Zork: Plot and story   2 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

OUT FROM THE SHADOWS BEHIND YOU POUNCES A BEARDED PIRATE! “HAR, HAR,” HE CHORTLES. “I’LL JUST TAKE ALL THIS BOOTY AND HIDE IT AWAY WITH ME CHEST DEEP IN THE MAZE!” HE SNATCHES YOUR TREASURE AND VANISHES INTO THE GLOOM.

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:

YOU ARE ON THE EDGE OF A BREATH-TAKING VIEW. FAR BELOW YOU IS AN ACTIVE VOLCANO, FROM WHICH GREAT GOUTS OF MOLTEN LAVA COME SURGING OUT, CASCADING BACK DOWN INTO THE DEPTHS. THE GLOWING ROCK FILLS THE FARTHEST REACHES OF THE CAVERN WITH A BLOOD-RED GLARE, GIVING EVERYTHING AN EERIE, MACABRE APPEARANCE. THE AIR IS FILLED WITH FLICKERING SPARKS OF ASH AND A HEAVY SMELL OF BRIMSTONE. THE WALLS ARE HOT TO THE TOUCH, AND THE THUNDERING OF THE VOLCANO DROWNS OUT ALL OTHER SOUNDS. EMBEDDED IN THE JAGGED ROOF FAR OVERHEAD ARE MYRIAD TWISTED FORMATIONS COMPOSED OF PURE WHITE ALABASTER, WHICH SCATTER THE MURKY LIGHT INTO SINISTER APPARITIONS UPON THE WALLS. TO ONE SIDE IS A DEEP GORGE, FILLED WITH A BIZARRE CHAOS OF TORTURED ROCK WHICH SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN CRAFTED BY THE DEVIL HIMSELF. AN IMMENSE RIVER OF FIRE CRASHES OUT FROM THE DEPTHS OF THE VOLCANO, BURNS ITS WAY THROUGH THE GORGE, AND PLUMMETS INTO A BOTTOMLESS PIT FAR OFF TO YOUR LEFT. TO THE RIGHT, AN IMMENSE GEYSER OF BLISTERING STEAM ERUPTS CONTINUOUSLY FROM A BARREN ISLAND IN THE CENTER OF A SULFUROUS LAKE, WHICH BUBBLES OMINOUSLY. THE FAR RIGHT WALL IS AFLAME WITH AN INCANDESCENCE OF ITS OWN, WHICH LENDS AN ADDITIONAL INFERNAL SPLENDOR TO THE ALREADY HELLISH SCENE. A DARK, FORBODING PASSAGE EXITS TO THE SOUTH.

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.

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Posted April 4, 2011 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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2 responses to “Zork: Plot and story

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  1. I believe you are quite right, here – and necessarily, given that Adventure was the first of its kind and very much only feeling its way forward with outstretched fingers – but what a shame that almost all of this was not just wasted, but intentionally thrown away, in later (read: Activision) installments of the series!

  2. I’ve been making nice progress on my session, even though few of the puzzle areas have been solved. I’m u[ to 275 out of 646 points, and that’s more often than not through exploration. I’m still enjoying it and my memories of the trilogy help me remember many solutions although the map is shuffled around a lot.

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