The Great Infocom Replay: Zork Ⅰ

Zork Ⅰ is a really important game to work through, if you’re going to try to understand where interactive fiction came from. It’s not the first, but it’s a major early milestone of the golden age of commercial IF, and its book is alluded to repeatedly throughout later works. I’m really glad that I’ve played Zork Ⅰ, but my feeling after playing it again is that once was probably enough.

In fact, I didn’t really replay the entire game. I remember it fairly well, despite having played it over twenty-five years ago. I played as much of it as I could from memory, plus the puzzles I could solve again, and I skipped the parts that I knew I would find painful. I’ll list them as I go.

I’d forgotten, before this replay, that so many of the early games were very, very sparse of text. Zork is actually quite wordy compared to some, but it’s still quite minimal. One of its most memorable locations, Flood Control Dam #3, is described like this:

Dam
You are standing on the top of the Flood Control Dam #3, which was quite a tourist attraction in times far distant. There are paths to the north, south, and west, and a scramble down.
The sluice gates on the dam are closed. Behind the dam, there can be seen a wide reservoir. Water is pouring over the top of the now abandoned dam.
There is a control panel here, on which a large metal bolt is mounted.
Directly above the bolt is a small green plastic bubble.

This led me to go play the first few rooms of one or two later games, as well as some popular amateur games, and decided that I have been failing to appreciate the economy of prose in many of these games. I also went to look at some of my never-completed projects and was not surprised to decide that I probably had too much text. (This realization, I must admit, came after feeling some surprise at Jon Ingold’s remark in “Thinking Into the Box” that “players are not often in it for the prose.”)

I was amazed by how much of the map was still in my memory. I didn’t remember how the zones fit together, but I remembered them. I remembered how to solve the most hateful puzzles (like the awful Loud Room) and most importantly, I remembered many secret passages and exits to the surface. I knew to make my first task: get to the temple, get the torch, and pray my way out.

I managed to collect quite a few treasures, but I knew I didn’t want to shoot for everything. My secret internal goal was to get the thief to open the egg, and then to retrieve it. This meant getting enough other treasure to have a chance at defeating the thief. I managed to do it all in one night, skipping only two things: the maze and the river. Skipping the maze was a no-brainer. I remember mapping the maze the first time. I realized how to do it, I felt like a genius, and then I never, ever, ever wanted to do it again. I also knew that I wouldn’t need to go in there to accomplish my goals. I do not regret skipping the maze.

As for the river, I knew exactly what I would have to do, and executing all the steps just didn’t seem like it would be worth it.

Finally, I also didn’t drain the reservoir. The “trial and error save, push button, restore, repeat” puzzle drains my will to play faster than it would drain the reservoir. I used the magic word to get the platinum bar out of the Loud Room. As a side note, I think that is my least favorite non-maze puzzle in the game. My favorite is probably the coal mine, except for the part where it’s also a maze.

I enjoyed making a map of the game, as I thought I would, but I’d forgotten how often rooms were not joined symmetrically. That is, very often you’d leave a room by walking east, but to get back, you’d walk south. The official maps make it very clear why the exits looked that way, but it made everything much more tedious. Just to draw a new room, I’d have to walk through many of its exits, figuring out the angle of the passage. That would waste battery life on the lamp. I ended up pursuing a strategy that felt like it hurt my enjoyment of the game. I worked on each zone’s map and puzzles without concern for treasure or time. Once I had a plan of attack, I restarted the game and went through my checklist.

Even this would not have been much of a pain, if not for random aspects of the game. At one point, when things were going quite well, the thief wandered by and stole my torch. Oops. Fighting the thief also led to some “restore and try again” moments. I don’t mind randomness that provides atmosphere, but randomness that can ruin my game tends to, well, ruin my game.

Finally, I had a hard time forming a mental picture of the dungeon. Once again, the official map helps, but it doesn’t help enough for me. The problem here is mostly with me. Zork is a gonzo setting, where anything that will be neat is allowed to exist. I kept trying to figure out how it fit together, and why there’s an Egyptian temple bordering a huge dam and a tiny coal mine. It was mostly a collection of puzzles, which is what I knew to expect.

In the end, I’m glad I replayed Zork Ⅰ, but my replay was really tainted by the fact that I had so much of the game still in my memory. I blew through many puzzles that I might have enjoyed, and there were puzzles that I might have enjoyed if I wasn’t prejudiced by my previous play. I’m hoping I get more out of later games.

Written on February 2, 2013
games   infocom-replay   int-fiction