Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Magnificent Penguin

I recently was privileged to have quite an extensive series of email conversations with Mark Pelczarski, a man who played a variety of significant roles in the early software industry. I’m going to relate his story at some length here. Not only is it important in its own right, but it might also help to illustrate just how unique and, for those in the right place with the right skills, empowering those times were. As we move toward the end of 1982 in the chronology of the blog as a whole, we’re also moving into an inevitably more conventionally professional, even mercenary era. So, maybe this tale can also serve as a final goodbye to those halcyon earliest days of the American PC industry. As you’ll see, Mark’s career took in a huge swathe of history, and shows just how much could happen for a driven young man in an amazingly short span of time.

In 1970 a teenage Mark signed up for an introductory computer-programming course at his suburban Chicago high school, one of the few in the country to offer such a thing. The students programmed an IBM 1130 minicomputer housed in cabinets scattered around a special, air-conditioned room, from which mechanical clunks and chatters emitted whenever the computer was in operation. There was a cabinet for the punched-card reader, one for the printer, one for the memory (all of 16 K, mounted on a series of flat plates so that you could see each individual bit), one for the disk drives. In the center of it all was a control console that looked like something out of Star Trek, all flashing lights and switches. The students, however, rarely saw the beast they programmed. They designed and wrote out their FORTRAN programs on paper, then carefully pecked them out on a keypunch machine located in a room adjacent to the computer itself. Finally they delivered their cards to the computer operator, who fed them into the beast itself, and, hours later, delivered a printout showing what (if anything) had happened. That was the nature of the process in 1970 even for many professional programmers.

Still, young Mark was fascinated. He learned a lot during that year, thanks partly to a wonderful teacher, Paul Halac, who managed to cram more into this one-year high-school course than many computer-science majors get in their first year at university. Halac even made an arrangement with a local business to let a few of his exceptional students, Mark among them, visit one evening per week to experience a much more welcoming computing environment: our old friend HP Time-Shared BASIC. A big baseball fan, young Mark also spent some of his free time tinkering with a statistics-driven FORTRAN baseball simulation, which the powers-that-were graciously allowed him to try on the school’s computer. His program played the 1970 World Series again and again; he recalls today that “Baltimore won more frequently than Cincinnati,” just like in the real thing. The direction his life would take was pretty well set by this computer access, so rare for 1970.

University followed — specifically, the University of Illinois, where Mark managed to simultaneously earn a bachelor’s in mathematics and a master’s in education (with an emphasis on computer-aided instruction) in just four years. Here he was once again fortunate in his choice of educational institutions. The University of Illinois, you may remember, was the home base of PLATO, the pioneering and profoundly influential educational-computing network whose personalities, games, and culture would indelibly stamp the early PC era. Mark was hired by the computer-science department as a research assistant, which came with a wonderful perk: a key that gave him total access, day or night, to the building that housed the PLATO terminals. Next to that another bonus that would thrill most students, having his own office right there at the university, paled. He spent many hours hunched over a PLATO terminal, developing a new appreciation for computers as tools for entertainment, creativity, and socializing. In his role as research assistant, he also wrote papers on computer-aided instruction and programmed courseware in BASIC.

Soon after Mark left university, the trinity of 1977 appeared. Before the decade was over, he would have the chance to know all three intimately.

That year Mark was teaching math at another Illinois high school while also struggling to get a computer club started for his students in the face of decidedly limited resources. Early on, the club had no computer access at all; they could only write out their programs on paper and imagine them running on a real machine. (Incredibly, the class actually did very well in a programming contest hosted by a local college with their completely untested programs.) Eventually the school purchased a terminal and arranged with a local community college where Mark was teaching a night course on BASIC programming for dial-up access to their computer system. It was a long way from PLATO, but it was a start. Early in 1978, the school replaced the dumb terminal with a newer, cheaper option: a single TRS-80, which like the terminal had to be shared by all of the students in the computer club and Mark’s new course on “computer math.”

Soon after, Mark bought his first PC of his own — a Commodore PET. As we’ve had occasion to discuss before, the PET never quite attracted the same following in North America as did the TRS-80 and the Apple II, but a hungry if smaller market for games and other programs did exist. Mark wrote a simple football simulation and sold it to Cursor, a subscription service that distributed programs to PET owners on cassette. Soon after, however, he grew disillusioned with his purchase. The original PET’s BASIC was so riddled with bugs and oddities that you kind of have to wonder whether anyone at Commodore ever actually tried to use it at all before sending thousands of machines out the door. For example, the shift key’s function was inverted: you had to press shift to get lower case. (Since the PET was unique amongst the trinity in offering lower-case input at all, perhaps Commodore felt their customers should just shut up and live with this inconvenience.) Mark got fed up, and returned his PET to the store where he had bought it. His career as a software mogul would have to wait a while.

The next year, 1979, brought marriage and a new job teaching COBOL programming at Northern Illinois University. It also brought the Apple II Plus, which was, with its 48 K of memory and readily available floppy-disk drives, a much more refined and usable machine than any of the original trinity. Mark decided to take the microcomputer plunge again. He purchased the Apple, and, naturally, fell to tinkering again.

One aspect of the Apple II had made it unique right from its debut: its support for true bit-mapped graphics programmable on the pixel level, as opposed to the text and character graphics only of the TRS-80 and PET. Every single machine also shipped with a set of paddle controllers, like the aforementioned “hi-res graphics” mode a legacy of Steve Wozniak’s determination that every Apple II must be able to play a good game of Breakout. One fateful day a student of Mark’s who also owned an Apple II showed him a simplistic drawing program he had written in BASIC, which would let the user draw lines and shapes on the screen in hi-res mode using the paddles. Like that first exposure to computers nine years before, this moment would do much to determine the future direction of Mark’s life. The student, possibly with commercial intentions of his own, refused to tell Mark exactly how his program worked. But this demonstration of what was possible was enough. He went home and started hacking, learning as he went about this still relatively little used and little understood aspect of the machine.

Already that fall he had a program he thought he might be able to sell. Giving it the catchy name of “Drawing Program,” he put it on a disk along with a Space Invaders clone and a slot-machine simulation he had written, photocopied some instructions, and stuck it all in the Ziploc bag that was the standard packaging for software in this era. He started visiting local computer stores to demonstrate this new product of “MP Software,” and was happily surprised to discover that they were willing to trade him printers or RAM chips or sometimes even real money for his creation. It began to dawn on Mark that microcomputers could be more than a hobby. But if so, what next? Enter SoftSide.

