Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Zork: Victory. Sort of.

Much to my surprise, I have finished Zork since my last post.  (I actually finished it weeks ago, it's just taken me forever to write this post.)  Normally this would be a cause for celebration, and an excuse to big up my mental prowess.  Beating Zork is no easy task.  Alas, I didn't do so alone, as for the second time in this blog I had to resort to a walkthrough.

I'd like to think I'm a good person.  I can be withdrawn and anti-social, and prone to foul moods, but I try not to be actively rude.  I've never punched anyone.  I've never knowingly killed anybody.  (You can never rule out actions taken while sleepwalking.)  And yet...  I cheated to win Zork.

Oh, I'm sure that I'm not the first.  I'd be surprised to meet anyone who claims that they beat the mainframe version of Zork with no help whatsoever.  This game is hard.  It's fair, I'll give it that.  Every puzzle has at least some clue, however obscure, that hints at the solution.  There's nothing here like the dynamite puzzle from Colossal Cave Adventure.  I wasn't up to the task, though.  Perhaps I would have solved it eventually, but it would have taken a long time, and I have enough lengthy, uncompleted games on this blog.  I wanted to wrap this up, so I allowed myself to partake of the knowledge of the internet.  My apologies, I did it in the name of progress.

Alright, with all apologies out of the way let's get on with the game.

At the end of my last post I had obtained 24 treasures, and was hoping that I would only need to find one more.  Twenty-five is a nice, round number, right?  Well, round it may be, but it wasn't the correct number of treasures to be found.  There are 31 treasures in this game, and I had a hell of a time getting them all.

The first one I found on my lonesome.  You may recall that when I used the weather balloon to get to the library I stashed the books I found in the balloon's basket.  You may also recall that the balloon crashed and all four books were destroyed.  Obviously I had messed up here, so I restored to an earlier save and investigated the books again.  As before, the writing in all four books was illegible.  I tried turning pages, to no avail.  Eventually I started closing and opening the books, and inside the purple one I found a valuable stamp.  Treasure count: 25!

I also found the second treasure without any help.  After I crossed the rainbow to get the statue, it occurred to me that the boat serves no purpose whatsoever.  You can take the magic stick, use it to cross the rainbow, and skip the boat altogether.  That didn't sit right to me.  Zork is a large game, but it's tight, and there are very few extraneous details in it.  So I pumped up the boat and floated down the river towards Aragain Falls.  The only thing of note on the river is the buoy that's there to warn you against going over the falls.  I took the buoy (which sounds implausible, but is hardly the most unrealistic thing in this game) and inside it I found an emerald.  Treasure count: 26!

From this point on, I needed help. The only lead that I had at this point was the white sphere I had found, and the vision that peering into it gave me of a distant room.  Said room had a large door with a window in it, and a key in the keyhole.  I had seemingly explored everywhere, though, and such a door was nowhere to be found.  I consulted a walkthrough to locate the door, and this is one I don't feel bad about, because I missed this through no fault of my own.  The problem lay in the differences between the versions of the game I've been using.  I had started using an adaptation of the Fortran version from 1980, in which going west from the Torch Room simply loops you back to the Torch Room.  Some time later I switched to one based on the MDL version from 1981, in which going west from the Torch Room takes you to another location with the door I was looking for.  If I'd been playing the MDL version from the beginning, I would certainly have found this on my own.  My mapping techniques are infallible.  Infallible, I say!

The puzzle was simple to solve from there, because it's one I've encountered in adventure games before.  The door was locked, but the key was on the opposite side of the door.  To get in I had to slide a welcome mat under the door, push the key out of the keyhole with a screwdriver, then pull the mat back with the key now on top of it.  It's an excellent puzzle, and that's probably why I've seen it in so many other games.  Most cliches were great before they became cliches.

Inside the room was a blue crystal sphere.  (Treasure count: 27!)  I figured that this one would show me a vision like the white one, and sure enough when I peered into it I saw a room that was covered in coal dust, with a sharply sloping roof.  I had my next clue, and a hint at where to find my next treasure: somewhere near the coal mine.

I wasted a lot of time in the area around the coal mine, trying various things.  I waved the stick everywhere.  I checked every possible direction from all the locations I thought were close enough.  There was one thing that drew my attention: a granite wall with the words "GRANITE WALL" engraved on it.  It had nothing to do with the solution (and as far as I can tell, no purpose in the game at all), but little did I know that I was in the right location.  Even so, I didn't figure this one out on my own, and I doubt I ever would have.

