Zork Zero [Infocom >RESTART]

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

The earliest game in the Zork chronology was one of the latest games in the Infocom chronology. Zork Zero emerged in 1988, two years after the company was bought by Activision, and one year before it would be shut down. Zork was Infocom’s most famous franchise by far, and this prequel was the company’s last attempt to milk that cash cow, or rather its last attempt with original Implementors on board. Activision-produced graphical adventures like Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, and Zork: Grand Inquisitor were still to come, but those were fundamentally different animals than their namesake. Zork Zero, written by veteran Implementor Steve Meretzky, was still a text adventure game.

However, there was a little augmentation to the text this time. Along with a few other games of this era, Zork Zero saw Infocom dipping its toe into the world of graphics. The text window is presented inside a pretty proscenium arch, one which changes its theme depending on your location in the game, and also provides a handy compass rose showing available exits. Some locations come with a thumbnail icon, many of which are pretty crudely pixelated, but some of which (like the Great Underground Highway) are rather memorable. Most crucially, several important puzzles and story moments rely upon graphics in a way that hadn’t been seen before in a Zork game, or any Infocom game for that matter. In order to make these nifty effects work in Windows Frotz, our interpreter of choice, Dante and I had to do a bit of hunting around in the IF Archive — thus it was that we solved our first puzzle before we even began the game.

>EMBIGGEN ZORK. G. G. G. G.

Once we did start, we found that graphics weren’t the only way Meretzky found to expand on the Zork legacy. He also expanded on it by… expanding it! Over and over again, we were knocked out by the scope of this game. It’s enormous! Our Trizbort map had 208 rooms, and that’s not even counting ridiculous location “stacks” like the 400-story FrobozzCo building or the 64-square life-sized chessboard. By contrast, our map for Zork I had 110 rooms, and Zork III had a meager 59. So many locations. So many puzzles. So many objects. So many points! You’ll score a thousand hard-won points in a successful playthrough of Zork Zero. Dimwit Flathead’s excessiveness is a frequent butt of Meretzky’s jokes in this game (e.g. a huge kitchen that “must’ve still been crowded when all 600 of Dimwit’s chefs were working at the same time”), but if Dimwit were to design an IF game, it would definitely be this one.

The largesse still doesn’t apply to writing noun descriptions, though. For example:

>X CANNONBALL
There's nothing special about the cannonball.

>X UNICORNS
There's nothing unusual about the herd of unicorns.

>X FJORD
It looks just like the Flathead Fjord.

Even this late in Infocom’s development, they still hadn’t adopted the ethos that the most skilled hobbyists would take up later, of enhancing immersion by describing everything that could be seen.

Similarly, inventory limits are still around to vex us, and they hit especially hard in a game like this, which is absolutely overflowing with objects. Because of those limits, we followed our tried-and-true tactic of piling up all our spare inventory in a single room. In the case of Zork Zero, we knew we’d be throwing a bunch of those objects into a magic trophy case cauldron, so we stacked them in the cauldron room. By the time we were ready for the endgame, that room’s description was pretty hilarious:

Banquet Hall
Many royal feasts have been held in this hall, which could easily hold ten thousand guests. Legends say that Dimwit's more excessive banquets would require the combined farm outputs of three provinces. The primary exits are to the west and south; smaller openings lead east and northeast.
A stoppered glass flask with a skull-and-crossbones marking is here. The flask is filled with some clear liquid.
A 100-ugh dumbbell is sitting here, looking heavy.
Sitting in the corner is a wooden shipping crate with some writing stencilled across the top.
A calendar for 883 GUE is lying here.
You can see a poster of Ursula Flathead, a four-gloop vial, a shovel, a box, a spyglass, a red clown nose, a zorkmid bill, a saucepan, a ring of ineptitude, a rusty key, a notebook, a harmonica, a toboggan, a landscape, a sapphire, a glittery orb, a smoky orb, a fiery orb, a cloak, a ceramic perch, a quill pen, a wand, a hammer, a lance, an easel, a wooden club, a bag, a silk tie, a diploma, a brass lantern, a notice, a broom, a funny paper, a stock certificate, a screwdriver, a gaudy crown, a ticket, a dusty slate, a treasure chest, a blueprint, a saddle, a fan, a steel key, a walnut shell, a manuscript, an iron key, a package, a T-square, a fancy violin, a metronome, a scrap of parchment, a proclamation, a cannonball, a sceptre and a cauldron here.

