Digging Into the Embodied Zork II: Packaging, Diskettes, and Plotlines

In this post, the Gold Machine examines the packaging and plotline of Infocom’s Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz.

Warning: this essay contains unmarked sopilers for Zork II.

Note: due to formatting limitations, I cannot adequately hide every spoiler in this essay. Plot spoilers–including those for the ending of Zork II–follow. Turn back if you want to experience these things for yourself!

Zork II: What’s in the Box Blister Pack?

The folio printing of Zork II is, like it’s predecessor, a rather bare bones affair. The package consists of a cardboard backing affixed to a shallow and transparent plastic shell. Behind the clear plastic could be found a manual, one diskette, and a product registration card. Depending on the printing and version, it may or may or may not contain a reference card providing hardware-specific instructions. Since all but the first printings of the manual were platform-agnostic, a paper overlay with Zork II logo and designated platform was placed between the clear plastic and the enclosed goodies.

So far as I know the first Apple II printing included a cardboard backing providing a general description of the Zork series and brief descriptions of Zork I and Zork II. In this way, the packaging (plastic and cardboard) could be used interchangeably for both products. As a reminder, Infocom released its first self-published edition of Zork I in the same year that Zork II was released. If you were present for the discussion of Zork I‘s packaging, you can probably guess that the manual and packing don’t reveal much about the content or objectives of Zork II. In addition to (quite rightly) boasting about Infocom’s parser, the package makes vague comments about danger, challenges, and a rather misleading promise of replayability. The material specific to Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz is limited to this:

[It] takes you into new depths of the subterranean realm. There you'll meet the Wizard, who will attempt to confound your quest with his capricious powers.

The manual doesn’t have much more to add:

In Part 2 of The Great Underground Empire you are placed at the entrance to a long-hidden region of the empire, a region under the control of The Wizard of Frobozz. The Wizard, formerly the personal sorcerer of Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive, still rules the cavern with an iron (though somewhat absent-minded) will. His great age has not impaired his magical skills (at least not too much).
Many strange tales have been told of fabulous treasures, exotic creatures, and diabolical puzzles to be found here. The aspiring adventurer had best equip himself with light (for the caverns are dark and gloomy) and weapons (for some of the inhabitants are unfriendly). Other tools and equipment may well be found (with luck) and used (with cleverness). Ancient manuscripts and other printed matter may well offer clues.

The second paragraph appears to be a rephrase of material from Zork I‘s manual, and, as a discussion of the story will reveal, it isn’t consistently true. There will be no sword fights, for instance. What of the Wizard, though? Is he an iron-fisted ruler? If gathering the twenty treasures of Zork is the only way to open the entrance to his realm (see this previous posts on Zork I), then how long has he been alone? Might he be more accurately called a prisoner? Like the thief, his life pre-Adventurer is hard to imagine.

The Plot of Zork II: The Prisoner of Frobozz

Zork II begins exactly where Zork I left off. The Adventurer descends into the Barrow, finding his brass lantern and elvish sword nearby. His objectives unclear: he has entered the realm of a “wizard,” but so what? The Wizard will “confound” him, but to what end?

The map, despite once again being substantially made up of locations from Dungeon, feels much more organic than that of Zork I, and it is largely open from the start. The adventurer is free to explore, looking for things to do. Only by dying does a possible objective become clear. Please forgive the long quoted passage, but I feel it’s worthwhile:

Oh, no! You have walked into the slavering fangs of a lurking grue!
    ****  You have died  **** 
Now, let's take a look here... Well, you probably deserve another chance. I can't quite fix you up completely, but you can't have everything.
Room of Red Mist
You are inside a huge crystalline sphere filled with thin red mist. The mist becomes blue to the west.
You strain to look out through the mist... 
You see a small room with a sign on the wall, but it is too blurry to read.
Room of Blue Mist
You are inside a huge crystalline sphere filled with thin blue mist. The mist becomes white to the west.
You strain to look out through the mist... 
You look out into a large, dreary room with a great door and a huge table. There is an odd glow to the mist.
Room of White Mist
You are inside a huge crystalline sphere filled with thin white mist. The mist becomes black to the west.
You strain to look out through the mist... 
A strange blurry room is barely visible. An odd sinuous shadow crosses the mist as you look.
You follow a corridor of black mist into a black walled spherical room. As you enter, a huge and horrible face materializes out of the mist.
"What brings you here to trouble my imprisonment, wanderer?" it asks. Hearing no immediate answer, it studies you for a moment.
"Perhaps you may be of some use to me in gaining my freedom from this place. Return to your foolish quest! I shall not destroy you this time. Mayhap you will repay this favor in kind someday." The face vanishes and the mist begins to swirl. When it clears you are returned to the world of life.
The front cover of the Zork Users Group Invisiclues booklet for Zork II. It is a black cover with white text. A drawing of a stereotypical wizard with robe and pointy hat occupies the bottom two thirds of the cover.
Cover of the original Zork Users Group hint booklet, retrieved from MoCAGH.

