Return to Zork

03 May

Where should we mark the beginning of the full-motion-video era, that most extended of blind alleys in the history of the American games industry? The day in the spring of 1990 that Ken Williams, founder and president of Sierra On-Line, wrote his latest editorial for his company’s seasonal newsletter might be as good a point as any. In his editorial, Williams coined the term “talkies” in reference to an upcoming generation of games which would have “real character voices and no text.” The term was, of course, a callback to the Hollywood of circa 1930, when sound began to come to the heretofore silent medium of film. Computer games, Williams said, stood on the verge of a leap that would be every bit as transformative, in terms not only of creativity but of profitability: “How big would the film industry be today if not for this step?”

According to Williams, the voice-acted, CD-based version of Sierra’s King’s Quest V was to become the games industry’s The Jazz Singer. But voice acting wasn’t the only form of acting which the games of the next few years had in store. A second transformative leap, comparable to that made by Hollywood when film went from black and white to color, was also waiting in the wings to burst onto the stage just a little bit later than the first talkies. Soon, game players would be able to watch real, human actors right there on their monitor screens.

As regular readers of this site probably know already, the games industry’s Hollywood obsession goes back a long way. In 1982, Sierra was already advertising their text adventure Time Zone with what looked like a classic “coming attractions” poster; in 1986, Cinemaware was founded with the explicit goal of making “interactive movies.” Still, the conventional wisdom inside the industry by the early 1990s had shifted subtly away from such earlier attempts to make games that merely played like movies. The idea was now that the two forms of media would truly become one — that games and movies would literally merge. “Sierra is part of the entertainment industry — not the computer industry,” wrote Williams in his editorial. “I always think of books, records, films, and then interactive films.” These categories defined a continuum of increasingly “hot,” increasingly immersive forms of media. The last listed there, the most immersive medium of all, was now on the cusp of realization. How many people would choose to watch a non-interactive film when they had the opportunity to steer the course of the plot for themselves? Probably about as many as still preferred books to movies.

Not all that long after Williams’s editorial, the era of the full-motion-video game began in earnest. The first really prominent exemplar of the species was ICOM Simulations’s Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series in 1992, which sent you wandering around Victorian London collecting clues to a mystery from the video snippets that played every time you visited a relevant location. The first volume of this series alone would eventually sell 1 million copies as an early CD-ROM showcase title. The following year brought Return to Zork, The 7th Guest, and Myst as three of the five biggest games of the year; all three of these used full-motion video to a greater or lesser extent. (Myst used it considerably less than the other two, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the member of the trio that holds up by far the best today.) With success stories like those to look to, the floodgates truly opened in 1994. Suddenly every game-development project — by no means only adventure games — was looking for ways to shoehorn live actors into the proceedings.

But only a few of the full-motion-video games that followed would post anything like the numbers of the aforementioned four games. That hard fact, combined with a technological counter-revolution in the form of 3D graphics, would finally force a reckoning with the cognitive dissonance of trying to build a satisfying interactive experience by mixing and matching snippets of nonmalleable video. By 1997, the full-motion-video era was all but over. Today, few things date a game more instantly to a certain window of time than grainy video of terrible actors flickering over a background of computer-generated graphics. What on earth were people thinking?

Most full-motion-video games are indeed dire, but they’re going to be with us for quite some time to come as we continue to work our way through this history. I wish I could say that Activision’s Return to Zork, my real topic for today, was one of the exceptions to the rule of direness. Sadly, though, it isn’t.

In fact, let me be clear right now: Return to Zork is a terrible adventure game. Under no circumstances should you play it, unless to satisfy historical curiosity or as a source of ironic amusement in the grand tradition of Ed Wood. And even in these special cases, you should take care to play it with a walkthrough in hand. To do anything else is sheer masochism; you’re almost guaranteed to lock yourself out of victory within the first ten minutes, and almost guaranteed not to realize it until many hours later. There’s really no point in mincing words here: Return to Zork is one of the absolute worst adventure-game designs I’ve ever seen — and, believe me, I’ve seen quite a few bad ones.

Its one saving grace, however, is that it’s terrible in a somewhat different way from the majority of terrible full-motion-video adventure games. Most of them are utterly bereft of ideas beyond the questionable one at their core: that of somehow making a game out of static video snippets. You can almost see the wheels turning desperately in the designers’ heads as they’re suddenly confronted with the realization that, in addition to playing videos, they have to give the player something to actually do. Return to Zork, on the other hand, is chock full of ideas for improving upon the standard graphic-adventure interface in ways that, on the surface at any rate, allow more rather than less flexibility and interactivity. Likewise, even the trendy use of full-motion video, which dates it so indelibly to the mid-1990s, is much more calculated than the norm among its contemporaries.

Unfortunately, all of its ideas are undone by a complete disinterest in the fundamentals of game design on the part of the novelty-seeking technologists who created it. And so here we are, stuck with a terrible game in spite of it all. If I can’t quite call Return to Zork a noble failure — as we’ll see, one of its creators’ stated reasons for making it so callously unfair is anything but noble — I can at least convince myself to call it an interesting one.

When Activision decided to make their follow-up to the quickie cash-in Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 a more earnest, better funded stab at a sequel to a beloved Infocom game, it seemed logical to find themselves a real Infocom Implementor to design the thing. They thus asked Steve Meretzky, whom they had just worked with on Leather Goddesses 2, if he’d like to design a new Zork game for them as well. But Meretzky hadn’t overly enjoyed trying to corral Activision’s opinionated in-house developers from a continent away last time around; this time, he turned them down flat.

Meretzky’s rejection left Activision without a lot of options to choose from when it came to former Imps. A number of them had left the games industry upon Infocom’s shuttering three years before, while, of those that remained, Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, and Bob Bates were all employed by one of Activison’s direct competitors. Activision therefore turned to Doug Barnett, a freelance artist and designer who had been active in the industry for the better part of a decade; his most high-profile design gig to date had been Cinemaware’s Lords of the Rising Sun. But he had never designed a traditional puzzle-oriented adventure game, as one can perhaps see all too well in the game that would result from his partnership with Activision. He also didn’t seem to have a great deal of natural affinity for Zork. In the lengthy set of notes and correspondence relating to the game’s development which has been put online by The Zork Library, a constant early theme on Activision’s part is the design’s lack of “Zorkiness.” “As it stands, the design constitutes more of a separate and unrelated story, rather than a sequel to the Zork series,” they wrote at one point. “It was noted that ‘Zork’ is the name of a vast ancient underground empire, yet Return to Zork takes place in a mostly above-ground environment.”

In fairness to Barnett, Zork had always been more of a state of mind than a coherent place. With the notable exception of Steve Meretzky, everyone at Infocom had been wary of overthinking a milieu that had originally been plucked out of the air more or less at random. In comparison to other shared worlds — even other early computer-game worlds, such as the Britannia of Richard Garriott’s Ultima series — there was surprisingly little there there when it came Zork: no well-established geography, no well-established history which everybody knew — and, most significantly of all, no really iconic characters which simply had to be included. At bottom, Zork boiled down to little more than a modest grab bag of tropes which lived largely in the eye of the beholder: the white house with a mailbox, grues, Flood Control Dam #3, Dimwit Flathead, the Great Underground Empire itself. And even most of these had their origin stories in the practical needs of an adventure game rather than any higher world-building purpose. (The Great Underground Empire, for example, was first conceived as an abandoned place not for any literary effect but because living characters are hard to implement in an adventure game, while the detritus they leave behind is relatively easy.)

