IFDB page: Zork I
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork I.]
Legends grow in the telling, and so it was with Zork in Dante’s mind. He had seen so many references to it, so much appreciation for it, that he had begun to think of it as some kind of platonic ideal for IF. Within minutes of playing, that expectation crashed against the reality of a vintage text game.
Instead of typing “X”, you have to type the full word “EXAMINE”. (Well, technically only “EXAMIN”, or even just “LOOK”, but nevermind — this was about 1980 IF breaking modern expectations.) Locations are almost immediately mazy, with pieces of the forest connecting in unexplained nonsensical ways to each other. The status line sports no handy exits listing, and when travel in a direction is blocked, it’s often blocked with no explanation. For every “Storm-tossed trees block your way”, there are dozens of “You can’t go that way”s.
In what became a running joke for our playthrough, many incredible things have the description, “There’s nothing special about the [incredible thing].” A non-exhaustive list of things about which Zork I claims there is nothing special: an elvish sword of great antiquity, a pile of mangled bodies, a painting of unparalleled beauty, Neptune’s crystal trident, a sceptre (possibly that of ancient Egypt itself), a beautiful jeweled scarab, a golden clockwork canary, and a solid rainbow complete with stairs and bannister. I had to explain to him that Zork was operating under a draconian space limitation — they simply didn’t have room to include descriptions for anything that didn’t directly contribute to a puzzle. For him, this limitation was almost unthinkable. I mean, it’s just text! How could they not have room for it?
Space limitations also show up in a lack of scenery objects, a problem that can manifest in a fairly benign form or a fairly malign one. For instance, in the Shaft Room, one sentence of the room description reads, “Constructed over the top of the shaft is a metal framework to which a heavy iron chain is attached.” Try EXAMINE FRAMEWORK and you’ll get the response, “I don’t know the word ‘framework’.” Fair enough, the framework apparently wasn’t implemented as an object. On the other hand, try EXAMINE METAL and you’ll get the much more problematic response, “You can’t see any metal here.”
This happens because elsewhere in the game, there are objects that legitimately can be referred to as “metal” — the metal ramp in the Cellar and the metal bolt in the Dam, for example. The framework isn’t implemented, though, so while it’s described as “metal” in the room description, there’s no game object in that room for the word “metal” to reference. This has the story-breaking result that you’re told there’s a metal framework in front of you, but also that there is no metal in the room. Our favorite manifestation of this:
Land of the Dead
You have entered the Land of the Living Dead. Thousands of lost souls can be heard weeping and moaning. In the corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers less fortunate than yourself. A passage exits to the north.
You can't see any dead here!
Another modern feature that we missed awfully: UNDO. For instance, when you type OPEN EGG WITH WRENCH, and get a response which begins:
The egg is now open, but the clumsiness of your attempt has seriously compromised its esthetic appeal. There is a golden clockwork canary nestled in the egg. It seems to have recently had a bad experience…
…the natural response is to type UNDO. Oh how painful to receive the reply, “I don’t know the word ‘undo’.” Again, the microcomputers of 1980 couldn’t really have supported such a state-management function, at least not without sacrificing too much text and parsing capability. Instead, games of that era tried to make a virtue out of compulsive SAVEing, and called their game-closing responses part of the challenge. Seen from today’s perspective, they simply invoke the tedium of forcing a RESTORE, or worse yet a RESTART. Replaying up to the game-closing point isn’t challenging, just time-consuming.
In what became a running theme of our Infocom replays, we had to restart Zork I. In fact, we had to restart it twice — the first time because our light source ran out and we hadn’t yet found a permanent one, and the second time, very far into the game, because we realized that we’d killed the thief early on through a “lucky” fluke, but we still needed him to open the jewel-encrusted egg. I ran both of these replays on my own — Dante had no patience for retreading miles of known ground just to get to something new.
