Zork II: Either the Most-Infamous or Second-Most-Infamous Puzzle of Zork   14 comments

I’ve pulled the title to this one from a comment by Voltgloss. I’m not sure how to precisely measure such things but I do think the Oddly-Angled Rooms beat out the Bank of Zork.

I don’t think it’s a good puzzle, but for reasons rather different than everyone else gives.

From the Apple II blister pack first release, via Mobygames.

But first, the setup: it starts by feeling like a standard maze.

> S
Stairway
A marble stairway leads down into the gloom and a passage leads north.

> D
Oddly-angled Room
This is a room with oddly angled walls and passages in all directions. The walls are made of some glassy substance.
A marble stairway leads upward.
Your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow.

> E
Oddly-angled Room
This is a room with oddly angled walls and passages in all directions. The walls are made of some glassy substance.
On the floor is a very small diamond shaped window which is flickering dimly.
A long wooden club lies on the ground near the diamond-shaped window. The club is curiously burned at the thick end.
Your sword is no longer glowing.

> EXAMINE CLUB
The words “Babe Flathead” are burned into the wood.

However, we’re dealing with an odd structure but not a classical maze; there is an entrance but no exit. Attempting to drop items to map the rooms out leads to scenarios where clearly the exits are working at random (starting at a room with a necklace, going west one time led to a place where I dropped my sword, and another time a room where I dropped a metal box).

Most prominent is the “very small diamond” that seems to brighten and darken at random.

Oddly-angled Room
This is a room with oddly angled walls and passages in all directions. The walls are made of some glassy substance.
On the floor is a very small diamond shaped window which is dimly glowing.

> se
Oddly-angled Room
This is a room with oddly angled walls and passages in all directions.
The walls are made of some glassy substance.
On the floor is a very small diamond shaped window which is flickering dimly.

One route to solving is to realize that brighter = good and keep track of the pattern.

This particular bit of map was made by saving, testing out an exit, and restoring. It’s the easiest way to figure things out but you can approach roughly the same idea by testing out movement sequences.

Once the light gets bright enough a “strange rusty squeal” occurs and the light switches to glowing “serenely”. If you go back to the entrance there is now a stair going down. The correct route is a diamond, just like the window.

What makes this very different from other mazes at the time is the game is tracking the movements of the player rather than just the room they are in so some lateral thinking is required.

Now, assuming you weren’t familiar with the puzzle before the above might leave you wondering why it’s considered so awful. Coming up with the above pattern is a bit difficult and I suspect most people either read the official Invisiclues for the game, or found out the solution from someone else who did.

(7 hints left) > If you solve this without any help at all, my cap is off to you!
(6 hints left) > The maze was meant to confound maze mappers.
(5 hints left) > There are nine rooms. Almost all of the room connections are probabilistic – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. (If you repeat any direction often enough, you’ll travel through all the rooms.)
(4 hints left) > Have you noticed all of the baseball clues: the Babe Flathead bat, “You’ll never get past first base at this rate…”?
(3 hints left) > The glowing diamonds are baseball bases – the brighter they glow, the further you’ve progressed.
(2 hints left) > Left-handed pitchers are sometimes called “southpaws.”
(1 hint left) > The solution is to walk in the directions of a standard baseball diamond, starting from home plate (where the bat is): southeast, northeast, northwest, southwest. (It is admittedly a very difficult puzzle – apologies to non-American Zorkers).

Yes, the clues indicate you’re supposed to spot the baseball references and use that to make a path. This of course assumes the player not only lives in a country where people know baseball but that they personally know baseball. (The “apologies” text I’m fairly sure only comes from a later version of Invisiclues rather than the original sold in the early 1980s, but I haven’t been able to find a copy to verify.)

A depiction of Babe Flathead from the manual for Zork Zero (1988). “When he reached college age, Babe selected Mithicus Province University from amongst many eager suitors. At MPU, Babe was a 43-letter man, leading his team to championships in every existing college sport and several nonexistent ones as well.”

This puzzle has really, really hurt people over forty years. A quick Google search indicates posts like “Most illogical puzzles, need help making a list“, “The 5 Most Absurdly Difficult Video Game Puzzles (Pt. 2)“, “The Oldest, Worst Baseball Video Game“, and “Damn You, Zork II“.

However, you might notice that the solution I gave made no references to baseball. Despite it being the go-to example for requiring cultural knowledge to solve a puzzle (it’s even called out specifically in Graham Nelson’s Craft of Adventure), no baseball knowledge is required to solve the puzzle.

Really, it’s just “make the glowing get brighter”. Lots of games — even casual ones — use the idea of a code needing random testing and keeping track of some sort of meter which indicates if the guess was right. Here, the “code” is actual navigation, so it’s a little harder to pick up on what’s going on, but it isn’t over-the-top absurd to solve either.

I’m still not very happy with the puzzle. You can be at the correct start place of “flickering dimly”, head (for example) west to have the light still be flickering dimly, but then southeast will no longer cause the increase in brightness (in fact, I’m still a little puzzled as to the mechanics of this).

Additionally, the path is sometimes blocked at random

Oddly-angled Room
On the floor is a very small diamond shaped window which is flickering dimly.
Your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow.

> nw
There is no way to go in that direction.

which makes testing out possibilities more frustrating than fun. Commenter Lisa also notes “even when I know what the right movements are the game doesn’t always respond to them in the way I expect, and getting the puzzle to reset so I can try again is a pain that seems to require just wandering in random directions.”

