Archive for April 2011

Zork: Endgame   27 comments

Your score in the end game is 100 [total of 100 points], in 52 moves.
This score gives you the rank of Dungeon Master.

Spoilers ahoy.

Notable things about the endgame:

The scoring trick. I never did quite make it to 616 out of 616 points, but I’m not worried in that a.) knowing how things went down throughout my game, it might’ve just been a bug and b.) The score resets anyway to a separate “endgame score” out of 100 points.

INCANT. Upon entering the endgame the player is instructed to INCANT “word of their choice” and the game responds with a passkey to use to warp to the endgame (so I did INCANT “STUFF” and it told me to keep “INCANT ZEAAA”). This can be done without a save game (saving no longer works in the endgame, anyway).

Object choice. It’s somewhat unclear what is needed if anything in the endgame. It turns out the sword is necessary but it’s very hard to realize such other than it seems the iconic thing to be carrying around. Fortunately, warping to the endgame with INCANT also drops the lamp and sword in the player’s inventory, so I took that as a hint.

Life without objects. The sword gets used fairly early and the rest of the puzzles use no objects at all. Given how much Zork relies on objects, the style is rather different, almost like Myst

> go in
Inside Mirror
You are inside a rectangular box of wood whose structure is rather complicated. Four sides and the roof are filled in, and the floor is open.
As you face the side opposite the entrance, two short sides of carved and polished wood are to your left and right. The left panel is mahogany, the right pine. The wall you face is red on its left half and black on its right. On the entrance side, the wall is white opposite the red part of the wall it faces, and yellow opposite the black section. The painted walls are at least twice the length of the unpainted ones. The ceiling is painted blue.
In the floor is a stone channel about six inches wide and a foot deep. The channel is oriented in a north-south direction. In the exact center of the room the channel widens into a circular depression perhaps two feet wide. Incised in the stone around this area is a compass rose.
Running from one short wall to the other at about waist height is a wooden bar, carefully carved and drilled. This bar is pierced in two places. The first hole is in the center of the bar (and thus the center of the room). The second is at the left end of the room (as you face opposite the entrance). Through each hole runs a wooden pole.
The pole at the left end of the bar is short, extending about a foot above the bar, and ends in a hand grip. The pole has been dropped into a hole carved in the stone floor.
The long pole at the center of the bar extends from the ceiling through the bar to the circular area in the stone channel. This bottom end of the pole has a T-bar a bit less than two feet long attached to it, and on the T-bar is carved an arrow. The arrow and T-bar are pointing west.

…except Myst is really awkward and difficult described as text. At a basic level this puzzle isn’t too difficult (the mirror is a vehicle you have to control) but just reading the words is brain-jumbling.

Master of the Dungeon. I was warned about this one: you get to a door, knock, and the Master of the Dungeon comes and asks a trivia quiz about Zork.

It’s clear some of the questions are meant to test alternate solutions or methods of transport:

‘What can be done to the mirror that is useful?’

(Touching the mirror warps to the other mirror.)

Others are more, mm, trivial:

‘What is the absolute minimum specified value of the Zorkmid treasures, in zorkmids?’

And one of them’s just evil:

‘In which room is ‘Hello, Sailor!’ useful?’

(If you know your Zork mythology, you can answer this even if you haven’t played the game. I’ll answer in the comments.)

The Final Puzzle. After the quiz the Dungeon Master starts to follow you, and there’s a room with another Myst-like setup:

There is an object here which looks like a sundial. On it are an indicator arrow and (in the center) a large button. On the face of the dial are numbers ‘one’ through ‘eight’. The indicator points to the number ‘four’.

The trick here is that you can direct the Master of the Dungeon just like a robot from earlier in the game, with TELL MASTER ‘DO ACTION’ as the syntax. This is one of those odd cases where pre-Infocom syntax was my nemesis; I admit it never occurred to me (even though the Master says he is yours to command) that I could even give him directions. This seemed to be because the syntax felt like a special-case thing for earlier in the game and it wasn’t incorporated as part of my puzzle-solving reflexes.

