Friday 3 February 2017

Missed Classic 36: Zork III: The Dungeon Master - Introduction (1982)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Last month, we completed the third game in our Zork marathon: Zork II. After exploring the prehistory of Infocom, we have finally reached the point where they are starting to fire on all cylinders. They even had a new office in beautiful Cambridge, Massachusetts! Zork II may not have been as solid a game as its predecessor, but it was very good and the company was banking on many sequels. As 1981 turned into 1982, they had three games in the pipeline under pre-production titles: Zork III, Zork: The Mystery, and Zorks in Space. These games would not only continue in the Zork tradition, but also prove that Infocom’s text adventures had legs far beyond their initial fantasy romps.

The mystery was released as Infocom’s third game, Deadline, preceding Zork III and Starcross (the space adventure) by several months. Despite the early title, Deadline does not have any connections to the Zork universe and so will not be covered directly in this marathon. Ilmari already wrote an excellent review of that game almost exactly a year ago, but I wanted to experience that game for myself before continuing on to Zork III. I have put together my own review of Deadline as a special bonus post which you can find here. Please check it out! Zork III and Starcross were released simultaneously several months later. We will cover Starcross as the next stop on the marathon thanks to a pointer that it may have a connection to the Zork universe after all.

As in the previous Zork games, this one is credited to both Marc Blank and Dave Liebling. Also as before, there is no mention of their mainframe collaborators in the credits. It is generally believed that this was Marc’s primary focus while Dave was working on Starcross. As Marc was also the lone developer on Deadline, this must have been a busy year! Beyond that, there’s not much history to tell. While Deadline had feelies, the original 1982 edition of Zork III did not have the extra manuals that many readers remember so well. We’ll cover all three of the expanded Zork manuals at some point down the line. Full disclosure: I booted up this game as a kid but am fairly sure I didn’t play more than a handful of turns. In any event, I can remember nothing about it now.

I’m not worthy!

The game opens with our character tumbling down a long staircase, presumably from the secret door in the Crypt of the Flatheads at the end of Zork II. In a vision, we see images that suggest what we may be up against: “imposing stone figures”, a clear lake, and an “old, yet oddly youthful man”. The man tells us that we have reached our final test and we must seek him out when we are worthy. We awaken at the bottom of the Endless Stair with the brass lantern at our feet. Right off the bat, we have a goal in mind and that is already an improvement over the previous game.

Just to the south, I find my elvish sword encased in stone. Playing King Arthur doesn’t help and I suspect we’ve found our first puzzle. There are exits in every direction and I’m just going to have to start mapping. I’m planning to follow the left wall as best I can, heading east and north when possible. Just to the east there is the bottom of a steep slide, a one-way trip from somewhere deeper in the maze and a reminder of the slide in the cellar of the first game. Just past that is a dead end and a room with runes that I cannot read. I make a note of both and return to the sword room. South and east of that is a passage filled with multicolored crystals on the way to a royal hall adorned with the deal of Dimwit Flathead. That also ends up at a dead end at a door that is rusted shut. Do I need to find some oil?

Of course, this isn’t underground...

Further south, I discover an ancient lake shore and a view of an aqueduct. The prose in the game here is moody and depressing, more about the sad fall of a once great (if stupid) empire rather than finding humor in a dam built underground. I experiment around the lake and discover by accident that I can jump in! I’m fairly certain we couldn’t swim two games ago. Unfortunately, the water is icy cold and we drop everything. I have to restore. Next time around, I turn off my lamp and leave it and everything else safely on the shore. There’s enough ambient light overhead that we can see so no grues to worry about. I jump in the water again, confident that at least I’m not losing any items. I can either swim west or south. I try south first but the passages beyond the bank are dark and I’ll need to find a way to bring a light source across. I go west next and expect to find the same, but the passage there is lit and I make it all the way to a “Scenic Vista”.

While the room itself is not scenic, it contains a table that appears to show a hologram of another location in the maze. It takes me a little time to work it out, but as we wait the view switches between four different locations with an indicator telling us which number we are seeing. When I arrive, it was set to four but that may have been luck of the draw

The four views are:
  • A passage cluttered with broken timbers and an exit at one end. 
  • A tiny room with the number eight written on the wall. The only visible exit is a strange blur. 
  • The “Damp Room” that we visited earlier in the game, the one containing the slide. 
  • The interior of a temple where human sacrifices are performed. 