Like so much else in this article, we’ve encountered SoftSide before in this blog. Founded by Roger Robitaille in 1978 and somewhat forgotten today, it is nevertheless of immense historical importance: as, in its original TRS-80-specific format, the first magazine to focus on a single consumer platform; as the original home of Lance Micklus’s landmark Dog Star Adventure, the urtext of a thousand bedroom-coded BASIC text adventures; as a great booster of the potential of adventure games in general; and as an advertising and/or editorial outlet for the thoughts and work of important early software figures like Scott Adams, the aforementioned Lance Micklus, Ken and Roberta Williams, Doug Carlston, and, soon enough, Mark Pelczarski. That said, the magazine’s importance almost pales next to that of its adjunct, the TRS-80 Software Exchange, which was a vital step on the path toward a real software industry. With its non-exclusive distribution agreements and other author-friendly terms, it enabled those listed above and many more to sell their software nationwide for the first time. In my recent discussions with Mark Pelczarski, he confirmed something I had long suspected, that the magazine was essentially viewed by Robitaille as a promotional tool for his real business of selling software. Indeed, he developed a neat sort of synergy between the two organs. Most readers bought SoftSide for its many BASIC listings for games and other programs — listings that looked appealing but were tedious to enter and prone to typos on the part of both the magazine’s staff and the poor soul trying to copy all of that spaghetti code into her computer. Therefore each SoftSide always included an offer to just buy the things on tape or disk and be done with it. Later SoftSide started offering a service to automatically receive all of each issue’s programs on cassette every month.

The TRS-80 had been the really hot microcomputer when SoftSide was born in late 1978, but by a year later the Apple II also was taking off in a big way in the wake of the II Plus model, about to eclipse the TRS-80 in the vibrancy of its user community and software support if not (immediately) sales. That market looked like a good place for SoftSide to be. And sure enough, one day when flipping through an issue at a newsstand, Mark came across an advertisement for an editor for a new Apple II edition of the magazine. At 25 years old, with exactly zero experience in publishing of any sort, he applied — and was hired as editor of the new magazine, to be called AppleSeed. Those were unusual times, in which just about everyone in the PC industry was an amateur faking it and/or learning as they went. The January 1980 edition was the only one to appear as AppleSeed; they were threatened by an already litigious Apple, and had to change their name to simply SoftSide Apple Edition for the February issue. Mark worked on the magazine from Illinois for the first months. After the spring 1980 semester was done, however, he honored an agreement he had made with Robitaille before taking the job. He quit his comfortable teaching job at Northern Illinois and trekked eastward with his wife Cheryl to Milford, New Hampshire, home of SoftSide‘s offices.

SoftSide in both its TRS-80 and Apple II incarnations was a digest-sized black-and-white publication printed on cheap paper, very similar to the pre-2005 TV Guide. Feeling that a different format was needed for the magazine to get noticed at newsstands and continue to grow, Mark and some of the other staff convinced Robitaille to remake it as a glossy, full-sized magazine. Robitaille decided at the same time to go with a single edition that catered to not just the Apple II and TRS-80 but also newer machines like the Atari 400 and 800. Robitaille asked Mark to oversee the Apple II-oriented sections of the new magazine and to write each issue’s editorial and plenty of additional content, along with many of the type-in program listings which were still the magazine’s main raison d’être.

But there was also still that drawing program, which Mark had continued to tweak and expand over the months. He believes that it was either Robitaille or, most likely, another SoftSide stalwart named George Blank who finally came up with a proper name for it: The Magic Paintbrush. Mark began selling it through what was now called simply The Software Exchange in the wake of Robitaille’s decision to begin dealing in software for most PCs. He labeled it a product of “MP Software,” which could conveniently stand for either “Mark Pelczarski” or “Magic Paintbrush.” The Magic Paintbrush became one of many programs to be accepted by the SoftSide operation during Mark’s tenure whose significance would become clear only in retrospect — programs like the Williams’ Mystery House and Doug Carlston’s Galactic trilogy, not to mention the one that in a very real way made the microcomputer industry, VisiCalc.

Still, times were changing, and the writing was on the wall for the Software Exchange’s brand of non-exclusive software publication. Already many, not least Personal Software of VisiCalc fame, were using the operation not so much as a publisher but as a mail-order storefront, packaging their own software under their own logo and simply advertising it through the Software Exchange. Just a month after the new incarnation of SoftSide appeared, the first issue of the legendary Apple II-specific magazine Softalk arrived. Still fondly remembered today, Softalk became something of a model for the new breed of slick, ordinary-consumer-friendly, often platform-specific computer magazines that would flourish throughout the 1980s. Softalk featured a wide variety of voices within its pages on a wide variety of topics, from program listings to technical explanations to the “soft,” human-interest stories on the personalities behind the Apple II industry that the magazine always did exceptionally well and is most beloved for today. Also present were lots of outside advertisements from, among others, the many publishers that were springing up to slowly obsolete the likes of the Software Exchange. Robitaille, meanwhile, continued to include articles from just a handful of regular contributors and continued to reject outside advertising. With its usefulness diluted by its need to address so many platforms and its editorial integrity compromised somewhat, at least in the eyes of many readers, by its function as a front for a software sales operation, SoftSide‘s popularity waned in comparison with that of Softalk amongst Apple II owners. This situation caused some angst for Mark, himself after all an Apple II loyalist. At the end of 1980, with he and his wife homesick on top of everything else, he resigned as editor, although he would continue to write programs and a column for SoftSide for some months more. The couple moved back to Chicago.

It was, once again, time to ponder next moves. Having been so involved with the Software Exchange, Mark fell to considering whether there might be a better model for selling software via mail order. Inspiration came from an unlikely source.

During the 1970s Mark had spent several summers staying with friends in Berkeley, California, where he had learned to be quite the outdoorsman. He had hiked Tijuana and British Columbia, Yosemite and Kings Canyon, Half Dome and the Grand Canyon. He’d bought most of his equipment for these adventures from REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.), and been very impressed with the experience. A co-operative with members rather than customers, REI emphasized service and information, to the extent that actually selling merchandise often seemed rather a secondary goal of the whole operation. Mark told me of purchasing a tent whose fiberglass poles started to split after several years of use. When he asked REI whether he could buy replacements, they gave him a set of new, redesigned poles for nothing, which he still uses to this day. Mark and Cheryl decided to found a new venture called Micro Co-op on the REI model. They would stock only software that they considered truly worthwhile, and would sell it through a catalog that emphasized information and customer empowerment rather than the hard sell, with unbiased comparative reviews by Mark himself.

