Further into darkness.
This is the third in a series of posts about the thematic unities of the Zork and Enchanter trilogies. My goal as a critic is to demonstrate that there is a cohesive series of games that I have termed the “Zork Saga.” While other games may feature the Zork name or otherwise situate themselves in a universe or discourse that might be considered Zorkian, they are, so far as the Gold Machine project is concerned, “expanded universe” games. Does the EU designation mean that a game is bad? Certainly not, as my coverage of Wishbringer will attest (cf “Everybody Loves Wishbringer“). It simply means that they orbit a cohesive, canonical core of two interlinked trilogies.
Just to be clear, these are the six games that constitute the Zork Saga:
- Zork I: The Great Underground Empire
- Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz
- Zork III: The Dungeon Master
That being so, the following media are out, which is in no way a value judgement. I will refer to them collectively as “apocrypha.”
- Beyond Zork
- Zork Zero
- Return to Zork
- Zork Nemesis
- Zork: Grand Inquisitor
- Zork: The Undiscovered Underground
- The four “What Do I Do Now” books by Steve Meretzky
- Zork Quest: Assault on Castle Egreth
- Zork Quest: The Crystal of Doom
- The Lost City of Zork (novel)
- Enchanter (novel)
- The Zork Chronicles (novel)
- Zork: Zylon the Aged (novel)
- Wishbringer (novel)
- The Legends of Zork MMO game.
My argument regarding the existence and critical relevance of the Zork Saga has so far been based on the following factors: the increasing cohesiveness of geography, authorial voice, and plot (such as it is) throughout the Zork Trilogy. Previous posts have identified the growing narrative sophistication of the storyline of the first three Zork-named games. Those articles can be found here:
- It’s the End of Zork as We Know It
- The Main (Narrative) Frame: From Zork to Zork
- What’s Zork Divided by Three?
- Beyond Puzzles: Adding Narrative to Zork
In addition, previous posts regarding the Zork games can be found in the table of contents.
The Plot of the Zork Trilogy
As we players reach the second of three Zork games, we can draw some conclusions about the story, even though it is mostly subsumed under and in a thicket of puzzles and strange geographies. For instance, despite the assertions of various critics over the years, we can safely assume that the Adventurer does not seek, nor has he (his gender is identified in Zork III, unfortunately) ever sought treasure in the name of wealth. How do we know this?
In both Zorks I and II, treasure is always a means to an end. It is never sought for its own sake. What is that end? In both games, the Adventurer’s sole apparent goal is to make his way deeper into the Great Underground Empire. His initial appearance outside the house, with no subjective insights whatsoever, is merely descriptive. How has the Adventurer arrived at the white house? Where did he come from? Since the surrounding area is fenced in by thick forest and “impassable” mountains, we can assume that the trip was difficult and presumably motivated by a compelling reason.
In fact, Zork I never explains what the player is up to. For that, we have to review the manual. The manual for Zork I has this to say about treasure:
ZORK I: The Great Underground Empire confronts you with perils and predicaments ranging from the mystical to the macabre as you strive to discover the Twenty Treasures of ZORK and escape with them and your life! ...In ZORK I. you are near a great underground labyrinth. which is reputed to contain vast quantities of treasure. No doubt, you wish to acquire some of it. In order to receive full credit for treasure, you must deposit it safely in the trophy case... ...To measure your success. ZORK l keeps track of your score. You receive points for finding treasure, for securing it in the trophy case...
While the text is ambiguous, the way the game plays out is less so. The central aim of Zork I is to put treasure in a case in order to receive “credit.” In the first place, the manual must be referring to the out-of-game measurement we call the “score.” In fact, the Adventurer receives this credit in a far more practical and measurable way. Placing all of the game’s treasures opens a path leading to even deeper recesses of the Great Underground Empire. The Adventurer keeps no treasures for himself, nor does he attempt to return home. His goal is, in fact, receiving enough credit to move forward.
The unanswered question of Zork I is the mysterious source of this credit. Who has opened the barrow leading downward? When the final treasure is placed in the cabinet, a mysterious voice from an unseen speaker can be heard:
An almost inaudible voice whispers in your ear, "Look to your treasures for the final secret."