That said, there was a distinct tone to Zork, which was easier to spot than it was to describe or to capture. Barnett’s design missed this tone, even as it began with the gleefully anachronistic, seemingly thoroughly Zorkian premise of casting the player as a sweepstakes winner on an all-expenses-paid trip to the idyllic Valley of the Sparrows, only to discover it has turned into the Valley of the Vultures under the influence of some pernicious, magical evil. Barnett and Activision would continue to labor mightily to make Return to Zork feel like Zork, but would never quite get there.

By the summer of 1992, Barnett’s design document had already gone through several revisions without entirely meeting Activision’s expectations. At this point, they hired one Eddie Dombrower to take personal charge of the project in the role of producer. Like Barnett, Dombrower had been working in the industry for quite some time, but had never worked on an adventure game; he was best known for World Series Major League Baseball on the old Intellivision console and Earl Weaver Baseball on computers. Dombrower gave the events of Return to Zork an explicit place in Zorkian history — some 700 years after Infocom’s Beyond Zork — and moved a big chunk of the game underground to remedy one of his boss’ most oft-repeated objections to the existing design.

More ominously, he also made a comprehensive effort to complicate Barnett’s puzzles, based on feedback from players and reviewers of Leather Goddesses 2, who were decidedly unimpressed with that game’s simple-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence puzzles. The result would be the mother of all over-corrections — a topic we’ll return to later.

Unlike Leather Goddess 2, whose multimedia ambitions had led it to fill a well-nigh absurd 17 floppy disks, Return to Zork had been planned almost from its inception as a product for CD-ROM, a technology which, after years of false promises and setbacks, finally seemed to be moving toward a critical mass of consumer uptake. In 1992, full-motion video, CD-ROM, and multimedia computing in general were all but inseparable concepts in the industry’s collective mind. Activision thus became one of the first studios to hire a director and actors and rent time on a sound stage; the business of making computer games had now come to involve making movies as well. They even hired a professional Hollywood screenwriter to punch up the dialog and make it more “cinematic.”

In general, though, while the computer-games industry was eager to pursue a merger with Hollywood, the latter was proving far more skeptical. There was still little money in computer games by comparison with movies, and there was very little prestige — rather the opposite, most would say — in “starring” in a game. The actors which games could manage to attract were therefore B-listers at best. Return to Zork actually collected a more accomplished — or at least more high-profile — cast than most. Among them were Ernie Lively, a veteran supporting player from television shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard; his daughter Robyn Lively, fresh off a six-episode stint as a minor character on David Lynch’s prestigious critics’ darling Twin Peaks; Jason Hervey, who was still playing older brother Wayne on the long-running coming-of-age sitcom The Wonder Years; and Sam Jones, whose big shot at leading-man status had come with the film Flash Gordon back in 1980 and gone with its mixed reception.

If the end result would prove less than Oscar-worthy, it’s for the most part not cringe-worthy either. After all, the cast did consist entirely of acting professionals, which is more than one can say for many productions of this ilk — and certainly more than one can say for the truly dreadful voice acting in Leather Goddess of Phobos 2, Activision’s previous attempt at a multimedia adventure game. While they were hampered by the sheer unfamiliarity of talking directly “to” the invisible player of the game — as Ernie Lively put it, “there’s no one to act off of” — they did a decent job with the slight material they had to work with.

The fact that they were talking to the player rather than acting out scenes with one another actually speaks to a degree of judiciousness in the use of full-motion video on Activision’s part. Rather than attempting to make an interactive movie in the most literal sense — by having a bunch of actors, one of them representing the protagonist, act out each of the player’s choices — Activision went for a more thoughtful mixed-media approach that could, theoretically anyway, eliminate most of the weaknesses of the typical full-motion-video adventure game. For the most part, only conversations involved the use of full-motion video; everything else was rendered by Activision’s pixel artists and 3D modelers in conventional computer graphics. The protagonist wasn’t shown at all: at a time when the third-person view that was the all but universal norm in adventure games, Activision opted for a first-person view.

The debate over whether an adventure-game protagonist ought to be a blank slate which the player can fill with her own personality or an established character which the player merely guides and empathizes with was a longstanding one even at the time when Return to Zork was being made. Certainly Infocom had held rousing internal debates on the subject, and had experimented fairly extensively with pre-established protagonists in some of their games. (These experiments sometimes led to rousing external debates among their fans, most notably in the case of the extensively characterized and tragically flawed protagonist of Infidel, who meets a nasty if richly deserved end no matter what the player does.) The Zork series, however, stemmed from an earlier, simpler time in adventure games than the rest of the Infocom catalog, and the “nameless, faceless adventurer,” functioning as a stand-in for the player herself, had always been its star. Thus Activision’s decision not to show the player’s character in Return to Zork, or indeed to characterize her in any way whatsoever, is a considered one, in keeping with everything that came before.

In fact, the protagonist of Return to Zork never actually says anything. To get around the need, Activision came up with a unique attitude-based conversation engine. As you “talk” to other characters, you choose from three stances — threatening, interested, or bored — and listen only to your interlocutors’ reactions. Not only does your own dialog go unvoiced, but you don’t even see the exact words you use; the game instead lets you imagine your own words. Specific questions you might wish to ask are cleverly turned into concrete physical interactions, something games do much better than abstract conversations. As you explore, you have a camera with which to take pictures of points of interest. During conversations, you can show the entries from your photo album to your interlocutor, perhaps prompting a reaction. You can do the same with objects in your inventory, locations on the auto-map you always carry with you, or even the tape recordings you automatically make of each interaction with each character.

So, whatever else you can say about it, Return to Zork is hardly bereft of ideas. William Volk, the technical leader of the project, was well up on the latest research into interface design being conducted inside universities like MIT and at companies like Apple. Many such studies had concluded that, in place of static onscreen menus and buttons, the interface should ideally pop into existence just where and when the user needed it. The result of such thinking in Return to Zork is a screen with no static interface at all; it instead pops up when you click on an object with which you can interact. Since it doesn’t need the onscreen menu of “verbs” typical of contemporaneous Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, Return to Zork can give over the entirety of the screen to its graphical portrayal of the world.

In addition to being a method of recapturing screen real estate, the interface was conceived as a way to recapture some of the sense of boundless freedom which is such a characteristic of parser-driven text adventures — a sense which can all too easily become lost amidst the more constrained interfaces of their graphical equivalent. William Volk liked to call Return to Zork‘s interface a “reverse parser”: clicking on a “noun” in the environment or in your inventory yields a pop-up menu of “verbs” that pertain to it. Taking an object in your “hand” and clicking it on another one yields still more options, the equivalent of commands to a parser involving indirect as well as direct objects. In the first screen of the game, for example, clicking the knife on a vulture gives options to “show knife to vulture,” “throw knife at vulture,” “stab vulture with knife,” or “hit vulture with knife.” There are limits to the sense of possibility: every action had to be anticipated and hand-coded by the development team, and most of them are the wrong approach to whatever you’re trying to accomplish. In fact, in the case of the example just mentioned as well as many others, most of the available options will get you killed; Return to Zork loves instant deaths even more than the average Sierra game. And there are many cases of that well-known adventure-game syndrome where a perfectly reasonable solution to a problem isn’t implemented, forcing you to devise some absurdly convoluted solution that is implemented in its stead. Still, in a world where adventure games were getting steadily less rather than more ambitious in their scope of interactive possibility — to a large extent due to the limitations of full-motion video — Return to Zork was a welcome departure from the norm, a graphic adventure that at least tried to recapture the sense of open-ended possibility of an Infocom game.