Meanwhile Mark continued to tinker with his drawing program. On-Line’s recent The Wizard and the Princess had revolutionized Apple II graphics in two ways: through its use of vector drawing routines to pack a heretofore inconceivable number of pictures on a single disk, which we’ll talk about again shortly; and through its use of dithering to make the Apple II’s meager six colors look like many more. Mark found that he could make about a hundred colors by mixing the basic six, as long as you stood far enough back from the monitor that the pixels blended. Cheryl got used to the shouts of excitement from his office: “I figured out a way to get four more!” He incorporated these revelations into a new drawing program to sell through Micro Co-op as a product of “Co-op Software”: The Complete Graphics System. The “complete” was perhaps overambitious, but it was at least more complete than anything else at the time. From its first advertisement in May of 1981, it became a hit — such a hit that it forced Mark to consider whether there was any point in continuing Micro Co-op in lieu of becoming a full-time developer and publisher. Within days CGS was bringing in more than the rest of the operation combined; the answer soon seemed obvious. But what to call this new venture that was about to swallow the old? Once again inspiration came from an unlikely source.

During the previous year, a reader of SoftSide had sent in a legitimate query about a program published in an earlier issue with an off-the-wall postscript: what, he asked, do the initials in MP Software stand for? Mark was apparently in a silly mood, because he replied, as printed in the October 1980 edition of the magazine, that they stood for neither “Mark Pelczarski” nor “Magic Paintbrush,” but rather “Magnificent Penguin,” accompanying the reply with a little doodle of the bird in question. Partly it was just inanity for inanity’s sake, partly an homage to the inanity of Monty Python (another coincidental MP). When the time came to release CGS, Mark incorporated a similar doodle into the Co-op Software logo on the box, again more just for the hell of it than due to any conscious reasoning. Shortly after, one David Lubar wrote about CGS in a comparison of graphics software for Creative Computing; the section dedicated to CGS he labeled “Penguin Graphics.” Co-op Software wasn’t the catchiest name for a software publisher, and “Penguin” did have a certain ring to it… and so Penguin Software was born.

David Lubar’s review did more than give Penguin its name. It also prompted the two men to talk and begin to exchange ideas. David was also a talented programmer who had been dabbling in graphics programming for some months, developing a variety of quite sophisticated transformations — flipping pictures side-to-side or upside-down, or creating color image “negatives” or mirror images. Together the two devised the concept of painting with custom “brushes” of different patterns, implementing many of the concepts that have remained with paint programs to this day. Given the pioneering work done in computer graphics at places like Xerox PARC, it’s arguable how much of this was truly new to the world, but it was devised by Mark and David, who lacked any experience in such environments, from essentially whole cloth. (That such pioneering work was left unpatented and thus free to be further developed is something to be thankful for in these days when Apple and Samsung war over who first thought of rounded corners.) The first fruit of their joint labor appeared in October of 1981 as Special Effects, an add-on to CGS which admittedly did rather give the lie to its name. (The two packages were eventually sold together as The Complete Graphics System II). Key to the appeal of these programs was the way that the documentation described how to use the images you created in your own program, whether it be an arcade game, a graphic adventure in the On-Line mold, or something else. Penguin could soon begin calling themselves, without hyperbole, “the leader in Apple II graphics.” But even better graphics software was still to come.

For some time now people had been inquiring just how On-Line managed to get so many pictures on a single disk in their Hi-Res Adventure line. (For example, in one of those discoveries that can make trolling through the old magazines so much fun, you’ll find a letter from a young Brian Fargo in the January 1982 Softline asking just that.) As I explained in a much earlier post, Ken Williams’s genius here was to store each picture on disk not as a grid of static pixels but as a series of instructions that the computer could use to “draw” the picture all over again. For their next release, The Graphics Magician, Mark and David implemented this technique into their own storage routines, with similarly huge space savings. At last developers had the ideal tool for crafting adventure-game graphics, as well as pictures for many other purposes. They could also now use The Graphics Magician to make animations, thanks to some input from a third programmer, Chris Jochumson, whom Mark bumped into one day in Doug Carlston’s living room.

The Graphics Magician was also unusually user friendly (a term much in vogue at the time) in ways that had nothing to do with the actual program on the disk.

First, Mark took the near-revolutionary step of releasing it with no copy protection whatsoever, a move that such luminaries as Al Tommervik, publisher of Softalk, pronounced tantamount to suicide. Developers could secure their investment by making all the backup copies they wanted. That may seem like an obvious “feature” for a serious application today, but in 1982 it was very unusual. Even VisiCalc, the most serious, business-oriented application there was, was designed to be uncopyable. When your disk failed, you simply had to put your business on hold while you waited for a replacement under VisiCorp’s warranty which was hardly a warranty at all; a new disk could cost you up to $40. Those for whom VisiCalc was a truly critical application soon took to simply buying two copies from the start. Penguin’s rejection of copy protection for The Graphics Magician thus made a real rhetorical statement about the rights of users in an industry heretofore obsessed only with those of creators to protect themselves from piracy. In its wake — and that of Penguin’s spectacular failure to go out of business as a result — other publishers slowly began to follow its example. Soon applications software was expected by everyone to be free from copy protection as a matter of course, although games, always the pirates’ favorite and a market with much thinner profit margins, would not follow suit.

Second, this quite inexpensive package, with a list price of just $60 and a street price of considerably less, could nevertheless be freely used to create commercial games with no further licensing. There was just one requirement, a stroke of near genius on Mark’s part: the work in question had to prominently credit the software that had been used to create it. Soon credits screens like this one (from the SAGA version of Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure) were everywhere, giving Penguin an unbelievable amount of free advertising — and through their competitors’ products at that.

In the wake of The Graphics Magician, adventures with graphics got a whole lot easier to make. Soon they were everywhere, all but swamping pure text adventures on the Apple II. Well before the end of 1982 Penguin stopped calling themselves “the leader in Apple II graphics.” Now they were just “the graphics people,” virtually unchallenged within their niche.

Mark was also firmly ensconced in what Doug Carlston called the “Brotherhood” as the clock slowly ran down on this era of friendly sharing and not terribly competitive competition. He socialized with the Carlstons, the Williams, the Tommerviks; chatted with Mitch Kapor about the project that would become Lotus 1-2-3; discussed adventure games with Scott Adams and Marc Blank. He had long ago been shocked to realize that he was making more money each month with Penguin than he had in a year of teaching. Penguin was a big success, almost accidentally so, all on the strength of essentially that one program he had first begun to develop back in 1979. Masters of their niche, they could think about diversification. Indeed, they were suddenly attracting outsiders with programs — mostly games, usually created using their own graphics software — which they were eager to have Penguin consider. We’ll look at one of those next time.


