Travel to exotic underground locales, meet a fascinating person, kill him, and take his stuff.
Warning: this essay contains spoilers up to and including the ending of Zork I.
It’s a Man’s World
The protagonist of Zork I: The Great Underground Empire is sometimes be described as an “AFGNCAAP,” or “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person.” That isn’t accurate, though. Certain text in Zork II characterizes him as a “madman,” and the imminent Lord Dimwit Flathead refers to him as male in Zork III: “We’ll build a tremendous fortress on the highest mountain peak, with one narrow ladder stretching thousands of feet to the pinnacle. There he will stay for the rest of his life!” Post-Zork, Enchanter repeatedly uses he/him pronouns to describe the Adventurer.
He is a man, then, and perhaps his background is not as ambiguous as one might assume. At the game’s onset, he has travelled great distances over hostile terrain to penetrate a heart of literal darkness: an underground “empire.” Darkness is the chief threat in Zork I–one can live only so long as one can bring it to heel via human invention. The Adventurer’s journey is one from civilization to its absence–a colonial venture–and his aims are essentially colonial: stripping a “barbaric” land of its wealth and killing anyone or anything that might come between him and his goals.
The initial entrance to the cave complex lies hidden–there are no public entrances–underneath a “beautiful colonial” home, and it is a fitting point of entry for the Adventurer. Beneath, the Adventurer’s first encounter with the local “native” population is with a stupid and vicious subhuman who speaks in a “guttural” tongue. Yes, it is easy to say that the troll is simply there as a nod to Tolkien by way of Dungeons & Dragons, but the Zork troll is quite unlike trolls found in other fictional worlds. A Gygaxian troll is nine feet high, weighs 500 pounds, and regenerates wounds, even reattaching lost limbs. Tolkien’s trolls are, at minimum, ten feet tall. For instance, the Troll in The Fellowship of the Ring is perhaps 17 feet tall, and it managed to fight off off several celebrated warriors. Zork‘s troll is, by contrast, just a brutish local who is in the way.
Some locations and objects found within the Great Underground Empire emerge from already-extant cultural contexts. There is an “Egyptian Room,” which is described not in physical terms but only by way of an audience’s expectation of ancient otherness: “This is a room which looks like an Egyptian tomb.” It is part of a larger temple, and three treasures–an ivory torch, a gold coffin, and a jeweled scepter–participate in its otherness. Elsewhere, abandoned (debased?) structures mark The Great Underground Empire as a one-time “beneficiary” of western industry: a dam and a coal mine. Where are the colonists who built these structures? Where did they live and work? And what became of those–the trolls and their ilk–who lived here first?
The Thief: High Diction, Low Character
Whatever his motives, the Adventurer comes from far away with no possessions of his own to loot the ruins of a fallen civilization. Only the thief, his rival and opposite number, remains to to oppose him. Art Maybury rightly observes that he “is drawn as an aristocratic gentlemen driven down into desperate, criminal poverty.” This is undoubtedly true; Zork I often uses elevated language and diction to characterize him in this way. Speaking of characterization: the thief is the most amply-described thing in the world of Zork I. When the Adventurer EXAMINEs him, the narrator replies:
The thief is a slippery character with beady eyes that flit back and forth. He carries, along with an unmistakable arrogance, a large bag over his shoulder and a vicious stiletto, whose blade is aimed menacingly in your direction. I'd watch out if I were you.
The term “stiletto,” an elegantly Latinate alternative to “dagger,” likely led more than one player to a dictionary, and the word isn’t found in the first-edition AD&D rulebooks. This isn’t a thief who merely steals:
A seedy-looking individual with a large bag just wandered through the room. On the way through, he quietly abstracted some valuables from the room and from your possession, mumbling something about "Doing unto others before..."
This failed aristocrat is characterized by a fascinating linguistic mash-up. The grounded, straight delivery of “seedy-looking individual with a large bag” is immediately complicated by the substitution of “quietly abstracted” for “stole.” A bastardization of Mark 7:12 completes the picture. While the thief’s invocation of scripture implies at first blush that he is a figure of humorously murderous irreverence, this reading masks the fact that the Adventurer is living by the same “golden rule.” He, too, must kill and rob before he is killed and robbed. The once empty-handed adventurer must displace and replace the aristocratic thief.