Indeed, there are enough good ideas in Return to Zork that one really, really wishes they all could have been tied to a better game. But sadly, I have to stop praising Return to Zork now and start condemning it.

The most obvious if perhaps most forgivable of its sins is that, as already noted, it never really manages to feel like Zork — not, at least, like the classic Zork of the original trilogy. (Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero, Infocom’s final release to bear the name, actually does share some of the slapstick qualities of Return to Zork, but likewise rather misses the feel of the original.) The most effective homage comes at the very beginning, when the iconic opening text of Zork I appears onscreen and morphs into the new game’s splashy opening credits. It’s hard to imagine a better depiction circa 1993 of where computer gaming had been and where it was going — which was, of course, exactly the effect the designers intended.

Once the game proper gets under way, however, modernity begins to feel much less friendly to the Zorkian aesthetic of old. Most of Zork‘s limited selection of physical icons do show up here, from grues to Flood Control Dam #3, but none of it feels all that convincingly Zork-like. The dam is a particular disappointment; what was described in terms perfect for inspiring awed flights of the imagination in Zork I looks dull and underwhelming when portrayed in the cruder medium of graphics. Meanwhile the jokey, sitcom-style dialog that confronts you at every turn feels even less like the original trilogy’s slyer, subtler humor.

This isn’t to say that Return to Zork‘s humor doesn’t connect on occasion. It’s just… different from that of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. By far the most memorable character, whose catchphrase has lived on to this day as a minor Internet meme, is the drunken miller named Boos Miller. (Again, subtlety isn’t this game’s trademark.) He plies you endlessly with whiskey, whilst repeating, “Want some rye? Course you do!” over and over and over in his cornpone accent. It’s completely stupid — but, I must admit, it’s also pretty darn funny; Boos Miller is the one thing everyone who ever played the game still seems to remember about Return to Zork. But, funny though he is, he would be unimaginable in any previous Zork.

Of course, a lack of sufficient Zorkiness need not have been the kiss of death for Return to Zork as an adventure game in the abstract. What really does it in is its thoroughly unfair puzzle design. This game plays like the fever dream of a person who hates and fears adventure games. It’s hard to know where to even start (or end) with this cornucopia of bad puzzles, but I’ll describe a few of them, ranked roughly in order of their objectionability.

The Questionable: At one point, you find yourself needing to milk a cow, but she won’t let you do so with cold hands. Do you need to do something sensible, like, say, find some gloves or wrap your hands in a blanket? Of course not! The solution is to light some of the hay that’s scattered all over the wooden barn on fire and warm your hands that way. For some reason, the whole place doesn’t go up in smoke. This solution is made still more difficult to discover by the way that the game usually kills you every time you look at it wrong. Why on earth would it not kill you for a monumentally stupid act like this one? To further complicate matters, for reasons that are obscure at best you can only light the hay on fire if you first pick it up and then drop it again. Thus even many players who are consciously attempting the correct solution will still get stuck here.

The Absurd: At another point, you find a bra. You have to throw it into an incinerator in order to get a wire out of it whose existence you were never aware of in the first place. How does the game expect you to guess that you should take such an action? Apparently some tenuous linkage with the 1960s tradition of bra burning and, as a justification after the fact, the verb “to hot-wire.” Needless to say, throwing anything else into the incinerator just destroys the object and, more likely than not, locks you out of victory.

The Incomprehensible: There’s a water wheel out back of Boos’s house with a chock holding it still. If you’ve taken the chock and thus the wheel is spinning, and you’ve solved another puzzle that involves drinking Boos under the table (see the video above), a trapdoor is revealed in the floor. But if the chock is in place, the trapdoor can’t be seen. Why? I have absolutely no idea.

Wait! Don’t do it!

The Brutal: In a way, everything you really need to know about Return to Zork can be summed up by its most infamous single puzzle. On the very first screen of the game, there’s a “bonding plant” growing. If you simply pull up the plant and take it with you, everything seems fine — until many hours later, when you finally find a use for the plant you’ve been carting around all this time. Great!, you think. But it turns out that you need a living version of it; you were supposed to have used a knife to dig up the plant rather than pulling or cutting it. Technically speaking, you can fix the damage you’ve done, but the method of doing so is crazy obscure; you have to eat the plant, then return to the site where you first found it, where you’ll discover that another has grown in its place. I maintain that almost nobody will figure that out without the help of a walkthrough or strategy guide.

All of the puzzles just described, and the many equally bad ones, are made still more complicated by the game’s general determination to be a right bastard to you every chance it gets. If, as Robb Sherwin once put it, the original Zork games hate their players, this game has found some existential realm beyond mere hatred. It will let you try to do many things to solve each puzzle, but, of those actions that don’t outright kill you, a fair percentage lock you out of victory in one way or another. Sometimes, as in the case of its most infamous puzzle, it lets you think you’ve solved them, only to pull the rug out from under you much later.

So, you’re perpetually on edge as you tiptoe through this minefield of instant deaths and unwinnable states; you’ll have a form of adventure-game post-traumatic-stress syndrome by the time you’re done, even if you’re largely playing from a walkthrough. The instant deaths are annoying, but nowhere near as bad as the unwinnable states; the problem there is that you never know whether you’ve already locked yourself out of victory, never know whether you can’t solve the puzzle in front of you because of something you did or didn’t do a long time ago.

It all combines to make Return to Zork one of the worst adventure games I’ve ever played. We’ve sunk to Time Zone levels of awful with this one. No human not willing to mount a methodical months-long assault on this game, trying every possibility everywhere, could possibly solve it unaided. Even the groundbreaking interface is made boring and annoying by the need to show everything to everyone and try every conversation stance on everyone, always with the lingering fear that the wrong stance could spoil your game. Adventure games are built on trust between player and designer, but you can’t trust Return to Zork any farther than you can throw it. Amidst all the hand-wringing at Activision over whether Return to Zork was or was not sufficiently Zorky, they forgot the most important single piece of the Infocom legacy: their thoroughgoing commitment to design, and the fundamental respect that commitment demonstrated to the players who spent their hard-earned money on Infocom games.  “Looking back at the classics might be a good idea for today’s game designers,” wrote Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia at the conclusion of her mixed review of Return to Zork. “Good puzzle construction, logical development, and creative inspiration are in rich supply on those dusty disks.” None of these, alas, is in correspondingly good supply in Return to Zork.

The next logical question, then, is just how Return to Zork‘s puzzles wound up being so awful. After all, this game wasn’t the quickie cash grab that Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 had been. The development team put serious thought and effort into the interface, and there were clearly a lot of people involved with this game who cared about it a great deal — among them Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick, who was willing to invest almost $1 million to bring the whole project to fruition at a time when cash was desperately short and his creditors had him on a short leash indeed.