Posted by on September 28, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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For whatever reason, it seems that the Infocom guys just weren’t interested in laughing it up during 1982. Like its simultaneously released companion Zork III, Dave Lebling’s Starcross is amongst the most austere of Infocom’s efforts. Their first science-fiction game, it’s also the hardest science fiction they would ever produce, in the mold of technically and scientifically rigorous authors like Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, and Arthur C. Clarke, whose classic 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama is Starcross‘s most obvious direct inspiration. Like the novel, Starcross tells the story of a mysterious alien generation ship that enters the Solar System, to be met and explored by a very unlikely ship from Earth. The heart of the Rama scenario, of exploring a strange, largely deserted environment and puzzling out the wonders of alien technology, seems tailor made for an adventure game. It’s thus no surprise that games had used it before Starcross, and would continue to do so afterward, including two officially licensed direct adaptations of the novel. Typically enough, however, Infocom approached the scenario in a more rigorous way than anyone had before.

It’s the year 2186, and we are a prospector for quantum black holes that can be harvested as energy sources. (The technology is “based on theories that began as early as the 1970s,” the manual tells us, a reference to Stephen Hawking’s pioneering work.) A sort of wildcatter of the future, we live a lonely life aboard our one-man vessel, the eponymous Starcross, scouring the vast reaches of the Solar System for that lucky gusher that will make us rich for life. Then, one day…

You are sound asleep in your bunk aboard the deep-space black hole prospecting ship "Starcross," operating out of Ceres. Just as your sleep becomes deep and comfortable, an alarm bell begins ringing! It's the mass detector! Instantly you awake. This hasn't been a profitable trip so far, and you don't even have the cash for repairs. This could be the break you've been waiting for.

Our first task is to navigate to the mass, which we accomplish using a map of nearby space included in the game’s box. Working out how to read the map to determine the correct “range, theta, and phi” values to enter into the ship’s computer serves as a unique and interesting puzzle in its own right, one sadly lost in later, cheaper repackagings in such collections as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, which reduced the map to a simple list of destinations and values. Still, the map also represents Infocom’s most obvious attempt yet to use feelies not just to enhance the experience of their interactive worlds but also to combat piracy. The destination is determined randomly from more than a dozen possibilities, which makes simply writing the necessary numbers down and passing them along with a copied disk at least a bit more complicated.

The mass, of course, turns out not to be a quantum black hole but rather something even more spectacular. This whole opening sequence has a dramatic urgency that is new, not only to Infocom but to text adventures in general. We feel caught up in an onrush of events, like we’re really living out a story rather than just exploring a static environment (Zork) or ducking in and out of someone else’s story (Deadline). For the climax, Lebling takes his time, using a number of turns to introduce us to the massive, awe-inspiring spaceship that proceeds to effortlessly capture our pitiful little vessel. Even the fact that there’s nothing for us to really do here works for the scene, which functions as a sort of preview of some of the things we’ll encounter when we actually start exploring inside and outside the ship. What else would you do in this situation but sit and hold your breath and stare?

Time passes...
Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
Filling space before you is an enormous artifact, more than 5 km long and about a kilometer in diameter. Regularly spaced around its waist are bumps and other odd protrusions. You cannot see the aft end but the fore end sports a glass or crystal dome almost 100 meters across. This dome is brightly lit.
There is a brief burn as the ship matches course with the artifact. You are hanging in space about one kilometer away from the waist of the object. The Starcross's engines shut down. The computer speaks: "Program completed. We are being scanned by low level radiation at various frequencies. Waiting for instructions."

Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
There is an area with a blue dome below. Near the dome is a spherical object which just might be a spaceship. It is held down by silvery ropes.

Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
The area here has a yellow dome. The surface of the object here looks damaged and scorched, and is littered with tangled debris.

Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
This area has a green dome and a long, silvery spaceship tethered nearby.

Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
Below is an area with a red dome which has no ship near it.
Suddenly an odd protrusion near the red dome splits open and a huge articulated metal tentacle issues from it at great speed. It approaches the ship and delicately wraps itself around the hull. You are slammed against your seat as the tentacle accelerates the Starcross to the speed of rotation of the object. Inexorably, your ship is drawn toward the dome. When you are a few tens of meters away, three smaller tentacles issue forth and grapple the ship solidly to the surface of the artifact. The large tentacle retreats into its housing, which closes.

From here — and inevitably given the restrictions in the allowable amount of text under which Lebling labored — things get more traditional. Once we solve the next few puzzles to get inside, it becomes clear that the ship is another large, static environment to be explored and gradually conquered. To his credit, however, Lebling refuses to make Starcross into Zork in Space. In keeping with the game’s hard science-fiction roots, the alien ship is a carefully worked-out environment which, at least as far as such advanced technology can be expected to, makes sense. The ship rotates to provide gravity. Inside it consists of a network of corridors and rooms spanning the underside of its outside hull and a large open cavern in its center, whose outside walls/floor are planted with trees and grass. As one would expect, gravity gets weaker as we get closer to the center by, for instance, climbing one of the taller trees. In fact, this is the key factor in a fairly brilliant climactic puzzle that finds us floating in the very center of the cavern and requires us to devise the most unlikely means of propulsion if we don’t want to be left stuck there permanently.

So, the ship always feels, at least conceptually, like a real and believably alien place, give or take the occasional slip-up like the damaged computer that flashes — in English — “Fault” when we try to turn it on. Again in keeping with the game’s influences, the puzzles mostly involve practical, real-world science and technology, a marked departure from those of Zork. Often we find ourselves needing to translate alien symbology into universal scientific principles, as when we must use our knowledge of basic chemistry and our decided preference for breathing oxygen over methane or ammonia to figure out which button to press to reactivate the ship’s life-support systems.

Repair Room
This is a bright room taken up by two large pieces of machinery. On the leftmost one is a symbol depicting the emission of rays and beside it a yellow slot. The other machine bears a symbol in three parts: the first two parts, in black, are a solid block and a fluid level. The third, in red, is a series of parallel wavy lines. Beside it are three diagrams; under each one is a red slot. The first diagram shows four single dots equally spaced around a six-dot cluster. The second shows two eight-dot clusters in close proximity. The third has three single dots equally spaced around a seven-dot cluster. The only exit is up some stairs.

Starcross is by no means a trivial game; it has a fairly big map and a lot to keep track of, and, as usual for even Infocom games of this era, it’s very easy to lock yourself out of victory by doing things in the wrong order. Still, its puzzles require careful experimentation and practical thought rather than leaps of intuition. We always feel grounded in Starcross; it’s by far the most solvable game Infocom had yet produced, a prime reason I’m declining to spoil it heavily here.

