The Great Underground Empire

Part 2

By Chris Federico

(February 24, 2002))

Continued from Part 1

     The rooms in all three episodes are laid out in clever accordance with one another. Certain rooms are lined up with similar places, and some locations contain residual effects from neighboring spots. These sister sites can't always be directly accessed from each other (which is what makes it so much fun to discover this stuff). For instance, Zork I's studio, with its paint splattered all over the walls, is directly latitudinal with the Engravings Cave and its indecipherable etchings. The Loud Room lies just south of and below the water-tossed reservoir; hence the disorienting roaring noise. The damp cave is damp because just a couple of locations away is the Frigid River. The temple and altar are right next to (but inaccessible from, by far) the Entrance to Hades and Land of the Dead. The coal chute leading down into the cellar from the Slide Room -- a one-way trip that skips the traveler over dozens of southward moves in one jump -- is aligned with, yet out of direct reach from, the one-way shaft leading up into the house's kitchen from the studio.

     In Zork II, this kind of not-immediately-noticeable congruence is more rampant. Once the traveler figures out how to ascend through the huge, hollowed volcano, he notices -- but has no access to -- a viewing ledge situated a bit more than halfway up the naturally rounded interior. From a completely separate part of the game, far to the east, he can climb up a petrified lava tube and emerge onto that ledge.

     Cleverly, a glacier separates the main part of the second game from this ex-furnace. The stream that was a mighty river in the prequel can be deduced as the vessel that brought the glacier here as a smaller chunk of ice in the distant past; the stream flows along the locations leading to the glacier. This ribbon of water represents striking consistency among its relevant locations: Shortly after embarking southward at the beginning of Zork II, the traveler walks over a foot bridge spanning the stream below. The game's descending tendency is described cunningly in that the player's later fording the stream (once he's navigated its winding route through the duly moss-lit Great Cavern). A couple more moves to the southwest leads him down the Path Near Stream, adequately surrounded by displays of harnessed vegetation and botany in a formal garden and creepy topiary. In an otherwise-accessed but aligned part of the map, the stream has smashed through the walls of a marble hall. North of that room, a deep ford's lined up with, but distantly separated from, the shallow ford that the player encountered at the game's outset. Again parallel to, but inaccessible from, the foot bridge at the beginning, a stone bridge spans the stream at this deeper spot.

     Once the player figures out how to kill the dragon and melt the glacier (related achievements), the dragon's carcass is found to have floated along with the melted ice, as he's now lying in the middle of the stream.

     On the far side of the extinct volcano, the consistency represented by the viewing ledge is continued. Cliff walls have been carved by the stream into a canyon or ravine (a cleft between two mountains). In this again utterly separate part of the game from the volcano, the hero can climb up this neighboring mountain's less steep exterior from the depths of the carved canyon, encountering a ledge that's latitudinally aligned with the inner-cone ledges of the volcano. This shelf, like the two accessible ledges in the volcano, leads into the cliff wall where an actual room is found.

     The two magical places in this second adventure are right next to, but inaccessible from, each other. The Wizard's quarters, including his scary-looking workbench and his conjuring room, are located to the west of the crypt and the dazzling stairway landing at the end of the game. His set of rooms is guarded by a lizard head mounted on the front door, while the crypt area's guarded by a dog with two heads. Continuing on this theme, the crypt contains the mounted heads of the long-deceased Royal Family, and depictions of the King's (living) head abound in the game on various treasures.

     On the opposite, northern extreme of the Zork II layout lies the dragon, guarding rooms of his own. His outer chamber's aglow; a crack is observed in the eastern wall. The traveler eventually learns that the dragon's cave is located up in the mountain that neighbors the volcano; up on the ledge that overlooks the cleft between the hills, a crack in the wall is noticed, a red glow piercing from it into the room. This chamber, high up on the mountainside, is right next to the dragon's cave if one looks at the map.

     All three games contain locations whose atmospheres foreshadow neighboring places. Zork I's Smelly Room smells because it lies south of the Gas Room; the Drafty Room's drafty because its bucket shaft spans quite a distance upward to another location. The first game's unique in that the connected names of locations represent puzzles or preventions; for instance, the torch can't be carried into the Smelly Room or the Drafty Room, for different obvious reasons. The temple and altar area is accessed via a room with mystical engravings on the wall, and the Cold Passage is cold because of updrafts from the mine.

