Infocom. 1981-3. Version 48 Serial 840904.
Infocom. 1981-3. Version 48 Serial 840904.
Undeniably a classic. Let me start by saying this: "This game is a classic". Part of the original body that made up Infocom. Part of the original group that made up Interactive Fiction. This game advanced the idea of story telling, the idea of plot, the idea of description and the idea of outcome further than its predecessors (for what its worth). And it did it with sharp wit, an eye for word play, and a realm that felt sort of like a cohesive whole. But, well, as other reviews have said (summarised and paraphrased): "A classic most definitely but would be openly reviled if released into the hobbyist sector or the commercial games market, today." Sure this game is nearly as old as I am, but its also only a couple years older than The Lurking Horror in which puzzles are designed to be thematic and consistent, solvable without too many random leaps of faith. I am of mixed emotions, here. I am glad to have played it, ecstatic to be done with it, and almost looking forward to the next in the series, but I have to let the headache die down first.
There are certain aspects of the game--parser, description, switches, and so on--that I can not fairly discuss, and therefore will not. In all these cases, the game was designed (the version I played) to run on computers that probably would score at about the processing power of a cell phone (and sure enough, you can play the game on cell phones now). I will let that go. I won't even attack the storyline since it seems like most games of the era reckoned that getting to the end was almost enough reason in and of itself (see Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest or even Myst for games that came out a few years later and still start with a shaky story whose main motivation is to find out why you might be playing it). If you are playing Zork II after playing Zork I there is nothing that can be said about the story in a negative way. It is no worse and has a certain solidity that almost makes it better.
What I will openly discuss, though, are the puzzles. These are not, precisely, products of their time. Sure, one could argue that they were testing the water. IF is a field of indefinite patterns. You can do a lot of things to a lot of things with a lot of things at a lot of different times. Even outside the standard set, you might end up with a few custom commands that expand your potential geometrically. At the same time, the very nature of IF, for me, is the game equivalent to a word problem. Sure you can add or subtract any old number of values, but a word problem is about expressing math in a way that makes real world sense. Zork II has several scenes where something of a "what the hell" attitude comes into play, where you do something odd just to see the outcome, and occasionally it works.
Before I really get into their difficulty and problems, though, I do want to take a moment and say that is amazing how much of this game has shown up its descendents. If the baseball field puzzle in The First Mile and the colored spheres in Shadowgate are not direct references to this game; then surely the attic room in Anchorhead has it's twin here, including the general location of the room they take place in. And whether or not The Awakening's "dog on a chain" puzzle might have had anything to do with the red dragon puzzle here (see also the earth elemental in the aforementioned TFM for another possible red dragon cousin), it just shows to what degree Zork II plowed the depths of what sort of puzzles IF could do and do well.
And the "Zorkian" flair is still here. You get to the top of a well and it says "Well Done!". "Side saddle, of course" shows up in description, both quaintly praising and quietly mocking the fantasy genre at the same time. A "Not sure what that means, but you die" follows the description of a magnetic field. Jokes about footpads. Scenes from classic fantasy novels, science fiction movies, and even Alice in Wonderland make appearances. More Greek mythology, but with a twist, is here to add to the cyclops and Hades from Zork I. The tongue-in-cheek "did they?" of the Wizard saying a mumbled "f-word" or two.
At the same time, these puzzles are laced with near- to full-non-sequitors. They require some strange plays on words. Sometimes an event doesn't even let you know if you are on the right track. When solving the volcano puzzle, for instance, you can open and close something. Though with a little playing around you can figure out what this does, it is not unlikely you will do something that will make it seem as though there is no effect whatsoever. The "three buttons in a room" puzzle has an effect distant from where you are standing when you do it, though you do see an outcome if you do it wrong. The bottle of poison's role requires doing something I don't think I have ever attempted in a Zork title before (and consequently, I only found out about it after the fact). LIGHT THE STRING is a different thing than BURN THE STRING. In one place you have to describe your directional movement in a different level of detail than in any other place. The "final puzzle" requires an act that Zork will have chided you about every other time you might even have thought about it.
And an entire essay could be written on why the "Oddly Angled Room" puzzle is evil. I even got the joke, but did not get how to implement for a couple of hundred moves (well, maybe 30 or 40 moves after I got the joke).