The answer to our question apparently comes down to the poor reception of Leather Goddesses 2, which had stung Activision badly. In an interview given shortly before Return to Zork‘s release, Eddie Dombrower said that, “based on feedback that the puzzles in Leather Goddesses of Phobos [2] were too simple,” the development team had “made the puzzles increasingly difficult just by reworking what Doug had already laid out for us.” That sounds innocent enough on the face of it. But, speaking to me recently, William Volk delivered a considerably darker variation on the same theme. “People hated Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 — panned it,” he told me. “So, we decided to wreak revenge on the entire industry by making Return to Zork completely unfair. Everyone bitches about that title. There’s 4000 videos devoted to Return to Zork on YouTube, most of which are complaining because the title is so blatantly unfair. But, there you go. Something to pin my hat on. I made the most unfair game in history.”

For all that I appreciate Volk sharing his memories with me, I must confess that my initial reaction to this boast was shock, soon to be followed by genuine anger at the lack of empathy it demonstrates. Return to Zork didn’t “wreak revenge” on its industry, which really couldn’t have cared less. It rather wreaked “revenge,” if that’s the appropriate word, on the ordinary gamers who bought it in good faith at a substantial price, most of whom had neither bought nor commented on Leather Goddesses 2. I sincerely hope that Volk’s justification is merely a case of hyperbole after the fact. If not… well, I really don’t know what else to say about such juvenile pettiness, so symptomatic of the entitled tunnel vision of so many who are fortunate enough to work in technology, other than that it managed to leave me disliking Return to Zork even more. Some games are made out of an openhearted desire to bring people enjoyment. Others, like this one, are not.

I’d like to be able to say that Activision got their comeuppance for making Return to Zork such a bad game, demonstrating such contempt for their paying customers, and so soiling the storied Infocom name in the process. But exactly the opposite is the case. Released in late 1993, Return to Zork became one of the breakthrough titles that finally made the CD-ROM revolution a reality, whilst also carrying Activision a few more steps back from the abyss into which they’d been staring for the last few years. It reportedly sold 1 million copies in its first year — albeit the majority of them as a bundled title, included with CD-ROM drives and multimedia upgrade kits, rather than as a boxed standalone product. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick in the aftermath.

Perhaps. But more likely not. Even within the established journals of computer gaming, whose readership probably didn’t constitute the majority of Return to Zork‘s purchasers, reviews of the game were driven more by enthusiasm for its graphics and sound, which really were impressive in their day, than by Zork nostalgia. Discussed in the euphoria following its release as the beginning of a full-blown Infocom revival, Return to Zork would instead go down in history as a vaguely embarrassing anticlimax to the real Infocom story. A sequel to Planetfall, planned as the next stage in the revival, would linger in Development Hell for years and ultimately never get finished. By the end of the 1990s, Zork as well would be a dead property in commercial terms.

Rather than having all that much to do with its Infocom heritage, Return to Zork‘s enormous commercial success came down to its catching the technological zeitgeist at just the right instant, joining Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, and Myst as the perfect flashy showpieces for CD-ROM. Its success conveyed all the wrong messages to game publishers like Activision: that multimedia glitz was everything, and that design really didn’t matter at all.

If it stings a bit that this of all games, arguably the worst one ever to bear the Infocom logo, should have sold better than any of the rest of them, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Quality does have a way of winning out in the end. Today, Return to Zork is a musty relic of its time, remembered if at all only for that “want some rye?” guy. The classic Infocom text adventures, on the other hand, remain just that — widely recognized as timeless classics, their clean text-only presentations ironically much less dated than all of Return to Zork‘s oh-so-1993 multimedia flash. Justice does have a way of being served in the long run.

(Sources: the book Return to Zork Adventurer’s Guide by Steve Schwartz; Computer Gaming World of February 1993, July 1993, November 1993, and January 1994; Questbusters of December 1993; Sierra News Magazine of Spring 1990; Electronic Games of January 1994; New Media of June 24 1994. Online sources include The Zork Library‘s archive of Return to Zork design documents and correspondence, Retro Games Master‘s interview with Doug Barnett, and Matt Barton’s interview with William Volk. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in a personal interview.)


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71 Responses to Return to Zork

  1. Andrew Pam

    May 3, 2019 at 6:01 pm

    At one point you referred to “Beyond Zork” instead of “Return to Zork”, which is a different game in the series. :)

    • Andrew Pam

      May 3, 2019 at 6:21 pm

      Reading further, it’s only the first reference to “Beyond Zork” that looks erroneous.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 3, 2019 at 6:22 pm


  2. Andrew Pam

    May 3, 2019 at 6:07 pm

    “who at been active” is a typo for “who had been active”.

  3. tuatara21

    May 3, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    Dornbrower should be “Dombrower”

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 3, 2019 at 6:23 pm


  4. Aula

    May 3, 2019 at 6:24 pm

    “one of the first studios hire a director”

    should be “to hire”

    “everyone who ever played the play”

    probably should be “played the game”

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 3, 2019 at 6:31 pm


  5. Ken Brubaker

    May 3, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    blank state should be blank slate

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 3, 2019 at 6:40 pm

      Yikes! Lots of problems this time. Thanks!

  6. Arthurdawg

    May 3, 2019 at 7:15 pm

    I haven’t commented recently, but I’ll add a comment that your blog posts are the highlight of my Friday!

    Really enjoying your series on the pyramids as well.

  7. Eric Nyman

    May 3, 2019 at 7:56 pm

    I’m really enjoying your blog. Fantastically well written a well researched, and one of the first pages I turn to every Friday.

    A couple of corrections–

    Ernie Lively actually played Cooter’s cousin (who would fill in for Cooter on occasion at his shop) in the Dukes of Hazzard. Cooter was played by Ben Jones, who later went on to become a Congressman from Georgia.

    There is a way to get another bonding plant if you inadvertently kill the first one, and there is a subtle clue as to how to do it, but I agree that on balance it’s an unfair puzzle, even if not quite as awful as described.

    I agree that Return to Zork did have a nice interface for a graphical adventure, providing for a more interactive experience than games such as Myst or the 7th Guest and their many imitators. Unfortunately, other than the LucasArts adventures, I’m not aware of any other adventure games that provided this level of interactivity. It’s too bad it didn’t catch on like Myst’s interface did.

    As scathing as your review was, you didn’t even mention the absurdity of the game’s final puzzle. In addition to its ridiculous premise, there was also a bug that would occasionally cause the bridge to not rise even after throwing all of one’s inventory into the chasm.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 3, 2019 at 8:09 pm

      Show me not to rely on Computer Gaming World for descriptions of who played whom in Hollywood. (Why did I even need to learn this lesson, you ask? Good question!) Thanks!

      Not sure I’d draw a big distinction between the interface of LucasArts and others during this period; they also steadily pared back their interface over the course of the 1990s. But their games themselves, of course, remained almost uniformly better designed than the competition. It really is a pity that the Return to Zork interface was mated to such an awful game. If the game had shown it off to better effect, it might have been taken more seriously and become more influential. A *good* designer could have done a lot with it.

      The design of this game, on the other hand, is so nonsensical that it can be really hard to figure out what’s a bug and what’s intentional. ;)

  8. Joe Pranevich

    May 3, 2019 at 8:09 pm

    I have been dreading this post for months. Because, you are right. And I know you are right. And yet, as a 16-year old player of this game I loved it. It’s not the only adventure that I played as a kid and it’s probably not the one that most influenced me, but boy have I remembered it (with rose-tinted glasses) for the last 26 years. Want some rye? Of course you do!

