Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Adventure of the Week: ZORK III: The Dungeon Master (1982)

This week, our journey through the classic Infocom trilogy concludes with ZORK III: The Dungeon Master, released for personal computers in 1982.  Additional ZORK titles would arrive later, but this was the last of the original trilogy, presenting the final subset of the original mainframe DUNGEON adventure created by several of Infocom's founders.  (The earlier entries, of course, were ZORK I and ZORK II.)

Again, current Infocom IP owner Activision has generously made the ZORK trilogy available for free download here.  (And you don't even need to run it in DOSBox, actually -- it works fine for me under a vanilla Windows Vista command prompt.)  The free version is Release 17; the series apparently stabilized as it progressed, with fewer revisions required on the later entries in the trilogy.  There's no specific authorship credited for this chapter, so we will trust in the fabled Implementors to challenge and amuse us.

The tone of this chapter is more serious than the first two ZORK games  -- there's a subtle but palpable sense of melancholy, a mourning for the lost glory of the Great Underground Empire, and after a couple rounds of entertaining treasure hunting and puzzle, this third story may have a genuine conclusion.  Given the game's ready availability, and the nature of what I do here, I encourage interested readers to tackle this classic text adventure series before reading my posts on the subject beyond this point.  ZORK III is the most difficult of the three games, so I would suggest starting with ZORK I if you're new to this.  And be sure to take your lantern, lest your adventure be, as this one will shortly be...

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

ZORK III picks up right where ZORK II left off, as we emerge through the secret door to face what the introduction calls the final test.  As in the trilogy's second title, the familiar lantern is readily available at the start, but the enchanted Elvish sword is embedded in a great rock and cannot be readily freed.  Fortunately, we are its rightful owner as far as the Implementors are concerned, and it magically appears in our hand when we encounter a cloaked and hooded figure in the Land of Shadow. 

We can fight this hooded figure -- KILL FIGURE WITH SWORD must be repeated, and the randomized battle takes a while, but it's not too difficult to manage.  When the figure dies, however, we catch a brief glimpse of deep and sorrowful eyes.  This might be a hint that it is not wise or good to kill this creature, but the ramifications of our actions will not become clear until later in the game.

We glimpse some movement among the trees adjoining the cliffside to the west, and can find some fresh waybread there, which would probably keep any hunger pangs at bay for the duration of the game, if any such pangs were to manifest, which they will not.  On the shores of the Flathead Ocean, a Viking-like ship passes by, helmed by an old and crusty sailor; there's a joke and a puzzle involved here, but I didn't figure it out on my own, and it's not entirely necessary, so we'll come back to him later.

Indoors, beyond the shadowed ground, we encounter another Engravings Room, with runes depicting flames, stone statues, and figures of old men.  We can also discover a wizened man sleeping in a corner, and examination reveals that his eyes seem younger and stronger than his frail body.  We can WAKE MAN.  Is his body exchanged with the figure who attacked us in the Land of Shadows?  Apparently not, at least not in the way I was thinking when I made note of this -- but this too foreshadows the end of our journey.

The Technology Museum houses some machines, a jewel collection guarded by an impenetrable cage, and the Royal Puzzle.  The intriguing golden machine has a seat and a console, with a three-digit display set to 948 and a single button.  We can enter the gold machine and TURN DIAL TO 777; we can then PUSH BUTTON, which at first appeared to crash the game.  Then I realized that it simply ends the adventure, with no chance of recovery, as we arrive in another time, surrounded by heavily armed and hostile guards, and are dumped unceremoniously to the DOS prompt.  Dying in ZORK III normally acquaints us with an old man who can resurrect us; this is an exception, perhaps due to the nature of time travel itself, taking us beyond his ability to assist.

On my first attempt, I somehow opened up the entrance to the Museum and then could not figure out how I had done it.  Was it simply a result of exploring?  In a way, but not, again, the way I would have thought.

The Royal Puzzle is a maze, and a fairly difficult one, but at least a warning note lies at the entrance so we do not wander into it without a chance to SAVE first.  Once we are inside, we can PRESS EAST WALL to progress into a visual depiction of the immediate surroundings, drawn as a 3 x 3 grid, coercing the Z-machine parser into presenting a Rogue-like maze in portable ASCII text format.  We can move in all eight cardinal compass directions, with no up or down movement allowed; some walls are closed off as others are opened, some are blocked, and it's not hard to push the walls in such a way that we trap ourselves forever inside the Royal Puzzle.  A ladder in one section can't be climbed; experimentation establishes that the sandstone walls can be moved, the marble walls apparently cannot, but mapping is tricky because the maze itself is so malleable.

