Zork III (1982)   6 comments

As in a dream, you see yourself tumbling down a great, dark staircase. All about you are shadowy images of struggles against fierce opponents and diabolical traps. These give way to another round of images: of imposing stone figures, a cool, clear lake, and, now, of an old, yet oddly youthful man. He turns toward you slowly, his long, silver hair dancing about him in a fresh breeze. “You have reached the final test, my friend! You are proved clever and powerful, but this is not yet enough! Seek me when you feel yourself worthy!” The dream dissolves around you as his last words echo through the void…

Infocom followed Deadline (which I played last year) with two games in time for the Christmas shopping season: Starcross, a hard sci-fi game where you play a black hole prospector, and Zork III, the finale to their best-selling trilogy.

I do want to emphasize “best selling” here — we have very good data from 1981 to 1986 that shows 378,987 units sold. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was second at 254,249. The importance is in, essentially, the critical mass: it left a mark that makes it remembered today amongst even “normal” gamers in a way that one of the critically acclaimed games like A Mind Forever Voyaging or Trinity didn’t.

To put it another way, for most of this blog’s existence the reason the average person found it is that they were looking up something about Zork. (This has now been outdone by Cain’s Jawbone, which I should get back to this summer for an encore performance; people are still editing the commentary document.) So I’m looking forward to giving the trilogy a proper farewell. Given the games essentially started from the mainframe version and I first wrote about mainframe Zork in 2011, this has been essentially a 12-year odyssey.

The general wisdom is that Zork mainframe was split into 3 parts in order to form the trilogy. That’s only sort-of correct; Zork I and mainframe Zork quite clearly match, Zork II grabs some puzzles and arranges them in a much different geography and with a brand-new overarching plot involving a demon, and Zork III grabs most of the remaining puzzles as well as a section of the endgame. Since the end of Zork mainframe matches Zork III (to the best of my memory, I haven’t played Zork III since 1990) in one sense Zork III actually matches more closely the original source material.

But only in a sense: certainly the framing is not around gather-the-treasures in the same way. One remarkable thing I remember is that there are only 7 points possible, and getting all 7 points does not mean you’ve reached the end of the game.

Endless Stair
You are at the bottom of a seemingly endless stair, winding its way upward beyond your vision. An eerie light, coming from all around you, casts strange shadows on the walls. To the south is a dark and winding trail.
Your old friend, the brass lantern, is at your feet.

Your potential is 0 of a possible 7, in 0 moves.

You embark on the journey, as the above clip indicates, by starting at the bottom of a staircase, the same one found at the end of Zork II. There’s an “old, yet oddly youthful man” that speaks to us, but the game is otherwise evasive. Even the advertising copy is evasive; Issue II of The New Zork Times states “The greatest challenge [of Zork III] is figuring out what is going on and what you are there for.”

Without a treasure directive, the only thing to do is: explore.

>turn on lamp
The lamp is now on.

You are at the junction of a north-south passage and an east-west passage. To the north, you can make out the bottom of a stairway. The ways to the east and south are relatively cramped, but a wider trail leads to the west.
Standing before you is a great rock. Imbedded within it is an Elvish sword.

>get sword
The sword is deeply imbedded in the rock. You can’t budge it.

This moment made me glad, because it means I didn’t remember everything about the game; I don’t remember this moment at all.

In fact, I don’t remember enough that I have yet to solve a puzzle, even though I’ve mapped out the initially accessible areas. Let’s take a tour:

You start at the stairs and junction; the sword, incidentally, isn’t really a puzzle, as it will simply appear in your hands later. Just to the east of the junction there’s a small area with “stone channel” that is “too slippery to climb” (this might be a puzzle, but I suspect this is just an exit rather than an entrance) as well as an “engravings room” which echoes a similar room in Zork 1.

Engravings Room
You are in a room with passages heading southwest and southeast. The north wall is ornately carved, filled with strange runes and writing in an unfamiliar language.
An old and wizened man is huddled, asleep, in the corner. He is snoring loudly. From his appearance, he is weak and frail.

The wizened man — who I suspect to be the Dungeon Master — incidentally is here at random. You can wake him but I haven’t gotten anything useful to happen from it.

>wake man
The old man is roused to consciousness. He peers at you through eyes which appear much younger and stronger than his frail body and waits, as if expecting something to happen.

