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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Zork II, Part 2

We left off last time with the Alice area at the top of the well. Let’s continue now with the rooms that sprawl around the Carousel Room, which are now much easier to get to since we’ve stopped the carousel’s rotation by switching it off from the Machine Room.

In the Dreary Room off to the north is the first recorded instance of a venerable adventure-gaming cliché: a locked door with a key in the keyhole on the other side. What follows would quickly become a pretty rote procedure for seasoned adventurers, almost like a maze, but taken without all of the baggage of games to come it’s a fresh and clever puzzle.

>PUT MAT UNDER DOOR
THE PLACE MAT FITS EASILY UNDER THE
DOOR.
>PUT OPENER IN KEYHOLE
THE LID IS IN THE WAY.
>OPEN LID
THE LID IS NOW OPEN.
>PUT OPENER IN KEYHOLE
THERE IS A FAINT NOISE FROM BEHIND THE
DOOR AND A SMALL CLOUD OF DUST RISES
FROM BENEATH IT.
DONE.
>GET MAT
AS THE PLACE MAT IS MOVED, A RUSTY IRON
KEY FALLS FROM IT AND ONTO THE FLOOR.
>GET KEY
TAKEN.

This puzzle was also present in the PDP-10 Zork; thus my relative confidence in proclaiming it the first of its kind. Interestingly, in the original game the mat that was needed was the welcome mat found all the way back outside the front door to the white house. In the PC version Lebling instead placed a handy place mat in the gazebo alongside the U.S. News and Dungeon Report.

There’s also a dragon underground, the slaying of which is a tricky but not untenable puzzle. The dragon was holding a princess captive — a princess who can retrieve a key from a certain unicorn back in the garden, solving a problem that has been frustrating us since we first wandered in. The game subtly but effectively cues us that we need something from her, and that we should be following her.

>EXAMINE WOMAN
THE PRINCESS (FOR SHE IS OBVIOUSLY ONE)
SHAKES HERSELF AWAKE, THEN NOTICES YOU
FOR THE FIRST TIME. SHE SMILES. "THANK
YOU FOR RESCUING ME FROM THAT HORRID
WORM," SHE SAYS. "I MUST DEPART. MY
PARENTS WILL BE WORRIED ABOUT ME." WITH
THAT, SHE ARISES, LOOKING PURPOSEFULLY
OUT OF THE LAIR.
>OPEN CHEST
THE HINGES ARE VERY RUSTY, BUT THEY SEEM
TO BE STARTING TO GIVE. YOU CAN PROBABLY
OPEN IT IF YOU TRY AGAIN. THERE IS
SOMETHING BUMPING AROUND INSIDE. ALL
THIS RUMMAGING AROUND HAS STARTLED THE
YOUNG WOMAN.
THE PRINCESS IGNORES YOU. SHE LOOKS
ABOUT THE ROOM, BUT HER EYES FIX ON THE
SOUTH.
THE PRINCESS WALKS SOUTH. SHE GLANCES
BACK AT YOU AS SHE GOES.
>S
DRAGON ROOM
THERE IS A DISHEVELLED AND SLIGHTLY
UNKEMPT PRINCESS HERE.
THE PRINCESS WALKS EAST. SHE GLANCES
BACK AT YOU AS SHE GOES.
>E

It’s another puzzle that needs that little nudge… no, wait, this puzzle has that little nudge. If only they were all this way…

But enough with good puzzles. Let’s talk about the first of Zork II‘s two legendarily bad ones: the Bank of Zork. In his review of the game on IFDB, Peter Pears actually called this puzzle “beautiful.” In a way I can see what he means, but for me it’s undone once again by a lack of sufficient cues as well as a lack of feedback and parser difficulties. The bank consists of several rooms, but the heart of it is the Safety Depository.

SAFETY DEPOSITORY
THIS IS A LARGE RECTANGULAR ROOM. THE
EAST AND WEST WALLS HERE WERE USED FOR
STORING SAFETY DEPOSIT BOXES. AS MIGHT
BE EXPECTED, ALL HAVE BEEN CAREFULLY
REMOVED BY EVIL PERSONS. TO THE EAST,
WEST, AND SOUTH OF THE ROOM ARE LARGE
DOORWAYS. THE NORTHERN "WALL" OF THE
ROOM IS A SHIMMERING CURTAIN OF LIGHT.
IN THE CENTER OF THE ROOM IS A LARGE
STONE CUBE, ABOUT 10 FEET ON A SIDE.
ENGRAVED ON THE SIDE OF THE CUBE IS SOME
LETTERING.
ON THE GROUND IS A SMALL, WORN PIECE OF
PAPER.

As you might expect, that “curtain of light” is actually another exit. However, we can’t go that way simply by typing “N.” That just leads to, “THERE IS A CURTAIN OF LIGHT THERE,” which is in turn likely to lead us to give up on that direction of inquiry. Yet it turns out we can “ENTER CURTAIN.” Similar parser problems dog us at every stage in the bank, but even they aren’t the worst of it. To make a long and convoluted puzzle short, the place where we go after entering the curtain of light is dictated by the direction we last came from before entering. This is never explained or even hinted at at any point, and it’s obviously a very subtle and tenuous connection to make. Most players who “solved” the Bank of Zork did so only through sheer persistence, moving everywhere and trying everything, and were left with no idea of what they had actually done or how the puzzle really worked. Like Zork II‘s other notorious puzzle (of which more in a moment), the Bank of Zork specifically informed an entry in Graham Nelson’s “Player’s Bill of Rights”: the player should “be able to understand a problem once it is solved.”

Next we explore the volcano area to the west, which we accomplish largely via a hot-air balloon. Many of the puzzles and situations in Zork were designed around the capabilities of the technology used to create the games. Having created the programming for vehicles once for the boat found back in Zork I, the designers continued to use it again and again. Like the well, the balloon puzzle first involves deducing what it — “A LARGE AND EXTREMELY HEAVY WICKER BASKET” with “A RECEPTACLE OF SOME KIND” in the center and “AN ENORMOUS CLOTH BAG DRAPED OVER THE SIDE” — actually is. We need to burn something, like the U.S. New and Dungeon Report, in the receptacle to inflate the bag. The idea that burning something as small as a newspaper could do the trick doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in the real world, but adventure games have always had physics all their own, as Duncan Stevens and I briefly discussed in the comments section of my last post. Of more immediate concern are the parser frustrations that once again make this puzzle more difficult than it was likely designed to be.

