The Dungeon and the Empire

Comparing the original Zork to I, II & III

by Chris Federico

(Content Last Updated on June 21, 2003)

Dave Lebling shared the typical interests of the other Computer Science students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sticking to pastimes commonly associated with that free and wonderful "antisocial" behavior some of us adore (considering the alternatives); in 1976, this healthy escapism included long sessions with TSR's Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. For an MIT undergraduate, this also entailed playing Colossal Cave, also known as Adventure (or Advent, due to restrictions on file-name length). This was a purely textual exploration/puzzle game written by Will Crowther and expounded upon by Don Woods. It was popular among students who had access to collegiate mainframes (and Arpanet, the primitive equivalent to the Internet), and was the archetype for everything that followed that fit the eventually coined "interactive fiction" game category -- or, put more simply, the "text adventure" genre.

The basis of Colossal Cave was a parser: a series of routines in the program code that interpreted the player's typed English commands and then reacted according to how the story was written (and how the objects and scenery could be manipulated). The parser could only understand simplex, two-word inputs, such as "take sword." As he struggled with the puzzles in Crowther's malleable yarn, Lebling mused on how the parser might be distended to understand more complex commands. He'd already written a few vector graphics games on a machine in MIT's basement called the Imlac; one of the programs, Maze, was the earliest first-person shooter ever to show up on a monitor (he also thought a networked version would be fun, and duly implemented it -- what did he know!).

Before a full year had gone by since he'd first set out to explore the world of Colossal Cave, he'd teamed up with a few colleagues named Marc Blank, Bruce K. Daniels and Tim Anderson; between them, they'd concocted a program called Zork, naming it after a nonsensical exclamation heard around the lab whenever someone got frustrated. The story used a few ideas from Crowther's original, but the parser was much more complex and the map was a hell of a lot bigger. More puzzles had been invented, and the player was made to feel more involved with the environment. The game was written in a language that allowed user-defined data types: MDL (commonly known as Muddle -- a descendent of LISP). A Fortran version was developed shortly thereafter, at which point the game was first widely distributed and Lebling temporarily renamed it Dungeon -- although he soon changed his mind and returned to Zork (as it were).

Dave and his cohorts decided to go into business for themselves in June of 1979 -- two full years after Zork had first appeared on campus mainframes across America. Ideas regarding feasible products were kicked around; they all shared the desire to apply MIT knowledge and experience, but nobody was quite sure how. Business applications were seriously considered, and then, largely due to the persistence of Blank and Joel Berez, a commercial version of Zork was settled on. The problem was, the game was too big to fit on a microcomputer (as Apples and such were called at the time). Lebling, Blank and Berez split the adventure into three installments, which would've been too large themselves if a brilliant "disk-paging" routine hadn't been arrived at (remember how the floppy started spinning every time you encountered something new?).

Infocom was self-funded, and the ex-MIT founders slowly recruited fellow students to look after the business end. Then Zork I was released, sold more copies than anyone had dared to imagine, and was followed by II and III with the same results. The rest, as they say, is a cliché expression.

Soooo...have you ever wondered what the differences are between the original, collective Zork -- which we'll call Dungeon to avoid extreme mental turmoil -- and the three retail episodes? C'mon -- ever wondered just a little bit? You have? Good. (Whew.) If you weren't curious at all, you'd sure be disappointed after reading this far into the article.

Firstly, parts of all Zorks appeared in Dungeon, but extra locations, items and puzzles were added to all three when the original was split up. In other words, Dungeon contains some elements from each Zork, but never every single thing from any one of the three. Having said that, nearly all of Zork I can be found in Dungeon, as well as a bit more than half of II; the third story only features a couple of things from the granddaddy game.

Let's start with the mazes we love SO MUCH. YUP. THAT'S RIGHT. SOOO DAMN MUCH. (I'll be calm...I'll be calm...) The maze in Zork I is seen completely intact on the Dungeon map, as far as the actual maze locations go. All fifteen spots survived when the original was trisected (how NICE FOR US! No, calm, calm...). The difference is, Zork I's maze contains four dead-end locations, while the predecessor has none. As in the first episode of the trilogy, you can get to the Troll Room, Cyclops Room and Grating Room from spots in the maze (although the latter's called Below the Grate); but you can also get to the Round Room from the forerunner's version. The Cyclops Room leads back up to the Living Room or into the thief's Treasure Room (called the Hideout in Dungeon) in both versions, but the thief's secret little chamber leads east to a spot called Room Above Puzzle. That's right -- it's the Royal Puzzle Entrance that wound up in Zork III.

This other delightful maze harbors the exact same layout in both versions, although there's no Royal Hall or museum locations of any kind surrounding it in Dungeon. There's also no book to be found in the original maze (which is simply called the Puzzle Room); you're going in there for a very important card. The only game whose maze didn't originate in Dungeon is Zork II; the Oddly Angled set of rooms was invented after the split-up.

In Zork I, nothing lies to the northwest of the Stream and its neighboring Stream View (i.e. directly west of the mine locations north of those areas). In Dungeon, however, going north from the Stream View brings you to the Glacier Room, which is called the Ice Room in Zork II. There's no dragon in Dungeon, but once you figure out how to get past the wall of ice, there, as expected by Zork II explorers, is the Lava Room (called the Ruby Room in the original). Through there, also as expected, is the volcano, containing the same number of locations as the one in II.

