An Introduction to Zork III: It All Came Down to… That?

The final game of the classic Zork trilogy couldn’t decide whether to end with a bang or a whimper.

Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982)
Implemented by Dave Lebling and Marc Blank

Packaging and Documentation

Zork III packaging: folio edition. Retrieved from MoCAGH.
Zork III packaging: grey box edition. Retrieved from MoCAGH.
Zork III Invisiclues map. Retrieved from MoCAGH.
For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab.
Zork III Invisiclues in Z-Code format. Retrieved from Infocom Documentation Project.
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Zork III.

Zork III: Specifications

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 89 (110)
Vocabulary: 564 (697)
Takeable Objects: 23 (60)
Size: 82KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 14360 (14214)

Opening Crawl

As in a dream, you see yourself tumbling down a great, dark staircase. All about you are shadowy images of struggles against fierce opponents and diabolical traps. These give way to another round of images: of imposing stone figures, a cool, clear lake, and, now, of an old, yet oddly youthful man. He turns toward you slowly, his long, silver hair dancing about him in a fresh breeze. "You have reached the final test, my friend! You are proved clever and powerful, but this is not yet enough! Seek me when you feel yourself worthy!" The dream dissolves around you as his last words echo through the void....
ZORK III: The Dungeon Master
Copyright 1982 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
ZORK is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 17 / Serial number 840727
Endless Stair
You are at the bottom of a seemingly endless stair, winding its way upward beyond your vision. An eerie light, coming from all around you, casts strange shadows on the walls. To the south is a dark and winding trail.
Your old friend, the brass lantern, is at your feet.

Remembering Zork III: The Dungeon Master

Absolutely not Zork III: A scenic view of Hot Springs, Arkansas. A small town surrounded by forest. The Rehab Center (formerly a post WW2 VA Hospital) is an unusually tall and large building--the largest in town. It is V-shaped and made of blonde brick. At the vertext of the V is a brick and white stone tower.
Hot Springs National Park, AR. My own private GUE. Retrieved from Fodors Travel.

I was ten years old when I first played Zork III. My friend, whose big brother was a hacker of modest talents, had a massive collection of Commodore 64 games. Whenever I came over, we would pull diskettes out of a large storage case–sometimes at random–and boot up whatever was on there. My mother had recently bought me the D&D Basic Set, and, even though I had nobody to play with, I loved flipping through the books and reading the descriptions for spells, magic items, and monsters. That being so, I was drawn to one particular title: Zork III: The Dungeon Master.

We played for a bit, taking turns at the keyboard. I was immediately intrigued. Even though I had played Zorks I and II, this was different: more serious, darker. My life was rather miserable back then: trouble at school and trouble at home. The mood of Zork III complimented my own. I wanted to explore this world, uncover its secrets, and, if possible, understand what had happened, what had gone wrong in the lowest reaches of the Great Underground Empire.

My friend used one of his brother’s pirating utilities–overkill, the disks weren’t protected–to make me my own copy, so I took it home. In my room, I had a C64, a 1541 disk drive, and a small black and white television set. I’m not sure where the TV came from; I think one of my parent’s friends grew tired of it. I spent nearly all of my time out of school at the keyboard. My father was worried about me but too preoccupied to do anything about it. For the next several weeks, I busied myself with Zork III.

I didn’t do too badly for a ten year-old. I think I was able to get everything but the book. The Royal Puzzle eluded me. Maybe I couldn’t get the ring, either. All the while, I luxuriated in Zork III‘s exhausted atmosphere. There was the Realm of Shadow–a remarkable number of rooms dedicated to ambiance. I loved the sudden shock of seeing the Flathead Ocean through its bleary mist.

This world, like me, was depressive and lonesome. I gave up on the Royal Puzzle and came back in a few years–as I did with several Infocom games–this time having much better luck. Even during that interregnum, I remembered Zork III as the first game to engender powerful yet elusive emotions in me. It was important to me in a way that the other Zork titles were not.

A Critical Introduction to Zork III: The Dungeon Master

A picture of a large, human-like figure wearing typical fantasy warrior garb: chain mail, heavy gauntlets, and a horned helmet. They hold a massive mace in two hands as if preparing to swing. Part of Zork III's "mirror box" puzzle.
A Guardian of Zork, as imagined in the Zork Users Group hint booklet. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

In the span of a few short years, the new medium of interactive fiction was maturing on pace with the growth of its audience. Infocom was, in late summer of 1982, a bona fide hitmaker that hadn’t released a miss in the eyes of critics. They had yet to begin calling their video games–that is how they were categorized at the time, after all–“interactive fiction,” but it seemed that Infocom’s titles might be a new kind of art medium. Zork III: The Dungeon Master is a text that wrestles–falteringly–with the question of video games as art.