If we manage to figure out the maze, or have access to the Invisiclues (yes, I'm guilty!), we eventually reach a room with a couple of ladders, a room with a steel door and a slot, and another room with a depression in the floor and an old and dusty book. Once I was there, I was again at a loss about what to do, so I reverted to an earlier save and did some exploration elsewhere before returning.

The time machine calls for some experimentation -- the machine does not travel in space, only time, and it's entertaining to discover that as we travel to later periods, the kingdom's military grows noticeably less intelligent and diligent.  There's an unreadable plaque in our own time -- I discovered that in 888, it's already faded, and it's also unreadable in 883; in 880, however...

Well, the soldiers are still pretty active and we die upon arrival again.  So that's not a solution.  Let's see... we can only set the dial for three digits.  I tried going to 999, but the cage guarding the royal jewels doesn't rust away or otherwise become penetrable.  If we travel to 750, 760, 770, and 775, we are too early, arriving fatally engulfed in stone, as the Great Underground Empire's passageways have not yet been hewn from the living rock.

But if we travel to 776, we can hear some guards talking outside, and learn that the Royal Museum's construction is still in progress.  We can also learn that the grey machine is a Frobozz Magic Pressurizer, and the black machine is a Frobozz Magic Room Spinner.  The golden machine is a Temporizer, which we've already figured out.  All are supposedly non-working models, but clearly the Temporizer in our own time is not quite non-working.

If we listen to the guards, we can catch some non-essential conversation about building Flood Control Dam #3, which we visited in ZORK I.  The officers eventually leave the area, and the Royal Puzzle is not yet built.  But what to do next?

Time to step back a bit and explore some details we haven't really resolved.  If we pick up the chest on the Cliff Ledge, a man appears topside and offers to "help" us.  We can turn him down; I tried throwing the chest over the cliff, which can be done but doesn't cause it to open.  We can let the stranger take the chest and then throw the rope back down to us, but when we climb up we see that now the chest is empty.  If we let the stranger pull us back up -- he's a decent enough sort -- he gives us a plain wooden staff from the chest, keeping its other contents for himself.  Is this what we want to happen?  We can kill him with the sword, and claim the assorted valuables that result, but the wooden staff gets broken in the scuffle.  I took this to be a clue that the staff has greater value than anything else here, and we should let the mysterious man make off with his reward.

We can also give the bread found near the cliff to the wizened man, which proves to be a wise move -- he takes the waybread and points out a secret door in the Engravings Room.  Behind the door we find a red button, a red beam, and a large mirror, introducing a complex puzzle.  We can BREAK MIRROR WITH SWORD to reveal a wooden panel.  (I also tried to THROW LANTERN AT MIRROR, but that breaks only the lantern.)  We can't open the panel thus revealed, though, at least not by hand.  I consulted the Invisiclues to learn that if we block the red beam with an object, and then press the red button, the panel opens outward.

Now we can reach the Inside Mirror location, which is a fairly complicated room and the core of this puzzle.  There's a compass rose here, with a wooden bar suspended in it, mounted on a long pole; the associated arrow and T-bar are initially pointing to the west, locked in place with a shorter pole.  We can lift the short pole out of the hole it was resting in, and can then push on the distinctively textured walls of this box to change its orientation.  An initial PUSH RED, for example, aims the arrow to the northwest.  We can then PUSH PINE to open the panel again.  Hmmmm.  PUSH MAHOGANY rotates the structure into a fixed position, so we don't have to worry too much about keeping track of the room's orientation, but it can still be pretty disorienting.  The room only locks into an exitable position when the compass points north or south.

Exiting to the north of the compass structure, we encounter the Guardians of Zork, stone statues armed with heavy bludgeons, with which they will cheerfully kill us if we try to walk past them.  I got stumped here again -- I had figured out the mechanics of the puzzle, or so I thought, but was not visualizing something correctly.  I consulted the Invisiclues once again, and learned that we can actually travel past the guardians INSIDE the mirror box.  This puzzle is pretty complicated.

