Friday, September 27, 2019

Zork II: Won!

Remember how in Adventure, you have to kill a dragon with your bare hands?

Zork II remembers, and I'll be damned if this isn't a deliberate reference.

>kill dragon
With your bare hands? I doubt the dragon even noticed.

I had to resort to a walkthrough to find out what to do next, and found that you deal with the dragon by stabbing it with your sword.

That’s just the first part, though. Attacking it with your sword once merely annoys it. Attacking it a second time provokes its immolating retaliation. But attack once, then leave, and the dragon will follow. If you could figure that out on your own – and I’m slightly ashamed I couldn’t, then you can probably figure the rest out.

I led the dragon into the nearby ice room, where it melted the ice and extinguished its own flame in the deluge, solving two of my problems from the last session.

I returned to the dragon’s lair and entered. Inside were a rotting old chest and a maiden, who left the lair. I followed, and she led me to the garden, where she gave me a rose and the unicorn’s golden key. I returned to the dragon’s lair and opened the chest, finding a golden dragon statuette inside.

Past the ice room was the lava room and volcano, exactly as they were in MDL Zork. I took with me the brick, string, newspaper, and matchbook, and proceeded to solve this area as I had before, with few differences in the process or results.

One difference is that one of the books in the library can be read.

>read white book

This book is written in a tongue with which I am barely familiar. It details the use of various magical objects, chiefly the so-called "magic wand." Apparently these devices work by directing them at the object to be ensorcelled, and then chanting the appropriate magic words. (It's truly amazing how credulous these ancients were, isn't it?)

Kind of like what the Wizard is doing to bother me!

Returning to the carousel room with a crown and ruby, I was stuck again. I still didn’t know how to pass the menhir, lizard head door, or Cerberus, and my new treasures and rose didn’t offer any obvious means of passing them.

A walkthrough told me that I’m near the end of the game, and that I'd need to give the lizard head some candy. Right.

Because it was described as “rare” candy, it hadn’t occurred to me at all that it might be useful. I had assumed that, like the “rare” spices, this was just another treasure that had to be collected.

I tried looking at the candy to see if it offered any clues that could have reasonably signposted this solution.

       Frobozz Magic Candy Company
         >>Special Assortment <<
          Candied Grasshoppers
             Chocolated Ants
              Worms Glacee
(By Appointment to His Majesty, Dimwit I)

Fair enough, I guess.

Past the lizard head door was the wizard’s workshop, with these rooms:
  • A trophy room with a cabinet, a bunch of wizardly paraphernalia, and a sign warning me not to touch anything.
  • A laboratory with more supplies and three pedestals of ruby, diamond, and sapphire
  • A room with a black chalk pentagram drawn on the floor
  • An aquarium room with a baby sea serpent
  • The wizard’s bedroom, whose room description changed from opulent to ascetic and back each time I looked.

I put my red and blue spheres in the ruby and sapphire stands, and tried throwing the golden statuette at the aquarium, which just bounced off. Then I tried smashing it with my sword, which worked, but the sea serpent then chewed me up. Reloading, I tried throwing the sword, which did the trick, and revealed a clear sphere inside. I put it in the diamond pedestal, and they magically merged into a black sphere.

I placed the black sphere inside the pentagram’s inner circle, and a demon emerged, who obsequiously offered power in exchange for wealth. The wizard entered the room, alarmed, and the demon laughed, and declared his wizardly powers were useless.

I offered him my gold statuette, and he thanked me and asked for more. Bit by bit, I retrieved and offered the rest of my treasures, until he was satisfied, and then asked him to kill the wizard in exchange.

I took the wand, and tried waving it at the wizard’s trophy cabinet, and aside from feeling a surge of power, nothing productive happened. I couldn’t think of any F-words that could open it. I tried a couple of spells on Cerberus – Freeze, Float, Feeble, even Fry, and none of them did anything (Feeble was recognized, but he still wouldn’t let me pass). I went back to the menhir room, cast Float on the biggest one, revealing a passage to a kennel, where I found a gargantuan dog collar.

I put the collar on Cerberus, who happily accepted it and became tame. Past him was a crypt containing the twelve heads of the Flatheads, placed on spiked poles. With nothing else to do, I closed the door and extinguished the lamp, as I had in MDL Zork. This revealed a secret F-emblazoned door, which I entered, into a statue-lined hall reminiscent of MDL Zork’s endgame.

This concluded Zork II, with 400/400 points, and a teaser for the next game, referred to as “Zork: The Great Underground Empire, Part III.”

Out of curiosity, I reloaded a save at the demon to see what else he could do for me. Killing the wizard was the obvious request, but he was also happy to just give me the wizard’s wand. Cerberus was really the only thing standing between me and victory, so I asked the demon to kill him.