The second room seems like “Room 8” from Zork II… wait… could each of the numbers refer to the game that the scene takes place in? The first room looks like it could be under the coal mine in Zork I. Is the final location a sneak peek at a room in Zork IV? Of course, we know that there would never be such a game: the next games in the universe would be the Enchanter series, followed by Beyond Zork and Zork Zero. It’s interesting, but what does it mean to me now?

That looks like it might sting a bit.

I explore further and discover that if I touch the table, I am transported to wherever location it was displaying. I make the mistake of touching it first on the four and am killed on a sacrificial altar immediately. I restore and next time wait for the first room to come around. I cannot explore far before I am sucked back into the vista, but I can pick up the timber and it comes back with me. I also confirm that it is under the coal mine as we can see the ladder up in the next room over. I use the table again to travel to Room 8 in Zork II and pick up the grue repellent I know is there. I was so frustrated that wasn’t useful in that game. Was it a long con? An item they knew wouldn’t be useful until this game? The next part of the puzzle is the realization that I cannot take anything that I picked up back across the lake without dropping it in the water. The solution is obvious, if fun: use the vista to travel to the Damp Room and drop everything there before swimming across empty handed. On that trip across, I am prompted that a Roc appears and prepares to attack. I move quickly so he does not kill me, but I’ll make a note in case I need to deal with him later.

The next area in my “left wall” tour is the Land of Shadows, a gloomy place just to the west of the main north/south hallway to the lake. I hear footsteps and a hooded man appears and my sword somehow flies to my hand. The man is carrying a sword like mine. Is is supposed to be my dark reflection? Something else? He attacks and I get the brilliant idea to drop my sword and submit to him. He dispatches me quickly and starts to remove his hood, but I am dead before I get to see his face. Is that a clue what to do?

Hello, Sailor!

I restore and press on west, ignoring the figure entirely without incident. On the other side of the shadows is the Flathead Ocean. A turn or two later, a longship sails by with a single sailor on board. Dare I say it? Should I say it? I do! I say “Hello Sailor” to the man and he tells me that he has waited years for someone to say that to him and break a curse. My reward for the greeting is a vial of some heavy but invisible liquid. For those of you that didn’t read my previous playthroughs, this seems to be the payoff for an obscure Zork joke. Back in the first game (and Dungeon before it), you can read a holy text that says that saying “Hello, Sailor” is a sin, so naturally game players tried to say it everywhere. There was even a Dungeon Master trivia question in the Dungeon end game that asked where saying that phrase was useful. (The answer was that it never was.) Having it appear here is very fun, but also unfair on players that had not played the previous games. I’ll have to consider that-- and whether there are other hints to this solution in this game-- before I do the rating.

North of the ocean is a set of cliffs which we are able to work our way around. At the top is a room with some fresh bread, a rope hanging down from a tree, and a hint that someone had been there recently. I can climb the rope to a ledge containing a treasure chest. I can’t climb back up the rope with the chest, but I can climb down and around just fine. But take a look: we have found a piece of timber, a rope, and the bottom of a unclimbable slide. Is this going to be the infamous slide puzzle from the 600+ point version of Dungeon? That puzzle was present in the later versions of mainframe Zork but dropped from Zork I even though most of the components were kept. Unfortunately, I can’t untie the rope now. I run back to pick up my sword to cut it off the tree, but on the way there’s an earthquake. Is that a timed event? I make it back to the tree and can’t seem to cut the rope either. I’ll have to look for other options later.

I restore back to just before the earthquake to search to find what changes, if anything. Deadline has taught me that timed events are important! I manage to find the solution in my second attempt: if you wait in the Aqueduct View when the quake comes, you can see a pillar collapse into the water. Do I need to do something before the quake? Or after it?

