[3/3] What is a Zork? What has it got? Last thoughts on Sorcerer

Is it productive to assert that 1980’s interactive fiction isn’t really fiction? If not, why do we keep doing so?

This essay openly discusses spoilers for the Zork Trilogy, Enchanter, and Sorcerer.

Five out of Six

Infocom’s Zork saga, or cycle, consists of six games–two trilogies–that together offer a satisfying beginning, middle and end. While Zorks I, II, and III tell a story of regime change in a postcolonial deadland, the Enchanter trilogy considers a different sort of cultural and political change above ground. Between the two, a significant shift occurs: the occult and perhaps less “civilized” magic of the Great Underground Empire is replaced by Enchanter‘s magical bureaucracies with regional, local, and national organizations that must wield considerable extragovernmental power. These trilogies aren’t merely a collection of follow-ups; they converse.

While it’s too early to talk about the rather magnificent closeout to this cycle (Spellbreaker would release 20 months later), I would like to frame this final discussion of Sorcerer as the penultimate chapter of a six-game epic and the second game of a trilogy. What, mechanically, should Sorcerer do in its place in the overall arc of the Zork saga? More important: does it succeed in doing whatever that is?

The other thing I would like to put to rest is the idea that Infocom’s interactive fiction isn’t really “fiction.” Most of it isn’t linear narrative, it’s true, because the authors had other experiences in mind. However, “linear narrative” and “fiction” are not the same thing, and it is a mistake to confuse the two. I say this not merely because I am particular (though I am), but because such assertions can cut off discussion before it even begins. It can be, I am sure, very productive to discuss Sorcerer or any other game in terms of literary craft. I don’t mean to discuss it as if it is a book, mind you, but some terms and concepts are relevant.

I think it is important to make this stand here, because while Sorcerer is mechanically excellent as a video game, it often falls short in terms of literary or writing craft elements. This is true, even after we grant–it’s only fair, after all–that it offers little in the way of linear narrative.

[Yes, I am familiar with Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, and Wishbringer. I don’t see them as part of the Zork cycle, even though they occur in the Zork universe. They are a bit like Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (though Wishbringer is a good kind of problem). Stick around for Gold Machine’s eventual discussion of those games!]

Sorcerer as an Interruption to the Zork Cycle’s Escalatory Narrative

In the first four games of the Zork saga, the stakes rise in several senses. While I don’t want to repeat too much of what has already been said (take a look at the Table of Contents if you’d like to to review this site’s Zork content), I think a small amount of summary would help keep things clear.

  • Zork I: A person with unclear motivations enters an underground realm. After collecting and storing a number of treasures, a mysterious voice tells him how to proceed deeper underground. His nemesis, or opposite number, is a “thief” who appears to be a fallen aristocrat of some sort.
  • Zork II: The same person, who we now realize wished to travel into the depths of the Underground Empire, summons and binds to service a terrifying demon, outsmarting a wizard to, as in the first game, find a path to deeper reaches of the fallen empire.
  • Zork III: Having reached the dark heart of the Great Underground Empire, this adventurer encounters the mysterious “dungeon master” in various guises before claiming this title for his own. As the game and trilogy ends, the protagonist is the ruler of the entire Great Underground Empire and possessor of considerable wealth and power.
  • Enchanter [Zork IV]: A novice wizard infiltrates the stronghold of a powerful warlock who is only days away from casting the entire world into permanent darkness. This novice successfully banishes the warlock, saving the world and earning himself a seat in the prestigious Circle of Enchanters.

Over the course of these four games, there are multiple ways in which the stakes escalate. So far as the Zork trilogy goes, the game expands its emphasis on different sorts of power. It begins as a treasure hunt, but comes to incorporate magical, political, and territorial dominion as well. While I remain disappointed by the conclusion of Zork III, it cannot be denied that it does try to do things no Infocom game (perhaps no game, period? I welcome your comments!) had attempted with both atmosphere as well as with its interrogation of adventure game tropes.