The ending scene. After puzzling out the business with the dial comes the end:

> go out
Treasury of Zork
This is a room of large size, richly appointed and decorated in a style that bespeaks exquisite taste. To judge from its contents, it is the ultimate storehouse of the treasures of Zork.

The treasures are described in intricate detail (I’ll post all of it in the comments), and this could’ve been the end of it, akin to being carried off by cheering elves in Adventure. However, there’s one final paragraph:

As you gleefully examine your new-found riches, the Dungeon Master himself materializes beside you, and says, “Now that you have solved all the mysteries of the Dungeon, it is time for you to assume your rightly-earned place in the scheme of things. Long have I waited for one capable of releasing me from my burden!” He taps you lightly on the head with his staff, mumbling a few well-chosen spells, and you feel yourself changing, growing older and more stooped. For a moment there are two identical mages staring at each other among the treasure, then you watch as your counterpart dissolves into a mist and disappears, a sardonic grin on his face.

The last sentence is remarkable. That was the ending?

I was stuck by it as a lens of sorts: here is a new art form, one raw and unrefined, with the potential to be serious and profound.

For me it was the most gratifying moment of playing Zork.

I’m not entirely done with Zork. I’m planning a “backtracking post” at some point to discuss Hunt the Wumpus and related games. Zork has two parts that definitely show Wumpus influence and I’ll discuss them with the same post.

In the meantime I’m moving on to 1978 and Bill Wolpert’s Mystery Mansion, a game with almost ridiculous ambition for its time.

Posted April 29, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: A tale of three puzzles   8 comments

(This is part of a complete playthrough of Zork in the All the Adventures project.)

Things are winding down. I’ve found all the treasures and am trying to solve the endgame, so hopefully my next post will have “Won!” or some permutation thereof.

In the meantime, three puzzles are thoroughly spoiled below.

The Bank of Zork

This is my nominee for worst puzzle in the game.

There’s a Safety Depository

This is a large rectangular room. The east and west walls here were used for storing safety deposit boxes. As might be expected, all have been carefully removed by evil persons. To the east, west, and south of the room are large doorways. The northern ‘wall’ of the room is a shimmering curtain of light. In the center of the room is a large stone cube, about 10 feet on a side. Engraved on the side of the cube is some lettering.

and a portrait that needs removal (it’s a treasure)

Chairman’s Office
This room was the office of the Chairman of the Bank of Zork. Like the other rooms here, it has been extensively vandalized.
The lone exit is to the north.
A portrait of J. Pierpont Flathead hangs on the wall.

but attempting to just carry it out sets of the alarms.

> e
An alarm rings briefly and an invisible force prevents your leaving.

Fair enough so far. Entering the curtain of light described in the Depository brings the player to a Small Room:

This is a small, bare room with no distinguishing features. There are no exits from this room.

Waiting a few turns, a gnome shows up:

An epicene gnome of Zurich wearing a three-piece suit and carrying a safety-deposit box materializes in the room. ‘You seem to have forgotten to deposit your valuables,’ he says, tapping the lid of the box impatiently. ‘We don’t usually allow customers to use the boxes here, but we can make this ONE exception, I suppose…’ He looks askance at you over his wire-rimmed bifocals.

After giving a treasure to the gnome, he sends you back to the bank entrance. Further attempts to enter the curtain of light send you to a viewing room. It’s possible to give the gnome a treasure other than the portrait so for a long time I thought the objective was simply to trick the gnome.

No: it’s much, much stupider than that. From the Small Room:

> enter south wall
You feel somewhat disoriented as you pass through…
Safety Depository

Note that just going SOUTH doesn’t work, it has to be those exact words. Argh!

Reusing the curtain of light brings the player to a vault full of zorkmid bills, as depicted above. There’s another secret exit like this first. Dropping everything, coming back, and using the curtain again sends the player to the viewing room and past the alarms. The latter part is not what’s upsetting; there’s just not much reason to suspect it is possible to walk through a wall, especially given the rejection of walking south.

