Monday 26 September 2016

Missed Classic 30: Dungeon - Introduction (1979)

Written by Joe Pranevich

The marathon begins!

In the beginning, there was Colossal Cave. Lots of people played and enjoyed it but some brave adventurers were inspired. These adventurers, mostly college students, started to create their own adventure games on the systems that they had access to. Many of those have been lost to history, but one such project became a legend: Zork. This is not the story of the commercial Zork games which launched Infocom but rather their predecessor, a text adventure created by four procrastinating college kids who just wanted to see if they could do it. This game would not be as well-known as its commercial descendants, but I can think of no better place to start our marathon than at the very beginning.

Our story begins in beautiful Cambridge, Massachusetts. Around 1977, a group of four students at MIT’s computer science laboratory were fans of Colossal Cave and Dungeons & Dragons and wanted to build a game in the spirit of both. They didn’t have a name for their project but they had a made-up word that they used for their other in-progress projects: Zork. The four would-be game designers were Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling. Tim and Marc had previously collaborated on a network game, Trivia, while Dave had worked on an action game called Maze, but this their first attempts at a text adventure. They didn’t create a fully-formed Zork all at once, the game gradually developed over the next two years as more and more puzzles were added and the core software improved. The game reached its “final” form in 1979 although bug fixes would continue on the software until 1981. Several of the now former MIT students founded Infocom in 1979 and built the consumer version of Zork, but we’ll get to that story when we talk about Zork I.

We will not be playing this original PDP-10 version but rather its very close cousin. In 1978, an intrepid hacker (in both senses of the word) managed to get his hands on the source code to Zork, something the original designers had tried to keep secret. This semi-anonymous hacker (known as “Bob”) painstakingly translated the entire source code from “Muddle”, the LISP-like programming language the game was based on, to FORTRAN. This was difficult work, but it allowed the game to be run on a wider array of platforms. This version was forked during a brief period when Zork was known as Dungeon and that is the name that has stuck. The intrepid hacker kept his version up to date as the original added new puzzles and he tried to make it as close an experience as possible. Rather than play the PDP-10 original, I will be playing this fork. According to the documentation, the only difference is that the FORTRAN version has a less sophisticated parser. If anyone knows of other differences, please let me know.

The venerable 10.

By way of full disclosure, I have played a bit of this game once before back when I was a columnist for Linux Journal. I didn’t end up writing about it, but I have seen some of the early areas. I have also beaten Zork I (with the help of a hintbook) nearly twenty-five years ago. I’ve played some of Zork II and III, but I do not recall beating them. My memory is rusty, but I’ll probably remember things as I play. I’m not sure how much help that will be anyway as the mainframe and personal computer versions of the game are supposedly quite different. We’ll have to see.

I want to warn you ahead of time that this game will be violating our “three post” rule. At least informally, we have tried to keep Missed Classics at a maximum of three posts. Any more than that and we risk losing focus on the “main” games. There were a couple of games that violated this just after the transition, but we’ve held pretty firm since then. Since this game is both important and long, we’ll make an exception this time. I’m going to write as many posts as it takes to cover the game, but I expect we’ll be able to do shorter posts on the commercial versions if this includes many of the same puzzles.

It goes without saying that this is a text adventure and those are a pain to illustrate. I’m going to do my best to find representative pictures when I can, but I am also experimenting with making maps:

An unremarkable little white house...

I hope these maps make it easier to visualize what I am up to and the puzzles I am trying to solve. As I play, I’m building these with OmniGraffle; I’m polishing them a tiny bit before we post to the blog, but not too much. I don’t promise that they are correct!

I think I’ve said everything that I need to say. It’s time to play the game! It starts near...

The Big White House

If you have ever played Zork, this game starts in a familiar location, west of a white house with a boarded front door. We’re also standing in front of a mailbox containing a leaflet and that is where we discover our quest: we have to discover treasures “long hidden from prying eyes” in a “lost labyrinth, deep on the bowels of the earth.” Doesn’t that sound like someone has played a bit too much Dungeons & Dragons? The in-game documentation further clarifies that the goal is to take those treasures to the trophy case in the house. To do that, the introduction says that I will need to discover a light source and a weapon, plus be careful with the thief. This is exactly like the start of Zork I and I feel right at home already. I hope that my experience with the later game doesn’t send me down the wrong paths in this one.

