Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Missed Classic: Zork III - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich



Hello, sailor! Last week, I started into Zork III, the final chapter of the original Zork trilogy, and explored much of this new region in the Great Underground Empire. I discovered an ancient aqueduct on an icy lake, a “scenic vista” that could teleport me into previous (and future!) Zork games, and battled a mysterious man in a land of shadow. The game has been fun so far, but more melancholy than previous outings. There are no inept wizards or sneaky thieves here, only monuments to a dead civilization. I have a bunch of puzzles to solve on my way to the Dungeon Master and I need to get cracking.

But where should I start? I don’t feel like I’ve made it through any part of this game completely and the structure makes telling a cohesive narrative of play challenging. Just like I did way back on Dungeon, I find myself bobbing and weaving back and forth between puzzles to discover which one I can crack first. Adding to the difficulty, the score in this game is worthless. There are only seven points in this game. Seven! Worse, these points seem to be awarded based on puzzles found rather than ones solved; I spent a chunk of today’s post with a full load of points but nowhere near victory. Let’s play!
If I never loved, I never would have cried. 

The Lake & Scenic Vista

If I wrote out all of the random running around and experimentation that this game required, you might think I had some sort of mental problem that required prompt attention. Instead, I will do my best to organize my thoughts and present the puzzles solved one area at a time. This may make me appear smarter than I am, but just imagine me wearing a dunce cap while you are reading and it will just about even out.

The first area to explore further is the lake and “scenic vista”. I spend a lot of time traveling to Zork IV, trying to find a way to survive or avoid being sacrificed. From last post, you might remember that every time we dive into the river, the cold causes us to drop anything we are carrying. Usually, I would leave my stuff on the beach but eventually I forgot and wham, everything was on the bottom of the lake. Rather than just restore, I tried to dive down and found that I could pick back up the stuff I dropped! The lantern and torch are destroyed by going under water, but other objects made it through okay. While submerged, I catch a glimpse of something shiny in the silt at the bottom. We have to dig more than once, but before too long we retrieve a golden amulet! We can’t stay long in the water because there are deadly fish that will eat you from below and a roc that will kill you from above. I do not think there is a way to defeat either of those, but I will keep my eyes open.

As for Zork IV, none of my trials had a positive result. I try wearing the amulet, drinking the vial, carrying the sword, and a dozen other things but none of them allow me to survive the instant death on the other side. I’ll just have to let that wait for a while.


Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.

Land of the Dead

The next area that I spent some time working out was the Land of the Dead. Last time, I unsuccessfully faced off against what seemed to be a hooded version of myself. He followed me around the maze-like environment, ominously preceded by the sounds of his footsteps. It was eerie and he cut me down when I faced him. Violence is probably not the answer, but he won’t accept anything I have to offer. I eventually get impatient and try to kill him… and that works! Last time the combat was more difficult, but perhaps exploring more of the environment makes it easier? Zork I and Dungeon had a similar mechanic for combat. Maybe I just got lucky? Once the figure becomes staggered, the rest of the fight is easy.

Before striking the killing blow, I take the hint from earlier and remove his hood. (When he kills you, the last thing you see just as you are about to die is him removing his hood, but you are dead before you can see underneath.) It’s the Empire Strikes Back homage I expected: it’s me! Or rather, it’s a version of me and also someone else. My adversary disappears, leaving me with his cloak and hood. I automatically put them on when I pick them up so now I’ll be exploring in style.


What happens to us in the future? Do we become a failed business software company or something?

The Royal Museum

My next discovery came by accident: after the earthquake, there is a crack next to the door in Dimwit Flathead’s royal hall. I wouldn’t have checked those rooms again except that I was running out of things to do. Through the hole, I discover a royal museum in three sections: a technology area to the north, the Flathead crown jewels to the east, and the royal puzzle to the south.

I check out the puzzle first and find that it’s pretty much identical to its counterpart in Dungeon. There’s a hole with a note warning you not to go down, except this time it’s written by the museum management rather than our friend the Thief. One room over, there’s a locked door that I assume is the secondary exit. Inside the puzzle itself is a maze of sliding walls and ladders which you have to rearrange to find a treasure (now a book instead of a gold card) and then rearrange again to get a ladder to the exit. It was a great puzzle the first time around, but they made no changes to this version. In fact, I solved it completely using my Dungeon notes. The prize is an ancient book with color-changing text. Is it a treasure like the cloak and amulet that I just need to have? Or does it solve some other puzzle? I’m not sure yet.