And so we come to the Oddly-Angled Room, better known as the infamous baseball maze. At first it appears to be a conventional maze, but we soon realize that it defies all attempts to map it. Every connection is literally random, changing constantly according to no rhyme or reason. The diamond-shaped windows in the floor of each room don’t seem to offer much help. The key clue is the “club” we find:

A LONG WOODEN CLUB LIES ON THE GROUND
NEAR THE DIAMOND-SHAPED WINDOW. THE CLUB
IS CURIOUSLY BURNED AT THE THICK END.
>GET CLUB
TAKEN.
>EXAMINE CLUB
THE WORDS "BABE FLATHEAD" ARE BURNED
INTO THE WOOD.

We’re expected to “run the bases”, moving diagonally through the rooms starting from home plate, which is located at the west end of the “ballpark”: southeast, northeast, northwest, southwest. The windows give us a slight clue when we are on the right track, lighting up more strongly for each correct movement we make. Even so, this is all deeply problematic on a couple of levels. Firstly, Zork eventually spread well beyond the United States, to players who had no clue about the game of baseball, inspiring the most amusingly specific of all Nelson’s Player’s Rights: a player should “not need to be American to understand hints.” But of course, even many Americans aren’t interested in baseball at all and know next to nothing about it. This right could be better rewritten as a prohibition on requiring any sort of esoteric or domain-specific outside knowledge. Yet the puzzle is even dodgy for someone like me, who loves baseball. From what I can see, there is no way to deduce that home plate in this particular ballpark is located at its western side, and thus no way to know which way to go in running the bases, at least outside of the extremely, shall we say, subtle cues offered by the windows. The baseball maze wasn’t in the PDP-10 Zork, but was devised by Lebling specifically for the PC version. He’s repeatedly apologized for it over the years since, noting that it stemmed from his boredom with mazes and desire to do something different with the general idea. Needless to say, we’d have been better off with a standard maze.

Up to this point we’ve been amassing treasures and scoring points for collecting them, but, unlike in Zork I, we’ve found no obvious thing to do with them. In the PDP-10 version, these treasures were simply more loot to be collected in the white house’s trophy case. In this game, of course, that’s not possible, what with the barrow having sealed itself behind us and the white house consigned to Zork I. The most obvious solution to this problem would have been to just give us another trophy case somewhere. That’s not, however, what Lebling chose to do. Instead he decided to devise an actual purpose for our collection beyond looting for looting’s (and points’) sake. Like other elements of Zork II, the need to restructure things for practical reasons here led Lebling to take a step in the direction of story.

Now, late in the game, we penetrate the Wizard’s inner sanctum at last. Amongst other fun and puzzles, we can summon a demon here by making use of the three magic spheres we’ve collected earlier — the one in the Alice area which the robot helped us to collect, the one behind the locked door in the Dreary Room, and one which we find in the aquarium inside the wizard’s inner sanctum itself. But demons, of course, don’t work for free. To do us a favor, he demands payment in the form of ten treasures. Yes, it’s all very pat and convenient, but combined with other innovations like the Wizard himself it gives Zork II a shred of plotting and motivation that both Zork I and the PDP-10 Zork lack. Count it as a step on Infocom’s road from text adventures to interactive fiction.

Once the demon is satisfied, we have a favor at our disposal. Unfortunately, it’s easy neither to figure out what that favor should be nor how we should go about asking for it. If we manage both, though, we’re greeted with this:

>SAY TO DEMON "GIVE ME WAND"
"I HEAR AND OBEY!" SAYS THE DEMON. HE
STRETCHES OUT AN ENORMOUS HAND TOWARDS
THE WAND. THE WIZARD IS UNSURE WHAT TO
DO, POINTING IT THREATENINGLY AT THE
DEMON, THEN AT YOU. "FUDGE!" HE CRIES,
BUT ASIDE FROM A STRONG ODOR OF
CHOCOLATE IN THE AIR, THERE IS NO
EFFECT. THE DEMON PLUCKS THE WAND OUT OF
HIS HAND (IT'S ABOUT TOOTHPICK SIZE TO
HIM) AND GINGERLY LAYS IT ON THE GROUND
BEFORE YOU. HE FADES INTO THE SMOKE,
WHICH DISPERSES. THE WIZARD RUNS FROM
THE ROOM IN TERROR.

And so the tables are turned. I feel a little bit sorry for the poor fellow. He seems more playfully insane than evil. But then again, I feel sorry for a lot of the monsters I have to kill in Wizardry, so count me as just a big softie.

We now have a magic wand at our disposal — a very cool thing. The immediate temptation is to go around waving it at anything and everything, trying out each of the Wizard’s arsenal of spells. Yet for inexplicable in-story reasons but all too explicable technical reasons, only one actually works: Float, which lifts a boulder for us to unblock an entrance in the Menhir Room and retrieve a final key item. I particularly wanted to spell a certain three-headed guard dog in the Cerberus Room, but, alas, my efforts to Ferment, Freeze, and even Filch the hound proved in vain. Only Float gave any sort of appropriate response at all: “THE HUGE DOG RISES ABOUT AN INCH OFF THE GROUND, FOR A MOMENT.” If the implementation here is kind of sketchy, the idea of having a collection of spells at one’s disposal is still a very compelling one, and one that obviously remained with Lebling and his colleagues: they would later produce a trilogy of games that revolved around that very mechanic.