In Dungeon, the bank that returns in the second Zork is accessed via the Gallery that appears in I. The bank contains the same layout in both renditions. The Round Room in the original spins like the Carousel Room in Zork II, as does the Low Room (initially called the Low Round Room to differentiate it from its twirling twin). The Riddle Room that winds up in Zork II is south of the Engravings Cave that appears in I, whereas that first Zork's Engravings Cave has no exit at all to the south. The closet with the necklace, the well, the robot area including the Low Round Room, and the Tea Room section are all accessed by solving the riddle in both versions.

In the maiden residing place of the Great Underground Empire are seven Coal Mine locations, and a bucket that can be lowered from the Shaft Room into a site called (appropriately enough) the Lower Shaft. In Zork I, the Mine has been reduced to four spots (tricky as they are to navigate), and the Lower Shaft is now called the Drafty Room. White Cliffs Beach is simply called the Beach in Dungeon, and the actual Sandy Beach in Zork I is called the Rocky Beach. The shovel is found in a Small Cave, a location exclusive to Dungeon, rather than the site that actually wound up as the Sandy Beach. The Mirror Rooms, the Frigid River and Flood Control Dam #3, however, retain their names and location amounts. The Chasm is originally an Ancient Chasm, and the Land of the Dead is dubbed the Land of the Living Dead. To the east of the original Round Room is a location that didn't show up in the trilogy, called the Grail Room. There's an unfamiliar treasure here (a grail, as you've probably deducted). There's no End of Rainbow in Dungeon; it's just another beach, and once you cross the rainbow, you wind up at Falls View instead of Aragain Falls. North of here, you'd normally dig in a Sandy Cave to find a jeweled scarab; here, you burrow into a Sandy Beach for a statue (which the dragon's statuette replaces in Zork II). West of the Altar are a West Temple and East Temple, which Zork I combines into one; and the Dome Room and Egyptian Room are found in a separate area far to the west -- just south of the Glacier Room. South of this Ice Room in Zork II is nothing.

The sections in Zork I that don't appear at all in Dungeon are minimal. There's only one clearing in the original (with, of course, the grating and the leaves), and there's no Forest Path; you simply climb a tree in one of the five Forest locations (vs. I's four) and arrive on a Branch, which isn't yet called Up a Tree. (Such important distinctions!) Dungeon also has no Stone Barrow at the end; you beat the game through the Tomb and Crypt that wound up as the Crypt and Landing in Zork II. These are attached to the Land of the Living Dead in the original; there's no Menhir Room, Kennel, Cerberus Room or Anteroom. There's also no Wizard of Frobozz or Dungeon Master; you therefore won't find a wand to wave or a hood and cloak to wear.

Turning our attention back to Zork I, the mysterious granite wall is found in the Temple in both versions (the West Temple in Dungeon, actually); but on the original map, its twin is found in the Slide Room rather than the thief's hideaway.

Sections in Zork II that don't appear in Dungeon include the entire northeastern quadrant (Inside the Barrow through to the Formal Garden and Path Near Stream -- the mat is found in front of the white house and the screwdriver replaces the letter opener), Room 8, and the Wizard's area (including the Cobwebby Corridor). The Marble Hall is also exclusive to II, and the Deep Ravine to its north is originally split into a Ravine and Deep Canyon (different than the outdoor Canyon Bottom easily accessed from the story's opening); these two locations are what you're actually overlooking whilst crossing the Ancient Chasm. The Ravine area doesn't lead up to the End of Ledge in Dungeon (since there's no Dragon Room on the other side of the ledge's inner wall); it leads to a Low Crawl (surviving in Zork III as the Creepy Crawl) attached to the Egyptian Room to the northwest (here replacing Zork II's Fresco Room and leading up to the Viewing Ledge, skipping the Lava Tube area). Going past the Marble Hall and Ledge in Ravine in II will lead you up to the Tiny Room and Dreary Room; the door-opening puzzle associated with this area is found in Dungeon's double Torch Room. Hence, the spheres are here -- and speaking of which, you actually need the timber from the Mine; the rope can be tied to it, and it acts as a brace so you're able to climb down to a place called the Sooty Room to get the second sphere. These lone two globes merely act as treasures.

The only Zork III section to appear in Dungeon (besides the renamed, transplanted Creepy Crawl and the Mine area revisited via the Scenic Vista) is the Royal Puzzle (which is, again, simply called the Puzzle Room). The Hallway with the mirror box, the Dungeon Master's area at its northern end, the Land of Shadow and its neighboring Flathead Ocean, the Museum, Aqueduct, Lake and Grue caves are all special areas designed for the last game of the trilogy. There are no swords stuck in rocks in Dungeon, no men on cliffs persuading you to trust them and no time machine.

So we can quickly see that anyone who's played the entire Zork trilogy is missing nothing in terms of actual story involvement or puzzle-solving challenge if he hasn't engaged the huge original version. Likewise, however, we can imagine how this amazing, complex interactive tale must've come across to late-'70s mainframe users!

In closing, I'd simply like to thank Steven Roy for devising the original, hand-drawn map of Dungeon in the early '80s (what a chore that must've been), and I'd like to recommend an in-depth tour of the Great Underground Empire, so you might discern just how clever the original implementors were in keeping the trilogy consistent when the initial game was divided up.