Monday, 25 September 2017

Zork Marathon: 1983 Books & Yearly Wrap-Up

Written by Joe Pranevich

It’s been twelve months since we started this increasingly misnamed “Zork Marathon” and I thought it was worth a few minutes to pause and look back on the games we played and look forward on the games ahead. This year, we’ve more or less taken the story of Infocom from the exploration phase at MIT with Dungeon/mainframe Zork, through the formation of the company, up through the first ten games-- five years worth of history. Behind the scenes, the cancer that would eventually destroy Infocom was already growing: Cornerstone, the business product that some hoped would bring them respectability was well underway. We have plenty of time and a few more games before we get to that grim milestone.

Before we can look back, we have one more detail in 1983 to close out on: the first three Zork books. Since almost the beginning, Infocom had been creative with its marketing and its packaging. Most of the games had “feelies” and custom boxes-- Starcross literally rolled off the shelves due to its flying saucer-shaped boxes. But as Enchanter was launching, someone on the team thought that doing a gamebook tie-in would be a good idea. This would allow them to market the new game while also indirectly promoting the still-hot previous Zork titles. They could have gone to an established writer (as they would later), but instead they reached out to jack-of-all-traces Steve Meretzky, fresh from launching Planetfall. The results are somewhat surprising...

Our two heroes admiring a freshly created diamond.

In short: they don’t suck. In fact, all three books show a love and reverence for the Zork universe that I wasn’t expecting. On top of that, they are simply fun to read from cover to cover. There are things I do not like-- more on that in a bit-- and things that don’t work, but they are surprisingly competent for first-time gamebooks written by a first-time author as an advertising tie-in. That seems almost amazing.

Before I jump into the plots of each book, I should explain the form. These three books are essentially “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style books set in the Zork universe. They are not “gamebooks” in the same sense of the Fighting Fantasy ones that we talked about before (see: Seas of Blood) as they do not have RPG elements, rather you just read the story and make decisions every few pages as to what to do next. If you want to attack the dragon, you could turn to page five. Want to flee? Try page seven. In that way, a reader can experience the book many different times to find many endings. Most of these books had only a single “good” ending and making the correct choices while reading is essential to getting to the end. At this point in the 1980s, this style of book was booming and many publishers were starting their own series. The format itself was only a few years old, invented by Edward Packard and first published in 1976. (His first such book, The Adventures of You on Sugarcane Island, is fairly difficult to find today but Amazon has some copies used.) For my part, I liked Mr. Packard’s books but fell in love with Joe Dever’s “Lone Wolf” series which would launch in 1984. Infocom jumped on this bandwagon with Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy brand that remains hugely relevant today. In fact, if anyone knows anyone there that can help me write for their website, I would be much obliged…

The three books written by Mr. Meretzky in 1983 are The Forces of Krill, The Malifestro Quest, and The Cavern of Doom. All three included illustrations, but I have only been able to track down the illustrators for the first and third: Paul van Munching and Dell Harris. The second book’s illustrations are uncredited; I assume it was either a joint effort or a Tor staff illustrator. Mr. van Munching has been difficult to track down and I found only a few other books around 1983-1984 that he is credited with illustrating. Mr. Harris however has remained a prominent science fiction and fantasy illustrator for the past thirty years, making frequent stops to sell his art at conventions and on eBay. You can find his work at Atomic Dog Studio. I’ve sent him a feeler to see if he has any recollections of working on this book or if he met any of the Infocom crew but I have not received a response at press time. Each of the books had a separate cover illustrator, but as before only the first and third are credited to someone named “Parks”. Despite my best effort, I have been unable to track down who that may have been.

As the Infocom books are well out of print, I have included samples of the illustrations from all three volumes here. If anyone at Tor or Activision ask us to take them down, we will, but I feel they are worth showing to a broader audience. In many cases, these were the first official illustrations of locations and objects within the Zork universe. I’ll try not to over-do it.

A map from the first book is remarkably Zork-like.

The three books follow the adventures of June and Bill, a brother-sister adventuring pair that stumbled onto an “ancient sword of elvish workmanship” near their school. When they picked up the weapon, they were transported to the Kingdom of Zork where they were recognized immediately as Juranda and Biovtar, two noble children who had disappeared two hundred years earlier. In their first adventure, we learn that their uncle Syovar was unable to prevent the fall of the Great Underground Empire at the hand of the Warlock Krill. At this point in the games, the history of the GUE is only sketched out at key points and I do not know how or if the backstory from the books will be used there. It is also not explained why no one seems particularly surprised to see children reappear that had been kidnapped two centuries earlier, nor why everyone fails to notice that they seem unfamiliar with the kingdom they are supposedly from! It’s a kids’ book so I’ll try not to think too hard about it. To save the kingdom, we need to find our (extremely old) uncle to give him the sword, plus find three palantirs that can be used to defeat Krill.

