The once and future Zork.
A tale of two Zorks
By the time Wishbringer released in May 1985, the end of the six-game Zork cycle of groundbreaking text games was in sight. Dave Lebling’s Spellbreaker would release in four short months. Both games have very different things to say about future of the kingdom of Quendor. Who can say whether it was design or happy coincidence that minimized overt contradictions—not contradictions, mind you, but their overtness—but the two games managed to land in wildly different places without public argument.
I suppose it is reasonable to say that while art asserts a rhetoric, it is not itself rhetorical, much less a judicial process. Audiences will let capably great stories carry them away, details be damned, and why should interactive fiction be any different? In fact, having worldbuilding consistency issues—problems of canon—was a pretty high-class problem in 1985. It required a persistent world between games, including a unified world geography, shared world history, and—this was the most tricky thing—apparent intertextuality—with both in-world and and out-of-world texts. What other game franchises of the day might claim such a heady achievement: capacity for worldbuilding inconsistencies?
Perhaps the Ultima series might apply, though I don’t believe those games became serious about consistency (or perhaps were technically able to be serious about it) until Ultima V: Quest of the Avatar (also 1985, by coincidence). Those early games did have oodles of conversations with themselves, however—the first four games feel more like iterations than they do direct sequels. The maps are the same, yet different. Familiar characters are the same, yet different. Those early games talk to themselves, rather than speak from them, end-to-end. Perhaps it would be better to say that they speak over one another, end-to-end.
Both Infocom’s Wishbringer and Spellbreaker would take very different approaches, and it is a shame that we can’t discuss both in detail (yet! Spellbreaker is a 1985 game, too). For now, it will have to be enough to say that Wishbringer, consistent with the Zork trilogy’s approach to thematic development and meaning-making, is evocative rather than invocative. We players are initiated into a mystery, or at least we are invited to such an initiation, should we rise to the occasion as players and problem-solvers.
What’s an Antharia?
It’s clear now that Wishbringer is presented as an extension or extrapolation of the Zork universe, though it hardly wears its legacy on its sleeve. The two least ambiguous indicators are geographical and intertextual. Neither assertion (they assert their own Zork-ness) is unmistakable. In fact, both assume a level of familiarity with the Zork universe that the average player may or may not possess. In any case, an “introductory” player would not be in a position to recognize such references.
The first case—geographical—can be found on the in-box map, which names the setting as “Festeron, Antharia.” The kingdom of Antharia may or may not be recalled by even diligent players. Where might a Zork fan have seen that name before?
List and Count of Antharia References in Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Enchanter, and Sorcerer
- Zork I
- Folio: 0
- Gray Box: 5
- Source Code: 0
- Zork II
- Folio: 0
- Gray Box: 3
- Source Code: 0
- Zork III
- Folio: 0
- Gray Box: 0
- Source Code: 0
- Folio: 0
- Gray Box: 0
- Source Code: 0
- Folio: 0
- Gray Box: 2
- Source Code: 3
As the totals might suggest (Folio 0, Gray Box 10, Source Code 3), Antharia was largely a post-gray box creation, likely intended to “fill out” a game world that had previously thrived on nonspecificity. Still, it has to be admitted by setting Wishbringer in Antharia, Moriarty was able to accomplish what the gray boxes either could not or else would not do: make them relevant to a game. Having for the first time an in-game reason to familiarize ourselves with the nation of Antharia, it makes sense to learn what we can about the world of Wishbringer.
According to The Great Underground Empire: A History by Froboz Mumbar, The island nation Antharia was at one time (665 GUE) the world’s greatest sea power, but was ultimately conquered by Duncanthrax, the then-king of Quendor. Control of the world-class shipyards of Antharia would soon empower Duncanthrax to conquer the lands beyond the Great Sea. Underneath those lands waited the future Great Underground Empire, the setting of the Zork trilogy.
Returning to Antharia: besides shipbuilding, Antharia boasted “famed granola mines” (nyuk nyuk nyuk). Post-Zork II texts (including Wishbringer‘s and Sorcerer‘s in-game content) would emphasize marble-mining and cutting instead. Barring the occasional hurricane, Antharia was (and still seems to be) a lovely island nation with a thriving tourist industry and pleasant weather year-round.
Wishbringer‘s Festeron seems to be a sleepy tourist town, and the game refers to the wharf on its east side as “the town’s most popular tourist attraction.” There are no apparent marble mining or cutting facilities, and no shipbuilders (or ships). While the source makes no reference to ships, it does refer to marble twice: the marble fountain at the center of town (in both day and night settings) as well as the statue of Chaos the cat.
