Zork II: Power, Specialization, and the Evolution of a Colonist

Do robes make the wizard? An attempt to distinguish between the different types of power in Zork II.

Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

Dave Lebling

While I will attempt to hide gameplay and puzzle spoilers, plot details are posted openly. Turn back if you wish to experience these things for yourself.

Manifestations of Power in Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz

A very detailed artist's interpretation of the game world of Zork II. All areas are featured. The view is as if at the map's ceter from a great height. All radiates outward from the Carousel Room.
A simply gorgeous fan-made map of Zork II sold by the Zork User’s Group. I don’t know the name of the artist. Let me know if you know so I can credit them. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

If the life-threatening darkness of Zork I is the barren ruin of a colonial failure, then what is to be said of Zork II‘s darkness? It is deeper, and this time there is no white house, no nostalgic return to the comforts of colonial infrastructure. There is no cellar door, no natural light. There is, in other words, no returning home.

The failed power of Zork I‘s landscape is the depleted power of an occupying force. It is physical, made manifest by wealth, and is ultimately sacrificed to an invisible, supervising–and perhaps panoptical–authority. The power at work in Zork II is twofold. In its first instance, it is the artificial complexity of hegemonic specialization (stick with me, I promise to explain). In its second instance, it is this power’s failure to constrain the demonic, physical potency of an (underworldly) underclass.

The Wizard and the Verticalized Knowledge of a Specialist Class in Zork II

As has already been said, the Wizard demonstrates no special magical powers of his own. He merely possesses expedient objects. These, as Lebling might say, are indistinguishable from technology. The Adventurer, thief and disruptive New Man, has no apparent problems using the same technologies. He can summon a demon and wield a wand just as easily as the Wizard can. “New Man” has meant many things over the years, but here it is simply meant as a designator of class status and ambition.

A drawing of a Wizard's "convention" as pictured in the Zork Users Group hintbook. Sever people in robes and pointy hats with stars and moons on them sit at a wooden table.
A crack team of “specialists” as imagined by the Zork User’s Group. Courtesy of MoCAGH.

The truth is that “Wizard” is a title conferred by a now-fallen colonial bureaucracy. It is the job title of someone who has access to specialized technologies. As the manual states, “The Wizard, formerly the personal sorcerer of Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive, still rules the cavern with an iron (though somewhat absent-minded) will.” He wears a uniform denoting his status (clichéd robes, pointy hat, and long, grey beard), and therefore looks like someone who might wield considerable magical power. This is a case in which knowledge otherwise useful to the general populace–the use of magic technology–has been verticalized.

Verticalization is a phenomenon described by Antonio Gramsci in which a state educational bureaucracy has created specialists set apart from the more familiar discourse of intellectual communities (143. Sorry if this is murky. Unfortunately Gramsci does a much better job of explaining “horizontal” intellectuals). Specialization and verticalization serve two ends. The first is that the presence of such specialists reinforces the idea that certain types of knowledge are remote and unapproachable. The second and more concrete benefit of a specialist class is that their knowledge serves to advance the state and enrich its prestige and production. In the Great Underground Empire, technologies usable by practically anyone have become, by creation of a specialist class of so-called wizards, shrouded in arcane mystery. By virtue of both a state-conferred title and a wizard-like appearance, this antagonist is a quote-unquote “Wizard,” not an actual wizard.

Like the Thief, the Wizard of Frobozz is this game’s lone survivor of a vast colonial empire. Stripped of his authority of office, he is left with his rather convincing “wizard” costume and a magic wand. He has no apparent power to meaningfully deter the Adventurer, and he lacks either the presence of mind or power to “filch” (a spell that does exactly what it sounds like it does) or else destroy the three spheres that the Adventurer uses to summon the demon. Therefore, despite his tendency to irritate, there is something poignant about his ineffectual bumbling. This poignancy is a trait that he shares with the Thief (for different reasons), who was at least able to reinvent himself (albeit in a debased way).

He is a fallen technocrat, then, whose authority is one conferred by a specialist’s knowledge as previously recognized by the state. To the extent that he rules or has ruled, he has done so via external–never internal–structures and forces. When confronted by a creature of the previously colonized darkness–a demon–he cowers. The bureaucratic structure that once lifted him above his colonized subjects is gone, and his sham powers fail him. When the demon retrieves his wand, he is reduced to an old man in a silly outfit:

>demon, give me the wand
"I hear and obey!" says the demon. He stretches out an enormous hand towards the wand. The Wizard is unsure what to do, pointing it threateningly at the demon, then at you. "Fudge!" he cries, but aside from a strong odor of chocolate in the air, there is no effect. The demon plucks the wand out of his hand (it's about toothpick-size to him) and gingerly lays it before you. He fades into the smoke, which disperses. The wizard runs from the room in terror.

