Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Adventure of the Week: ZORK I: The Great Underground Empire (1981)

Okay, enough slacking for yours truly.  This is one of the major titles -- the granddaddy of microcomputer text adventures, the one that took the original Adventure concept created by Crowther and Woods, ran with it, and set the interactive fantasy fiction bar for decades to come.  Even the modern interactive fiction movement continues to use the parser technology pioneered for the mainframe adventure DUNGEON, which in the early days of the microcomputer revolution gave birth to Infocom's ZORK I: The Great Underground Empire.

My first encounter with the world of ZORK was on the old Compuserve dial-up information service, where a version was available for play over modem at outrageous hourly rates; I never got very far into it at the time, but played it later on the TRS-80 Color Computer when Infocom released a handful of its most popular titles for that machine.  For this post, I'm playing the IBM PC DOS version of Revision 88, the edition released by current Infocom IP overlord Activision some years ago as a free historical download, which you can avail yourself of here.  It can be played in DOSBox, and to my surprise also seems to work just fine in a modern PC's command shell.

Originally written for mainframes, then edited down and rearranged into three microcomputer diskette sized chunks, and marketed by Personal Computing before Infocom established itself as an independent company, ZORK I remains a watershed game.  If you're a regular reader here, you've probably played ZORK I already.  But just in case you've never found yourself standing outside of a small white house with a boarded front door, be aware that my observations beyond this point may cause the game's key events to be...

***** SPOILED BY A GRUE! *****

We start, as always, by mapping out the world, making note of the familiar white house and the small mailbox as we begin our journey.  And we may take a moment to luxuriate in the splendors of the Infocom parser, free to OPEN THE MAILBOX, GET THE LEAFLET, and READ IT:


ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning.  In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals.  No computer should be without one!

The house is surrounded by a forest, and there is an intriguing grating under a pile of leaves in a clearing.  A canyon view shows us the vast land around us, and we can visit the End of the Rainbow, but our primary mission lies underground, so into the house we go.

The map is slightly twisty -- we go north to one room, southwest to come back, for example -- but never nastily deceptive.  We have to climb a tree with suspiciously low branches to find an egg encrusted with precious jewels.  This egg actually contains another treasure, leading in turn to a third valuable item, but we will need some assistance to obtain it.

Some adjustments are necessary for veterans of more primitive text adventures.  LOOK and GO do not work the way they do in two-word parser games; we have to EXAMINE or LOOK AT objects, and, for example, ENTER WINDOW.  And we can't UNLIGHT LANTERN, we have to properly TURN OFF LANTERN.

The disk-based Infocom technology allows for a lot more text than was possible in many microcomputer adventures, and subtle but telling details abound.  In the kitchen, A table seems to have been used recently for the preparation of food.  The living room contains an elvish sword of great antiquity and a lantern, and there's an attic containing some rope and a knife.

One area where ZORK remains classically rooted is in its scoring system -- there are 350 points available, most of which are earned by collecting treasures and delivering them to the trophy case in the small white house's living room.

When we MOVE THE RUG in the living room, we find a closed trap door; opening it reveals a rickety staircase descending into the darkness, and we are off on our adventure.  As soon as we climb down, a sense of foreboding imposes itself -- "The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it."  And our sword begins to pulse with a faint blue glow, a signal we will soon learn to recognize as an indication of danger nearby.

We enter The Troll Room, guarded by A nasty-looking troll, brandishing a bloody axe.  We can KILL TROLL WITH SWORD to dispatch him, but it's wise to SAVE before we encounter this creature, as there is some randomness in the battle system and we can die in the process.  As we progress through the game and earn points, our luck in battle will improve, but at this stage we are relatively vulnerable.  The Troll isn't generally too hard to deal with -- but sometimes he puts up a long fight, and sometimes gets killed with a single solid blow.

One thing I have always appreciated about the world of ZORK is that it's not all that puzzle-intensive... the experience is focused more on a sense of exploration and discovery.  And its world has a sense of history, which is fortunately not played completely straight -- as an example, I cite former ruler Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive.  One of the first suggestions about ZORK's larger world turns up in the Dam area near the Reservoir, where an abandoned visitor center celebrates the Great Underground Empire's former glory. 