I cheated by looking at source (specifically Dean Menezes’s port to Inform 7). Did anyone solve this one fairly? How would anyone suspect this? I suppose the curtain of light is meant to “prime” the player (like the PLOVER puzzle in Adventure) but it just strikes me as too much a reach.

The Secret Slide Room

This puzzle has a similar dilemma as the Bank of Zork with a hidden exit, but I enjoyed it much more.

One general rule in adventure games is to always GAZE or LOOK INTO something resembling a crystal ball. There’s a white crystal sphere; gazing into it describes seeing the location of a blue crystal sphere. Later finding the blue crystal sphere:

> look in blue sphere
As you peer into the sphere, a strange vision takes shape of a distant room, which can be described clearly….
Sooty Room
This is a small room with rough walls, and a ceiling which is steeply sloping from north to south. There is coal dust covering almost everything, and little bits of coal are scattered around the only exit (which is a narrow passage to the north). In one corner of the room is an old coal stove which lights the room with a cheery red glow. There is a very narrow crack in the north wall.
The vision fades, revealing only an ordinary crystal sphere.

So a puzzle remains: where’s the sooty room? There are subtle clues in the text: “a ceiling which is steeply sloping” and “coal dust covering almost everything”. Near a coal mine there’s a Slide Room

This is a small chamber, which appears to have been part of a coal mine. On the south wall of the chamber the letters “Granite Wall” are etched in the rock. To the east is a long passage and there is a steep metal slide twisting downward. To the north is a small opening.

where going down the slide leads to the Cellar at the beginning of the game. There’s no hint of anything special, but the crystal sphere text gives strong suspicions.

At this point the rope seemed handiest, but it led to a dilemma

> tie rope
to what?

Nothing in the room description suggested itself. Fortunately, nearby there was a broken wooden timber I knew was quite heavy just from the inventory juggling I needed to carry it.

> tie rope to timber
The rope is fastened to a broken timber.
The rope dangles down the slide.
> d
As you descend, you realize that the rope is slippery from the grime of the coal chute and that your grasp will not last long.
This is an uncomfortable spot within the coal chute. The rope to which you are clinging can be seen rising into the darkness above. There is more rope dangling below you.

Further down the rope is the Sooty Room I described above, and a red crystal sphere.

What made this puzzle especially satisfying was it’s a true knowledge puzzle. There’s pretty much no way of solving it other than putting together the information clues in the right way. So it was like solving a mystery akin to a detective story.

Last Lousy Treasure

This one’s pretty absurd, but at least it is designated a last lousy point. From a matchbook at the Flood Control Dam #3:

> read matchbook
[close cover before striking BKD]

YOU too can make BIG MONEY in the exciting field of

Mr. TAA of Muddle, Mass. says: “Before I took this course I used to be a lowly bit twiddler. Now with what I learned at MIT Tech I feel really important and can obfuscate and confuse with the best.”

Mr. MARC had this to say: “Ten short days ago all I could look forward to was a dead-end job as a doctor. Now I have a promising future and make really big Zorkmids.”

MIT Tech can’t promise these fantastic results to everyone. But when you earn your MDL degree from MIT Tech your future will be brighter.

Send for our free brochure today.

Just in-joking, nothing to think about, right?

Allow me a brief aside on Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus (2003) by Dan Shiovitz and Emily Short.

You see a mask of fearless Xavian leader Ch’awww-k’pot, a teething corknut, and a Max Blaster action figure here.

>x mask
Cast from a solid piece of plastic, with features lovingly molded to exactly reproduce the stern-but-caring countenance of fearless Xavian leader Ch’awww-k’pot. The eyeholes are empty and a rubber strap is attached to the back of the mask, enabling young Xavians to slip it over their beak and re-enact famous socio-political decisions made by Ch’awwk.

>reenact famous socio-political decisions
(first taking the mask of fearless Xavian leader Ch’awww-k’pot, then wearing the mask of fearless Xavian leader Ch’awww-k’pot)
You perform a complex series of instructional morality plays/shadow puppetings using your hands, the mask, and a conveniently-placed light source.

