Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Zork: The Importance of Details

As I was preparing to write this post in my head, I expected it to be a very short one.  Basically, the gist of it would have been that I explored a bunch, found a couple of new areas, and made no progress whatsoever.  I was stuck for the better part of the week, with seemingly no way forward.

Admittedly, this is not uncommon for me when playing adventure games.  There will invariably come a time when I have no idea where to go or what to do next.  And when I figure out the answer (or look it up in a walkthrough, as I am known to do) it's usually something that seems dead obvious in retrospect.  I had that experience just a couple of hours ago.

But first I should write about what I did before I got stuck: exploring the maze.  There's a tried-and-true method for exploring and mapping mazes-of-twisty-little-passages-all-alike: dropping items to mark each location.  It worked wonders in Colossal Cave Adventure and I figured it would work here.

It did, to an extent, but there's an added wrinkle that makes mapping the maze in Zork a bit more difficult: the Thief.  Not only does the Thief wander through and steal your valuables occasionally, but he'll nick any treasures left unattended as well.  One of the earliest things I learned during this process was not to use any treasures for location-marking, because they inevitably get stolen.  The Thief doesn't restrict himself to stealing treasure, either.  He'll quite happily pick up other items and drop them in another location.  Basically, he's a bastard, and as of 1978 he's probably the all-time greatest villain in gaming.

The first thing I found in the maze was the skeleton of a dead adventurer, along with a rusty knife, a burned-out lantern, a set of skeleton keys, and a bag of coins.  I had never realised it before, but this is probably meant to be the protagonist of Colossal Cave Adventure; the equipment fits, especially the dagger, and he is in the one area of Zork that's an almost direct lift from its predecessor.  You can take all of the gear, but taking the skeleton is a bad idea: a ghost pops in, appalled at your desecration of a fellow adventurer, and curses you so that all of your valuables are sent to the land of the dead.  (I assume that this means they're in Hades, but as I haven't found my way in there yet it's hard to say.)

Also in the maze is a way back to the surface: a dead end with a locked grate in the ceiling.  The dead adventurer's skeleton keys unlock the grate, and then you can climb up into the forest. This is probably the exit that I use the least, as it's just too inconvenient to find my way through the maze every time I want to enter the Underground.

Much deeper in the maze, and quite difficult to find, is the lair of the Cyclops.  The Cyclops is a hostile fellow, and wouldn't let me pass.  I tried fighting him a few times, but he was a lot tougher than the Troll.  Perhaps at a higher level I'd be able to defeat him, but at my current level I was no match.  Instead I fed him my sack lunch, which he ate greedily.  Upon finishing he declared that he was thirsty, so  gave him some water.  (It seems like every adventure game so far has involved the feeding of some animal or monster.  It's become my first tactic whenever a creature is blocking my path.)

I passed through the room by climbing a flight of stairs, and found myself in a most unexpected place: the lair of the Thief!  With all of my stolen stuff!  Alas, the Thief was there as well, and he killed me very, very quickly.  Still, finding the Thief's hideout felt like a real achievement, and it's going to be so satisfying when I can come back here and jam a sword through his neck.

With the maze done, and seemingly every location that I could access mapped, I spent the next couple of days butting my head against three puzzles: the Entrance to Hades, the Dam, and the Gold Coffin.

The gold coffin is a treasure found in the Egyptian Room.  It's heavy, but you can pick it up.  The problem comes when you try to move around: it's too big to fit through certain exits, so you can't get it to the surface via any of the means I had yet discovered.  I seem to recall using a sceptre to solve this puzzle in the commercial Zork, but it ain't here in this version.  I figured out the solution eventually, but not until I had opened the Dam.

As I mentioned in the last post, there's an Entrance to Hades, with the gate guarded by evil spirits.  I'm positive that the bell, book and candle I found elsewhere are used here, but no amount of faffing about with these items has produced any sort of reaction.  I still haven't figured this out, and it's starting to eat at me.

Finally, the Dam, which is the "obvious-in-retrospect" thing I mentioned earlier.  I spent a long time trying to manipulate the control panel to open the dam, using every tool I had found, but nothing worked.  I was sure that I needed to turn the bolt on the panel, and the wrench seemed to be the likeliest item to use, but nothing worked.  Eventually I stumbled across the solution, and it really made me feel like an idiot.

