Cover of Zork III

in Infocom >RESTART

Zork III [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork III
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork III, as well as minor spoilers for Zork I and Zork II. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Zork III opens in this location:

Endless Stair
You are at the bottom of a seemingly endless stair, winding its way upward beyond your vision. An eerie light, coming from all around you, casts strange shadows on the walls. To the south is a dark and winding trail.
Your old friend, the brass lantern, is at your feet.

Check out those adjectives! “Endless”, “eerie”, “strange”, “dark”. Immediately the game’s tone differs radically from its predecessors. Where parts 1 and 2 were light, playful, and adventurous, Zork III feels austere, somber, ominous. If not for the appearance of the brass lantern and the Elvish sword, it would hardly seem like it belonged in the same set as those other games.


Speaking of which, let’s talk about that sword. In Zork I, we find it hanging above the trophy case in a house. In Zork II we simply find it lying at our feet when the game begins. Zork III takes it to a much different emotional place, as just south of the opening room we find a junction, containing this:

Standing before you is a great rock. Imbedded within it is an Elvish sword.

Try as we might, we simply cannot pull our sword from this rock. (Though try often enough and we’ll get a jokey response from the game.) Up to this point, the sword has been a casual knockoff of Tolkien tropes, right down to the way it would glow in the presence of danger. It lived in a decidedly non-Tolkien world, existing side-by-side with robots and inflatable boats. Here, suddenly, this sword has taken on a mythic, Arthurian resonance. Now it’s not just another treasure to be collected, but something signifying destiny, echoing the Dungeon Master’s words in the opening text of the game — “Seek me when you feel yourself worthy!”. The SCORE command reinforces this theme: “Your potential is 0 of a possible 7, in 34 moves.”

The terms have changed, fundamentally. Where scores in the previous installments numbered in the hundreds, and incremented whenever a puzzle was solved or a treasure collected and stored, here the score is measured in a mere seven notches. Not only that, the game describes it as “potential” rather than “score”, and updates it without notice, sometimes after moves that are seemingly disconnected from any puzzle-solving activity.

Descriptions, too, take on a quality of solemn awe. There were incredible vistas in the previous two games, but the most remarkable ones tended to be sunlit — the volcano, the Aragain Falls. Compare that to the 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.

This is a marvelous image — an underground ocean! We’ve seen a reservoir, and a stream, and even a glacier, but this use of water feels like it comes from a different register, statelier and gloomier. We are in a much more serious & sad landscape now, nowhere near the unicorns and hot pepper sandwiches of previous games. Even when this game pays off the running “Hello Sailor” gag from the previous two games, it does so with an ancient mariner on a Viking-esque ship, sailing off through the mist — a grand and somewhat melancholy image. When the locations aren’t awe-some, they’re still solemn: a creepy crawl, a foggy room, a damp passage. There’s a distinct lack of cheer in this game.

What’s going on here? Primarily, I think it comes down to the fact that the Infocom Implementors had run low on pieces of the mainframe Zork to adapt for microcomputers. Zork I and Zork II covered the vast majority of that original mainframe game, leaving just a few set pieces for Zork III — pretty much just the mirror box, the royal puzzle, and parts of the endgame. As a result, they could create a game with its own sense of thematic unity, freed (mostly) from the hodgepodge aesthetic of mainframe Zork.

Map of Zork III

The theme that they chose reflected Infocom’s increasing seriousness about the potential of text adventures, or as they would come to be called, interactive fiction. In fact, I would argue that Zork III is the first game to cross the threshold from text adventure to interactive fiction. While Zork II had introduced an element of story with its wizard, Zork III brought a consistency of tone and style alongside an emphasis on actual character development for the PC — the journey to worthiness signaled first by the sword in its stone. At this time, Infocom was developing games like Starcross and especially Deadline, which would take the fictional element even further, so it’s little wonder that they gravitated towards seriousness and heft for Zork III.


At the same time, moving to a new thematic register introduced new demands on the form, demands which its limited interface and draconian space constraints weren’t always prepared to handle. Take the hooded figure, for example. As we wander the thematically-on-point Land of Shadow, at some point or another we will encounter “a cloaked and hooded figure” who carries his own brightly glowing sword. When this happens, “From nowhere, the sword from the junction appears in your hand, wildly glowing!” This is one of those moments where the score increments without telling us — a puzzle has been initiated, not solved, but our potential has increased.

We’re meant to battle this figure, but not kill it. When it’s helpless before us, we are to remove its hood, prompting this scene:

You slowly remove the hood from your badly wounded opponent and recoil in horror at the sight of your own face, weary and wounded. A faint smile comes to the lips and then the face starts to change, very slowly, into that of an old, wizened person. The image fades and with it the body of your hooded opponent.
The cloak remains on the ground.
Your sword is no longer glowing.