The presence of this exchange was the fault of a (in)famous beta tester with the philosophy of “whatever the player might reasonably think of typing from the text, allow it”. It’s a good approach for side interactivity, but what about the regular portion of a game?

Back to Zork. Go read the matchbook text again. Can you guess what to type?

> send for brochure
Ok, but you know the postal service…

Several turns later:

There is a knocking sound from the front of the house.

Checking West of House:

West of House
There is a small mailbox here.
In the mailbox is a large brochure.
The free brochure contains:
A Don Woods stamp

Yes, that’s a treasure. I’d call it a REENACT FAMOUS SOCIO-POLITICAL DECISIONS style puzzle if that was easier to say. The major difference here is the action makes no sense; how are we sending for the brochure? Is just declaring our intention out loud enough for the post office to notice?

(Thanks to Dan Shiovitz and Admiral Jota who both sent me information on the Parrot Creatures game.)

Posted April 27, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: 310 out of 616 points   11 comments


It’s time for a progress report, also known as a random selection of observations that don’t sort well as a single post:

* I found an ivory torch which seems to have unlimited fuel; I tested many, many WAIT commands and the torch kept going. Strangely, I also ran across a point in experimenting where I had a “burned-out torch” yet it was still providing light. [ADD: It’s a bug. If you throw the torch at the glacier (see below) and then restore your game the torch is in your inventory and burned out. If you quit and then restore the torch is back to normal.]

* The light sources in general are finicky and slightly buggy. The most annoying part came in a coal mine where you have to drop off a lit lantern and enter through a narrow passage (which cannot fit any items) where you have waiting for you a torch conveniently lowered by a basket. However, if you try to go back the way you came the room is dark. It took me a lot of fiddling before I realized if I raised the basket first the room with the lantern would be lit again. I guess the light sources need to be recalculated?

* The thief was dead as of the 190 point mark. I seem to recall in Zork I needing to wait until near the end of the game, but not here. I also realized there was an oblique hint in the temple that dropping items there made them safe from the thief (boldface mine):

> read inscription
The prayer is inscribed in an ancient script which is hardly remembered these days, much less understood. What little of it can be made out seems to be a philippic against small insects, absent-mindedness, and the picking up and dropping of small objects. The final verse seems to consign trespassers to the land of the dead. All evidence indicates that the beliefs of the ancient Zorkers were obscure.

* You can TAKE TREASURES as a shortcut for grabbing all items designated for the trophy case. This is handy for both inventory management and checking if something is a treasure.

* There’s a glacier I’ve been trying to get by. If I MELT ICE with my torch it works but I die getting carried away by water. If I THROW TORCH AT ICE I survive but I lose my torch (which is a treasure — I know from the TAKE TREASURES test).

* There’s a cake from the Tea Room that I need that apparently the thief has moved, but I can’t figure out where. I’m just hoping it’s not eaten, I may end up having a late-game restart (grumble).

* I recall being able to walk across the rainbow in Zork I, but I also recall an item in the gold coffin being used to manage that (which isn’t there now). Am I missing something?

Posted April 25, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: Solving a puzzle via verb-checking   7 comments

When people talk about brute forcing on an adventure, they usually mean trying every inventory object on every puzzle.

Really though, there are four methods of brute force:
1. Map-checking
2. Item-checking
3. Puzzle-checking
4. Verb-checking

#1 for instance could be trying every feasible action in each room, checking them off as you go. #3 could be taking every item to a particular puzzle and testing each one out, hoping for a result. Occasionally a game will have an extra category particular for the game (for example, trying to use the magic words from Adventure in every possible room).

#4 is often overlooked but is quite handy for old adventures: trying everything that might plausibly be a verb for future reference. In particular I tested out SLIDE and got

Slide what?

Hmm. What slides? I tried the rubber mat from the beginning of the game:

>slide mat
under what?

Oho! I was in the first room, so I tried DOOR:

>slide mat under door
There’s not enough room under this door.

