Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Game 15: Zork (aka Dungeon) (1978)

We're all familiar with Zork, aren't we?  I suppose it's possible that there are younger readers who don't know the game, but it's fair to say that everyone reading this has either played Zork or played a game that's influenced by Zork.  It's one of the most important foundational games ever made, and its influence is impossible to escape.  It was even mentioned in one of the biggest movies of 2015.

Despite that, I think it's also fair to say that few of my readers would have played Zork in its original form.  The original Zork was developed on a PDP-10 mainframe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but when it was later released commercially it had to be split into three parts, because the game was too large for home computers.  The Zork trilogy is the form that most people are familiar with, but today I'm going back to take a look at the game in its primal form (more accurately, as it existed in 1980, which is close enough for my purposes).

The mainframe version of Zork was developed by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling.  Inspired by Don Woods' expanded version of Colossal Cave Adventure, they worked on it continuously from 1977 to 1979, though the basic game was playable in the Summer of 1977 and complete in 1978

The game's original title was Zork, but the version I'm playing is called Dungeon (there are so many games called "Dungeon" and "Adventure" that it gets very confusing, and I opt for the alternate name whenever possible).  "Zork" was at the time a nonsense word used by hackers at MIT as a name for any unfinished program.  The developers eventually called it Dungeon, but after a notice of copyright infringement from TSR (the oft-litigious publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG), they changed the name back to Zork.  Which is a much better name, to be honest.

This is the first game in the project that I've played before.  I completed the Zork trilogy about seven years ago, and I still remember bits and pieces of it.  Not enough that this is going to be easy, but there are certain puzzles that I have memorised, and certain others that I'm sure will come back to me.  I don't doubt that there'll be things I've forgotten completely.  I do recall that I got through Zork 1 without the need for a walkthrough, but Zork 2 and especially 3 were much too difficult for me. I'll try my best to complete this version of the game unaided.


The game begins in very familiar territory: a field near a white house with a mailbox.  The mailbox contains a leaflet, which gives a bit of an intro blurb to the game, and also indicates that more information can be gained with the HELP and INFO commands.  These commands display more text than will fit on a single screen, and it flashes by too quickly on modern computers, but luckily the version I got has a read.me file with the relevant text included.  HELP has information about the parser, and other aspects of how the game functions, while INFO outlines how the game is won.

I should discuss the parser a little more, because it is absolutely revolutionary. Every text adventure game to this point (and all the ones I've played that come after, I'm pretty sure) feature a simple two-word parser.  Zork expands on that significantly, as it allows the player to use prepositions, and understands more complex sentences.  You can even use multiple commands at once, separated by commas. It's easily the most complex text adventure parser created to date, and would set the standard for a while to come.

Not everything can be revolutionary, however, because the goal of this game is to gather treasures and return them to the trophy case inside the house.  Colossal Cave Adventure casts a long shadow, but it will be interesting to revisit Zork to see what it does to transcend its simplistic story.  Finding and storing the various treasures gains you points, of which there are 585 in total.  The backstory is similarly simplistic, at least in the beginning: there's a lost labyrinth beneath the ground that's full of treasures, and the player is an adventurer who wants to explore it.  It gets more interesting as the smaller details are fleshed out in bits and pieces during the game.

The opening section of the game takes place in a forest, with the goal being to get inside the white house and find an entrance into the underworld.  There are only two things of interest in the forest.  The first is a pile of leaves that is hiding a locked grate, but the grate can't be opened at this stage of the game. The other is a nest in a tree that contains a jewel-encrusted egg.  The egg is one of the treasures I need to collect, but I have a vague memory that there's something inside it, and that I need to open it somehow.  (This was confirmed when I later tried smashing the egg with a sword.  There's a delicate clockwork canary inside that did not survive the process.)


Aside from the egg and the grate, you can explore a canyon that leads to the end of the rainbow.  My vague memory tells me that I need to cross the rainbow at some point, but I can't do it yet.

Getting into the house isn't all that difficult.  The front door is nailed shut, and the windows on the north and south sides are barred, but there's a window on the east side that can be opened, allowing you to enter the kitchen.

The house has three rooms: the kitchen, the attic, and the living room. The kitchen contains a bottle of water, and a sack containing a lunch and a clove of garlic. (I have the sinking feeling that I need to keep my character fed...)  The living room contains some of the most important items in the game: an elvish sword, a lantern, and the trophy case where you store your treasures.  The attic has some important things as well, but it also has this iconic moment.


"It is pitch dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue."  It's a simple puzzle, but it's a good bit of design in that it gives the player a relatively safe place to learn about the lamp, and the dangers of not using it.  Later in the game this message pretty much means you're dead: once all of your light sources run out, the game is as good as over.

Once it's lit, you can see that the attic contains some rope, a knife, and a clay brick.  I'm pretty sure that the clay brick isn't here in the commercial Zork.  (Speaking of things that are new to this game, the living room also has a newspaper that details recent updates to the game. It is dated 18th July 1980, and notes that the endgame is here and that there have been some puzzling discoveries near the thief's hideaway.  It also provides an address where people can send written complaints, and highly discourages personal visitors.)

The only other thing I haven't mentioned is the rug in the living room.  It's not important in itself, but underneath it is a trapdoor, with stairs leading down into darkness. This is where the game proper begins, and also where it starts to feel dangerous: when you descend, someone closes and bars the door above you.  The elvish sword also starts to glow with a faint blue light.

Those who haven't read Tolkien might think that the sword has just become a handy source of light, but the rest of us know better. In Tolkien, elvish swords glow blue in the presence of orcs; in Zork, being one area away from any enemy will cause the sword to glow as a warning.  In this case the sword is glowing because there's a troll in the next room.