The dam's control panel has a bolt and a small green plastic bubble, but the nearby wrench initially proves insufficient to turn the bolt.  We can attempt to OIL BOLT -- yielding What do you want to oil the bolt with? -- which in my case had no ready answer at that moment, or ever, so I resolved to return later.

The Infocom parser has a few loopholes.  I discovered that in the Dam Lobby, when I was playing, an attempt to GET GUIDEBOOK yielded You're holding too many things already!  But if we READ GUIDEBOOK, it's (Taken) in the process, temporarily overloading our inventory limit.  The Infocom inventory model is otherwise fairly sophisticated -- objects have weight, and when the player's load is too heavy, dropping light objects doesn't help as much as dropping weightier objects.

There are some interesting tools in the Dam's maintenance room -- tool chests, a wrench, a toothpaste tube-like object (labeled Frobozz Magic Gunk Company - All-Purpose Gunk), and a screwdriver.  There are some buttons on the wall -- when we press one, a pipe bursts and the room begins to flood.  We can fix the leak with the Gunk, but I couldn't immediately tell whether there was a reason to do so.  But there is -- once we have released the pressure, apparently, we can turn the bolt with the wrench and open the sluice gates.  The red button turns the lights on, and -- aha! -- it's the yellow button that enables us to use the wrench.  I succeeded in making progress here via random button pressing, apparently.

A wandering stranger carries a bag, which suggests he may be a thief; and yes, if we talk to the person, or examine him, or hang out in his vicinity for too long, his occupation is revealed.  He wanders randomly around the map and is pretty dangerous early on, very handy with a knife.  He's also very good at stealing any treasures we may happen to have acquired.  In my experience, we have more luck fending him off with the knife than the sword, which is too bulky and slow to be effective.  But if we leave treasures lying around once discovered, he will make off with them; it's hard to FOLLOW him, and sometimes he just passes stealthily through the room, stealing our hard-won treasures as he slips by.  We can (with a little luck) KILL THIEF WITH KNIFE, and discover his treasure trove to reclaim any stolen booty; but we don't want to do this too early, as we do need the thief's dexterity -- he is the only person in the game capable of opening the jewel-encrusted egg to reveal a mechanical nightingale.  And we shouldn't try to take the thief down until later anyway -- there's a lot of text describing the thief's nimble fighting style in prolonged battles, and he usually comes out on top until we have earned more experience (as measured by SCORE.)

The Dam Base has a folded pile of plastic with a valve attached, i.e., an inflatable raft.  But You don't have enough lung power to inflate it, so we will have to track down an appropriate device and return later on.

The infamous Loud Room lies below the Dam.  A platinum bar is here, which we can't pick up because, in a fourth-wall-breaking joke, it's too loud in the room to make our intentions known to the parser.  GET BAR yields bar bar ..., and most other commands echo ineffectively against the walls.  If we pick up on the clue, however, the command ECHO yields The acoustics of the room change subtly, and now we can TAKE BAR.  This room gets much louder, temporarily, after we open the dam and water rushes through the area, but then it quiets down again.

At the White Cliffs Beach, I was surprised to learn that The ground is too hard for digging here, and even more surprised to get the same response in the Damp Cave, despite the fact that The earth is particularly damp here.  There's a narrow crack to the south, but it's too narrow for most insects and thus impassible.

The Infocom parser, I must note, isn't perfect.  DRINK STREAM yields I don't think that the stream would agree with you, and DRINK FROM STREAM produces only How peculiar!  So it appears thirst is not a primary consideration here.

We can't actually enter the Entrance to Hades, but perhaps we don't want to.  We can break the mirror in the Mirror Room, but that doesn't seem to be a good thing to do.

There are a couple of mazes, of course -- we famously find ourselves in a location described thusly: This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.  This maze is fairly straightforward to map in traditional item-dropping fashion, but only one room lets us go UP to a similar passage containing a past adventurer's skeleton, along with a useless lantern, a rusty knife, a skeleton key, and a bag of coins.

When we touch the skeletal adventurer's rusty knife, our sword flashes briefly blue, which should be taken as a warning.  I failed to heed it, and learned that if we try to use it to kill the thief, As the knife approaches its victim, your mind is submerged by an overmastering will.  Slowly, your hand turns, until the rusty blade is an inch from your neck.  The knife seems to sing as it savagely slits your throat.  That's a nasty way to go, but quite entertaining in its old-school way.

