Friday, November 8, 2013

"Beyond Zork", 1987.

It ain't pretty from here on. Jun '83, 20 employees. Jun '84, 40. Jun '85, 100. Jun '86 ... back to 40. The bell curve's return to terra firma is inexorable, and all the classics are behind us here, with only experiments ahead: the real-time Border Zone, the illustrated Zork Zero, the multiple-choice Journey, the InfoComics, Bob Bates' games (a parting breath of fresh air -- not so much the end of Infocom as the start of Legend) and the beginning of InfoCom as a Westwood cover label.
The Zork Trilogy has become a legend in its time, selling nearly one million copies! Now the legend continues with an extraordinary new Zorkian universe that breaks ground in computer gaming. For the first time, the character-building and combat of role-playing games joins the masterly prose and puzzles of Infocom's interactive fiction.

Beyond Zork's sophisticated new interface makes interaction more natural than ever, plunging you into a world teeming with magic and peril. The vast and varied Southlands of Quendor come alive as you seek fantastic treasure and combat the vicious monsters who haunt the streets and wastelands.

Challenge yourself to a quest that's far beyond anything you've ever experienced. Beyond Zork. The incredible new interactive story from the master storytellers at Infocom.

One glance at Beyond Zork will show you that it's unlike any interactive story you've seen before. On-screen mapping. Window displays. A character that grows in strength and power. You get all the excitement of role-playing games, skillfully blended with the fabulous puzzles and award-winning prose of Infocom's interactive fiction.

There is innovation here, new components to the Infocom formula -- an early automap, randomized elements for replay, and MUD-like combat the likes of which haven't been seen since Zork 1. But novelty alone wasn't enough! Perhaps the problem with Infocom games wasn't that they were inadequately RPG-ish. (They weren't the only ones who would try to synthesize the genres, as with local devs Naughty Dog's 1989 Keef the Thief.)

The ad copy is somewhat hyperbolic, suggesting perhaps that Infocom had drunk their own Kool-aid: is this really "an extraordinary new Zorkian universe"? Is hunting for an enchanted coconut really "a quest that's far beyond anything [I've] ever experienced"? I think these hybrid attempts were shooting for a holy grail that it took the Coles to land on, Sierra's Quest for Glory in 1989, an adventure game with quests and classes allowing multiple solutions that were also tied to skill development! That world is full of jokes but it's internally consistent and still manages to take itself seriously, while this one sends you to Port Foozle and pits you in combat against organ grinders. Maybe the strain of MIT hacker strangeness that pervaded Infocom really was a mantle ultimately inherited by Kingdom of Loathing, a masterfully odd MMORPG aped, in a fashion, by the later, unsuccessful, Legends of Zork casual game densely populated with the strange creatures inhabiting Beyond Zork. Further research is clearly necessary.

(Thanks to Vintagecomputing.com for the ad scan!)