That certainly wasn’t everything, but you get the idea.

In fact, this game was so big that its very size ended up turning into a puzzle, or at least a frustration enhancer. Dante and I flailed at a locked door for quite a while before realizing that we’d had the key almost since the beginning of the game. We forgot we’d obtained an iron key by solving a small puzzle in one of our earliest playthroughs, and the key itself was lost in the voluminous piles of stuff we had acquired. When we finally realized we’d had the key all along, it was nice to open up the door and everything, but it also felt a bit like we should be appearing on the GUE’s version of Hoarders.

Not only did the scope of Zork Zero obscure the answers to puzzles like that, it also functioned as a near-endless source of red herrings. It’s possible to waste immense amounts of time just checking locations to see if you’ve missed anything, because there are just so many locations. The FrobozzCo building was of course an example of this, but even more so was the chessboard, which soaked up tons of our time and attention trying to figure out what sort of chess puzzle we were solving. Not only was exploring the whole thing a red herring, but so was making moves and doing anything chess-related!

The cover of Zork Zero

On the other hand, the game’s sprawling vistas can also evoke a genuine sense of awe, somewhat akin to seeing the Grand Canyon from multiple viewpoints. There was a moment in the midgame where we’d been traversing a very large map to collect various objects, and then the proper application of those objects opened up a dimensional gateway to an entirely new very large map. Shortly afterward, we realized that in fact, the puzzle we’d just solved had in fact opened up five different dimensional gateways, some of which eventually connected to our main map but many of which did not! Moments like that were breathtaking, not just because of all the authorial work they implied, but also because of the gameplay riches that kept getting laid before us.

Sometimes, to make things even sillier, the effects of the giant inventory would combine with the effects of the giant map. One of those offshoot maps mentioned above contained a special mirror location, which would show you if there was anything supernatural about an object by suggesting that object’s magical properties in its reflection. Super cool, right? Well yeah, except that inventory limits, combined with incredible object profusion, required us to haul a sliver of our possessions during each trip to the mirror, and each trip to the mirror required a whole bunch of steps to accomplish. (Well, there was a shortcut through a different magical item, but we didn’t realize that at the time, and in fact only caught onto that very late in the game, so didn’t get much of a chance at optimization.)

So yes, the mirror location was a wonderful discovery. Less wonderful: hauling the game’s bazillion objects to the mirror in numerous trips to see if it could tell us something special. But then when we found something cool that helped us solve a puzzle: wonderful! This is quintessential Zork Zero design — an inelegant but good-natured mix of cleverness, brute force, and sheer volume. The capper to this story is that there’s one puzzle in particular that this mirror helps to solve, but we fell prey to Iron Key Syndrome once again and somehow failed to bring that puzzle’s particular objects (the various orbs) to the mirror, obliging us to just try every single one orb in the puzzle until we found the right one.

>RECOGNIZE ZORK TROPE. G. G. G. G.

Those orbs felt pretty familiar to us, having just recently palavered with Zork II‘s palantirs. (Well, the game calls them crystal spheres, but c’mon, they’re palantirs. Or, as Wikipedia and hardcore Lord of the Rings people would prefer, palantíri.) However, familiar-looking crystal balls were far from the only Zork reference on hand. As I said, Zork Zero appeared late in Infocom’s history, and with the speed at which the videogame industry was moving, Zork I had for many already acquired the reflected shine of a bygone golden age. Thus, nostalgia was part of the package Infocom intended to sell with this game, which meant Zork tropes aplenty.

One of the best Zorky parts of the game concerns those dwellers in darkness, the lurking grues. In the world of Zork Zero, grues are a bygone menace. As the in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica puts it:

Grues were eradicated from the face of the world during the time of Entharion, many by his own hand and his legendary blade Grueslayer. Although it has now been many a century since the last grue sighting, old hags still delight in scaring children by telling them that grues still lurk in the bottomless pits of the Empire, and will one day lurk forth again.

Oh, did I fail to mention that this huge game also contains an interactive Encyclopedia Frobozzica, with dozens of entries? Yeah, this huge game also has that. In any case, “the bottomless pits of the Empire” might sound familiar to longtime Zork players, or to readers of Infocom’s newsletter, which was for several years called The New Zork Times, until a certain Gray Lady‘s lawyers got involved. As NZT readers would know, there was a time before Zork was on home computers, before it was even called Zork at all. It was called Dungeon, at least until a certain gaming company‘s lawyers got involved.

