The Great Underground Empire

Why Zork Hasn't Been Topped in the World of Text Adventures

By Chris Federico

(February 24, 2002)

They're omnipresent: Zork I, II and III are those titles that seem to have always been around, available for any computer and constantly spotted on any '80s store shelf (no matter how sparse) or '90s "oldies" section or "best of" magazine feature. Sequels continue to be developed, but they're spoiled by ridiculous revisionism, courtesy of writers who had nothing to do with the inception of the original episodes (see the article about Zork Zero), or graphics "enhancements" that defeat the whole purpose.

If you look through someone's old disk collection, chances are he'll have one or more of the Zorks. And most telling of all, people still play the things. I sure do. And I find something new every time. The piece you're currently reading is a result of those discoveries, the often unnoticed ways in which the three Zork worlds are slyly interconnected -- to each other and within themselves, map-wise and otherwise. Surprised at the lack of such texts on the Net and in classic game 'zines, I wanted to make a learned tour of the Zork world available, narrated by someone who fell in love with the place imbedded in the games' prose like others fall in love with cities or vacation islands.

To realize what the big deal has always been about this trilogy, you'd have to have played at least one of the games. But to give you an inkling, let's enter Zork's scene, the Great Underground Empire. The citizens have gone extinct long before your adventure takes place.

The atmosphere's always eerie, even when the game's being funny. It renders you very PRESENT in the fictional universe, making you feel a certain strange way, like a great novel can do. The air always tastes heavy and the story's descriptions preserve the consistent spooky feeling that everything's too quiet, that even within mundane things like a forest clearing, a clay brick or a slice of red-frosted cake lie twisted secrets or momentous events waiting to happen. It's as if you're viewing a pretty painting through a distorted window and you can't quite put your finger on the warped bit.

The actual layout of the locations and objects is realistic and clever. Take Zork I, for instance. You can understand how some long-dead traveler's air pump could've washed up across now-impassable waters, because you're standing stranded next to his inflatable raft. You can see how a matchbook could've been left carelessly in a lobby, still to be found after all these centuries as one of those forgotten trivial artifacts of daily life; and you feel genuinely lucky that it remains, because the matches come in handy in your present endeavors in this emptied land. And the implementors thought of everything: You can read the advertisement printed on the cover.

At one point in Zork II, you find yourself in a lava tube. Elsewhere in the game is a huge, hollowed-out volcano core, although it's unreachable from this particular offshoot. These relationships define good storytelling, and building a consistent world is a craft that few writers besides the Zork magicians seem to have mastered. Earthquakes and other natural occurrences (not to mention some unnatural ones, like a player-induced explosion) change the actual shapes of some locations, particularly if they were described as fragile-looking to begin with. This makes those places and sights feel that much more real and ominous, since they're actually capable of being harmed by familiar, real-world effects. They don't exist as fixed, set-in-stone text descriptions to merely support a series of puzzles that are separate entities.

Dave Lebling, Marc Blank and Joel Berez, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-'70s, invented Zork on the school's mainframe computer in their off-hours (Blank even wound up commuting from his new digs in New York to work on the game). All three games were originally written as one huge story. The influence from which these three pioneers took their cue was the painfully primitive Adventure, the first-ever work of prose-based interactive fiction, written by Will Crowther a few years earlier on a similar college mainframe computer. The game had become known as Advent, since those room-sized computers could only keep track of a maximum of six characters per file name.

The collective Zork was finished in 1978, but for the time being it would only enjoy a base of underground fans (couldn't help the pun): fellow students who dialed-up the mainframe to play the game. But it soon accumulated a nationwide following this way, foreshadowing the online spread of Doom.

So the three wise storytellers dropped their majors and formed Infocom in 1979. Zork was broken down into three games, and changes were made so a player could embark on one of the adventures without knowing anything about the other two. After Zork I was released for retail consumption, ex-roomie Mike Dornbrook was employed for play-testing. He wound up answering calls and letters from people begging for help from all over the country; he eventually started the Infocom Hint Service, which turned into the Zork Users' Group. That in turn became the lucrative InvisiClues company, offering hint booklets that required those old appearing-ink markers.