I could tell where this was going: there’s a puzzle that’s appeared in approximately 500 (*) other adventure games where a key has for some reason been left on the other side of a keyhole. To its credit, this appearance would be the first. A puzzle that could have been ornery later — it’s not obvious from the room description it would’ve been possible — turned out to be quite easy forewarned with this knowledge.

(*) Only a slight exaggeration.

Posted April 25, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: Base of operations   5 comments

For a game with large landscape, many puzzles, and a harsh inventory limit, it’s essential to have a base of operations: a place to stash everything. One of my stopping points in Zork is that it’s been hard to find one due to the thief (who will keep treasures, and take non-treasures and drop them off at random spots on the map).

A good base here needed, preferably:

a.) To be fairly central to the map
b.) To be a place avoided by the thief
c.) To have its own source of light, so I can give the (time-limited) battery powered lantern a rest while I rummage through items and decide my next move
d.) Be reasonably close to an egress to the surface, to make it easier to start filling the trophy case with treasures

I originally tried the Flood Control Dam #3, because it seemed to fit conditions a, b, and c and marginally d (it’s five rooms away from the Cellar and exit — once the trophy case has at least one treasure the trapdoor stays open) but I discovered that the thief does show up, he just doesn’t show his face; items in the room just start disappearing one by one.

After fussing about some more, I noticed the Temple was also well lit, and lo (peeking at David Cornelson’s map to see if I missed anything on my map) there’s a very good source for exit to the surface and the thief also avoids the temple.

So my progress has accelerated, although strangely I haven’t really solved much more; just I’ve been able to put together all the parts I’ve solved during individual runs on a continuous run.

Posted April 18, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: Ports   19 comments

I’ve tried my third port of Zork (although I am sticking with the second for now), so I wanted to talk more about the versions that are out there.

To recap an earlier post, the mainframe version of Zork started in 1977 a language called MDL, was ported in early 1978 to FORTRAN and renamed Dungeon, and was renamed again (due to trademark dispute) to Zork before it went commercial.

The FORTRAN source kept getting modified by the original authors up until 1980 and the MDL source kept getting modified up until 1981. However, no versions from 1977 seem to exist (Dungeon 2.5, the earliest version number on if-archive, came from 1980) so any type of modern play will be several years removed from the original.

I started with ZDungeon, a port by Ethan Dicks into z-code based off the MDL source. It seemed like the sanest way at the time to get the closest experience I could to the original, and being in z-code means I get to play it with Gargoyle:

In addition to looking easy on the eyes, it means I can SAVE and RESTORE and even UNDO to my heart’s content.

However, David Kinder kindly pointed me to an interpreter called Confusion by Matthew Russotto that can play the MDL source directly.

Since I’m tackling this project (which I have yet to name or define or admit exists) very seriously on the historical angle, I switched over. I noticed, as David Cornelson mentioned to me, the behavior of the thief seems different: the ZDungeon port has the thief appear in more rooms (any room?) and there’s no warning from the sword about thief proximity. So that aspect of the switch made me happy.

However, I was still slightly unhappy. I was fine sacrificing font readability (which wasn’t too bad) but I was having issues with game saves: the original Zork only allows one save at a time. I could do some file-copy-wrangling to get around that, but when trying an intense amount of experimentation to got to be a hassle. Also not-fun: upon dying, RESTORE no longer works:

> e
Oh, no! You walked into the slavering fangs of a lurking grue.

As you take your last breath, you feel relieved of your burdens. The
feeling passes as you find yourself before the gates of Hell, where
the spirits jeer at you and deny you entry. Your senses are
disturbed. The objects in the dungeon appear indistinct, bleached of
color, even unreal.
> restore
You can’t do even that.

Even that I would have been able to hang on with, but twice I’ve gotten odd crashes like this:

>play violin
Atom REP has neither LVAL nor GVAL

I don’t think Confusion has bugs; I have the feeling these are “authentic” crashes in the code.

I decided to try a Windows port derived from the FORTRAN source (I used the WinGLK one by Andrew Plotkin).

