Friday, January 31, 2020

Zork III: Won!

There are a few things I wish I had known about this game sooner. I’m going to begin this post with an overview of these things without any additional spoilers, in case anyone wishes to play only with prior knowledge of the things I felt were unfairly obscure. The first is that although Zork III is often described as abandoning the treasure hunt motif of the first two games, this is really not true. There are, in fact, seven arbitrary items that you must collect before finishing the game, and may as well be treasures, though not all are obviously valuable.
  • Cloak
  • Very ancient book
  • Hood
  • Wooden staff
  • Golden amulet
  • Strange key
  • Golden ring

None but the key serve any practical purpose, except that you must find them all before entering the very final area of the game. It’s different from the first Zork in that none are simply lying around in plain sight, and most are locked behind puzzles. But the game offers little guidance that you need to find this set of items.

The most direct clue is this passage, seen whenever you die (excluding a handful of ways that leave you beyond his help):

The door swings open, and in walks an old man. He is dressed simply in a hood and cloak, wearing a few simple jewels, carrying something under one arm, and leaning on a wooden staff. A single key, as if to a massive prison cell, hangs from his belt.

That’s good and all, but doesn’t really indicate that you need to locate these items for yourself. Sure, I had located a wooden staff of my own, but it seems a little far-fetched that I could reasonably deduce from that, that I would also need to find his other possessions mentioned here, not to mention the three items that are only vaguely alluded to. Especially that the jewelry refers to the golden amulet (simple to find) and the golden ring (not so simple to find), but not to any of the other treasures found in the same place as the ring.

Other things I wished the game had signposted better are that:
  • The table in the Scenic Vista room can be touched.
  • An important NPC will sometimes be in the engravings room.
  • The earthquake that occurs at a certain point in the game opens up a passage in one place, but seals one off in another place.
  • The gold machine can be moved, and you can do more with its seat than sit down on it.
  • NPCs will appear by the Cliff Ledge and Ocean if you wait around (this I figured out by myself, but only because I had been meticulously trying every unlabeled exit)

There’s a reoccurring pattern here – often I got stuck on a puzzle simply because there was a required action that I didn’t know I could do.

Complete spoilers follow, so read no further if you wish to discover the rest of Zork III’s secrets for yourself.

Anyway, after wandering the land without any meaningful new discoveries except for that swimming in the lake will sometimes cause a roc to swoop down and eat you, I turned to virtual Invisiclues for a prod in the right direction.

What I read, and would definitely not have figured out for myself, is that you can find the old man from your dreams by entering the engravings room repeatedly until he just randomly shows up.

I did this, found him sleeping, and woke him up. In exchange for my waybread, he revealed a secret door in the engravings, which I entered, leading to the statue-lined hallway seen in the epilogue of Zork II.

I figured I wasn’t ready for this, given that this whole sequence was originally the definitely very final part of MDL Zork, and it still seemed like there was plenty of Zork III left to complete first, but I hadn’t any better idea. Familiar puzzle, familiar solution. I activated the mirror-sided machine in the hallway as I had before, and used the convoluted controls inside to traverse the hallway without awakening the terracotta warriors.

Just as before, a closed wooden door waited on the other side, and after I knocked on it, the old man unlatched its panel and spoke to me. Unlike before, he did not ask me riddles of Zork lore, but instead told me I wasn’t quite ready yet, and gave me a magic password to return at the right time. This, it turns out, is the part where you need the seven treasures of Zork III to progress, though the only clue offered is that his words are progressively more encouraging the more of these treasures you possess.

Stuck again, I read more Invisclues until I found something I didn’t know - the earthquake that opens access to the museum also cuts off an area north of the aqueduct. But I hadn’t even figured out how to reach the aqueduct! Further perusing of Invisiclues gave me more tips on things I hadn’t even discovered yet, so I looked at a more conventional walkthrough for guidance, and there, learned that the “Scenic Vista” table can be touched to teleport you into the place depicted.

The “II” indicator took me to Room 8, where I found a can of Frobozzco Grue Repellant, which I had found pointless in the previous game, but here it allowed me to get through the dark cave on the south shore of the lake unharmed, where on the other side I found a key. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough repellant left for a return trip. Fortunately, this passage led me through the aqueduct, which led back to the damp passage near the start of the game. Unfortunately, the damp passage was pitch black, and grues ate me.