Surprisingly, the ship is not the deserted environment you might expect. In fact, in a marked departure from Rendezvous with Rama, it’s well-nigh teeming with intelligent or semi-intelligent alien life, all captured and held here over the centuries in the same way that we are. There are small creatures who look like “crosses between a rat and an ant”; a hyper-intelligent giant spider who’s been learning English via radio broadcasts from the planet; and some human-sized weasels who have regressed into a primitive and superstitious tribal culture since their ship was stranded here generations ago. And even though Starcross largely transcends being Zork in Space, there are nevertheless grues here, a fact which was doubtless helpful to Infocom in not making them rewrite their standard code for darkness. We even learn through their existence here that the Zork games apparently took place on an alien planet; even hard science-fiction authors have to have a little fun sometimes.

Broken Cage
This cage was apparently forced by its inhabitants before the general deterioration of the zoo equipment. The force projectors are ripped out of their mountings and smashed against the bulkhead, and the whole cage is scratched and dented as though many enraged creatures pounded on it violently for many weeks. There is a somewhat chewed sign to one side of the cage.

>read sign
The sign is a liquid crystal display, and even more oddly, is in English:

" Common Grues (Grue Vulgaris)

The common grue, an inhabitant of the dark underground passages of a forgotten planet, is here exhibited for your pleasure in a typical family group. Note particularly the slavering fangs which reach such impressive size in the adults. Feeding the grues is not recommended."

Inevitably given the sheer quantity of stuff packed into Starcross‘s 83 K story file, our scope for interaction with any of this life is decidedly limited. They’re all classic vending-machine NPCs, each possessing some vital object to be coaxed away, traded for, or taken by force.

Indeed, if Starcross really falls down somewhere it’s in failing to adequately convey the grandeur of the experience we’re allegedly having. It comes the closest to evoking a sense of wonder during the introductory sequence I quoted above. After that, however, the text is usually flatly practical and to the point. It gets the job done, mind you, describing some very intricate puzzles, devices, and situations with careful precision. But it hardly feels like it even tries to inspire. That’s particularly surprising given that the game was written by Dave Lebling, who had the reputation of being the most self-consciously “literary” of the original Zork team, and who took his share of ribbing for his purplish prose — and with some justification. (The more wordy and elaborate descriptions in Zork, such as the jeweled egg found in the forest, tend to be Lebling’s.) Perhaps he just didn’t have the space to indulge his literary sensibilities here. Still, Zork III managed to do much more with similarly terse prose. Starcross is a fun, well-crafted adventure in an interesting, meticulously worked-out setting, but it never manages to be more than that, never touches that ineffable something that makes Zork III resonate so.

Our goal in Starcross, we slowly realize, is to repair this ancient and rather battered ship enough to fly it triumphantly back to Earth. It’s only when we’ve finally done so that we realize that the whole exercise has been a test, an experiment conducted by the hyper-advanced aliens who built the ship to see which species is ingenious enough to succeed in this task before the ship leaves their system forever.

The artifact, under your assured control, moves serenely toward Earth, where the knowledge it contains will immeasureably benefit mankind. Within a few years, there could be human ships flying out to the stars, and all because of your daring and cunning...

A holographic projection of a humanoid figure appears before you. The being is tall, thin, and swathed in shimmering robes. It speaks perfectly but expressionlessly in your own language. "Congratulations, you who have passed our test. You have succeeded where others failed. Your race shall benefit thereby." He smiles. "I expect to see you in person, someday." The projection fades.

The idea of the game as a sort of diegetic test for the player’s avatar was one that Infocom fell back on quite a lot in these early years; Zork III, and by extension its prequels, were built on essentially the same premise. It worked there, but it’s not very compelling here. In fact, it undercuts almost everything that came before. Suddenly this believable ship we’ve been exploring, with its battle scars and its aged and malfunctioning systems we’ve lovingly repaired, is revealed as nothing more than an elaborate prop in a game of interstellar eugenics. It feels like Lebling, having so carefully worked out all of the engineering details of the ship’s design and its history of collecting more and more aliens, suddenly didn’t know how to justify its existence in the first place, didn’t know how to answer the Big Question (“Why?”) and end the game. This is the disappointing result. Luckily, Infocom — and Lebling — would get more sure-handed and confident in their storytelling in later efforts.

Infocom’s advertising firm, G/R Copy, once again played a vital role in presenting Starcross to the world in the most memorable possible light. As they had for Deadline, G/R came up with Starcross‘s short, catchy name, a huge improvement over the original title of A Gift from Space. And in Starcross‘s packaging Infocom and G/R really outdid themselves, packing it all inside a big plastic flying saucer.

Granted, there were no actual flying saucers in the game, but it was certainly unique. Maybe too unique — retailers quickly came to loathe the things, which tended to literally roll away when shelved on racks designed for normal, rectangular boxes. Many ended up hanging the games from the ceiling using string, as a) the most practical solution and b) one that looked pretty cool in its own right. Today the original saucer Starcross is one of the most sought-after bits of Infocom memorabilia. (The plastic used to form the saucer doesn’t tend to age all that well, making a copy in good condition a rare find indeed.) Infocom and G/R didn’t stuff as much inside the box as they had for Deadline, just the aforementioned foldout star map and a fairly terse manual. (For the “gray box” re-release a couple of years later, they added a rather jocular diary painting the protagonist as something of a loser. They should have left well enough alone; it’s one of the least effective of such inserts, jarring with the fairly serious tone of the actual game rather than complimenting it. It feels more suited for Planetfall — or, hell, Space Quest.)

Both Starcross and Zork III –more minimalistically packaged in a blister-pack with only a short manual — were solid hits for Infocom, selling more than 10,000 copies each during the 1982 holiday season alone. Already more games were in the pipeline, including one from a talented new author about which they were very excited. And, on what is in retrospect a more ominous note, they were now established enough to start another project, one completely unrelated to games — a little thing called Cornerstone.


Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Zork III, Part 2

Last time we explored the area west of the Junction. Today let’s head east.

There we find the Royal Museum, which houses a time machine that lies at the heart of the last of the intricate new puzzles that Blank crafted just for Zork III. It’s interesting to compare the rigorousness of Zork III‘s approach to time travel with that of Time Zone, which despite having time travel as its overarching theme swept most of its ramifications under the rug as just not worth wrestling with. Indeed, and despite the challenges that time travel presents even to authors of static fiction, temporal puzzles would continue to be something of a favorite with Infocom in the years to come.