When I said earlier that the series is a love letter to Zork, that is most apparent here. The two children explore a surprisingly accurate rendition of the dungeon in Zork I, finding numerous locations and in-jokes. The palantirs, of course, are from Zork II but that is forgivable. Along the way, we visit the white house, find a resistance movement in the coal mine, battle a troll, explore Flood Control Dam #3, and even take the slide from the mine down to the cellar of the white house. Once we return the three palantirs to the trophy case (of course!), the final battle with Krill begins. The good guys win and we are given the magical Ring of Zork to return anytime we like. That beats two middle schoolers trying to hide an elvish sword at their house…

Rafting down the waterfall is still not advised.

Lizard cultists like in Enchanter storm the white house!

The first book also does a great job doing what the most recent game failed to do: integrate the Enchanter and Zork game worlds. Here for the first time, Krill (the antagonist of Enchanter) is made an integral part of the mythology of the first three games. Some aspects don’t quite work, but it could just be me. For example, I’m still not entirely clear on the time period. I always imagined that Zork took place in a world sort of like the 1950s: we had a house with a working postal service, a giant Flood Control Dam, basic robotics, modern-style banks, etc. It’s still a fantasy universe with dragons and trolls, but it’s fantasy overlaid on top of a somewhat modern world. These books take that idea and chuck it, instead giving is knights and wizards and a much more generic fantasy tone even as they use many of the same locations. It feels disjointed. I also was thrown off by having the white house be owned by someone named “Ellron” since that was just a bit too close to “Elrond” (from the Lord of the Rings) for my taste.

The second and third books continue the children's’ adventures. In the second, the siblings have dreams of their uncle Syovar being suspended above a pit of snakes. They use their magic ring to come to Zork and find he has been kidnapped by a different wizard, Malifestro. This time, the pair are joined by Fred and Max, two cowardly elves that become recurring characters. Along the way to his lair in the Flathead Mountains, the group stumbles on yet more Zork references: a cyclops that is afraid of Odysseus! A stiletto-wielding thief! It turns out that their uncle is already dead, killed by the wizard, but that’s okay since they discover a different demon who grants them a wish (ala Zork II) that he be resurrected. As soon as he is, the uncle goes out and kills Malifestro for us. It’s great fun but many of the locations used for Malifestro’s castle were straight out of Enchanter, making me wonder if the antagonists of the first two books were swapped at the last moment. I especially loved a “cheating page” that I found where you can get negative points and a bad ending if you claim to have an item that doesn’t exist.

Enchanter’s endless stair

A wishing demon. 

The final book breaks the mold… somewhat. This time, the siblings are brought to Zork by accident but discover that their elvish friends, Fred and Max, have been lost while exploring a newly unearthed (if that is the right term) section of the Great Underground Empire. We also learn that our Uncle Syovar had a wife and a son back during the fading days of the empire and his son was lost and has never been seen again. Of course, we travel to the forbidden part of the Empire, rescue Fred and Max, and even manage to find Syovar’s son, trapped for decades in a hauntingly disfigured body that we promptly cure. This is the most exploration-focused of the three books and it once again makes some references to the series, but they are mostly more subtle than before since we’re supposed to be entering new territory.

And that’s it for the books! We’ll return to one more “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style book in 1984 and then a few novels in subsequent years. For a company that was so fixated on the idea of “interactive fiction”, it’s strange that they would try their hand at the less interactive kind of fiction. It’s a shame we didn’t get a Meretzky book like this on Planetfall or any of the other series.

It’s important to keep the Tomb of the Flatheads clean. 

