Zork II: A Thief, a Technocrat, and a Demon Walk Into a Cave

Zork II was the best of Zork. It was the worst of Zork. A critical introduction.

Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981)
Implemented by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling

Packaging and Documentation

MoCAGH exhibit: Zork II folio/blister pack
MoCAGH exhibit: Zork II grey box format
For all MoCAGH exhibits, open images in new tab for best results
Infocom Documentation Project: Invisiclues map
Infocom Documentation Project: Z-code Invisiclues (read with an interpreter program)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Zork II

Zork II: Specifications

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 86 (110)
Vocabulary: 684 (697)
Takeable Objects: 50 (60)
Size: 89 KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 15760 (14360)

Opening Crawl–Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz

ZORK II: The Wizard of Frobozz
Copyright (c) 1981, 1982, 1983 Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
ZORK is a registered trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Version 48 / Serial number 840904

Inside the Barrow
You are inside an ancient barrow hidden deep within a dark forest. The barrow opens into a narrow tunnel at its southern end. You can see a faint glow at the far end.
A strangely familiar brass lantern is lying on the ground.
A sword of Elvish workmanship is on the ground.

Zork II: A Critical Introduction

A portion of the Zork II map published by Witt's Notes. It is hand drawn with a key added via typewriter. It depicts the southern reaches of the game world.
Crop from Witt’s Notes map. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

While initial sales of the TRS-80 “barbarian Zork” (1980) did not yet indicate that Zork I would become a sales juggernaut that would linger in the Softalk Top Thirty for years, Infocom was confident enough to begin work on Zork II right away. More accurately, Dave Lebling got to work right away. While the entire Zork trilogy is credited to Lebling and Marc Blank, the Zork games strike me as a sort of Lennon-McCartney affair. While they worked together, most songs are primarily authored by one or the other. With regard to Zork I, we know that Blank (and Joel Berez) designed the technology for the port while Lebling carved out the map. Since Zork I is almost entirely ported material, we know that it was originally written by Bruce Daniels, Tim Anderson, and Blank-Lebling.

A photo of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank (the authors of Zork II) in tuxedos. Both are smiling. Marc is perhaps a head taller than Lebling.
Dave Lebling (left) and Marc Blank (right) pictured with former Infocom employee Pat Maroni in 1985. Retrieved from Wired.

This murky provenance applies to a little more than half of Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz. The rest, we know, is the work of Dave Lebling. Since he was responsible for the port as well, Zork II as a finished product is his creation. I would argue that it is as much a Blank-Lebling game as “Come Together” is a Lennon-McCartney song. Blank, meanwhile, was busy with Deadline–Infocom’s first decidedly non-Zorkian game. It would be released later in the same year as Zork II: 1981.

If Zork II has problems, authorial ambiguity is their chief cause. Zork I‘s consistently incoherent geography ironically results in a sort of unity. Zork II, by comparison, is a game that occasionally argues with itself. If an overt sense of narrative purpose is better than none, then Lebling’s additions make Zork II better than Zork I. The worst parts of Zork II are bad bits from Dungeon that have been ported, whole cloth, without apparent reflection or efforts to improve.

Lebling’s additions include the titular “wizard” and a demon with an awful sort of charisma. I put wizard in quotes because he really isn’t a wizard at all. He is never seen to wield magic via his own power. Instead, he brandishes a gadget (a wand) that may as well be a raygun with a large dial on it. When the Adventurer attains this doodad for himself, he proves that the only difference between a thief and a wizard is access to the right technology.

An drawing of a horned demon with large, clawed hands. His body is narrow and shaped in a z-like black shape that may be smoke. Retrieved from the Zork Users Group map of Zork II.
The demon as imagined by the Zork Users Group. Retrieved from Launchbox.

Lebling’s second added character, the Demon, is a scene-dominating entity of bona-fide magical prowess. He is the primary source of Zork II‘s meagre story. The beginning of the game focuses on freeing him via magic (technology) that, again, requires that the Adventurer possess no magical powers of his own. This is, of course, a treasure hunt of a sort. The demon then sends the Adventurer on a proper treasure hunt with Zork I style treasures, requiring a tribute before he will provide a service to the protagonist.

On its surface Zork II has objectives similar to Zork I, but what a difference a little context makes! Once again, a Zork game is focused on wealth as an opportunity for transaction rather than financial betterment of a personal sort. In this case, though, the Adventurer makes his appeal to a demonic and physically present entity, an ironically-positioned benefactor. The “credit” that the adventurer seeks is no longer abstract and possibly metaphysical. Rather, it comes from a corporeal embodiment of power itself.

There remains much to say about the Wizard, an aging technocrat of fading proficiency. The Adventurer, a self-made man of no specific education, must depose and replace him just as he once overcame the thief. His seizure and subsequent mastery of an elite’s technological advantages is a simultaneously democratizing and exceptionalizing act.

A black-robed wizard with goblin-like facial features stands over two children. One of his hands is bathed in magical fire. He seems significantly more dangerous than the Wizard from Zork II.
“I’m sorry Adventurer, but the Wizard is in another cave”: a Wizard as pictured in Zork: The Malifestro Quest by Steve Meretzky. Retrieved from the Zork Library.

In this series of posts, I will next discuss the packaging and plot of Zork II in detail. An exploration of Zork II‘s “worst puzzles” will follow. Finally, I will examine the implications of Zork II‘s story of self-invention, the verticalized knowledge of a specialized elite, and, of course, the implications of a demonic transaction. Alternately, how a relative nobody–a thief–conspired with a demon to take a wizard’s stuff.

Along the way, I’ll keep focusing on the tension between the ambiguous authorship of the original Dungeon and the distinct voice of Dave Lebling. With Zork II, I believe it is clear that Lebling has evolved as an author of interactive fiction. There are obvious efforts to improve upon the original Zork. Even when the attempts fail, there are apparent indicators of thoughtfulness about ways IF could be more fun and interesting.

I recognize that some of this might come off as high-flying nonsense, but I promise (hope) to tie it all together! Please stick around until next time, when I’ll examine packaging and dive into the details of the plot of Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz.

Further Reading

Jimmy Maher, “Zork II, Part 1.”
Jimmy Maher, “Zork II, Part 2.”

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