Enchanter goes further; no less than the fate of the world is at stake! It is probably fair to say–especially if we accept the limitations of NPC implementation in Infocom games–that Enchanter is concerned with the world rather than Zork‘s focus on the self. The Zork trilogy looks inward and down, but Enchanter looks out and up. The game world of Enchanter (both the game and its accompanying folio documentation) asserts in small but meaningful ways that Quendor is a real place with geographical, political, and even ecological reality.

[These small, in-game details had a compelling iceberg effect that many may have missed out on, due to the grey box reissues of classic Infocom games, which contained new “browsie” material that assert a dramatically different tone and approach to Zorkian worldbuilding. I suppose somebody must have wanted, for instance, a detailed political history of Zork, but it has always felt like a diminishment to me. The jokes lack the bite that I enjoy in Zork‘s humor. Stick around for my grey box writeup, which will come just before Cutthroats.]

This brings us to Sorcerer, which feels tonally in-step with these post-facto browsies but out of step with the actual games and documentation as they were released. I didn’t personally understand how the amusement park squeezed its way into Sorcerer, but, given the surprising amount of real estate that it claims, we might as well talk about it. Here is the roller coaster ride in its entirety:

Roller Coaster
You are at the boarding platform of a huge roller coaster, sprawling above and around you in every direction. A small plaque hangs nearby. The midway is visible to the south. A car sits at the platform, beckoning you to enter.
>read plaque
"Constructed by the Frobozz Magic Roller Coaster Company."
>examine car
It's empty.
>examine coaster
I don't know the word "coaster".
>in
You can't go that way.
>enter car
As you enter the car, it rolls away from the platform in a gentle curve. An amusement park nymph appears for a moment, warning you not to leave the car during the course of the ride.
>z
Time passes...
The car, propelled by some unseen force, rolls up a huge incline. The crest grows tantalizingly closer.
>z
Time passes...
You reach the crest, the highest point of the roller coaster! The park is laid out beneath you like a map; the lights of the midway, the booths of the arcade, the sparkling blue ribbon of water that must be the flume. In the distance is a wide crater. The sounds and smells of the park seem distant, and time feels suspended for a moment.
>z
Time passes...
The breath is swept from your lungs as the car begins diving, seemingly straight downward. You rise from the seat as the ground rushes closer! At the last moment, the car swings upward, and your stomach settles in your ankles.
>z
Time passes...
The car zips through a series of wild turns and sharp drops. Wooden roller coaster supports whiz past, inches from your head!
>z
Time passes...
This section of track is shaped like a corkscrew, and as the car hurtles forward it turns upside down almost every second. It is impossible to tell up from down, as the ground seems to spin around you.
>z
Time passes...
The car shoots into a rapid climb, which gets progressively slower and steeper. Your heart beats wildly as the track begins to swing back above you, and you realize that you are entering a giant loop!
>z
Time passes...
As you reach the highest point of the loop, you hang completely upside-down for a brief moment. The blood rushes to your head as the ground suspended "above" you like a canopy. Then, you hurtle down the far side of the loop with breakneck speed!
>z
Time passes...
The roller coaster speeds out of the loop and into a tunnel, which seems to run through the middle of a haunted house! Wispy ghosts and ghoulish skeletons brush past you.
>z
Time passes...
The car zooms out into daylight, and glides to a stop at the boarding platform.

If you wonder: why paste all of this? Why not ask, instead, why it is in the game. If you think I am a bit of a spoilsport (or even if I am!), consider the effects of Bozbarland’s (here plugged in the Zork II reissue) implementation on Sorcerer‘s overall tone, sense of stakes, or character portrayal. I’m not talking about linear narrative here, but I am talking about the craft of fiction. In addition to the roller coaster, the Novice can ride the log flume or spend time in the haunted house. This is an interesting and, I think, unique situation. In the previous four Zorks, the protagonist can waste turns because they don’t have a map, or because they are stumped, or because the game has squandered the player’s time in some cruel way, but the protagonist cannot waste time out of sheer, depraved indifference with regard to the fate of his friend and mentor or else to the world itself. He cannot, in other words, dawdle at an amusement park.

