Friday, November 12, 2010

Beyond Zork: Final Ranking

Don't try to fight fire with fire: A life lesson from Beyond Zork

Let's get this out of the way at the outset: Beyond Zork is not a CRPG. It's a text adventure with some CRPG elements attached. I probably should have rejected it for this blog on dogmatic grounds. On the other hand, I had an awful lot of fun playing it, and solving the puzzles (mostly) without help was an ego-booster. I also added two new words--burin and palimpsest--to my vocabulary.

Nonetheless, I'm going to rank this as a CRPG. For the uninitiated, I use the GIMLET scale (described here) for the scoring.

1. Game World. Small and goofy. The landscape, features, and people serve the puzzles and plot, not any sensible order. The jungle, gondola ride, platypus castle, war between Borphee and Pheebor, and so on are all part of the fun, but they obviously don't go together. They also don't fit terribly well with the lore established in the game's backstory. It's not supposed to be a good CRPG game world, but then again, check the title of the blog. However, unlike many actual CRPGs of the era, the game remembers your actions, and your actions have consequences for the world. Final score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Most text adventures don't have this at all, and it's only Beyond Zork's small nods in this area that even begin to qualify it as a CRPG. You can choose from several existing characters or make your own, assigning a name, sex, and five attributes. As you defeat monsters, you rise in level and thus endurance, and your other attributes increase with various items, potions, and spells. Higher scores allow you to solve or shortcut puzzles, so your stats do matter even if your sex doesn't. The limited game world means development is limited, but it's still better than some early CRPGs. Final score: 4.

It's nontraditional character development, but it's character development.

3. NPC Interaction. There aren't many NPCs in the game world, but they are all memorable, from the crusty old sailor to the conniving cook to the pontificating Cardinal Toolbox. You do have to interact with them to advance in the game world, and they have honestly interesting things to say. Moreover, the parser, which allows you address them directly (SAILOR, HELLO!), ask questions (ASK COOK ABOUT ONION), and give commands (TOOLBOX, GIVE ME THE RELIQUARY) is about as open-ended as dialog choices get. There aren't really "role playing" options here, but it's still very enjoyable. Final score: 7.

4. Encounters & Foes. My GIMLET scale wants "unique monsters." Folks, I give you monkey grinders, cruel puppets, lucksuckers, Christmas Tree Monsters, and of course grues. These monsters are not only thoroughly described in the manual; the manual gives you clues about their weaknesses and the means needed to defeat them. There are even role-playing options with some of them, allowing you to defeat them with cleverness, compassion, or brute force. Many of them, of course, you do not fight in traditional CRPG style, all the encounters are essentially scripted, and the monsters do not respawn once defeated; your experience rewards are limited. Final score: 8.

After three games of being menaced by grues every time your lantern goes out, you actually get to kill three of them in this game. That alone is worth it.

5. Magic & Combat. Combat is very basic in the game, consisting of typing attack commands and hoping to score a hit based on your attributes and luck. Magic is through scrolls, potions, and wands, and mostly geared towards specific puzzles, although you have a lot of flexibility in how you use some of them. There are no real "tactics" to combat, though. Final score: 3.

6. Equipment. Like most adventure games, you have a wide variety of items in Beyond Zork, most needed to solve puzzles, but some (sword, plate mail, cloak) just to make life easier. You can gauge relative worth of the equipment from its value, and each item is fairly well described with the EXAMINE command. Some key plot items are always found in the same place, but many of the magic items are randomized within the game world, making each game a slightly different experience. Beyond Zork is unique in that it lets you give your own names to your weapons and animal companions. Final score: 6.

7. Economy. You don't get any cash for killing creatures, but there are a number of treasures that serve no purpose except to sell them, and you can always sell expended magic items and used plot items. It's worth doing this so you can save for your suit of plate armor, cloak, and sword, as well as one major plot item (the hourglass). Towards the end of the game, though, money stops serving any purpose, and in general the monetary system is more of an afterthought than an integral part of the game. Final score: 3.

8. Quests. There is only one "quest," although with many puzzles, and it is introduced in a very strange manner, more than halfway through the game, via a circumstance that you create. Until this happens, it's hard to know what your character's motivation is except "because it's there." As far as I can tell, there's only one outcome to the main quest, and it doesn't really follow from the quest itself (i.e., the Implementors give you the quest, and you never see them again). Final score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. Well, it's a text adventure, so we don't really look for graphics and sound. (Sound consists of an occasional beep when your stats go up or down.) The text-based controls do work quite well, though, with the game recognizing most words that you would think to type in any given situation. Final score: 3.

10. Gameplay. Gameplay toes the line between linear and nonlinear. The world is fairly small, and most of time spent in the game comes from solving puzzles, not exploring the world. Within the limited world, you have general freedom as to what order you do things. It isn't replayable at all, but it does offer the right challenge level--just frustrating enough at times to, well, make you detour to another game for a little while, but not so frustrating that you give up in despair. I thought its level was almost perfect. I'm surprised I was able to complete it without any major hints, although if it was just a little more frustrating, I probably would have succumbed. Final score: 5.

