Zork II: A Critique of Idolatry Then and Now
This post spoils two puzzles in Zork II. Turn back if you want to try these “bad” puzzles for yourself!
There are two puzzles in Zork II that are widely considered the “worst” in the Infocom canon. Thanks to Graham Nelson’s widely-read “The Craft of the Adventure,” they have become totemic manifestations of craft failure. People who have never played Zork II have heard of these puzzles, violating as they do Nelson’s “Bill of Player’s Rights.” The infamous Bank of Zork puzzle is the shame-faced mascot of right number thirteen: “To be able to understand a problem once it is solved” (10). The universally reviled “baseball” puzzle has come to represent an oddly specific prohibition: “Not to need to be American” (11).
Sometimes, a piece of criticism is so elegantly reasonable that it comes to dominate discussions. This is often a positive thing. It can afford other writers new and interesting points of departure and revive what may have previously seemed exhausted lines of inquiry. In other unfortunate cases, a readership considers the “case closed.” The original criticism becomes such a commonplace that it will be mentioned, sometimes uncited, as if nothing more needs to be said. The spirit of the critique is lost, reduced to a prop or mantra, or perhaps to a ritual of critical dismissal. These are mistakes that readers can make; they are misunderstandings.
I find it curious that it is hard to locate something other than mechanical analysis of these puzzles. It may seem that, given their places of (dis)honor in a foundational work of IF criticism, there is no longer anything to say. I believe that there is a spirit of reverence that has interfered with both creation and interpretation of these puzzles. In other words, a kind of idolatry has been at work.
Case #1: Idolatry of Legacy (Internal)
The Bank of Zork is a location in Zork II. Not surprisingly, there are two things of value found within that can be given to the demon (see the last post for background). One, a painting of “J. Pierpoint Flathead,” is easily found hanging in the bank chairman’s office. The second, “200 neatly stacked zorkmid bills,” is harder to attain.
As the map suggests, the goal is to reach the inner vault. The thick line above the Safety Depository is a prominent feature and presumably central to a puzzle of some sort:
The northern "wall" of the room is a shimmering curtain of light.
The player, after some experimentation, is likely to “walk through curtain.” What happens next will depend upon the direction from which the player entered the Safety Depository.
- If the Adventurer enters from the West Teller’s room, he will wind up in the West Viewing Room.
- If he does so from the East Teller’s Room, then he will find him in the East Viewing Room.
- If he enters from the Chairman’s office, he will arrive in the Small Room.
- Finally, if he enters from the Small Room, then he will reach the vault and its prize, the Zorkmids.
While this seems fairly straightforward, there are a number of problems:
- There is no precedent for determining traversal outcomes based on point of entry, and there are not enough clues to signal this distinction to the player.
- The puzzle makes no in-game sense. A bank employee wouldn’t enter the chairman’s office whenever they needed to access the vault.
- There is no curtain of light in the safety depository, so there is no reason for the player to walk through an ordinary wall (the in-game rule has already been established that curtain of light=teleporter).
If anecdotal evidence is to believed, most players who got the bills didn’t understand how or why they did. They simply kept entering and exiting until they stumbled across the treasure. I’m one of those people, so I can confirm that, at least in my case, The Bank of Zork is clearly guilty of violating right number thirteen, here explained in detail by Nelson:
This may sound odd, but many problems are solved by accident or trial and error. A guard-post which can be passed if and only if you are carrying a spear, for instance, ought to indicate somehow that this is why you’re allowed past. (The most extreme example must be the notorious Bank of Zork, of which I’ve never even understood other people’s explanations.) (10)
And yes, one could leave it at that, call the Bank of Zork a failure of craft and move on. I would argue that this–especially in our age of readily available hints and solutions–is the least of its problems. Some sins are sins of philosophy rather than method.
The above video is worthwhile in its entirety, but beginning at the 35-minute mark Marc Blank and Dave Lebling each talk about the Bank of Zork puzzle. It begins with Blank attempting to explain what the puzzle is about (a failed attempt, I think). Lebling then talks about porting it. Lebling indicates that the game testers didn’t understand it, and then admits that he couldn’t explain it to them. He then led them to Blank, who couldn’t really explain it either. Even though the testers didn’t get it, the Bank of Zork Puzzle went in unchanged.
This is idolatry of legacy, and it is the chief shortcoming of Zorks II and III. On multiple occasions, obviously flawed parts of Dungeon were ported straight into the commercial releases. Even when legitimate concerns were raised, these areas and puzzles were left as-is. Was Dungeon a sacred text? Did Lebling feel he could not change another’s work (the same goes for Blank and Zork III)? For that matter: did anyone think the Carousel Room was fun in 1981?
The Bank of Zork is a low point for the Zork trilogy because everybody knew that it was bad as-is, and nobody did anything about it. I hereby find Infocom guilty of idolatry–Dungeon was certainly not above reproach as game or text. Behind most poor craft decisions is a philosophy (or its absence), and The Bank of Zork is no exception.
