Zork I: Commentary and Puzzle Breakdown

Having submitted a review of Zork: The Great Underground Empire - Part 1, I want to step back and take a more detailed look at some of the puzzles in the game.  If you haven't played it yet, I suggest that you do so before reading my comments below, as they contain gobs of spoilers.  

The images in this article are taken from the Zork I map created by the Zork User's Group.

Game Opening

Artist's conception of the cabin from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I
I already noted my affection for the game's opening.  While the humble cabin in the woods has no challenging puzzles or great discoveries, as a launching point to the Zorkian underworld, it's second to none.  And for newcomers, it doubles as a chance to get comfortable with the game's mechanics, including navigating rooms, manipulating doors/windows, and using the lantern.  

The other notable event in the game opening is, of course, the troll fight.  It's not difficult to figure out what to do -- after all, you just acquired a sword and the troll is obviously unfriendly.  I was surprised I never found a use for the troll's axe, or indeed any of the various and sundry weapons scattered about Zork I.  You can use them in fights, of course, but it was unclear to me whether there was any practical difference between them.

Artist's conception of the troll from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I

You'll also notice that in the early going, Zork I throws a lot of items at you that may or may not be useful: bagged lunches, leaves, ropes, bricks, etc.  It's hard to know what you should hold onto or where you can put things for later use, but I eventually settled on storing everything I found in the trophy case.  Fortunately, this ended up being the right move, though I didn't know it for sure at the time.

Notable Puzzles

Maze and Cyclops

Artist's conception of the skeleton from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I.  It's the remains of a previous adventurer.
After having played Colossal Cave Adventure, I found little to trouble me in the Zork I maze.  Dropping items like bread crumbs to chart my course has become second nature and once you've mapped the area, it no longer presents much of an obstacle.  Certainly, the occasional presence of the thief was a major headache (more on him later), especially since he would sometimes kill me before I had a chance to do anything.  In such events, I would just restore a saved game, but I doubted whether the existence of an intermittently homicidal character was making the game more immersive.  

Regardless, there are three primary hot spots in the maze: the dead adventurer, the cyclops room, and the grating room.  The dead adventurer is a great touch because it immediately suggests a backstory to the labyrinth.  Some have suggested that he is actually the protagonist from Colossal Cave Adventure, but who knows.  His dead lamp is a clever red herring, as well -- had I not found the torch, I certainly would have spent time trying to get it working again after my first lamp died.  

Note that if you disturb the skeleton, his ghost will pop up and banish you to the land of the dead.  I don't know what it says about me that I discovered this by arbitrarily kicking the skeleton.

As for the cyclops, I sated him with hot peppers and a bottle of water, but you can actually do better by mentioning "Odysseus" to him.  This is better because he runs away in terror, leaving an open passage back to the cabin.  I doubt that many people will discover this on their own, though, and it was probably intended to be an easter egg.  In case you don't already know, "Odysseus" is the protagonist in Homer's Odyssey, who at one point drives a wooden stake through the eye of a cyclops.  Ouch.

Dam Controls

Artist's conception of the dam controls from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I
The dam controls took a lot of trial and error for me to decode, but as it turned out, I was overthinking the problem.  The best way to approach the problem is by testing each of the buttons in the janitor's closet, so I'll cover each in turn.

Blue Button

The blue button triggers a leak in a pipe above your head.  You never need to push the button to finish the game, so I could skip over this one, but unless you're using a walkthrough, you'll probably push the blue button at some point.  

When you push the blue button, water will start filling the closet and you have to figure out what to do.  The problem I have with this puzzle is that the text makes it ambiguous whether the source of the water is even visible, let alone accessible.  The exact text: 
"There is a rumbling sound and a stream of water appears to burst from the east wall of the room (apparently, a leak has occurred in a pipe)."
I did eventually converge on plugging the leak with the "viscous material", but it took me a while.  Why would the above parenthetical say "apparently"?  If the pipe is within reach to fix, shouldn't it be visibly obvious that it's leaking?

Red Button

The red button is not complicated, it just turns the lights in the room on and off.  Feel free to push it as much as you like to see.

Yellow and Brown Buttons

I initially misinterpreted the function of the yellow and brown buttons, so the dam stumped me for a while.  Pushing them doesn't lead to any immediately obvious effects, they just respond with a "click".  To see their effects you need to go back out to the dam controls and notice that the "small green plastic bubble" begins to glow when you push yellow (any number of times), and stops glowing when you push brown.

