Zork II / Infocom (1981)

Mickey Mantle's Verdict: I don't see what all the fuss is about. It was obvious to me. You usin' that liver, son?

Sneeby J. Rottingtiller's Verdict: Look mate, no one else on the bleedin' globe will have anything to do with your fricking sport, you would thing that Infocom lot would 'ave understood.

My Verdict: If Zork II came out today, it would go down as one of the most unfair games ever.

The Review...

The Zork series of games from Infocom are deservedly classics. Marc Blank and Dave Lebling constructed many of the rules that most of us in this little community pat ourselves on the back for breaking. The thing is, the best game designers in the world often take liberties with what's "fair" or what's "acceptable." For instance, there is a scene in Shugeru Miayamoto's Mario 64 where in order to obtain knowledge necessary to advance the game, Mario has to plummet to his death. It's -- for a good reason -- considered "unfair" for a developer to demand that you use an experience from a previous "life" in order to solve a puzzle. Oftentimes it's for a good reason, as most developers simply aren't talented enough to design games otherwise. Miayamoto gets away with it mostly because he knows what he is doing and, hell -- he probably gets sick of that roly-poly tubjob plumber as well.

I've said before that one of the sentients I would invite to dinner (if I had my choice of any five that have ever existed) would be Marc Blank. The guy never released an awful game. He was, however, a designer from a world where people routinely spent upwards of forty dollars for the latest Infocom release and there was some expectation that the game was going to take its customer a while to complete. So while today many of us will simply go to something new if we get stuck, it was expected that there would be some serious brain-teasers if you bought an Infocom release twenty years ago.

Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz is a game that simply has puzzles which have been more or less plotted around in late 1999. I think that it may reflect poorly upon us, the gamers still playing this genre, that we expect to reasonably solve any game that comes our way. Zork II is unfair, cruel, random and nasty -- and I believe that the lot of us have turned into a bunch of flaming pussies for thinking so.

There is a puzzle in Zork II that directly requires knowledge of the American game of baseball to solve. Aside from the fact that Zork takes place in an alternate universe and at the time the game was written we had no Flathead Dynasty backstory letting us know that "Babe Flathead" was a fine athlete of all our sports, the Zork games were released for enjoyment throughout the entire world. And really, there are a hell of a lot of countries that devoured IF and didn't play anything nearly resembling baseball. The game's implementors, however, couldn't care less. Solve it with brute force if you have to. You're getting your money's worth.

Zork II also contains -- in my opinion -- the absolute worst riddle ever in the history of mankind. It is as follows:

What is as tall as a house
And round as a cup
And all the king's horses
Can't draw it up?

It must be said. WTFMAN? I don't mean to spoil it (the game is twenty years old and available for download -- if you haven't played it at this point, are you ever planning on doing so?) but geez -- a "well" is the freaking answer? Very sporting of them to put one in the game after you've answered correctly.

Perhaps games are easier now. Perhaps, with so much quality, free IF available you need to have a certain level of cockiness to mind-tease your audience. It's been my experience that IF authors like to let their players know that "they anticipated that." And therefore, if you anticipate a player doing something then you might as well implement it. That makes for games that eerily understand what you are trying to do, but in turn, are quicker play-throughs.

Many more text adventures have been released in the last five years then were ever available during Infocom's dominance. Zork II goes out of its way to piss the living hell out of its players. The wizard randomly appears and lays waste to your best-laid plans. The Carousel Room offers a 31% chance of actually taking you where you'd like to go. Through all these puzzles and roadblocks, however, the player never gets frustrated because the game doesn't understand what he or she is trying to do. Zork II frustrates only intentionally and for that it deserves its status of "classic."

If you truly wish to play interactive fiction like a hulked-out, cigar chomping, roid-raged MAN, then you must download Zork II from Activision's website. If you're perfectly content to wax poetic with dreamers, artists and poseurs, well, the if-archive at ftp.ifarchive.org offers, at last count, 1,672 titles for you to choose from.

Pump it up, goddammit.




Simple Rating: 8.4 / 10

Complicated Rating:

Plot: 9.0 / 10

Writing: 8.5 / 10

Playability: 8.1 / 10

Puzzle Quality: 6.2 / 10

Parser Responsiveness: 8.0 / 10

Reader Remarks

Esrom sprach the following on December 21st, 1999:

Well, I'll have to agree with about the 'riddle'. I solved it basically by guessing. I can easily imagine an adventurer standing before the wall in the riddle room, trying to come up with an answer, and saying "Well..." And then, the wall opens up, as the adventurer had accidentally solved the riddle.

I've also heard many complaints from non-American players about the baseball clues that they didn't understand. Even with the baseball clues, I wasn't sure what to do with that puzzle.

The Wizard of Frobozz and his spells can be amusing, but also frustrating. The wrong spell at the wrong time could be disasterous. The 'Fall' spell, I think, crosses the line; not only can it kill you if you move around too much while under its influence, but you aren't told when it wears off! Of course, you must always avoid high places such as cliff ledges while under its influence.

Then of course, the Wizard can cast the 'Freeze', 'Float', or 'Fall' spells while you're flying in the balloon, leading to rather nasty results. This is one of the few IF games I can think of where it's possible for the PC to get killed through no fault of the player.

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