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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Misremembering the Legends of Zork

by Ken Newquist / April 6, 2009
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One of the first computer games I remember playing was Adventure!, a text-based RPG that was based on Colossal Cave, a piece of interactive fiction developed at MIT in the early 1970s. It shared its DNA with what would become one of the most popular IF franchise: Zork.

I played Zork I, but not its sequels, choosing instead to play other Infocom games like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Once those were done, I moved on to Sierra's KingsQuest/PoliceQuest/SpaceQuest games and the early Ultima games (which had similar text-interfaces, but added graphics!)

When I heard about Legends of Zork, a new online iteration of the franchise, I was skeptical, but hopeful. The artwork instantly brought me back to what I imagined Zork and its kin would look like -- the mirage of zany and heroic is exactly the sort of thing my 12 year old self loved.

But would it capture the feel of Zork? Would it let you explore the dark crannies of the world, venturing in the Dark Forest, finding the Underground Empire, or getting lost in a mazy of tiny, twisty passages, all alike?

Alas, the answer is no.

The game is now live, and after having spent a few days poking it with a stick (a pointy stick, with some indecipherable runes on it of course), I found that the game may be Zork-like, but it is not Zork.

Legends of Zork is a barebones MMORPG-style game designed for the causal gamer. As in your typical MMO, you venture forth into a cruel, uncaring world, kill a bunch of monsters, and take their stuff. As you level up, you're able to go into new areas where you can ... kill a bunch of monsters, and take their stuff.

In fact, it's a stretch to call Zork an RPG, because there's almost nothing in the way of role-playing going on. There are no quests to under take, and while are apparently physical and magical traps/puzzles to encounter later in the game, as of Level 6, I have found none of them. From reading online though, it appears that even these puzzles aren't true puzzles, but rather just another mathmatical encounter to run through. True, you're able to level up your hero, buy new spells, armor and weapons, and learn new skills, but at the end of the day, it's all about number crunching.

Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing -- the D&D Tiny Adventures for Facebook has a similar setup, but the thing that I find compelling about Tiny Adventures is that Wizards of the Coast has structure the entire game around quests, and attached a narrative to those quests that changes based on your success or failure. In the end, it's probably got the same amount of number crunching, but the narrative evokes the text-based games (and choose-your-own adventure books) of my gamer past.

Something else that D&D Tiny Adventures has that Zork does not is friends. In Tiny Adventures, you can interact with your friends in Facebook, healing them and providing the occasional skill or magical buff. In theory, Legends of Zork has friends (and enemies too) but no way to add them. Ok, technically that's not true -- you can randomly friend (or "enemy") the people you meet in the player-vs-player Arena or in adventuring groups, but there's no way to search for and add someone to you friends list. This is a killer misfire; when the game launched, myself and a number of RPG Bloggers were ready to dive in headfirst ... only to find there was no way for us to meet up in-world. The same goes for "group" quests (which are really just more auto-pilot hack'n'slash adventures, but with the added benefit of friends).

Given the prominence of social networking among geeks, it seems like this sort of functionality would be a no brainer and yet ... nothing.

I'm disappointed by the lack of any interactive adventure components to the game. Sure, there's something primal in my geek genes that loves killing monsters and taking their stuff ... but I need some story too! Let me search the Dark Forest for a band of rogues or rescue the princes from a forgotten cave; and give me some influence over HOW I go about doing these things. I'd love to see some interactive fiction mini games scattered throughout Zork's locations; they don't need to be huge -- a 10 or 20 point game would be sufficient -- but give me something to scratch that RPG itch.

Still, it is Zork-like. The locations, the artwork, and the tone all evoke the Infocom games I loved, and as such, I'm willing to cut them some slack. The game doesn't have me hooked yet, but I will be checking back from time to time to see what's new, and maybe spend a lunch break or two getting lost in the Dark Forest...

Comments

You're right; I don't see any cleverness (or fiendish-puzzle-ness) in this game.
The best part, which you pointed out already, is the art.

Yeah, the lack of cleaverness really kills it. This sort of thing really calls out for mini games. They don't *have* to be text, but anything would be better than "I hunt, I kill, I rest".

I think I'll stick with the original Zork on my iPod touch for now.

A good find, non-the-less. Even if it didn't resonate for you, it may to another gamer that finds it through your article.

Very true, which is why I figured it was worth mentioning/reviewing. It can be an amusing little app, and as a lunch time diversion, I think it works. As something worthy of the Zork name, well, not so much.

They've added quests since your review. (And you could search for other players via Gruegle when I first checked it out, about a week after release.) They've also added chat – global, base, role-play and clan – and IM, and you can tweet your accomplishments (although I think that would would get very spammy very fast…).

I think their main flaw was releasing before it was ready.

Gruegle

I think you're right -- they definitely launched too early. But having said that, even now the game's missing that interactive story aspect I loved about Zork and its text-based clones.

Legends of Zork has distilled the MMORPG down to its essence, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective. There's a ton of ways to equip and customize your character, but personally cool stuff is only half of what I want from a game. The other half is the ability to make story choices. Quests in Zork help with this some what, in that now random quest encounters show up while you're adventuring, but unless I'm missing something there's still no branching logic.

Lack of choice is ultimately what caused me to leave Warcraft ... and it's what caused me to visit Zork less and less frequently as well.

Post-activision takeover, most of the Infocom branded offerings have sucked, and that's too bad. Those of us who played the original PC games of the 1980s remember Infocom as a game leader primarily because of their deep attention to story and character. They weren't just interested in making games, but in making games that were well-written, well-constructed, and that stayed with you long after you played them, like a really good novel.

Once the original Infocom disbanded, most of the products of the 90s were simply weak attempts to generate a few sales through brand loyalty.

I haven't yet played this new offering, but it sounds like the same-ol-sh*t -- just a piece of garbage exploiting the Infocom brand name.

I'm guessing without knowing that NONE of the original writers and/or "IMPS" of Infocom played any role in this game. Too bad... they were all brilliant, creative, dedicated people who sought to sell a quality experience.

And it's not that you'd HAVE to use the original imps for a quality game (although that would surely show you respect Infocom's enormous role in the history game development)... you could hire a great young talent today that understood the legacy of the Infocom brand to create an experience worthy of the name... and I'm certain there are plenty of young game programmers who do.

But that's not what this is. This is the equivalent of some music company with rights to The Beatles issuing a crappy cynical piece of paint-by-numbers music under The Beatles' brand name.

... still waiting for someone to use the brand for the honor they earned...

PS plenty of not-for-profit-but-for-love IF text adventures written in the 90s and available for free or as shareware *did* honor the Infocom legacy of a high-quality game experience... google "Baf's Interactive Fiction Archive" and you will find them....

I played it tonight for 15 minutes until I ran out of APs. Doubt I'll go back, it's mind numbing.