There is no doubt that more than half of Zork III overtly engages with some of the traditional trappings of literary craft. A significant portion of it prioritizes atmosphere over gameplay, and it is ambiguous in a new and satisfying way. Rather than the “wander around and figure out what to do” setups of Zork I and Zork II, the Adventurer of Zork III wrangles with questions of an existential sort: “why have I come here?”; “who am I?”; “what is my purpose?” Whether Zork III is art is up for discussion, but whether it is artistic is easily answered in the affirmative.

This is all to the credit of Marc Blank, fresh from authoring the innovative Deadline, who has consistently asserted–post Infocom–that he had never thought of Infocom games as art, had never meant to create art in the first place. I believe the prevailing vector of critical approach would be to try and reconcile Blank’s statements with the artistic elements of Zork III, but I might as well get this out of the way: for the most part, Gold Machine is a “Death of the Author” kind of project. My primary focus is, as I have said, text as a cumulative unit of meaning that includes game, packaging, pack-ins, and perhaps Invisiclues. As for the question of art and games: if someone experiences a game as art, it is art. This project prioritizes the experience of consuming text over that of producing it.

An overhead diagram of Zork III's "Mirror Box." The front of a large box is split into a red wall and a white wall. The left wall is labeled as a mahogany panel. On the right is a pine panel. At the back are black and yellow walls. It is pictured as a large, 3-dimensional box wit a nexus or intersection of some sort at its center.
A late-game doodad as pictured in the Zork Users Group’s map. Retrieved from the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.

This approach may either bore or excite readers. I think that most contemporary writing about interactive fiction comes from an authorial perspective. Many of the IF community’s most prominent figures are authors. There is a wealth of online content about the creation of IF, but very little about its consumption. Even when reviewers are not authors, they often use craft language because that is a primary discourse for IF. This project is rarely concerned with craft. I will not, for instance, talk about a puzzle’s design unless there is a widespread audience response to it (see my essay on Zork II‘s famously bad puzzles). Zork III is a great title to explore in terms of reader-centered questions:

  • Zork III has two distinct parts that vary widely in terms of tone and gameplay. How does this affect the player’s experience?
  • Is Zork III experienced as art? Why or why not?
  • Are puzzles essential to the experience of Zork III?
  • Are the colonial underpinnings of Zork I and Zork II resolved or addressed in some way?
  • Is Zork III a satisfying conclusion to a three game cycle?
  • Now that it’s over: what was Zork all about?

On Zork III‘s packaging, the text above the title reads: “It all comes down to this.” Ultimately, this reader-centered inquiry hopes to decipher this sentence. What are “it” and “this,” exactly? I believe that, to its detriment, Zork III has multiple “its” and “thisses.” The Zork trilogy ends indecisively and disappointingly because it ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. It begins as one thing and ends as another.

If my memory does not mislead me, 1980s responses to Zork III were not unanimously enthusiastic. Its serious tone was off-putting to some players, while others felt it was too short (always a valid concern when buying a new game at retail prices!). Despite these complaints, it was largely well-regarded. However, I don’t recall seeing much (perhaps not anything) about the whiplash-inducing change of mood that begins with the Royal Puzzle and lingers until the game’s conclusion.

An imagine of a scene that does not appear in Zork III. The usually intimidating Guardians of Zork (large, muscular humanoids are putting on scuba gear. An underground lake is in the background. They are both wearing striped bathing suits.
This appears to be the Guardians of Zork going for a swim in the lake, though I’m open to hearing other takes. From the ZUG hint booklet, retrieved from MoCAGH.

As much as I loved it in grades four through six, I expect more of games now than I did then. At the time, I was eager to solve the puzzles, to win. Now, viewing the game as a text, I recognize that Zork III‘s inconsistent tone is a failure to deliver on the early game’s promise. I see many of the puzzles as unwelcome intrusions because they violate the carefully crafted mood of Zork III‘s best parts. I consider the trilogy’s final scene a cop-out after questioning the inherent assumptions of treasure hunt games. Zork III sets out to be subversive, but lacks the courage of its convictions.