The final treasure, an ancient map, has appeared in the case, nestled among all of the other treasures:
The map shows a forest with three clearings. The largest clearing contains a house. Three paths leave the large clearing. One of these paths, leading southwest, is marked "To Stone Barrow".
Within the barrow is, of course, a path to Zork II. The final prize to be won in Zork I, is, in fact, a new geography to explore.
What else? Along the way, the Adventurer has defeated his nemesis, the Thief. We are invited to see the protagonist reflected in each of the three games’ antagonists. Since the Adventurer’s intermediate goal is collecting treasure, in Zork I he is a thief, matching wits with another thief. Since the Adventurer’s combat prowess improves as new treasures are placed in the cabinet, he is most able to overcome the Thief by becoming a better thief.
How does Zork II continue the plotline of Zork I? Most obviously, the Adventurer’s goal has not changed: he must make his way deeper into the Great Underground Empire. Once again, treasures are merely means to an end. As part of the growing narrative sophistication bridging Zork I and II as well as Zork II and III, the treasures have a clearer in-game purpose. Rather than serving the rather mechanical objective of placing treasures in a cabinet, the treasures of Zork II are used to bribe a demon, a rather charismatic entity that is far more interesting than the unseen speaker of Zork I.
>put black sphere in pentagram A cold wind blows outward from the sphere. The candles flicker, and a low moan, almost inaudible, is heard. It rises in volume and pitch until it becomes a high-pitched keening. A dim shape becomes visible in the air above the sphere. The shape resolves into a large and somewhat formidable looking demon. He looks around, tests the walls of the pentagram experimentally, then sees you! "Hmm, a new master..." he says under his breath. "Greetings, oh master! Wouldst desire a service, as our contract stateth? For some pittance of wealth, some trifle, I will gratify thy desires to the utmost limit of my powers, and they are not inconsiderable." He makes a pass with his massive arms and the walls begin to shake a little. Another pass and the shaking stops. "A nice effect... I find it makes for a better relationship to give such a demonstration early on." He grins vilely.
Besides being more dramatic and compelling, the transaction with the demon reveals more about the Adventurer’s growing powers as well as the scope of his ambition. This is a man who bargains with demons. He has come a long way on his path to power and has yet further to go. Fittingly, his new antagonist is the titular Wizard of Frobozz, who, like the Thief, hassles and hinders the Adventurer until he is able to turn the tables. The Zork trilogy, we may realize while playing Zork II, is concerned with power: it’s types and sources. If Zork I is about physical prowess, then Zork II is about magic or, in today’s terms, knowledge and skill beyond the physical. The Adventurer’s capabilities ascend a ladder of complexity as he physically descends.
Summary and Status:
To summarize, the plot as we understand it so far is about an unnamed man who, for reasons unknown, wishes to reach the deepest caverns of the Great Underground Empire. In each of the first two games, he must overcome a nemesis befitting his character and skill as they have developed across Zorks I and II. It is, so far, a journey from the physical to the magical. The first half of the Zork Saga is the story of the protagonist’s ascent to power.
Moreover, an increasing sense of authorial individuation contributes to our understanding of this story. For example, Dave Lebling added the demon and the wizard to Zork II; they were not part of the original Dungeon. These new features are a convincing indicator of Blank and Lebling’s desire to add backstory and new, more complex themes to the text of Zork.
What are those themes that unify the first three books of the Zork saga?
- A critique or complication of the treasure hunt game
- Power as related to material wealth
- Power and knowledge or skill
- Ideology and status
- The price of violence (revolution)
There may be more. We will continue to assess these themes as this investigation continues. Until we revisit Zork III, the primary focus here will be on character and story.
Speaking of Zork III: the next Gold Machine will be assessed in terms of the plot of the Zork Trilogy. Additionally, we will examine some of the themes unifying both Zork and Enchanter. Can it all be tied together? Stay tuned until next time. In the meantime, feel free to comment or get in touch!