Great, right? Straight out of Joseph Campbell, or at least The Empire Strikes Back. The idea is that we treat this opponent differently from the troll or the thief, showing compassion rather than murdering it, and in doing so we see ourselves in our foe, along with a hint of the ascension to come.

The problem is this: you can pick up very easily on the concept of the challenge and still not have the faintest idea how to achieve it. Dante and I attempted so many actions with the hooded figure, and were rebuffed at every turn. We tried talking to it. We tried giving bread to it. We tried “help figure”. We tried telling it to go away. We tried kissing it. We tried disarming it, stumbling in the process into weird parsing failures:

>take sword
You already have it.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>take sword from figure
You already have it.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>take figure's sword
The hooded figure isn't in the sword.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>take sword's figure
You already have it.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>[whatever man]
I don't know the word "[whatever".

Every one of these attempts was met with either confusion (as above) or some flavor of flat refusal — “The hooded figure does not respond to your words.” It’s the quintessential IF communication breakdown. We understood what we wanted to do. We understood that the game wanted us to do it, or something very like it. We just couldn’t make all the various ways we could think of to enact the concept connect with the one specific way that the game had prepared for the concept to be enacted. A more modern game — I’m tempted to say a better game, but I know the limitations of the early Z-machine — would have found ways to either let those alternate solutions stand as solutions, or respond to them in ways that hinted us toward the right answer.


We ran into a similar issue with the time machine and the golden ring. Well, eventually we did — first we had to struggle through a bunch of false starts trying to figure out what the heck to even do with the time machine. See, we found our way to the Technology Museum well before we ever went into the Jewel Room, so right off the bat we got into the machine, set the dial to 000, and:

>press button
You experience a brief period of disorientation. The area around you seems to be solidifying! Rock formations close in on you and before you can react you are engulfed in stone!

** You have died **

An Apple ][ or something would have printed “END OF SESSION” after that and returned to a command line, but the Windows Frotz interpreter we were using just shut down! It was “[Hit any key to exit]” and goodnight, Gracie. Dante, especially, was stunned. “We perma-died!” he said. This was in stark contrast to the friendly death-evasions we were granted in the previous two games.

Then we perma-died a bunch more times, testing out the various possibilities of the time machine. Mind you, we had no idea what era to aim for, so we were just flailing around. From teleporting into solid rock, we eventually found ourselves… shot with ray guns? In these instant death scenes, the overall grim tone of the game turns suddenly comedic, as “a row of military people who, if appearances do not deceive, have the cumulative intelligence of a not yet ripe grapefruit” shoot us with a “waffle-shaped implement.” “Killed by a waffle!” said Dante.

Illustration of the Dungeon Master from Zork III

Even once we found our way to the Jewel Room, and therefore the sign hinting at what year to specify, we still struggled mightily with this puzzle. First of all, we found no clue at all that the machine can be pushed from place to place, but okay, let’s set that aside. It falls into the realm of fair, just barely. Much less so was the puzzle around transporting the ring back from the past. Once again, we couldn’t match exactly what the game had in mind, even though we had the idea.

Clearly we were supposed to somehow store the ring in the time machine. It’s not at all apparent why we could transport ourselves but not our possessions, nor why the time machine’s seat was immune from this property, but we quickly put together that the seat was a container, and therefore crucial to the answer. However, it turns out that the seat is two different kinds of container, and we only used one kind: putting things on it. We can put things on the seat and they travel from the present into the past. Voila!

Except, we can’t put things on the seat and have them travel from the past into the present. Why? It’s never explained, and in the end made the whole thing feel buggy, like maybe the present-to-past thing was an unintended accident. Not to mention, it makes for straight-up bugs like this:

Sitting on the seat is:
A golden ring (being worn)

This was after we’d already experienced the frustration of having some other logical approaches in the same section fail — sneaking past the guards with our invisibility potion, or using our magical-morphing key to unlock the museum door. Finally, in desperation, we looked at the hints and found we were supposed to LOOK UNDER SEAT, at which point the game cheerfully says, “You notice a small hollow area under the seat.” This is the very definition of a guess-the-verb puzzle, especially when the response to EXAMINE SEAT is “There is nothing on the seat,” which strongly cued us to believe that the seat is a surface for placing things onto. Dante said, “We had the right idea — it was the game’s fault we couldn’t solve this puzzle.” I quite agree.