Final score: 46.
The little non-CRPG gets a higher score than any CRPG I've played except Ultima III, Ultima IV, Starflight, and Might & Magic. I'm on board with that 100%. If this wasn't supposed to be a blog about CRPGs, I could give it additional points for its sense of humor and quality of writing.

I maintain this was a good inclusion in the list. Barton notes that Beyond Zork was a unique hybrid: "no other major developers have been willing to revisit the design" (p. 259). As such, it was worth exploring and archiving. I'm ready to get back to slaughtering legions of goblins, though, and I won't miss all the typing.


  1. Ah, the grues... They are a present threat in the Enchanter series, too.

    I LOVE text adventures (enough that I made my own parser and game editor a few years back - a feat far more complex for me than programming the tile based rpgs and strategy games I usually tackle). The only problem I have with the Infocom ones is that you are permitted to perform game breaking actions without consequence or even being informed - sometimes you're even rewarded. In the initial Enchanter game, you have a light spell (Frotz), and find the trusty "battered lantern" early, which I guess they figured most people would frotz. I outsmarted the game, though, and just frotzed myself, to save the inventory space. Only it turns out there are events and rewards that you can not only not receive, but won't even be aware of or hinted at, if you aren't in complete darkness. I never would have known if someone hadn't told me...


  2. I know what 'burin' and 'palimpsest' mean but I have to admit being completely humbled by you being able to finish a Zork adventure without using any hints.

    I am in awe.

    You, sir, are a scholar and a gentleman.

    Looking forward to your next posts, as always (Dungeon Master was such a revolutionary game in its time and I just got so excited when it got ported from the Atari to the Amiga that I can't wait to see what you'll write about it. From the screen shots that you posted, I have to say it still looks pretty darn good).

  3. JS: the thing that redeems the "game breakers," though, is that once you know the solutions to the puzzles, the areas go quite quickly. When I did my final playthrough of "Beyond Zork" (the one in the text file attached to the "Won!" posting), it took me less than an hour. I started the game over several times while figuring things out, too.

    Cedric, it's not quite fair to say I had NO hints. Readers provided hints, although not spoilers, in some of the comments. But thanks!

  4. Thansks for the hint, JS. I have played Enchanter and really enjoyed the atmosphere, but I was never able to beat it. But I'm pretty sure I frotz'ed the lantern and thus was never in complete darkness. Perhaps now I will give it another go some day.

  5. Although you mention that Barton wrote "no other major developers have been willing to revisit the design", would you not say that the Quest for Glory games are similar in some ways (although graphical rather than text-based)?

    Also, I think given it gained a respectable GIMLET score and did have many RPG elements I would be happy to consider it a cRPG.

  6. Andy, you make a good point. It's been a long time since I played any of the QfG games (I'm not sure I ever played them all), but I do recall a lot of adventure-style puzzles. It seems to me that they are closer to the CRPG end than "Beyond Zork," but not a whole lot.

    I think that Barton's point was more that the mix of TEXT adventure and CRPG was unique.

    It's probably not worth debating the semantics. Broader point: it was a fun game.

  7. Considering that "Likeability" is part of the GIMLET anagram, I think "sense of humor and quality of writing" should be measured along with the other aspects of games. I'm almost surprised it's not already.

  8. That would give me 11 categories, which is much less convenient than 10. Still, you make a good point and I'll see about retconning the scale.

  9. This might also be beyond the scope of your blog's magnificent purview of CRPGs, but I've found a few "digitized" 80s RPG gamebooks to be quite a bit of fun to play online. In partic., the Fabled Lands is quite awesome--it literally allows you to "travel" between different books (the print versions had mechanics that allowed you to buy items, keep your characters between books--each of which continued the story with a different geographical area) and with a pretty slick interface. Anyway, your talk of hybrids made me think of The Fabled Lands.

  10. While you've mentioned Fabled Lands, they've just re-released the first four of the Fabled Lands on Amazon:

    I highly recommend these (as do the reviewers on Amazon).

    Justin Halliday

  11. Unlikely that I'll get to play them, but I appreciate it nonetheless. Any chance those old "Lone Wolf" books are online somewhere? I loved those as a kid.

  12. The Lone Wolf books are freely and legally available online at Project Aon. (

  13. Oh, wow. Thanks, Brian. I wish someone had set an RPG in this game world. The back story and skill system was very well done.

  14. They did:

    Unless you mean a CRPG, in which case,
    is as close as you're going to get.

  15. I did mean a CRPG, yes. But thanks for the link. Maybe by the time I get to NWN, there will be an entire campaign.

  16. Looks like the Lone Wolf android games (which were in turn based on the books) were recently ported to PC:


I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) THIS ALSO INCLUDES USER NAMES THAT LINK TO ADVERTISING.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters.

3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

NOTE: Spam has gotten so bad lately that I've had to turn on comment moderation for posts older than 10 days. I apologize if it takes a little while for your comment to appear.