    This game, or rather what it represents, has been something of a curious obsession for me for the last two years. I think you are are aware of this, but I have been researching, playing, and writing about the entire Infocom canon for the last two years with *this* game as my target.

    Thus far, I have researched/played the first 27 pieces of Infocom media. That’s every game up to Ballyhoo, starting with mainframe Zork. I have spent hours trying to get cross-table joins working in Cornerstone. I’ve played Fooblitzky over WebEx. I’ve chosen-my-own adventure with Merezky’s Zork books. I have 38 bits of media left until “Return to Zork” and I expect that will take be another two years more.

    I’m looking forward to getting to the end of my little marathon and I fully expect that I will feel the same way about RtS as you do. And when I get there, I hope I have the peace of mind to remind myself that it was not the destination, but the friend we made along the way…

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 3, 2019 at 8:15 pm

      Hey, afterward you can still play Zork Nemesis and Zork Grand Inquisitor. The latter especially is actually pretty darn good — the best Zork since Zork III in my opinion. Not a bad send-off for the Infocom name.

      • Joe Pranevich

        May 3, 2019 at 8:37 pm

        I have never played Grand Inquisitor (or Undiscovered Underground) and am looking forward to it! (Even if “Legends of Zork” was released later.)

        For the morbidly curious, my road map is here My plan includes at least looking at games that were only sold by Infocom as a label although I’m not sure whether I will play them all to conclusion or even tell anyone about it if I did…

        • Lisa H.

          May 4, 2019 at 4:09 am

          I agree with Jimmy that GI is pretty good. The humor does still tend to be a little too goofy, but I think it got the tone better than RtZ (and especially better than Nemesis, which is basically totally unrelated to Zork IMO).

        • Mark Williams

          June 6, 2019 at 3:15 pm

          I also played this to the end, but on floppy disk! Same game, without the videos.

          Zork Nemesis is my favorite IF ever, but has nothing to do with the Zork universe. Great atmosphere. ZGI is much more Zork-like and genuinely funny.

      • John

        July 31, 2019 at 1:53 am

        I never played Grand Inquisitor and am surprised to hear it praised. Will you review it and Zork Nemesis? More importantly, will you review the NeverWinterNights2 adaptation of Zork1?

        • Jimmy Maher

          July 31, 2019 at 4:41 am

          Absolutely on the first question. On the second… well, that’s the first I’ve heard of it, and it’s a hell of a long way off anyway.

          • John

            July 31, 2019 at 2:49 pm

            Yes.. I think it’s maybe 5 years old at most. But for a modern Zork game, it’s quite impressive and you should definitely give it a try.

        • Ross

          July 31, 2019 at 8:34 pm

          I remember at the time everyone was very surprised by how good ZGI was. It was widely regarded as “Wait, they can still do a GOOD Zork game?”

      • Eric J

        January 2, 2022 at 2:09 am

        I’m looking forward to the Nemesis review. My recollection was that it was surprisingly good, but didn’t feel anything like a “Zork” game, more akin to a Jane Jenson effort.

  9. Sam L-L

    May 3, 2019 at 8:57 pm

    As someone who got this as a Christmas present as an 11 year old, and it being my first introduction to Zork anything, I have to say that all your harsh criticisms are completely on target.

    One thing to add in its favor – the music was actually really good, I thought – evocative and memorable. Plus, it was present as audio tracks on the CD so you could actually pop the disk into a normal CD player and listen to it! (I’m sure I spent much more time with the music on in the background than I ever did actually playing the game.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 3, 2019 at 9:04 pm

      Without getting all “think of the children!” on you, it’s the kids who got saddled with this game that I really feel for. I can find little ethical distinction between knowingly selling a broken, unfair game and selling a defective product of any other sort. There a basic degree of due diligence that the customer ought to be able to expect from a $50 commercial product. It still baffles me that the games industry struggled for so long to recognize this. Maybe somebody needed to sue…

    • Sig

      May 7, 2019 at 3:34 am

      Sam L-L, I would have written basically this exact comment, except I think I was like 14 or 15. RtZ came with a multimedia upgrade kit for our 486SX, and we played the hell out of it. The sheer joy when I finally figured out the significance of the potted plant and could get past the “Want some rye?” prompt is something I still remember. And I still have the music in my collection and find myself humming pieces from time to time. My only solace is I didn’t realize just how terrible it really was at the time. My wife and I played it through years later using a walk through and were flabbergasted at the leaps of logic required.

  10. Alex Freeman

    May 3, 2019 at 11:32 pm

    So if you had to make a list of the ten worst adventure games you’ve ever played, where would Return to Zork and Time Zone be on it? Which game would be #1?

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 4, 2019 at 7:01 am

      I’m not generally onboard with the Internet’s need to rank and quantify everything. But yeah, these two leave me with a really bad taste in my mouth. Some games wind up bad in spite of everyone trying really hard to make them great; some games wind up bad because, while the people making them would *like* them to be great, they weren’t quite willing or able to expend the time and energy required; and some games wind up bad because the people making them just didn’t give a shit. I can muster sympathy for the first or to some extent even the second scenario. Not so much for the third.

  11. Keith Palmer

    May 4, 2019 at 12:45 am

    I did play Return to Zork not that long after it appeared (it was ported to the Macintosh), but don’t remember much of the experience (at least not given the way others are tossing that catchphrase around); I know I must have found and used a walkthrough given what you described. Still, the manual collecting the bits of “Zork lore” from the previous adventures did hold my interest (given I’d worked my way through them with “The Lost Treasures of Infocom”). Mentioning Myst gets my attention, anyway, although there I’ll have to admit to a bit of look-ahead apprehension remembering how my personal reaction compared to certain almost-contemporary takes on it…

  12. Lisa H.

    May 4, 2019 at 5:07 am

    If the end result would prove less than Oscar-worthy, it’s for the most part not cringe-worthy either.

    Ehhh… well, YMMV, I guess. I mean, it’s kinda hammy. Although I suppose it’s not at bad as the 7th Guest, which has often made me think “oh, augh, please stop” as I’ve watched my husband play the 25th anniversary release lately (I never played it at the time).

    At another point, you find a bra. You have to throw it into an incinerator in order to get a wire out of it whose existence you were never aware of in the first place.

    *cue bra-wearers in the audience staring into the camera like they’re on The Office*

    Seriously, though, I’m wearing a wire The fairness of this would depend somewhat on how the object is described, though I forget if RtZ even has object descriptions. And really, if the goal object is the wire(s), you should be able to cut the bra or something to extract it; burning the whole dang thing just to get the underwires is… pretty bizarre. Do you have any hints prior to this that you need to get some bits of wire somewhere?

    It turns out you were supposed to have used a knife to dig up the plant rather than pulling or cutting it. (The question of how it should survive even this treatment, considering you don’t plant it again in a pot or anything — much less how you can dig anything up with a knife — goes unanswered.)

    You can totally dig plants/roots out of the ground with a knife. That’s not all that weird an ask. As for the plant surviving, I guess you get more of the root ball and some clinging dirt that way. It probably wouldn’t survive for days on end (although maybe we could assume you moistened it whenever possible?) so I guess we should be mentally flexible about how long a period of time the game takes place over, but *shrug*

    NB, I’m not saying these puzzles are fair or good, but there’s slightly more logic in them than you’re giving credit for, I think.