In Dungeon, there were no grues in the dark places of the game, but rather bottomless pits — a rather fitting fate for someone stumbling around in a dark cave, but the game was more than just a cave. As the NZT tells it:

In those days, if one wandered around in the dark area of the dungeon, one fell into a bottomless pit. Many users pointed out that a bottomless pit in an attic should be noticeable from the ground floor of the house. Dave [Lebling] came up with the notion of grues, and he wrote their description. From the beginning (or almost the beginning, anyway), the living room had a copy of “US News & Dungeon Report,” describing recent changes in the game. All changes were credited to some group of implementers, but not necessarily to those actually responsible: one of the issues describes Bruce [Daniels] working for weeks to fill in all the bottomless pits in the dungeon, thus forcing packs of grues to roam around.

Sure enough, in Zork Zero prequel-ville, when you wander into a dark place, you’ll get the message, “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit.” In fact, at one of the lower levels of the enormous map, we found a location called “Pits”, which was “spotted with an incredible quantity of pits. Judging from the closest of them, the pits are bottomless.” Across the cavern, blocked by those pits, was “an ancient battery-powered brass lantern”, another major Zork nostalgia-carrier. Fittingly, to get to the traditional light object, we had to somehow deal with the even-more-traditional darkness hazard.

Lucky for us, yet another puzzle yielded an “anti-pit bomb”, which when thrown in the Pits location causes this to happen:

The bomb silently explodes into a growing cloud of bottomless-pit-filling agents. As the pits fill in, from the bottom up, dark and sinister forms well up and lurk quickly into the shadows. Uncountable hordes of the creatures emerge, and your light glints momentarily off slavering fangs. Gurgling noises come from every dark corner as the last of the pits becomes filled in.

Thereafter, when the PC moves into a dark place, the game responds with a very familiar message: “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” Luckily, the game provides an inexhaustible source of light in the form of a magic candle, so there are no terrible light timers to deal with. Some things, nobody is nostalgic for.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing the message "You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit."

Lack of a light timer made it easier to appreciate this game’s Wizard of Frobozz analogue, the jester. Like the Wizard, this guy pops up all over the place at random times, creating humorous magical effects which generally block or delay the PC. Sometimes those effects are themselves Zork references, such as when he sends a large deranged bat swooping down, depositing the PC elsewhere as it shrieks, “Fweep! Fweep!” Also like the Wizard, his effects get less funny the more they’re repeated. And also also like the Wizard, he figures prominently into the game’s plot.

However, unlike the Wizard, he functions in a whole bunch of other capacities as well. He’s the game’s primary NPC, appearing to deliver jokes, adjudicate puzzles (especially riddles), occasionally help out, congratulate solutions, and hang around watching the player struggle. He’s not quite an antagonist but certainly not an ally, and you get the sense he’s controlling far more than he lets on. In other words, he’s an avatar for the game itself, and in particular the twinkling eyes of Steve Meretzky.

>LAUGH. G. G. G. G.

Meretzky’s writing is witty and enjoyable throughout — it’s one of the best aspects of the game. He clearly revels in tweaking Zork history, as well as in reeling off line after line about the excessive Dimwit, e.g. “This is the huge central chamber of Dimwit’s castle. The ceiling was lowered at some point in the past, which helped reduce the frequency of storm clouds forming in the upper regions of the hall.” Probably my favorite Zork reference was also one of my favorite jokes in the game:

>HELLO SAILOR
[The proper way to talk to characters in the story is PERSON, HELLO. Besides, nothing happens here.]

Meretzky is also not above retconning previous bits of Zork lore that he disagrees with, such as his Encyclopedia Frobozzica correction of a detail in Beyond Zork‘s feelies: “The misconception that spenseweed is a common roadside weed has been perpetuated by grossly inaccurate entries in the last several editions of THE LORE AND LEGENDS OF QUENDOR.”

Speaking of feelies, this game had great ones, absolutely overflowing with Meretzky charm. Infocom was still heavily into copy-protecting its games via their documentation, and in typically excessive fashion, this game did that many times over, providing a map on one document, a magic word on another, and truckloads of hints (or outright necessary information) in its major feelie, The Flathead Calendar. This calendar called out to yet another aspect of Zork history, the wide-ranging Flathead family, with members such as Frank Lloyd Flathead, Thomas Alva Flathead, Lucrezia Flathead, Ralph Waldo Flathead, Stonewall Flathead, and J. Pierpont Flathead. The game’s treasures are themed around these figures, which was not only a lot of fun but also allowed me to do a bit of historical education with Dante, who still references Flatheads from time to time when mentioning things he’s learning in school.