My map so far

I ignore the earthquake for now and finish exploring the cliffs to find two more entrances into the Land of Shadows. I was just skirting around the edge before, but mapping the area is much harder than it looks. It’s not a traditional “maze” because each room as a different description, but those descriptions are occasionally confusing to keep straight. It’s like an improved version of the Maze of Twisty Passages All Different from Colossal Cave but simpler. I end up building a spreadsheet and copying the descriptions in to track which rooms I am in. In that way, I am able to map out eight rooms with exits out to the cliffs, the main hallway at the beginning of the game, and the ocean, but there is no “reward” room for paying attention like in many mazes. I assume I’ll have to defeat the hooded figure first to find the secret.

With that, I check my map and I’ve explored everywhere that I can. Next time out, I’ll have to start solving some of these puzzles. So far, I know of:
  • The rusty door in Dimwit Flathead’s hall. 
  • The sacrificial altar from the “future” Zork IV
  • The hooded figure in the Land of Shadows 
  • Untying the rope from the tree 
  • Opening the locked chest 
  • The southern shore of the cold lake 
  • The earthquake and the aqueduct 
  • Finding the other end of the slide into the Damp Room 

In terms of unused items, I have the vial, bread, and timber. I’m not sure how any of those will help me much…

This far, I am loving this game. Unlike Zork II, it doesn’t feel like it’s just new content to wrap around old puzzles. This feels fresh! I expect I’ll find a few more missing puzzles from Dungeon soon enough, but there have not been any puzzle retreads so far.

Time played: 2 hr 10 min

Since this is an introduction post, don’t forget to try to guess the score. Thus far in our marathon, Dungeon scored 41, Zork I scored 35, and Zork II scored 32 points. Deadline, the Infocom game that immediately preceded this one, scored an amazing 45 points. (If I were to have scored it, I would have gone slightly lower: 43 points.) Where do you think Zork III fits in?

Want to keep reading? Don’t forget to check out my bonus post on Deadline. I’ll be back next week with the next (final?) chapter in Zork III. I do not know yet if it will be two posts or three.


  1. Fascinating. You've already managed to do something that I thought was impossible. Unfortunately, a bit of on-line research indicates that you have stumbled on a bug - and it's a bug that, if uncorrected, will halt your progress. Specifically (and without spoilers):

    You are NOT supposed to be able to carry the treasure chest with you when leaving "down" from its ledge. You're supposed to be prevented from doing that similar to how the game prevents you from climbing the rope with chest in hand. It's to set up a conundrum: there's this enticing treasure chest on the ledge, but you can't take it with you anywhere! But the conundrum seems to be a lot more easily broken than I always understood.

    Fortunately, the bug is easily remedied by going back to the ledge and leaving the chest there. It's fine to pick up and otherwise interact with the chest while on its ledge; and it's fine to leave "down" from the ledge WITHOUT the chest. Just don't leave down from the ledge WITH the chest, and you'll be OK.

    I also have quite a bit to say about the viking ship, and the earthquake, but now is not the time to discuss either.

    One question: have you tried typing SCORE?

    1. Wow. Without spoiling TOO much from my next post, I dodged a bullet because I replayed the whole thing over from scratch to do the thing I needed to do before the earthquake before the earthquake. With that done, I triggered an event the next time I visited the chest. I had no idea that I was in a walking-dead scenario and I wondered why it was that there was no challenge to getting the chest down the other way.

  2. Don't forget to do score guesses! This is an intro post, after all.

  3. For anyone wanting to play along, Zork Anthology is currently 60% off (less than $3) on GOG.

  4. The game actually has some kind of plot and I think the puzzles are a bit better than in Zork 2, so I guess Zork 3 has to get couple points more than its predecessor. Let's say 38.

  5. I guess 39. There is a real story this time and (if I remember) not as many parser errors as last time. There are also no truly unfair things like the bank or baseball maze in here, and although timed events can screw you up (I think that judging by the first comment on this post, you got screwed, but I suspect you know what you did), the individual puzzles aren't as bad. Closest thing may be that "hello sailor" one, but lbh qba'g ernyyl arrq gb hfr gung vgrz (ROT13ed since that could be considered a spoiler.)

  6. Too late to guess for me but I would have gone higher than you all here - I'd have taken 51!

    1. Actually it isn't too late, since the next Zork III post hasn't been published yet!