The room with the crown jewels represents a harder problem. The “jewels” consist of three items, all hidden away in a protective cage: a scepter, a ring, and a crown. Even though the Empire has been dead for more than a hundred years, the locks are firm and I suspect I’ll have to find a key someplace.

The technology room is more promising but it also contains three objects: a gold machine with a seat and a dial, a gray machine, and a black one that resembles a clothes dryer. The gold one immediately draws our attention because it looks brand new even though it’s been sitting there a very long time-- long enough that even the description plaques have faded away! The dial on the machine is set to 948. Is it a time machine? We don’t know the current year, but that seems about right. The later manuals did tell you the current year which is why I’m vaguely aware it’s the tenth century GUE. The first two Zork games and Dungeon only hinted at the current date as being some time after the dates on the bank, the dam, and similar locations.

There is a dedication plaque in the next room so I take that as my starting point: I set the dial to 777, sit down, and press the button. The machine shimmers away and I find myself in a room with some very unhappy guards that kill me. They are all carrying “waffle” guns and I have no idea who those are, but they must not be very nice. I try 778 and die again but going to 947 (just a year ago) works fine and I can explore an empty museum. I try 776 next as the year the museum was under construction and that time I’m able to land in an empty room. There are guards outside (and occasionally Dimwit Flathead himself!) and they gossip about low pay, torture, or the building of the dam and the volcano from previous games. While I’m stuck, I also find that the plaque in the past is still legible and the other two machines are a pressurizer (from Zork I’s coal mine) and a room spinner (from Zork II’s carousel room). Neither seem useful immediately and even in the past they are not operable. Once the guards leave, I can emerge and explore the rest of the museum, but I do not get far: the door to the crown jewels is locked and I don’t have a key.

Is the issue that I am going to the wrong year? I make an effort to try a whole bunch of alternatives. 775 kills me by materializing in rock. Any future date seems identical to the current time except someone fixed the crack. I try dozens of dates to narrow it down, but I eventually determine that 883 is the first year where there are no guards that kill me on arrival. Is that the year that the Empire fell? I explore that time for a key or anything else different, but come up short. I think I’m going to have to punt on this for now.



The Aqueduct & the Key

What haven’t I completed yet? I examine my map to realize that the southern shore of the lake is unexplored. I marked it off to come back to once I found a light source for the other side, but now I have the next best thing: grue repellent. I swim to the other side and put that on before stepping into the darkness. Room after room, I hear the sound of grues slathering their fangs. I think I even walked by a grue convention! But the repellent works and I emerge into a room with a key in a beam of light. I take it and follow the passage out through the aqueduct and end up at a dead end. Was this one of the things affected by the earthquake? I might have just thrown my pen across the room. I restart the game from scratch and re-do the bits that I need to do to get back to the key room before the earthquake and I find the hallway is passable. That’s good! But it also means I have to backtrack and re-do a few puzzles. Just beyond that point is the anticipated long slide into the Damp Room and I hit one more snag in that I need to make sure there’s a light source ready when I get there. I restart again and put the torch in there first and now I’m through. Unfortunately, the key doesn’t work anywhere that I can find: not the crown jewels or the chest on the cliff (more on that in a second). It looks like it should work each time, but it never does. Is there a trick I am missing?

Before I leave this section, I am still concerned about the slide puzzle. As a reminder, the slide puzzle was one of the harder puzzles in the 600+ point versions of mainframe Zork. You had to take a timber from the coal mine, tie the rope to it, and then drop it on top of the long shaft into the cellar. You could then climb down the rope to find a hidden secret room on the slide that you otherwise just whooshed past. That puzzle was not kept when they created Zork I even though most of the ingredients were there; I assume it was too difficult for the beginning game. Thus far in this game, we have all of those elements present-- they even gave us access to the very same timber from the Zork I coal mine! Unfortunately, the rope is stuck and I cannot find any way to get it off the tree. My guess is that it was planned to be included here but excised for some reason, perhaps because it’s just too obscure even for this “expert” game. Perhaps it will come back in some form later, but I’m not holding my breath.