"This may prove taxing, but we'll see. Perhaps I'll tame him for a pup instead." The demon disappears for an instant, then reappears. He looks rather gnawed and scratched. He winces. "Too much for me. Puppy dog, indeed. You're welcome to him. Never did like dogs anyway... Any other orders, oh beneficent one?"

Backing up one step, all I really needed the wand for was to move the menhir, so I tried asking the demon to move it for me, which he did with his little finger. But you can’t win the game this way; without the wand, you die on entering the final room.


Beyond the door is a roughly hewn staircase leading down into the darkness past the range of your vision. The landing on which you stand is covered with carefully drawn magical runes much like those you saw sketched upon the workbench of the Wizard of Frobozz. These have been overlaid with sweepingly drawn green lines of enormous power, which undulate back and forth across the landing. The green curves begin to vibrate, and close on you as if searching for something. One by one your possessions vibrate and then glow bright green. Finally, you are attacked by these magical wardens, and destroyed!

This game consists mostly of rooms, puzzles, and set-pieces that were cut from MDL Zork. The old Carousel Room returns and serves as the central hub of the game, and the connected riddle room, well, and region with the cakes and robot are mostly unchanged. The volcano area and Bank of Zork are the other major cut areas that return, the tiny room with the huge locked door puzzle is recycled, and the crystal spheres are straight from MDL Zork, though they serve a different purpose, and the part from MDL Zork where you peer into one sphere to reveal a hint about a secret room in the coal chute has no analog here.

But there are brand new areas as well. The starting rooms leading to the hub and garden area are unique to this game, as is the dragon’s lair and its puzzle which you must solve to access the volcano. There’s also the wizard’s domain and the oddly-angled room.

In spite of this cobbled-together approach, assembling a game from a mix of discarded pieces with some new ones to fill in the gaps, Zork II feels more cohesive and its layout more coherent than Zork I, which was designed through subtraction.

We can also see Infocom taking baby steps in shifting from open treasure hunt gameplay a la Adventure to a more narrative-based design. It’s still mostly about exploring, solving puzzles, and finding treasure, but there’s an inkling of character interaction beyond what existed in MDL Zork and Zork I. In those games, there were only a few characters, and most only served as obstacles. Only the dungeon master exclusive to MDL Zork and the thief did anything more interesting. The wizard takes the place of the thief, a free agent that moves about the map and occasionally becomes a nuisance. But the demon, which provides an in-universe explanation for why you need to find treasure, is the more interesting character.  His presence suggests a history of indentured servitude to the wizard, and a yearning for revenge. He’s clearly malevolent, and will take sadistic pleasure in watching you fail, and yet behaves subserviently until your business is concluded. He will fulfill his end of the bargain honestly, and although he’ll do you no favors beyond that, he also will never take any action against you (unless you deliberately ask for it).

The dragon and princess also demonstrate a feature of the Z-Machine that was underused in Zork I, the ability for characters to walk around the map on their own. Zork I’s thief moved around rooms seemingly by teleporting at random. The dragon has a small domain, and will follow you around this domain if provoked, taking the same passages that you do. You must study this domain to get past him and rescue the princess. The princess, likewise, will walk to the garden by herself when freed, taking the same naturally occurring passages as available to you, and even opens up a secret shortcut to get around the spinning Carousel room, which you can use yourself afterward.

These are all minor things, and are primitive compared to the games to come, but still show an inkling of narrative complexity not seen in any previous title.

I checked out Digital Antiquarian’s thoughts on Zork II, and he spends a lot of words discussing the worst puzzles, namely, the Bank of Zork and the oddly-angled room.

No disagreement from me on the Bank of Zork, a holdover from MDL Zork. They did add a bit of signposting toward the solution, but it’s not enough. The first big problem is parser-related. The security room has a “shimmering curtain of light” on the north side in place of a wall… what does that even look like? There’s a clue that you can walk through walls, but if you type “enter north wall,” you bump your head, suggesting a solid wall. And yet, “enter curtain” takes you through it. In the secret rooms on the other side, you have to leave by entering a wall, but you have to enter the correct wall, and if you guess wrong too many times, the curtain door closes, leaving you stuck there.

The second problem is trying to figure out just how the curtain works. It teleports you, and the destination depends on which room you were in last. Trial and error is the only way to figure this out, and there’s really no good explanation for why the curtain would work that way. It just does, and if you’ve only entered the curtain after being in the chairman’s office from stealing the portrait, you might not even realize that it has multiple destinations.

The problems he has with the oddly-angled room, on the other hand, I think are overblown. The game gives a LOT of clues that this is a baseball-themed room. It was obvious to me, and I don’t even like baseball. The wizard’s remarks about “first base” are a dead giveaway, but there’s also the diamond imagery, the long club, and if you look at the club it is ingrained with a “Babe Flathead” signature.