Demonic Power and Colonial Resentment

What of the Demon? What is the source of its power? When the Adventurer first encounters it, it is imprisoned in one of the Wizard’s knick-knacks, a black sphere filled with mist:

>look into sphere
As you peer into the sphere, a strange vision takes shape...a huge and fearful face with yellow eyes. The face peers out at you expectantly.

In this moment, the Adventurer is the most powerful being in Frobozz, capable as he is of binding a demon to his service. This demon is a physical embodiment of the once-colonized darkness, imprisoned by a technocratic bureaucracy. In freeing it, the Adventurer demonstrates that he will serve a colonial overseer when it suits him, but he will just as willingly depose one if he stands to gain.

A black and white drawing of a fearsome demon's head. It has fangs, tusks, compound eyes, and both horns and antennae on its head. It looks like a mix between a dragon and an insect. It is a picture from a Zork choose your own adventure book.
This not the demon your’re looking for: the demon of “infinite loops” as depicted in Steve Meretzky’s Conquest of Quendor. Courtesy of the Zork Library.

This demon, who is one half of an organic vs. synthetic power dynamic shared with the Wizard, is not a being of pure chaos. In fact, it has set rules that define its actions and role. In being freed, it must heed the adventurer. To leave the pentagram, it must fulfil the Adventurer’s request. To grant the Adventurer a boon, it must be paid. These are inviolate laws, and it really does seem that the Wizard is the demon’s opposite number, obliged as it is to some invisible bureaucracy. As above, so below.

Suddenly the Wizard materializes in the room. He is astonished by what he sees: his servant in deep conversation with a common adventurer! He draws forth his wand, waves it frantically, and incants "Frobizz! Frobozzle! Frobnoid!" The demon laughs heartily. "You no longer control the Black Crystal, hedge-wizard! Your wand is powerless! Your doom is sealed!" The demon turns to you, expectantly.

The demonic bargain also serves as a contrast to Zork I‘s treasure hunt. There, the Treasures of Zork are carried from the colonized darkness into the “light” above ground. In Zork II, the treasures are given over to the demon, essentially transported from darkness to a greater darkness.

It is worth noting that, in the Zork trilogy’s pageant of fallen colonial grandeur, the narrative is ultimately sympathetic to the colonizers and never to the colonized. The Wizard is at least human and a recognizable kind of human at that. His opposite number, the demon, is an “it,” with all that this pronoun implies. It is an inhuman thing, a monstrosity, and an embodiment of the resentment of all colonial subjects. Its face is “horrible,” it grins “vilely.” The Wizard is not ultimately undone by the Adventurer. Rather, his fate is sealed because he has failed to keep this colonized subject under his thumb.

The Adventurer as New Man and Disruptor

Has Zork I‘s Marlowe turned Kurtz? Perhaps. I would rather liken him to a opportunistic hunter, a jackal scavenging a liminal territory that has been colonized and yet is not a colony. He is in one moment a valet for a panoptical colonial authority, and in the next he is the liberator of an imprisoned embodiment of anti-colonial rage. The Adventurer is loyal to no one and, it would seem, believes in nothing. The Adventurer’s receivership of the wand is a potentially democratizing moment: this simple technology could be lifechanging in the hands of the general populace. He could turn back, climb the stairs, push through the thick forest, and play the role of a sort of revolutionary Prometheus bringing magic to his society’s working class. The truth is, he doesn’t care about his hometown, thieves, wizards, or even demons. He is a profiteer.

A black and white drawing of a silhouette walking down a curving part through a deep canyon. Perhaps it is the Adventurer walking into the world of Zork III.
The Adventurer, possibly making his way toward Zork III. Courtesy of MoCAGH.

Despite his apparent poverty (he arrived at the white house empty-handed), the Adventurer is able through force of will and natural talent to encroach upon the domains (both physical and social) of a privileged class. While both the thief and the Adventurer are in their own ways colonizers, they are obviously not social equals. Whatever the Adventurer may be, he is certainly not a “gentleman,” much less a Cassius. His successes in Zork I are therefore an odd mixture of revolution and genuflection.