This is a new phenomenon, unique to Sorcerer in the Zork saga. Sorcerer does initially attempt to raise Enchanter’s stakes–not only can the world end, but now a personal friendship is in peril. The problem is that players may not be able to take such stakes more seriously than the game itself does. Since Steve Meretzky typically has a good handle on this sort of thing–Planetfall masterfully balances intensity and silliness–what is the cause of the misfire here?

If Zork is Jokes, Why isn’t Planetfall a Zork?

It is murky, at best: what makes a Zork game Zork-y? It is fair to say that not everyone agrees. To me, the two different releases of the original Zork games (folio and grey box) are very different texts. The packaging and documentation, as I have always said, provide crucial context. The reissues insist that Zork is silly and weightless, and while I do find the games funny, they do not seem exercised over it. Perhaps I mean to say that they do not seem insistently funny. These releases invite two primary interpretations of Zork as a literary mode or genre, then, and perhaps these schools can be subdivided further. I know many enjoy–or at least take seriously–the evolving timeline’s obsession with dates, though there is probably some variance in how long one remains on the train. What about the post-Infocom timeline of the graphical adventures (Return to Zork, Zork Grand Inquisitor, Zork Nemesis), or even the failed MMO Zork Legends?

Did that nice young man from Steve Meretzky’s TOR CYOA books (scroll to the very bottom of this page for PDFs of them; they’re pretty good!) really make his way into Zork Nemesis?

Googling about, I find that Zork-iness seems widely understood as a specific type of humor that is not so much typical of the saga’s software (with the exception of Sorcerer) as it is of its documentation. This applies primarily to the promotional material included with the grey box (remember that browsies were designed for customers literally “browsing” in a retailer). Even though pirates did not own the games, they certainly enjoyed reading browsie booklets in-store. I know that I did. It’s reasonable to assume that these documents enjoyed an audience far larger than their ownerships.

I find the humor in these browsies rather Meretzky-esque (does anyone have authorship details on the reissue browsies?), as they are chock full of ridiculous names/words (“bloit,” “Harmonius Fzort”) and satirical–if a bit toothless–critique of beauracratic waste that reminds me of Jimmy Maher’s response to Planetfall. This leads to a score of other questions, such as: whose idea was Double Fanucci? It did not, so far as I can tell, appear in any folio release. It was then retroactively wedged into reissues for Zork I, Zork II, Enchanter, and Sorcerer. By the time Zork Zero released, I imagine two possible reactions to the presence of a Double Fanucci puzzle depending entirely on what one believes all of this Zork business has been about.

If Double Fanucci, or amusement parks, or busy timelines are central to Zork, then were the first four years and four games somehow less Zork than later Zorks? Was Zork invented in 1984?

Sorcerer, which appears in relatively close proximity to the 1984 rereleases of the Zork trilogy, seems at home in this reconfigured game world, and would remain (in terms of its code) the only one of the six entries in the Zork cycle to rest comfortably there. Which Zork universe do you prefer? 1980 or 1984?

Promotional text for "Bozbarland" included with the gray box reissue of Zork II. The text reads: "Bozbarland. A futuristic fantasy amusement park with over 200 different rides, games, and exhibits!"
The end is nigh!!!!

Initial Remarks distinguishing The Craft of Fiction and “Plot”

As a participant in a six-part cycle that features a rather ingeniously reflective structure (inner versus outer, below versus above), Sorcerer does not successfully escalate the sense of urgency or scope conveyed by the previous four games. This, of course, has little to do with “plot” but everything to do with the literary craft of fiction. This would be a problem of tone on one hand: the bad “victory” ending in which Belboz is killed is interesting and, I think, formally novel. However, its seriousness seems to come out of nowhere in a game so aimless and, in many cases, relentlessly silly. This is also a problem with the plot. While it is often said that interactive fiction does not have a lot of “plot,” that isn’t the problem. Sorcerer has a perfectly fine amount of plot given the conventions of the day. Rather, the problem is that the plot’s supposed urgency and seriousness are deflated not only in terms of tone but also in terms of the given stakes and pacing.

You might wonder: how can pacing be a concern in a traditional narrow-wide-narrow game construction? It hardly seems fair to speak of pacing in a wide, open map. Nobody praises the pacing of, say Zork II. That’s true, and perhaps the only way to perform unfavorably in terms of pacing in the Zork saga would be to add a large, time-consuming area that serves no narrative purpose, or else asserts that the world is simply not a serious place, as does Bozbarland.

Another craft element is theme. What themes do the games explore, and how are those visible in Sorcerer? As I’ve already discussed at length, the initial Zork trilogy is concerned with postcolonial problems and becomes increasingly critical of the treasure hunt genre. While Enchanter remains gently mocking of treasure hunt games, it asserts itself as uniquely suited to text adventure: it is a game, played via language, about the power of language. Its empty landscape–like the Zork trilogy’s–has been abandoned due to violence and oppression. However, that abandonment is recent. Enchanter’s oppressor is still present.

Sorcerer‘s violence, on the other hand, is not. Without wading too deeply into the timeline, Castle Egreth is a ruin and has been for some time. There are no living humans nearby–while it is disappointing that we cannot examine the hawker at the arcade, he simply cannot be an everyday working stiff. Unlike Krill, Jee’arr asserts no apparent pressure on the land or its people. Moreover, the effects of Jee’arr’s malevolent power do not increase over time. This long-abandoned land is Zork without its post-colonial friction, without its hidden seriousness.

In terms of character–another element of fictional craft–this lack of pressure creates another gap. While Krill was a rather generic villain in many senses, he functioned well as a nemesis in an interactive fiction game. His most substantial contribution to the story is the way in which he casts his shadow at key dramatic moments, affecting player experience or action. For instance, during the “Invisible Terror” sequence, the player is warned that the Novice may be the object of unwanted attention from Krill. It has no direct effect on gameplay but adds pressure by asserting the presence and power of the villain.

You feel that two powerful, evil forces are searching each other out. As they meet, the air lightens. Belboz appears before you. "Something has disturbed the ancient Terror. Krill himself knows this and will try to use it to his purposes. Already, they may have joined together. You must not allow the Terror to escape, or we are all doomed!" He fades into the gloom.

At the same time, the effects of Krill’s dark efforts are obvious. The nights grow longer and his servants grow bolder. Jee’arr, by contrast, is a non-entity whose achievements so far are rather localized–the protagonist will not see any sign of him until the endgame.

This is only a beginning, of course. We could examine action, conflict, motivation, or prose style without exhausting our possibilities. There is a lot to talk about in fiction, and ultimately Sorcerer sits uncomfortably with the other five games in the Zork cycle because of its different approach to common craft elements of fiction. Love it or not, it doesn’t seem to have the same goals or conception of “Zork” as a genre.

Rather than identifying how interactive fiction differs from traditional, static works of fiction, it may be more productive to consider shared matters of craft.

But I Like Sorcerer

I really do. I just don’t like it as much as my favorite games of all time. I cut it a lot of breaks, too. Take the glass maze, for instance. It’s a bit of a crime against mimesis, isn’t it? It’s a glass maze that a rather humorless king built as a rather ineffectual method of torture that contains a hidden Dornbeast and ends at a small open place with a scroll and a chimney top that leads down to an abandoned hovel (!)! Still, it’s a rather brilliant solution so I (and likely you, too) am happy to overlook it. The GOLMAC puzzle (WHICH IS MY ACTUAL DOMAIN NAME) is amazing, but seriously, why is a coal mine the only way to reach Jee’arr’s den of evil, and why are the only two entrances 1) a log flume ride at Bozbarland and 2) behind a carving of a dragon that requires a “very long and extremely complicated” spell to move? Is that how the troglodytes get to work?

Sorcerer is mechanically brilliant a good deal of the time, and philosophical questions of craft or even product identity can be set aside for a rewarding gameplay experience. Perhaps forever, perhaps only for a while. One benefit (consequence?) of playing and writing about all of these games sequentially is that I can assess the creative arc of Infocom’s work in total. It’s a chance to think of that as a cultural event that had a specific lifespan as an economic and popular phenomenon.

