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The Most Ambitious IF Text To-Date, August 16, 2021
I'm trying to work my way through the Infocom catalog, posting my thoughts on a gaming forum all the while.
Zork III is an ambitious and subversive game, and I feel Marc Blank was courageous in turning Zork, Infocom's cash cow, on its head. It assumes a tone of glum enervation; the whole world seems faded and spent. Our former treasure hunter is all grown-up: wisecracks and platinum bars no longer hold their attention. The Adventurer doesn't want to PLAY a cave game; rather, they want to RUN the game.
The game world is Zork's most geographically and tonally consistent to-date. The only parts that stand out, rather jarringly, are those ported from the mainframe version of Zork. Whether people enjoy it or not, the Royal Puzzle has nothing to do with anything Zork III is about. I wonder if Blank felt obligated to port these areas over untouched, just as I wonder if Lebling had done with Zork II's Bank of Zork puzzle.
Zork III's new scoring system is a clear indicator that this isn't the Zork you're used to. There are only seven possible points in the game, and you get a point when you're on the right track, story-wise. It's appropriate: after all, in Zork III's opening crawl, you are told to seek The Dungeon Master when you are "worthy." It's a harder thing to quantify than "get the twenty treasures of Zork and put them in your trophy case."
There are some fine puzzles to be found: the scenic vista and GOLMAC puzzles are especially enjoyable. One affords a sneak preview of "Zork IV" and the other is one of the game's only sources of Zorkian humor.
It is a shame that the second part of mainframe Zork embedded in the game is the final puzzle. It doesn't really feel relevant, and there's no sense of climax. It's just a silly little logic doodle and easily brute forced. At least the zany trivia quiz from mainframe Zork--absent here--engendered a sense of culmination.
Reviewing text dumps from both mainframe Zork and Zork III, one sees that the final scenes of both are almost identical, though Blank did append a brief concluding paragraph. This paragraph is, not surprisingly, about power, and it is one of the only times (in any Zork game) that we are given insight into the Adventurer's motivations. I've seen the idea floating around that this conclusion can be read as a metaphor for the birth of IF as a medium. Whether such arguments are right or wrong, I must agree Zork III is an invitation to us, the players; it calls us to think about the potential powers of IF.
Despite Zork III's missteps there remains a sense that something remarkable has happened. It would seem that Marc Blank has attempted to declare (prematurely, I'll admit) The End of The Cave Game. Zork III is in its way a critique of the genre's idealization of material gain and acknowledges, at long last, that there there is something lost when a civilization falls. Zork III is, if nothing else, the moment in which Zork escapes ADVENT's shadow.
I suppose it is long-established now that Interactive Fiction is art, but it wasn't always so. I would argue, whether it is art or not, that Zork III is IF's first overtly artistic gesture.
Zork III is a foundational work and rating it with this or that many stars would lose sight of this truth.
I am playing Starcross next and will, as promised, give it a rating.
Postscript: I have seen comments, here and elsewhere, about unwinnable games, and I have to say I find them rather overstated and ungenerous. It requires roughly five minutes and 110 turns to revisit every possible puzzle, including the optional sailor scene, before the earthquake. This is without a map or notes.