In Zork II, the Adventurer again encroaches upon the domain of his social “betters.” In fact, it is a more brazen intrusion, for the Wizard at least retains his title and robes of office. By contrast, the thief’s specific place in the colonial hierarchy is never clear. In a sense, the Adventurer triumphs in Zork II because he is willing to do the socially unthinkable: invite the help to a party.

As New Man, the Adventurer is free to act as the Wizard, Demon, and Thief cannot. They are bound by invisible laws, by custom, and by their rigid roles. The thief cannot placate his colonial overseers by carrying the treasures into the light. The Wizard cannot turn the tables by gathering the treasures and delivering them to the Demon himself. The Demon, once freed, remains a prisoner: it cannot strike back at the Wizard until a bargain has been struck. In other words, the Demon can never act, it can only transact.

The Adventurer, on the other hand, is free to go anywhere, do anything. He owes no allegiances, has no reputation to uphold, and has no wealth to protect. Such is the freedom of the New Man: he can do whatever his conscience allows. However, it is a bit like the old Bob Dylan song: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” How honest is the Adventurer? Does he ever say enough for us to know? Is it possible, yet, to know why he does anything?

The End and Aim of Zork II

The thief from Zork I stalks the Adventurer. He holds his customary bag, wears a dark coat that reaches beyond his waist. Neither the Adventurer's nor the Thief's face is shown.
Looking back at the Adventurer and the Thief. Cropped from the Zork Users Group poster. Courtesy of MoCAGH.

There is a certain distance between the player and the narrator of Zork. While we players control the Adventurer, we never know what he thinks or wants. His motives can be guessed at, but are never certain. Until the invisible voice of Zork I speaks, there is no way of knowing why the Adventurer would want to fill someone else’s trophy case with priceless treasures. It may be clear that the Adventurer must confront Zork II‘s Wizard, but it isn’t obvious why. Upon dying, it is certain that the demon must be freed, but it isn’t clear what that will achieve.

For all the apparent fun and power it promises, the wand is ultimately only good for a few things. If the lamp is running out of batteries, an item can be fluoresced (caused to act as a light source). The scent of fudge can be conjured at will. As a player will discover, the main function of the wand is to lift a “menhir.” Google’s rather comprehensive spellcheck cannot even recognize this word. Perhaps the use of this obscure noun implies a final toppling of the Wizard’s verticalized knowledge. Beyond this great stone lies not a final exit but a dog’s collar. Zork II‘s penultimate act is to being the realm’s last remaining colonial subject–yet another beast–to literal heel.

In other words, the apparent aim of Zork II is to collar a colonized monstrosity, turn out the lights, and willingly brave Zork‘s ultimate danger: the unknown, the unmappable, the uncivilized dark. Only there can the final exit be seen. It is a moment that reflects the Adventurer’s growing mastery of this (un)colonized space. Perhaps, at Zork II‘s conclusion, he is at last the supervising authority’s equal, (d)evolving as he has from lowborn thief to de-verticalized wizard to colonizing power in his own right:

It is dark, but on the south wall is a faint outline of a rectangle, as though light were shining around a doorway. You can also make out a faintly glowing letter in the center of this area. It might be an "F".

>open secret door
The secret door opens noiselessly.

Beyond the door is a roughly hewn staircase leading down into darkness. The landing on which you stand is covered with carefully drawn magical runes like those sketched upon the workbench of the Wizard of Frobozz. These have been overlaid with sweeping green lines of enormous power, which undulate back and forth across the landing. The wand begins to vibrate in harmony with the motion of the lines. You feel yourself compelled downward, and you yield, stepping onto the staircase. As you pass the green lines, they flare and disappear with a burst of light, and you tumble down the staircase!

At the bottom, a vast red-lit hall stretches off into the distance. Sinister statues guard the entrance to a dimly visible room far ahead. With courage and cunning you have conquered the Wizard of Frobozz and become the master of his domain, but the final challenge awaits!

(The ultimate adventure concludes in "Zork III: The Dungeon Master".)

Your score would be 400 (total of 400 points), in 845 moves.
This score gives you the rank of Master Adventurer.

The Adventurer is a “master” in multiple senses now, on his way to confront a fellow master. This New Man has made his way from the Maze’s mailroom to the Crypt’s boardroom. Perhaps his freedom and apparent amorality uniquely qualify him as neither Thief nor Wizard but as colonist par excellence. Zork III will be our last chance to know, and that inquiry deserves several posts of its own.

Regrets: I wish there were time and context to talk about the princess. Perhaps one day I’ll write something about gender in the Zork universe.