Not far from the house is a forest, our first mini-maze. All of the rooms save two have unique descriptions so mapping it is no problem. There is a large tree to climb in one of the clearings and we find a golden egg in a nest! I check my score and find that I now have 5 points of a possible 585. I doubt there are 117 treasures, but I’m still going to be at this a while. In another part of the forest there is a pile of leaves on top of a locked grate. I don’t have any keys so I’ll have to come back later. The final surprise is that there is a second way out of the forest, a path leading to the top of a “Great Canyon”. I don’t remember this in Zork, but it’s been a very long time. In the distance, we can see Flood Control Dam #3 and… could the famous dam of the Great Underground Empire be above ground in this game? Blasphemy! I suppose in the 70s, they didn’t know any better. Have you seen the clothes they used to wear? A rainbow ends at the bottom of the canyon; I vaguely remember that there’s a way to cross it, but I don’t recall how.

When I’m satisfied that I’ve explored all of the outdoor areas, I head inside. The front door is boarded up, but we have no problem climbing in a rear window. The house itself is just three rooms: a kitchen, an attic, and a living room, but they contain tons of stuff. The trophy case is in the living room, empty for the moment, as well as a elvish sword, a battery-powered lamp, and a newspaper. The newspaper alludes to a “puzzling new discovery” near the Thief’s lair. I have no idea where that is, but it’s neat to see that the game was growing and evolving even as players were using it. The final room is the attic and we have to turn on our lamp to keep from dying. The “grues” attack anyone that enters a dark place without a lightsource! We find a rope, a knife, and a clay brick up there. That’s already more than I can carry so I drag them all to the trophy room and use that as my base of operations. I remember the next part from my time with Zork: there’s a trapdoor beneath the living room rug which leads to the cellar and the “underground empire”. I head there next.

Beneath the House

The beginning of the adventure!

While I remembered the trapdoor, I forgot one detail: it closes shut behind you. We’re trapped below, at least until we find a path back up. Fortunately, I was still carrying the lamp! My sword begins to glow blue and I am pretty sure that means there is danger nearby. I’d best be careful.

Just south of the cellar is a small collection of rooms around an art gallery and studio. The gallery has a painting that I can pick up (9% complete), but with no path back to the trophy case I may need to come back later. Fortunately, the solution appears immediately: in the adjacent studio there is a chimney that I can climb, but only if I’m carrying less stuff. My first death comes just moments later when I wander into a troll’s room and he makes quick work of me. I’ll explore there later...

Bank of Zork

But do I get free checking?
I restore and resume exploring. Just west of the artist’s studio is an area I don’t remember: the Bank of Zork. The surprise here is that even in this early version, the writers had fleshed out some of the backstory of the universe. We learn that this was the largest bank in the Great Underground Empire and about a book, “The Lives of the Twelve Flatheads”. Elsewhere, we see that the bank opened in 722 GUE. I have no idea what the current year is, but they even had the calendar system! I remember that the Flatheads will be a major part of Zork Zero; I believe they were the rulers, a parody of the English “Roundheads” who fought for parliamentary authority during the English Civil War. I’m curious how much we’ll learn about them in this game.

The vault itself doesn’t seem that complicated, an entrance way leading to two “Teller’s Rooms” which themselves connect to a room with safe deposit boxes. There are some weird directions going on in the bank, but it’s easy enough to map. Just south of the safe deposit boxes is the chairman’s office and a Portrait, another treasure! Unfortunately, you can’t leave with it as there are now force-fields on either side of the safe deposit room.

And you thought this game wouldn’t have graphics!

At the north end of the room is a curtain of light. You can walk through it to get to an empty room with no doors, but you aren’t stuck as it seems you can walk through the walls to get back to where we started. I didn’t solve this puzzle on purpose, but I think I solved it: If you drop the items in the safe deposit room, you can pass through the force-field. Leave and re-enter, then the next time you go through the curtain, you are able to bypass the force-field and get back to the bank entrance. Simple, right? Before I could celebrate, all of my treasures were stolen by the wandering Thief and I had to restore.

Back at the artist’s studio, I find that you can carry exactly one item plus your lamp up the chimney to get back to the white house. With some patience, I drop off both of my new treasures for a total of 73 points! (12%) But it seems that even when you aren’t around, the Thief is doing his dirty work because one of the items that I left behind was stolen. I have to restore again and carefully budget the items that I carry to leave as little as possible behind. This is going to get annoying very quickly and I hope I find another path to the surface soon.