While learning from death is often frowned upon in IF circles, I’m not sure that the implications of unlife have been thoroughly explored. In this case, the Adventurer learns that there are three rooms (perhaps four) of unknown but certain significance, and that he may be able to recognize them based on vague details in the mist. More important, there will be a future encounter with a “huge and horrible” entity that the Adventurer may repay–presumably by freeing it from the black sphere?

It’s more interesting–and already more complicated–than the objective of Zork I, and it is not yet clear if this is a final or intermediate goal. And so the Adventurer wanders from place to place, solving problems and looking for the rooms shrouded in mist. There is an Alice in Wonderland area, complete with a cake with icing letters–“eat me”–that shrinks the Adventurer, and three others that enlarge, evaporate, and explode. Nearby is a red sphere filled with mist, a helpful robot, and… a box of candied insects?

Elsewhere, there is a dragon guarding OMG THE ONLY FEMALE CHARACTER IN THE ZORK TRILOGY. There are further opportunities to fly a hot air balloon, pick a lock, etc. Somewhere in the process, the Adventurer finds the three globes filled with mist, and via a simple ritual uses them to conjure a black sphere, from which emerges a familiar face.

It is now that the second act of Zork II begins. Once freed, the Demon–for that’s what it is–offers to perform a service in exchange for ten treasures conveniently scattered around the map. He is easily the most charismatic figure in the Zork trilogy:

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 [sic] 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.

Lebling, widely regarded as the most craft-conscious of the early Implementers, has a lot of fun with the demon, and that fun is rather contagious. Imagine if Zork I‘s trophy case made color commentary, and it’s easy to see how Zork II–better game or not–is a much more interesting game than its predecessor.

What follows is a traditional treasure hunt. This time there are only ten treasures, and, rather than returning them to a colonial structure, they are cast from darkness to deeper darkness, given as they are to dark power in corporeal form. As above, so below. Once the ten treasures are delivered, the demon will grant the Adventurer a service as promised, and it is rare moment in which the player can define the Adventurer’s character.

In order to complete the game, the player must retrieve the wizard’s wand. There are two options:
Both work. It is merely a way for the player to decide what kind of person the Adventurer is. The troll and thief had no such luck.

Speaking of Wizards: it must seem odd that I haven’t mentioned him yet. Whatever meagre gifts I may have as a writer, I am sure they are not enough to make anyone forget about The Wizard of Frobozz, that name below the title. I would argue that while the Wizard is an important feature of the game Zork II, he does not have much to do with the story of Zork II. Still, I suppose there is no help for it. Let’s talk…

About the Wizard

The packaging and manual of Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz oversells the powers of its titular character. He has no power of his own. Rather, his magic comes from his wand, a tool that–if we are to take the Spellbreaker browsie seriously–can be ordered by anyone from the “Frobozz Magic Equipment Catalog.” Anyone, even the uncultured “new man” of Zork I, can use one. This wizard’s magic consists of various items–gadgets, really. His “rule,” if it can be called that, is via technocracy (more on this in a later post).

Despite the package’s promise that he will attempt to “confound your quest,” what the Wizard really does in most cases is hassle you. The small handful of spells that he knows–all beginning with the letter “F”–are mostly funny. At least, they are funny the first five or so times you see them. In a few truly hilarious moments (provided you have saved recently), he really can kill you, but these events are uncommon and randomly determined. My personal favorite is when he levitates you out of your hot air balloon:

The Wizard appears, floating nonchalantly in the air beside you. He grins sideways at you. The Wizard draws forth his wand and waves it in your direction. It begins to glow with a faint blue glow. The Wizard, in a deep and resonant voice, speaks the word "Float!" He then vanishes, cackling gleefully. You rise majestically out of the basket, coming to a stop about five feet above it and to one side.

