Zork and the Great Underground Empire — #monthofjoy

4 Dec

West of House

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front
There is a small mailbox here.

>open mailbox
Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.

>take leaflet

>read leaflet

ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore
some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be
without one!”

Some of the earliest computer games had no graphics whatsoever. With a strictly text based interface, interactive fiction games by companies like Infocom defined a stratum of adventure games in the early and mid 1980’s.

The Zork games were set in a fictional fantasy universe revolving around the Great Underground Empire — a civilization built in the ruins of an old, fallen civilization which colonized the realm underneath the earth. With manuals that extended the playground of the imagination, the Zork games were a highlight of Infocom’s worldbuilding in the midst of providing text adventures and puzzles that encouraged the imagination to bring the worlds to life.manual-1

Zork I started the Zork series by introducing you as a nameless adventurer exploring the ruins underneath a mysterious white house in the year 948 GUE. Your goal was to find 20 treasures scattered through the area, ranging from the solid gold coffin of Ramses II to a a treasure chest. A troll, a thief that could “relieve” you of your goodies, and an Cyclops, who feared a certain Greek Hero’s name, helped populate the underground world. Exploring a dangerous mine, manipulating a flood control dam, conducting a magical ritual and more were the puzzles between you and finding the treasures.

Zork II. After finding all of the treasures, Zork I concluded by revealing an entrance to an even deeper portion of the Empire. In this deeper realm, the player is pitted against the capricious and powerful Wizard of Frobozz. Although determining the goal of the game is part of the puzzle, facing off against the sorcerer is the ultimate confrontation and challenge that awaits the player. Get a treasure from a unicorn, tangle with a demon, and much more. This was the game that taught me the word “gazebo”.

After devouring the first two games, I sent a fan letter to Infocom. Imagine my surprise when I opened the box to Zork III and found that my fan letter had been quoted by them for the new game.


Zork III proved to be the most difficult indeed, and the most interesting and nuanced of challenges. Mazes, locked room mysteries, a push-wall puzzle, and more challenged the player. And a mysterious figure, the Dungeon Master, lurked throughout the game world. Just what one has to do in the game becomes clear as one finds identical pieces of his regalia and paraphernalia…

The Enchanter Series, also set in the Zork universe set a new level of puzzle difficulty to the Infocom games. Unlike the Zork games, you got to play a spellcaster in the Enchanter series, and so the acquisition and correct use of spells was a key component in solving the puzzles of the game.


Enchanter starts the player as an apprentice enchanter to the Circle of Enchanters. A rogue sorcerer, Krill, is causing problems in a haunted Castle, and it is the player’s task to enter the castle and stop Krill in his tracks. The Castle’s secrets did require clever use of spells and navigating hazards and problems such as a infinite staircase and even summoning the adventurer from the Zork series to help you.

Sorcerer. After defeating Krill, the player is a respected member of the Circle of Enchanters. However, the head of the order, Belboz, a mentor to the PC, has been acting strangely, and then disappears. If an evil force is controlling Belboz, the entire realm is in danger. So it is up to the PC to find Belboz and save the realm. The game memorably includes a time travel puzzle as one of the more difficult entanglements the character must deal with to find his lost mentor.

Spellbreaker, the final game of the trilogy, is the most bittersweet. Now leader of the Circle of Enchanters yourself, you find magic acting strangely, failing, being controlled by an outside force. Exploration and investigation of this reveals a dark entity seeking to control the world by controlling all magic in the realm, and the only permanent way to defeat it is to end the role of magic entirely…

As computer graphics became good enough to be usable in games, the text based interactive fiction game market dried up. The attempts by Infocom to inject graphics into their own games, including these later Zork games, failed. Before that time, however, Infocom did produce a number of amazing games outside of Zork, including a fiendishly difficult game based on Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Getting the bloody babel fish out of a dispenser machine is one of the hardest puzzles in all of Infocom gaming.

There are and were a number of “Zork” games that came long after Spellbreaker that tried to use graphics; they were of steadily declining quality. I prefer to have a headcanon that the Zork universe ended as it should have, with the pathos of the end of Spellbreaker.

Interactive fiction games still exist — from companies like Choice of Games, which include a game entitled Choice of the Deathless, set in Max Gladstone’s Craft universe. But it was the Great Underground Empire that helped shape and mold me as a reader, a gamer, and a genre fan.  And they brought me joy, too.


5 Responses to “Zork and the Great Underground Empire — #monthofjoy”

  1. montsamu December 4, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Loved these games. Watched my dad play them, played them myself, and I still have them in a PC-ROM edition box set that still works. (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was just too dang hard, man.) I went from Zork and Enchanter into a step up in graphics (Wizardry) and another (Ultima) but then went back to text for a long, long time: MUDs were, basically, multiplayer Enchanter.

    • Paul Weimer December 8, 2014 at 5:55 am #

      I remember that “Lost Treasures of Infocom” PC-Rom edition.

  2. Lurkertype December 4, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    It reminds me of the ancestral text game, ADVENT, the Colossal Cave Adventure for mainframes and dial-up. We got to play it in school as a big occasional reward. XYZZY!

    I’ve downloaded the free first chapter of “Choice of the Deathless” since I enjoy the books.

    • Paul Weimer December 8, 2014 at 5:54 am #

      I’ve heard of Colossal Cave, but never actually played it.

      • Lurkertype December 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

        Gotta be a bunch of emulators, probably even for browsers. When you’re not having to send the data through an acoustic coupler modem at less than 100 baud, it’s much faster.

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