading the game like a book).

Beyond that, if you want even more, go to The Interactive Fiction Archive, which includes hundreds of articles, FAQs, and – most importantly – downloadable IF games.

So plug in your CGA graphics card, unplug your joystick, and nuzzle up to your PC in a way you probably haven’t done for a decade…

Hacking 101 and the IRS

I’ve often told people that I could break in to most company’s computer networks by performing a simple task: Call a random (non-IT) employee in the firm, pretend to be an IT technician, and ask for their username/password. It’s simple…

Me: “Hello, I’m trying to reach Joe User.”
User: “This is Joe.”
Me: “Hi, Joe. This is Steve from the IT department. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but we might have found some corruption in your e-mail box.”
User: “I haven’t had any problems.”
Me: “You may not have, but we want to make sure nothing happens. Could you spare a moment with me?”
User: “Sure…”
[Proceed to ask the user to reboot, then ask them to log back in to their computer and go to their e-mail “inbox.”]
Me: “How many messages are in your inbox?”
User: “147.”
Me: “That’s very odd — I am showing 99. Would it be OK if I connected to your e-mail box to verify this? I assure you I will not view, open, or delete any messages.”
User: “Sure, no problem.”
Me: “OK, I need your username/password…”

Apparently, the IRS – that stalwart government organization which knows about everyone’s finances – is just as gullible as the typical company. As reported by the Associated Press (and read on

The auditors called 100 IRS employees and managers, portraying themselves as personnel from the information technology help desk trying to correct a network problem. They asked the employees to provide their network logon name and temporarily change their password to one they suggested.

“We were able to convince 35 managers and employees to provide us their username and change their password,” the report said.

How reassuring is that?