“Majestically!” I must confess to laughing aloud, hunched over the rather uncomfortable keyboard of my C64, all those years ago. For all practical purposes, though, the wizard only serves to waste your lantern batteries in a game with a rather strict time limit. He is like a mobile version of the Carousel Room–a room with many exits from whence you cannot deliberately choose your next destination. With every encounter, you lose a handful of precious battery power.

The Wizard is not your enemy because of who he is, what he believes, or simply because the Adventurer can’t stand practical jokes. He is an enemy because he has what the Adventurer wants–a historically deadly state of affairs.

As Zork II concludes, the Demon is satisfied, the Wizard is gone, and the wand has been productively used exactly one time as a highly portable, wand-shaped crane. After a few loose ends are tended to, the Adventurer walks out of the diskette and into another:


Beyond the door is a roughly hewn staircase leading down into darkness. The landing on which you stand is covered with carefully drawn magical runes like those sketched upon the workbench of the Wizard of Frobozz. These have been overlaid with sweeping green lines of enormous power, which undulate back and forth across the landing. The wand begins to vibrate in harmony with the motion of the lines. You feel yourself compelled downward, and you yield, stepping onto the staircase. As you pass the green lines, they flare and disappear with a burst of light, and you tumble down the staircase!

At the bottom, a vast red-lit hall stretches off into the distance. Sinister statues guard the entrance to a dimly visible room far ahead. With courage and cunning you have conquered the Wizard of Frobozz and become the master of his domain, but the final challenge awaits!

(The ultimate adventure concludes in "Zork III: The Dungeon Master".)

I could say more, but I don’t want to steal my own critical thunder from later posts. For now, it is enough to say that Zork II has a more clearly defined story when compared with Zork I, and that this is a direct result of new material written by Dave Lebling. Relying on death for exposition is an unusual move, but let’s be honest–this is a Zork game–nobody is going to miss that sequence.

Next time, a rare “treat”–a discussion of the “worst” puzzles in the Infocom canon. I promised to minimize gameplay discussion, but what writer could resist a “worst” anything? These puzzles’ mechanical badness have been thoroughly explored–is there really anything new to say? Join us next time when Gold Machine dares to ask if some bad puzzles are better than others!

Next–Infamy, Idolatry, and Good Loving Gone Bad: The “Worst” Parts of Zork II

An artist's imagining of the "Alice" area from Zork II. A table is set for a tea party, in a room with runic wallpaper and a checkered floor.
The “Alice” area–complete with robot at bottom left–as imagined by the Zork Users Group. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

8 thoughts on “Digging Into the Embodied Zork II: Packaging, Diskettes, and Plotlines

  1. This guys were (and are) ell read and intelligent, so it amuses me that they were capable of doing that the lore is a living lore that you will meet later:

    “More important, there will be a future encounter with a “huge and horrible” entity that the Adventurer may repay–presumably by freeing it from the black sphere?”

    Stong vibes of Dark Souls here.

    Also, I’m quite fond of those times when the companies were creative with death, like the resurrections of Level 9 games.

    1. It’s interesting to bring up Dark Souls! Learning from dying is a fundamental element of that series, but feelings are mixed (mostly negative, I think) toward toward the concept in post-Infocom IF. It doesn’t bother me so long as the game gives me reason (or clue) to save before trying something deadly.

      Resurrection in Zork is another interesting subject. It makes the game in Zork I unwinnable (I recently checked). Not so sure about II or III. Regardless, the story bits revealed in II and III were all worthwhile (and maybe necessary) to discover. There’s a long comment discussion about resurrection in Starcross in one of the posts as a possible example of a game that didn’t handle it well.

  2. Well, what we can say about that, when the best IF ever, Trinity, it is absolutly necessary to risk and be dead to learn things and try again 🙂

  3. “Greetings, oh master! Wouldst [sic] desire a service, as our contract stateth? …”

    There’s actually nothing wrong with constructing the sentence this way – “thou” is implied by “wouldst” and doesn’t have to be stated explicitly.

    1. That is interesting. In contemporary American English, the presence of “would” makes the construction more awkward, correct or otherwise.

      “Care for a drink?” vs “Would care for a drink?”

      Since a “master” is being addressed, this would more likely be a dropped “you” or “ye,” right?

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