All of these pain points served to illustrate clearly the distance that text adventures have come since 1980. I sometimes hear it argued that IF isn’t really all that different now from how it was in the Infocom days, but Dante’s experience with playing modern IF and then going back to Infocom puts the lie to that claim. I mean, yes, it’s still essentially getting a parser of limited vocabulary to cooperate with your traversal of a fictional world. Some of the parsing innovations we might have imagined arriving in 40 years have not come to pass — there’s no intelligent computer DM to respond reasonably to anything you type as it takes you through the dungeon. But as far as the moment-to-moment experience of playing a text game, the state of the art has improved a great deal.
The same is true of the puzzles, at least when it comes to the damned mazes. This was another area that I ran on my own — Dante was interested in the first few rooms of maze-mapping, where we’d drop an object, go a direction, and see whether we’d found a new room. But it just. Kept. Going. Hundreds of moves’ worth of this, painstakingly updating our Trizbort map as we went. This is a test of bloody-mindedness, not complex thought. Luckily, the thief didn’t confound us, due to his aforementioned dumb luck defeat. Still, the Zork maze was another perfect example of something that may have passed as fun in 1980, but could make no such claim today. Actually, make that the Zork mazes, as there’s another one in the Coal Mine, albeit not nearly so tortuous.
On the other hand, many of the puzzles have lost no sheen whatsoever. Flood Control Dam #3, for instance, is just as marvelous as always. There’s an aspect to it that is simply mechanical — figure out how to unlock it for changes, and then figure out what tool is needed to make those changes happen. But then once you make those changes, they imply new relationships and new attributes to various parts of the landscape. I was impressed to see that Dante intuitively grasped these implications, moving quickly not only to the emptied reservoir, but also to the quieted Loud Room, for instance.
In general, I was fascinated to see how he reacted to puzzles I remembered. He immediately grasped puzzles I remember struggling with, like the Loud Room, the Cyclops Room, and the deranged bat. On the other hand, we were quite a ways into our playthrough before he figured out to tie the rope to the railing, which I remember doing pretty immediately.
Dante’s intuition and experience led him more astray on the combat-style puzzles. He’d already embraced a different branch of retro gaming, having logged dozens of hours on Angband, but while Zork is no Angband, the inclusion of D&D-style combat very near the beginning of the game makes it seem as though there’s going to be quite a bit of overlap. Consequently, Dante snapped into the mode of looking for weapons and armor, evaluating the axe vs. the sword vs. the knife, etc., when that’s not really what Zork is designed for. This becomes especially apparent when you find what seems like a magic trident, except it can’t even be used as a weapon at all.
It makes historical sense to me why this randomized combat is in here — IF at the time was still in the shadow of Adventure, which in turn sat in the shadow of D&D. But the combat sits uneasily against the rest of the game, and Zork I‘s commitment to it is pretty half-hearted. The only fightable “monsters” in the game are the troll and the thief. Moreover, the fights with these monsters don’t expose any of the typical RPG mechanics — you can’t see numerical representations of attack, damage, or defense, and consequently you may not know that randomization is happening behind the scenes. The first time we fought the troll, we knocked him out immediately, which seemed like just what the game had “intended” — imagine Dante’s shock when next time around, the troll killed us! Unlike the elegance of most Zork puzzles, the randomized combat can contribute both to sudden losses out of the player’s control and to “lucky” wins that cut off victory. Both happened to us.
Then there were those puzzles that we both had trouble with. I have a strong memory of playing Zork I as a kid and flailing around at the Entrance to Hades. I rang the bell, mostly out of sheer desperation, but could make no sense of the response. I was talking through the problem with my Dad when he asked me, “Hey, do you happen to have a book and a candle as well?” Well yes, but how on earth did you even come up with that question to ask? He explained to me then the cultural reference of “Bell, Book, and Candle”, which was entirely lost on me as a kid. Now I can report that the passing of a generation has made that reference no clearer, and Dante’s dad had to explain it to him.
Of all the Zork I puzzles, the gold coffin gained the most in my estimation from this revisit. The puzzle, for those who may not remember, is this: you’ve descended from a rope into a temple chamber. You cannot ascend back up the rope, as you drop from it into the temple and it ends several feet above your reach. The only exit from the temple is through a small hole in the floor, next to an altar. Within the chamber you find (among other things), a gold coffin. You can get through the hole with the other treasures you find, but if you try to take the coffin, Zork says, “You haven’t a prayer of getting the coffin down there.”
