What's Wrong With Zork Zero

By Chris Federico

(November 19, 1999)

I'd like to point something out before we even get started here: Since this article does a lot of bashing, I'd like you to be aware that the opinions (well, raw truths, actually) herein are mine alone and in no way reflect Adam's feelings about Zork Zero.

In the Fall '88 issue of The Status Line, Infocom's online magazine about their own products (sort of like Nintendo Power with a wider vocabulary), Steve Meretzky, veteran text-adventure designer (but creator of only one Zork spin-off, Sorcerer), is touted as having given players "something even better" than a Zork sequel by "taking you back to before the beginning."

Something even better than that would've been to leave the Great Underground Empire the hell alone.

In 1983 I became fascinated with the atmosphere, effective puzzle-interpolation and eerie silence of the deserted lands in the Zork adventures. The second game was the first I played and the first I beat. Then followed the other two, followed by the three sequels -- Enchanter, Sorcerer and, by 1998, Spellbreaker. I utilized no hints and got no help, I'm proud to say (sure, it took me fifteen years, but still...). And now, in November of '99, I've beaten the final game (I don't count the RPG Beyond Zork), which was actually written as the prequel: Zork Zero. No hints. It's taken me over a year. And it wasn't worth it. This game is in a separate category from its six predecessors: It sucks and they don't.

First of all, I'll refer to the comment I made above about the atmosphere and the eerie silence. Part of these qualities is the unseen mystery in nearly everything in the G.U.E.: What are these sinister "grues"? Why did this or that particular, apparently inept object get left where it is? Why is the dungeon buried under a lusterless white house? That nails it, actually: Plain-looking things harbor histories, secrets and current potential that far exceed their harmless, humdrum appearances. That's the whole appeal of Zork fiction, as far as I'm concerned: the hidden significance in workaday things.

I don't want to know where grues come from. The mystique -- practically every text adventure's most important facet -- is lessened by the explanation of how the white house got there. Meeting King Flathead makes him a joke rather than an enigma. Need I go on? A prequel written after the fact by someone who didn't have anything to do with the original story isn't really a prequel; it's a fill-in-the-blanks attempt to sell a new chapter to fans of the old scenario.

I'd be a tad more forgiving if the puzzles were good, but they're all such a stretch. And keep in mind, again, that I didn't read a single hint. It's all process-of-elimination and imagination-opening, just like the others; but ol' Steve was getting a little weak in the material department in '87 and '88. I mean, turning a flamingo into a lawn ornament? Being able to unlock a combination-sealed door just by wearing a "magic glove"? Collecting the wax from a giant's ear? Visiting royal hot tubs? The so-called comedy is too thick in contrast to the intrigue. Completing this adventure was unsatisfying because it's a stupid story with inane puzzles. (This is not written in the heat of the moment; I finished hours ago and later thought, "Well, I may as well get an article out of spending all that time on the game.")

Copy-protection devices included in the packaging are implemented into the story more than ever, something I disagree with in every case. Did Infocom really think that rendering a world partly unexplorable without the manual would discourage pirates? Pirates don't crack games because they're drooling to play them. They take copy-protection as a dare, and there's no easier dare to answer than the one Infocom extends by just involving their superfluous packaging in their adventures' plots.

Not that Zork Zero has much of a plot. You have to cook all the treasures you find, throwing them into a cauldron. Maybe Steve was in a restaurant when he came up with the story (or just really tired). Anyway, the Jester, this tale's random-event character, is involved too heavily in the story. He's sort of like an omnipotent Wizard of Frobozz; the player gets the feeling that he's being led by the hand through the story, as the Jester provides not only many of the objects required to find treasures or huge groups of locations, but also hinders the adventurer like a brick wall whenever it's convenient (from the perspective of the lazy storyteller). You see more of the Jester than you did of the Thief (Zork I), Wizard (II) and man of disguises (III) put together. It gets tedious.

Having the past written incidentally like this didn't ruin the other Zorks for me at all, because, as I've pointed out, Meretzky had nothing to do with the creation of the original adventures; he simply made up new ideas to explain old ones that initially existed only as products of the imaginations of writers who wanted to enhance their worlds with certain atmospheres. Zork Zero is a loser, and I know I'm stating this eleven years after its release, but if you're thinking of embarking upon a session, trust me: The ending's not even remotely worth drudging through the series of half-assed puzzles to see.

Nice chatting. I'm going to go load up Zork II on my Commodore 64. -- CF