With these puzzles out of the way, I’m already at a dead end as there is nowhere further I can explore without passing the troll. I was expecting to find some item to give him or a way around him to other parts of the maze, but no dice. I need to figure out the way past him. I try the peaceful options first. Would he like some food or water? No. That doesn’t help. Only when I run out of things to give him do I attack, killing him in a few blows. Is there a less violent approach? Did I do the wrong thing by killing him and I’m stuck already? I hope not!

Now that the way into the deeper part of the Underground Empire is open, I am going to pause here. Next week, I’ll see what lies beyond the troll’s lair and possibly look a bit further at how combat works in this game. I am surprised how linear this game is so far. By using the troll as a choke point, the game boxes you into exploring the studio and the bank first. Will there be more such choke points later? I’ll find out soon enough!

Time played: 2 hr 45 min
Total time: 2 hr 45 min
Treasures Found: 3 (Egg, Painting, Portrait)

And that will bring our adventure to a close for the week. Remember that this is an introductory post and you can wager what you think the final score of Dungeon will be. We gave its spiritual predecessor, Colossal Cave, 33 points. Future Infocom titles did much better with Deadline scoring 45, Witness 50, and Suspect 38. Let us know your guesses in the comments below.


  1. Today is my birthday! I can't think of a better way to celebrate than by starting the play-through of this game. I am very excited! And my copies of the "Lost Treasures of Infocom" have also arrived so that I can get those games prepped after. (I had to buy a USB floppy drive to install it. The wonders of modern technology!)

    (I also fixed the bank image; I had included the wrong one by mistake! Sorry about that. )

  2. I am definitely feeling a 37 this time around.

  3. Unsurprising that the chairman of a bank should have dollar signs for eyes.

    35 is my guess!

  4. Never played any of the Zork-games, but I've seen them mentioned in a couple of gaming magazines... never felt compelled to try it though. Maybe this series will prove me wrong.

    And the dice says... 40!

  5. This will definitely beat Adventure, but I am guessing it will still be far from the best of Infocom. Let's say 42.

  6. I played and beat Zork I-III back in the day, and still have fond memories of each. I never played their forerunner Dungeon though. Seems time to try.

    I also seem to have found a different version, available on the Interactive Fiction Database. I suspect it's a later, more "enhanced" version, as the maximum score I can reach is 646 rather than 585. So far, other differences I've noticed (covering the same ground as in this post):

    - There is a welcome mat at the house's front door. Nothing under it, but I can pick it up and take it with me.

    - The newspaper doesn't mention the Thief - it instead seems to be version notes, stating that this version was ported "from the original MDL sources created at MIT, dated 22-Jul-1981."

    Points scored:
    +5 (taking the egg)
    +10 (entering the house through the window)
    +25 (going down the trapdoor)
    +4 (taking the painting)
    +10 (taking the portrait)
    +19 (putting the egg, painting, and portrait in the trophy case)
    For the same total score of 73 points so far.

    I'll comment on differences as they appear, though I won't be spoiling any puzzles that don't appear in the 585 version.

    1. I did not do a good job of tracking when the score changes except with the treasures. I suspect it was similar to what you found.

      And I have no idea the differences in your version. I picked the one that I was most familiar with and looked the most legitimate (i.e. was not ported to ZIP, etc.). But if there are marked differences, please let me know. The important thing for me was that I was playing a feature complete version that matched the final version of "Zork".

    2. Will do.

      One thing I forgot to mention in my first post: a description of how these areas wound up spread across the various Zork games. So far, nearly all of the content you've seen so far appears in Zork I. The sole exception is the Bank of Zork area, which appears in Zork II.

      And finally, happy birthday!

    3. Hey, I appreciate the notes about what is in Zork I and II and such, but if you don't mind rot13ing them for now? I want to (re)play each of the Infocom games fresh and knowing which puzzles are in which games may take away from my having an open mind. I want to be surprised.

    4. Oh, certainly. My error; my apologies.

  7. One very specific thing I remember from the Zorks is that there are a few ways to get into a "dead man walking" scenario - i.e., you can keep playing, but it's impossible to win. Some are fairly obvious, but some are not obvious at all. I strongly advise keeping multiple save files.