The feelies establish a playful tone that continues through to the objects, the room descriptions, and the game’s general landscape. There are also great meta moments, such as the “hello sailor” response above, or what happens when you dig a hole with the shovel you find: “You dig a sizable hole but, finding nothing of interest, you fill it in again out of consideration to future passersby and current gamewriters.” Also enjoyable: the response to DIAGNOSE after having polymorphed yourself, e.g. “You are a little fungus. Other details of health pale in comparison.”

Meretzky even brings in a trope from Infocom’s mystery games, in probably the most ridiculous joke in the entire thing. There’s a location containing both a cannonball and a number of “murder holes”, “for dropping heavy cannonballs onto unwanted visitors”. This is obviously an irresistible situation, and the results are worth quoting in full:

>DROP CANNONBALL THROUGH HOLE
As you drop the cannonball through the murder hole, you hear a sickening "splat," followed by a woman's scream!
"Emily, what is it!"
"It's Victor -- he's been murdered!"
"I'll summon the Inspector! Ah, here he is now!" You hear whispered questions and answers from the room below, followed by footsteps on the stairs. The jester enters, wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a large pipe.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to order Sgt. Duffy to place you under arrest, sir." You grow dizzy with confusion, and your surroundings swirl wildly about you...
Dungeon
A century's worth of prisoners have languished in this dismal prison. In addition to a hole in the floor, passages lead north, southeast, and southwest.

None of these characters (except the jester) occur anywhere in the game outside this response. Sergeant Duffy, as Infocom fans would know, is who you’d always summon in an Infocom mystery game when you were ready at last to accuse the killer. By the way, the Dungeon isn’t locked or anything — it’s a gentle joke, not a cruel one. The only real punishment is having to traverse the huge map to get back to wherever you want to be. I’ll stop quoting Meretzky jokes in a second, but I have to throw in just one more, because of the surprising fact that it establishes:

>EAT LOBSTER
1) It's not cooked. 2) It would probably bite your nose off if you tried. 3) You don't have any tableware. 4) You don't have any melted butter. 5) It isn't kosher.

Turns out the Zork adventurer (or at least the pre-Zork adventurer) is not only Jewish, but kosher as well! Who knew? Though, given that the kosher objection comes last, after lack of cooking, tableware, and butter, their commitment may be a bit halfhearted after all.

The cover of Zork Zero's Flathead Calendar feelie

Amidst all the humor, Meretzky hasn’t lost his touch for pathos either, with a design that themes several puzzles around the sense of ruin and decay. For example, we found an instruction to follow a series of steps, starting from “the mightiest elm around.” In Zork Zero, this is an enormous tree stump. Meretzky has learned some lessons from Planetfall and A Mind Forever Voyaging about how to make a landscape that inherently implies its bygone better days. Even in the Zork prequel, the adventurer is traversing a fallen empire.

>REMEMBER PUZZLE. G. G. G. G.

Zork Zero isn’t just a prequel in narrative terms. As we kept finding old-timey puzzles like the rebus or the jester’s Rumpelstiltskin-esque “guess my name” challenge, Dante had the great insight that as a prequel, this game was casting back not just to an earlier point in fictional universe history, but to puzzle flavors of the pre-text-adventure past as well. Relatedly, as we ran across one of those vintage puzzles — The Tower of Hanoi Bozbar — he intoned, “Graham Nelson warned us about you, Tower of Bozbar.”

He was referencing a bit in Graham’s Bill of Player’s Rights, about not needing to do boring things for the sake of it: “[F]or example, a four-discs tower of Hanoi puzzle might entertain. But not an eight-discs one.” Zork Zero‘s tower split the difference by having six discs, and indeed tiptoed the line between fun and irritating.

However, if we’d been trying to do it without the graphical interface, the puzzle would have vaulted over that line. The game’s graphics are never more valuable than when they’re helping to present puzzles rooted in physical objects, like the Tower or the triangle peg solitaire game. Clicking through these made them, if not a blast, at least bearable. Those interactions do make for an amusing transcript, though — hilarious amounts of our game log files are filled with sentences like “You move the 1-ugh weight to the center peg” or “You remove 1 pebble from Pile #3” or “You are moving the peg at letter D.”

