Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Computer Science, Cambridge, computer programmer, 1976-78; Infocom, cofounder and adventure game designer, 1979-89; Avid Technology, designer of digital film software for special effects, 1989-99; Ucentric Systems, Maynard, MA, server applications designer, 1999-2002.
ADVENTURE COMPUTER GAMES
(With Marc Blank) Zork I, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1980.
(With Marc Blank) Zork II, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1981.
(With Marc Blank) Zork III, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1982.
Starcross, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1982.
(With Marc Blank) Enchanter, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1983.
Suspect, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1984.
Spellbreaker, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1985.
The Lurking Horror, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1987.
Shogun, Infocom (Cambridge, MA), 1989.
"You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door." So begins "a seminal moment in gaming," as Computer Gaming World reviewer Johnny L. Wilson noted. Those are the opening lines of the 1980 interactive computer game, Zork I, the creation of Dave Lebling in collaboration with Marc Blank. Lebling went on to write seven other highly popular and critically acclaimed text-only computer games, and also cofounded one of the pioneering businesses in computer gaming, Infocom. According to Wilson, Zork is a "masterpiece," and a "triumph of imagination—an epic adventure with not a pixel in sight." The story value of games by Lebling, which rely totally on text rather than elaborate graphics, was recognized by the Science Fiction Writers of America when that group inducted him into their society, making him one of the first interactive game designers so honored.
In other games, including two further "Zork" titles, as well as Enchanter, Starcross, Suspect, Spellbreaker, The Lurking Horror, and Shogun, Lebling pioneered text-only interactive games, becoming one of the legends of the gaming industry. Though he stopped designing games in 1989, and has gone on to work in digital software and server applications, more business-oriented aspects of the computing industry, he is recognized as one of the trailblazers in gaming. A writer for Computer Gaming World praised the work of Lebling's company, Infocom for establishing a "rich genre of text games" in which images are verbally created, "painted in the mind, not the computer screen." The same contributor also praised the "writing quality and story-telling power of these games."
Beginnings at MIT
Lebling was born in 1950 in Washington, DC, and raised in Maryland. Attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned a degree in political science, he also became fascinated by computer programming, taking a basic course to fill a hole in his schedule his freshman year. In fact, Lebling liked programming enough that he started doing it as a hobby, writing his own version of the first space-action computer game, Spacewar. Similarly, he adapted a graphical version of the then-popular adventure game Hunt the Wumpus, and was also heavily involved in the pen-and-paper role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. So obsessed was he with that game that he began writing a program to help him play it. Also, with Greg Thompson he wrote the original "Maze" computer game, which has since inspired many commercial spin-offs. According to Lebling, speaking with Stephen Granade and Philip Jong on AdventureCollective.com, "Maze" was perhaps the first FPS, "or first-person shooter game, one that puts the player in a first-person perspective and usually involves shooting down opponents. It was also the first to be networked, for by this time Lebling had graduated and was at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS). "I wrote a very simple robot player that wandered through the maze looking for victims," Lebling noted on DigiBarn.com. "It peeked around corners, decided which turns to take probabilistically, and turned around periodically to check its back. . . . To say that the game was an immediate hit would be an understatement." Soon people were coming to the computer lab simply to play the game.
"All this stuff was only peripherally related to my research," Lebling told Jong and Granade, "which had to do with subjects such as email, Morse code decoding, office automations and programming tools." Though initially game-writing was an after-hours activity, it also helped in Lebling's research, for he used a programming language the LCS was then developing called MDL, or Muddle. Using this language to program his games aided in the improvement of the language, as well. At MIT at the time there was also a degree of interest in what is called language parsing, or recognizing language as it is input depending on its part of speech. Simple parsers of the time would only recognize nouns or verbs, but Lebling and his colleagues at LCS were creating parsers that could also recognize prepositions, adjectives, and compound verbs. Their work was aided by the university's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which was experimenting with such language possibilities in their smart computers.
One more element was added to this groundwork. In 1976 and 1977 Colossal Cave Adventure, a text-based game developed by Willie Crowther and Don Woods, hit the MIT campus. Accessed on the mainframe computer via the ARPAnet—the forerunner of the Internet—the game was a revelation for Lebling and his friend Marc Blank. They could not stop playing it, and by June of 1977 they had started to develop their own similar game, allowing for interactive participation by the player. In this task they were aided by two others: Tim Anderson and Bruce Daniels.
The quartet designed a text-only adventure game similar to Colossal Cave Adventure, with puzzles for players to solve and maps to follow, and added a sophisticated parsing function, so that the game had a higher level of interactivity. The game went through a variety of names. Lebling had wanted to call it "Dungeon," but ultimately gave up that idea, thinking it might be too similar to Dungeons and Dragons. Instead they used a term common among hackers of the day, "zork," an exclamation. The game, only half the size of what would ultimately be sold commercially, spread quickly on the ARPAnet. Features of the game such as the Great Underground Empire, which was ruled by Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive, were already in this early version. The basic premise of the game is that the player-explorer delves into the forgotten secrets of a lost labyrinth deep in the bowels of the earth, in search of treasures guarded by fearsome monsters and devilish traps.