In this way, Zork I (and all of Zork, really) is a kind post-apocalyptic Frank Capra movie. The Adventurer is a self-made man who, by virtue of his quick wits and elbow grease, deposes an entitled gentry.
The thief’s behavior is an odd mixture of brute violence and the genteel formalism of an aristocratic duel:
- “The thief stabs nonchalantly with his stiletto and misses.”
- “…the thief salutes you with a grim nod.”
- “The thief bows formally, raises his stiletto, and with a wry grin, ends the battle and your life.”
- “…The thief slowly approaches, strikes like a snake…”
- “…The stiletto touches your forehead, and the blood obscures your vision.”
- “A long, theatrical slash.”
- “The thief, a man of superior breeding, pauses for a moment to consider the propriety of finishing you off.”
- “The thief amuses himself by searching your pockets.”
- “The thief, forgetting his essentially genteel upbringing, cuts your throat.”
- “The thief, who is essentially a pragmatist, dispatches you as a threat to his livelihood.”
It’s only natural to wonder: who is this man and where does he come from? Given the language used to characterize him, it is safe to assume–as I and others have done–that he is the last surviving holdout from a vanished aristocracy. The question remains, though, as to which aristocracy he might claim. Since the Great Underground Empire is a failed colonial project, he is all-but-certainly its last colonist.
He is, in other words, the only outsider to remain after the region’s failed colonial enterprise. He is the Kurtz to the Adventurer’s Marlow (though let’s not stretch the comparison too far). The clash between them is not the result of a different ethos–it is not a battle of colonizer versus colonized–rather, it is because they belong in different movies. The thief feels like a dropout from a Merchant Ivory production, while the Adventurer hails from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Zork describes the thief as a “lean and hungry gentleman,” and yes, “gentleman” is an important signifier of his one-time wealth and social standing in the Empire. However, “lean and hungry” is an echo of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, wherein Caesar describes Cassius–a primary instigator of the plot to assassinator Caesar–in this way:
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Perhaps the thief likewise participated in the fall of The Great Underground Empire, but it proved to be a pyrrhic revolt–all residents have since fled or died. This collapse is only his tale to tell, and the Adventurer seems rather incurious about his story. Perhaps the thief is cursed–his age goes unremarked, but it seems he has been undergound a long time. A skeleton, long dead, can be found near his lair, and the bag of gold coins that this dead adventurer carried lies undisturbed near the remains. A nearby “Land of the Dead” holds many bodies, and presumably many have fallen to the thief: “In the corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers less fortunate than yourself.” While the thief is clearly interested in treasure, he only begins to collect it when you arrive. Let’s be honest: at the outset of the game, the thief is perfectly capable of collecting all 20 treasures in Zork I‘s game world. In all likelihood, he is more capable of doing so than you. He isn’t there looking for treasure; he’s stuck waiting for Adventurers to foil and kill.
Rather tellingly, the “Entrance to Hades” is blocked by evil spirits: as the game opens it is not possible for anyone (spirit or otherwise) to enter. This thief is incapable of passing into the next life (in a canon playthrough), until the Adventurer exorcises these spirits. On a gate is the inscription, “Abandon every hope, all ye who enter here!” It’s from Dante, and at his imagined lowest circle of Hell can be found Judas, Brutus, and… Cassius. This “lean and hungry” gentleman inhabits a colonial no-man’s land. He can no longer return home, and there are neither governors to depose nor locals to exploit.
Acquisition and Deferred Satisfaction: The Elusive Point(s) of Zork I
Humor has, from its earliest reviews on, been a defining characteristic of Zork. In a time when few developers were able to, the Implementers dedicated precious computing resources to jokes, actions that did nothing to advance the game, and descriptions that had no in-game utility beyond creating and sustaining mood. It was a novel practice at a time when there were no fixed ideas about writing video game stories. While I cannot be scientific about it, I can say that when I was twelve the first thing that anyone I knew mentioned when talking about Zork I was its jokes. It was, in other words, the first computer program any of us knew that had something approximating a pervading sense of personality. Sure, other games had jokes here and there, but only Zork I had such a consistent narrative voice.
