Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Zork: Grand Inquisitor", Windows 95, 1997.

So Infocom's spreadsheet application, Cornerstone, came and went; the company's fortunes changed and a friendly buyout by Activision turned into an antagonistic arrangement not entirely dissimilar to the life-sapping co-opting of TSR by Buck Rogers that we have seen. Infocom was stripped of resources, ordered to make more games, more frequently, and forced to manufacture them more expensively through Activision. The brand name was subjected to a humiliating debasement of OK -- but no Infocom -- material from Westwood and the new media folks who gave us the InfoComics. They gave up the ghost in their battle with graphics and began incorporating them into their text adventures, leaving a company that stood for nothing but mysteriously lent its brand to an NES cart. It's like Activision started diverting its "weird crap" slush pile through the Infocom brand in some self-defeating gesture to interfere with the return on their investment. Then, for a while, the brand lay dormant, its fields scorched and ashen. The myth grew and the fan community began tinkering. Finally, about the time Myst hit the market, someone at Activision woke up and had a closer look at what they'd been sitting on. "Do we have any properties in our portfolio suitable for an interactive CD-ROM? Pitfall? Maybe not. River Raid? Ehh, I'll pass. Zork? What the hell is Zork?"

Anyhow, for a brief moment the IP stirred back into a zombie-like life, with a loose trilogy of Zork-branded games being released into the wild (plus LGOP2 and work on a Planetfall sequel.) This is the last of them. Sorry to end "Infocom week" on such a downer, with no Infocom logo (perhaps mercifully) even present on the ad! The good news is that there are plenty of other Infocom games out there with ads I haven't covered, so maybe we can revisit this territory someday.


adventurer wanted
inquire within


Attention all adventurers. By edict of the Grand Inquisitor, the Great Underground Empire of Zork has been sealed off and the practice of magic declared punishable by totemization (a very bad thing). Only a true adventurer can stop the Grand Inquisitor and restore magic to its rightful place. Can you save the Underground?

I have never played this game. The entire interactive CD-ROM era passed me by, because who had time to download all those disks? (nervously waits for laughter, hears none) I only have the scantiest of experience with its first predecessor, Return to Zork (enough to establish that it does indeed run under SCUMMVM) and even less with the follow-up, Zork Nemesis. That means I get to judge this ad pretty much by its ad-ly merits alone. So: visiting legendary Zork landmarks -- here we see the white house in the field (sadly for Zork historians, Google is unable to distinguish our white house from Washington, D.C.'s White House) ... looks to be a nice enough place, however boarded-up (Zork must have a terrible problem with squatters. Then again, even the New York subway system has denizens of its Great Underground Empire) and beside it there is the renowned Flood Control Dam #3 complete with some kind of energy bridge spanning over its reservoir and some weakly suggested water flowing out of it. Now because we are in an interactive CD-ROM, I see the next picture has some enigmatic machinery -- and the caption's suggestion that it demonstrates "irreverent unpredictability" makes me think that I wouldn't want to have to brute force my way to the solution of a puzzle with a ticker that counts to ten thousand. "Myst: now with unreliable narrator!"

This actor is, apparently, "classic", but insufficiently so for me to tell you off the top of my head what his name is and what roles he is known for. (Because I hate leaving easily-Googleable open questions: Erick Avari, it turns out, and here he is portraying the titular Inquisitor.) Beneath him is a duo of "fantastic characters" with abysmal character design, reminding me of nothing so much as one of those R-Type bosses made of a series of connected circles to simulate articulation.

Did you know that the original "cave game", the spelunking ADVENTURE, actually intended "lamp" to denote a battery-powered headlamp? Strange but true. This striking lantern certainly does speak more to the spirit of fantasy adventuring, however contemporary it may actually be in its design. Who is that hiding in its lens flare? Could that be the allegedly classic actor at 8 'o clock opposite?

The ad's text tells me that the story is now one of rebellion against oppression (you can't do much better than a Grand Inquisitor for an antagonist!) and just to rankle players, apparently all the best elements of Zork have been outlawed: magic and going underground. (Don't worry, everyone will be glad to know that playing baseball and spooking cyclopes are still kosher.) What is totemization? We'll pique your interest by coining a new term, and then make a show of not explaining to you what it is. (Apparently a kind of magical preservation in a bansai form under glass?) Blah blah, restore the wonder of magic to Zork, restore the greatness of Infocom to Activision. It's all allegorical.

This ad utilizes one of those '90s fonts that typographically enrages me, haphazardly incorporating elements of both lower and upper case, which uncannily produces an effect similar to being yelled at by a kindergartener.

This game was cross-promoted with the release of Zork: The Undiscovered Underground, a short "classic" text adventure designed and Implemented by classic Infocom Imps using tools the fans had come up with to reproduce the Z-machine's functionality, leading to the strangeness of a new Infocom text adventure, playable on a C64, released in 1997. Speaking of playability in deprecated environments, a Summer of Code student has been hard at work trying to integrate support for these last two Zork graphical adventure games (with their panoramic "Z-vision" engine) with SCUMMVM. Looking forward to the results! Then I might actually play the game someday...