By 1982, all three games had been released; they've sold millions since then. The games are the same from computer to computer; although the trisecting was done to fit the total original story into 48k computers, even bigger machines offer the exact same adventures.

Zork I contains more natural scenery than the other two. The trilogy's consistent proportions hold fast in these places. There's a river complete with beaches, a waterfall at its far end, a forest far below (where the player starts, and from where he can glimpse the falls), a rainbow with curiously physics-defying properties and the only series of outdoor cliffs and ledges in the trilogy. The ledges in the second game are carved into the inside of a huge volcano jutting up from the dungeon floor; only a bare amount of sunlight sneaks in from far above. Zork III's cliffs, while also exposed to an unreachable spot of daylight, stand below the dungeon roof and serve to overlook an underground ocean. The outdoor locations in Zork I can be glimpsed from afar if the player dooms himself by riding a hot-air balloon up through Zork II's volcano core. This is a concise world, folks.

Since those natural locations, comprising the outdoor segments of the trilogy, only appear in the first game, the player's advancement feels progressively deeper into the earth. Zork I also features a view of the mountains roofing the sequels' locations (and one can easily imagine the volcano hiding in that range somewhere).

Compared to the first game's vast outdoor forest, Zork II's brief patch of foliage is underground, its vegetation illuminated by phosphorescent mosses instead of sunlight, and its lushness broken by a stream merely carved into the cave floor through a crack in the underground wall. Compare this to the first game's long, treacherous outdoor river. Zork II's trickling stream dries up to the west, its route broken by the extinct volcano. One gets the feeling that the first episode's river has sent this arm into the sequel's world.

Except for the impassable underground ocean, Zork III reduces natural water sources to residual swamps, quicksand and a small lake in a pitch-black hollow far below everything else, a tributary of which is briefly glimpsed elsewhere (where the traveler can stand on an underground aqueduct; this huge plumbing construct is one of the locations that partially collapses from a natural disaster, and the event exposes a doorway to a previously unreachable place).

Along with the great outdoors, Zork I's layout contains the most familiar types of locations, like a crypt complete with coffin, a proper maze and a sandy cave ripe for digging with a shovel found nearby. The treasures are also more commonplace than in the other two games: There's a chest of jewels hiding under the waves of the river where it dips briefly indoors and defies the player to stop it with a dam. There are also diamonds, gems and coins: archetypal adventure game treasures. By contrast, the other two stories mainly contain items that don't usually strike one as being valuable, like broken musical instruments, stamps and clothing. Zork III's different from the first two anyway, in a couple of general ways: Its treasures and score aren't simply accumulated as a means of achieving one final, grand task, but rather are accumulated on and about the traveler's person to complete a guise, the score harboring a maximum of 7 compared to the others' hundreds. The tally in the final game represents more of a clue as to which things are important than a marker of how close the adventure is to being completed. The other difference in Zork III is smaller: The first two games contain creatures and areas based on existing fiction, while the third installment's silence is broken only by one person in a few different disguises.

Grues abound in all three stories, anytime you find yourself in a dark place without a light source; but only in the third do they actually figure into the adventurer's necessary actions. Zork III also contains the only areas connected to the Royal centerpoint of long-gone dungeon rulers the Flatheads (who are alluded to throughout all three stories), as well as the only opportunities to briefly visit locations from the previous two games, even traveling through time to temporarily observe the Empire during its heyday.

The familiar mythological creatures in Zork I are a Cyclops, a vampire bat and Hades spirits; its other characters are a songbird, a troll and a bothersome thief. Remnants of past fiction include a bit of Atlantis and, not-so-fictitiously, an area reminiscent of Tutankhamen's Tomb. By way of mythology, Zork II features Cerebus the two-headed dog, a gnome, a unicorn, a serpent and a dragon; its visited literature is Alice in Wonderland. Other characters in the second game are a princess, a demon and the notorious Wizard of Frobozz, the equivalent to Zork I's thief; each of these antagonists requires a double-edged approach. While their pranks have to be avoided whenever possible, and precautions taken to save the game occasionally as insurance against the potential hindrances they pose in the form of the games' only random events (along with the first game's troll and Zork III's hooded man), these bad guys are, paradoxically, needed for the player's eventual victory. Finding out just when, where and why their dubious services are advantageous rather than troublesome is the crux of the challenge in dealing with them.