In general, anything pretty and portable is a treasure in the ZORK universe.  In the Gallery, Most of the paintings have been stolen by vandals, but Fortunately, there is still one chance for you to be a vandal, for on the far wall is a painting of unparalleled beauty.  We can climb up from the Studio near the Gallery to the white house's Kitchen via the chimney, but we can't carry very much with us, so this is a tedious way to transport treasures, and at least one won't fit.  We can carry the unfortunate adventurer's skeleton key to the grate, but can't unlock it from the outside, so it seems clear we must find the other side of the grate on the inside, requiring some further maze-mapping.

From the Round Room, which acts like a hub leading to several locations, going SW takes us to the Engravings Cave, where religious writings incised in the living rock of the cave wall were apparently later excised as blasphemy.  In the Dome Room with a railing overlooking a larger room below, we can TIE ROPE TO RAILING; the end of the rope drops down to within ten feet of the floor, so we can climb down, but can't get back up that way.  I also noted that if we drop the leaflet elsewhere and it disappears from sight, it ends up here in the Engravings Cave.

The Temple below the Dome Room has a small bell we can take with us; a prayer on the wall mentions small insects, the picking up and dropping of small objects, and the land of the dead as major tenets of an ancient (and apparently fairly detail-oriented) G.U.E. religion.  There's an altar at the south end, a hole leading down into blackness, and a large black book open to Commandment #12592, which is also portable.  We can also take the ivory torch, which saves on lantern fuel, but the thief can steal it as a treasure, so we need to keep the lantern on hand too until we have dispatched our nimble foe.

The solid-gold coffin of Ramses II is (where else?) in the Egyptian Room.  It's way too large to take back to the trophy case by conventional means, but it contains a sharp-pointed sceptre that when waved, emits a dazzling display of color (hint hint).  If we try to ENTER COFFIN, the parser yields What a concept! in what now seems like an intentional nod to 1970s/early 80s pop culture.

If we ring the bell at the Entrance to Hades, the local wraiths are paralyzed: On their ashen faces, the expression of a long-forgotten terror takes shape.  But what do we do next?  Some other step is clearly needed.  Is this a classical bell, book and candle situation?  Yep.  The candles from the altar are blown out on the way here, and must be relit with a match from the matchbook.  Then we read the prayer from the book we took from the altar, sending the spirits fleeing through the walls.  Now we can retrieve the crystal skull from the Land of the Living Dead, and carry it to the trophy case via the chimney.

Getting larger items up to the small white house remains a challenge; I experimented and discovered that we can't APPLY GUNK TO RAMP -- The viscous material falls into the slide and is gone.  So it's not a matter of traction here.

The wooden door with strange lettering in the Living Room is simply an opportunity for an old 1970s computer documentation joke at IBM's expense, reading This space intentionally left blank.
After the Dam has been opened, we can cross the stream at Reservoir South, accessing the Atlantis Room where we find Poseidon's trident, a treasure.  There's a second Mirror Room to the north of the Cave, and a Slide nearby leads back to the Cellar location directly beneath the house, handy for speedy (one-way) navigation.

We can visit the Squeaky Room, where the description hints meaningfully that You may also escape to the east.   The Bat Room to the north features a giant but not immediately fatal Bat, who randomly moves us back to the Mine Entrance, or into the Coal Mine maze.  We can carry the clove of garlic found in the kitchen of the white house to keep him at bay; he will now be obviously deranged and holding his nose.

The raft can be inflated with a hand-held air pump found north of the Reservoir.  The instructions are funny in the grand Infocom tradition -- guaranteed against all defects for a period of 76 milliseconds from date of purchase or until first used, whichever comes first.  We can pilot the raft using LAUNCH, LAND and navigational directions, but it's made of thin plastic, so we can't board it while carrying anything sharp, though leaks can be fixed with the magic gunk.  We can ride it downstream from the Dam Base to the White Cliffs Beach, and explore several interesting locations along the way.

In the Sandy Cave at the river's edge, we can finally DIG SAND WITH SHOVEL (the shovel is found on the Sandy Beach.)  We find a beautiful jeweled scarab in the hole, but we have to stop digging at this point or the hole collapses fatally.  We can't travel back upstream, but we can take the raft across to White Cliffs Beach from here.

