Zork Is Dead. Long Live Zork.

You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling: The Bungled Ambiance of Zork III, Part 1

In this eleven-part essay about the Zork trilogy, I’ve tried to reveal the cultural underpinnings of early adventure games as they emerge from Zork. Upon close examination, there are fascinating undercurrents everywhere: the inherently exploitational nature of treasure hunting in “strange” territory, the implications of the Great Underground Empire as a failed colonial project, and the effects of supervisory power and control.

To me, Zork is fascinating because there is tremendous friction between the wisecracks, ridiculous lore, and the emptiness of a fallen colonial enterprise. These ruins must be haunted by the murdered and exploited. They must have been the site of extreme misery and degradation. And because those realities are subsumed within Zork‘s silliness, I believe Zork to be art. It misdirects. It makes the protagonist/player complicit: a murderous privateer, joking all the while.

The now-familiar drawing of Zork I's thief. A featureless outline of a man in motion, perhaps running or sneaking, holding a knife and a bag.
Our old mentor, Zork I‘s thief. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Organicism within Zork emerged from the chaos within Dungeon. Zork I‘s map often felt like an amusement park, a loose bag of puzzles with rare moments of geographical continuity. The river area, stretching from the reservoir to the waterfall, is one such area, as is the forest. Even so, the simple fact that Zork I was smaller than Dungeon made the map feel more credible. Thanks to the few unified areas and some lucky coincidences, the Zork I game world hinted at the possibility of increasingly organic landscapes.

Zork II continued this process of evolution. If the map was not completely unified, there were still more areas that were organized around themes or concepts. These include the lava tube, the Alice area, the garden, and, best of all, the Wizard’s area (which was written in 1981). Infocom was able to further hone its approach to organic design with Deadline, a credible simulation of a real-world setting.

Zork III, for the first 200 moves or so, feels like a culmination of all that has come before. For the first time, a single Implementor was free to create a large amount of contiguous space for a Zork game. I believe this new area was at the time the most overtly artistic material in an Infocom title, and it must have had few–if any–rivals beyond the walls of Infocom. Its world feels so believably tired and spent. After two games of wisecracks, the Adventurer finally feels the full weight of failed civilization in total: neither colonists nor colonized remain.

In this spirit, Zork III dedicates a full EIGHT rooms to the Land of Shadow. The repeated yet slightly rephrased room descriptions might suggest the beginnings of a maze, but that is not the area’s function (the game’s only maze is stuck back in 1979). Rather, these repetitions evoke feelings of futility and isolation. When the Adventurer begins to hear a stalker’s footsteps, the moment is unlike any violent confrontation from the other Zorks. The Adventurer is unarmed (the sword is elsewhere) and seemingly unable to defend himself:

Land of Shadow
You are in an ominously dark land of rolling hills. The ground becomes softer to the south.
You can hear quiet footsteps nearby.

This is the leadup to the “shadowy figure” confrontation that has been described in a previous post. It is a very effective way to use location and sensory information to prepare the player for danger.

A drawing of the hooded figure standing with a sword in Zork III's Land of Shadow. He stands on flat, dismal ground with low hills in the background. He is almost entirely shrouded in darkness, and his face is not visible.
Zork III‘s Shadowy Figure. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Elsewhere, the sight of the Flathead Ocean, both dreary and thrilling, is the site of one of my favorite Easter Eggs from any game (I’ve read that it is unreasonable to expect a player to wait for the sailor, but I don’t know why Easter Eggs would be owed to anyone on demand). After two games, the player finally gets to say “Hello, Sailor” productively!

Flathead Ocean
You are at the shore of an amazing underground sea, the topic of many a legend among adventurers. Few were known to have arrived at this spot, and fewer to return. There is a heavy surf and a breeze is blowing on-shore. The land rises steeply to the east and quicksand prevents movement to the south. A thick mist covers the ocean and extends over the hills to the east.  A path heads north along the beach.
Passing alongside the shore now is an old boat, reminiscent of an ancient Viking ship. Standing on the prow of the ship is an old and crusty sailor, peering out over the misty ocean.

>hello, sailor
The seaman looks up and maneuvers the boat toward shore. He cries out "I have waited three ages for someone to say those words and save me from sailing this endless ocean. Please accept this gift. You may find it useful!" He throws something which falls near you in the sand, then sails off toward the west, singing a lively, but somewhat uncouth, sailor song.

This silly moment is just one way that Zork III (in its best parts, anyway) attempts to unify Infocom’s past and future.

Elsewhere, there is the view from the aqueduct, the site of a singular event in Zork‘s narrative:

Aqueduct View
This is a small balcony carved into a near-vertical cliff. To the east, stretching from north to south, stands a monumental aqueduct supported by mighty stone pillars, some of which are starting to crumble from age. You feel a sense of loss and sadness as you ponder this once-proud structure and the failure of the Empire which created this and other engineering marvels. Some stone steps lead up to the northwest.