Down an adjacent branch is a crystal grotto leading to a rusted door which I am unable to open.

Crystal Grotto
This is a chamber of breathtaking beauty. Mighty stalagmites form structured shapes of rock, encrusted with crystalline formations. Phosphorescent mosses, fed by a trickle of water from some unseen source above, make the crystals glow and sparkle with every color of the rainbow. There is an opening to the west, and a man-made passage heads south.

This is the north end of a large hall with a vaulted ceiling. A long, tiled hallway leads north through a tall arch. Although the origin or purpose of this room is unclear, there is a large rendering of the Royal Seal of Lord Dimwit Flathead carved on the wall.

Great Door
You are in the southern half of a monumental hall. To the east lies a tremendous iron door which appears to be rusted shut.

I do like the brief moment here of Lord Flathead for building atmosphere and setting, but I don’t know if it has an significance other than marking the door as leading to something Royal-related.

Down a south branch is an area with a view of an aqueduct and a lake. The aqueduct seems to be merely for scenery.

Aqueduct View
This is a small balcony carved into a near-vertical cliff. To the east, stretching from north to south, stands a monumental aqueduct supported by mighty stone pillars, some of which are starting to crumble from age. You feel a sense of loss and sadness as you ponder this once-proud structure and the failure of the Empire which created this and other engineering marvels. Some stone steps lead up to the northwest.

The lake’s icy waters cause you to be “nearly paralyzed” and drop any items you have. This makes it impossible to carry your lamp; this is meaningful as the south shore has an exit but is dark.

Southern Shore
You are on the south shore of the lake. Rock formations prevent movement to the west and thickening swamp to the east makes the going all but impossible. To the south, where the beach meets a rock formation, you can make out a dark passage sloping steeply upward into the rock.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Oh, no! You have walked into a den of hungry grues and it’s dinner time!

(In one of the few things I remember clearly, I’m fairly sure grue repellent is used here, but I don’t know where to get it and if we have to be concerned about the lake washing it off.)

There’s one more shore you can visit that has a “Scenic Vista”, a table that switches between four scenes like a surveillance camera. They are marked I, II, III, and IV. I do not remember this part of the game at all.


>examine table
The surface is pale and featureless, but slowly, an image takes shape!
You see a passage cluttered with broken timbers. An extremely narrow opening can be seen at the end of the room.
The image slowly fades.


>examine table
The surface is pale and featureless, but slowly, an image takes shape!
You see a tiny room with rough walls. Chiseled crudely on one wall is the number “8”. The only apparent exit seems to be a blur.
The image slowly fades.


>examine table
The surface is pale and featureless, but slowly, an image takes shape!
You see a wide room with two nearly identical passages leading east and northeast. A wide channel descends steeply into the room and seems to be blocked by rubble.
The image slowly fades.


>examine table
The surface is pale and featureless, but slowly, an image takes shape!
You see the interior of a huge temple rudely constructed of basalt blocks. Flickering torches cast a sallow illumination over an altar still wet with the blood of human sacrifice, its velvet covers stained and encrusted with gore.
The image slowly fades.

This seems to be invoking one of my favorite puzzles of original mainframe Zork, where you gaze into a crystal ball and see a scene with coal dust, and since the room is one not previously visited, you need to induce from the clues where the room might be. However, since the section of the game that had this room was already used in Zork I, the puzzle must be arranged differently here.

To the west there are three areas; first, a Land of Shadow made of multiple rooms (see the map) and where you hear “quiet footsteps” while walking about before being confronted.

Land of Shadow
You are in a dark and shadowy land. All around you are gentle hills and eerie shadows. Far above, shrouded in mist, you can barely make out the ceiling of the enormous cavern that spans this entire land.
Through the shadows, a cloaked and hooded figure appears before you, blocking the northwestern exit from the room and carrying a brightly glowing sword.
From nowhere, the sword from the junction appears in your hand, wildly glowing!

Any attempts to engage in battle fail. This uses a similar system of combat to the duels with the Thief in Zork 1, but you and the shadow are evenly matched. Interestingly enough, if you drop your sword the figure picks it up and hands it to you.

(It is faintly possible this figure is also the Dungeon Master.)

To the far west there is an ocean. Sometimes there is a ship but I haven’t been able to get its attention.

