Whose Zork Is It Anyway? The Steep Price of Authorial Ambiguity in Zork III

I traveled all the way to the heart of the Great Underground Empire, and all I got were these silly piles of money.

A drawing of the Treasury of Zork--the final scene in Zork III. There are oddly shaped piles of coins all over the floor, as well as several treasure chests. Elsewhere are paintings (one of a man with a very flat head stands out), statues, and shelves covered with books and scrolls.
I guess it was about the treasure, after all. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Warning: This essay contains open spoilers for all of Zork III, including its ending. If you wish to experience these things for yourself, turn back now.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In a previous essay, I asserted that Zork III was essentially two games with two stories. The first game begins where Zork II left off: at the bottom of an “endless” staircase. Its world is drab, exhausted, and shot through with glum enervation. The second game takes place in grueless, artificially lit areas filled with complex machinery. Zork III makes little (or no) apparent effort to reconcile these two different environments. The player must perform that work, if they can.

Perhaps, today, expectations of early Infocom are so low that things like inconsistent tone, abandoned themes, erratic characterization, and inorganicism (of both locations and puzzles) are dismissed, in an unreflective way, as a matter of course.

I find such assumptions specious. Infocom, by late 1982, had been on a clear path of growing sophistication and increasingly thoughtful design. Each title completed after Zork I reflects an improvement in terms of story and structure. Zork II, for instance, has the newly-added Wizard and Demon sections–arguably the best parts of the game. Deadline is a radical departure from Infocom’s foundational ur-text Dungeon (also known as the mainframe release of Zork). Zork III begins in a no less innovative way that challenges the amorality of the Zork trilogy as well as our own assumptions about adventure games. Unfortunately, Zork III: The Dungeon Master fails to escape the diminishing gravity of Dungeon. The result is a sputtering conclusion to the Zork trilogy.

Note: I will frequently use the term “organic” in this essay. I use it to describe something that seems to connect to the environment in a natural way. For a puzzle to be organic, it must belong to the game world. I do not mean that the game world should not surprise, since a surprise can appear sensible in retrospect. For instance: it makes sense that a grues’ nest would be found in a dark room south of the lake. A shadowy figure could reasonably appear after stalking the Adventurer in the Land of Shadow. For a map or location to be organic, it must make a kind of intuitive sense when viewed in terms of its immediate neighbors or else as part of an overall map. Organicism tends to make a world more credible, and additionally contributes to a locations’ atmosphere. In other words, organicism is an element of the immersive. Inorganic elements can, of course, be quite effective if applied in a thoughtful, productive way, but that isn’t what happens in Zork III.

Zork III, Part 1: Solving Organic Problems

For the first time in an Infocom game, Zork III opens with exposition preceding the first room’s description. This novel approach achieves multiple ends. First, it creates a stronger sense of continuity between previous games and the current one. This move identifies the Adventurer, who first comes to us in Zork I as a blank slate, as an individual who now has not only a history but a moral character. While we have never seen his thoughts, we have seen all that he has done.

The opening exposition also lays out the purpose of the game in an elliptical way. Deciphering the phrase “seek me when you feel yourself worthy!” hinges upon the meaning of an abstract qualification. What, the player must ask, is worthiness in the Great Underground Empire? It has an ethical dimension, but the ethos of this game world is not at all clear.

A portrait of Zork III's dungeon master peering over a castle wall into pit of fire. He wears all of the trappings of his position: a hooded cloak, a gold amulet, and a simple ring on his right hand. A large key hangs from his belt. In one hand he holds a wooden staff. In the other, a book
The well-dressed dungeon master: cloak, staff, ring, amulet, key, and book. Retrieved from the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.

This is different from the initially unclear goals of Zorks I and II. These must also be discovered in their respective games, but they are concrete questions with concrete answers. In Zork I, the answer is, “offer 20 treasures to a panoptical authority, then descend deeper into the Great Underground Empire.” Zork II‘s answer is, “navigate a massive, life-sized Rube Goldberg machine to retrieve and use a dog collar, then descend deeper into the Great Underground Empire” (please forgive this harmless joke). The goal of Zork III, despite initial similarities, is wildly different: “become a physical manifestation of an abstract concept, then seek out the Dungeon Master.”

For the first time in an Infocom game, the protagonist faces consequential ethical tests (Deadline’s Supervisor can either reveal Robner’s new will or keep it secret, but the choice has no in-game consequences). While these tests are sometimes primitive and credibility-stretching–the Adventurer’s character seems well established at this point–there remains a sense that something new and remarkable is happening.

Indeed, Zork 1982 (see the last post on Zork III) often eschews traditional puzzles in favor of important player choices that subvert the ethos of previous games. For example, in one scene, treasure is worthless. In fact, getting it will render the game unwinnable.

Cliff Ledge
This is a rock-strewn ledge near the base of a tall cliff. The bottom of the cliff is another fifteen feet below. You have little hope of climbing up the cliff face, but you might be able to scramble down from here (though it's doubtful you could return).
A long piece of rope is dangling down from the top of the cliff and is within your reach.
A large chest, closed and locked, is lying among the boulders.

