Hey, you got your narrative in my puzzle game!
Zork and Other Myths
In previous posts, we’ve discussed the details–historic and textual–of the PDP version of Zork‘s (henceforth referred to as Dungeon) emergence, maturation, and transformation into a trilogy of commercial products. I’ve named several important considerations, including:
- Distinguishing between collaborative, not-for-profit authorship and individual, for-profit development.
- The significance of texts conversing with other texts, since this was the originating impulse behind Dungeon (it is a response to ADVENT).
- Distinguishing between projects in which technical challenges precede narrative (such as Dungeon) as opposed to cases in which narrative drives technical development (Zork II, arguably).
- The possible impacts of authorial individuation upon narrative complexity, since the voice of an auteur grows increasingly important.
These and other interests have been discussed in terms of the rhetorical situations of Dungeon and the Zork trilogy. When I say “rhetorical situation,” I am using a term from writing or composition studies that identifies relationships or contexts that define the production, content, and consumption of a text. Theorists have defined the situation in different ways over the years, but I think it is most useful to think of it in terms of a triangle. Its three vertices are author, subject, and audience. Identifying and assessing a text in these terms can be productive. Recently, we examined Dungeon in this way, and it proved to be an easy and succinct method to evaluate it as a text. In the most recent posting here at Gold Machine, I examined the commercial Zork trilogy in terms of its rhetorical situation.
During that process, it became clear that I would have to spend more time on the trilogy, especially as there appeared to be distinct, non-incremental evolution between episodes. My initial observations are only that: initial. I wondered what the effects of authorial individuation might be on the three original Zork games for home computers. I assumed that the work of individual authors might lend each game a greater sense of narrative focus. Ultimately, this characteristic is a key element in what makes each game part of a loosely linear narrative. My ultimate goal as a critic is to demonstrate that the Zork “Saga” (here I refer to the Zork and Enchanter trilogies as a single, contiguous work) is a cohesive series with shared themes, recurring or evolving motifs, and other unifying features. Tracing the effects of individuation is one important facet of my argument, since, in my opinion, they undergird the central narrative arc of the first trilogy.
In the Beginning
In a rather famous anecdote, it has been said that Dave Lebling created the map for Zork I (and therefore its scope) by carving out part of Dungeon‘s map–more than a third yet less than half. From purely gameplay and narrative design perspectives, this was most of the effort behind Zork I. Its primary challenge, so far as I can understand it, was conversion to the new z-machine architecture. Since Zork I contained many of Dungeon‘s advanced features, it was a proving ground for the capabilities of Infocom’s development and distribution techniques.
It isn’t clear to me that Zork I had a development “lead,” as was the case with Zorks II and III. Since the effort seems to primarily be of a technical nature, my assumption has always been that its development most closely mirrors that of Dungeon: a collaboration focused on programming and architecture. As such, Zork I has the least cohesive game work out of the trilogy, but a few key decisions would nevertheless establish it as a narrative anchor or point of departure that would position later games to develop key themes and advance the trilogy’s “story.”
The most important of these decisions was to include the thief in Zork I. Rather than give him the freedom to wander across the borders between games, he is one of Zork I‘s most memorable obstacles. In fact, he serves as both foil and nemesis to the trilogy’s protagonist, the Adventurer. A close reading of the thief, in fact, reveals a complex and fascinating character. Almost all that we know about the Adventurer is what we see reflected in the character of the thief (I wrote about the character of the thief in great detail here).
Since the thief is also a compelling feature of Dungeon, you might wonder: what is his importance in Zork I? The answer is simple: he establishes a pattern in which each subsequent game features an adversary that the Adventurer must overcome. In the personality and powers of these adversaries, we can infer the growing powers (and ambitions) of the protagonist. In this way, the choice to include the thief in Zork I would prove to be one of the most important design choices in the entire series, and later games would go so far as to name each nemesis in the on-box title.
In a similar way, the new “ending” of Zork I established the motivations of the Adventurer. Or, at least, they reveal what his goals are not. While the thief appears to want treasure for himself (or, at least, not for the treasure case), the Adventurer only wants them as a means to proceed deeper into the Great Underground Empire. The treasures are merely a test, and the Adventurer appears to know this at the start of the game.
Why explore these features in an essay that claims to concern itself with the rhetorical situation of Zork I? The answer is simple. The constrained subject matter, which required new delineations of geography and plot, dictated new narrative features to support and contextualize it. The authors, even without a meaningful presence as auteurs, had to construct one end of the suspension bridge connecting the individual games. Audiences, in turn, would experience Zork I as an enjoyable, stand-alone experience that would continue in narrative and geographical senses in Zork II.
In other words: the rhetorical situation of the new, commercial Zork I demanded the creation of narrative boundaries that would retain significance all the way through Zork III and beyond.
Tune in For the Next Exciting Episode: Zork II
If there is little evidence of authorial individuation in Zork I, what will happen when a single author takes the reigns? While most of Zork II was ported from Dungeon, its most interesting and memorable features were created by Dave Lebling, who led its development. As we continue to examine the evolving rhetorical and narrative features of the Zork trilogy, I’ll consider the ways in which subject matter and authorship further cement a progressing and cohesive arc toward Zork III.
One thought on “Beyond Puzzles: Adding Narrative to Zork”