Suppose, to be fair to non-American English speakers, that Infocom had bundled a leaflet in their international releases with a disclaimer reading “Warning: This contains information which may spoil the solution to a puzzle originally intended for U.S. audiences. Read at your own risk!” This hypothetical leaflet would simply explain the basic rules of baseball, show a diagram of the field, an illustration of a bat, and list facts, including but not limited to who Babe Ruth was, all without specifically mentioning the diamond maze puzzle. This, I think, would have been perfectly fair to English speakers around the world. I’ve considered the reverse, a UK-based studio explaining a brief history of the royal family in a leaflet to help US audiences solve a puzzle assuming knowledge of their genealogy, or perhaps explaining what the word “football” means in Europe, and I wouldn’t find that to be patronizing. Taking such puzzles out or “localizing” away a game’s sense of cultural identity (e.g. Phoenix Wright), on the other hand, would seem patronizing.

So, I don’t have an issue with the assumed domain knowledge here. But I do have a big issue with a different aspect of this puzzle; you can stumble upon the bat and deduce that this room is the home plate, but how are you supposed to know which way to go to reach first base? The maze is impossible to map before you’ve solved the puzzle, and I don’t see a good reason for this to be so. If they had just left the maze coherent, and maybe stripped away some superfluous rooms, then the mapped out maze would look like this:

And that, I think, would have made this a good puzzle. The layout alone would suggest a baseball diamond, with the pitcher’s mound in the middle, home plate to the west, first base to the south, and so on. The wizard’s remark about first base would be totally unnecessary; the layout would be a subtler and yet more useful hint.

I think Zork II, though not as good as Zork I, is slightly underrated. In some ways it’s a bit more polished and sophisticated, but it suffers from second book syndrome, and there’s no getting around the fact that Zork I consists of the best parts of MDL Zork, while Zork II consists of a mishmash of the worst parts of MDL Zork and some original content.

Since I couldn’t find one anywhere, here’s a points list:

Answer riddle 5
Get necklace 15
Enter Top of Well 10
Get candy 15
Get red sphere 20
Get violin 20
Solve Oddly-angled room 5
Get blue sphere 20
Slay dragon 5
Get statuette 20
Get gold key 15
Get portrait 20
Get bills 25
Get Zorkmid 20
Get stamp 10
Get crown 20
Get ruby 15
Enter wizard's workshop 10
Get clear sphere 20
Get black sphere 30
Give gold key 2
Give bills 2
Give portrait 2
Give ruby 2
Give crown 2
Give necklace 2
Give violin 2
Give statuette 2
Give stamp 2
Give zorkmid 2
Get wand 30
Get collar 15
Enter Cerberus room 10
Enter Crypt Anteroom 3
Enter Crypt 2

My Trizbort map:


  1. I finished this game fairly recently, so a lot of this stuff is still fresh. If I recall, I spoke to the dragon to get him/her to follow me (and I only had to do it once). There may be other ways to get him to follow as well, but I didn't do a lot of experimenting.

    I think the direction of the baseball diamond is based on the orientation of real baseball diamonds, which are supposed to point east (east-northeast, to be precise) to avoid the sun blinding the batter. Even as someone who grew up following baseball, I didn't know this off of the top of my head, I just tried all four directions. I also agree with you that adventure games shouldn't be required to be culturally neutral.

    And yeah, that bank puzzle is pretty brutal, but I really enjoyed solving it -- it was mostly through trial and error, but the logic eventually becomes clear. It's one of my favorite all-time adventure puzzles, to be honest.

  2. Left-handed pitchers are referred to as “southpaws” but that does seem like something you shouldn’t count on your audience knowing.

  3. Culturally neutral puzzles are hard to write because most people aren't necessarily familiar with what's "common knowledge" and what's just "common knowledge HERE". One example that comes to mind is how you send out mail in Maniac Mansion, which involves following a procedure that's unlikely to ever occur to most non-Americans to even thinkk of trying because this procedure just plain doesn't exist most places. But to the game designers at Lucasarts, it probably just felt like the most natural thing in the world.
    I don't think people should necessarily be required to familiarize themselves with customs and mindsets all around the world.

    1. I think my "cultural knowledge leaflet" idea would work here. Maniac Mansion's international releases could have come with notes on how mail is sent and received in the U.S.

      Actually, that Maniac Mansion example highlights another problem in adventure game puzzle design; cultural knowledge changes over time. In my area, the USPS hasn't collected outgoing mail from residential mailboxes in a very long time, and I'm not sure if this is still commonplace anywhere. To mail something, I have to put it into one of several collection boxes posted on street corners throughout town, and if the parcel contains something as big as a book, I have to take it to a post office, which you certainly can't do in the middle of the night. Then again, USPS letter carriers also never collected or delivered at night, so the puzzle is a bit ridiculous no matter how you look at it.


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