They acquit themselves pretty well in this first effort; there’s no way to really “break” the simulation, thanks both to some surprisingly complex modeling and to some very clever restrictions on the player that straiten the scope of possibilities. In a bit of broad comedy that does somewhat lighten the generally oppressive tone of the game, we can even come face to face (albeit briefly) with Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive himself, a fellow who’s been an ongoing gag throughout the series thus far:

>push button
You experience a brief period of disorientation. When your vision returns, you find yourself in the middle of some kind of ceremony, with a strange flat-headed man wearing royal vestments about to break a bottle on the bars of an iron cage containing magnificent jewels. He appears somewhat pleased by your presence. He speaks very loudly, nearly deafening the poor civil servant whose duty it is to see that his wishes are carried out. "Aha! A thief! Didn't I tell you that we needed more security! But, no! You all said my idea to build the museum under two miles of mountain and surrounded by five hundred feet of steel was impractical! Now, what to do with this ... intruder? I have it! We'll build a tremendous fortress on the highest mountain peak, with one narrow ladder stretching thousands of feet to the pinnacle. There he will stay for the rest of his life!" His brow-beaten assistant hesitates. "Don't you think, Your Lordship, that your plan is a bit, well, a bit much?" Flathead gives it a second's thought. "No, not really." he says, and you are led away. A few years later, your prison is finished. You are taken there, and spend the rest of your life in misery.

** You have died **

Everything that I discuss from here on has been lifted, pretty much whole cloth, from the PDP-10 Zork. First, just south of the museum, is the Royal Puzzle, an elaborate set-piece logic game that might just be the first of the soon-to-be infamous genre of sliding-block puzzles to appear in an adventure game. This one, however, is more interesting than most of those that would follow. We must push sandstone walls around a grid to discover an important book hidden inside (easy) and make our escape with it (hard). Although one of the later puzzles to be added to the PDP-10 Zork, the Royal Puzzle was geographically located relatively early in the finished game, lying adjacent to the big maze and the thief’s lair. It was primarily the work of the most unheralded of the original Zork team, Bruce Daniels. It was cut out of Zork I for reasons of space, but Infocom obviously decided it was too good to exclude from the PC games, and so placed it here as an adjunct to the Royal Museum.

And it is a good puzzle, requiring some careful planning and even sketching, but eminently solvable. Most importantly, the process of doing so is thoroughly enjoyable. I’ve never quite understood its reputation for extreme difficulty. (An old walkthrough’s sentiment is typical: “Take a deep breath here, because you’re about to enter one of the toughest puzzles in Zork III…”). In reality, the Royal Puzzle requires only patience, careful planning, and, yes, a willingness to restore many times; one wrong push on a wall usually means rendering the puzzle insolvable. It’s not trivial, but much less daunting than some of the other puzzles scattered throughout both the PDP-10 Zork and the first two PC games that rely entirely on, shall we say, intuitive leaps. The Royal Puzzle is even very appealing as a game of its own, divorced from the context of Zork. Some at MIT treated it this way, and competed to see not just who could solve it but who could do so in the fewest number of moves.

With the Royal Puzzle behind us, we’ve now explored and exhausted all of the initially available rooms on the map. In one of its perhaps more questionable design decisions, the game now leaves us to wander about looking for something, anything new to do. Eventually we wander into the Engravings Room and stumble across a sleeping old man, who gives us access to the endgame in return for a bit of bread. Now it all comes down to working our way through a linear series of puzzles lifted from the PDP-10 Zork endgame, designed largely by Dave Lebling. The puzzles here are appropriately challenging, but, like the Royal Puzzle, mostly challenging for the right reasons. The centerpiece is a sort of weird vehicle that we must figure out how to direct. As Jason Dyer noted in his own excellent write-up of the PDP-10 Zork, we find ourselves straining here to visualize an elaborate device described solely in text — described, in fact, in what is likely the longest contiguous infodump to be found anywhere in the trilogy.

Inside Mirror
You are inside a rectangular box of wood whose structure is rather complicated. Four sides and the roof are filled in, and the floor is open.

As you face the side opposite the entrance, two short sides of carved and polished wood are to your left and right. The left panel is mahogany, the right pine. The wall you face is red on its left half and black on its right. On the entrance side, the wall is white opposite the red part of the wall it faces, and yellow opposite the black section. The painted walls are at least twice the length of the unpainted ones. The ceiling is painted blue.

In the floor is a stone channel about six inches wide and a foot deep. The channel is oriented in a north-south direction. In the exact center of the room the channel widens into a circular depression perhaps two feet wide. Incised in the stone around this area is a compass rose.

Running from one short wall to the other at about waist height is a wooden bar, carefully carved and drilled. This bar is pierced in two places. The first hole is in the center of the bar (and thus the center of the room). The second is at the left end of the room (as you face opposite the entrance). Through each hole runs a wooden pole.

The pole at the left end of the bar is short, extending about a foot above the bar, and ends in a hand grip. The pole has been dropped into a hole carved in the stone floor.

The long pole at the center of the bar extends from the ceiling through the bar to the circular area in the stone channel. This bottom end of the pole has a T-bar a bit less than two feet long attached to it, and on the T-bar is carved an arrow. The arrow and T-bar are pointing west.

Dyer describes this puzzle, appropriately if anachronistically, as Myst-like. But of course the elaborate mechanisms of Myst are shown and manipulated graphically. And indeed, one is left just wishing for a picture after reading that mess, even as meticulously described as it is. Already Infocom, the gaming world’s foremost proponents of the power of pure text, were brushing against some of its limitations. (Notably, Bruce Daniels chose to represent the Royal Puzzle with simple ASCII diagrams rather than even trying to describe it in prose.)

Moving on, we meet the Dungeon Master at last. Zork III thankfully omits the Zork trivia quiz that the PDP-10 version requires us to pass to gain access to his inner sanctum, the final area of the game.

"I am the Master of the Dungeon!" he booms. "I have been watching you closely during your journey through the Great Underground Empire. Yes!," he says, as if recalling some almost forgotten time, "we have met before, although I may not appear as I did then." You look closely into his deeply lined face and see the faces of the old man by the secret door, your "friend" at the cliff, and the hooded figure. "You have shown kindness to the old man, and compassion toward the hooded one. I have seen you display patience in the puzzle and trust at the cliff. You have demonstrated strength, ingenuity, and valor. However, one final test awaits you. Now! Command me as you will, and complete your quest!"

The Dungeon Master becomes our partner; we must order him about to solve the final puzzle. Played after Zork II‘s similar puzzle involving the robot, one is chiefly struck by how much easier and cleaner it now is to communicate with others, thanks to the new conversation system Infocom developed for Deadline and incorporated here.