What to do? The failure message, along with the religious trappings of the room, hint towards the solution: PRAY. When you do that, this happens:
This is a forest, with trees in all directions. To the east, there appears to be sunlight.
The command instantly teleports you out of the underground altogether, along with all your possessions — including the coffin. Besides the puzzle being well-cued, it also has a quality of awe, possibly deriving from the suddenness with which everything changes from dark to light. There is no sweeping transition text, which almost any author (including me) would be tempted to put in today — just an instant shift with no explanation. That shift prompts a more mysterious feeling of religious wonder, at least in me — it’s immediately apparent that there are greater powers at work in this world than simply an adventurer manipulating mechanisms, and those powers do not care to explain or announce themselves.
That’s one of the magic moments of Zork I, and there are many. Another, for us, came at the Mirror Room, where we had visited many times and looked at our bedraggled image. That night, there was a thunderstorm outside while we played, and as we reached out to TOUCH MIRROR for the first time, two things happened simultaneously: Zork I said, “There is a rumble from deep within the earth and the room shakes” while outside there was a loud CRACK of thunder. I felt aligned with the universe at that moment.
In replaying this game and its successors, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two fundamental things that make Zork special, and that are reliable sources of delight in subsequent Infocom games: moments of humor and moments of magic. Sometimes they are one and the same, or at least right alongside each other.
Consider, for example, inflating the boat. There’s a moment of satisfaction when you realize that the hand-held air pump connects to the valve on the pile of plastic, like finding two jigsaw puzzle pieces that connect to each other. That satisfaction turns to magic with the appearance of the boat, which suddenly recontextualizes parts of the landscape you’ve already seen. Rivers, streams, and lakes that once seemed like scenery have become pathways to traverse in this new vehicle, opening up new vistas of the map for exploration.
This is one of the best tricks that IF can pull — revealing a new dimension within a familiar situation, one which expands the possibility space of the entire game world. Previously ordinary aspects of the scenario jump to life with vibrant new potential, and the player sees everything fresh. In the case of the Zork boat, this exciting development comes with a laugh, as the boat contains a label reading:
!!!! FROBOZZ MAGIC BOAT COMPANY !!!!
[…and then some instructions for how to use the boat.]
Aside from the comical quality of the exclamation points and the capital letters, this label squeezes in two different running gags that thread through most of the series — “Frobozz Magic” products and the phrase “Hello Sailor”, introduced by the prayer book on the altar.
This the other source of pleasure in Zork and its progeny: unexpected unity. Both drama and comedy use the basic structure of a setup leading to a payoff, and that structure finds its place in text adventures as well. The very first underground location in Zork I, the Cellar, contains the bottom of a metal chute, too slippery to climb: setup. Many hundreds of moves later, we find a Slide Room — part of a coal mine containing “a steep metal slide twisting downward.” Of course, enter the slide and you find yourself back in the Cellar: payoff. In that moment, the game unifies two pieces of itself, yielding the satisfaction of a question answered.
In the case of Frobozz Magic products, the structure is more like a single setup leading to a series of payoffs, each building on the last through the long series of games. Each new appearance of these products, especially as they grow in ridiculous specialization, is a comedy callback that enriches the joke. Sometimes, as in the case of HELLO SAILOR itself, the payoff occurs several games away from the setup, and contains both drama and comedy. But more about that in a later post.
The ultimate (meaning both final and best) example of such unity comes when all the treasures are collected, and a voice whispers that there is one final secret. The map we find brings us back to the very first location of the game, encircling the experience in a great dramatic unity. I found the appearance of the secret path to the stone barrow unexpectedly moving, probably because it was a thrilling moment that I was getting to re-experience alongside Dante, while he saw it for the first time. As Zork I both wrapped itself up and invited us to further adventure, I couldn’t wait to continue delving further with him.