It was easy to forgive Zork, likable program that it was, for its cruel bits, existing as it did in its own age of relatively unlikable programs. Wandering about The Great Underground Empire trying to get Zork I to say funny things was in many cases just as fulfilling as making progress. My friends and I spent afternoons huddled around the Commodore 64 doing just that.
It’s fitting that Zork is not a game concerned with satisfaction in a traditional gaming sense. Sure, its puzzles are mechanically satisfying to solve, but it is a game structured around getting rather than having wealth. For a game about treasure, it is striking that the player begins and ends the game with exactly the same amount of wealth: none. The manual states, early on, that the Adventurer wants treasure: “No doubt. you wish to acquire some of it.” Wealth, above all things, is so worthwhile that it really ought to go without saying (“no doubt”). However, there is immediately posited something of greater importance: “In order to receive full credit for treasure, you must deposit it safely in the trophy case.” Credit? From whom? In a metagame sense, there is the matter of player score, which increments when the Adventurer performs significant actions, solves puzzles, gets treasures, and, yes, places them in a trophy case. Is that what this means? That despite its narrative flourishes, thematic fascinations, and other literary touches, it is still Very Much a Video Game Thank You Very Much?
The score is coincidental, actually, and serves as a handy general indicator of progress. It isn’t needed. There are twenty treasures, and it says so right there on the back of the package. The score, in fact, is a distraction that misleadingly suggests that Zork is about earning points. It implies that the “credit” that the Adventurer seeks comes in the form of numbers. The Adventurer never does anything to acknowledge the value of points, nor does the thief–the character most likely to know what is going on down here. The gaming audience–then and now–is likely to fixate on points because this is a video game.
The goal of Zork is, in fact, to receive credit from the entity in charge. Said credit is received when the Adventurer journeys from their white “colonial” outpost into darkness, retrieves wealth, returns above ground, and places it in a “trophy case.” Zork is a pageant of ritualized acquisitiveness in which a man travels into dark territory to seize its riches. The riches are not at any point his. He doesn’t keep them, he doesn’t take them back to “civilization,” and he finishes the game just as broke as he started.
He is, in the end, a thief–and a better one than “the thief”–but he’s playing a different game. Like the Adventurer, the thief absolutely could solve the puzzles of Zork I and keep all of the treasures for himself. But unlike the Adventurer, there is no outside supervising authority to which he can pay tribute–he cannot climb out of the cellar, cannot open the case. The thief only begins to collect treasures when you arrive–his goal is stopping you, not getting “credit.”
When the last treasure is placed, your unseen colonial evaluator speaks. It is as if, all this time, the Adventurer has performed before an invisible audience: “An almost inaudible voice whispers in your ear, ‘Look to your treasures for the final secret.'” Even though all available points must be earned, the most important act of Zork I remains: hearing and heeding the directions of this invisible giver of credit.
Doing as this voice commands, the Adventurer is soon leaving forever behind his hard-earned loot, two dead bipeds, and a picked-clean ruin (NOTE: Jake Wildstrom points out that the Cyclops is unaccounted for in this analysis. They are a strange case, since they have no canonical state at the end of the game. They are either sleeping or have somehow traversed the impassable woods/mountain. In any case, the Adventurer doesn’t kill him. My understanding is that there is unused code that implies he was once a potential combatant). The player, for their part, will have solved a number of puzzles ranging from fun to tedious to (it’s all a matter of taste) unfair. For its original 1980 audience, it will be, without exaggeration, unlike any other computer entertainment on earth.
Zork I‘s final passage slides into the warmer, more congratulatory nature of promotional discourse. Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz would not be far behind.