We now make our way into the final room of the game, the crypt. We also now have all 400 points — and yet the game doesn’t end. We in fact have one final puzzle to solve. We need to extinguish the lantern within the crypt, using some grue repellent we found lying around to protect ourselves. In the darkness we can see the “FAINT OUTLINE” of a “VERY TIGHT DOOR,” the way forward into Zork III. It’s yet one final example of a clever little puzzle that just needed a little bit more of a nudge; the solution is arguably hinted at, but much earlier in the game, and so subtly it’s almost impossible not to overlook. For the really unlucky, the game here also unveils its nastiest trick of all. One of the spells the Wizard — luckily, seemingly very rarely — casts is Flouresce, which causes one to glow with light, apparently in perpetuity. What a lucky break, one thinks; no more worrying about that expiring lantern! Until, of course, one comes here and can’t finish the game. Infocom may have been making them better than anyone else already, but they were still making them pretty damn cruel at times.

But that’s Zork II for you — more sophisticated technically and thematically than its predecessor, but also with more design issues and a wider mean streak. Of course, in evaluating works we always have to be mindful of the milieu that created them. Adventure games in 1981 were cruel and difficult as a matter of course. Infocom in the years to come would be largely responsible for showing that they could succeed as art and challenge as games without hating their players, but they weren’t quite there yet. Likewise, they would show that they could be about more than treasures, puzzles, and points, but Zork II merely nods in that direction rather than striding down that road with purpose. Neither a masterpiece nor an outright failure, Zork II stands as an important way-station rather than a definitive landmark.

Still, those looking for a game changer should just stick around. Infocom’s next release would not completely sort out the adventure-game design issues I’ve been harping on about for many posts now, but it would completely upend the traditional definition of what an adventure game was and what it could do.

 

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Zork II, Part 1

There’s a phenomenon we music fans often talk about called the “sophomore slump.” Before signing a record deal and recording that first album, bands generally spend years honing their craft and forging their musical identity. When they go into the studio for the first time at last, they know exactly who they are and what brought them here, and they also have the cream of all those years of songwriting at their disposal — polished, practiced, and audience tested. Yet when it comes time for the second album, assuming they get to make one, things are suddenly much more uncertain. All of those great songs that defined them were used up last time around, and now they’re left to pick through the material that didn’t make the cut and/or craft new stuff under time pressure they’ve never known before. Further, a sort of existential crisis often greets them. What kind of band do they want to be? Should they continue to work within the sound that got them this far, or should they push for more and get more experimental? Many try to split the difference, resulting in an uneven album unwilling to definitively do either, and full of songs and performances that, while perhaps perfectly competent, lack a certain pop, a spark of freshness compared to what came before.

I see some of the same thing in Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz. Lebling and Infocom took some real, significant steps forward here, beginning to move beyond the “collect treasures for points” structure of the first game, but the whole thing feels a bit tentative. Infocom’s parser and world-modeling remain streets beyond what anyone else was doing, but they no longer carry quite the same shock of discovery. The writing gets sharper, funnier, and more consistent in tone, but, at least in the first release we’ll be looking at, the game suffers a bit from the need to have it out before Christmas, with an unusual (for Infocom) number of little bugs, glitches, and parser frustrations. There are some wonderful puzzles here along with some puzzles that just need an extra in-game nudge to be wonderful — in fact, far more of both than in Zork I — but also some absurd howlers, including the two most universally loathed in the entire Infocom canon. They’re proof that, while Lebling felt he should make Zork II harder than its predecessor, he wasn’t yet quite clear on the best way to accomplish that. So, like so many second albums, Zork II is a mixed bag. You can see it in very different ways depending on what you choose to emphasize, and, indeed, you’ll find very diverse opinions about its overall merit.

As I did with Zork I, I’m going to take you on a little tour of Zork II. The map above may help you to follow along. I’m also again making available the somewhat rare original story file for those seeking the most authentic historical experience. You can play it right in your browser thanks to the good folks behind Parchment, or download it to play in an interpreter that supports the Version 2 Z-Machine. Or you can choose the Apple II disk image.

We begin Zork II just where we presumably left off, inside the barrow which collecting the last of the treasures in Zork I opened up to us. Unlike in the PDP-10 Zork, the barrow has sealed behind us upon entrance, an obvious concession to the need to keep Zork I‘s chocolate separate from Zork II‘s peanut butter. We do have our two most faithful companions from Zork I, our lantern and our sword. (The lantern is also, thankfully, fully charged again for some unexplained reason.)

As soon as we begin to move deeper into the game from our initial location at the extreme north of the map, we see one of the more obvious and welcome signs of progress over its predecessor: Lebling now has no interest at all in making the geography itself into a puzzle. Everything connects with everything else in a consistent, straightforward manner, a far cry from the beginning of Zork I, where we were first challenged to spend an hour or two laboriously mapping all of the twisty intersections of the forest. Zork II doesn’t even feature the heretofore obligatory maze, at least in the conventional sense. (What replaces it is annoying enough that one is left wishing for a good old straightforward maze, but more on that later…)

Soon we have our first encounter with the man who will be our nemesis throughout the game: the Wizard of Frobozz.

A STRANGE LITTLE MAN IN A LONG CLOAK
APPEARS SUDDENLY IN THE ROOM. HE IS
WEARING A HIGH POINTED HAT EMBROIDERED
WITH ASTROLOGICAL SIGNS. HE HAS A LONG,
STRINGY, AND UNKEMPT BEARD.
THE WIZARD DRAWS FORTH HIS WAND AND
WAVES IT IN YOUR DIRECTION. IT BEGINS TO
GLOW WITH A FAINT BLUE GLOW.
THE WIZARD, IN A DEEP AND RESONANT
VOICE, SPEAKS THE WORD "FERMENT!" HE
CACKLES GLEEFULLY.

YOU BEGIN TO FEEL LIGHTHEADED.

The Wizard is one of Lebling’s innovations for the PC Zork II, and interesting on several levels. He appears more frequently and is characterized much more strongly than Zork I‘s thief. While the thief was a mere impediment and annoyance, our central goal in Zork II is to overcome the Wizard; thus his pride of place in the game’s subtitle. But never fear — the Wizard is also every bit as annoying as the thief ever was. He pops up from time to time to cast a randomly chosen spell on us, all of which begin with “F”: Filch, Freeze, Float, Fall, Fence, Fantasize, etc. Some of these, like Ferment, which makes us unable to walk straight for a (randomly chosen) number of turns, are mere inconveniences. Others — like Filch, which causes a randomly chosen item to disappear from our inventory, or Fall, which can kill us instantly if cast on, say, a cliff-side — leave us no recourse but to restore from our last save. What with our expiring, non-renewable light source, even the less potent spells become a problem in forcing us to waste precious turns waiting for their effects to expire. We pretty quickly get into the habit of just restoring every time we get spelled.