Given the description of the Dungeon Master shown above and the fact that we’ve been collecting equipment to “become” him throughout the game — not to mention the brooding, weighty tone of everything so far — the final subversive twist of the game and the trilogy don’t come completely by surprise. Still, when we take our place as the Dungeon Master it brings a chill. We’re a long way from jocular treasure hunts now.

On a desk at the far end of the room may be found stock certificates representing a controlling interest in FrobozzCo International, the multinational conglomerate and parent company of the Frobozz Magic Boat Co., etc.

As you gleefully examine your new-found riches, the Dungeon Master materializes beside you, and says, "Now that you have solved all the mysteries of the Dungeon, it is time for you to assume your rightly-earned place in the scheme of things. Long have I waited for one capable of releasing me from my burden!" He taps you lightly on the head with his staff, mumbling a few well-chosen spells, and you feel yourself changing, growing older and more stooped. For a moment there are two identical mages standing among the treasure, then your counterpart dissolves into a mist and disappears, a sardonic grin on his face.

For a moment you are relieved, safe in the knowledge that you have at last completed your quest in ZORK. You begin to feel the vast powers and lore at your command and thirst for an opportunity to use them.

Much of what’s just happened is still very vague, with, as was so typical of adventure games of this era, the details all left to the imagination. Yet in this case, rather than seeming an artifact of technical constraints or just a lack of talent for fiction, the vagueness works. One senses that careful explanation would only spoil it. Given how powerful this ending is, one has to feel happy that Infocom decided not to cheapen it with a Zork IV. And, as Jason Dyer also noted, it’s hard not to want to read this ending meta-textually: “Here is a new art form, one raw and unrefined, with the potential to be serious and profound.” The last paragraph, which is not found in the original version but only in Zork III, adds to the impression. The last sentence might even apply to the way that Infocom themselves were feeling at just about this moment. And justifiably — they had a remarkable next few years in store.

That, then, is Zork III. As many remarked at the time, sometimes disapprovingly, it’s considerably shorter than either of its predecessors, with a total number of real puzzles that could probably be counted on your fingers. Yet it occupies roughly the same space as the earlier games on disk. In place of sprawl and “cheap” puzzles like mazes and riddles, Blank implemented a smaller number of more intricate, satisfying interactions. He implemented, in other words, deeply rather than widely, beginning a trend that has persisted in interactive fiction right to the present day. This, combined with that pensive, fraught atmosphere that seems to affect everyone who plays it and its subversive thematic focus, make Zork III feel like a leap toward not only a more satisfying approach to adventure gaming but also that ineffable thing called Art.


Posted by on September 17, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Zork III, Part 1

In September of 1982 Infocom released their fourth and fifth games, and their second and third of that year, simultaneously. Starcross, by Dave Lebling, was an outer-space adventure in the mold of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. We’ll get to that shortly. But today I want to talk about Zork III: The Dungeon Master, the next installment in Infocom’s flagship series.

Although its endgame and one rather elaborate puzzle are borrowed from the PDP-10 Zork, the rest of Zork III is an original work of the indefatigable Marc Blank, a fellow whom I’m coming more and more to recognize as perhaps the key influence behind the Infocom Way. This is after all the guy who co-authored the original PDP-10 Zork, who worked tirelessly to make the parser better, who designed the Z-Machine, who expanded the very definition of an adventure game via Deadline. Zork III isn’t so obviously groundbreaking as Deadline, but it’s a better, more mature piece of work — better than anything that had come before, not only from Infocom, but from anyone. That’s not to say that it’s an easy game. No, it’s hard as nails. Yet it’s difficult for all the right reasons. Here you’ll find no mazes or useless geography, no riddles, no parser games, no hunger or light-source timers or inventory limits (that matter, anyway). No bullshit. You’ll just find a small assortment of puzzles that are more intricate and satisfying than anything we’ve seen before, couched in the most evocative of atmospheres.

As I’ve mentioned before, Zork has always had a schizophrenic personality. The series has never quite decided whether it wants to be goofy, mildly satirical comedies full of the over-the-top excesses of the Flathead clan or mournful tragedies played out amidst the faded grandeur of the erstwhile Great Underground Empire. The PDP-10 game and the first PC game vacillated wildly between both extremes, while Zork II, largely the work of Dave Lebling, played up the light comedy. Zork III is not without some well-placed Flathead jokes, but its main atmosphere is one of windy austerity, with a distinct twinge of sadness for better times gone by. It begins thus:

As in a dream, you see yourself tumbling down a great, dark staircase. All about you are shadowy images of struggles against fierce opponents and diabolical traps. These give way to another round of images: of imposing stone figures, a cool, clear lake, and, now, of an old, yet oddly youthful man. He turns toward you slowly, his long, silver hair dancing about him in a fresh breeze. "You have reached the final test, my friend! You are proved clever and powerful, but this is not yet enough! Seek me when you feel yourself worthy!" The dream dissolves around you as his last words echo through the void....

“Your old friend, the brass lantern, lies at your feet,” we are soon told, a sentence that well-nigh drips with Zork III‘s new-found world-weariness. And indeed, we’re a long way from the famous white house. If Zork I, with its points-for-treasures plot, is almost the prototypical adventure game, Zork III, just as much as the Prisoner games, is all about subverting our expectations of what makes an adventure game. Its most remarkable, peculiar achievement is to simultaneously be a damn good play within the confines of the genre it happily subverts.

But, onward. Here’s a map of the geography, in case you’d like to follow along as I explore, or (better yet) play along. I’m going to make a real effort not to spoil Zork III as thoroughly as I traditionally have in these analyses; it’s eminently worth struggling with a bit for yourself. My nudges, plus the map and the list of objects to be discovered in each room thereon, will hopefully blunt some of the edges of difficulty while leaving the heart of the experience intact.

From the Endless Stair where we began, we move south into the Junction. Another old friend, our sword, is embedded in a stone here, but there’s no way to pull it out. This “puzzle” is not really a puzzle at all; the sword will come to us, unbidden, when the time comes.

So, we move westward. We climb down a cliff to discover just the thing for an adventurer like us: a treasure chest — albeit a locked one. As we’re fiddling with it:

At the edge of the cliff above you, a man appears. He looks down at you and speaks. "Hello, down there! You seem to have a problem. Maybe I can help you." He chuckles in an unsettling sort of way. "Perhaps if you tied that chest to the end of the rope I might be able to drag it up for you. Then, I'll be more than happy to help you up!" He laughs again.

Every instinct tells us not to trust this guy; Zork I and Zork II have taught us that pretty much everyone in the Great Underground Empire is against us. Surely this fellow just wants to make off with our loot. And what else is an adventure game about if not collecting loot? Sure enough, if we take a chance and do as he asks we learn our suspicions were correct.