    (*sips rye*)

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 4, 2019 at 6:55 am

      The acting is definitely sitcom-level at best, but there’s a *knowing* irony to it that’s missing in most of these productions. This is acting professionals slumming it and having a bit of fun rather than a bunch of scenery-chewing amateurs who really believe they’re making Great (Interactive) Cinema. For that reason, I find it a bit more tolerable than the likes of The 7th Guest.

      The bra actually remains in a box throughout the game, so you can’t examine it. (I suspect, although I don’t know for sure, that Activision’s censors nixed at the last minute the idea of having a *real bra* (gasp!) right out there front and center in their family-friendly game.) You know there’s a locked door you haven’t been able to open, but nothing tells you you need a wire to do so. And, as far as I know, there’s literally nothing connecting the bra (in a box) to the incinerator, much less the locked door, other than some extreme lateral thinking.

      Point taken on the bonding-plant parenthetical, which was an overreach. Thanks!

      • Lisa H.

        May 5, 2019 at 4:19 am

        IMO not very strange to expect the player to try picking a lock with a bit of wire (unbent paper clip, etc); maybe not really how it works in real life, but works in movie-logic at least. But it would depend on the cluing for the locked door – “if only you had something to pick it with!” or something like that would be a reasonable hint. However, the leap to a bra underwire as the solution for getting that bit of wire might still be a bridge too far.

  13. matt w

    May 4, 2019 at 11:51 am

    the dreadful Flash Gordon film of 1980


    I was going to say something about “critical and commercial failure BUT,” but according to Wikipedia it grossed double its budget and was somewhat praised by Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. However, more relevant to the offhand mention of the movie here, Sam J. Jones wound up with about half of his dialogue being dubbed.

    • Petter Sjölund

      May 4, 2019 at 2:11 pm

      Come on, there is nothing dreadful about the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Well, I suppose the sexism is pretty dreadful, but that is hard to avoid in the genre “sexy space opera”. It is obviously deliberately hammy, a retro send-up of the original 30’s comic and serials, much like Leather Goddesses of Phobos. The sets and costumes are amazing, and the dialogue holds up surprisingly well. As an 80’s update of Barbarella it succeeds admirably.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 4, 2019 at 3:58 pm

      I thought it was widely regarded as being dreadful. I seem to remember it as something of a punchline back in the 1980s. But this certainly isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on, considering I haven’t seen the film in decades. Edit made.

  14. DANoWAR

    May 4, 2019 at 2:02 pm

    I was interested in the “Retro Games Master” you referenced at the end and clicked the link only to discover a probable copy/paste error (you linked to the Zorkian timeline twice there).

    Good article! I will play Return to Zork someday regardless, because I’m a dimwit who wants to play all adventure games. :-)

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 4, 2019 at 4:00 pm

      Link corrected. Thanks!

  15. Laertes

    May 4, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    “Probably about as many as still preferred books to movies.” Me for example.

  16. Matyas Selmeci

    May 4, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Good article as always, though I disagree with your opinion on live actors in FMVs. For a long time, the quality of 3D-rendered FMVs was so crappy (low detail, low poly count, unrealistic movement) that I wished more games had just used real people on real sets…

    These days quality is good enough that games don’t even use FMVs because rendering everything in the game engine is good enough. I’ve seen commercials for video games (on sports channels! Never saw that coming.) where I couldn’t tell at first if they were advertising a movie or a game.

    • Ross

      May 5, 2019 at 2:52 am

      I kinda lament that FMV blew its wad, so to speak, when it did so that it became a joke and was discarded forever, to only appear as a kind of artistic gimmick in minor indie games once or twice a decade from then on; if they’d waited a few years, it might have survived as a respectable alternative to 3d rendering being the one and only viable style for triple-A games.

      • Jimmy Maher

        May 5, 2019 at 6:00 pm

        I think the problems with full-motion video in games are more fundamental than the obvious implementation problems in so many games of the 1990s. The same 3D graphics engine can deliver both compelling gameplay and cut scenes. This isn’t true of full-motion video. You either end up trying to combine full-motion-video cut scenes with other types of graphics used for actual gameplay, which inevitably seems disjointed and discordant, or you try to *force* interactivity into full-motion video itself, which doesn’t work well considering that traditional film is at bottom a non-interactive medium. Game makers of the 1990s tried both approaches enough, with enough poor results, that we can safely regard them both as highly problematic at best.

        That said, full-motion video can be used to very good effect in certain specialized scenarios. Her Story, one of those indie efforts you are presumably referring to, really is rather brilliant.

        • Sniffnoy

          May 6, 2019 at 4:20 am

          I’m a bit confused here — does “full-motion video” actually refer to something specific? Like I was under the impression it was basically just a buzzword because I’d seen it used in so many inconsistent ways. Like I wouldn’t have thought of the Return to Zork examples as FMV because it exists alongside other, static, graphics? And elsewhere I’d seen “FMV” used to refer to stuff that is not, like, prerendered and thus not in-engine, but not, like, recorded as the stuff here? All this is why I thought it didn’t actually have a specific meaning, but maybe it does?

          (Also, heh, I’d mostly associated “FMV games” with the Sega CD, but I guess as a console that’s out-of-scope. And I guess we’re already past the infamous Night Trap! :P )

          • Jimmy Maher

            May 6, 2019 at 11:23 am

            It is a neologism: “full-motion video” as a phrase has a meaning that can’t be deduced from the words that make it up alone. And it’s also a classic marketing buzzword: the phrase is essentially meaningless in purely semantic terms, just some empty words strung together. But it does have a recognized meaning as a neologism in the context of gaming, and I don’t have a better phrase for it — nor would it make much difference if I did, given how entrenched the old term is.

            Anyway, it refers to scenes that are shot on videotape or (much more rarely) traditional film stock using real actors, then incorporated into games. Personally, I’ve never seen it used to refer to anything else — certainly not to pre-rendered cut scenes in the abstract. Mention to any gamer of a certain vintage — particularly any adventure gamer — “FMV” games, and chances are she’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

            • Emily Bowman

              January 9, 2022 at 1:40 am

              I believe Final Fantasy 7 was the game whose marketing redefined “FMV” from live action clips to pre-rendered CGI, as they were both static video files (a variant of MPEG-1 on PS1, one of many variants of MPEG-1, smacker, or Quicktime formats on PC). It may not have been the marketing, it may have been the critical reception upon comparing the pre-rendered scenes that marketing had heavily relied on with actual in-game graphics.

              Either way, it caught on, and by the time FF8 came out with the same pre-rendered marketing blitz people were already calling it out as “FMV.” As Sniffnoy says, it was being associated left and right with any pre-rendered cutscene, and over time would even start being associated with in-engine cutscenes, but not to the same degree as recorded video. As a neologism, its meaning evolves freely.

          • Ross

            May 13, 2019 at 9:47 pm

            I’d sort of assumed that the origins of the term were to distinguish it from some weird experimental early stuff I’d seen (By the time I saw it, as shovelware, but for all I know, there was the period-equivalent of triple-A titles way back that tried it) that tried some kind of weird Roger Ramjet approach to photorealistic animation.

            I recall seeing a few very strange games which had limited animation from film/video sources rendered in EGA/CGA even. Bizarrely charming and I wish I could find some to relive them now.

