Which “It” Did You Mean, Exactly? The Plot and Packaging of Zork III

Like its two predecessors, Zork III: The Dungeon Master contains minimal in-box information regarding player objectives or worldbuilding. Unlike the other Zork games, it attempts to have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Note: Due to formatting limitations it is not possible to hide all spoilers. Do not continue if you do not want to see open discussion of Zork III‘s story–including the ending!

To Be a Zork is to Speak for Oneself

Just as the Zork II manual is an only slightly-expanded instruction booklet for Zork I, the manual for Zork III is merely an iteration upon its own predecessor. The familiar cardboard backing for each of the trilogy’s blister packs would be updated to contain blurbs for the three games, preceded by generic text applicable to every game that will likely sound familiar: “The Zork trilogy is designed to be experienced in the most realistic sense. And because the challenges change with every move you make, each time you re-enter Zork you’ll face new intrigues” (rear panel, first release of Zork III folio. Retrieved from MoCAGH).

Still, there is something new to the unified Zork Packaging: promotional blurbs for Deadline and Starcross (unless I am mistaken, Zork III and Starcross were released in August and September of 1982). In two short years, Infocom had already built a substantial body of work–enough to convey a sense of a corporate aesthetic and voice.

Once again, the manual provides little concrete information on the player’s objectives in Zork III. Most of its text is common to all Zork game manuals, with only one significant addition:

In ZORK III. you take the last step down into the heart of the Great Underground Empire. Only by making this final descent can you reach the summit of achievement in the ZORK trilogy. Your quest hinges upon discovering the secret purpose of the Dungeon Master, who will oversee your ultimate triumph-or destruction-in the realm of ZORK. (Manual, first folio release. Retrieved from MoCAGH.)

The best way to evaluate this brief snippet of game-specific text is via an examination of the game’s story. At this late date, the most likely player-reader of Zork III will have already experienced Zork‘s rather laconic approach to extradigital exposition. Those readers who have been following along will have been similarly exposed–there is little to say before jumping in.

Black and white version of the Zork III logo. The letters and Roman numeral are constructed out of dungeon-style stone blocks, while the letter "o" is an open wooden door reinforced with metal bands. Light shines forth from the doorway.
Black and white logo retrieved from the folio manual of Zork III. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

“Discovering the Secret Purpose” of Zork

Zork III begins at the end of Zork II. The Adventurer tumbles to the bottom of an “Endless Stair,” stripped of the Wizard’s wand. Compared to the openings of Zorks I & II, Zork III begins in a voluminous and expository way:

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....

For the first time, the Adventurer’s entrance into the game world is dramatized (Both Zork I and Zork II begin with room descriptions). He sees, as if in a vision, the exploits that have brought him here followed by an implied view of the future. Most significant, the Adventurer is told–for the first time–what the game’s objective is: become “worthy” then “seek” out this mysterious figure.

Figuring out “worthiness” for a character such as the Adventurer is a bit sticky. He has proven himself an amoral interloper with no apparent allegiances. Much will depend on a reader’s interpretation of the events of the two previous games. Whose voice, for instance, spoke at the end of Zork I: “Look to your treasures for the final secret?” Who–with obvious help from Infocom’s marketing department–hung the sign over the bridge between the first two episodes?

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!

For whom did the Wizard harass-rather than stop–the Adventurer on his way to collaring Cerberus? Why didn’t he simply kill the Adventurer? If not at the game’s outset, then why not before he summons the demon? The only reasonable answer, looking back, was that he was intended as a test.

A gigantic bird (known as a Roc) flies above a lake, searching for Adventurers to kill. It is of no species. Large enough to catch a human the way a hawk might catch a mouse. From the opening lake area of Zork III.
The rare and obnoxious Roc that randomly appears to kill the Adventurer. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

It must be admitted: the Zork trilogy is and has been an audition, a performance before a heretofore invisible-yet-all-seeing panoptical authority. The Adventurer, looter extraordinaire, collected the twenty treasures of Zork to impress this colonial overseer. The entire story of Zork II can be boiled down (rather excessively, I’ll admit) to “descend a stair guarded by a dog.” It was never the wizard, the wand, or the demon that were important. It was only a staircase, leading as it did to the overseer’s seat of colonial power.

The trilogy is about the process of becoming worthy of meeting an omniscient being who has, in some way, been in control all along. The iterative movements of seeking and becoming began before the Adventurer even reached the white house, with a trek through and over nigh-impassable forests and mountains. While the authority’s omniscience sounds metaphysical, it isn’t. Rather, it is derived from both the colonizer’s technology and the resources of the colonized.