You see, in the room with that granite wall there's a slide that leads down to the cellar.  I've used that slide loads of times, it's a nice shortcut when heading for the surface.  As it turns out, the room I was looking for is halfway down the slide.  Getting there requires tying the rope to a piece of broken timber, using the timber as an anchor, and climbing down the slide until you're dangling about halfway.  There you'll find a ledge, and a room containing a red crystal sphere.  Treasure count: 28!  (I had earlier left the rope tied to a railing elsewhere in the dungeon, but when I went back to retrieve it the rope was gone.  I suspect that the Thief had moved it, and I had no idea where.  It's possible that he untied it and dropped it at the bottom of the pit, which is inaccessible without the rope.  If so, that is a dick move of legendary proportions.  Anyway, I had to start over from the beginning.  It only took an hour or so to get back to this point, but it was frustrating.  Even after his death the Thief had found a way to thwart me.)

For some reason, when I went back to redo this to get the screencap, the rope was too slippery for me to hold.  It's a mystery.

This is an excellent puzzle that relies on some genuinely practical problem-solving.  Sometimes the solutions in adventure games are so absurd that it's easy to overlook things that might work in the real world.  If I have one complaint about this puzzle, it's that sliding down the chute gives you no indication that there's a room halfway down.  Surely you'd see something as you flash past?

Looking over my notes, I saw that there was one last path I had yet to explore.  After killing the Thief in his hideout, I had found a hole leading downwards.  Nearby was a note from the Thief stating that there were absolutely no treasures down the hole, and no way for anyone entering the hole to return.  This had led me to believe that the endgame would be found here, so I'd avoided exploring the hole.  With no other leads, though, I decided to take a look.

What I found was a square room.  The west and north walls were made of marble, and the east and south of sandstone.  Just as the Thief had claimed, there were no treasures and no way to get back up through the hole.  My first instinct here was to walk through the walls, as I had done in the Bank.  That didn't work, and I was stuck here for a long, long time

Once again I had to resort to a walkthrough,which informed me that the sandstone walls were actually blocks that could be pushed.  At this point I closed the walkthrough down; it had pointed me in the right direction, and I was determined to figure the rest of this puzzle out on my own.

This is an unusual puzzle, in that it requires some overhead mapping.  The screenshot below shows how the game depicts this:

The goal is to move the sandstone blocks around until they're in a configuration that allows you to escape.  the first thing that I noticed while exploring was that two blocks have ladder on the side, one with a ladder on the west and another with a ladder on the east.  The other thing I found after pushing some blocks around was a gold card lying on the floor.  A little more block-pushing and I soon found door with a slot in it.  I inserted the card which opened the door, and I was able to make my escape.

Something felt wrong about it, though.  I had gained no benefit from this puzzle.  Yes, I had found a gold card, but that card had been eaten by the door.  Everything in Zork serves a purpose, so I quickly restored my game and started the puzzle over.  Sure enough, when I reclaimed the gold card my score increased: this was one of the treasures, and I needed to find a way out of the puzzle without losing it.

It didn't take me long to figure out that I needed to maneuver one of the ladder blocks so that it would allow me to climb back up the hole in the ceiling.  I drew a map of the puzzle, and it took me maybe ten minutes to figure out which blocks I needed to move.  Soon enough I had the block with the ladder on its west side in position, and I was able to escape with the card.  Treasure count: 29!

This is where I became really stuck.  I had no idea where to go or what to do, and it felt to me as though I had explored everywhere and done everything.  I had no leads at all.  So I thought what the hell, I've already cheated, why not cheat some more? My honour was already besmirched, there was no harm in besmirching it further.

Treasure 30 was a tin of rare spices.  You might remember a section of the game where I had to shrink down by eating a cake, and retrieve a flask of poison.  One of the cakes has "EAT ME" written on it, and the others are seemingly featureless.  If you examine the other three, though, you'll find tiny writing on them, too small to read with the naked eye.  The trick is to take the cakes into the area with the poison flask, and use the flask itself to magnify the writing.  Once it's illegible, the three cakes can be identified: orange is EXPLODE, blue is ENLARGE, and red is EVAPORATE.

The orange cake does indeed explode, and anyone who eats it will be killed.  The blue cake is used to restore you to normal size (though it can be a fatal under the wrong circumstances). Lastly there's the red cake, which says EVAPORATE.  I may never have figured this out without help.  In the area with the flask there's a puddle of slimy water.  I had disregarded this as a background detail, but it turns out that if you throw the red cake in the water it soaks it up, revealing a tin of rare spices.  Treasure count: 30!

And now, the final treasure.  I was but one point shy of a full score, which was giving me some nasty flashbacks to Colossal Cave Adventure.  This was shockingly appropriate, because getting that final point is absolutely the creators of Zork taking pot-shots at Don Woods.  You may remember that in Colossal Cave Adventure, there is one final point that you earn for taking a newspaper and dropping it off in a location known as Witt's End.  It's fairly obtuse, but Zork's equivalent takes the cake.  Needless to say I needed a walkthrough to figure all of this out.

The clue to this puzzle is found written on the matchbook found earlier in the game:

One could be forgiven for thinking of this a bit of light self-referential humour, and irrelevant to the game as a whole.  As far as I was concerned, it served as much purpose as the NBC commissary found on top of the rainbow.  I was wrong, however.  The key here is in the last line: "Send for our free brochure today".  Sure enough, if you type SEND FOR BROCHURE, the game replies with the following message: "Ok, but you know the postal service..."  Nothing happens for a while, but eventually when you go back to the house you will hear a knock on the door.  In the mailbox you will find said brochure, and affixed to the brochure is a stamp.

That's the Frobozz Magic Lamp Company, for anyone who's wondering.

This is the final treasure, and placing it in the treasure case grants you the last point needed for a full score.  I'm not sure how good-natured this swipe at Don Woods is, but I certainly laughed when I saw it.  "One lousy point" might be my favourite line in an adventure game so far.

With a full score I figured that the game would be over, but much as in Colossal Cave Adventure there's an endgame to deal with.  A few moves after storing the final treasure, a sinister, wraith-like figure appeared and informed me that I was now worthy to join the implementers.

(Once the endgame begins your score is set back to zero.  There are 100 points to be earned in the endgame.)

I never did find a use for that bat guano.

Another mystery solved: I obviously needed to go back to Hades, where the Tomb of the Unknown Implementer awaited.  Earlier attempts to open the tomb had resulted in my death, but now that I had been deemed worthy the tomb opened, and I was able to enter.  There was nothing inside, though, and once again I felt as though I was stuck.  I discovered the solution mostly by accident, just trying anything that came to mind: close the tomb door behind me, and turn off my lamp.

(I had more difficulties at the beginning of the endgame that I've made it sound here.  My lamp ran out on the way to Hades, and I had no matches left to light the candles.  There was no way for me to make it to the end without being eaten by a Grue.  One again I had to start over from scratch.)

At this point I was teleported to another location, and a voice informed me that I was about to face the ultimate challenge of Zork.  I was also given the INCANT option, and told that if I use it with a certain phrase I could instantly come back to this point.  It's a handy feature, especially given that you can't save your game past this point.  I never made much use of it, but in the game's original context it would have been invaluable to students wanting to get to the endgame without playing through the rest of the game again.

I was at the top of a flight of stairs.  At the bottom of the stairs was a room with a red button.  At the other end of the room was a beam of red light, and beyond that was a room with a mirror covering the entire north wall.  Pressing the button seemingly did nothing, and touching the mirror was useless.  Breaking it was certainly not the right thing to do.

The answer here was the red beam, and finding a way to deflect it.  It didn't take me long to figure out the solution, because when you get teleported to the endgame you can only take two items: the sword and the lamp.  I dropped the sword to block the beam, pressed the red button, and when I went back to the room with the mirror a panel had been opened.

This is where things got tricky.  Upon entering the panel, I got the following involved description:

This is where a diagram would have come in handy, and I ended up drawing one myself.  After the puzzle with the moving blocks, I was quick to try pushing the various coloured panels.  At first it didn't do anything except shake the room, but after I lifted the short pole I was able to move the room clockwise or anti-clockwise depending on which coloured-panel I struck.  The trick is to get the mahogany panel facing north, push the mahogany panel three times, then get the pine panel facing north and push that.  The pine panel will open, and you can head down a new tunnel to the north.  The danger here is that a wrong move will get you bludgeoned to death by a pair of statues known as the Guardians of Zork.  Needless to say, this took me a LOT of trial and error.  I was aided by my vague memories of Zork III, but even so this one took me a long time to get right.

The next area ended at a door, which I couldn't open.  With no other recourse I knocked, and the door was answered by an old man who identified himself as the Master of the Dungeon.  To pass through I would need to answer three questions that would test my knowledge of the dungeon.  Apparently I had five attempts, which was a little unclear.  Was that five attempts for each question, or between all three?

"What can be done to the mirror that is useful?"

"What object is useful in determining the function of the iced cakes?"

"What is the absolute minimum specified value of the Zorkmid treasures, in zorkmids?"
ANSWER: 30,000

As can be seen in the image below, there are more questions than these three, and some of them are quite nasty.  I was lucky to get three that posed me little difficulty.  (Okay, I had to go back and count the zorkmid bills, and look at the zorkmid coin, but I got the answer in the end.)

In the next area I found a bare cell, and a parapet with a dial.  The dial had numbers from 1 to 8, and a button.  The Master followed me around wherever I went, except inside the cell.  I could even give him orders.  I did some experimenting with the dial, and found that if I turned it to a number and pressed the button, a different cell would appear.  Cell 4 had a large bronze door in the south wall, but going through it only led back to areas I had already come from.

The solution here lay with the Master.  I entered cell 4, and told him to turn the dial.  He couldn't, though, as he wasn't on the parapet.  So I led him back to the parapet, told him to stay there, and once back in the cell I was able to order him to turn the dial.  I'm surprised this worked, actually, as there aren't any other character you can order around when they're not in the same room as you.  I suppose the Master has special powers though, so he could still hear me.

After some experimenting with making the Master turn the dial, I figured out that the correct number for him to use is 6.  I opened the bronze door, and there it was: the conclusion of Zork.

That's a  pretty satisfying conclusion given the game's vintage.  It's not the most original twist, but originality is relative.  By the standards of other games of the time, this is excellent.

So, that's the mainframe version of Zork in the can.  It was a long, exhausting, often frustrating experience, but I can say without a doubt that this is the best game I've played for the blog so far.  It's fun, it's challenging, and it's iconic.  The only disappointing thing is that I had to cheat to win, but I think that I did okay.  I'm sure there are people out there who won Zork unaided, and they are better men (or women) than I.  I figured out most of the game on my own, though, and that will have to suffice.


Story & Setting: Without a doubt, this is the pinnacle of this category for the blog so far.  While the story is nothing more than a simple treasure hunt, it's elevated by  the addition of an endgame, and the best conclusion to a game in 1978.  Where this game truly shines, though, is it's setting.  Yes, the Great Underground Empire is nonsensical, but it's quirky and fun to explore.  There's a lot of great design too, with areas that link together in clever ways that are well foreshadowed.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: I've said it before, and I stand by it: as of 1978, the Thief was the all-time greatest video game antagonist.  Nothing else in text adventures or RPGs comes close.  He owes a lot to the pirate from Colossal Cave Adventure, but the Thief is  better villain in every respect, and the feeling of finally infiltrating his lair and killing him is immensely satisfying.  Still, he's only one character, and the Troll, the Cyclops and the Dungeon Master aren't up to much.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: As usual for text adventures I can't score this too highly, but Zork gets bonus points for atmosphere and quality writing.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser in Zork is very good, and created a lot of innovations; it may be the most sophisticated text adventure to date.  There were one or two moments where it fell down (most notably with the "EAT ME" Cake) but overall it's excellent. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: Zork has a great range of puzzles, some easy, some difficult, and some outright nasty.  It's a difficult game, but that said, none of the puzzles feel unfair.  Even the most difficult ones have some sort of clue pointing towards the solution.  Many of them had me tearing my hair out, but I was never upset about them in retrospect.  Rating: 6 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: This is one of the most influential games of all time, and although it owes a lot to Colossal Cave Adventure, it's much more well-known and wide-spread in pop culture.  Zork is an iconic game of the golden era, and gets full marks.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

Fun: Zork is loads of fun.  The puzzles are clever, the writing is witty, and both of those go a long way in a text adventure. Rating: 6 out of 7.

Zork absolutely gets the bonus point.  I've played different versions of it before, and there's no doubt that I'll play it again.  The scores above total 35, which doubled gives a final rating of 70.

Final Rating: 70 out of 100.

That's a high score, much higher than anything else on the list so far, but I think it's fair.  Zork is the first game I've played for the blog that could be considered a genuine classic, and it may well be the most iconic text adventure ever made.  It's absolutely deserving of the top spot in my ratings.

Next: The blog may be going on something of a hiatus, because I'm dropping everything to finish The Game of Dungeons v8.  I've been playing this game since August of last year, and it's time to get this one off the books.  My character is strong, and I'm carefully plugging my way through the levels and mapping them.  If I don't finish it this time, I don't know what I'll do.  (Well, yes I do, I'll go back to the beginning and keep trying.  But I won't be happy about it.)

There are three dungeons with a special goal at the bottom of each one; I expect to do a post on the conclusion of each dungeon, so expect an update about once a fortnight.  Hopefully I'll have the game finished in a month or so.  I've just mapped level 24 of Whisenwood Dungeon, so in a week I should have a post on the conclusion of that.

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