In one of his own pieces about Zork III, Jimmy Maher writes that this passage is “one of the few stumbles in this otherwise elegantly written game.” I get it: “show, don’t tell” is probably the phrase I heard most often while getting an MFA. However, I think it’s a mistake to assume that we players are the “you” being addressed. We are not being told how to feel. Rather, for the first time (correct me if you can think of something previous), we are told what the ADVENTURER feels. After two full games of wondering, shouldn’t we take what we can get?

This area, filled as it is with mournful grandeur, is a rare opportunity to consider the Adventurer’s emotional state, and wonder whether he has been changed by his journey.

A drawing of a ship on the Flathead Ocean (from Zork III). A mist hangs over the water, so it is not possible to see far beyond the impressive galley ship in the foreground. It has a black and white sail, as well as many oars. At the prow is a gargoyle's head.
Hello, Sailor: A rare sighting from the shore of the Flathead Ocean. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling: The Bungled Ambiance of Zork III, Part 2

If the Adventurer has felt that Zork III was a time for putting away childish things, he must eventually enter the Royal Museum, where he will pick them up again. The game’s problems begin as the Adventurer approaches it. It is hard to imagine, for instance, Lord Dimwit Flathead and his massive retinue passing through rooms like “Creepy Crawl” and “Tight Squeeze” to reach the museum (let alone the museum’s construction crew and equipment).

The museum, in other words, seems rather proud of its inorganicism. It is impossible to believe its location on the map, even if one can believe it exists. Unlike the world beyond its door, the museum seems clean, well-lit, and structurally sound. Even though there are two dilapidated machines and a plaque that show signs of age, the place lacks the enervated ambiance of the rest of Zork III.

The Adventurer then passes into another area, where he must get past the Guardians of Zork. Like the museum, this hallway is well-lit and in good repair. The mirror box, too, is in fine shape despite the years. This room, only lightly described, is also unlike anything before the museum.

The ambiance of the endgame is strangest of all. First, the Dungeon master offers a bit of congratulatory speech which features the game’s lone attempt to pass off the Royal Puzzle as a coherent part of Zork III:

The knock reverberates along the hall. For a time it seems there will be no answer. Then you hear someone unlatching the small panel. Through the bars of the great door, the wrinkled face of an old man appears. He starts to smile broadly and opens the massive door without a sound. The old man motions and you feel yourself drawn toward him.
"I am the Master of the Dungeon!" he booms. "I have been watching you closely during your journey through the Great Underground Empire. Yes!," he says, as if recalling some almost forgotten time, "we have met before, although I may not appear as I did then." You look closely into his deeply lined face and see the faces of the old man by the secret door, your "friend" at the cliff, and the hooded figure. "You have shown kindness to the old man, and compassion toward the hooded one. You displayed patience in the puzzle and trust at the cliff. You have demonstrated strength, ingenuity, and valor. However, one final test awaits you. Now! Command me as you will, and complete your quest!"

The Royal Puzzle, it seems, was a test of patience. I will resist the urge to comment further.

The game’s final puzzle takes place at a sort of promontory above a bottomless pit of fire. There is a parapet with a dial and a button, as well as a sort of carceral lazy susan: turning the dial selects one of eight prison cells, and pushing the button brings the cell to a door. The puzzle is solved by entering a specific cell then moving it to another position. This last part, moving the cell, is accomplished by bossing the Dungeon Master around like a valet.

This area, also from 1979, doesn’t fit neatly on the map. In fact, it looks like an illustration from a first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook. There’s no indication that the Dungeon Master lives above a pit of fire and no reason why he would, nor is there a transitional area to suggest that this area would lie ahead. For the bulk of the game, he just doesn’t seem like a bottomless, flaming pit sort of guy. Finally, it is not at all clear how fiddling about with jail cells might be the Adventurer’s final test of worthiness. Worthy or not, the Adventurer reaches the end of the game. Is this really the “this” that “it” all comes down to?

Treasury of Zork
This is a large room, richly appointed in a style that bespeaks exquisite taste. To judge from its contents, it is the ultimate storehouse of the wealth of the Great Underground Empire.

There are chests containing precious jewels, mountains of zorkmids, rare paintings, ancient statuary, and beguiling curios.

On one wall is an annotated map of the Empire, showing the locations of various troves of treasure, and of many superior scenic views.

On a desk at the far end of the room are stock certificates representing a controlling interest in FrobozzCo International, the multinational conglomerate and parent company of the Frobozz Magic Boat Co., etc.

As you examine your new-found riches, the Dungeon Master materializes beside you, and says, "Now that you have solved all the mysteries of the Dungeon, it is time for you to assume your rightly earned place in the scheme of things. Long have I waited for one capable of releasing me from my burden!" He taps you lightly on the head with his staff, mumbling a few well-chosen spells, and you feel yourself changing, growing older and more stooped. For a moment there are two identical mages standing among the treasure, then your counterpart dissolves into a mist and disappears, a sardonic grin on his face.