There are some definite port changes. There’s a status line, the “restore” command works when dead, and there’s been bug fixes above and beyond the original port. There’s also (according to the README file) this:

VI. Assorted Additions (up to oct-94)

Performed, to the best of my knowledge, by Robert Supnik. This includes
several puzzles, “lots and lots and lots and LOTS” of bug fixes, an
unsatisfying afterlife, and a Last Lousy Point.

I’m not sure what’s an “unsatisfying afterlife”, but additions of “several puzzles” definitely makes me nervous.

There’s earlier Dungeon ports I could try going back to, even straight from the 1980 source, but at the moment all this has me scratching over my head what a “best” experience of the original would be. Would the original authors really want bugs as part of the experience? I do get the sense that while the MDL source hasn’t gone through bugfix revisions the FORTRAN source sure has (1981, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1994, and 1998) and maybe I’m better off with problems fixed. Rather than HELLO, SAILOR crashing the game (as it does in Confusion) in the Plotkin port of Dungeon it does this:

>hello, sailor
Misplaced comma or conjunction.

Should that really be frowned upon? Am I playing for most enjoyable experience or maximum authenticity? Am I stalling by writing this post because yet another puzzle is stumping me?

At least I know the answer to the last question.

Posted April 12, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: Playing off and on the computer   8 comments

(Heavy spoilers ahead.)

Last time I posted about my system for handling being stuck. I’ve become less stuck; here’s how my breakthrough went down.

First there was a puzzle I already remembered from Zork II:

Riddle Room
This is a room which is bare on all sides. There is an exit down.
To the east is a great door made of stone. Above the stone, the
following words are written: ‘No man shall enter this room without
solving this riddle:

What is tall as a house,
round as a cup,
and all the king’s horses can’t draw it up?’

(Reply via ‘ANSWER “answer”‘)

I remember being stumped at the time. I realize it’s likely an easy-in-retrospect thing, but WELL now seems obvious to me.

Moving on:

Circular Room
This is a damp circular room, whose walls are made of brick and
mortar. The roof of this room is not visible, but there appear to be
some etchings on the walls. There is a passageway to the west.
There is a wooden bucket here, 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high.
> read etchings

                        o  b  o

                        A  G  I
                         E   L

                        m  p  a

I could tell it was the bottom of a well (being prepared by the riddle) but the message stumped me, and while I could enter the bucket I couldn’t get the bucket anywhere (too large to pick up, and the rope didn’t attach). I considered anagrams: “Amiable Goop”? “Go Amoeba Lip”? I thought maybe “EL” was part of “WELL” but I couldn’t make more out of that.

At this point I reached my Stuck post. After I made the lists of objects and puzzles, I printed them out so I could study them away from the computer. My playing has been very sporadic out of work/life necessity anyway; adventure games are interesting in they are one of the few computer game genres playable outside of the computer. It’s even possible to play while sleeping (I recall a few stories of people realizing a puzzle solve from a dream).

Cue several days later: in between wrangling a small child, I glanced over at my printout, and almost mystically (or at least remembering the Frobozz Magic Goop Company from the toothpaste tube, also on my object list), I saw:

                     Fr o  b  o zz

                      M A  G  I C
                       W E   L L

                     Co m  p  a ny

Ah-ha! Somehow this insight was difficult from a computer screen, but it came easily on paper.

However, I was still stuck. Here’s how my thoughts went: Does this help me any? I want to move the well. I guess the rope was futile, it’s a magic well. Maybe magic words or some such?

I jumped back in the game, entered the well, and tried all variety of “magic” words. No luck, but as I was trying things out the thought sprung up: Well, how would a magic well work? It’d come up when there was water, right? Don’t I have water?