Here's the problem: when I'm mapping a text adventure, I often play in SUPERBRIEF mode.  You can set Zork so that it doesn't give you the room descriptions, and only mentions the important items in the room.  I had skimmed past the dam's Maintenance Room without reading in detail, and I had missed that the room has four buttons, each with a different colour.  They're only mentioned in the room description, and in SUPERBRIEF mode they aren't flagged at all.  I was undone by my own haste in mapping, and I felt like a right twit when I discovered my error.

Exploring the dam in Superbrief mode

The buttons were coloured blue, yellow, brown and red.  The blue button causes a pipe to burst, which slowly floods the room.  You'll die if you stay in the room for too long after this, and I haven't figured out a way to shut the water off.  The brown and red buttons are seemingly useless, though I'm not ruling out the possibility that I'll need to press them later.  The yellow button produces a simple click, but when you return to the main chamber of the dam after pressing it you'll find that the control panel is activated.  With that done you can easily turn the bolt with the wrench, and open the dam.

With the dam open, the reservoir is drained, and you can cross over it on foot.  The first thing to be discovered is a trunk buried in the silt at the bottom of the reservoir: it contains some jewels, and is one of the treasures you need to collect.  There's a small air pump on the far bank of the reservoir, which solves the problem of inflating the boat that can be found at the base of the dam.  (I left the boat until much later.)  The next chamber north, the Atlantis Room, contains a crystal trident, another treasure.  Opening the dam felt like a great achievement, and that was only enhanced by the instant rewards I was given for it.

The next thing of interest that I found across the reservoir was a mirror.  I had found a similar mirror on the other side, not far from the entrance to Hades, and naturally I figured that the two were linked.  I tried breaking this one, staring into it, and walking through it, to no avail.  Finally I touched it, and a rumbling let me know that something had worked.  Sure enough, I had teleported from one mirror to the next.

This teleporting trick proved to be the solution to getting the gold coffin to the surface.  I was able to drag the coffin across the reservoir to the second mirror, teleport to the first, and then make my way into the temple.  Another thing I had discovered earlier was that praying at the altar transports you to the forest, so it was a simple matter to take the coffin and put it in my trophy case (which must be bloody ginormous).

Another thing I found on the far side of the reservoir was a slide that goes all the way back to the Cellar, the first area you see when you enter the Underground.  One of the things that elevates Zork is the way that it foreshadows various things.  The slide had been visible when I first entered the cellar, but had been too steep to climb.  I've been wondering about it for a while, and sure enough I found the top of the slide later in the game.

I also found a room that contains a jade figurine being guarded by a Vampire Bat.  The bat will grab you when you enter, and deposit you in a different location (usually somewhere in the coal mine, I found).  It's not hard to figure out how to keep it at bay, though: if you have the garlic it won't come near you, and you can claim the jade figurine.

Nearby is a  Shaft Room that has a hole covered by a grate, with a basket that you can lower into the depths.  It seemed useless at first, but like everything in an adventure game it became vital later on.

There's a room that smells of gas, in which I found a sapphire bracelet.  I suspect that if I had come in here with an open flame I would have been in trouble, but with the lantern I was able to take the bracelet with no danger.  (ADDENDUM: Yes, entering this area with the torch is fatal.)

The coal mine is probably the most annoying part of the area over the reservoir.  It's another maze, though it's mercifully smaller than the first.  There's nothing in it except a ladder leading down to another area.

In the area below I found a lump of coal, some timber, and a passage that was too narrow to enter.  I could squeeze through if I dropped all of my inventory, but that meant leaving my lantern behind, which left me trapped in the dark on the far side.  The solution involved the aforementioned basket: by placing the ivory torch in the basket and lowering it, I was able to illuminate the area beyond the narrow passage.  I'm not sure how useful it is to do so.  What I found there was a machine, with a compartment I could open and some controls that looked too small for me to manipulate.  I suspect (or perhaps remember, it's always difficult to say with games I've played before) that I need to put the coal in here so that I can transform it into a diamond, but I haven't been able to get the machine to work.

That was where my post was going to end, but I just recently figured out a few more things, so if you can stomach a few paragraphs more I'll continue.