What I was missing is that we can DROP SHORT POLE IN CHANNEL to lock the box into a north-south movement path.  But since I've broken the mirrors, the guardians still see us moving and bludgeon the box to a pulp; we need the reflections on both sides of the hall to make our transit "invisible."  We can actually open the panel without breaking the mirror (as I had done to discover the panel), and after we push the box to the north end of the channel, we have to rotate it again so the arrow points south in order to safely exit.  The Guardians will destroy objects thrown at them, so in theory it's possible to figure this out without dying, but probably not likely.

This arduous journey, short on distance but long on head-scratching, brings us to the Dungeon Entrance, where the wooden door has a barred panel but the parser dictionary doesn't seem to recognize BARRED PANEL as an object.  We can, however, KNOCK ON DOOR to summon an old man, who tells us to go the secret door and SAY "FROTZ OZMOO."  He also warns us about the double quotes -- thank you, playtesting! -- and warps us back to the Button Room.  The magic word can be used to warp us past the Guardians in the future, which is handy as apparently we're not yet ready to assay the Dungeon itself.

I stopped at this point to take stock of my progress, and learned that my SCORE was presently 4 of a possible 7.  ZORK III is not a treasure hunt like the first two games; there are only 7 creditable objectives in this one, and each point is hard-won.

Back to exploring.  In the Aqueduct View area, entering the lake we find the water ice cold, and are forced to drop all of our possessions into its depths.  So a swim is not a good idea.  From the Western Shore we can access the Scenic View, which is an indoor location containing a torch and an empty table; if we hang around, we will see that an indicator above the table flickers briefly, then, for example, depending on the timing of our arrival, cycles from Roman numeral II to III, to IV, and then back to I.  There's a torch here, and a table that appears blank until we look at it to see images of ZORK locations familiar and otherwise.  While the indicator reads III, we see an image of a wide room with passages leading east and northeast, which sounds very like the Damp Passage room.  Indicator I displays a passage with cluttered timbers and a narrow opening, which I took to be ZORK I's Timber Room; II shows a tiny room with rough walls and the number 8 chiseled on a wall; and IV displays a temple with a blood-spattered altar.  But there doesn't seem to be anything interesting going on in these locations, so we'll go explore some more.

We can access the southern shore of the lake by swimming across, being careful to leave our inventory onshore -- but that route shortly leads us into trouble, as we encounter a veritable grue convention in a dark passage.  We need to get some light in here, or find some other solution.  We can go swimming in the lake, but a giant roc shortly comes to visit and summarily snatches you in its jaws and has you for lunch.  So that's not a productive exercise either.

I consulted the Invisiclues again, to learn that in this case I had the right idea at the Scenic View but the wrong verb.  We can TOUCH TABLE to go to the location depicted; I was trying and failing to ENTER TABLE, which is, I admit, a very different sort of action even if the metaphor is more appropriate.  We can travel this way, but can't explore very far -- we are given only a few turns before being transported back to our starting point.  Room IV is actually the Sacrificial Altar from Enchanter, another series Infocom was launching when ZORK III was in progress -- and fatal to visit, so consider it a subtle in-game advertisement.

Aha!  There is some Frobozz Magic Grue Repellent in Room 8.  I get the impression that the Roman numerals on the Scenic table correspond to the three ZORK games, but I don't recall seeing this room while playing ZORK II.  Perhaps it lies to the west of the Carousel Room. At any rate, if we apply the repellent to ourselves, maybe we can get through the southern cave without light.  It does allow us to survive the cave, but it doesn't last long enough to get anywhere interesting, and we can only apply it once.  Can we get the timber from ZORK I and use it to float across the lake without dropping everything?  Nope.

Further exploration establishes that with grue repellent applied, we can just manage to get S and U (aha!) in the cave off of the southern shore, to a Dark Place with dim light from the east.  The Key Room contains a key lying in the dust and a large manhole cover, through which we can enter the Aqueduct.  It is however, not easy to leave it, but we can't go back the way we came.  Hmmm.  The key we picked up is listed as A strange key in inventory, and seems to change shape constantly.

What next?  An Invisiclue tells us that... drat!  We have to visit the Aqueduct BEFORE the earthquake happens.  (The earthquake also opens up the entrance to the Technology Museum -- I had spent more time exploring and examining things on my first attempt, so the quake had already occurred by the time I got to the museum and I didn't recognize the connection.) 

So it seems we must restart and access the Water Slide prior to the earthquake.  The slide takes us to the Damp Passage -- we need to leave the torch there before going through this section, so we will have light waiting for us upon our return.  Whew!

What other mysteries remain?  We can remove the hood from the hooded figure we met at the game's outset to see... your own face, weary and wounded.  Then the figure fades away, leaving its cloak.  We can wear the cloak and hood, but is there a reason to do so?