> put water in bucket
There is now a puddle in the bottom of the wooden bucket.
The bucket rises and comes to a stop.
Top of Well
You are at the top of the well. Well done. There are etchings on
the side of the well. There is a small crack across the floor at the
entrance to a room on the east, but it can be crossed easily.
You are in the wooden bucket.
The wooden bucket contains:
A quantity of water

Ha-HA! What made this extra satisfying came immediately after:

> read etchings

                        o  b  o
                    r             z
                 f   M  A  G  I  C   z
                 c    W  E   L  L    y
                    o             n
                        m  p  a

This was truly a nice solve: not only did I unlock a bottleneck in the map, but there was a artistic confirmation of my original insight. I’m fairly certain the second insight would _not_ have come to me off the computer, even thought it was quite possible to finish the solve based on the project list. Somehow being in the world-verse led me to the correct revelation.

I’m hoping thinking more about my stuck-unstuck process will improve my overall puzzle solving, and lead to theories to solidify what I consider “good” stuck and what I consider “bad” stuck.

Posted April 9, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: Stuck   10 comments

(Heavier spoilers than usual this post.)

First, a mea culpa: you do get a faint blue glow when the thief is nearby, but only in the original Muddle version and not in the ZDungeon port. It’s actually even more effective than the sword suddenly turning on: it happens more frequently, and it makes for more moments of teeth-gnashing.

Paul O’Brian writes that “Dungeon wants nothing more than to see you fail” and I’m feeling the burn. I’ve developed a system over the years to give myself the best chance of solving adventure games; unfortunately my rate of hintless wins has not improved much. The only games I’d call “substantial” I beat with no hints at all were Countdown to Doom (1982) and Anchorhead (1998). Other than the “Beginner” level Wishbringer (1985) I haven’t beaten any Infocom game without hints.

Still I find my system helpful, so I’m plowing ahead. First I list all my open puzzles:

Locked trapdoor
Locked grating
Bank of Zork
Round Room
Entrance to Hades
Circular Room mysterious message:

   o  b  o
   A  G  I
    E   L
   m  p  a

Getting out of Aragain Falls with treasure intact
Getting coffin out of Egyptian Room area
Passage full of ice
Handling light source at narrow passage near coal mine

Then I list all my objects I have access to:

coil of rope
nasty-looking knife
elvish sword
jewel-encrusted egg
brown sack
old leather bag, bulging with coins
set of skeleton keys
deceased adventurer’s useless lantern
rusty knife
small brass bell
burning candles
pearl necklace
bucket (can’t carry)
solid-gold coffin
coil of thin shiny wire
toothpaste tube (Frobozz magic gunk)
sharp stick
folded plastic / pump -> boat
trunk with jewels
crystal trident
jade figure
bat guano

Then I sit and compare the two lists and a map until something pops in my head. For instance, on one previous list-comparison check I realized I’d used the boat on only one body of water but the map had more I could try. My current list of things to try:

try shovel everywhere
burning timber didn’t work; try burning other things that can remain lit while on the floor to get an extra light source near the narrow passage
try alternate exit from area after the narrow passage instead
mess around with bell / candles / books at Hades some more (bell does have some effect)
try ‘odysseus’ or ‘hello, sailor’ more places

This works best if there’s a puzzle where all the systems are clear and it is just a matter of fitting the pieces together (like the troll bridge puzzle from Adventure) and worst when there’s some sort of in-game experimentation required (like not realizing an item is magic — that trident looks suspicious — and there’s no clue except for in-game manipulation).

Sometimes I’ll miss the existence of items; for instance the fact the “grail room” had an actual Grail object that could be picked up strangely eluded me for some time.

Absolute worst is when I miss a map exit exists. This can happen to me even on good, sensibly mappable games (I missed going up from the kitchen in Savoir Faire for something like an hour). One of my standing stuck procedures is to double check every room on the map and try every single direction — even if the room description insists there’s only one way out — just in case.

Anyone have their own method?

Posted April 6, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: Plot and story   3 comments

I didn’t discuss Adventure‘s overall plot at all; there’s a true sense that there isn’t one. The entire task was of collecting treasures and storing them, and the “endgame” was tacked on in the same manner as a late-80s arcade game.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a story — see for example my experiences in the maze playing a game of cat-and-mouse with dwarves — but this story was generated strictly from the system, and transplants into a (relatively) barren universe.