It all seems very simple in retrospect, but making this connection took a while.  There is a bolt on the dam controls, and it will only turn if the green plastic bubble is glowing.  I can't tell you how many combinations of items I tried to use on this bolt before realizing the connection with the green plastic bubble.  Once the green plastic bubble is glowing, you can turn the bolt with the wrench.  

Loud Room

Artist's conception of the dam and Frigid River from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I
Unfortunately, I didn't have the pleasure of solving the loud room with my own cleverness.  During my initial research into Zork I, I had accidentally stumbled on a solution to the puzzle.  I learned that if you go into the room and type 'SAY, "ECHO"', it will change the acoustics and allow you to pick up the platinum bar.  I don't see any logic to this solution and I guess it was put in there as an easter egg of sorts.  I think a more fun, but still illogical, solution would have been to 'SAY, "SAY ECHO"' and then allowed the cascading echo commands to multiply until the acoustics changed... or the player character's head exploded.  Actually, I think I prefer it as a suicide method.

Anyway, the real solution is quite tricky.  The first time you enter the loud room, it will be loud because water is pouring over the top of the dam, but you don't know this and the text doesn't tell you.  When you later open the sluice gates to the dam, the noise will become "unbearably loud" and you won't even be able to enter the loud room.  What you have to do is close the gates and quickly rush to the loud room before water starts pouring over the top of the dam again.  If you do that, the room will be "eerily silent" and you can pick up the platinum bar.  Note that closing the gates only works if they have previously been open long enough to cause the water level in the reservoir to fall.  


Having the actual entrance to hell contained within the Zork labyrinth is a stroke of genius, and one of the most memorable parts of the game.  The game will even transport you there if you die elsewhere in the labyrinth (sometimes).

There's a puzzle to solve in Hades as well, but it is somewhat less memorable.  Basically, you need to make use of three items: candles, a black book, and a brass bell.  The black book contains the hints that should lead you to this conclusion.  Reading the marked page in the book will reveal a prayer, and if you try to read any other page, it will tell you that "certain noises, lights, and prayers" are effective in banishing evil.

Artist's conception of Hades from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I.  The spirits of the dead are shown.

The only one of the three items that has any immediate effect when you use it in Hades is the bell.  Unfortunately, if you're holding the candles when you ring it, they will fall and go out.  

Use your matches you re-light the candle and try again.  You have to wait for the bell to cool down before you can use it again, but this is just a matter of typing "WAIT" about 10 times.

The second time, you should of course put the candles down before ringing the bell.  This has its desired effect, terrifying the nearby demons and leaving the candles still lit, but you're not done.  The next step is what confused me for a while.  I thought that I would then just need to read from the black book.  Unfortunately, this didn't work.  

The book does contain the passage, 'Oh ye who go about saying unto each: "Hello sailor"'.  Clearly, the game designers were Monty Python fans (as any self-respecting nerd would be), but unfortunately, typing 'SAY, "HELLO SAILOR"' has no effect.  I think I tried it about 5 or 6 times for finally giving up, though.

As it turned out, I just had to pick up the candles before reading the book.  No, I didn't have to consult a walkthrough for that, but it took me longer than I'd like to admit.

Coal Mine

I gotta say, the coal mine is a major pain in the neck.  That's not really criticism -- avaricious adventurers should be expected to jump through some hoops if they want to loot the bastion of an ancient civilization.  But still, I lost count of the number of times I botched the sequence of steps that leads to the central treasure of the coal mine, the diamond.

Artist's conception of the vampire bat from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I.  He is at the entrance to a coal mine.
Before you set out for the mine, make sure you have some garlic with you.  This is essential to get past the vampire bat near the mine entrance.  It's not hard to figure this out, but inventory space is at a premium here, so lugging around garlic is a nuisance.  

Once you're past the bat, you can explore the mine.  At the beginning, there's a shaft with a basket and pulley attached.  Make note of it, because it will be important later, but feel free to pass it by the first time through.

After that, the mine is navigated the same way you navigate the maze, by dropping items and mapping the passages.  At the far end of the mine, you'll find a passage that can only be followed when your inventory is empty.  Unfortunately, an empty inventory means you don't have any source of light, so you'll be left in the dark if you crawl through without taking some preliminary steps first.

