Bottoming Out: Zork III

The narrative arc of the Zork trilogy concludes.

Where Were We?

As a reminder, the goal of recent posts has been to characterize the Zork trilogy as distinct, coherent, and half of a greater whole. That whole, consisting of the Zork and Enchanter games, I have referred to as the Zork Saga or Zork Cycle. Recently, that effort has involved demonstrating that the first three commercial Zork games (referred to collectively as “Zork“) have, together, a beginning, middle, and end. It is the story of an unnamed man, customarily referred to as the “Adventurer.” While little to nothing is said about him, we can infer some key details. Almost all of the game takes place in “The Great Underground Empire,” with brief forays above ground. It seems important, I think, that this empty, desolate geography is associated with the words “great” and “empire.”

Each episode in the Zork trilogy is an individual story of becoming and overcoming, in which the Adventurer faces and ultimately surpasses a rival before descending further into darkness. Zork III, the last episode in this story, subverts not only Zork‘s own formula, but tropes of the nascent adventure game genre as well. Even if it fails (or simply refuses) to entirely transcend its origins as a work of pranksterish, technical bravura made by college friends, it does reveal the distance that the text adventure game had travelled as a narrative medium in five years (from Crowther/Woods to Zork III).

A Brief Summary of Zork III

Having overcome a wizard and a thief, the Adventurer makes his way to a fateful encounter with the titular Dungeon Master.

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

The cold open of Zork III affirms what we have said all along, namely that the Adventurer’s efforts have been measured along two axes. First, his goal is to progress, geographically, forward and down. Second, there is the matter of “credit,” mentioned in the manual of Zork I. Its purpose had not yet been made clear, but it begins here to make sense. It’s important, now, to consider the implications of these two measurements. In Dungeon, the mechanic of placing treasures in the trophy case would have made intuitive sense, since, in ADVENT, the player had to place treasures in a specific location before earning all relevant points.

Each episode in the Zork trilogy is an individual story of becoming and overcoming.

A consequence of the serialization of the Zork trilogy is that the ADVENT model of first retrieving treasures underground, then carrying them to an above-ground sanctuary is no longer a workable design. The Adventurer cannot return to the case, it is true, but more important still is the fact that he cannot return to the “civilized” word represented by the white house:

>examine house
The house is a beautiful colonial house which is painted white. It is clear that the owners must have been extremely wealthy.

It’s productive to think of the Adventurer’s journey not only as one toward the lowest reaches of the “empire,” but as a journey away from the white house. In total, this distinction is rather profound: While Dungeon is a loose bag of puzzles tied together by a snarky narrative voice–it’s a very good game, too–Zork is a story. In Zork III, the Adventurer reaches, at last, his goal: the bottom. Both he and Zork‘s wisecracking narrator seem exhausted by the journey. I have previously characterized the ambiance as one of “glum enervation.”

In the end, the Adventurer triumphs for a third and final time. However, in this case, he does not defeat the Dungeon Master. Instead, the Adventurer passes the tests laid before him. Once again, the player strives above all for “credit,” though this time the testing authority, so to speak, is more than a disembodied voice. As the Adventurer had previously become a thief and then a wizard, he now becomes, at last, the Dungeon Master.

The Core Themes of Zork

It’s important to view this in total: the Adventurer’s goal was, and always had been, to become the Dungeon Master. As I have already argued, he was never interested in treasure for its own sake. Zork III is a crucial moment in the history of narrative video games. Getting treasures and putting them places was generally assumed to be a sufficiently satisfying objective for a computer game. After all, the narratives undergirding most arcade games were told via cabinet or box art. We didn’t expect a lot, narratively, in those early days.

In Dungeon, there was no sense of down somehow becoming equivalent to forward.

As luck would have it, the need to serialize Zork for home computers led to significant innovations in terms of digital narrative. The world of the story could no longer be an entirely “flat” space. That is, in Dungeon, there was no sense of down somehow becoming equivalent to forward. There were not three distinct phases of growth for the Adventurer to advance through, with three foils to reflect his current phase of development. In Zork, the Dungeon Master is more than just some generic endgame fiddler. Instead, he is a significant presence throughout the course of an entire game.

This is the first theme, I think, of the Zork trilogy: that of the double, the rival. I mean not only this feature, but its framing, as well: the role of a usurper taking the place of an established power. In my early writings on Zork, I interpreted the Adventurer as a colonizing figure. After all, we have a fallen “underground empire” once occupied by above-ground opportunists. Interestingly, the Adventurer appears to have come to colonize the colonizers. The thief feels like a displaced gentleman , and the wizard, we know, was once an adviser to the royal court. However we choose to read these characters, the Dungeon Master (like so much else in Zork III) is a subversion of the pattern. Is the Adventurer a Marlowe, come to depose an subterranean Kurtz?

Whatever the case, we know that Zork has always been a story about power: the people (they are people, after all) who have it and the protagonist who seeks it.

There is a powerful thing said–even if I do not fully understand it–about the nature of fallen civilizations. Zork does an excellent job of laughing away the significance of the human wreckage left when our societies collapse. It is a bit shocking–it might feel like a chastisement–when we as readers are suddenly brought up short by a sudden narrative seriousness. All along, this had been a place where people lived and died, and, yes, were mistreated by an insane dictator.

There is a powerful thing said–even if I do not fully understand it–about the nature of fallen civilizations.

It seems a trope, yes, but let’s grant the authors the benefit of the doubt: what are we to make of the Adventurer’s transformation into an old man at the end? Is this the price of power? There seems to be something vitally important that Zork wishes to say about power: getting it, losing it, and, yes, making sacrifices for it. We are also invited to consider the types of power manifested throughout the trilogy: political, technical, martial, and, in a roundabout sense, scientific.

As Below, so Above

Some of you may have already noticed parallels between the Zork and Enchanter games, and not just in shared, jokey references. In fact, it is constructive to read most of the Enchanter trilogy as an inversion of the first three Zork games. It is my critical position that they form a matching set, and while the movement of the Adventurer is forward and down, the Enchanter moves upward and outward. What remains is to identify those points of refraction and/or reflection, unique only to the six Zork and Enchanter games, in order to demonstrate my reasoning for declaring some games in–and others out–of what I have called the Zork Saga.

Then, at last, can we return to our in-progress assessment of Spellbreaker. It is, I maintain, the masterful conclusion of six canonical games.

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