On the other hand, once we do solve the puzzle, the plaque in the Jewel Room reads:

The plaque explains that this room was to be the home of the Crown Jewels of the Great Underground Empire. However, following the unexplained disappearance of a priceless ring during the final stages of construction, Lord Flathead decided to place the remaining jewels in a safer location. Interestingly enough, he distrusted museum security enough to place his prized possesion, an incredibly gaudy crown, within a locked safe in a volcano specifically hollowed out for that purpose.

Oh Zork. That was awesome. All is forgiven — I love you again.


Other puzzles were much more satisfying. The Royal Puzzle is one I’ve solved numerous times in my life, but it’s so complicated that I’m always starting from scratch each time. That’s a characteristic of many puzzles in Zork III — where other episodes tended towards conceptual puzzles like the riddle, the prayer, or the cyclops, this game favored mechanical puzzles like the time machine, the mirror box, and of course the Royal Puzzle. While previous games (especially Zork II) spread many small puzzles across the game to create the layers of a larger goal, this game builds multiple layers into many individual puzzles.

The Royal Puzzle, for its part, certainly has numerous mini-goals to accomplish, all using the same basic mechanic. It pushes up against the limits of text games, resorting to crude ASCII maps of each location, and it certainly pushed up against the limits of our mapping capabilities. Dante and I ended up pressing an Othello board into service to track the borders, the movable pieces, and the goals. Solving it felt quite triumphant.

The opening screen of Zork III

As great as that was, though, for me in this playthrough the most thrilling puzzle was the Scenic Vista. That’s the one where you find a magic viewer that can take you into Zorks past, present, and future, and in the process visit some objects and places that will help you later on. Probably I loved this one the most this time because of the circumstances — playing through the games in succession with Dante was a bit like having that magic table, revisiting familiar landscapes with a new purpose in mind. Also, I find it hilarious that while Zork III resolves the “Hello Sailor” question, the broken timber is still a red herring.

And then there’s the earthquake. This is another paradigm shift from previous games — aspects of the dungeon change on a timer, not based on any action of ours. On the one hand, it’s another piece of the shift towards story and away from game — events in the world are not centered on the PC, and happen for their own reasons. On the other hand, as an interactive experience it amounted to a way that pieces of the game could close off, or open up, completely outside our control.

We came upon the broken aqueduct very late in our progress, and had pretty much forgotten about the earthquake. It took us a very long time to figure out what to do… and then realized we had to replay. So yay, another way Infocom found to force us to restart. No light limits this time, but yet another time limit snapped the game into an unwinnable state which we didn’t find until we’d played large swaths of it, including the “who would ever want to replay that?” Royal Puzzle. Once again, I ran through it by myself, Dante waiting for me to finish so the fun part could resume. Though on the bright side, our travails at the Aqueduct View and subsequent Aqueduct prompted him to observe, “Whenever there’s a location in Zork that has ‘View’ in its name, you can bet that you’ll be visiting the place that it is a view of later.” That was enjoyable.


Finally, we made our way past the guardians, employing another complicated and multi-layered mechanism, and reached the endgame at last. We had figured out at this point that we were supposed to be emulating the Dungeon Master himself, and were excited to see what final challenge the game had in store for us. Then we found it and… were thoroughly confused. We took many, many runs at this final puzzle, but couldn’t make a lick of sense out of what was supposed to be going on — shades of the Bank of Zork. After numerous iterations of this, we said:

>lean on staff
Are you so very tired, then?

Finally, we looked at the hints and… were STILL confused. Oh, we knew how to solve the puzzle. We just didn’t know why that was the solution. We read several Internet accounts of how to solve this puzzle, and found ourselves no further enlightened. Why cell 4? What… just what?!?

The puzzle just seems so arbitrary, so at odds with the many clever constructions that preceded it. I mean, it’s possible I’m just too thickheaded to get the brilliance at work here, but whatever the case, it was an anticlimactic ending to the trilogy. The final text about the treasure and the power and the ascension and all was cool, but it would have felt much more exciting had it been the culmination to a challenge befitting the trilogy, and for us it just wasn’t.

Nevertheless, it was the end of a long and mostly pleasant road. It was a joy to replay this trilogy with Dante on board, and we set our sights next on… the beyond.

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  1. The end of Zork III as I picture it (royal puzzle, guardians, endgame) really mars what would otherwise be a glum masterpiece. Not surprisingly, they are the only parts ripped out of Dungeon, and there is no apparent effort to reconcile them to an otherwise consistent (both geographically and tonally) game world. I know people love the Royal Puzzle, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in Zork III. It’s like wandering into another game.

    And you’re right. The final puzzle is not a fitting culmination of three diskettes worth of game. I still love Zork III for the new parts and what they imply about the future of IF.