A chest on a ledge

While I failed to open the chest with the key, an event triggered that did not happen last time: a man popped up on the cliff above and asked me to tie the chest to the end of the rope. I’m suspicious, but I let the scene play out as he hauls up the chest and then tells me to wait. Just when I’m about to stop waiting and come back up the long way, he pops up again and tosses me down a rope. I climb up to find that he’s already sifting through “his” treasure on the ground. He hands me a staff, but he’s clearly getting the better part of the haul. I think I’m supposed to be tempted into killing or stealing, but I just let the scene play out and he eventually leaves me with just the staff and the empty treasure chest. Puzzle solved or puzzle missed? I’m not sure. I hope that I ran the situation the right way.



The Guardians of Zork

Since the key wasn’t the panacea that I hoped for, I run around and catch up on everything else that I did in my playthrough so that I am back to where I was before. The next lead that bears fruit turns out to be the book that I discovered in the sliding puzzle. The text seems to change color when you read it so I took it to rooms with similar lighting such as the crystals near Dimwit’s hall, tried to dunk it in the lake, tried to burn it, etc. We can’t leave any stone unturned in these games!

When I took the book to the engravings room, the only room that had similar unreadable text, I triggered another new sequence: I find an old man sleeping. The same old man that filched my treasure? I’m not sure. I try to wake him up and hand him the book, but he’s not interested in it. It only takes a moment of trial and error before I discover that it is the bread (that I filched from the top of the cliff) that he wants. He eats it and leaves but not before showing me a secret entrance to another part of the maze. Was the book really useful to trigger this event? I have no idea. I’m not sure what is triggering any of these new “old man” events but I’m happy that something is happening!

The puzzle beyond the secret door is very familiar to players of Dungeon and I covered it in my final post on that game. This is the “long hallway” puzzle, otherwise known as the Guardians of Zork. I’m in what appears to be a short hall with a mirror on one end but the mirror is actually the side of a strange type of train. If we get inside (by dropping the sword to block a beam of light then pushing a button), we can turn it and start it down the track. Along the way are statues, the Guardians of Zork, that will smash your train car to bits if it wobbles too much. The solution in this game is identical to the previous version except that rotations now appear to happen in 90 degree increments instead of 45. With that tiny adjustment, I am able to ride the train all the way to the exit. The Dungeon Master greets me at a nondescript door and tells me that I’m not ready yet. He gives me a magic incantation to get back (“Frotz Ozmoo”) and sends me on my way. I try again with all of my special clothes and amulet but that isn’t enough either. I’ll have to come back once I solve the rest of the puzzles.


The second-coolest time machine on TV today.

Back to the Time Machine

At this point, the only puzzles that I am sure that I have left are the Sacrificial Altar from Zork IV and the time machine, and I’m not positive the former is more than an easter egg for a non-existent game. With nothing but time and patience, I work out some more rules of the time machine. Normally, any item in my inventory is lost when I travel into the past, but if I put something on the seat next to me it will come too. With that, I can carry back the magic key, but even that doesn’t open the doors in the past. I try taking back other things like the book and the clothes, but none of them seem to affect the game in any way. It’s clear we’re supposed to use this trick somehow… but I do not see how. The strangest item is the torch: you can travel back in time with it this way, but picking it up results in the guards coming in immediately and killing you. I guess the light source was too obvious, even through a door? Exploring further, I also realize that you can also hide objects under the seat but almost nothing I have fits in there. Is that a trick to be able to take back more than one item?

The next revelation took hours to figure out, but I’ll spare you the time: you can push the time machine out of the room! Taking it to the puzzle room fails because it gets damaged on the stairs, but I can move it to either the hall or the room with the jewels. Once you move the machine, some of the rules seem to change: when you travel back in time, it disappears immediately and sometimes permanently. If we wait in the past too long, we are eventually still sucked forward in time, but it’s different from using the machine where it’s been parked for centuries. By pushing the machine into the jewel room and traveling back to before the museum opened, I am able to arrive at an inconceivable time when the jewels were in place but before the security system was added. I suppose there are guards outside, but it hardly makes sense to me. Even once I have the jewels-- the crown, the scepter, and the ring--, I can find no way to bring them back with me. The time machine no longer allows me to move them back to the future like that. My theory is that this is actually very well-thought out and that there is a difference between moving the machine back and forth along its own timeline versus moving the machine physically and landing in the past when the machine was elsewhere, but this is not explained in the game at all.