    Do you want to be notified if you've unknowingly triggered a dead man walking scenario?

    1. Yes. I will accept "Dead Man Walking" hints, but rot13 them with a heading so I know what they are.

  8. Happy birthday! I'll guess 38. It will like beat Colossal Cave, but it's still a pure text adventure dungeon crawl with flaws, so I'll be surprised if it does much better.

  9. Don't restore just because the Thief stole something from you; you'll be playing forever. If I recall correctly, there will be a way to get those back.

    1. That may be true with the treasures, but the Thief seems to be able to take any item that you've touched, some of which are necessary for the puzzles. I have been restoring because I don't know where his lair is to get them back yet.

  10. So I've discovered what appears to be a bug involving the lantern, at least in the version I'm playing: if you "restore" or "restart" while in-game, the game doesn't appear to reset your lantern's battery life. For example, if you save after having spent 50 turns with the lantern on, play for another 60 turns with it on, and then restore to your save point, you'll be restoring with a lantern that has 110 turns' worth of battery use drained - not 50. Obviously this is a problem, as an adventurer with a dead lantern is food for grues.

    The workaround appears to be: make sure you "quit" completely first, before you restore or restart. Reboot the game, THEN "restore" your save, and your lantern's battery life should be correct.

    1. I can say with some confidence that my version does not have that bug. I'm a bit farther now than this post and I've had to restore to recharge many times without a problem. (In fact, I've taken to doing dives into the dungeon to map and then restore to do it all "correctly". Running the game without running out of batteries is hard and a replacement is hard to find. More on that later though...

  11. Hey guys. Does anyone have familiarity with GoFundMe or Kickstarter or Patreon?

    I would like to review this game for Christmas:

    This is, as best I can find, the world's first graphical Christmas adventure. This is also the only copy that I can find anywhere, online or off. Believe me, I've tried. It's also like $200 USD which is far too much for me to buy to review for this blog. Sorry. I love you guys, but I don't think $200 is a good personal investment for a Christmas one-off post.

    Should we put together some sort of funding drive? Do you think there are enough of us here that would put in $5 or $20 to pay for it? Or should I just find something else to play in three months? We'd need to do something soon because while I have an agreement with someone to create the disk images from the physical disks, we'd need to get it to him in time to get that done and write the review before Christmas.

    1. You guys' dedication to this site is getting insane. But whatever, if someone is buying that disk it may as well be us.

      >In Stock: 1 available


    2. I'm pretty happy with the "insanity" that we have brought recently! The nice thing about having multiple authors is that we can multi-task more; it's a lot easier to do things like interviews and bonus posts. I know I am particularly an insane completist and the site supports my OCD...

      But even this is potentially too much. The good news is that I have a friend at that will make the images for us. The plan is to donate it to them to do with as they please so that another aspect of computing history can be preserved.

    3. Sounds like a good plan.

      >it's a lot easier to do things like interviews and bonus posts

      Which also means we're getting through the main games slower. TBH I was getting a little impatient as a while ago I expected Consulting Detective to take about 3 more posts to wrap up and thus have less than a week left, but instead those got stretched out by lots of other posts. Or maybe that was your plan to ensure the reader poll finishes before the End of the Year post. >_>

    4. It was more of the latter. Plus, we had to leave some time for deciding the official TAG awards (it's way more complicated now that we have more reviewers with their own agendas). But we have now scheduled the End of Year post for Friday and after that we'll return to the regular schedule of two plus main game posts in a week.

    5. "Consulting Detective" was also extra hard in this regard because it had a natural number of posts. It was really hard to do it without it being 8 posts and we normally schedule one per week. (2 posts per case, plus intro and final rating.) EcoQuest was a shorter game that started at the same time. That caused some problems, but I think it worked out in the end. Something to learn from.

      And it's also in part that I can't consistently write more than one post per week (without advanced planning) because of other commitments. I wasn't able to speed up to do a case per week which is what I had hoped I'd be able to do. And then the possibility to interview David came through... I had been trying to lock that down with him since the intro post but had nearly given up.

      I'm proud of the work, but sorry if it caused some impatience. :) (This is a lot here about sausage being made, but I hope you enjoy the sausage.)

    6. No problem. ^_^ IRL and other schedule issues are to be expected. Some transparency is fine too.

      *googles "sausage being made"*

      I learned a new phrase today!