Zork is nearly the same setup — you’re urged to go find treasure, then set loose — but there’s something more textured about it. Entering the dungeon isn’t just a casual affair, but rather sinister. Upon going down the trap-door leading to the main part of the game:

The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it.

Or compare Adventure‘s pirate


with Zork‘s thief:

Someone carrying a large bag is casually leaning against one of the walls here. He does not speak, but it is clear from his aspect that the bag will be taken only over his dead body.
Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.

The thief doesn’t just come out of the shadows, he is just there. The sword, which previously signaled danger by steps with a “faint blue glow” when an enemy is close and a glow “very brightly” when reaching the enemy, goes straight from dark to bright. The thief just leans against the wall — no visible signs of action — and you don’t notice your valuables have been removed until after he is already gone.

Not only is there a texture of menace, but a feeling of background; setting as character, if you will. Wandering outdoors:

You are at the top of the Great Canyon on its south wall. From here there is a marvelous view of the Canyon and parts of the Frigid River upstream. Across the canyon, the walls of the White Cliffs still appear to loom far above. Following the Canyon upstream (north and northwest), Aragain Falls may be seen, complete with rainbow. Fortunately, my vision is better than average and I can discern the top of the Flood Control Dam #3 far to the distant north. To the west and south can be seen an immense forest, stretching for miles around. It is possible to climb down into the canyon from here.

The casual mention of Aragain Falls and Flood Control Dam #3 suggest a story behind the place that is meant to be unraveled. Both locations become important later. Compare with a roughly equivalent scene in Adventure:


Vivid, certainly, but adding to the story in only an immediate sense and not in establishing persistent background details and the feeling of a world history.

Posted April 4, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork: Open spaces, painful geography   20 comments

Just to clarify a bit of history: the mainframe Zork I am playing was too large a game for personal computers at the time, so when it went commercial it got split into Zork I, II, and III. Since I have only played the commercial versions playing mainframe Zork is like a fuzzy mash-up of my childhood memories.

One thing I noticed (compared to modern games) with Adventure and now also Zork is that it is enjoyable to explore a wide open space; the feeling of world-immersion is strong even when many of the room descriptions are unassuming.

You are in a clearing, with a forest surrounding you on the west and south.
There is a pile of leaves on the ground.

Modern adventures and interactive fiction tend to a tight room-structure, where no space is “wasted”. With a full enough immersion in the world-space I don’t believe rooms are necessarily wasted. I’ll catch myself on that by saying I have experienced many adventure games where wasted rooms are both meaningless and painful (the worst offender I recall is Time Zone) and I can’t mathematize why Zork is different; just the amount of space feels right.

Not all is perfect with the geography, though. There appears a willful desire on the designer’s part that if you entered a room by going east, going west will not get you back to the same room. I can’t tell you how many times I had to redo room connections while working on the larger dungeon map:

Mapping with Trizbort is nice in that I can shift around whole sections to get the geography right. For example, there’s a “South Reservoir” that later connects up with a “North Reservoir”, so it’d be nice to have them in direct line with each other, but I had originally drawn the two areas all the way across from each other on the map. Just about a minute of cut and paste and everything was fixed. I suspect the general relationship of geography is important for at least one puzzle so I want to get it right.

The first maze (there’s at least one more, and I hear there’s a third epic one later) has a cute tribute to Adventure. It appears the same intrepid explorer who got carried away by elves in triumph didn’t make it in the Zork universe.

Incidentally, I’ve been picking up very little in the way of objects. The inventory limit is brutal, but interestingly enough it is based on object weight rather than exact number. It’s a nice touch of world-modeling which isn’t duplicated that often (I think?) in this era. The upshot is I’ve hardly started on puzzle solving at all. I do remember Zork I well enough that some parts will give me no trouble, but my Zork II and Zork III are quite foggy. There’s a rotating circular room that is driving me nuts. I presume there’s some way to stop it? I have forgotten how.

Posted April 2, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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