Over the next several years Lebling and his team continued to improve the game, adding new puzzles and new maps, and adapting a special programming language, Z-Machine, that allowed the game to be played on new microcomputers such as the Apple II instead of on main frames. By this time Lebling's studies at LCS had come to an end, and he and a group of others decided to start up their own entertainment software company. Thus was born Infocom. It was decided that the first publication would be the new and improved Zork, adapted to Fortran to make it more accessible. The first release in 1980 was for mainframe, but in 1981 it came out in a version for the popular TRS-80 personal computer as well as for the Apple II. The game sold several thousand copies in the just the first few months, and convinced the fledgling entrepreneurs that they might have a hit on their hands. Ultimately, what became known as Zork I sold over a million copies. Speaking with Jong and Granade, Lebling noted that "Infocom started pretty much as a self-funded 'garage shop' (well, den-or kitchen table-or spare room-shop) operation. It grew slowly as people moved from MIT to it, and as we hired people to handle the business side of the operations. The corporate attitude, at least among the game writers and the whole engineering staff, was to work hard, but have a lot of fun."
Having Fun Creating Games
In his decade at Infocom, Lebling did work hard and also had a good deal of fun creating or co-creating eight games in all. Zork soon transformed itself into a mini-franchise, with a second version out in 1981, and this one was a total Infocom product, created, published and distributed by the new business. Zork III followed in 1982. Lebling's final collaboration was Enchanter, again developed while working with Blank. After this game, Lebling worked solo on four more titles.
Asked by Jong which of his games was the best, Lebling reported that "picking one is like picking which child you like best; both impossible and impolitic. Zork II, Enchanter, and Spellbreaker are my favorites, if forced to choose. I think Spellbreaker has some of my best prose, and I'm very proud of the magic system I designed for Enchanter. " The Wizard of Frobozz in Zork II is one of Lebling's favorite characters, along with "the thinly disguised MIT I created for The Lurking Horror." In that last-named game, GUE Tech is the stand-in for MIT. The player is a student who must brave a snowstorm to get to the Computer Center and finish work on an assignment. Then the snowstorm turns into a raging blizzard, trapping the player in a complex of buildings late at night. Then the player realizes he or she is not alone. Starcross, Lebling's first solo title, is an homage to the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven, and is thus also one of the programmer's favorites.
The final title Lebling created for Infocom, and indeed the last title published by the company, was Shogun, adapted from the novel of the same title by James Clavell. As Lebling told Jong and Granade, this title was the biggest disappointment. Infocom was almost out of business, a victim of the business side it had opened in 1984 and its database program Cornerstone, which sucked profits from the entertainment side of the company. By the time Lebling finished Shogun, Infocom was in the process of being absorbed by the corporate empire of Activision and that company ultimately licensed the product. As it turned out, Clavell was too busy for a real creative collaboration, and Lebling was left alone to adapt a huge novel to the game format. "What I ended up writing is a sort of 'Scenes From' game," he admitted to Jong and Granade.
If you enjoy the works of Dave Lebling
If you enjoy the works of Dave Lebling, you may also want to check out the following:
The games of Mark Blank, including Deadline and Border Zone, and Steve Meretzky, including Sorcerer and Stationfall.
Not long after, Lebling left Activision/Infocom for a ten-year stint at Avid, a firm pioneering digital film and video editing. In 1999 he left Avid for a startup, Ucentric Systems, which was creating a home server platform. As Lebling noted on the Infocom Web site, his years at Infocom as one of the so-called "Imps," (after "implementer," a bit of MIT slang), were great ones. "The thing that's neat about Infocom is the same thing that's neat about . . . oh, Tolkien in the early days of being a science-fiction fan back when it was schmuck being a science fiction fan. That kind of thing. It's a small kind of cult thing. . . . It was great fun. It was the kind of fun that I think you have when your are simultaneously young and doing something no one has ever done before and succeeding at it, which is even better." Lebling noted to Jong and Granade that he has sometimes been tempted to try his hand at interactive gaming, but several of the major issues that hampered development of his earlier games still have not been dealt with. "No one has yet solved the primary problem of adventure games, which is, what happens when the player doesn't do what you expected? Once progress is made on that one, it might be fun to write an adventure game again."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Computer Game Review, April, 1996, "The Imps of Infocom Are Still Alive and Kicking," pp. 83-88.
Computer Gaming World, July, 1994, "Zork Infocom, 1981 Many Formats," p. 16; March 1, 2001, Johnny L. Wilson, "Adventure Game Classics," p. 59.
Creative Computing, November, 1983, Carl Townsend, "Zork III: A Classic Adventure," p. 141.
Time, December 5, 1983, Philip Elmer-DeWitt, "Putting Fiction on a Floppy," p. 76.
AdventureCollective.com,http://www.adventurecollective.com/ (July 23, 2001), Philip Jong and Stephen Granade, interview with Lebling.
DigiBarn.com,http://www.digibarn.com/ (January 19, 2005), "Dave Lebling's Story of Maze at MIT (1974—)."
E2 Web site, http://www.geocities.com/conspiracyprime/e2_infocom.htm/ (January 19, 2005), "The Rise and Fall of Infocom."
Infocom Web site,http://www.infocom-if.org/ (January 19, 2005).
Zork Web site, http://members.chello.at/theodor.lauppert/games/zork.htm/ (January 19, 2005).
Zzap64.co.uk,http://www.zzap64.co.uk/ (January 20, 2005), Sean Masterson, "Four Minds Forever Voyaging."*