The solution, I realized, was to use the Scenic Vista to teleport to the damp passage and leave a torch there for later.

After repeating the exercise and coming out on the other side of the aqueduct into the safety of the torch’s light, I re-accomplished everything that I knew how, and had six points out of seven. A few mysteries remained, such as not being certain what to do with the key by the aqueduct (it did not open the gate by the locked museum or the jewel display case inside). I tried re-entering the final dungeon with the magic password, and was turned away, told that I was halfway there.

Reviewing the walkthrough again, it told me to fight the specter until it was wounded, and then take its hood and cloak, which I did, revealing it to be a reflection of myself. Returning to the dungeon, I was told I was “nearly ready.”

Reviewing it again, it told me to push the gold machine into the jewel room and then use it to go back in time to 776, which I did.

Using the time machine teleports yourself but not your possessions, which thankfully remain in place to be recollected on your return to the present. The machine also does not travel with you; when I appeared in the Jewel Room’s past, the machine itself was gone, since in the past, it hadn’t been moved from its original location in the technology room yet.

Here, I could easily take the crown jewels, but getting them into the present posed a problem – I could wait until the guards left for the night, sneak into the unlocked technology room, and use the machine to return to the present, but the jewels would get left behind and returned to the Jewel Room. I tried hiding them inside the pressurizer so that I could retrieve them 172 years later, but the parser wasn’t having it (“There’s no good place to put anything here”).

The solution, which I had to look up, is to take the gold ring, and only the gold ring, and hide it under the gold machine’s seat before returning to the present. Afterwards, I used the magic word to return to the final dungeon, where the old man revealed himself to be the dungeon master and let me pass on to the final test. Here, my sword’s glow seemed to activate and deactivate at random, but otherwise was exactly the same as MDL Zork’s final puzzle, and solved in the same manner, ending the game as the dungeon master declared me worthy to replace him.

GAB rating: Above Average. It's far from bad, but having enjoyed all of the previous Zorks so much, I’m sorry to say that the more I played this game, the less I liked it, and the final set of puzzles, which provided a grand conclusion to the original MDL Zork, seems less impactful here in such a short game.

Zork III started off very strong, immersing me into the dungeon master’s dark, dead, and sometimes claustrophobic realm with Infocom’s typically excellent writing. I applaud the de-emphasis on treasure hunting, a move best summarized by the treasure chest scenario. An earlier adventure by Infocom or anyone else would have asked you to find a cunning way to secure the treasure for yourself, but in Zork III, you must be patient, kind, and trusting, in that order. For taking the high road you are rewarded with a wooden staff, which in the end turns out to be the real treasure. In a way, it seems to anticipate the virtue system of Ultima IV.

But there aren’t many puzzles at all, and other than the puzzles from MDL Zork – the Royal Museum Puzzle and the endgame – most involve undermotivated actions. How would it occur to us, for instance, that touching the table in the “Scenic Vista” cave would do something? In a point and click adventure it is simple enough to just manipulate everything in sight and see what happens, but in a text adventure where you must supply the verb, this seems an unreasonable intuition. Or when you face the shadowy figure, why would we think to fight it almost to the point of death, and then take its hood and cloak? The dungeon master also has a hood and cloak, but the strongest clue that you must have his possessions is given to you immediately after taking them from the figure. Most egregious of all, I think, is finding the dungeon master himself, who simply appears in a room randomly, and if he isn’t there during your first visit, there isn’t any apparent reason to go back.

It’s clear that Zork III had a lot of effort, thought, and talent poured into it. Infocom was a class of itself, and all of its games, Zork III included, remain superior to any non-Infocom adventure of the day. Its writing paints scenes in vivid detail far beyond anything that could have been done with the graphics of the time. Puzzles are all mechanically sound – contrast with Zork II whose greatest weaknesses were having inconsistent parser behavior and in obscure game world logic. Zork III overcomes those issues, even managing a time travel puzzle that is cohesive, consistent, and satisfyingly logical in all possible outcomes, but stumbles over some more basic issues; of not making it clear enough what actions the player can take, and of not adequately highlighting the players’ objectives. There’s a good game here, one that goes beyond the more-of-the-same approach of its predecessor and is low on filler, but a low-filler experience is doubly marred when faced with a showstopping issue, and nearly all of Zork III’s puzzles have one that could have been alleviated with some better clues.

My final Trizbort map:

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