Keys abound in all three stories, but another example of the writers' collective ingenuity is that the nature and usage of the keys differ from game to game. Keys appear in all colors, shapes, sizes and materials, and one even changes shape frequently.

Trap doors, mirrors and other two-dimensional portals to other locations are found in the first two games, while the last story features the Scenic Vista, a multidestinational teleporter.

Whether they should be counted as characters or not, it's noteworthy that the second and third episodes contain a robot apiece. All three games feature puzzles that have to be solved to get special vehicles going; each such mechanized route leads to a spectacular death unless a special action's taken to keep the vehicle from going too far or drawing attention. Zork III combines the one-time event element (like the earthquake or Zork II's explosion) with the tales' flair for eerie encounters by bringing a lonely sailor briefly into the story; other not-quite-characters are a dead traveler, two dangerous statues and an array of monsters infesting the small lake in the dark Zork III hollow. This lake's the closest thing to a nod to other fiction in the third game; whereas the first two contain obvious bits of well-known lore, the wet cave resembles Gollum's hideaway in Tolkien's Misty Mountains (the obtainment of a ring is even required elsewhere in the game).

The first two feature mazes of greatly differing natures; the third has the Royal Puzzle, a maze that actually has to be altered to get through. Zork III also uses the first two's lost-in-a-labyrinth ethic by featuring a Land of Shadow in which all locations look alike, with only the barest qualities differentiating the sites from each other.

As mentioned before, each story's lower in the earth than the previous one; Zork I starts outside a house surrounded by mountains and a forest made up of disorienting, maze-like locations similar to those comprising the Land of Shadow. Never after the first installment does the adventurer leave the underground dungeon. What's fascinating is that in overlaying the maps from all three games, one finds that Zork I's Land of the Dead stands above the sequel's crypt; the Cyclops and Treasure Room lie above the Wizard's pet serpent, pet Cerebus and trophy room; and Zork II's huge volcano is revealed as a spire in one of the higher, unattainable cliffs overlooking Zork III's ocean.

If one were able to dig deeper in the first game's sandy cave, he'd fall into the dingy closet in Zork II, another room containing an important hidden object and a hazardous quality. Zork I's Frigid River flows over the surface that roofs the Pool Room, a tiny place in the second game that just happens to contain a leak in the ceiling, forming a salty pond in the room's low depression.

If one could take Zork II's well bucket down lower, he'd wind up at the entrance to the third game's Royal Puzzle, an anteroom requiring another downward venture.

Ironically, Zork I's starting location, outdoors and west of the house, lies directly above the Strange Passage, a spot in the dungeon that many players will never come across (its discovery involves an alternate solution to getting past the Cyclops that's nearly impossible to discern without a walkthrough). The contrast between the dark dungeons below and this sunny forest is so effective because its opposing characteristics are so subtly employed: The things worked into the traveler's subconscious are the songbird, who has to be summoned, contrasting the bat, who must be repelled; the trees that are climbed up as opposed to the bucket shaft and balcony that are scaled down; the crossing of the rainbow by solidifying it set against the crossing of the reservoir by emptying it; the pile of leaves in the clearing opposing the pile of objects surrounding the dead adventurer; the blockage of trees and cliffs contrasting the spirits barring entry to Hades; and the relatively easily escapable maze of forest locations counterpointing the maze directly below it, which can easily get an adventurer lost without a clue. But in turn, the rewards below easily outweigh the fruits of the friendlier obstacles above; upon breaking into the house, the traveler finds a simple lunch and a bottle of water, but after breaking into the Treasure Room far below, he'll see not a bottle but a silver chalice.

There are a couple of treasures hidden inside other objects in the first game, and both deal with items connected to natural elements: Both the egg in the tree and the buoy in the river can be opened.

Continued in Part 2

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