And, to top it off, you have the Wizard showing up at random and casting random spells. Most are kind of harmless but a few will cause you to leap off a bridge or to get trapped in a room you just set off explosives in. You might find yourself floating when you need to be following someone. You might find an item missing that you wished you had. One spell makes you attack NPCs, which can be a bother. And, though it did not happen to me, one spell apparently stops you from winning the game through making one event not happen (this event, by the way, is technically the third move or so from the very end of the game and is not acknowledged as even being missing if that spell was cast on you).
In hindsight, most every puzzle has some clue or another involved, though some are very faint or require you to see the wordplay/joke. A couple of solutions are conceivable as a type of action you might do, but require a leap of faith to see what happens next. Even the stroke-inducing "Oddly Angled Room" puzzle has a ton of clues built into the text and a "meter" to show you how you are doing, without which it probably would never have worked. Some puzzles require you to die one or more times to see the hint text, sure, but that's the way this game works. Save often, I suppose. The Bank series of puzzles is probably the worst, because even if you 1) know what the basics to solving it are you still have to 2) play guess the verb and 3) probably be a little confused as to what everything means. One possible solution to it, by the way, involves an act that I think will stop the game from being winnable, again, but don't quote me on that because I haven't experimented around with it.
All in all a frustrating game best played over a period of time, a few hours a week with lots of experimentation. I tried playing it straight through and it punished me for it. It took me 8-10 hours of hacking away at it. Had I broken it up into, say, 10 segments of about 2-3 hours each I probably would have had a lot more fun. As it was, I looked up some hints to get past parts when my frustration factor shot up. Most of the time, I got angry upon reading the hint and would shout out "That's what they are looking for?!?" before I even finished them because I saw where they were going and I realized the little "joke" of the puzzle. Again, with hindsight. In the case of the Bank Vault, though, I probably would have played the game for at least another 5 hours before I had any clue that I was overlooking something there.
I recommend it, if for no other reason that you will be able to solve a lot of puzzles in later games that reference it. You might want a walkthrough at your side though, because a few puzzles can quickly irritate and there are numerous places where you can stop yourself from being able to win the game. If you do play it, do so at slow burn. Take notes. See which items you have and what rooms seem to be needing something done to them. Some have found it easier than Zork I so I suppose it works really well for some people. It's a good game, just has some really bad spots.
(0-100, 50 = Average)
Interactive: 65 *
Fiction: 45 **
Reviewer's Tilt: 50
Because It's a Well-Referenced Classic: +20
Final Average: 53
* Though it makes excellent use out of the parser, too many things are too vague until you get to the end of the puzzle to really help the player along.
** It has a flavor, but frankly the story is mostly a non-existent collection of scenes with a couple of scenes tying everything really loosely together. It has more cohesion than the previous game but you have to die in-game once to be shown one scene that helps explain some things and that seems a little too gamist for a narrative. Staying alive, and good luck with that, will deprive you of that scene.
400 points and completed with a walkthrough to help show me a few spots. In a couple of places, once I had worked out a solution (or what I took to be one) I simply looked up the walkthrough to see if I was right (and most often was). I also looked up a few hints and read a few reviews to get a vibe of how other people were solving the puzzle. Will probably replay in a year or so, with no walkthrough, to see how much I remember.
Save often. And use mutliple save files. This game thrives on this principle.
When in doubt, double check the descriptions and the room descriptions. Some clues are kind of obscure. A few are brief hints at best. But, I can honestly say that every puzzle I think of has a reason for its solution, even if you mostly see it in hindsight.
Also, a couple of puzzles revolve around subtle differences in wording commands, or at least are affected by them. For instance, BURN and LIGHT are handled different. READ and LOOK AT are, as well.
Take breaks with this one. It can frustrate fast.
As a more specific hint, the "maze" in this one is not quite what it seems.
As another specific hint, the faster you can get to the thing that will help you fight the wizard (involving the three spheres, but I will say no more) the better because this ties Mr. Intereference up for a bit.
When using the wand, you probably need more explicit commands than you realize at first.
Note the points. It will help toward the end game when deciding what's what.
Written by W Doug Bolden
For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".
"The hidden is greater than the seen."