The IF competition sure puts me in some weird situations. I never thought I’d play through an actual game based on an Infocom sample transcript, but I did it in 1998, when I played David Ledgard’s Space Station. I never thought I’d read a mocked-up transcript of a fake game, then play a game actually implemented from that gag transcript, but J. Robinson Wheeler’s Four In One proved me wrong that same year. Now I’ve encountered what may be the weirdest situation yet: I just played a text remake of Return To Zork.
For those of you who didn’t play RTZ, it was Activision’s first graphical adventure to use the Zork license they had inherited from their purchase of Infocom. It was, in my opinion, pretty weak. It had a fairly cool interface, as graphic adventures go, and some nice features (like the various bits that took notes for you or recorded people’s speeches), but it was cursed with an incomprehensible plot, highly annoying puzzles, and absolutely execrable voice acting. Most of all, it just didn’t feel very Zorky, at least not to me. The cleverness was missing, and the splendor was, too.
For me, it’s completely baffling that somebody would want to actually remake this game. In fact, RTZAS isn’t just a remake — call it a “remake-plus”. It takes much of the original structure from RTZ, alters some things, and adds a bunch more. It’s kind of like if somebody was such a fan of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that they wrote an entirely new novelization of it, changing a few bits around and adding whole new scenes and subplots. Well, of course the other difference is that RTZAS was produced with permission of the license holder, yet another example of Activision’s openness to the fan community. You can bet you wouldn’t see Paramount behaving so freely with the Star Trek license.
When I played RTZAS, I couldn’t help but be haunted by sounds and images from the original RTZ, bad voice-acting and all. This mental baggage already biased me against the game, sorry to say, and RTZAS‘s many, many problems did nothing to redeem it. First of all, as far as I could tell, the game makes no effort to clarify RTZ‘s tangled plot, and in fact snarls it further with the addition of new locations, characters, and subplots. Moreover, there are a number of bugs, though none very catastrophic.
The biggest problem of all, however, is the language. The English in this game is very deeply warped — almost every sentence features at least one bizarre error in spelling, grammar, or diction, sometimes so much so that it’s hard to tell what the hell the game is talking about. For example, here’s a sentence from the first room description: “The rocky underfoot descends ruggedly towards east in direction of a building that appears to be a lighthouse.” Sometimes RTZAS feels like the offspring of an unholy union between Return to Zork and For A Change, just because the game’s writing is so far from standard English. Much of it feels like it’s been run through a translator program like Babelfish, with typically hilarious results. For instance, at one point you find an old mill that the game refers to as “delicious.” Delicious? All I can guess is that some word like “adorable” was intended, but something got very, very lost in the translation.
Still, all that aside, I have to hand it to RTZAS: this game is obviously a labor of love. A great deal of care has been put into describing lots of objects, creating alternate solutions to puzzles, and lovingly recreating many of the scenes from RTZ. It also mercifully leaves out some of the very worst scenes from that game (“Want some rye? ‘Course you do!”), which I certainly appreciated. It seems like a very odd thing to want to bring into the world, but RTZAS could be a fairly worthwhile game after its writing has undergone a major overhaul and it’s been debugged more thoroughly. Nonetheless, even if it was at this point, it wouldn’t really be an appropriate competition game. This thing is huge! I played for 2 hours and didn’t even get halfway through, I don’t think. As it stands, it’s not only huge but very badly executed. And I just finished 2 hours with it. Maybe I will have that rye, after all.