            (The first digital camera I ever used belonged to my high school’s graphics department and took photos in dithered halftone. And saved to a 2-inch floppy, the only thing of its kind I’ve ever seen)

  17. Nate

    May 4, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    I never got far enough in the game to be concerned about the non-linearity of the puzzles, and I didn’t have the context of the original Zork games to see how bad this was. Now that I’ve read all of this, I can see how it wasn’t great even back then. I saw it as a campy updated take on adventure game tropes (including death being around every corner despite the cheery pictures and tone) and thought that was amusing.

    I bought 7th Guest in order to see what video from CDROM would feel like. It was kind of disappointing, especially on a 1x CDROM drive. The puzzles were lame since they focused more on the video side of the game, though I thought the story was interesting enough for the horror genre.

    I agree RtZ did a better job using video, and the interactions with the characters seemed more natural. But I didn’t play it for the novelty of video, it was more to find out what all the hoopla about Zork had been. It was confusing how this game didn’t really make sense to someone who didn’t know Zork, though I had heard enough about it to have heard the term “grue”.

    Anyway, thanks for continuing this series. The part I like most is hearing the stories of the people behind the games and what led them to make them the way they were. Growing up far from the city, it was odd to see write-ups on “Tass Times in Tonetown” or “Suspended” in the magazines I got once a month but never play the games themselves. I was mostly programming or playing type-ins.

    Some day, I’ll retire and then have a marathon of playing all these games in order. It should be a blast to catch up on the substance behind the stories I’ve read.

  18. Martin

    May 5, 2019 at 11:14 pm

    Given the clear panning of 7th Guest, does that mean no article on it? I managed to find a used copy in a charity store only yesterday for a princely dollar.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 6, 2019 at 4:19 am

      It will get an article. It’s almost as bad as Return to Zork, but it’s too historically important not to cover. (And the implosion of Trilobyte is one of the more spectacular flameouts in gaming history, right up there with Imagine and Ion Storm.)

      • Torbjörn Andersson

        May 6, 2019 at 6:03 am

        While I don’t particularly care for The 7th Guest as a game, I still look forward to the article about it.

        One thing I haven’t seen mentioned – and that the article will perhaps shed some further light on – is that there was a preview of the game which, in my case, was included on the Magnetic Scrolls Collection CD.

        Before anyone gets too excited, the preview is just three very short, silent movie clips (four, if you count an animated Trilobyte logo) of the house, a door opening and a headless ghost running towards the camera. So the most interesting thing about it may be that in the preview the game is known simply as “Guest”, and is described as “a 3D animated Epic Fantasy game”.

  19. Karkan Lord

    May 6, 2019 at 7:03 pm

    I have a few very distinct memories of playing this game as a kid when it first came out. Obviously the “Want some rye?” memory that everyone has, but even more indelible is the goddamn Witch. I remember trying to interact with her and her simply exclaiming, over and over, “Get outta here! I only use fresh ingredients in my potion!” I clearly had no idea what the hell she was talking about, and I tried every option to get her to do or say anything else. Finally, after what seemed like hours of hearing that same damn line, I realized that a piece of meat that I had been carrying in my inventory for who knows how long had begun to spoil (first described as “fresh meat” was now labeled “rotting meat” or something). After dropping that item, the Witch finally deigned to speak with me. Man, that made me angry.

    I also remember finally making it to the final boss battle against the evil wizard, and it was some bastardized form of battle chess. I never won, and by that point had lost the desire to keep trying.

  20. Sam

    May 7, 2019 at 2:18 am

    I actually played this game through to completion, though I was in my early teens at the time, and its now so long ago that I only have the vaguest memories of the game’s unfairness. I also don’t remember whether I used a walkthrough or not. Walkthroughs were pretty hard to come by back then, so it’s possible I just puzzled my way through the game on my own!

    I actually have fond feelings towards this game, though. I don’t remember it particularly well, but what I do remember is feeling quite immersed in the world of Zork (a feeling probably somewhat akin to what you described as being Ultima Underworld’s great strength). I also remember thinking that the game itself was actually an imperfect representation of what it was trying to convey. The locations didn’t particularly look like places that would exist in an ancient underground empire, and characters would turn up claiming to be trolls, for instance, but just looked like ordinary humans. But I didn’t mind, I felt like I understood what the game wanted the world to be, and was willing to mentally paint over it myself, and I found it all quite weird and wonderful. (I think kids are better able to use their imaginations to bridge those kinds of gaps.) For me, the bad puzzles were far less important than the world and narrative.

    It actually led to me having a mini-obsession with Zork lore for a few months. My copy came bundled with all previous Zork games, plus a thick book containing what I assume were the manuals to those games. I played through all the text adventures and poured over that book, learning about the ridiculous histories of the Flatheads, etc. But Return to Zork was always going to be the definitive Zork game for me, rather than one that didn’t feel Zorky enough.

    I have no doubt that if I tried to replay it today, though, I’d find it just as dire as you did.

  21. Stephen

    May 15, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    Thanks for another great article!

    I do have to add my voice to those of others who’ve said you’re being a little harsh on RtZ. Yes, the puzzles are sometimes nonsensical, and the constant deaths and unwinnable states are unfair. But except for LucasArts games, these things were still par for the course, or only just going away. So I wouldn’t place it at such a point of extreme terribleness… it’s just committing the “usual” sins. And as you say, it is interesting despite that.

    (Also, as someone else noted, the bonding plant dying doesn’t make the game unwinnable. Though yes, I did start over when it happened to me. But I don’t remember feeling too put out. It was pretty easy to tell where I’d gone wrong. And starting over was normal in those days! The last puzzle is very silly, but not difficult. I thought the hay puzzle was pretty fair. And so on.)

    Of course I did get stuck several times — most frustratingly on the Boos puzzle, although not for chock reasons but taking ages to notice the plant. But for the record, to disprove that it is not winnable without a walkthrough, I also lent the game (on 12 floppies) to a school friend who was better at adventures than I and who successfully did complete it unaided!

    The inclusion of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica in the box also compensated a little for the lack of Zorkiness. Since I didn’t yet know any of the ‘real’ Zork games, I found it fascinating and spent ages reading it. Of course it does eventually make you feel doubly disappointed that the Zorkiness celebrated by the Encyclopedia is not replicated in the game.

  22. Chris Lang

    June 7, 2019 at 4:42 am

    The music for the game is great, and is the best part. And the use of the photos and tape recorder to ask the NPCs about others in the way you would in a text adventure was nice. But aside from that … I can’t really recommend this game to anyone.

    As an adventure game on its own, it’s nonsensical. The plot doesn’t make sense (we’re never really told why Canuck – even possessed by the evil glowing rock thing – moved East Shanbar underground, nor why its residents aren’t in the least freaked out about it unlike the Mayor and the lighthouse keeper on the surface). And much of the puzzles especially don’t make sense. Especially the last puzzle with the bridge where throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it makes it fall and then rise again for no apparent reason.

    As a return to the Zork universe, it doesn’t really make any sense either. All the references to the Zork games felt painfully forced, as if there were these blank lines marked ‘Insert reference to Zork games here’, and they just picked stuff at random to fill in those blanks.

    A game can have good music and a good interface, but sadly when they’re in a bad game with bad puzzles and a plot almost as nonsensical as the puzzles, they only make one wish the music and the interface were in a better game.