Here There Be Dragons

Looking Back

It’s hard to believe, but in the last year we’ve done twenty-nine Zork-related posts, on average one every other week. This is in addition to other related games such as Leather Goddesses and Oo-topos which were not counted as official “marathon” posts. If you are coming late to this party, here’s a convenient index of all of the games we have played so far:
  1. Dungeon - (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8
  2. Zork I - (1)
  3. Zork II - (1) (2)
  4. Deadline - (Ilmari) (Joe)
  5. Zork III - (1) (2)
  6. Starcross - (1) (2) (3)
  7. Suspended - (1)
  8. The Witness - (Ilmari) (Joe)
  9. Planetfall - (1) (2) (3)
  10. Enchanter - (1) (2) (3) (4)
  11. Infidel - (1) (2) (3)
I also want to call out a few non-awards:
  • Most Commented Game - Dungeon with 132 comments
  • Least Commented Game - Zork I with a measly 4 comments
  • Most Commented Single Post - Zork II’s “Introduction” post with 31 comments
  • Longest Game - Dungeon at 36.4 hours
  • Shortest Game - Zork I at 5.5 hours
  • Most Viewed Post - Dungeon Post #6 - “Joe vs the Volcano”
In general, Dungeon dominated many of the statistics because it was by far the longest game that we have played so far. By extension, Zork I, which was barely more than an abridged and simplified version of that, got the short shrift. The well-known games seemed to have attracted more viewers and comments overall. This is part of the challenge of doing every game in a series; not every game can be a classic. In terms of score, my highest rated game so far has been Planetfall with 42 points. (The Witness has 50 points, but was reviewed by Ilmari separate from the marathon.) The lowest is Suspended with 31 points-- Infocom is surprisingly consistent.

Lots of adventuring to come!

Looking Forward
So, what’s next? At the current rate, I might be able to complete ten more games in the next twelve months-- ending at Trinity from 1985. It’ll be a stretch, but it’s a good goal because that will bring us to the end of the “Infocom” era. All games after that point will be under Activision’s leadership. Depending on how things go and where we are in the main-line reviews, I might revert to only playing the remaining Zork games at that point. Speaking of which, Zork becomes a declining focus for Infocom over the next two years: six of the last ten games were tangentially connected to Zork, but only three of the next ten are.

Our next games in the marathon will be:
  • Sorcerer by Steve Meretzky
  • Seastalker by Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence
  • Cutthroats by Mike Berlyn
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky
  • Suspect by Dave Lebling
  • Wishbringer by Brian Moriarty
  • A Mind Forever Voyaging by Steve Meretzky
  • Spellbreaker by Dave Lebling
  • Ballyhoo by Jeff O'Neill
  • Trinity by Brian Moriarty

Those Frobozz guys think of everything!

Of those, I am most excited to see three new Meretzky games on the list. He’s been the author that I have been most consistently impressed with so far; I’m especially curious how he’ll handle the Zork universe when he tackles Sorcerer. Will anything from his books be making the transition? But with that, I’m going to wish you well. We’ll have one more special bonus post from me in a few days, then I promise we’re back to our regularly scheduled reviews while I get to work on Sorcerer and prep for Sherlock Holmes.

(PS: I was totally serious about, by the way. It’s one of the few websites that I visit absolutely every day.)

Save the “Lost Treasures of Infocom”! The current iOS game is 32-bit and Activision has not yet committed to upgrading it to support newer phones. This collection features 25 text adventures including two which were not in the original “Lost Treasures” sets: Zork: Undiscovered Underground and Leather Goddesses. It’s a must-have for any Infocom fan but it’s about to fall off the planet again. There’s a petition here to ask Activision to upgrade the app to support iOS 11. I have no idea if it will help, but please consider signing. It probably can’t hurt.


  1. I'd say you are truly entering into a golden period of Infocom. Of the ten games you mention, there are only a few forgettable entries, and quite many are must-to-play classics.

    1. I'm mostly ignorant of these ones. I've played a bit of Sorcerer and Spellbreaker, may have beaten HHGtG with a walkthrough, and at least did a few turns in Ballyhoo. A number of these did not appear in the first "Lost Treasures" set so I didn't get to experience them until a year or two later.

      I'm looking forward to them!

  2. Completely separate, there's the Zork Chronicles novel by George Alec Effinger, which is a more interestingly meta take on the whole thing. Also, not any sort of choose-your-own-adventure.

    1. Oh yes! I have it on my shelf already, but it may be a while until I get to read it. That next set of books came out quite late in the Infocom timeline.

    2. Looking at this more carefully, there were Infocom novels released from 1988-1991. If we do take the marathon all the way to its end, that will be with 1989's "Arthur". At that point, I'd probably do a write-up about all the remaining books at that time.

      I suspect we'll work something out when the time comes.

    3. I remember enjoying Arthur, and one puzzle I was quite proud of working out by myself (I won't spoil it, though.)

      I think it was one of the first games I bought with my own money instead of getting as a present or copying from friends (1980s piracy). As always, I didn't finish it at the time because internet walkthroughs hadn't been invented yet.

    4. I definitely agree Arthur is worthy of a playthrough.

  3. Just stopping in to comment on how much I've enjoyed the Zork Marathon. I like your writing style, Joe, and I like the way the games are presented through your posts. Always a good read!