>examine chest
The chest is closed.

>open chest
The chest is locked and cannot be opened.

>get it
Your load is too heavy.

At the edge of the cliff above you, a man appears. He looks down at you and speaks. "Hello, down there! You seem to have a problem. Maybe I can help you." He chuckles in an unsettling sort of way. "Perhaps if you tied that chest to the end of the rope I might be able to drag it up for you.  Then, I'll be more than happy to help you up!"  He laughs again.

>tie rope to chest
The chest is now tied to the rope.
The man above you looks pleased. "Now there's a good friend! Thank you very much, indeed!" He pulls on the rope and the chest is lifted to the top of the cliff and out of sight. With a short laugh, he disappears. "I'll be back in a short while!" are his last words.

Time passes...

Time passes...

Time passes...
A familiar voice calls down to you. "Are you still there?" he bellows with a coarse laugh. "Well, then, grab onto the rope and we'll see what we can do." The rope drops to within your reach.

>grab rope
You grab securely on to the rope.
The man starts to heave on the rope and within a few moments you arrive at the top of the cliff. The man removes the last few valuables from the chest and prepares to leave. "You've been a good sport! Here, take this, for whatever good it is! I can't see that I'll be needing one!" He hands you a plain wooden staff from the bottom of the chest and begins examining his valuables.
The chest, open and empty, is at your feet.

>kill man
(with the sword)
The man is taken by surprise and is hit with the sword. He grabs you and throws you to the ground, breaking the staff in the process, but you finish him off with a quick thrust to the chest. He dies, and disappears without ceremony in the usual style of the Great Underground Empire. His assorted valuables remain behind.

>examine valuables
I see nothing special about the pile of assorted valuables.

[Apologize for the long quote, but I feel that showing the scene in total is worthwhile.] That’s all the player can do with the “valuables.” They are so insignificant that they do not even warrant a description! The real prize is the “plain wooden staff.” Those who have been playing along or reading this series will recognize what a radical departure this scene is when compared with the usual Zorkian fare. There are no buttons to push, no keys to find, and no answers in violence. In both this and the cloak “puzzles” , the values of Zork are turned on their collective head in an affecting way.

A view of the scenic vista from Zork III, a torchlit cave near an underground lake. On a table, an image of shadowy figures worshipping before an altar is visible.
The scenic vista featuring a preview of “Zork IV” Retrieved from MoCAGH.

The Scenic Vista poses no ethical problems, but at least is in the spirit of a trilogy’s concluding chapter. A player can visit a locale from each of the Zork games, and can additionally visit a scene Zork IV (Enchanter). The puzzle, in effect, looks both backward and forward in a way that is both valedictory and salutatory.

Zork III, Part 2: Solving Inorganic Problems

The puzzles in the second part of Zork III, on the other hand, feel quite inorganic. It is hard, I think, to credibly place the Royal Puzzle on any map. It is entered via a hole in the floor of the Royal Museum. It is not clear how or why a famously stupid king would want a mensa-style brain teaser toy in the basement of his museum, nor will we players ever learn why an ancient lore book could be slid into a slot to open a fail state-inducing exit. The royal puzzle has no narrative elements. In fact, it isn’t even described in prose.

>push south wall
The wall slides forward and you follow it....
The architecture of this region is getting complex, so that further descriptions will be diagrams of the immediate vicinity in a 3x3 grid. The walls here are rock, but of two different types - sandstone and marble. The following notations will be used:

  .. = your position (middle of grid)
  MM  = marble wall
  SS  = sandstone wall
  ??  = unknown (blocked by walls)

Room in a Puzzle
      +MM    SS+
West  +MM ..   +  East
      +?? SS   +

Room in a Puzzle
      +   SS ??+
West  +   .. MM+  East
      +SS      +

Having only travelled a few rooms, we have nevertheless left behind the moody expanse of a fallen empire forever.

The other puzzle in the museum, a time travelling “Gold Machine,” at least belongs in a museum and is more readily associated with the Great Underground Empire. The machine is used to to steal one (and only one–here again Zork III penalizes greed) item from Lord Dimwit Flathead’s Crown Jewels. Not only are the jewels associated with the Great Underground Empire, but the Adventurer can use the machine to see and hear Flathead (the trip is fatal, I’m afraid) in person! So while the museum feels tonally off, the Gold Machine at least feels like part of the Zork universe. The Royal Puzzle, on the other hand, could be anywhere: a gas station, a coffee table, or perhaps a Myst clone.

