Damn You, Zork II

Some significant part of my middle school years (age 11-14, roughly) was spent struggling with a couple of text adventure games and none of them was more tantalizing or frustrating than Zork II. In particular, the bank and baseball maze parts of this game completely stopped me, despite my large piles of notes and countless hours spent typing increasingly random commands. My family lived in Africa at the time, so local Zork expertise was hard to come by. Moreover, I had no access to USENET, a BBS, or any similar resource (this was the mid-1980s) so I eventually shelved the game and only returned to it after we moved back to the USA and I found an employee at a local computer store who I could pester for hints. I had more or less forgotten about this odd part of my life until today the Digital Antiquarian singled out exactly those two Zork II puzzles as being particularly difficult and unfair. It was an infuriating game and I wish I could play it afresh.

9 Replies to “Damn You, Zork II”

  1. If you ever get the itch, text adventures (now typically given the more auspicious name of “interactive fiction”) have gotten a *lot* better since then; better writing, better puzzles, better parsers, better and more creative use of the medium. Check out the work of Adam Cadre, Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, or the winners of the annual IFComp or XYZZY Awards.

  2. …oh, and there’s also a very fully-featured domain-specific programming language and IDE for making them, which might fascinate you briefly: http://inform7.com/

    It’s by far the most successful “code that looks like natural language” environment I’ve ever seen in the wild.

  3. The reference to puzzles solved “only through sheer persistence, moving everywhere and trying everything, and were left with no idea of what they had actually done or how the puzzle really worked” reminds me of a puzzle in the “Hoshi Saga” flash game.
    It is not interactive fiction, but the way it plays with the limits of the medium is reminiscent of it. It usually avoids being frustrating, though.

    Just out of curiosity, John, did you run the then-equivalent of the Unix “strings” command on your interactive fiction programs back then? It is probably considered cheating and prevented in all modern implementations, but as a middle-schooler, I would simply not have been able to play these games without this trick—and indeed, I only played through those that were distributed as BASIC bytecode with readable strings.

  4. Hi cata, indeed I have not tried any text games more recent than those produced by Infocom! I should do that. The issue is lack of time to spend thinking deeply about things besides work…

    I did look at Inform 7 briefly when my son got interested in text games not too long ago. He’s still too young to pick it up on his own (7 years old) and I haven’t had time to learn it yet. But it looks pretty cool.

  5. Pascal, I embarrassingly never thought to look inside the z-code files, though later on in college I did plenty of that sort of thing. Hoshi looks neat!

  6. Z-code has its own text encoding/compression scheme so it is unlikely that running strings(1) on a story file would be very enlightening.

  7. John, I didn’t know you liked text adventures! I believe there are places online that you can get the Zork I/II/III Z-code files, but I don’t know them off the top of my head, and I’m not 100% sure they’re legal. (The Infocom game “Hitchhiker’s Guide”, on the other hand, is playable on the BBC’s own website, which is kind of cool.)

    If you’d like to broaden your exposure to classic adventure games — and completely unfair puzzles — I recently ported both Crowther & Woods’ original “Adventure” and David Platt’s “Adventure 550” to the Z-machine; you can play them online here (http://quuxplusone.github.com/Advent/play.html) and here (http://quuxplusone.github.com/Advent/play-550.html).

  8. Thanks, Arthur! I’ve played the original Adventure but a long time ago and almost certainly not all the way though.

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