This may be an unpopular statement: encountering the knick-knackery of the Royal Puzzle, Guardians of Zork, and the endgame puzzle after experiencing Zork III‘s beautifully dreary and organic world is like being forced to play a Pac Man minigame in the middle of Planescape: Torment. They may be the finest puzzles in the world, but they have nothing to do with what Zork III has been about the previous 200 turns or so. To me, Zork III is Infocom’s best and most interesting failure.

Zork III: The Dungeon Master will be the subject of three posts: this introduction, an examination of packaging and plot, and a longer critical work about the consequences of authorial ambiguity. I will pay closer attention to story in this series of posts, since I believe Zork III is the most plot-focused of the trilogy. I suppose this is because, mechanically, an ending requires a context that a beginning does not. Stay tuned–Zork III is unlike any other game in the Infocom canon and an excellent conversation starter.

Next: Which “It” Did You Mean, Exactly? Parsing the Story of Zork III: The Dungeon Master

10 thoughts on “An Introduction to Zork III: It All Came Down to… That?

  1. It is interesting that you single out the Royal Puzzle, the Guardians of Zork, and the endgame puzzle as being tonally different. If memory serves me, these were the bits that were lifted almost unchanged from mainframe Zork, while everything else was new. The Royal Puzzle holds a different treasure, there is an alternative solution for the Guardians of Zork, and you don’t need to answer a quiz to enter the endgame, but other than that…

    Though I can’t say that I minded either of these. My pet peeve with Zork III is the random deaths in the lake and the Royal Museum. The latter seems particularly cruel to me.

    1. Hopefully I will be able to make a convincing case! What bothers me about Zork III is the fact that, because of of the way it unfolds, the new, moody parts feel like the “main” game while the parts from Dungeon feel tacked on.

      I suppose I wonder: was it really necessary to use everything from Dungeon? The Bank of Zork is another case where this approach seemed to be a mistake.

      I love the sailor/flask moment, but do you consider it a solution? I’ve always thought of it as a fun easter egg, since waiting by the shore is the only way to guarantee seeing the sailor. It’s mentioned as a violator of the “Player’s Bill of Rights” but I have never agreed since it is neither required nor a puzzle.

      The lake is annoying though on first entry the player is likely to save. Woe to the player who leaves and returns, believing it’s safe!

      As for the earthquake: yes, that’s mean-spirited. If you know what you’re doing, it only takes about 10-15 minutes to redo everything outside of the door. If you pass through the door and solve the puzzle then it’s really nasty (unless the player has good notes). Without a way to anticipate or mitigate the situation, it is unfair for sure.

      I think that, post-Deadline, there was an interest in making it seem like Zork III occurs in linear time. The earthquake is the most apparent example, but the sailor and the feeble old man are two other possibilities. Maybe the stalking in the Land of Shadow applies, too. In any case, the idea of an Earthquake is interesting but the application is not.

  2. I didn’t find the “real” solution to the Guardians of Zork until much later, so the potion was the solution for me back then.

    What I was thinking about in the museum is that until the guards leave, it seems there is a small (3% or so) chance each move that thw guards will find and kill you. Even if you didn’t do anything wrong.

    I could be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure this has happened to me at least once.

    1. “I didn’t find the “real” solution to the Guardians of Zork until much later, so the potion was the solution for me back then.”

      Same here, actually. I mention this because Zork III has been criticized for requiring players to wait by the ocean without any motivation to do so when it really doesn’t.

      I don’t think that a random museum death ever happened to me. I did enjoy the possible Flathead sighting though! Might be my favorite death in the series.

  3. Heh, or it would be like if the second half of Planescape Torment dispensed with the atmospheric eeriness and careful philosophy and suddenly became a lackluster dungeon crawler with swarms of combat mobs that this iteration of the engine wasn’t really designed for 🙂

  4. For that matter, it’s a little hard to see why you wait on the ledge for someone to come by and offer help with opening the chest. Yes, at the top of the cliff, there are some indications that someone is nearby, but that’s not much to go on.

    1. That is an interesting call. Seems to be four turns no matter what, which is one more turn than one might reasonably expend. Possibly include open chest, examine chest, examine rope, pull rope, up, etc. Possibly hitting the chest with the sword or using the key to unlock it.

      I don’t know that the player ought to know that they should wait, but the turn count should probably have been three to accommodate a reasonable amount of fiddling for all situations.

      Though I should say that I did not have trouble with this personally.

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