Invisiclues time again... we have to say HELLO SAILOR to the Viking ship's captain!  Finally this running gag comes into play; but how is anyone supposed to even suspect this without playing ZORKs I and II?  At any rate, the sailor comes close to shore, saying, "I have waited three ages for someone to say those words and save me from sailing this endless ocean.  Please accept this gift."  The grateful seafarer leaves us a vial; OPEN VIAL reveals a heavy but invisible liquid.  If this is an invisibility potion, it might be another way to sneak past the Guardians of Zork, but it's not strictly necessary so this puzzle is optional.  I did try to use it to evade the guards back in GUE 777, without success.

Time for some more experimentation.  We can BURN TREE with the torch, in which case Smokey the Bear puts out both the fire and you, in what I assume is an unauthorized cameo by Mr. the Bear.  I needed a detailed walkthrough to get back out of the Royal Puzzle; finding the exit scores a point but doesn't really help us finish the story.

What else?  The Infocom Invisiclues always contain some general questions about things we may not have done yet, which can be very helpful for the more difficult adventures.  I thus learned that we can actually MOVE the time machine to the jewel room.  Another case of bad assumptions on my part!  But the robot who starts working at the museum in 948 tends to move the machine back to its original location, so we can't use it to sneak in and snag the treasures.  We can, however, score a point by hiding the royal ring under the seat of the time machine in 776, before the cage is in place, and then retrieving it in 948 -- the ring's companion treasures, the sceptre and jewelled knife, can't be hidden this way, and moving them tips off the guards, causing the machine to disappear from our time period and ruining the whole setup.  It's wise to save game before trying to solve this puzzle -- it's still risky, as a guard randomly enters and kills us, so it may take a few tries.

It's possible to get all seven points without even assaying the Dungeon, but the storytelling is nudging us in that direction.  But when I returned there, I learned that I was still not ready to enter the dungeon.  So what was I missing?  The magical key changes shape and will not enter the keyhole.  The InvisiClues (once again) hint that we need to match the dungeon guardian's costume; examination of his garb indicates that I am apparently missing an amulet.  Aha!  I had tried to SWIM DOWN in the lake, and got nowhere, but we actually have to DIVE LAKE.  Now we can spot Something shiny Underwater, and GET SHINY OBJECT to retrieve the amulet.

Now the Dungeon Master allows us into the dungeon, and accompanies us for the story's conclusion, which takes place in and around a tower with a cell door at its base.  The Sundial at the Parapet can be pointed at numbers 1-8; pushing the adjoining button seems to close the cell door, if it's open; no other result is apparent.  The Dungeon Master won't enter the cell; we can enter it ourselves, and direct him to go press the button, but then he is too far away and we can't call him back to open the door so we can get out.

We can note that our enchanted sword glows very brightly immediately after the button is pushed, but soon fades, so there's something magical going on.  If we turn the dial to 4, a bronze door appears in the cell, and our magical key fits its lock but will not turn.  If we turn the dial to 2 and push the button again, now we can unlock it.  (I never quite understood this puzzle, but I think it's a binary joke appropriate to the computer engineers who created the original DUNGEON at MIT.  8, 4, 2, blastoff!)

And now the door unlocks, and we become the Dungeon Master, fulfilling the destiny hinted at along the way.  It may be a mixed victory -- the DM does not seem particularly thrilled about this line of work -- but we've earned all 7 points, and the ZORK trilogy is complete!

There are later ZORK games, which I will likely tackle eventually.  But the original trilogy remains a fine example of the classic text adventure -- funny, challenging, engrossing, frustrating and obtuse.  Anyone with an interest in games as an art form needs to at least sample the world of the Great Underground Empire.  No gaming education is complete without it.


  1. Although you technically can play text adventures under a Windows command prompt, I recommend downloading a native windows client like Frotz:

    Much nicer to play text adventures in an environment where you can resize the window, control the font size, and scroll back through previous text.

  2. I've used Frotz on many occasions, even on a Linux-based handheld with no keyboard (not a good idea, as typing by selecting individual letters with a joystick gets old very quickly.) And for playtesting, Frotz's ability to save and play back scripts is very handy.

    But sometimes it's fun to play these things under the old DOS limitations, and for my readers who might just want to download the game and run it, it's nice that they don't have to mess around with additional downloads like DOSBox or Frotz. Thanks for the note!