Zork I: The Death of a Thief   4 comments

Cover from a C64 version, via Mobygames.

I did, indeed, discover the 20 treasures and survive. As this is my endgame post, the usual spoiler warnings apply.

. . . . .

Last time I left off, I was stuck in a Temple where I couldn’t get back up a rope. Regular readers of this blog may remember my old nemesis: missing an exit:

This is the north end of a large temple. On the east wall is an ancient inscription, probably a prayer in a long-forgotten language. Below the prayer is a staircase leading down. The west wall is solid granite. The exit to the north end of the room is through huge marble pillars.
There is a brass bell here.

I went down, to find

Egyptian Room
This is a room which looks like an Egyptian tomb. There is an ascending staircase to the west.
The solid-gold coffin used for the burial of Ramses II is here.

and assumed that was it. I was foiled partially by how I drew my map: my “down” connection was somewhat to the south of the Temple, so I conflated the two exits. The room does state it is a “north end” which suggests a south end, even though there’s no explicit mention of a south exit. Back in the Temple:

> S
This is the south end of a large temple. In front of you is what appears to be an altar. In one corner is a small hole in the floor which leads into darkness. You probably could not get back up it.
On the two ends of the altar are burning candles.
On the altar is a large black book, open to page 569.

The “small hole” drops you back into the dungeon proper. However, the difficulty isn’t over yet! The large gold coffin (which is a treasure) in the Egyptian Room is too heavy to tote down.

> D
You haven’t a prayer of getting the coffin down there.

This is a case where I got stuck on the easy part (misparsing the room and missing an exit) but immediately realized how to solve the hard part.

This is a forest, with trees in all directions. To the east, there appears to be sunlight.

My experience held me through here. Mainframe Zork didn’t have this puzzle but it did have one involving the matchbook where I needed to >SEND FOR BROCHURE as a literal command as it was mentioned in the text. This sort of literal-typing-what’s-in-the-text still doesn’t have a good name to it, although it probably should (anyone with some candidates?)

The mental twist needed to interpret an aside in the “running monologue” of the game as a command is a little like how a clue in a cryptic crossword often needs the solver to reinterpret a noun as a verb or an adjective as a noun. Example: “Drunk rested in bars (6)”. At first read, “bars” is a noun. The way to solve this clue is to make an anagram of “rested” (make it drunk, so to speak) in order to define the verb bars. This sort of mental shift of meaning and assumption is a common tactic for writing all puzzles, but again I don’t know of it having a particular name.

. . . . .

-> The Thief is constantly moving about.

[1 hint left.]

-> There is a high probability that he will take valuable objects (except the gold coffin) which you have seen. There is a much lower probability that he will take a nonvaluable object (again, only if you have seen it), and he may later decide to drop it.

The above text is from the “Invisiclues” for the game.

The thief is what makes the game still interesting and worth playing today. There are various narratives with “constant antagonists” (say, Kefka in Final Fantasy VI) but they still only appear at set moments. The thief can appear at any time when underground and often requires a change in intention and plans; even though he focuses on treasures, some of the treasures are used for solving puzzles. Because of the random yet universal nature of his appearances, even when he isn’t there, he is there.

The way to defeat the thief is to get a high enough score that you have good luck in battle. (In other words, gathering more treasure makes you better in combat … which makes a CRPG sort of sense, although it certainly puzzled me back in the 1980s when I first played this game.) However, since the thief is trying his best to steal treasure (either directly form your hands or from the ground) he is taking away those very points you need to eventually meet him in a final battle. It became a genuinely tense race as I tried to stockpile enough points / treasures that I would be able to survive a direct confrontation. I eventually tried it at a little less than 200 points out of 350, and after multiple tries, got to this sequence:

> kill thief with sword
The blow lands, making a shallow gash in the thief’s arm!
The thief neatly flips your sword out of your hands, and it drops to the floor.

> kill thief with sword
You don’t have the sword.

> get sword
A quick thrust pinks your left arm, and blood starts to trickle down.

…[about five more exchanges of blows go here]…

> kill thief with sword
Your sword misses the thief by an inch.
The thief stabs nonchalantly with his stiletto and misses.

> kill thief with sword
A savage blow on the thigh! The thief is stunned but can still fight!
The thief stabs nonchalantly with his stiletto and misses.