I can work out a way to steal only one of the three treasures: if you hide the ring under the time machine’s seat, it remains undisturbed and unnoticed by the guards. We can then pick it up there when we are sucked into the present. Is there a way to get the other two items? I can’t find any places to hide them so I am going to guess not.


The road to hell has a dial with eight settings.

The Final Puzzle

Taking just the ring, I return to the Dungeon Master’s door and am relieved that he lets me in without asking any trivia questions. This takes us to one final puzzle, a repeat from the Dungeon end-game which I covered before. I won’t go over it all in detail again, but we have a segment with a parapet overlooking fire, a prison cell, and a Dungeon Master that will do things that we ask him to do. We had to realize that changing the dial on the parapet (and pushing a button) would cause the prison cell to change. We can discover that cell number four has a second door out, but the door is closed and locked this time around. We then had to work out that we had to wait in the cell and ask the Dungeon Master to push the buttons for us, sending the cell back to the fiery prison that it came from. Once we are there, the second door (now only door) can be opened to arrive at the Treasury and the end of the game.

This played out exactly as it did in Dungeon except that this final door was locked. We had to use the magic key (finally) to open it and claim our reward. I feel bad for anyone making it this far without picking it up! We are congratulated on our victory and become the new Dungeon Master. The end!


Were they really planning Zork IV? There’s no “To Be Continued” here...

Time played: 4 hr 05 min
Total time: 6 hr 15 min
Total Marathon Time: 56 hr 25 min (not counting Deadline)




Final Rating
We’re finally at the end of the beginning! I had a ton of fun playing this game and it felt like a much better-integrated experience than the mess that was Zork II. But without a pre-made Dungeon to fall back on, will this be the high-water mark for the series?

Puzzles and Solvability - Despite being based on the final unadapted bits of Dungeon, this feels like a fresher game with new puzzles that are well integrated into the environments. The frigid lake, the walk through the dark, and the scenic vista are fantastic examples of puzzles that do not feel forced into the environment like so many of their predecessors. The time machine puzzle was frustrating and more difficult than it needed to be, but there are some really good ideas here. My score: 6.

Interface and Inventory - The Infocom parser is still best of breed and I found fewer issues than I did playing Zork II. There were a few cases where I couldn’t quite get across what I wanted to do, but not too many. My score: 5.

Story and Setting - I know many fans love this game for the story, but in truth there really isn’t too much. We know that the Dungeon Master is testing and waiting for us from the very first screen and the little vignettes with the old man in different guises was nice, but this still isn’t Shakespeare. The setting is the most well-done of the various games, giving the Great Underground Empire a sad gravitas that it was missing in previous outings. My score: 4.

Sound and Graphics - Other than the tiniest hint of ASCII art inside the sliding puzzle, there’s still neither sound nor graphics here. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - This game is evocative, spooky and dark, a somber view of the same setting that we have spent so many hours exploring before. There are some moments of levity here and there, but this is a game that builds and manages an excellent consistent tone. The look at the crumbling aqueduct still sits with me. As I played, I kept thinking about Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias. Many of you may be familiar with its ending lines: “I am the great Ozymandias, look upon me ye mighty and despair.” The statue of Ozymandias had crumbled; his empire was a desert. So too is the fate of the Great Underground Empire. When a game makes you think about poetry, you know it is doing something right. My score: 6.

Dialog and Acting - As stated above, this game features great and expressive prose but only a handful of interesting characters. This final path is much lonelier than the previous games. My score: 4.

We can tally all that up in the usual way: (6+5+4+0+6+4)/.6 = 42! This game topped Dungeon as the highest-rated game so far in our marathon and quite nearly made it up into Deadline territory. How will its sequels fare?



With a guess of 39 points, Griffin is the closest to guessing the score! There were not many guesses for this game, but the average was 38. I suspect most of you thought it would do about as well as the previous games but it really had a narrative and quality leap. CAPs will be awarded with the next main-line game to complete.