Every player will have to decide for herself whether the Wizard is funny enough to outweigh this annoyance factor. But the bumbling old Wizard, whose spells occasionally misfire in amusing ways, is genuinely funny.

THE WIZARD DRAWS FORTH HIS WAND AND
WAVES IT IN YOUR DIRECTION. IT BEGINS TO
GLOW WITH A FAINT BLUE GLOW.
THERE IS A LOUD CRACKLING NOISE. BLUE
SMOKE RISES FROM OUT OF THE WIZARD'S
SLEEVE. HE SIGHS AND DISAPPEARS.

Zork has always had a split personality. Authors give us either unabashedly silly, mildly satirical comedy, or an aged, now deserted world possessed of a lonely, faded grandeur. As the product of multiple authors writing pretty much to suit whatever whims struck them, Zork I itself pioneered both approaches, vacillating between them with no apparent concern. For every majestic Aragain Falls view, there was a cyclops to be fed hot peppers. With Zork II, however, Lebling has clearly decided to craft a “funny Zork.” And so we get various shoddy contraptions labeled as products of “The Frobozz Magic <insert item here> Company,” sort of the Wizard’s equivalent of Wile E. Coyote’s Acme Corporation. And we get lots of silly anecdotes about the excesses of the royal Flathead family and its patriarch, Lord Dimwit himself. Lebling shows a real gift for light comedy throughout, knowing how to craft jokes without trying too hard and beating us over the (flat)head with them.

In a gazebo in the garden, one of Lebling’s new additions, he places an homage to the original Zork, a copy of U.S. News and Dungeon Report.

** U.S. NEWS AND DUNGEON REPORT **

FAMED ADVENTURER TO EXPLORE GREAT
UNDERGROUND EMPIRE

OUR CORRESPONDENTS REPORT THAT A
WORLD-FAMOUS AND BATTLE-HARDENED
ADVENTURER HAS BEEN SEEN IN THE VICINITY
OF THE GREAT UNDERGROUND EMPIRE. LOCAL
GRUES HAVE BEEN REPORTED SHARPENING
THEIR (SLAVERING) FANGS....

"ZORK: THE WIZARD OF FROBOZZ" WAS
WRITTEN BY DAVE LEBLING AND MARC BLANK,
AND IS (C) COPYRIGHT 1981 BY INFOCOM,
INC.

You may remember that a magazine of the same title used to always sit inside the white house of the PDP-10 Zork to announce the latest news and additions to the online community that sprung up around the game.

Like its predecessors, Zork II imposes a pretty harsh inventory limit, forcing us to choose a base of operations to keep all of the stuff we collect. A good choice is the Carousel Room, a central hub around which the game’s geography — literally — revolves. (The game always chooses a random direction for us when we leave the Carousel Room; we can solve a puzzle to stop its rotation.) Indeed, there’s a definite combinatorial explosion that adds greatly to the difficulty. The map is a large one, and largely open from the start, leaving us to pick through piles of unsolved puzzles looking for the ones which we can actually solve at any given point. Just figuring out what we should be working on is much of the challenge.

Southeast of the Carousel Room is the appropriately named Riddle Room. In front of a sealed door we read the following:

WHAT IS TALL AS A HOUSE,
ROUND AS A CUP,
AND ALL THE KING'S HORSES
CAN'T DRAW IT UP?

The answer is a well.

Riddles aren’t really approved practice in interactive-fiction design these days, largely because they’re just so dependent on intuition and all too often very culturally specific, and thus notoriously variable in difficulty from player to player. There’s also a certain element of cheapness about them, a quality they share with mazes. A designer in need of a puzzle can throw in a riddle in a matter of minutes, then watch contentedly as at least some subset of her players agonize for hours. Still, as adventure-game riddles go this one isn’t awful, and there is an undeniable thrill in getting a riddle in a flash of insight — much like when solving other, better respected sorts of adventure-game puzzles. In Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort names the riddle as the text adventure’s most important literary antecedent. I’m not entirely convinced of that, but if true it does present the opportunity to view Zork‘s riddle as this new form already glancing back to its roots. Not that I believe for a moment that anything of the sort was on the designers’ minds.

Beyond the Riddle Room is the Circular Room:

CIRCULAR ROOM

THIS IS A DAMP CIRCULAR ROOM, WHOSE
WALLS ARE MADE OF BRICK AND MORTAR. THE
ROOF OF THIS ROOM IS NOT VISIBLE, BUT
THERE APPEAR TO BE SOME ETCHINGS ON THE
WALLS. THERE IS A PASSAGEWAY TO THE
WEST.

THERE IS A WOODEN BUCKET HERE, 3 FEET IN
DIAMETER AND 3 FEET HIGH.

With a little thought, not to mention some consideration of the riddle we just solved, we can conclude that we are standing at the bottom of a well. It turns out that it’s not just a well, but a magic well; if we pour some water into the bucket, it will hoist us up to a new area at its top. I mentioned earlier that a number of puzzles in Zork II are just a nudge away from being excellent. This one is a good example. While there’s a certain elegant logic to it, we aren’t told that it’s a magic well until we reach the top and see the “Frobozz Magic Well Company” logo. It’s just a little bit too much of a stretch in its present form. Or maybe I’m supposed to be able to find some clue in these etchings found at the bottom:

       O  B  O

       A  G  I
         E L

       M  P  A

If anyone can figure out what that’s on about, let me know.