I found the time to inflate the boat, and float downstream on the Frigid River.  You can land the boat at any time, but if you head downstream too many times you'll go over Aragain Falls to a nasty death.  There are beaches on the east and west banks.  I never found anything on the east bank, but on the west I was able to dig in the sand with my shovel and uncover a statue.  It also leads to the top of Aragain Falls, where there is a barrel with the words GERONIMO written on it.  I tried getting in the barrel and going over the falls, but it was a bad (and fatal) idea.  There's no way back upstream, so I haven't figured out how to get the statue back to the trophy case.

Near where I found the coffin is a room with a large glacier blocking the western exit.  I tried to melt it with the torch, and much to my surprise the glacier transformed into a torrent of water and swept me to my death.  Forewarned, I went back and tried throwing the torch instead.  This time the glacier melted without killing me.  I found two things on the other side: a ruby (one more treasure, huzzah), and what appeared to be a hot air balloon.  I can't get the balloon to work.  It has a receptacle, where I assume I have to put some fuel.  I've tried the coal and also some timber, but neither of them fit.  Perhaps the bat guano might work?

I also managed to go back to the Thief's room and give him the jab in the neck that he deserves.  As you score points from gaining treasures your rank increases, and so does your combat ability.  I had about 200 points when I killed the Thief.  Aside from an immense feeling of satisfaction, there are a few benefits from killing him.  The most obvious is that he doesn't roll through and take your stuff anymore.  It also allows you to reclaim any treasures that he has stolen; in addition, he has a silver chalice in his lair that you can take.  And finally (something I discovered by accident) the Thief opens the jewelled egg, to reveal a clockwork canary inside.  The egg and the canary are separate treasures, so if you kill the Thief before he does this you can't finish the game.

An ill-fated attempt to kill the Thief

Finally, I found a new area that can only be accessed from the Round Room, which sends you to certain random locations when you exit.  In this new area is a door, and you need to answer a riddle before it will open:

"What is tall as a house,
Round as a cup,
And all the king's horses can't draw it up?"

I had no trouble with this one: the answer is a WELL.  Beyond the door I found a pearl necklace, and a bucket at the bottom of a well.  The bucket was too large to take, but I was able to get inside it.  I tried filling the bucket with water, and lo and behold it rose into another area.

The rooms at the top of the well felt weird even by the standards of this game.  The first was a Tea Room, which had four slices of cake on a table: a red slice, a blue slice, an orange slice, and a slice that had EAT ME written on it.  The orange slice made me explode, so I ruled that one out.  The blue one caused me to grow too big for the room, which crushed me to death.  The red one did nothing.  I figured that the one marked EAT ME would cause me to shrink, but buggered if I could figure out how to eat the thing.  The only descriptor it had was EAT ME, and typing EAT EAT ME CAKE was - unsurprisingly - not a command that the game understood.  I managed to eat it by taking all of the other slices into another room (which allowed EAT CAKE to function as a command) but that left me without access to the cake that would return me to normal size.  I eventually hit on two solutions.  The first was to put the other cakes into the sack and close it.  The second was to use the command EAT EATME CAKE.  It's not the most intuitive thing to type, is it?  There are other ways around it, thankfully, but there's little worse in a text adventure than knowing the solution but not being able to find the correct words.

Eating the cake shrank me down, and I was able to enter some cracks and find a vial of poison.  Eating the blue cake returned me to normal.  I'm not sure what the poison is for, or whether I'll need the remaining cakes, but I'm holding on to them anyway.

The next chamber contained a robot, with instructions for bossing the thing around.  The room beyond that had a huge machine, with three buttons.  Pressing any of the buttons resulted in my electrocution, so I probably need to use the robot.  Nearby was a dingy closet containing a crystal sphere, but taking the sphere activated a trap that killed me.  Investigating this bit is next on my agenda, but I haven't had time to figure it out just yet.

So, I'm still having a grand old time with Zork.  It's undoubtedly one of the best games I've played so far, and definitely the best text adventure on my list.  I also haven't spent much time being stuck: so far I've been making constant progress.  I'm not sure if it's that I'm getting better at adventure games, or if my subconscious memory is guiding me, but I feel really clever.  I hope the next few days don't do anything to discourage me.

I have about 250 points out of 585, which suggests that I'm about halfway through the game.  That's a bit disheartening, actually.  Given that I've found fourteen treasures, I had thought I was almost done.  Either there are more than the assumed twenty treasures, or there's more to the game than a scavenger hunt.  Hopefully by my next post I'll know.

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