Recognition of the Antharia setting, then, requires a familiarity with the Zork reissues or, to a lesser extent, Sorcerer. However, its similarities can be subtle.
Festeron, Then and Now
If the relationship between the Zork universe seems indeterminate, what explains its tenuousness? It’s informative to look at the second apparent (there are many more, of course, but they are not obvious upon opening the box) relationship between Wishbringer and the Zork universe. This proclaimed bit of intertextuality lies in the “Festeron Town Library” plates that are found in Zork I‘s The Great Underground Empire: A History, Zork II‘s G.U.E. on Nine Zorkmids a Day, and Wishbringer‘s The Legend of Wishbringer. It’s worth examining the three plates in detail:
All three three texts, then, come from the “Festeron Town Library.” This is a location in Wishbringer—the site of its endgame, in fact. The question is not where the library is, but when it is. It can’t be assumed that “63” is, in fact 1063 (our own earthly software made many assumptions about the 20th century in those days), so all we can say is that Wishbringer is at least 209 years after the events of Zork III (the initial setting of the Gold Machine’s dial is 948 and does not transport the player anywhere).
While we could assume, instead, that Wishbringer takes place eight centuries before the Zork trilogy, there are problems. The first is that the history of the G.U.E. as published doesn’t account for it. The other issue is that Wishbringer‘s world is more technologically advanced than Zork. Everyone seems to have electricity, buildings are of recognizably contemporary design, the stock of the magick shop seems rather mundane (besides the wishing stone, of course).
What else differentiates contemporary Festeron from our own world? Magick is one distinction, and we might wonder what separates the Enchanter trilogy’s “magic” from Wishbringer‘s “magick.” There is the upside down world of “Witchville,” a sort of dark un-Festeron, in which evil witches, grues, trolls, sentient boots all exist. In fact, Witchville seems to be far more Zorkian that its daytime equivalent, Festeron.
It would seem that Festeron is an imagined-yet-largely realistic town in our own world, and that Witchville exists, unseen, beneath its surface. For Zork‘s more ravenous and thorough fans, this won’t be the first time we’ve seen such a presentation of the Zork universe. The Tor “What-Do-I-Do-Now” books (a series of CYOA books for young readers) present their protagonists Bill and June as travelers between our own world and that of the Zork universe. Wishbringer frames its story in a similar way, only allowing for a self-insert protagonist (note that self-inserts had their limits in those days, as the opening crawl makes assumptions about rescuing princesses).
Like Bill and June, the protagonist of Wishbringer craves adventure of a kind our everyday world cannot provide, and similarly his dreams come true in unexpected ways. Structurally, their adventures are framed by existence in the “real” world, from which they depart and to which they return.
After the protagonist has discovered his hometown drastically changed for the worse, he can (I believe this encounter is both optional and missable) visit the iconic West of House location where Zork I begins. The game characterizes the player’s entrance in an interesting way: “As you walk along the shimmering trail you feel a vague sense of disorientation, then a shock of recognition…” Who feels the shock of recognition: the protagonist or the player? We have no reason to believe that this contemporary mail clerk has ever visited the Great Underground Empire (across the Great Sea).
Has this fantasizing young man played Zork I himself? Is this a self-referential, metatextual moment? Does he, despite his everyday life, recognize not only this setting but the grues? Or are we, the player, shocked to return to the world of Zork, centuries later, to find that it endures yet? That it still true that, as Zork I‘s pamphlet once declared, “No computer should be without one!” Perhaps it means that, even today, adventure and wonder are not so far away as we might guess. In fact, they lie just below the surface of our lives for those of us who look. In this way, Wishbringer says more about the power of imagination and our capacity to dream (the Wishbringer is “the Magick Stone of Dreams,” after all) than other, later attempts to visit the Great Underground Empire. However much we might enjoy those later games (or not), nearly all of us enjoy Wishbringer more, remember it more vividly, and, most significantly, find in its protagonist’s daydreams an echo of our own.
Next up is A Mind Forever Voyaging, my favorite “serious” Infocom game, that warrants some special attention from me, though I have yet to determine what that will mean in practice. It will be interesting to trace its critical history, as many readers from the aughts and early teens appear to have underestimated the long-term implications of Reagan and his various, ghoulish hangers-on. Innocent days, those were. See you next week! And look out for a Ballyhoo podcast episode in the next few days.