Since this project evaluates games in chronological order of release, we must ourselves defer the satisfaction of a completed study of the Zork trilogy. Instead, we will travel to a temporally and geographically ambiguous Connecticut, where a clinically depressed industrialist has taken his own life, or so it would seem. Marc Blank’s Deadline is a thorny knot of lies, gender politics, representation, and prejudice against the mentally ill. This is Reagan’s America, after all. It’s Infocom’s first–and frequently brilliant–mystery story. Please join the forthcoming discussion of Deadline (1981)!

A magazine advertisement
Advertisement for Deadline, Infocom’s first mystery. Retrieved from Z-Machine Matter.

8 thoughts on “Zork II: Power, Specialization, and the Evolution of a Colonist

  1. “Regrets: I wish there were time and context to talk about the princess. Perhaps one day I’ll write something about gender in the Zork universe.”

    For course there is time! It’s your blog, you can do what you like. (And plenty of us will be happy to read it.)

  2. I believe the most damaging thing the Wizard can do to you is the “Fluoresce” spell. If I understand it correctly, he will use this on you if your lamp has run out, you’re in a dark place, and if you have more than 200 points. Since you need darkness to solve the final puzzle, I think this actually makes the game unwinnable. But I don’t know if that counts as malice on his part.

    One thing I’ve always liked is that there are actually a couple of things you can ask the demon (referred to in the source code as “GENIE”) to do for you. Even if most of them are red herrings:

    The two useful things you can ask him to do are either to give the wand to you, or to kill the Wizard. The only difference, I guess, is what it says about your character. It’s unclear if the Wizard actually dies, because I think he can still taunt you in the diamond maze.

    You can ask him to move or take the menhir, or give it to you. The results are similar. You will be able to get the collar, but you won’t be able to finish the game since you need the wand at the end. (I seem to recall there are some bugs surrounding how the menhir is described in its various states, but I don’t remember the details.)

    You can ask him to take the wand. He will use it to free himself, so it’s not a good idea.

    You can ask him to take an object, or give an object to you. In either case, the result depends on whether or not the object can be picked up.

    You can ask him to kill you (obviously a bad idea), or to kill Cerberus (he’ll try, but won’t be able to).

    There are signs that you should be able to ask the demon to smash or open the Wizard’s trophy case, presumably to get back any treasures he may have filched from you. (“The demon smashes the case into smithereens. Everything in it smashes as well.”) But I was never able to get that to work.

    Finally, I think it’s a neat touch that for most of the game the SCORE command will tell you that your ranking is something with “Adventurer”. But by the time you get the Wizard’s wand (at least assuming the Wizard didn’t filch any of your treasures) your ranking should be “Wizard” for most of the rest of the game. (And indeed, you can try several of the Wizard’s spells once you have the wand and they will work to some extent.)

    By the way, since I’m not a native English speaker it never occurred to me that “menhir” was an obscure noun. Apparently reading Asterix comic books is educational!

    1. Thanks for all the detail. Love it!

      The fluoresce thing really is awful. Cruel, even.

      I always wondered about the baseball maze. Even alive I’m not sure how he could, mechanically, cast his voice into the maze. “Fool! You’ll never get past (first)/(second)/(third)/(home) base at this rate!” And why would he be mirthful? Maybe it was a last minute addition based on tester feedback?

      “Menhir” may be more common on the other side of the Atlantic where there are standing stones and the like.

  3. Fascinating behind-the-scenes peeks, Torbjörn. This bit doesn’t quite make sense, though:

    There are signs that you should be able to ask the demon to smash or open the Wizard’s trophy case, presumably to get back any treasures he may have filched from you. (“The demon smashes the case into smithereens. Everything in it smashes as well.”) But I was never able to get that to work.”

    Surely you wouldn’t have been able to get the demon to the stage where you ask him for a favour unless you had all the treasures and have given them all to him.

  4. Apparently treasures that are stolen from you (by the Filch spell or when you are killed) end up in the Wizard’s trophy case. The number of treasures you have to give to the demon is 10, minus the number of treasures in the trophy case. So in this respect, the game is surprisingly forgiving!

    Once you have the wand, you should be able to steal back any treasures from the trophy case though I don’t think you have any reason to do so.

    (The InvisiClues mention both of these under “How do I satisfy the demon?” and “Can I open the Wizard’s trophy case?”)

    But it’s been a long time since I tried verifying any of this myself so I’m only fairly certain that it works as described.

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