Zork takes a cue from Colossal Cave Adventure here, in that it has enemies that can be killed by brute force.  There's nothing tactical about the combat in Zork: you simply type KILL TROLL WITH SWORD until one or the other of you dies.  Still, the combat text is rather entertaining, and I find the battles to be tense and gripping.  This version of the game accompanies the text with a whole lot of numbers, but I can't figure out what they're trying to tell me.  The Troll isn't all that hard to beat, but there are tougher enemies to come.


There's not a lot you can do before killing the troll.  the first area I explored featured an artist's studio and a gallery. The gallery contained a painting, and the studio had a chimney that led back up to the kitchen.  The chimney was too narrow for me to climb with all of my stuff, but with only the painting and the lamp I was able to make it through.  I'm not sure why I can't get back down the same way, but at least it's not to hard to get back to the studio (after placing the painting in the trophy case, of course).

The only other area open before killing the Troll is the bank. I only have the barest memories of this place, and can't remember how to solve it at all (it's actually from Zork 2, so the commercial games really did rearrange things).  It features a couple of waiting rooms, a viewing room for looking at safety deposit boxes, a chairman's office with a portrait, and a giant stone cube.  There's a also a curtain of light that I wasn't able to pass through.  I haven't touched or investigated anything in here just yet, as I usually like to map out a text adventure before I start solving puzzles.  I'll get back to this, but the uneasy feeling I got when I first found the place is making me nervous.  I think my subconscious memory is trying to remind me how hard this was to solve the first time I played it.

Past the Troll the game opens up, with a lot of areas to explore.  It's large for a text adventure of this vintage, and I expect that I've only mapped a fraction of it.  At first the areas past the Troll are mostly featureless: passages, ravines and canyons.  It doesn't take long to find interesting stuff though, which I'll lay out below.

  • I'll get the most frustrating thing out of the way first: yes, this game has a maze.  A maze of twisty passages, all alike, just like the one in Colossal Cave Adventure. It can be mapped by dropping items to mark the locations, but Zork has an added complication: the thief.  Occasionally he wanders through to steal things, or to pick them up and drop them in different places.  I'll discuss him later, but needless to say he's one of the most hated antagonists in my gaming career.   I haven't finished mapping the maze yet, so I'll discuss this more in my next post.
  • There's one area with a shaft leading down, and a railing at the edge of the hole. You can't descend unaided, but you can tie a rope to the railing and climb down that way.  At the bottom is a flaming torch that never goes out. The brass lamp from earlier has a finite lifespan, but I'm pretty sure that this torch burns forever.  It's handy, but it's also a treasure, and the aforementioned Thief loves to steal it and leave you in the dark.
  • One room has a mirror that covers the entire south wall. I'm not sure what this is for yet. I broke the mirror, but there's nothing behind it.
  • Another room has a wall covered with a large glacier.  Presumably I need to melt it.  I've found some matches, but I doubt they are enough to get the job done.  Perhaps I could try the torch?  I get the feeling I'll need something more substantial.
  • The Egyptian Room contains the gold sarcophagus of Ramses II.  It's empty, and too heavy to move, but I'm positive that I need to get it back to the surface somehow.
  • The Loud Room contains a platinum bar, but anything you do in this chamber besides leaving the room results in an echo. If you type GET BAR (or anything else for that matter) the game simply repeats your command back at you. This is a puzzle that I remember.  Typing ECHO results in a shift in the room's acoustics, and after that you can pick up the bar without trouble.
  • There are quite a few rooms in and around a dam.  The lobby contains some matches, and a guidebook that identifies the dam as Flood Control Dam #3.  It also provides what will probably be the player's first glimpse into the backstory of Zork, with mentions of The Great Underground Empire and the tyrant Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive. A nearby maintenance room contains a wrench, a screwdriver and a tube of "magic gunk", while at the base of the dam you will find an inflatable boat and a broken stick. There's also a control panel with a metal bolt and a green plastic bubble on it, but I haven't investigated this yet.  As mentioned before, I've been mapping.  Puzzles can wait.
  • The Temple has a number of interesting objects in it. The first is the Grail, which I haven't found a use for yet but is no doubt one of the treasures. Further in I found a bell, and on an altar a book and some candles. The book has a rather bizarre message about the phrase "hello sailor", which as I recall becomes important later. The mythological significance of finding a bell, a book and a candle isn't lost on me, but I haven't figured these out yet.
  • Near the temple there's an entrance to Hades, with a pile of corpses nearby. The gate is guarded by evil spirits who won't let me pass. I vaguely recall that the bell, book and candle are used here, but I don't know how or in what order. I'll keep experimenting.
  • I've also found a shovel, some bat guano and a shiny wire.  I've no idea what any of these are for yet, but being a D&D player guano always reminds me of the fireball spell. The Zork team were definitely D&D players, so we'll see if this is where they're going.
  • The only other thing of note is not a location, but a character: the aforementioned Thief.  Occasionally he'll wander in as you're exploring, and lounge around casually. You can sometimes get away from him, but more often than not he will steal your treasures and escape. Fighting him is a bad idea at this stage of the game - he's quite deadly with his stiletto knife.  He's much like the pirate from Colossal Cave Adventure, only more threatening and more capable of interaction with the game world.

That's the extent of my exploration so far.  The game hasn't really done anything yet that Colossal Cave Adventure didn't do before it, but it does so with wit and charm. The best games in a genre rarely do things first: more often than not they build on the innovations of an earlier game. That's exactly what Zork does: it takes the best parts of Colossal Cave, improves them, and adds its own distinctive character.  It's great fun.

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