The Adventurer, who over the course of two games and counting has had little-to-nothing to say for or of himself, has been playing a deeper and bigger game than the games or their manuals have implied. He does not seek wealth or territory or even magic. He seeks and has always sought the hidden power at the bottom of the Great Underground Empire.

Zork III, Act I: Seeking to Seek

This doesn’t mean that the player knows in practical and literal terms how to “seek” and “become.” Like Zork II, Zork III provides its clearest indicator of game objectives when the protagonist dies. Zork II‘s death sequence featured the spheres and the demon, while death in Zork III affords a close look at the Dungeon Master:

You find yourself deep within the earth in a barren prison cell. Outside the iron-barred window, you can see a great, fiery pit. Flames leap up and very nearly sear your flesh. After a while, footfalls can be heard in the distance, then closer and closer.... The door swings open, and in walks an old man.

He is dressed simply in a hood and cloak, wearing a few simple jewels, carrying something under one arm, and leaning on a wooden staff. A single key, as if to a massive prison cell, hangs from his belt.

He raises the staff toward you and you hear him speak, as if in a dream: "I await you, though your journey be long and full of peril. Go then, and let me not wait long!" You feel some great power well up inside you and you fall to the floor. The next moment, you are awakening, as if from a deep slumber.

The player may realize that they already have a hood, jewels, book, staff, or key. The Adventurer’s immediate goal is to don a Dungeon Master’s uniform (uniforms appear to make the man in the Great Underground Empire).

This is the first Act of Zork III: determining that becoming worthy is a material process. The adventurer must become a simulacrum of the ultimate colonial authority by gathering his tools and donning his garb of state.

A black and white drawing of Zork III's Dungeon Master. He is wearing a hooded cloak and holds a staff. He is lightly stooped, presumably by age. He walks down a torchlit corridor.
This Dungeon Master appears to be missing parts of his uniform. Image retrieved from MoCAGH.

Zork III, Act II, Part 1: Becoming “Worthy”

Because of a controversial and poorly liked in-game event (one area becomes inaccessible while another is opened up due to an earthquake), it is known how the Adventurer proceeds in a canon playthrough. He must travel to and beyond an underground lake, retrieving an amulet (optional) and a key (mandatory) in the process. The game significantly opens up at this point, and the Adventurer can roam the map solving problems in any order.

Still, it is useful to think of this map in two parts: before and after the earthquake. The two areas are radically different in tone (more on this in the next and final post on Zork III). Moreover, three (perhaps four) actions in the “before” area have an implied moral dimension–perhaps this is new to Zork? I can really only think of Zork I punishing the player for desecrating dead bodies as comparable (additionally, Zork II will kill the player for particularly vile behavior toward the princess. Credit to Torbjörn Andersson). The most interesting of Zork III‘s moral problems involves sparing the life of an attacker:

A sharp thrust and the hooded figure is badly wounded!
The figure appears to be badly hurt and defenseless.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>remove hood
You slowly remove the hood from your badly wounded opponent and recoil in horror at the sight of your own face, weary and wounded. A faint smile comes to the lips and then the face starts to change, very slowly, into that of an old, wizened person. The image fades and with it the body of your hooded opponent. The cloak remains on the ground.

This is a reversal or subversion of Zork I‘s combat: the goal is no longer killing but perceiving. Still, it is hard to know in these moments how serious Zork III really is. A significant number of the deaths in Zork III are silly–in fact, death is a primary source of Zork‘s famed comedy (especially if one does not consider similar and/or duplicate causes of death). It is not, I don’t think, a merciful game, nor is the Dungeon Master (presumably responsible for much of what occurs in the GUE) benevolent. Inconsistencies aside, the idea of mercy as a pathway to success subverts then-prevalent ideas about ways to solve problems through violence.

Elsewhere, the successful Adventurer must surrender treasure by choice. It becomes clear that inverting the values of previous Zorks is key to the Adventurer’s success. In fact, greed renders the game unwinnable. Later, the Adventurer will advance by giving bread to a weakened and helpless old man. Even if the player’s credibility is stretched, there is something new and ambitious about adding a moral dimension to a franchise that has historically rewarded amorality. In fact, I have the admittedly unscientific impression that many adventure games were not morally instructive in 1982 (I welcome correction, as always). Having collected more than half of the Dungeon Master’s uniform, it is time to enter the newly revealed area beyond the “tremendous iron door.”

Zork III, Act II, Part 2: And Now, for Something Completely Different!

It feels as though the Adventurer has stepped into a different game–and so they have! He is now in the old days of 1979, there to solve its puzzles. While the next essay in this series will deal with this change specifically, it is sufficient to say that the subversive nature of Zork III is greatly diminished, as is the exhausted ambiance of the world outside the walls of the museum.

There the player finds two puzzles to contend with; one new and one old. The first, the Royal Puzzle, is a sort of life-sized coffee table doodad in which the Adventurer slides massive stone blocks in a maze. It is there that the Adventurer finds the Dungeon Master’s book. The second (and new to Zork) puzzle seems, more believably, like something one would find in a museum (a technology museum specifically). Here, the player most once again forego greed and take only what is needed–a second piece of jewelry to complement the amulet (the Dungeon Master wears only a “few simple jewels”).

The Guardians of Zork. Unfortunately the mirror thingy is not pictured. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

The Adventurer, in a sense, never returns to the world of Zork III. The remainder of the trilogy is itself a sort of time travel puzzle, since the player has somehow left 1982 and reappeared in 1979. The player must next make their way past the Guardians of Zork, two massively powerful, animate statues that crush anything that passes between them. This problem’s primary source of difficulty is not the puzzle itself, but the limitations of text descriptions in a text adventure. This section, too, is unlike anything in the opening two thirds (three fourths, perhaps) of Zork III. From the museum on, the Zork trilogy is concerned with the manipulation of machinery. It is as if the colonial project of the Great Underground Empire lives on in its contraptions. These machines were, bizarrely, built by colonials for an unanticipated situation: the arrival of someone who could only come after the project’s failure.

Act III: The Climactic Endgame of Zork III

Having prevailed over the problem of the Guardians of Zork (and the shortcomings of descriptive language), the Adventurer at last reaches the realm of the Dungeon Master. There, he is put to a final test. Somehow, the sum total of the Adventurer’s journey culminates in a carousel of prison cells, which he rotates by ordering the Dungeon Master about. Having found the correct combination, the Adventurer enters the Treasury of Zork, which is filled with countless riches. The other, more interesting outcome is that the Adventurer, who already has the uniform, is physically transformed into the Dungeon Master: a stooped, old man. It appears, from the outside, to be a highly qualified sort of success, but the Adventurer seems pleased.

I’ll save the final text of Zork III: The Dungeon Master for the last essay in this series, since questions of theme and tone will be addressed in detail. The most important thing about the story of Zork III is that it is two stories. The effects–mostly negative–derived from Zork III‘s bifurcated design will conclude my analysis of the Zork trilogy, the final essay of ten in total.

Next: Whose Zork is it Anyway? The Steep Price of Authorial Ambiguity in Zork III: The Dungeon Master

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4 thoughts on “Which “It” Did You Mean, Exactly? The Plot and Packaging of Zork III

  1. “I can really only think of Zork I punishing the player for desecrating dead bodies as comparable (please comment if you can think of others!).”

    Zork II punishes you for trying to kill the princess. Does that count? Either way, it’s quite different from The Pawn (Magnetic Scrolls), where trying to kill the princess simply results in a dead princess. (Even trying to bring her corpse back to the king doesn’t seem to make any difference!)

    By the way, the word “ispoilers” looks like a typo.

  2. Yes, the princess definitely counts. It’s also an interesting case because it shows that the wizard could have killed the Adventurer if he had really wanted to.

    I want to try some Magnetic Scrolls games eventually–maybe when this project is over. I’ve seen a bit of Guild of Thieves and Jinxster, but that’s it.

    Yep, that’s a typo! Thanks

  3. This is an interesting point of view because I didn’t find the parts of the game discordant.

    While the “first” part is a sort of decayed splendor, even the Royal Puzzle and the time travel puzzle don’t feel different to me. They are the relics of a dead (colonial) civilization.

    Interestingly, you end up stealing the jewels of the *past*, thus changing the past — to become worthy, the Adventurer, a New Man, must disrespect the past (which he already has been doing, but now even more literally) and replace its signs of authority with his own. The fact that it is the *Royal* Puzzle which the Adventurer defeats is distinctive; it is another obliteration of the authority of the previous hegemon; the book, representing knowledge, is taken away from the previous authority. This is again consistent with the theme. “Worthiness” is not only ethics and self-awareness, but also a matter of demonstrating power over the former hegemonic power structures (which are consistently made out to be bad, since Dimwit Flathead is obviously not a competent or responsible ruler).

    In the end, the Treasury of Zork is almost a parody — what good is treasure now? — and presented this way (See also Infidel, Enchanter, and Zork Zero for comments on this theme), and it doesn’t feel discordant to me at all.

    However, the “Guardians of Zork” sequence was utterly unmanageable for me without reading though the walkthrough directly; it’s not the sort of puzzle which can be implemented well in text.

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