Inside the Barrow As you enter the barrow, the door closes inexorably behind you. Around you it is dark, but ahead is an enormous cavern, brightly lit. Through its center runs a wide stream. Spanning the stream is a small wooden footbridge, and beyond a path leads into a dark tunnel. Above the bridge, floating in the air, is a large sign. It reads: All ye who stand before this bridge have completed a great and perilous adventure which has tested your wit and courage. You have mastered the first part of the ZORK trilogy. Those who pass over this bridge must be prepared to undertake an even greater adventure that will severely test your skill and bravery! The ZORK trilogy continues with "ZORK II: The Wizard of Frobozz" and is completed in "ZORK III: The Dungeon Master," available now at fine stores everywhere. Your score would be 350 (total of 350 points), in 665 moves. This score gives you the rank of Master Adventurer.
It’s worth wondering: is the author of the sign the same entity as the invisible speaker? Or is it simply Infocom’s marketing department talking? “Ye,” besides having a zesty Biblical feel, is a plural, second-person pronoun. Given the exceptionalist implications of the colonizing Adventurer as self-invented “new man,” it’s hard to reconcile a clear “thou” with this “ye.”
Zork I: The Great Underground Empire–This Gives You the Rank of Master Adventurer
Zork I is exactly the sort of game that four 1970s computer geniuses with varying interests would concoct. It is based on innovative technology (in terms of both function and platform), and its setting is a near-incoherent mashup of culture and myth. While this collaged world has led to unfavorable comparisons with ADVENT, its only direct ancestor, it is more interesting to think of it as a modernist response to ADVENT‘s more austere classicism. Both games do what they do well, and they each do poorly what the other does well.
The grand context of Zork–both implied and explicit–is that of a failed colonial project. A lone man travels a great distance over hostile terrain to reach a heart of darkness. There is a glum reality lurking just beneath Zork I‘s wisecracking narrative surface: the people who once lived and worked in this dark place are now long gone. The protagonist’s primary aim is transporting wealth from below ground to a literally “white” and “colonial” structure.
The Adventurer’s two human(oid) adversaries reflect two sides of the same colonial coin: the colonized and the colonizer. Both are in the way, and both must die. The “troll,” who does not so much resemble its forbearers in Tolkien or Gygax as much as it does a brutishly foreign human, is the latter. The thief, on the other hand, is an embodiment of once-genteel violence–an almost Kurtz-like figure.
When the Adventurer’s ritual is complete and all treasures rest in the cabinet, he is rewarded with, at last, unambiguous direction from an otherworldly source. The ultimate prize of this text adventure, played out with text commands, is itself a text command. In a game made up of small choices, the winner is, at long last, freed of existential hassles–they are told what to do.
The legacy and influence of text adventure games are generally underestimated today. Since mass-market video games do not rely on text commands or text feedback, games like Zork can be perceived as evolutionary dead ends. This overlooks the fact that there were once no conventions for world building of any kind, and that there were no set ideas of what might make places, characters, or actions interesting. There were furthermore no conventions as to how to gate progress and story behind obstacles. It is easy to forget that, for a time, Infocom was a (the?) leader in this space, and that so many English-speaking game designers of a certain age grew up playing their games. So many were, in other words, first exposed to compelling solutions to these problems in Zork.
Zork I, then, is a gaming ur-text that readily invites analysis. Elsewhere, there has been a lot of conversation over the years regarding the quality of its puzzles, how fair they are, and if they “hold up.” It’s really beside the point. Having done some reading for poetry journals and one poetry book publisher, I can tell you: no poetry journal today would publish “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and people still talk about it anyway. The question of “holding up” is one that rips a work out of its context, disregards the discourse that surrounds it, and treats it like a contemporary consumer product. Which, of course, “Prufrock,” Zork, and, Julius Caesar simply aren’t. It’s fine to ask if these texts “hold up,” but it’s a little unfair to behave as if that’s the only thing one might reasonably ask.
So: one down, 34 to go. Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz, compared with Zork I, has a more distinct authorial voice. Not “distinct,” mind you, just “more distinct.” It is infamous for having the “worst two puzzles” in the entire canon. Though I would really rather not, I will have to dedicate a post to them. But not yet! First, a critical Introduction to Zork II. Please look forward to it!