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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 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.

 
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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 example 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 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.

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

 

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Zork II, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Zork II, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU BEGIN TO FEEL LIGHTHEADED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAMED ADVENTURER TO EXPLORE GREAT
UNDERGROUND EMPIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is a well.

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

Beyond the Riddle Room is the Circular Room:

CIRCULAR ROOM

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

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

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

       O  B  O

       A  G  I
         E L

       M  P  A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Infocom: Going It Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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