  23. Ibrahim Gucukoglu

    June 11, 2019 at 3:18 am

    I never played the FMV video games based on the Infocom properties, however i don’t believe that the Zork FMV games were the only Infocom games to inspire Activision’s future titles in their FMV output. I’m thinking that Border Zone was probably a heck of an inspiration for Spycraft: the great game, and Infocom’s detective thrillers such as Deadline and the Witness probably inspired Santa Fe Mysteries: the Elk Moon Murder. Just my thaughts on this, would be interested in reading articles about those games so I hope we’ll get to 1996/97 soon LOL.

  24. Helm

    August 15, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    I was reading about the UI in this game and Lure of the Temptress sprung in my mind. It’s a 1992 game, and in it you click on noun to get a contextual list of verbs. It was quite elegant. Shame that the game is buggy and honestly a bit inscrutable, or at least that’s how I felt when I was 15.

    My favourite hybrid IF\point-and-clicker hybrid UI is Legend’s, circa Gateway II. I just love having the full back end of a robust parser, but with a high resolution, beautiful graphic screen that materially conforms to the room text and can be interacted with directly also with the mouse. As a non-native english speaker, the biggest problem with IF for me as a kid was that I didn’t necessarily know what every word meant, and most importantly, it’s very hard to imagine the *implications* of what to do with unfamiliar objects and scenes, and that’s all adventure games are about mechanically. So, having a 1 to 1 picture to text relation, where you can actually click on visually clear objects for further textual descriptions I have found to be the best middle ground. Quest for Glory 1 is similar in that it’s a straight up parser spine, but you can right click with the mouse to parse a ‘look at’ command at whatever is below the cursor. I would not have been able to finish that game as a youngster without that aid.

    I wonder what the first adventure game where you can click to ‘look at’ but otherwise parse your way around was, historically. My gut does say Sierra.

    • Helm

      August 15, 2019 at 9:37 pm

      Oh, also forgot to mention that Legend’s engine also lists all nouns in a room that you can meaningfully interact with. I don’t know if everyone likes this, but it sure helped people like me enjoy and finish these games. I am curious if that is a Legend innovation too, or if there’s a historical precedent to this system of ‘room text, list of verbs and nouns on the side’.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 16, 2019 at 8:36 am

      It was an innovation of Bob Bates. Magnetic Scrolls’s Wonderland debuted with an even more elaborate interface at roughly the same time as the first Legend games, but that was a case of parallel development rather than one directly inspiring the other.

      The Legend interface really was brilliant at letting you play your way. I always got rid of the menu right away, even back in the day, to play the games as illustrated text adventures of the pre-Wonderland Magnetic Scrolls stripe, the pictures there just for extra flavor. But then, I was raised on traditional text adventures, am a native speaker, and am very verbally-oriented in general. That’s great that it was able to accommodate your very different set of needs and wishes.

  25. victor

    September 12, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    I was one of those trusting gamers who bought “Return to Zork” in 1993. And speaking of gamer PTSD, my only distinct memory of the game now is that it shipped with a 8×10″ guidebook that was nearly a full 2″ thick. I was so traumatized by the game that I carried that guidebook around with me, move after move, for nearly 20 years before I was finally able to let go of it.

  26. Wolfeye M.

    October 26, 2019 at 5:02 pm

    Hrm, now I’m kinda glad I missed out on the FMV craze, due to not getting into PC gaming until the 00s. I might have missed out on a few classics when they first came out, but classics tend to stay around for later generations to play, that’s why they’re called classics. Lol.

    I have a distinct memory of seeing Return to Zork on a store shelf, along with other games, and wishing I had a a computer and money to buy such games, because the box art looked cool.
    I guess younger me hadn’t learned the lesson, don’t judge a book, or game, by its cover.

  27. Kelsey

    March 17, 2020 at 8:33 pm

    As a kid Return to Zork (while frustration even with a walk through) was a game that highly inspired me. The videos were something that made buying the CD-Rom worth it. RTZ was funny and I think the vibe they captured in the game was a good nod to the humor of the original games. Love the content thank you for posting.

  28. Leo Vellés

    June 11, 2020 at 1:26 am

    “there was surprisingly little there there when it came Zork”
    That double “there” is intended?

    • Lisa H.

      June 11, 2020 at 2:25 am

      Yes, this is an English expression. “There wasn’t any ‘there’ there” means not to have substance or distinctive interesting content, especially if something had been hyped up to be great. Like you went somewhere as a tourist because people said the place was wonderful, and then it turned out to be dull or empty: you went there, but there wasn’t really any interesting “there-ness” to arrive at and experience.

      • Leo Vellés

        June 11, 2020 at 12:14 pm

        Thanks Lisa, i thought it was intended but being english not my first language, and never read that expression before, i wasn’t so sure. Now i ‘ve learned something new

  29. Marco

    July 3, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    Being facetious, there’s one reason to play Return to Zork and that’s AJ Langer (Rebecca Snoot). Though in practice, she’s not in it enough to be worth it.

    I will actually give Return to Zork some credit. It’s the only Zork game that’s stuffed with living, breathing characters, as opposed to you exploring largely deserted wastelands. And the graphical effects were excellent at the time and still bear up to some extent. It’s the writing that is so weird and messy: a lot of it actually feels more like the kind of educational adventure that appeared on Acorns in that era, where suddenly you get tested on days of the week or buying things in a shop. But then with a sprinkling of fairly half-hearted Zork references, and then some downright evil elements like the bonding plant.

    I do wonder a bit what the writers were on – according to Wikipedia, they later claimed it was a brilliant game because it avoided mazes. Even though it actually has two horrendous mazes…

  30. Iffy Bonzoolie

    July 7, 2020 at 7:06 am

    It’s funny to hear so many fond memories of RtZ. I never realized it was such a success… I can’t imagine Zork really had any name recognition at that point.

    At the time, I didn’t know the details, but I knew that Activision had acquired my beloved Infocom and summarily dissolved it. I looked to see if I recognized a single name associated with it, and did not, revealing it to be the corporate cash grab that it was.

    Of course, I bought it, anyway.

    I always thought the graphics were pretty ugly. I mean, at the same time we are talking about Ultima VII and Eye of the Beholder. RtZ was all noisy and muddy compared to its hand-painted pixel art contemporaries.

    The worst was having to watch and hear the same clips over and over again as you tried everything. They were so enamored with their multimedia…

  31. The Sweepstakes Winner

    April 18, 2021 at 8:42 am

    Loved reading this article, I have to admit I’m still a little obsessed with the game and mainly the lore behind it. I find it fascinating that it’s set so much further into the future than any other Zork game. There’s a lot to read through.
    I first played it probably in my pre-teens. There were numerous frustrating puzzles but for some reason never the bra wire one for me. The worst was that goddamn slide puzzle! I could never finish that without significant help.
    The geography was always a big fascination for me as well. Why is the overworld so barren? Why are they building New West Shanbar? What are the ‘Ruins’ in the underground ruins of? What’s behind you at the Mountain Pass and where does it go?
    Thankfully thanks to the internet I did manage to finally get my notebook completely full, which is probably just as challenging as the game itself!

  32. Jack Brounstein

    March 19, 2023 at 6:24 am

    It looks like in a couple of places you have Leather Goddess instead of Leather Goddesses.


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