For a moment you are relieved, safe in the knowledge that you have at last completed your quest in ZORK. You begin to feel the vast powers and lore at your command and thirst for an opportunity to use them.

This ending, which is nearly identical to the conclusion of Dungeon (I believe one sentence was excised while another was added) is the final and greatest misstep. After repeatedly questioning the value of treasure–a very subversive turn–Zork III closes by parroting an old game’s full-throated celebration of wealth. The Adventurer’s physical transformation may have had some actual heat in 1979, when it must have been seen as a meditation on the price of power. Unfortunately, since we’ve seen the Dungeon Master gallivanting around as various younger, more agile, and straight-backed men throughout Zork III, it’s hard to to take this consequence seriously. The ending of Zork III: The Dungeon Master is weightless, contradictory, and a betrayal of its own values (aesthetic and otherwise).

Remembering the Zork Trilogy

The final puzzle of Zork III is pictured: a dial with settings from 1-8 with a button in the center. To the right is a wooden door. Behind the dial is a pit of fire.
The Zork trilogy’s final and culminating contraption. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

As previously implied, Zork III fails because of a lack of authorial commitment. It really doesn’t matter who that author might have been or what they would have intended. The problem is that there was no effort to realize a single vision for Zork III. Infocom could not resist its inexplicable desire to use every single puzzle and location from Dungeon–no matter the quality or relevance. Moreover, there was no observable effort to reconcile these parts to the rest of the game.

Zork III isn’t even the first time this problem occurred. Some readers may remember an earlier discussion of the “Bank of Zork” puzzle, a straight cut/paste job that went in unchanged despite concerns that arose during testing. These decisions remain baffling, given that both Zork II and Zork III clearly indicated evolving aesthetic sensibilities. Zork III is, therefore, is guilty of what I once called “idolatry of legacy.” There is no artistic value in cramming juvenilia where it doesn’t fit. Zork I benefits, ironically, from being completely recycled from old material. That’s a sort of consistency, too.

Having now written all of this: I feel I should now confess that Zork III is still my favorite of the lot. The 1982 parts of it were Infocom’s best writing to-date, and they courageously assert that we can and should expect more out of our digital entertainments.

Despite their flubbed conclusion, The Zork games remain important texts. They are historic, but I mean this in a way apart from the way people commonly speak of Zork. I don’t mean Zork as monument, Zork as technical marvel, Zork as commercial phenomenon, or even Zork as a chapter in the story of Infocom. I mean instead that Zork is a reflection of American culture at a specific point in its history. We Americans still live in the shadow of our colonial past, and this is observable in texts like Zork.

Two happy adolescents, a boy and a girl, gaze happily toward the viewer. Their eyes gleam with intelligence. It is as if they are part of the sky. Below them is the edge of a stone fortress or castle. The boy is wearing a magic ring of some sort. This is not a scene from Zork III. Rather, it is taken from a Zork choose-your-own-adventure book.
Bill and June, Steve Meretzky’s adolescent protagonists of the Zork What-Do-I-Do-Now books. Retrieved from the Zork Library.

Moreover, the world was entering an exciting period that involved the democratization of computer technology. Relatively inexpensive home microcomputers could be found at K-Mart, Sears, and elsewhere. The commercial success of Infocom was borne by that rising tide. For all of its colonial trappings, Zork was a totemic participant in a market shift that made it possible for poor school districts–like my own–to buy newly inexpensive computers. The owners of these cheap computers, like my family and school, were proud to own machines that could run Zork. We were eager to show it to people. It is so easy to forget what these games meant beyond the quality and fairness of their puzzles.

Perhaps I mean to say that Zork is not merely history. It is a historic(al) text and artifact of culture–not merely a historic event–in ways that are hard to measure, which may be why so few try to do so. Zork, today or then, was never just a toy.

For all of its shortcomings, I classify the Zork trilogy as too big to judge. As a young boy, it seemed to me that with Zork, all things were possible. I can remember the exact moment when I solved Zork II‘s well riddle or first waved the scepter at the rainbow. I recall their times of day. I can remember sitting at my makeshift desk, feet propped on the middle row of a small, wooden bookshelf. I still play a lot of video games today, and I often chase a specific feeling that I first felt with Zork.

Nowadays, that emotional potency blends strangely with my more adult sensibilities. One informs the other. How do I feel about magic and colonialism? It is wonder shot-through with outrage. Or perhaps it is the other way around. I speak as a reader, as an audience.

Zork is like a troubled but brilliant uncle: at turns ingenious, funny, and disappointing, and that is the nature of my genuine and abiding affection for it.

Next up: the rarely celebrated–or even discussed–Starcross, Dave Lebling’s first post-Zork project.

Next: Starcross, or The World’s Smartest Prospector

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