The brass lantern runs out of light fairly quickly; we can manage with candles as long as the matches hold out, but they don't last long.   And we can't LIGHT CANDLES WITH TORCH -- it's so intense that the candles are vaporized.  It may take a few plays to learn our way around and execute efficiently enough so we can maintain reliable light sources for the duration of the adventure.  The Gas Room is a particular challenge -- there's a sapphire-encrusted bracelet to be retrieved, but I learned the hard way that we shouldn't take burning objects down there, so the candles and torch are out.  The wall that says Granite Wall on its face isn't actually granite, on closer examination (READ GRANITE WALL or TOUCH GRANITE WALL) but it's not immediately clear what we're supposed to do with it, either.

The brown sack can hold a couple of small items to manage inventory better.  And we can use the Egyptian sceptre to solidify the rainbow above ground and retrieve the fabled pot of gold.  We have to get there by going up through the chimney and traveling over land, as we can't carry the sharp sceptre in the raft.  Once the rainbow is solidified, we can access a number of locations otherwise accessible only by raft, but we still need to use the raft to retrieve an emerald from a river buoy (something I learned toward the end of the game.)

In the mine, we find a basket that can be raised and lowered, and can store five treasures or items; it's not immediately clear where it comes out when we lower it.  We need to put a light source in the basket so we can make use of it further down in the mine, in a room whose narrow entrance prevents carrying anything at all in.

There's a Ladder Top adjoining the Coal Mine maze, and from here we can climb down to a few other rooms - the Timber Room, and a Dead End with a pile of coal.  We need to map this maze out; we can take the timber in the Timber Room, but can't fit through the western passage with it, or with anything in inventory at all -- this is where we have to lower the torch in the basket, in order to see the Drafty Room.  (And we must NOT turn off the lantern in the Timber Room when we drop it -- it can't be picked up again because now It's too dark to see!)

The Machine Room has a large machine with a lid.  The START switch is very tiny, and human fingers can't be used; we have to use the screwdriver to push the switch, and the machine turns the pile of coal into a huge diamond.

I reached a point where I had 12 treasures claimed, and most of the puzzles seemed to be solved, but I'd only scored 246 points so I was obviously missing quite a bit.  I also learned that the game's official move counter wraps around after 1000 turns -- clearly I was taking more time than the Implementors expected to finish the game.

I knew I still needed to claim the gold coffin from the Egyptian Room, but experimentation established that we can't get it down via the Hades route.  It would appear we need to get it through the granite wall somehow, using the existence of another such wall as a clue.  I knew I also probably needed to figure out where the grating leads, so I could get to the other side and unlock it.  I consulted the map included with the official Infocom Invisiclues, and learned I'd missed a SW exit from the skeletal adventurer's location leading to some new areas.

Finding the Cyclops Room was a bit of a surprise, and suggested that I never quite finished ZORK I the first time I played it back in the late 1980s.  We are informed that the resident Cyclops is not very friendly, though he likes people.  We can't KILL CYCLOPS WITH SWORD or any other weapon, and if we hang around, he gathers salt and pepper, as the game warns us, You have two choices: 1. Leave 2. Become dinner.  I thought it best to leave.

Exploring the nearby maze leads us to the Grating Room eventually; the maze is fairly complicated, with lots of rooms, but with some effort invested now we can get back up to the forest without having to climb up the chimney. 

While hunger and thirst never plague the player directly, we do need to bring the appropriate supplies from the kitchen and refrain from consuming them ourselves, as we now need to GIVE LUNCH to the Cyclops.  He responds by saying, "I love hot peppers! But oh, could I use a drink.  Perhaps I could drink the blood of that thing." (meaning us!)  So we'd better bring the bottle of water too, to offer a more palatable (to ourselves, at least) alternative, and now the Cyclops eats, drinks, and falls asleep.
Beyond the Cyclops is the Treasure Room, where we find a chalice and another granite wall.  I suspected that if we could open this one, we could get the coffin out this way, but I had to resort to the Invisiclues to figure out the mechanism.  We have to say the name of of the other room near any of the Granite Walls to transport ourselves around -- TEMPLE and TREASURE work here.  If we enter the Treasure Room while the thief is still alive, he rushes to defend his ill-gotten gains.  If we survive, any light wounds we sustained during battle heal over time (moves), as revealed by the DIAGNOSE verb.  (One minor typo/bug -- one diagnosis reads You can strong enough to take several wounds.)