     Zork II's Fresco Room features walls and decorations that are cracked and charred -- the Dragon Room lies just to the east. The Cool Room's directly east of the location containing the glacier. The Cobwebby Corridor's dust and webs have been recently disturbed; it leads eventually to the Wizard's chambers. In Zork III, the Foggy Room's just north of the Lake Shore, and the Damp Passage is discovered, much later, to be the bottom of a water slide leading down from the aqueduct. The Land of Shadow contains quicksand; nearby is discovered the underground ocean. Brilliantly, Zork III, and thus the entire trilogy, ends at the Dungeon Entrance proper (remember, the player broke into a sort of back door of the dungeon, hidden in the house in the forest).

     All three games contain one huge machine apiece, and although the adventurer's manipulation of each leads to the possession of a vital treasure, the machines' functions become more involved as the trilogy progresses. The contraption in the first game's Machine Room is exclusive only to that location in importance, and involves a couple of simple actions that are forgotten once the treasure's obtained and the room exited. There's no danger involved. Zork II's identically named room stops one location from spinning and starts up another; besides figuring out that this is what happens, the adventurer has to overcome two puzzles, first learning how to use the controls without being electrocuted and then discovering which button does the trick instead of making things worse. The final game's Technology Museum houses a time machine, requiring the solving of all sorts of problems. There's a whole separate series of puzzles involving the very reason the hero's working this thing in the first place -- and he even has to go to lengths to reverse its effects once it's worn-out its use. Using this last machine wrong almost always results in death.

     All three stories contain one major group of objects apiece that have to be used in conjunction with each other to overcome their puzzles. Only in the first game are they found near each other, and these are the easiest to figure out: Religious items have to be collected and used in their correct order. In the second adventure, spheres that are similar to the Palantiri in Lord of the Rings are collected, but instead of being used together to obtain one treasure, they lead to the final reason that all of Zork II's neat things are being scavenged in the first place. The third game's interrelated group, the hero's wardrobe and required inventory, are actually the only "treasures" in that episode, although the reason they're being collected is so gradually, slowly apparent that it's much more difficult to figure out what to do once they're obtained than the nearly identical spheres.

     Along with the nature-hewn scenes, the trilogy features many common societal places built and used by the Flatheads and extinct Empire denizens. Once the traveler descends out of the light in Zork I, he can find an art gallery, a coal mine, a lobby, a temple and a beach. Zork II harbors a bank, a library, a formal garden, a kennel and a weird kind of baseball game. The final installment has a prison, a huge treasury (your final target location), a magical scenic vista (common to Zork I's Aragain Falls in its tourist-trappy motif), a museum and the huge Royal Puzzle. A better job couldn't have been done at combining eerie, dungeonesque elements and natural locations with the spooky remnants of a long-dead society. The treasure-hunting feel shines in the combination.

     In Zork III, the Flatheads' paranoia about security is especially noticed. Not only does the hero traveling back in time overhear the King discussing plans about keeping the Royal Jewels safe from thieves, but once it's discerned how to grab any before they're caged and bring them back to the present, re-reading the plaque in the Jewel Room indicates the Royal distress over the heist. Also, the entire Royal part of the map, comprised of the museum and the adventure-within-an-adventure of the Royal Puzzle, is guarded from the other bits of the game by an unopenable Great Door, and from the other direction a pitch-black cave full of grues that defies the introduction of light by its location near the small lake, over which the adventurer can't successfully bring any sources of luminosity. From another direction still, a river has to be crossed via an aqueduct. It's as if the Flatheads built their personal environment on a river-sculpted cliffside as an extra deterrent against intruders.

     The third game also contains a parapet overlooking a bottomless pit of fire that nods back to Zork I's entrance to Hades and torch-fronted altar area, not to mention Zork II's dragon, volcano and crypt. The fire concept continues as torches light the final story's incredibly long hallway, and the Sacrificial Altar of Zork's sequel, Enchanter (not bad, but Spellbreaker's the best post-Zork game yet), can even be briefly visited.

     Playing any part of the trilogy is quite an experience, especially if you're willing to look a little deeper beyond figuring out what the next puzzle is and how to overcome it. It remains a complete and harmonious environment throughout, a trick that couldn't have been easy to pull off while keeping the three episodes separate as tales. Zork remains unchallenged as a mesmerizing text adventure, and its legacy continues as more stories show up on the shelves (Zork: Nemesis has a fan base as manic and addicted as the very first trilogy did, if you'll notice the abundance of related websites). And it's no wonder -- very, very little other software has captured the imaginations of the computer and game community like the Zork series has, and none have held such a legendary status or maintained such longevity.

Written by Chris Federico

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