At the top of the well is the so-called “Alice” area. Lewis Carroll would prove to be a great favorite of adventure-game writers because his blend of surrealism, logical illogic, and love of puzzles fit the genre so well, making his works just about as perfect as any traditional literature can be for adaptation to the adventure-game form. Before any official adaptations, however, Infocom paid him homage here. (Like the well area, the Alice area was present in the PDP-10 version, and thus dates to approximately 1978.) We find some cakes with the expected effect on our size, and once appropriately shrunken visit a pool of tears lifted straight from Chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland. It all makes for some lovely puzzles. It’s sort of amusing that we must travel up a well to visit the Alice area in Zork II, while Alice fell down a well to start her adventures in the book. Of course, there’s also quite a similarity between the premise of the Zork games as a whole and that of the Alice books. Both include vast magical landscapes accessed via the most mundane of gateways, and both are all about puzzles and play rather than plot.

As already demonstrated via the Wizard, Zork II does have a modicum more interpersonal interaction than its predecessor, making adventuring in these dungeons feel just a bit less lonely. For the first time (discounting the PDP-10 version) it allows us to actually talk to other characters, entering into some fraught territory that still bedevils IF authors today. Zork II‘s system is still pretty awkward: we can only “TELL <someone> ‘<something>’,” with the quotes a necessity. It does, however, allow for a pretty impressive demonstration of Infocom’s technology, in the form of a little robot also located at the top of the well whom we can order about just as if he were, well, us. (Like Zork I, Zork II happily jumps from science-fiction robots to fantasy monsters to present-day elements with no compunction whatsoever.) The robot is key to another of those puzzles that just needed a little bit more work to be great.

There’s a magical sphere that we’d really like to loot, but it’s protected by the “Frobozz Magic Alarm Company.” When we try to take it, a cage drops around us, the room fills with a poison gas, and we die after a couple of turns. Trying to get the robot to take the sphere for us doesn’t work. The cage crushes the poor little guy rather than merely trapping him for some reason, in a scene oddly reminescent of a famous incident from Infocom’s later Planetfall. The sphere, meanwhile, disappears (presumably it’s inside the cage). The solution is to have the robot in the room with us when we trigger the trap, then have him “GET CAGE” to get us free before the gas asphyxiates us. In the abstract it’s not a bad puzzle. However, it’s so fraught with implementation problems that it’s well-nigh impossible to deduce what’s really going on. The game gives us no sign that we can still interact with the robot at all from inside the cage. Even if we make that cognitive leap on our own, it still refuses to make anything easy for us.

>GET SPHERE
AS YOU REACH FOR THE SPHERE, A STEEL
CAGE FALLS FROM THE CEILING TO ENTRAP
YOU. TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, POISONOUS
GAS STARTS COMING INTO THE ROOM.
CAGE
YOU ARE TRAPPED INSIDE A STEEL CAGE.
>TELL ROBOT "GET GAS"
I DON'T KNOW THE WORD 'GAS'.
>TELL ROBOT "HELP"
I DON'T KNOW THE WORD 'HELP'.
>TELL ROBOT "N"
"WHIRR, BUZZ, CLICK!"
YOU CAN'T GO THAT WAY.
>L
CAGE
YOU ARE TRAPPED INSIDE A STEEL CAGE.
>EXAMINE CAGE
I SEE NOTHING SPECIAL ABOUT THE STEEL
CAGE.
>TELL ROBOT "BREAK CAGE"
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BREAK THE CAGE WITH?
>ROBOT
TRYING TO DESTROY THE STEEL CAGE HAS NO
EFFECT.
>TELL ROBOT "GET CAGE"
THE CAGE SHAKES AND IS HURLED ACROSS THE
ROOM. IT'S HARD TO SAY, BUT THE ROBOT
APPEARS TO BE SMILING.
DINGY CLOSET
THERE IS A BEAUTIFUL RED CRYSTAL SPHERE
HERE.
>GET SPHERE
TAKEN.

I’ve edited out from the above the dying every couple of turns.

Questions abound. Where actually was the sphere when we were inside the cage, since it was apparently neither inside nor outside? Why does “GETting” the cage cause the robot to break it, and “BREAKing” it get us nowhere? It’s issues like this that sometimes make Zork II, at least in this first released version, feel a bit undercooked.

 

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The Adventure Bundle

This is not normally a news blog, but I’m making an exception today. You see, Konstantinos from Gnomes Lair just brought my attention to his new collection of adventure games at bundle-in-a-box.com. There are five games included in the standard package: the brand new The Sea Will Claim Everything by Jonas Kyratzes as well as the older Gemini Rue, Ben There, Dan That!, Time Gentlemen, Please!, and 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery.

You can pay what you want for the bundle, as long as you pay at least $2.99 starting out. (That minimum will drop by $.05 for every 500 bundles that are sold.) If you pledge more than the average price for your bundle you’ll also get two more games, Metal Dead and The Shivah. So, hey, be generous, especially since proceeds go to a Greek charity and to launch an Indie Dev Grant.

Of the games themselves, I’ve actually played four already. 1893 is one of the largest and most ambitious text adventures ever created, and perhaps the most concerted attempt ever to recreate a specific historical reality in the medium. Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please are a pair of very funny graphic adventures in the LucasArts tradition. And The Shivah is the first work of Dave Gilbert, the man behind the Blackwell series. I’m less familiar with the other titles, but judging from the company they’re keeping I’m sure they’re also worthy.

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2012 in Interactive Fiction, Modern Times

 

Infocom: Going It Alone

With Zork on the market and proving to be a major hit, it was time for Infocom to think about the inevitable sequel. The task of preparing it fell to Dave Lebling. At first glance, it looked straightforward enough. He needed only take the half of the original PDP-10 Zork that had not made it into the PC version, label it Zork II, and be done with it. In actuality, however, it was a little more complicated. The new game would at a minimum have to have some restructuring. For example, the goal of the PDP-10 Zork, like the PC version, was to deliver a collection of treasures to the white house outside of which the player started the game. Yet in Zork II said house would not exist. Perhaps motivated at first largely by necessity, Lebling began to tinker with the original design. Soon, inspired by the new ZIL technology Infocom had developed to let them port Zork to the PC, technology that was actually more flexible, more powerful, and simpler to work with than the MDL behind the original Zork, Lebling began to dramatically reshape the design, interspersing elements from the original with new areas, puzzles, and characters. In the end, he would use only about half of the leftover PDP-10 material, which in turn would make up about half of Zork II; the other half would be new. Lebling thus became the first implementer to consciously craft an Infocom game, for sale as a commercial product on PCs.