So in summary: making a maze depending on movement rather than position, interesting and workable concept. Actual implementation: too messy and confusing. And since everyone knows about the puzzle as “the baseball maze”, anybody inquiring of hints will get the legend passed on (without any notion of the alternate solution I showed earlier).

The puzzle hence still deserves awkward side-glances, but maybe isn’t The Worst of All Time?

Posted February 25, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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14 responses to “Zork II: Either the Most-Infamous or Second-Most-Infamous Puzzle of Zork

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  1. Nice explanation! I agree that this implementation is…not great. Here’s how the algorithm works (line 2172 onward in 2ACTIONS.ZIL):

    There are two types of diamond rooms, “even” and “odd”. One of the “odd” rooms is special: it’s the starting room. Apart from the starting room, there are four evens and four odds.

    When you go in any direction from an even room, it checks if you’re going the correct direction for the current stage (SE, NE, NW, SW). If you are, it moves on to the next stage and sends you to the next “even” room in sequence (and opens the door if you finished). If you aren’t, it’s considered a failure.

    When you go in any direction from an odd room, there’s a 33% chance that “there’s no way to go in that direction”, a 16.5% chance that it’s considered a failure, and a 50.5% chance that you get dropped in a random even room (and the current stage reset to zero). When you’re moved to an “even” room for the first time, the bat is placed at your feet.

    When a move is considered a failure, you’re dropped in a random odd room. If you’ve had twenty failures since you last progressed, the wizard mocks you, saying “you’ll never get past Nth base at this rate” (where N is the farthest stage you’ve ever reached).

    So when you say “You can be at the correct start place of “flickering dimly”, head (for example) west to have the light still be flickering dimly, but then southeast will no longer cause the increase in brightness”, you’re completely right. What’s happened is that you were in an even room, got sent to an odd room, and going southeast from an odd room will NEVER be considered correct. The best it can do is drop you in an even room, if you’re lucky. The clue is supposed to be the bat appearing the first time you end up in an even room—but that only happens once! So once you’ve picked up the bat, there’s no indication whatsoever of whether your location is “odd” or “even”.

    • Oho, that helps a lot. I knew the Invisiclues weren’t entirely correct about needing to be in the club room (I had done the pattern from different rooms) but I also knew sometimes the pattern just didn’t work.

    • (When I say “the next even room in sequence”, by the way, that’s the only deterministic thing: if you’re going in the right direction, no matter which even room you start at, you’ll proceed through all four even rooms and end up back at the one you started in. So if you’ve marked those four rooms with items for mapping, you’ll see that they’re all different. A small kindness to mapmakers, I suppose.)

      • (…and the “even”-“odd” terminology is my own, because in the source code, the rooms are named DIAMOND-1 through DIAMOND-9. 2, 4, 6, 8 are “even”, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 are “odd”, and 5 is always the one with the staircase. The Implementors may have thought about it differently.)

    • Fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for pulling back the curtain.

      I haven’t thought through the ramifications of this proposed change in detail, but after learning these background mechanics, I can’t shake the feeling that the simplest “fix” to bring this puzzle closer to reasonableness – while still preserving the authors’ intent – would be for the “odd” rooms’ windows to be completely dark.

    • ! No wonder I find it so frustrating to walk through even though I know the solution.

  2. If you draw nine rooms in a square with 5 in the middle, then 2/4/6/8 are the ones that you would have to travel through to follow a diamond path. I guess the writers were thinking about it *something* like that. But the spec has mutated pretty severely from a simple 3×3 geometric maze.

    • Oh, that’s a good point! Given the randomness of the movement I didn’t think about it as having such a straightforward geometry. But that makes perfect sense; it could have started with completely deterministic connections and then changed in the course of development.

  3. I love to tell the story that I solved this back in the day by first solving it by accident, while under the influence of ‘Ferment’ (I think?) which makes you travel in a random direction. After that, I knew that I could solve it by moving in general, and after keeping track of where I ended up and what the glowing status was when going repeatedly in different directions, I saw that going ‘se’ repeatedly actually changed the glowing status. From there, it wasn’t much further to solving the puzzle.

    (Also, if your way is blocked, you can always just try that same direction again until it works.)

    • Ferment is drunkenness, so being unable to travel the way you wanted makes sense.
      IIRC, the effect of Fantasize here might actually help a bit as a hint!

  4. Zork Zero is a topic for another (far-future) day, but can I just take a moment to say how much I love those illustrations of the Flatheads from its manual? It’s the little touches that really make them, I think. Like observing the baseball trophy in the corner and realizing that the Zorkers played baseball using a *ball covered in spikes*. And then looking carefully at Babe Flathead’s bat and seeing that it, too, is less “bat” and more “club with a spike in it.”

  5. The “Until you’ve entered the world of Zork, you’ve never truly adventured underground” braggadocio is interesting. I doubt if those responsible would have been the Apple II of the Eyes of Crowther or Woods.

  6. I’m going to repeat my comment that after the BR takeaway sandwich puzzle in Quondam, I am not accepting any complaints from Britons about the oddly-angled room.

    It does seem as though one of the “even” rooms should have a pentagonal window, though, since home plate isn’t the same shape as the other bases. It seems as though the randomization may be making things harder than they need to be?

    • The randomization is definitely making it harder. I think Zarf’s idea is right: it was originally a fully-deterministic three-by-three grid, but something about that wasn’t working right in playtesting (too easy? too hard? red herring?) so the randomization was added and the horrible difficulty was born.

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