> kill thief with sword
A good slash, but it misses the thief by a mile.
You parry a lightning thrust, and the thief salutes you with a grim nod.

> kill thief with sword
It’s curtains for the thief as your sword removes his head.
Almost as soon as the thief breathes his last breath, a cloud of sinister black fog envelops him, and when the fog lifts, the carcass has disappeared.
As the thief dies, the power of his magic decreases, and his treasures reappear:
A stiletto
A trunk of jewels
A jewel-encrusted egg, with a golden clockwork canary
A crystal trident
The chalice is now safe to take.
Your sword is no longer glowing.

After the constant antagonism – and truly constant, not just once in a while – this was a deeply satisfying moment. While coincidence / luck, I especially appreciated the salute a turn before the thief died.

There is one major downside, which you can see from the items dropped. The “jeweled egg” is one of the early treasures you can find, but you can’t open it – however, the thief, with nimbler fingers than yours, can. The golden clockwork canary counts as a separate treasure.

In other words, if you haven’t passed the egg off to the thief by this point in the game, you will not be able to win the game, and likely not discover this fact until the very end. It’s perhaps even crueler than the usual Cruel because it’s unclear that opening the egg is even a required action, so you have to first conceive there might be a puzzle in a first place and then realize your method for solving it is already gone.

My complete map of the underground of Zork I. Click for a larger PDF file version.

. . . . .

This happens on death, at least once you’re far enough in the game:

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.

Let’s pause for a moment with that last sentence.

The objects in the dungeon appear indistinct, bleached of color, even unreal.

Why did this make me stop and admire? Here’s the sentence de-evolved just a step:

The objects in the dungeon appear indistinct and bleached of color.

While “indistinct” and “bleached of color” are strong, they’re essentially descriptive. There’s no sense of the mystical. It describes the events directly.

Change back to “indistinct, bleached of color, even unreal” and the effect (for me at least) returns. “Even” is a curious word choice here. It can mean “free from variation” or essentially “flat” but also “this outlier is included” (he ate all the candies, even the sour ones). Indistinct and bleached of color are already unreal, so it’s on the same “flat” level, but the specific phrasing suggests the unrealness is an outlier. So the unreal is both congruent with the bleaching of color but also discordant. The unreal is suggested in a way that is … skeptical, perhaps?

. . . . .

Back cover for the Japanese Playstation version of Zork I, via Mobygames.

Inside the Barrow
As you enter the barrow, the door closes inexorably behind you. Around you it is dark, but ahead is an enormous cavern, brightly lit. Through its center runs a wide stream. Spanning the stream is a small wooden footbridge, and beyond a path leads into a dark tunnel. Above the bridge, floating in the air, is a large sign. It reads: All ye who stand before this bridge have completed a great and perilous adventure which has tested your wit and courage. You have mastered ZORK: The Great Underground Empire.

Your score is 350 (total of 350 points), in 711 moves.
This gives you the rank of Master Adventurer.

This is the first game in my series that you can still buy; it’s in the Zork Anthology sold on Steam and GOG. (There’s also a multitude of online versions.) It really is worth a try if you’ve never experienced it.

I’m not 100% sure on my schedule after this, but I will likely take down a simple TRS-80 game or two next and then dive into Haunt, one of the strangest of all the mainframe games.

Posted July 18, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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4 responses to “Zork I: The Death of a Thief

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  1. > kill thief with sword

    “It is widely known” (which is to say, I’ve always known it but I can’t remember where I learned) that the thief is more vulnerable to the knife than to the sword. More agile weapon, etc. (The business about needing a high score is also true, and has a larger effect.)

    As I went to post this, I was struck by the fear that I’ve been wrong all this time. But I checked the decompiled source, and yes, the thief’s strength is calculated with a -1 if you attack with the knife. The troll is similarly vulnerable to the sword.

    • Hey, nice! (Now that I check, that is mentioned in the Invisiclues.)

      Also, you can distract the thief for a turn with a treasure.

  2. Really interesting, but I don’t get the not on that death passage. I’m missing something? Or it is just a curious note?

    • Sorry, I somehow missed this. I’m not sure what you mean by “the not” – are you saying “the note”?

      I’m analyzing the actual prose level, there. Not something I do often, but I probably should try more of. People (including, admittedly, me) obsess over game design details, without stopping to note the occasional bit of old-fashioned writing finesse.

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