To the outside world, Infocom now began to establish the corporate personality that people would soon come to love almost as much as their games — a chummy, witty inclusiveness that made people who bought the games feel like they had just signed up for a “smart persons club.” Rather than one of the Zork creators or even one of the Infocom shareholders, the organizer and guider of the club was Mike Dornbrook, a recent MIT biology graduate who had come to Zork only in 1980, as the first and most important playtester of the PC version.

More than anyone else around Infocom, Dornbrook was a believer in Zork, convinced it was far more than an interesting hacking exercise, a way to get some money coming in en route to more serious products, or even “just” a really fun game. He saw Zork as something new under the sun, something that could in some small way change the world. He strongly encouraged Infocom to build a community around this nascent new art form. At his behest, the earliest version of Zork included the following message on a note in the artist’s studio:

Congratulations!
You are the privileged owner of a genuine ZORK Great Underground Empire (Part I), a self contained and self maintaining universe. As a legitimate owner, you have available to you both the Movement Assistance Planner (MAP) and Hierarchical Information for Novice Treasure Seekers (HINTS). For information about these and other services, send a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope to:

Infocom, Inc.
GUE I Maintenance Division
PO Box 120, Kendall Station
Cambridge, Mass. 02142

Joining the smart-persons club was at this stage still quite a complicated process. The aforementioned self-addressed envelope would be retrieved by Stu Galley, who dutifully visited the post office each day. He then sent back a sheet offering a map for purchase, as well as the ultimate personalized hint service; for a couple of dollars a pop, Infocom would personally answer queries.

The map was adapted from Lebling’s original by Dave Ardito, an artist friend of Galley’s who embellished the lines and boxes with some appropriately adventurous visual flourishes. Dornbrook, who had some experience with printing, used his MIT alumni status to print the maps in the middle of the night on a big printing press that normally produced posters and flyers for upcoming campus events. He enlisted his roommate, Steve Meretzky, to help him.

Meretzky was also an MIT alum, having graduated in 1979 with a degree in construction management. He may have gone to the most important computer-science university in the world, but Meretzky wanted no part of that world. He “despised” computers and hackers. In Get Lamp‘s Infocom feature, Dornbrook described Meretzky’s introduction to Zork. Dornbrook was testing the game, and had borrowed a TRS-80 and brought it home to their apartment, where he set it up on the kitchen table.

He [Meretzky] came in the back door and saw the computer and said, “Away!” as only Steve could. I started telling him, “Steve, you’re going to love this!” I was trying to explain to him how to start the game up, and he puts his hands over his ears and starts screaming so he can’t hear me.

But apparently he heard enough. Over the course of the next several weeks, I started noticing when I’d come home and was about to start testing again that the keyboard might have moved half an inch or my notes had moved slightly. I realized Steve was playing the game but wasn’t willing to admit it. One night he finally broke down and said, “Alright! Alright! I need a hint!” And that was the beginning of the end for Steve.

Meretzky soon signed up as a tester, and also joined Dornbrook in his other Infocom-related projects.

There’s a great interview amongst the Get Lamp extras with David Shaw, an MIT student who wrote for the campus newspaper, whose offices were just above the press Dornbrook and Meretzky were surreptitiously borrowing. Shaw was confused by the fact that the press “always seemed to be running,” even when there were no new campus events to promote: “There were always the same two or three guys down there. They were printing something out that clearly wasn’t a movie poster, but they were also being very cagey about what it was they were printing.” One day Shaw found Dornbrook and Meretzky’s apparent “discard pile” of Zork maps and realized at last what was going on.

While the maps were a team effort, hints fell entirely to Dornbrook. He hand-wrote replies on ordinary paper. After a time he found it to be quite a profitable, if occasionally tedious, endeavor. Because most of the queries were variations on the same handful of questions, crafting personal answers didn’t take as much time as one might expect. (See the Infocom section of the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities for scans of the original maps and, even better, a couple of Dornbrook’s handwritten replies to hint requests.)

Then Dornbrook was accepted into an MBA program at the University of Chicago, scheduled to begin in the fall, meaning of course that he would have to leave Boston and give up day-to-day contact with the Infocom folks. No one else felt equipped to replace Dornbrook, who had by this point become in reality if not title Infocom’s head of public relations. Dornbrook, concerned about what would happen to “his” loyal customers, tried to convince President Joel Berez to hire a replacement. Impossible, Berez replied; the company just didn’t yet have the resources to devote someone to nothing but customer relations. So Dornbrook pitched another idea. He would form a new company, the Zork Users Group, to sell hints, maps, memorabilia, and even Infocom games themselves at a slight discount to eager players who joined his new club, which he would run out of Chicago between classes. Infocom in turn would be relieved of this burden. They could simply refer hints request to Dornbrook, and worry only about making more and better games. Berez agreed, and ZUG was officially born in October of 1981. It would peak at over 20,000 members — but more about that in future posts.

Through much of 1981, Infocom assumed that Personal Software, publisher of the first Zork, would also publish Zork II. After all, Zork was a substantial hit. And indeed, PS responded positively when Infocom first talked with them about Zork II in April. The two companies went so far as to sign a contract that June. But just a few months later PS suddenly pulled the deal. Further, they also announced that they would be dropping the first Zork as well. What happened? wondered Infocom.