Case #2: Interpretive Idolatry (External)
I’ll get this out of the way: yes, the “Baseball” puzzle is bad, and it is bad in multiple senses. In the first sense, it does require specific cultural knowledge that is hard to uncover via simple research. Rather humorously, Nelson’s specific prohibition is against a player needing “to be an American.” Here is his more detailed elaboration:
The diamond maze in `Zork II’ being a case in point. Similarly, it’s polite to allow the player to type English or American spellings or idiom. For instance `Trinity’ endears itself to English players in that the soccer ball can be called “football” – soccer is a word almost never used in England. (11)
Without getting too far afield (heh), this is a complicated problem. I think that since most narratives are about people, cultural specificity is worthwhile and potentially enriching. In 2021, what I think players are really entitled to is a good, clean google search. If the information can be found easily, then it is fair play. In Zork II‘s case, however, it still doesn’t get a pass. Searching for “babe club,” for instance, returns results for a band called “Babe Club.” Still, given America’s hegemonic powers in the world, it might be both unwise and easy for American authors to assume that parts of their experiences are universal when they may not be.
But what of the puzzle? It consists of something that really looks like a maze. A number of rooms, identically described, without specified exits:
This is a room with oddly angled walls and passages in all directions. The walls are made of some glassy substance. On the floor is a very small diamond shaped window which is dimly glowing.
If the player moves in the correct direction, the “window” glows more brightly. However, the puzzle is hard to brute force because the correct moves must be made consecutively. One wrong turn and the Adventurer may need to begin again. Besides the diamond window, there is a clue that may or may not be helpful:
A long wooden club lies on the ground near the diamond-shaped window. The club is curiously burned at the thick end. >get club Taken. >examine it The words "Babe Flathead" are burned into the wood.
American players may (not everyone here likes baseball) intuit that this is a baseball bat featuring a reference to legendary home-run hitter Babe Ruth. It’s a baseball puzzle, and some players will realize that the bat is at home plate. Unfortunately, what comes next is a bit messy. The first question is: where is first base? If the player can deduce that it lies to the southeast, they can circle the “bases” and reach the exit. Some problems:
- The player approaches home plate from the pitcher’s mound, rather than from a dugout. Batters don’t begin at the pitcher’s mound, ever. This makes the starting direction of southeast nonsensical.
- The fact that most home plates face east is not some sort of widespread “American” knowledge. I would wager that most Americans do not know this. I myself suffered (I was more of a
soccerfootball player) through years of little league and never knew this.
- Pre-internet, where would someone have gotten this knowledge? Public library? Bookstore?
- Again, there are no clear indicators as to what a player should research in the first place if they don’t know baseball.
So. It’s a stinker, alright. But with that said, there really is a major difference between the Bank of Zork and the baseball puzzles, and it is philosophical in nature. If BoZ represents a sort of stubborn refusal to innovate, then the baseball puzzle is a noble–albeit failed–attempt to improve one of the worst elements of Zork I: its mazes. The oddly-angled rooms would prove to be the first of a long line of puzzles-disguised-as-mazes, a phenomenon that would prove to be one of Lebling’s standout contributions to the medium. From this initial failure would rise some of my favorite Infocom puzzles–the Unseen Horror from Enchanter, for instance. The baseball puzzle is a good move, poorly executed.
Perhaps we are occasionally guilty of interpretive idolatry, assuming that there is nothing left to consider beyond these puzzles’ isolate machinery. Because the mechanical is by its nature finite and concrete, it promises a sort of critical certainty rarely possible in textual analysis. Puzzles have clear boundaries and either “work” or do not. There is a mature notion of what is “fair” in a puzzle, and delineation of fairness is a worthwhile aim. However, good criticism is never a journey’s end. Rather, it is always a beginning. Considering player rights is a valid critical lens, not a critical preemption. Nor, I think, was it ever meant to be.
Zork II‘s Battle Between Infocom’s Past and Future
In the case of these two “worst puzzles” from Zork II, one reveals the truly unpleasant implications of authorial ambiguity–it is odd to see Lebling apologizing for the Bank of Zork, for instance. He didn’t write it, and it isn’t entirely clear whether he had the power to change it. There are numerous, smaller issues in Zork II that beg the question–why couldn’t this have been made better? The verb-guessing with the robot, for instance: why did that stay? Does the carousel room have any purpose beyond jerking people around? etc. Much has been said about the Bank of Zork, it’s hidden springs and catches, its inadequate hints, etc., but little has been said about what its presence in Zork II says about Infocom’s attitude toward Zork in 1981. More significant, there isn’t a lot of discussion about this attitude’s implications for Zork III.
The opposite is true for the baseball puzzle. There is no question of who “owned” the material. Lebling could do and did do as he wanted. It has serious mechanical issues, even if the player knows which direction baseball diamonds face. My young self knew instantly that the “maze” was a baseball diamond, but I couldn’t figure out where first base was. If I remember correctly, I thought that it would be to the northwest, since the “dugout” seemed to be to the east. Still: I believe that this is the best sort of failure, motivated as it was by a desire to improve upon a truly unpleasant part of Zork I. It is inevitable that artists make mistakes, but it is best that they make new ones. I for one would have been far more bothered by yet another “maze of twisty little passages.”
In the next post, I will hopefully tie up the many critical strands of Zork II: The Wizard as the last surviving member of a technocratic elite, the disruptive presence of the Adventurer, and the implications of a demonic bargain. Stay tuned for the conclusion of my assessment of Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz!