It was strictly coincidence: someone who wasn't particularly interested in them herself sent me copies (illegal ones, ooh!!) of two games called Zork I and II. Out of curiosity I loaded them, had that famous opening sentence appear on the screen and slowly became hooked. When the third adventure appeared in the shops, I bought it. When the whole collection came out years later, I bought that too. Text adventures wouldn't have the shine they have to me if it hadn't been for Zork.
This is the first game - set of three games, rather - that I've been pleasurably addicted to, as opposed to brainlessly and repetitively playing them (yes, I'm talking to you, Space Invaders) to put off doing homework. Zork I, II and III moved from my first Amstrad 512 with as much RAM (thankfully sold years ago) to the 286, then 486, then the computers of Pentium levels, always playable, always fun, never suffering from problems with hardware. I sometimes still start them and go through the whole journey again - by now I know all the solutions - just to get that feeling of being all alone (the few game characters being little more than moving scenery) in a huge dusty attic of a dungeon begging for exploration. The influence of Dungeons and Dragons, that board game so suitable for adapting to the computer, is obvious: an adventurer gathering points and moving up in rank, a dungeon, treasures to collect, and the aim of the third adventure: to become the new Dungeon Master. But: no roleplaying, no party of adventurers, and no real combat; the first game had two characters to kill, but that was it; the third game's successful ending even depends on deliberately not killing the combatant. The sense of a dusty attic was greatest in the first game; the second game seemed to take place in an earlier moment in time when the Round Room was still functional, whereas the third game had the player hopping back to the very time when the civilization already hinted at in the games before was still alive and well.
As part of revamping the adventure games section, I read the "Zork Legacy" chapter of the Knight of Ruckus's Zork page (see links) to get the chronology of the Zork games and spinoffs right, because the order in which I heard of or ran into them is not the order in which they were released. This is it:
There are two text adventure spinoffs from the world of Zork. The first is the Enchanter trilogy, consisting of Enchanter (by Dave Lebling), Sorcerer (by Steve Meretzky) and Spellbreaker (by Dave Lebling again). The time machine in Zork III (not the chair in the museum, but the stone table) shows three scenes from other games: Zork I, Zork II and Enchanter, while the character "Belboz" introduced in the Enchanter trilogy returns as respectively a tele-orb in Return to Zork and a rusty lantern in Zork: Grand Inquisitor. The second spinoff is Lurking Horror, again by Dave Lebling, which takes place at the GUE Tech that makes an appearance in Zork: Grand Inquisitor.
The Zork Collection excludes Zork Nemesis and the Enchanter trilogy, but includes Planetfall, packed as bonus with Zork III and one of the rare text adventures where items can be without meaning or function (boo!). It also includes maps for all games (better than those biro sketches on bits of paper) and very thick manuals documenting the whole Underground Empire from the revenge of the Wizard of Frobozz on king Dimwit Flathead the Excessive (whose palace melted into the famous white house) to the defeat and demise of the Grand Inquisitor. It awakens opposite and contradictory sentiments in me: on the one hand I wallow in all this Zorkness, on the other, I long back for the time of innocence when the white house was just that, a white house.
Dave Lebling was the person who initially conceived the Zork universe, while Steve Meretzky played an important part in fleshing it out. As said, the first three games hinted at a past civilization, notably the Flathead empire and the influential Flathead family, the third game even containing two different time travel devices. I rather liked it that the past was in the past, and that the adventurer stayed alone. To briefly summarize the Zork trilogy: Zork I, starting with that famous white house, has the player venturing underground to collect treasures for the trophy case; regularly coming up for air, so to speak. It ends in the journey to the barrow. In Zork II, the player starts in the barrow, and the only way is down. Here, the player's aim is to liberate a genie kept captive by the insane and rather obstructive (he keeps casting spells on the adventurer) Wizard of Frobozz, by collecting four orbs, each orb showing the room in which the next is kept. The treasures collected here are payment for the genie. Zork III starts above ground, but the world above is as weird and barren as the world below, and they are not so clearly separated. The treasures to collect this time are the artifacts carried by every self-respecting Dungeon Master; counting points and advancing in rank are not so important. From the fog rolling in past a sword in a stone to the museum of the Flathead royal family, I'm more a bemused, bewildered tourist than an adventurer, although more than before I have to avoid stupid decisions that will cause death.
And then things start to go awry. I'll disregard the spinoffs which are, after all, spinoffs, but Beyond Zork: the Coconut of Quendor was very much "beyond Zork": the past was suddenly the present, and there were more other characters around than I was comfortable with. Although the RPG elements also did nothing for me, that was, in my eyes, the central flaw in this and all subsequent games: the adventurer no longer being alone. In Zork Zero I might be the last survivor, but I'm dogged by this stupid jester and the objective of the game, as well as finding items connecting by the, by now well-documented, twelve Flatheads, is to unravel this jester's past! In the following, graphical games - I'll also disregard Zork Nemesis, which was a total departure from the typical Zork style - the adventurer could count on being accompanied by some incarnation of Belboz, who at least wasn't as annoying as the jester, and having to interface with a lot of other people in an uncomfortably modern, Americanized setting. The Zork trilogy took place in a culturally almost neutral setting; the Pierpont references were just funny to those who got the joke and unimportant to those who didn't, while the one indubitably culture-dependent puzzle - the diamond base puzzle in Zork I - is apparently universally hated by players.
Well, it gets worse. Return to Zork has no trace of the fabled Great Underground Empire. In a desolate landscape (256 colours, VGA resolution, hopelessly crude by today's standards) the first human face the adventurer sees is that of a lighthouse keeper no longer in possession of all his marbles. The way over land being too dangerous, the only option is to raft to what looks like a Wild West pioneer village with hybrid western/D&D stereotypes: a mayor, a schoolteacher in a frilly dress, a Dungeon Master dressed as a Mexican bandit to punish the player for any unethical moves, a smith who repairs your magical sword, dwarves, a witch and maybe the most symbolic of this hybridization: a dog/hell hound cross that looks like a poodle. Most characters have some sort of accent, and especially the American accents make it very hard to understand what the character is saying. The player has to figure out why the village is disappearing underground house by house, and the underground is no GUE either, just a dreary mirror of the equally dreary situation above ground. I didn't finish playing it because it started to freeze on the computer on which it was installed, and which has since been packed in a box somewhere, but apparently sitting this game out to the bitter end will lead to a more Zork-like finish. As far as I've played, the only Zork-like thing about this game is its utter strangeness. There's a cow that only eats carrots. There's a duck that changes into an evil wizard that's actually a good wizard, except he's possessed by something evil, and gets turned back into a duck. There's a substance called illuminyte, sought after by various characters including the lighthouse keeper, that makes you dream of Morpheus. And there are a set of disk fragments to collect. It's not so much a return to Zork, as a hellish vision of Zork after too much mushrooms and tequila.
The final title in the Zork series, was Zork: The Grand Inquisitor, written by Steve Meretzky, the author of Zork Zero and campus comedy Spellcasting 201: The Sorceror's Appliance. The player is not an adventurer, but sells a brand of vacuum cleaners called "Permasuck", and lives under a despotic regime where magic is forbidden anyway, but is in such deep trouble after finding a rusty lantern which just happens to house the spirit of Belboz, that defeating the Grand Inquisitor and returning magic to the empire is the only way out. This time, there really is a Great Underground Empire, as well as a great above-ground one that is very "eighties", with "eighties" pop culture references and campus humour that I can actually understand because i. I lived around that time (what person born after 2000 is ever going to get the "Z-team" joke?) and ii. the campus comedy is in the same vein as his Spellcasting games. The saving grace of this game is that, in keeping with the original Zork spirit, it is funny, genuinely funny. It is funny enough to make me less bitter about the expansion of a timeless, universal adventure setting full of potential into a USA-specific parody. After all, whether one is a lone adventurer with a sword that glows blue, or a Permasuck salesman who accidentally dredges up a forbidden magic item, humour itself really is timeless and universal, no matter how dated the jokes.
After complaining about the unZorkness of, oh, anything after the Zork trilogy, now for the good points. The subsequent text adventures were played once and stowed away, but the graphical adventures were regularly replayed. The first one, despite its off-putting environment, for its strangeness, and, ironically for a game pioneering graphics, for its auditive appeal. Recording snippets of voice is an important part of the game, and the voice actors have gone out of their way to express their character, while the soundtrack is so ethereal in places, and has such a Zork feel to it, that I've often played it like an audio CD. The mosaic-like death screens (especially the "death by mice" screen) are magnificent, and if this game had been released on its own without any Zork references, it might not have reached such a wide audience, but it would surely have become a cult classic.
Having shocked the Zork fans, though, it paved the way for the second one, which was so much prettier and easier on the nerves. It's strange to say that a game featuring dragons, brogmoids (rock-eating giants), time-travel rifts, living castles (with a beating heart inside), a punishment called totemization where people are literally canned, and even a hellish afterworld reachable via Charon's barge of bones is easier on the nerves than a game where houses disappear underground, but the comedy lightens things up. The voice acting, in fact the acting in general, is good, the musical score goes well with scenery, but what really does it is the graphics. Above ground, there's the bustling town and the military barracks/prison. Below ground, there's a fantasy world that has to be seen to be believed; it goes from polished to 256-colour-blocky each time there's any animation, but I can live with that. The dragon staircase is a work of art. The house of Belboz is so beautiful outside and inside that if asked to have an architect design a house for me from the ground up, I might just show a screenshot from the game and say: "Make it like this, please." As for GUE Tech, the success of the Harry Potter series shows that the idea of a magic academy has a universal appeal, but it's always just that bit more appealing when it's both aesthetically pleasing and totally deserted. Unlike Return to Zork which has no magic to speak of, Zork: The Grand Inquisitor has the player acquiring a spellbook and becoming a mage whether he OR she (Belboz is very politically correct about that) wants it or not. Also, unlike Return to Zork, this game really does revisit the very first Zork game: there is a white house, boarded up, with a secret entrance to an underground cave.
A white house. It has a white house. All is forgiven.