Now I had 306 of the possible points, with the rank of Master.  All of the puzzles seemed solved. What was I missing?  Well, the Egg found in the forest must be opened -- but You have neither the tools nor the expertise.  The Invisiclues informed me that the Thief can open it, but he was already dead, so I had to restart.  After the thief is killed, if we gave him the jeweled egg, we will find a jewel-encrusted egg, with a golden clockwork canary in the Treasure Room.  And we're not quite done with this chain of events yet -- if we WIND CANARY in the forest, it sings a mechanical song, and a brass bauble is delivered by a songbird.

I was amused to note that we actually do need to use all of the items found in the white house at the start.  (There's one item missing, actually, as compared to the original mainframe version -- a clay brick, which will not come into play on microcomputer platforms until we get to ZORK II.)  In the forest, near the grating, we can actually COUNT LEAVES, learning that There are 69,105 leaves here, which is of no value at all.

I now had 17 treasures reclaimed.  Putting the ivory torch in the trophy case (remembering that it's a treasure) boosted my score to 335 (an additional 6 points), with 15 points not yet accounted for.

I was clearly missing at least one treasure, and consulting the Invisiclues again revealed that there's an emerald hidden in the red warning buoy on the river!  I don't think I ever found that one back when I first played the game, either; a trip down the river in the raft enabled me to open the buoy and snag the last treasure.

As we place the final treasure in the trophy case, An almost inaudible voice whispers in your ear, "Look to your treasures for the final secret."  Huh?  Aha!  A map has now appeared in the trophy case.

And now victory is ours, for the moment at least, as the map gives us access to the Stone Barrow, and transitions us into the remainder of the ZORK trilogy.

There's nothing else quite like ZORK -- it's puzzle-oriented enough to function as a game, but well-written and richly detailed enough to be as engrossing as a good fantasy novel.  There's lots of stuff to do just for fun, and lots of amusing detail.  I'll be playing the rest of the classic trilogy in the not-too-far-off future, and probably some of the other offshoots, and if I get really ambitious we might take a look at the original DUNGEON, the original mainframe project that gave birth to ZORK.


  1. Ahhh Zork. The very first computer game I bought for my brand new C64 at the tender age of 12. Saved up allowance and christmas money to by this and alittle later Questron. Both provided me with hours of enjoyment. I remember it took me 2 months to beet this. Of coarse no faqs and walkthroughs were hard to come by.

  2. I recall many very happy hours as a teenager in the early 90s playing through Zork 1... :)

    As a bit of fun trivia, the number of leaves (69,105) was an in-joke at Infocom & MIT, largely because it has an unusual relationship (and partly because 69 is a sexual reference):
    69 in hex = 105 in decimal; 69 in decimal = 105 in octal

    It appears in a bunch of their games; examples are listed here:

    I know that I recognize 12592, but beyond the Commandment containing the sexual reference(s) "Hello, Sailor", I can't find any information on it.

  3. A little history, from someone who more-or-less lived through it:

    The original DUNGEON, which was sometimes called "Zork: The Great Underground Empire" on those large machines that played it, was split into two games by Infocom. They released it as "Zork I: The Great Underground Empire" and "Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz." Infocom added a little bit to each half, to round them out and make each feel more complete on its own. "Zork III" was a later Infocom title and drew nothing at all from DUNGEON; it was essentially spun by Infocom out of whole cloth.

    Lord Dimwit Flathead got his surname from ASCII art of his head. It's easier to make an ASCII art rendition of a head that was flat on the top, than it is to make an ASCII art head that's round on top. Lord Dimwit Flathead also sported a row of vertical bars delimiting his head's upper surface, to represent his flat-top haircut.

    Oh -- and according to Wikipedia, "Zork" was originally MIT slang for an unfinished program. "DUNGEON" was to be its official title, but TSR (the makers of Dungeons & Dragons) threatened them with a trademark infringement lawsuit. Which is kind of interesting, as TSR had themselves been threatened with suits from the Tolkien Estate for using hobbits and ents (which they had to rename halflings and treants).

    1. Oh, yes, Zork III drew two things from Dungeon; the Puzzle Room and the End-game in the Dungeon Master's lair.