What had happened, of course, was VisiCalc. Dan Fylstra, founder of PS, had nurtured Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston’s creation from its very early days, donating an Apple II to the pair to help them develop their idea. Once released in October of 1979, VisiCalc transformed the microcomputer industry — and transformed its publisher. PS, formerly a publisher of games and hobbyist programs, was suddenly “the VisiCalc publisher,” one of the hottest up-and-coming companies in the country. As big as Zork was, it didn’t amount to much in comparison to VisiCalc. By 1981 games and hobbyist software made up less than 10 percent of PS’s revenue. Small wonder that Infocom often felt like their game was something of an afterthought for PS. Now the IBM PC was on the horizon, and PS found itself being courted even by the likes of Big Blue themselves, who needed for VisiCalc to be available on their new computer. Just as Microsoft was also doing at this time, PS began to reshape themselves, leaving behind their hacker and hobbyist roots to focus on the exploding market for VisiCalc and other business software. They began doing in-house development for the first time, rolling out a whole line of programs to capitalize on the VisiCalc name: VisiDex, VisiPlot, VisiTrend, VisiTerm, VisiFile. The following year PS would complete their Visification by renaming themselves VisiCorp, en route to disappearing up their own VisiBum in one of the more spectacular flameouts in software history.

In this new paradigm Zork was not just unnecessary but potentially dangerous. Games were anathema to the new army of pinstriped business customers suddenly buying PCs. Companies like PS, who wished to serve them and be taken seriously despite their own questionable hacker origins, thus began to give anything potentially entertaining a wide berth. The games line would have to go, victim of the same paranoia that kept Infocom’s own Al Vezza up at night.

This rejection left Infocom at a crossroads. It wasn’t, mind you, a disaster; there would doubtlessly be plenty of other publishers eager to sign them now that they had a hit game under their belt. Yet they weren’t sure that was the direction they wanted to go. While there was a certain prestige in being published by the biggest software publisher in the world, they had never really been satisfied with PS. They had always felt like a low priority. The awful Zork “barbarian” packaging PS had come up with made one wonder if anyone at PS had actually bothered to play the game, and promotion efforts had felt cursory and disinterested. Certainly PS had never shown the slightest interest in helping Infocom and Dornbrook to build a loyal customer base. If they wanted to build Infocom as a brand, as the best text adventures in the business, why should they have another company’s logo on their boxes?

But of course becoming a publisher would require Infocom to become a “real” company rather than one that did business from a P.O. Box, with more people involved and real money invested. In a choice between keeping Infocom a profitable little sideline or, well, going for it, the Infocom founders chose the latter.

Several of them secured a substantial loan to bankroll the transition. They also secured a fellow named Mort Rosenthal as marketing manager. He lasted less than a year with Infocom, getting himself fired when he overstepped his authority to offer Infocom’s games to Radio Shack at a steep discount that would get them into every single store. Before that, however, he worked wonders, and not just in marketing. A natural wheeler and dealer, he in Stu Galley’s words secured “a time-shared production plant in Randolph, an ad agency in Watertown, an order-taking service in New Jersey, a supplier of disks in California, and so on,” all in a matter of weeks. He also found them their first tiny office above Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The first two salaried employees to come to work there became Berez, the company’s most prominent business mind, and Marc Blank, the architect of the Z-Machine who had already more than a year before set aside his medical internship and moved back to Boston to take a flyer on the venture.

Showing an instinct for public perception that’s surprising to find in a bunch of hackers, Infocom made one last deal with PS — to buy back PS’s remaining copies of Zork and prevent them from dumping the games onto the market at a discount, thus devaluing the Zork brand. They needed to have Zork II out in time for Christmas, and so worked frantically with the advertising agency Rosenthal had found to craft a whole new look for the series. The motif they came up with was much more appropriate and classy than the old PS barbarian. In fact, it remains the established “look” of Zork to this day.

Ironically for a company whose games were all text, Infocom’s level of visual refinement set them apart, not least in the classic logo that debuted at this time and would remain a fixture for the rest of the company’s life. But speaking of text: in Zork II‘s advertising and packaging we can already see the rhetorical voice that Infocom fans would come to know, a seemingly casual, humorous vibe that nevertheless reflected an immense amount of care — this at a time when most game publishers still seemed to consider even basic grammar of little concern. In comparison to everybody else, Infocom just seemed a little bit classier, a little bit smarter, a little bit more adult. It’s an image that would serve them well.

Next time we’ll accept the invitation above and dive into Zork II itself, which did indeed make it out just in time for Christmas.

 

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The IBM PC, Part 4

IBM officially announced the IBM PC on August 12, 1981, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. With 16 K of RAM and a single floppy drive, the machine had a suggested price of $1565; loaded, it could reach $6000. Those prices got you Microsoft BASIC for free, hosted in ROM. MS-DOS, sold under IBM’s license as PC-DOS, would cost you $40, while UCSD Pascal would cost you over $500. IBM also announced that CP/M-86 would be available — at some point. In the end, it would be over six months before Digital would finally deliver CP/M-86. When they did, IBM dutifully put it in their catalog, but at a price of some $240. Kildall, who remained convinced until his death that MS-DOS was a rip-off of CP/M and from time to time claimed to be able to prove it via this secretly imbedded message or that odd API attribute, believed that IBM deliberately priced CP/M six times higher than MS-DOS in order to make sure no one actually bought it, thus honoring the letter of their agreement but not the spirit. IBM, for its part, simply claimed that Digital had demanded such high licensing fees that they had no choice. Of the four operating paradigms, three of them — CP/M, Microsoft BASIC, and UCSD Pascal — ended up being used so seldom that few today even remember they were options in the first place. MS-DOS, of course, went on to conquer the world.

The hardware, meanwhile, is best described as stolid and, well, kind of boring. For all of its unusual (by IBM standards) development process, the final product really wasn’t far removed from what people had come to expect from IBM. There was no great creative flair about its design, but, from its keyboard that clunked satisfyingly every time you pressed a key to its big, substantial-looking case with lots of metal inside, it looked and operated like a tool you could rely on. And that wasn’t just a surface impression. Whatever else you could say about it, the IBM PC was built to last. Perhaps its most overlooked innovation is its use of memory with an extra parity bit to automatically detect failures. It was the first mass-market microcomputer to be so equipped, giving protection from rare but notoriously difficult to trace memory errors that could cause all sorts of unpredictable behavior on other early PCs. RAM parity isn’t really the sort of thing that inflames the passions of hackers, but for a businessperson looking for a machine to entrust with her livelihood, it’s exactly the sort of thing that made IBM IBM. They made you feel safe.