The man starts to heave on the rope and within a few moments you arrive at the top of the cliff. The man removes the last few valuables from the chest and prepares to leave. "You've been a good sport! Here, take this, for whatever good it is! I can't see that I'll be needing one!" He hands you a plain wooden staff from the bottom of the chest and begins examining his valuables.

Yet — and here’s where the subversion comes in — the treasure doesn’t matter. The old staff is what we need.

By this point we’ve already noticed something else very strange about Zork III: its scoring system seems completely out of whack. There are just 7 points to be scored, not the hundreds which we’ve come to expect from the earlier games. Further, points are awarded for such innocuous actions as just wandering into a certain completely accessible room, while major breakthroughs go unremarked. It’s possible to have 6 or 7 points and still be completely at sea, nowhere close to actually, you know, solving the game. Once again it seems that Zork III is playing by new rules that we don’t quite understand.

Yet Zork III is a finely crafted adventure as well as a subversive one, the first from Infocom without any howlingly bad design choices. We see this demonstrated in a rather surprising way on the Flathead Ocean. If we stand around here for a randomly determined number of turns, a ship will show up. Then we have one turn to say “Hello, sailor” to receive a potion of invisibility. “Hello, sailor” was a running joke throughout the first two Zork games; thus its appearance here, where it’s finally good for something. For the real oldtimers, there’s also a bit of even more meta meta-humor here: there’s a trivia quiz in the endgame of the original PDP-10 Zork about Zork itself. One of the possible questions is, “In which room is ‘Hello, Sailor’ useful?” The correct answer, in that game, is “None.”

Meta-humor aside, this business on the Flathead Ocean is on the face of it a staggeringly awful puzzle. First we must magically divine that we need to wait around in an otherwise uninteresting location (shades of Catherine the Great’s hairpin from Time Zone); then we must type the One True Thing from a multitude of choices. None of which, of course, would have stopped On-Line or perhaps even an earlier incarnation of Infocom from shoving it in there and being done with it. It’s exactly the sort of puzzle early adventure implementers loved, being trivial to code yet vastly extending the playing time of the game with its sheer obtuseness. Here, however, it’s not actually necessary. The potion only provides an alternate solution to a puzzle in the endgame. Thus the puzzle stands as an Easter egg only for the hardcore who like to plumb every depth and ferret out every secret. I don’t know of a better example of Infocom’s fast-evolving design sensibility than the decision not to make solving this bad puzzle necessary to winning the game.

But there are other, positive rather than negative examples of said sensibility. West of the lake we find what may just be my favorite puzzle in the game, a puzzle which is everything the arbitrary seaside puzzle is not. A magic portal can transport us momentarily not only to another location within this game, but also to locations from Zork I and Zork II. We need to plan for the next phase of our explorations by leaving a light source at a critical location using the portal. This is, at least by some criteria, unfair, as we have to do some learning by death a little later in the game to figure out that we need to do this. Yet it’s also a complex puzzle that grows organically from the sort of intricate, believably modeled storyworld that no one other than Infocom was crafting at this time. Puzzles like this feel shockingly modern in comparison to those of Infocom’s contemporaries.

Interestingly, the portal can also transport us to a fourth Zork game, a preview/advertisement for a work that was obviously already gestating in Blank’s mind. Zork IV, of course, never appeared (at least under that title). It came to me as something of a surprise to realize that Zork on PCs was never conceived by Infocom as a neat trilogy, a reality that seems at odds with the air of doomed finality that becomes more and more prevalent as we get deeper into Zork III. But at this stage Infocom still considered Zork, their flagship series and ongoing cash cow, very much an indefinitely ongoing series. Some players must have wondered just where it was going; the scene from the planned Zork IV is one of the most violent and disturbing in the Infocom canon.

Sacrificial Altar
This is the interior of a huge temple of primitive construction. A few flickering torches cast a sallow illumination over the altar, which is still drenched with the blood of human sacrifice. Behind the altar is an enormous statue of a demon which seems to reach towards you with dripping fangs and razor-sharp talons. A low noise begins behind you, and you turn to see hundreds of hunched and hairy shapes. A guttural chant issues from their throats. Near you stands a figure draped in a robe of deepest black, brandishing a huge sword. The chant grows louder as the robed figure approaches the altar. The large figure spots you and approaches menacingly. He reaches into his cloak and pulls out a great, glowing dagger. He pulls you onto the altar, and with a murmur of approval from the throng, he slices you neatly across your abdomen.

**** You have died ****

This scene would eventually appear, violence intact, in Blank’s next game, where it would jar with the tone of the rest of the game even more dramatically than it does here. However, that game, which did indeed start life as Zork IV, would be wisely retitled Enchanter, situated as its own entity and the first of a new fantasy trilogy.

Zork III is nowhere near so dynamic a system as Deadline. In the ongoing tradition of many adventure games even today, its world is a largely empty, static one. There is, however, one exception. At a randomly determined point of approximately 100 to 150 turns in, an earthquake causes the High Arch above the Aqueduct to collapse. I mention this now because making our escape through the area south of the lake depends on this arch still being intact, as well as the aforementioned light source having been properly placed. (Relatively static it may be, but Zork III nevertheless requires almost as much planning and learning by death as Deadline.) Lest I be accused of praising too much, let me just also note that the aqueduct area contains one of the few stumbles in this otherwise elegantly written game, when Blank suddenly tells us how to feel rather than letting the scenery speak for itself: “You feel a sense of loss and sadness as you ponder this once-proud structure and the failure of the Empire which created this and other engineering marvels.”

At this point we have only one more area west of the Junction to explore: the Land of Shadow. Just as the sailor on the Flathead Ocean feels like a puzzle Blank thought better of, turning it into an Easter egg and alternate solution instead, the Land of Shadow feels like it started life as a maze. Within it we meet a strange, apparently hostile figure. The sword we last saw stuck in the stone suddenly appears in our hand, and we are treated for the last time in the Infocom canon to the randomized combat system Dave Lebling developed for the PDP-10 Zork back in the day. Subversion is still the order of the day, however, so we can’t really die. Nor do we really want to kill. Playing the situation the right way results in an unnerving scene that recalls, among other possibilities, the climactic moment of the Prisoner television series.

>get hood
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 his lips and then his face starts to change, very slowly, into that of an old, wizened man. The image fades and with it the body of your hooded opponent. His cloak remains on the ground.

What is going on here will become more clear — at least a little bit more clear — later. But we’ll wrap things up for today on that ominous note. Next time we’ll tackle the area east of the Junction, and the endgame.


Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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