Hopefully, you'll eventually be clever enough to realize that the passage is actually leading you to a room at the bottom of the shaft you saw near the entrance to the mine.  You will also need to have two sources of light (lantern and torch) and realize that you can lower one of them into said room so that you can see when you crawl through the passage without any items.

Artist's conception of the shaft from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I.  A basket hangs from a rope at the top, and can be dropped down vertically.To complete the main puzzle, you will need a torch, a lantern, coal, and a screwdriver.  The torch, coal, and screwdriver should be placed in the basket and lowered to the bottom of the shaft.  Take note of the following things that you should NOT do (I did all of them at one point or another):
  • DO NOT put the lantern in the basket and take the torch with you.  You will just blow yourself up in the gas room.
  • DO NOT forget to pick up the coal from the mine BEFORE putting anything in the basket.  
  • DO NOT forget to lower the basket when you fill it with the items you need.  
  • When you get to the narrow passage, DO NOT turn off your lantern before crawling through.  When you return, you won't be able to see to turn it back on.
  • DO NOT forget to put ALL of your items back in the basket before returning through the narrow passage.
Once you've made your way through passage and retrieved your things from the basket.  You'll be presented with a mysterious machine.  What you'll have to do is put the coal in the machine and then activate the machine's switch by using a screwdriver.  Take note that you MUST close the lid to the machine before running it.  This is one of those things that's less obvious in text than it would be in person.  Once the machine has finished running, you can retrieve your diamond and reverse the steps you followed previously.


Artist's conception of the thief from the 1980 text adventure, Zork I
Of all of the puzzles and enemies in Zork I, the thief gave me the most trouble.  Aside from the fact that he sporadically appeared to kill me or take my treasure, he also ended up being essential to finishing the game.  I eventually had to consult a walkthrough to learn that I needed him to handle one of my items (the egg) before I could retrieve the final treasures.  He's also a bear to kill in combat, sometimes requiring several restores to knock off.  

Still, as an in-game puzzle, he's an interesting feature.  I regret not having experimented with him more before giving in to the walkthrough -- perhaps I would have had more appreciation for his enigmatic nature.

Big Picture

Zork I is the first in a trilogy of text adventures that were released in 1980, 1981, and 1982.  The genre is still very young in 1980 and its most important company, Infocom, has only just been formed.  I look forward to covering future text adventures in this blog, including the rest of the Zork trilogy, but that is for another time.  Most of the action is still in the arcades at this point in video game history (both literally and figuratively), so we'll pick up there again in my next entry.


  1. In the final mainframe version, the bottle of water is needed elsewhere. Once you give it to the cyclops, you're forever locked out of an area of the game. So you either must be absolutely sure you're done in that section first, or just shout Odysseus (Ulysses also works). For the home conversion this area was moved to Zork II and a brand new water bottle along with it, so it's less of a problem in Zork I.

    Echo was originally the only solution to the loud room. In the earliest releases of Zork I (and mainframe Zork), turning the bolt instantly fills or drains the reservoir. Later versions added the delayed drain/fill as an alternate solution, as well as several new room descriptions (and a few new ways to drown yourself).

  2. Just started playing this game again after a 30 year hiatus. I still have the original box set comprising of Zork Anthology (Zork 1, 2, 3, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero and Planetall)

  3. RE: "I doubt that many people will discover this on their own, though, and it was probably intended to be an easter egg." AND "The book does contain the passage, 'Oh ye who go about saying unto each: "Hello sailor"'. Clearly, the game designers were Monty Python fans (as any self-respecting nerd would be), but unfortunately, typing 'SAY, "HELLO SAILOR"' has no effect. I think I tried it about 5 or 6 times for finally giving up, though."

    The point of the passage is it's a hint on how to defeat the cyclops in a much easier fashion. Check out the full text of the passage:

    Oh ye who go about saying unto each: "Hello sailor":
    Dost thou know the magnitude of thy sin before the gods?
    Yea, verily, thou shalt be ground between two stones.
    Shall the angry gods cast thy body into the whirlpool?
    Surely, thy eye shall be put out with a sharp stick!
    Even unto the ends of the earth shalt thou wander and
    Unto the land of the dead shalt thou be sent at last.
    Surely thou shalt repent of thy cunning.

    Now look at the first letter of each line--what does it spell? "ODYSSEUS" :-D


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