Indeed, and even if its lack of design imagination would just confirm hackers’ prejudices, for plenty of businesspeople uncertain about all these scruffy upstart companies the IBM PC’s arrival legitimized the microcomputer as a serious tool for a serious purpose. Middle managers rushed to buy them, because no one ever got fired for buying an IBM — even if no one was ever all that excited about buying one either. IBM sold some 13,500 PCs in the last couple of months of 1981 alone, and the numbers just soared from there.

With IBM in the PC game at last — machines actually started shipping ahead of schedule, in October — those who had been there all along were left to wonder what it all meant. Radio Shack’s John Roach had the most unfortunate response: “I don’t think it’s that significant.” Another Radio Shack executive was only slightly less dismissive: “There definitely is a new kid on the block, but there is nothing that IBM has presented that would blow the industry away.” Apple, then as now much better at this public-relations stuff than just about anyone else, took a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal saying, “Welcome IBM. Seriously.” Like so much Apple advertising, it’s quite a masterful piece of rhetoric, managing to sound gracious while at the same time making it clear that a) IBM is the latecomer and b) Apple intend to treat them as peers, nothing more.

Years later it would be clear that the arrival of the IBM PC was the third great milestone in PC history, following the first microcomputer kits in 1975 and the trinity of 1977. It also marked the end of the first era of Microsoft’s history, as a scrappy but respected purveyor of BASICs, other programming languages, and applications software (in that order). In the wake of the IBM PC’s launch, Microsoft quite quickly cut their ties to the older, more hacker-ish communities in which they had grown up to hitch their wagon firmly to the IBM and MS-DOS business-computing train. Plenty of aesthetic, technical, and legal ugliness waited for them down those tracks, but so did hundreds and hundreds of billions.

The other players in this little history I’m just completing had more mixed fates. Seattle Computer Products straggled on for a few more years, but finally went under in 1985. Rod Brock did, however, still have one thing of immense value. You’ll remember that Brock had sold 86-DOS to Microsoft outright, but had received an exclusive license to it in return. With his company failing, he decided to cash out by selling that license on the open market to the highest bidder. Microsoft, faced with seeing a huge vendor like Radio Shack, Compaq, or even IBM themselves suddenly able to sell MS-DOS-equipped machines without paying Microsoft anything, decided retroactively that the license was non-transferrable. The whole thing devolved into a complicated legal battle, one of the first of many for Microsoft. In the end Brock did not sell his license, but he did receive a settlement check for $925,000 to walk away and leave well enough alone.

Of course, the man that history has immortalized as the really big loser in all this is Gary Kildall. That, however, is very much a matter of degree and interpretation. Digital Research lost their position at the head of business computing, but continued for years as a viable and intermittently profitable vendor of software and niche operating systems. Kildall also became a household name to at least the nerdier end of the television demographic as the mild-mannered, slightly rumpled co-host of PBS’s Computer Chronicles series. Novell finally bought Digital in 1991, allowing Kildall to retire a millionaire. For a loser, he did pretty well for himself in the end. Kildall, always more interested in technology than in business, was never cut out to be Bill Gates anyway. Gates may have won, but one suspects that Kildall had a lot more fun.

Although the IBM PC marked the end (and beginning) of an era, eras are things that are more obvious in retrospect than in the moment. In the immediate aftermath of the launch, things didn’t really change all that much for happy Apple, Commodore, Atari, and Radio Shack users. IBM throughout the development process had imagined the IBM PC as a machine adaptable for virtually any purpose, including going toe to toe with those companies’ offerings — thus the BASIC in ROM, the cassette option, and even an insistence that it should be possible to hook one up to a television. They even made a deal to sell it through that bastion of mainstream Americana, Sears. Still, the machine was quite expensive in even its most basic configurations, and it lacked the base of casual software (particularly games) and the dedicated users of those competitors. Nor were its graphics and sound capabilities, if perhaps surprising for existing at all, particularly tempting, especially when a new machine called the Commodore 64 came down the pipe in 1982. So, while the business community flocked to the IBM and MS-DOS in remarkably short order, the world of home, hobbyist, and educational computing would remain fairly divorced from that of the IBM PC for quite some time to come. MS-DOS would win out in the end here as well, but that would take more than a decade instead of mere months, allowing space for some of the most vibrant and fun computing cultures ever to grow and thrive. Thus, just as with its predecessor CP/M, I’ll likely have less occasion to talk about the MS-DOS world than its industry success might suggest — at least until about 1990, should we get that far.

Of course, to get to 1990 we really have to get out of 1981, don’t we? I’ve just go one more subject to cover, and then we’ll do that at last.

(Usually when I write about something in this blog I’m digging for every scrap of information to try to piece together a history I can have confidence in. In the case of this topic, though, I had mountains of material at my disposal; the birth of the IBM PC and particularly the downfall of Kildall and CP/M must be one of the most commonly told tales in computing history. As such, the hardest thing became trying to separate the, shall we say, “folk histories” from the more rigorously researched sources. Some quick but by no means exhaustive notes on sources:

Of the many mainstream books that profile Gates and/or Microsoft, I was most impressed with Hard Drive by James Wallace (in spite of the cheesy title), and used it most extensively of all.

The very first issue of PC Magazine gives a great picture of the IBM PC’s earliest months, when no one was certain of the uses to which it would eventually be put, and also features a great interview with a Bill Gates on the verge of becoming, well, Bill Gates.

David J. Bradley wrote a great memoir of Project Chess for Byte‘s September 1990 issue, and another that admittedly goes over much of the same ground in the IEEE Computer of August 2011.

Tim Paterson wrote articles about the development of MS-DOS for the March 1983 Softalk for the IBM PC and the June 1983 Byte.

Accidental Empires and its television companion Triumph of the Nerds are fun and give decent overviews, but don’t really drill much beyond easy stereotypes, and by focusing almost exclusively on Apple, Microsoft, and IBM miss about 85% of what was interesting about computing in the 1980s. Kind of like this series of posts, come to think of it, but, hey, this is just one topic in a blog, right?)

 

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