I’m not sure when, exactly, I beat Sorcerer. I know that I had a grey box release of it, and that I loved the “Field Guide to the Creatures of Frobozz,” but I disliked the rather silly issue of Popular Enchanting. I suppose I haven’t changed much since early middle school in some important ways. It was the first “Advanced” difficulty game that I beat. I remember finding it easier than Standard games like Zork I and Enchanter. I think that’s because, for whatever reason, Steve Meretzky’s puzzles make the most consistent amount of sense to me. They have always struck me as well-clued and fair. I was very impressed with the maze and GOLMAC puzzles, and, having successfully created and exploited the coal mine’s productive time paradox, spent pleasantly baffling hours thinking over what had happened and why it worked.

At that point in my video game career, I had already become more obsessive (and financially committed) than my real-life friends. I was the only person I knew who had beaten Sorcerer, and I still don’t know anyone who has. At least, no one has said so. Other than my first year of college, I suppose games have been an isolated–but never isolating–experience for me. I am glad, after all of these years, to have someone to tell about that silly log flume.

Next

I’ve already committed to playing The Prisoner at some point, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to that. The next Infocom game on the timeline is Seastalker, a game that, unlike Sorcerer, I genuinely dislike. While I’ll keep things friendly, there are some career-to-date lows for Infocom that will have to be explored. I’d also like to ask the question: children’s lit and IF seem a natural fit. In fact, the kids in my town loved the Windham Classics games. With a seasoned YA author onboard, how did Seastalker get so completely sideways in the road?

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8 thoughts on “[3/3] What is a Zork? What has it got? Last thoughts on Sorcerer

  1. Thank you for writing all this. I have nothing to add or say, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve been reading your entries for a couple of months and am enjoying them. I only play two or three games a year now, but I used to play more a long time ago, and have a background in literary history, so your analyses gives me new things to think about.

  2. Honestly, something went badly wrong with Sorcerer. We talk a lot, rightly, about Infocom’s high-quality play-testing, and how it helped them shake out problems with the puzzles. But somehow none of the testers seem to have noted (or at least got Meretzky to note) how absolutely off the atmosphere is. The quoted roller-coaster sequence is an egregious example, but hardly an isolated one. Yes, it’s still fun; like you, I still like it; but I do think it might better as a gameplay experience to go straight from Enchanter to Spellbreaker.

    1. The only explanation that I can come up is that the new tone was deliberate. I think I heard Mike Dornbrook say (maybe in one of Jason Scott’s interviews) that Zork’s base preferred fantasy and comedy. So while Sorcerer feels quite off it does seem consistent with the 1984 reissues.

      Whatever the case, I do agree that Enchanter to Spellbreaker would be a more compelling arc.

  3. Soooo, I think the problem is that there was an original tone, and then there was what Steve Meretsky wanted to write. Most of Sorcerer is what Meretsky wanted to write. The tone in the Guildhall is fine. The tone in the middlegame is fine, despite the lack of urgency.

    The gimmick of showing up in the dream area after teleporting is *very* clever; if you’ve played the game several times from the start, you’ll have worked out the moves to escape from all the instant-death monsters in the dream area before you get to the same area in “reality”. A little more text explaining the inexactness of the teleportation would have been enough excuse for the wandering around in the middlegame. You can still be trying to find Belboz with less of a seeming time pressure…

    The first plot problem is that the ‘main plot’ requires urgency; this should have been removed. The second problem is that Jearr almost doesn’t belong in the story. The plot would have been better with a different ending of some sort; Belboz’s disappearance being for a somewhat different reason. There’s no reason you can’t have a more emotionally lightweight game; the problem is the remnants from the initial “world-threatening demon” concept left over in the essentially lighter-weight story which resulted.

    Sorcerer suffers from a tonal contrast between two parts, much worse than Zork III does in my opinion.

    1. Yes, that was my primary concern. The game is not cohesive, and the pacing is horrible. The opening is nevertheless brilliant. I agree that it’s worse than Zork III, but I was more disappointed by Zork III as a brave experiment that wouldn’t stick to its guns.

      I also dislike what feels like the beginning of a retcon of the Zork universe (Sorcerer and the grey box reissues releasing close together).

      Infocom should have just given Meretzky his own game. Planetfall was VERY solid, and he should have been free to do what he liked. This is especially unfortunate since Sorcerer came out so soon after Enchanter. What was the rush?

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