Just as some concepts are much easier to express with a diagram than with words, so are some types of puzzles much easier to express with graphics. Infocom had long been on the record as disdaining graphics, and indeed, I still think text has a scene-setting power that visuals can’t match. Meretzky’s descriptions of Dimwit’s excessive castle have more pith and punch than a visual representation of them could possibly muster. However, a picture is so much better than a thousand words when it comes to conveying a complex set of spatial relations. Even as early as Zork III‘s Royal Puzzle, Infocom leaned on ASCII graphics to illustrate those spatial relationships, because that just works so much better. Once they had more sophisticated graphics available, the range of Infocom’s puzzles could expand. It’s ironic that the first thing they did was to expand backwards into older puzzle styles, but then again it’s probably a natural first step into exploring new capabilities.

Going along with the overall verve of the game, those old chestnut puzzles revel in their old chestnut-ness. Zork Zero is a veritable toy chest of object games, logic challenges (e.g. the fox, the rooster, and the worm crossing the river), riddles, and other such throwbacks. Of course, there are plenty of IF-style puzzles as well. (There’s plenty of everything, except noun descriptions.) Sometimes these could be red herrings too — all the Zorky references kept leading us to believe we might see an echo of a previous Zork’s puzzle. Hence, for example, we kept attempting to climb every tree we saw, fruitlessly.

The IF parts of the game don’t hesitate to be cruel, either. I’ve mentioned that every single Zork game made us restart at some point — well Zork Zero was no exception. In this case, it wasn’t a light timer running out or a random event closing off victory, but simply using up an item too soon. We found a bit of flamingo food early in the game, and fed it to a flamingo… which was a mistake. Turns out we needed to wait for a very specific flamingo circumstance, but by the time we found that out, it was far too late. This flavor of forced-restart felt most like the experience we had with Zork I, where we killed the thief before he’d been able to open the jewel-encrusted egg. The difference is that restarting Zork Zero was a much bigger deal, because we had to re-do a whole bunch of the game’s zillion tasks.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing Peggleboz, its version of the triangle peg solitaire game

On the other hand, while this game does have a maze, it is far, far less annoying than the Zork I maze. In general, the design of Zork Zero does a reasonably good job of retaining the fun aspects of its heritage and jettisoning the frustrating ones. Except for that inventory limit — interactive fiction wouldn’t outgrow that one for a while longer. And while there are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles (I’m thinking of the elixir, which is a real guess-the-verb, and throwing things on the ice, which is a real head-scratcher), for the most part they’re entertaining and fun.

Before I close, since I’ve been talking about old-fashioned puzzles, I’ll pay tribute to a moment in Zork Zero which beautifully brought together old and new styles. As one of several riddles in the game, the jester challenges the PC to “Show me an object which no one has ever seen before and which no one will ever see again!” Now, we tried lots of solutions to this — air, flame, music, etc. — but none of them worked, and none of them would have been very satisfying if they had worked. Then, at some point, we realized we had a walnut with us, and if we could open it, the meat inside would certainly qualify as nothing anyone had seen before.

Then, after much travail, we were able to find a magic immobilizing wand, then connect that wand with a lobster, which turned into a nutcracker. After that it was a matter of showing the walnut to the jester to solve the riddle. That was a satisfying moment, made up of connecting one dot to the next, to the next, to the next. But it wasn’t quite over:

>SHOW WALNUT TO JESTER
"True, no one has seen this 'ere me -- but thousands may see it in years to be!"

>EAT WALNUT
"I'm very impressed; you passed my test!

That final capper turned a good puzzle into a great one — a solution that felt smart and obvious at the same time. Unfortunately, eating that walnut wasn’t enough to defeat Zork Zero‘s hunger puzzle. (Not a hunger timer, mind you — a reasonable and contained hunger puzzle.)

For that, we needed to become a flamingo, and eat the flamingo food. RESTART!

Zork III [Infocom >RESTART]

Cover of Zork III

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.

>EXAMINE NEW TONE

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.

>TAKE SWORD’S FIGURE

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.

>PUT RING ON SEAT

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.

>PUT OTHELLO BOARD ON TABLE

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.

>LEAN ON STAFF

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?
>YES

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.