As mentioned last time, the rest of the game was written in 1979. Whatever lessons Infocom may have learned over the course of authoring four other games (don’t forget the soon-to-be released Starcross!), they are not brought to bear in Zork III‘s faithful porting of the final remaining dregs of Dungeon (a final and more benign scrap would turn up in 1984’s Sorcerer). Here is the provenance of each puzzle in Zork III so far as I know (Note–I am not interested in analyzing the author, but I am interested in exploring the consequences of multiple authors. In this case the porting was so faithful that there was no editorial oversight that could unite the separate parts):

  • The amulet (lake bottom): Marc Blank, 1982
  • The key (beyond the dark room): Marc Blank, 1982
  • The staff (laughing man at the cliff): Marc Blank, 1982
  • The waybread (feeble man and secret door): Marc Blank, 1982
  • The cloak (hooded figure): Marc Blank, 1982
  • Flathead’s ring (gold machine): Marc Blank, 1982
  • Lore Book (Royal Puzzle): MIT gang (Daniels, Anderson, Blank, and Lebling), 1979
  • Get past the guardians (vial or big mirrored thingamajig): MIT gang, 1979
  • Enter the Treasury of Zork (empty, rotating prison aka burning ring of fire): MIT gang, 1979

[Note: I use the 1979 date because that was when the last official update to Dungeon was released. These puzzles were conceived earlier.]]
Whatever one’s take on the quality of Zork III and its varied moving parts, it must be admitted that there is a qualitative difference between its 1982 beginning and its 1979 ending. Proceeding, as the Adventurer must, to a hallway watched over by the Guardians of Zork (1979), he is confronted–not by a dastardly puzzle or cunning opponent, but by a failure of meaning–a practical demonstration of how and why text adventure games handle some scenarios poorly. I believe the academic term for this type of behavior is “telling on oneself.”

Inside Mirror
You are inside a rectangular box of wood whose structure is rather complicated. Four sides and the roof are filled in, and the floor is open.

As you face the side opposite the entrance, two short sides of carved and polished wood are to your left and right. The left panel is mahogany, the right pine. The wall you face is red on its left half and black on its right. On the entrance side, the wall is white opposite the red part of the wall it faces, and yellow opposite the black section. The painted walls are at least twice the length of the unpainted ones. The ceiling is painted blue.

In the floor is a stone channel about six inches wide and a foot deep. The channel is oriented in a north-south direction. In the exact center of the room the channel widens into a circular depression perhaps two feet wide. Incised in the stone around this area is a compass rose.

Running from one short wall to the other at about waist height is a wooden bar, carefully carved and drilled. This bar is pierced in two places. The first hole is in the center of the bar (and thus the center of the room). The second is at the left end of the room (as you face opposite the entrance). Through each hole runs a wooden pole.

The pole at the left end of the bar is short, extending about a foot above the bar, and ends in a hand grip. The pole has been dropped into the stone channel incised in the floor.

The long pole at the center of the bar extends from the ceiling through the bar to the circular area in the stone channel. This bottom end of the pole has a T-bar a bit less than two feet long attached to it, and on the T-bar is carved an arrow. The arrow and T-bar are pointing south.

Whew! It’s hard to guess why this contraption is just sitting there in the hallway. Perhaps it is an everyday part of the Dungeon Master’s commute? Do invited guests have to use it? Since the door beyond it is unbreakable, what purposes do the guardians serve at all? This hallway is as inorganic as the Royal Puzzle. I cannot think of a reason for it to be where it is, other than to stall the protagonist for fifteen minutes. The Adventurer, at this point, is “worthy.” What is there left to test?

The endgame is better suited to a discussion of tone and setting, so we’ll end the puzzle talk here. Zork III‘s greatest problem remains its bifurcated nature, which strips away the possibly of authorial or thematic unity. The new parts feature organic puzzles with thematic significance. The old puzzles, on the other hand, feel like they came out of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of game (and don’t get me wrong, those can be fun) because that really is where they came from.

Stay tuned for Gold Machine’s 10th 11th and final post about the Zork trilogy!

Next: Zork Is Dead. Long Live Zork.

2 thoughts on “Whose Zork Is It Anyway? The Steep Price of Authorial Ambiguity in Zork III

  1. As I commented recently on the previous post, I didn’t find the Royal Puzzle or the time-travel puzzle nearly as out of place tonally. Especially since they are introduced by the earthquake which opens up a long-buried set of chambers, sealed for centuries. (Definitely an Egyptian tomb theme reoccurring here.)

    The adventurer literally loots the past (a symbolic expansion of his metaphorical looting of the past in previous games), and takes away a book from a puzzle of knowledge. (The Zork world is certainly full of weird constructions made by weird hobbyists, and we can assume that someone other than Dimwit constructed this puzzle and dedicated it to the King.) In a sense, the Adventurer is asked to triumph over the past, prove his intelligence, and walk away with knowledge. Despire their origins, I always felt they fit in perfectly well.

    The Treasury of Zork is presented almost as an afterthought — what good is it? This is a theme starting with Adventure’s Repository, and continuing in several later Infocom games.

    The Guardians of Zork simply aren’t an effective text adventure puzzle, unsuitable for the medium, and perhaps your previous discussion from Zork II about idolatry applies (especially since they are stone idols!) — ported over because they were left from the mainframe Zork, where the right decision would have been to leave them out entirely. There is some indication that they felt compelled to use every puzzle from the mainframe Zork — the last one shows up in Sorcerer (and it actually is a good puzzle).

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