With thirteen posts (and more than fifty-six play hours) to cover four games, I am finally done with Dungeon and its derivatives! This first Zork series is a gaming classic and I am so glad that I was able to play it through with all of you. We still have tremendously far to go in our marathon and the explosion of the Zork brand into books is still a few years away. Our next stop on this tour will be our first side-trip: Zork III’s fraternal twin, Starcross. Since I started this project, I have also stumbled on several references that suggest that Lurking Horror (another Dave Lebling game) is also unofficially a Zork title. Has anyone played that game enough to be able to confirm or deny this? Should I add it as a side-trip in my increasingly long marathon?

11 comments:

  1. Happy Valentines Day! Looking back, it’s amazing just how frugal the developers were with game design: of all the puzzles in the original mainframe Zork, all but three made it into the first trilogy. Only the slide puzzle, the mail-away prize from the matchbook, and Zork trivia was left unadapted. The latter is understandable (and replaced by the hunt for the Dungeon Master outfit), but I’ll be on the lookout to see if variations of the others show up in any other Infocom games.

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  2. Excellently done! Some post-game notes:

    - Your goal, all along, is to become the Dungeon Master. To become "worthy" so that he lets you through to the final puzzle, you need to have collected all of the same items that the Dungeon Master himself wears or carries: the hood and cloak, the staff, the amulet, the ring, the book, and the key. I believe when you meet him at the door past the Guardians his description reflects each of those items. (This also means you can't be blocked at the very last door by not having the key - in order to even access the final puzzle, you need to have it.)

    - All of the men you meet along the way are the Dungeon Master in various guises. The hooded figure in the Land of Shadows, the man you "tricks" you into giving up the treasure except for the staff, the old man to whom you feed bread... all one and the same.

    - Remember the vial you got from the Viking? It's an invisibility potion, and serves as an alternate solution to the Guardians of Zork. Instead of mucking about with the mirror box, you can just pop out the other side immediately after entering, walk towards the Guardians, drink the potion when one room away, and quickly scoot past them. Totally optional of course, but a neat bonus for those who make the "Hello, Sailor" leap of logic.

    - Apparently in earlier versions of the game you could exploit a bug to get around the must-get-key-before-the-earthquake issue. Normally if you die and resurrect, your items get scattered around the world, but the key won't - so that you can't go get the key and then die to relocate it elsewhere. But you could put the key *in the chest* and then die (by, say, jumping from the aqueduct), and the *chest* would relocate to somewhere else - from which you could then reclaim the key.

    I'll replay Lurking Horror and assess whether it has substantive Zork universe connections. It takes place on the campus of "G.U.E. Tech," but that's not *actually* a school related to the Great Underground Empire - it's the "George Underwood Edwards Institute of Technology" and is really more M.I.T.-meets-Lovecraft than anything else.

    Looking forward to Starcross!

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    1. Do you know the trigger for the sleeping old man in the engravings room? Was it the book? I never went back to check.

      I completely forgot about the vial, I wondered what it was. (But if it was invisibility, it would have been nice to hint at that when I drank it right before going to Zork IV.)

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    2. Then again, G.U.E. Tech appears also in some graphical Zork game, but that's probably just retroactive revamping.

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    3. "trigger for the sleeping old man"

      Invisiclues simply says that there is a chance he will appear when you enter the Engravings Room. Considering that walkthroughs say that you just have to move in and out of the room, until old man appears, I'd guess it is pretty random.

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    4. This matches my experience. I've seen the old man appear in that room sometimes simply by going there immediately at the very start of the game.

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  3. The average score was actually 41, thanks to TBD making a late stage and very large guess that didn't get included in the text.

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  4. Were they really planning Zork IV?

    The Enchanter trilogy is an extension of the Zork world, if a departure from the core gameplay, and the area shown here as Zork IV (as well as an unused puzzle or two) do end up there.

    Despite company in-jokes about and references to grues, of non-Zork-branded games I would only consider the Enchanter games and arguably Wishbringer part of the Zork legacy. But I've likely weighed in on this matter before.

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    1. Yeah, I suppose I'm being overly generous by what I consider "Zork" but I'm just having so much fun playing these games. I actively look forward to starting the next one as soon as the previous is finished. I hope that exuberance comes out in the writing. We may reach a point where an Infocom game is awful, but as of right now I am enjoying these quite a bit.

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    2. Considering the political climate of USA, I am sure no one will complain if you stretch the definition of Zork to include A Mind Forever Voyaging - that game would be topical right now.

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    3. I'm not sure that would be the best choice for my personal sanity.

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