Yes, I do mention Spellbreaker near the end.
Up From the Bottom
In 1993, things at Activision were indisputably on the upswing. A short two years previous, the company, which held a sizable number of video game properties, was sixty million USD underwater. Since then, investors acquired it for a mere two million dollars, then took it through bankruptcy reorganization. Zork, and Infocom generally, played a surprising role in sustaining Activision through this process. The Lost Treasures of Infocom I and II were both hits. With no new content to create and no royalties to pay, these anthologies were comfortably profitable. The Infocom reissues are usually considered a factor in Activision’s survival during the reorganization process as a steady source of revenue with little overhead and sustained critical goodwill.
The Zork brand was part of Activision’s bounce back, too. 1993’s Return to Zork was a bona fide hit, with sales pushing beyond one million. It’s an incredible figure, considering that sales of the standalone version of Zork I never reached a half million. This isn’t a way of arguing that people preferred Return to Zork to Zork I then or now (remember that compilations like the Lost Treasures sold well). It’s more an indication that the audience and scale of video games as a medium were changing. Return to Zork was a success, mathematically, and suggested that a bright future might await Zork as a brand.
Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision both then and now, once famously said that “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies.” Judging from Activision’s post-Infocom takes on the brand, he really believed that to be true. In fairness, it was true. Or, more accurately, Zork spackled on top of a point and click with high production values would sell quite well. It was a golden age of graphical adventure games: the landmark title Myst would release just after Return to Zork. Myst would prove to be a killer app for Macintosh, and PC owners had new technologies of their own that they wanted to fully utilize. Looking through old reviews, it seems that many customers, who may or may not have been familiar with Infocom’s text adventure games, enjoyed RtZ‘s full-motion-video snippets and humorous acting (though perhaps not all of its humor was intentional).
Return to Zork, then, was a successful product, and Zork must have seemed a viable brand. In addition to satisfactory sales figures, it was also named runner-up in Computer Gaming World‘s “Adventure Game of the Year” award, beaten out by Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers and Day of the Tentacle. Considering that Myst was the big leader from the Mac side of the house, Return to Zork was certainly keeping good company. Today, though, those other games have enjoyed staying power in terms of critical interest and player goodwill. Return to Zork, on the other hand, seems largely relegated to the status of inside joke or obscure meme.
Want Some Zork? Of Course You Do!
In fact, let me be clear right now: Return to Zork is a terrible adventure game. Under no circumstances should you play it, unless to satisfy historical curiosity or as a source of ironic amusement in the grand tradition of Ed Wood. And even in these special cases, you should take care to play it with a walkthrough in hand. To do anything else is sheer masochism; you’re almost guaranteed to lock yourself out of victory within the first ten minutes, and almost guaranteed not to realize it until many hours later. There’s really no point in mincing words here: Return to Zork is one of the absolute worst adventure-game designs I’ve ever seen — and, believe me, I’ve seen quite a few bad ones.
I’ve been asking this question since the very beginning of Gold Machine: what is Zork? Is it whatever the copyright holder says that it is? If Activision had made a Zork soccer/football game, would that have been Zork? What about one of those “interactive” CD ROMs so popular at the time? If Activision had published a “Paula Deen’s Zork Cookbook,” would that have been Zork? If your definition or conception of Zork is commercial, then cookbooks and soccer are in. Return to Zork, likewise, is in. The weirdly grimdark non-sequitur that is Nemesis? Zork.
Note that I’m not really interested in determining which post-Infocom games are “good”. Rather, I am interested in what might or might not make them Zorkian. It’s fine to enjoy Nemesis, Grand Inquisitor, or even Return to Zork. It’s none of my business. I do think that six (seven if you count Wishbringer) games down the road, it’s probably time for me to say with the confidence one expects of video game critics: why does the saga end after six games? Point and click games are one thing, but am I really snubbing Beyond Zork? Zork Zero?
I shouldn’t beat around the bush: yes, I am snubbing Beyond Zork and Zork Zero. I personally consider Beyond Zork a noble but failed experiment and Zork Zero a complete failure. While both games will get their own time in (or out) of the sun at Gold Machine, I have to talk about them now because many of you have asked–reasonably–why the saga stops with Spellbreaker. To answer that, I have to try and define what Zork is to me as a critic. I need to explain the criteria I use to evaluate these games and make judgements about them. In a sense, the entire arc of this series–not just on Spellbreaker but on Infocom–has been leading to this question. I’ve returned to it again and again: what makes Zork what it is?
I have written more about Zork here than I have any other subject, including A Mind Forever Voyaging. As Zork III once advertised: “it all comes down to this.” To answer the questions of what Zork is and why it ends, we’ll have to go back to the beginning. I’ll examine the world models of both the original mainframe Zork as well as the commercial trilogy and try to determine how and/or if a significant evolution took place between the two. I’ll take a look at the “Great Underground Empire,” emphasis on “empire,” and compare it with the sunlit, federated world of the Enchanter trilogy.
Finally, I’ll discuss what I consider the aesthetics of Zorkian media, which frequently seem missing, misapplied, or, perhaps, misunderstood. Only in that context can the force of Spellbreaker’s conclusion can be measured in full. Furthermore, subsequent efforts to negate or undermine it can be understood as the disappointments that they are.
I seriously don’t think Grand Inquisitor is a bad game. I like it better than Zork Zero. There’s no need to be upset!
As advertised, we’ll go all the way back to the start. Stick around!