Flathead Ocean
You are at the shore of an amazing underground sea, the topic of many a legend among adventurers. Few were known to have arrived at this spot, and fewer to return. There is a heavy surf and a breeze is blowing on-shore. The land rises steeply to the east and quicksand prevents movement to the south. A thick mist covers the ocean and extends over the hills to the east. A path heads north along the beach.

To the northwest there’s a cliff under a gaping hole where sunshine is visible, with a piece of bread and a rope you can climb. Climbing the rope leads down to a ledge with a locked chest. After waiting briefly a man offers to help:

At the edge of the cliff above you, a man appears. He looks down at you and speaks. “Hello, down there! You seem to have a problem. Maybe I can help you.” He chuckles in an unsettling sort of way. “Perhaps if you tied that chest to the end of the rope I might be able to drag it up for you. Then, I’ll be more than happy to help you up!” He laughs again.

After sufficient waits the man does, indeed, come back:

Time passes…
A familiar voice calls down to you. “Are you still there?” he bellows with a coarse laugh. “Well, then, grab onto the rope and we’ll see what we can do.” The rope drops to within your reach.

>grab rope
You grab securely on to the rope.
The man starts to heave on the rope and within a few moments you arrive at the top of the cliff. The man removes the last few valuables from the chest and prepares to leave. “You’ve been a good sport! Here, take this, for whatever good it is! I can’t see that I’ll be needing one!” He hands you a plain wooden staff from the bottom of the chest and begins examining his valuables.
The chest, open and empty, is at your feet.

This may be the optimal result? I suspect something else is afoot here. But all I have for now is a sword, a staff, and some bread, and a smattering of puzzles that don’t want to budge.

Posted March 5, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

Tagged with

6 responses to “Zork III (1982)

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I remember Zork III well and am frankly excited to see your recollection is dim enough that you get to experience its challenges anew!

    I believe the Zork III Invisiclues hintbook describes Zork III’s esoteric points system as having been intended [no specific puzzle hints here, but ROT13’d just in case] gb synt n “cbgragvny” bs sbejneq cebterff. Fb lbh pna trg cbvagf jura lbh unir gnxra n zrnavatshy fgrc *gbjneqf* fbyivat n chmmyr, nf bccbfrq gb trggvat cbvagf *nsgre univat fbyirq* n chmmyr. Vaqrrq, Mbex VVV’f cbvagf flfgrz pnzr gb zvaq jura jr fvzvyneyl vqragvsvrq Sreerg’f cbvag flfgrz nf n fvtacbfg bs orvat “ba gur evtug genpx.”

  2. “You see a wide room with two nearly identical passages leading east and northeast.”
    We see an image of an underground room and we somehow can tell which way is north in the room. :D

    Someone at a camp when I was just a kid telling me about Zork (he was playing it on the C64 IIRC) made me want a computer so badly, much more so than playing the arcade style games I had encountered before. Later when I finally got one I was soon playing some IF games (I think Borrowed Time might have been the very first), but almost 40 years later I have still only played small fractions of the Zork series itself.

  3. “From nowhere, the sword from the junction appears in your hand, wildly glowing!”

    There’s actually a slight bug in the game here, because it gives you the sword but does not queue the sword’s interrupt routine. Which means the sword won’t glow from nearby dangers until you’ve dropped it and picked it up again, and you probably won’t do that until later. V zvtug unir orra n ybg zber fhfcvpvbhf nobhg gur zna ng gur pyvss vs gur fjbeq unq tybjrq yvxr vg jnf fhccbfrq gb!

    There’s another place where the sword behaves a bit funny, but that doesn’t happen until much later so I won’t spoil that here.

    Torbjörn Andersson
  4. I tried a teeny bit of Zork III once and I remember hitting one weird behavior with the rope(further details in comments here): gur tnzr nyjnlf gerngf “pyvzo ebcr” nf tbvat qbja, rira vs lbh’er ng gur obggbz bs gur ebcr.

    There was also a bug, which I mention in comments.

    And in my brief exploration I didn’t even recognize a puzzle, let alone solve one.

  5. Despite some missteps, I think Zork III has a narrative sophistication that the first two games do not. I love it for that. I also think that Marc Blank might not have been completely honest when he said that he didn’t care about story in IF. Looking forward to more!

  6. I’m very fond of Zork III indeed. It has its clunky parts but there’s a stark, melancholic atmosphere to the whole thing that haunts me even decades on from first playing it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: