Monday, January 21, 2013

Revisiting Zork Nemesis

A Million More Words About This Game Than You Thought Possible

When writing about my relationship with my father, I had mentioned that one of our potential chances to bond over video games involved Zork Nemesis: The Forbidden Lands. Over the holidays, had a pretty awesome sale on their entire catalog, so I decided to pick it up. What's interesting about the game is its weird status as the black sheep of the 3D Zork games. From what I could gather while browsing the abundant internet, the main complaint lodged by fans of the source material was that it lacked the humor of the other games and was too dark. I essentially played this game in a bubble. I was vaguely aware of the Zork text adventures, which I could never wrap my brain around, and then my dad came home one day with Zork Nemesis. It is the only Zork game I've played intently and finished thus far in my life, and I loved it, so my internet findings came as a bit of a shock.

I'm currently in a bit of a gaming limbo right now, having nothing major that I have to or need to play. The last big game I finished was Far Cry 3, and I felt like I needed to play some shorter games that didn't involve sprawling sandboxes. After Syndicate, a brief foray into SimCity 4, and finishing the Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty DLC for Borderlands 2, I developed a sudden desire to play Zork Nemesis again.

So I did, and I just finished it last night. I do have to admit that it brought back all my nostalgic feelings about the game, and I enjoyed every minute still. However, this time around was different in that I noticed cracks in the story I never really pondered before. To be honest, I'm not entirely not sure why I've never picked up on them before, but I think this was the first time that I really tried to piece together all the bits of the narrative. I also set some rules for myself. One thing about playing puzzle adventure games like this or Myst is that you basically never forget how to solve the puzzles and/or you still have your printer sheets covered in notes. I didn't want to breeze through the game (you can solve Myst in under 5 minutes, by the way), so I set these rules for myself:

  1. I will explore every inch of each area and read all material I come across.
  2. I will not go to solve a puzzle unless I have actually discovered the solution.
  3. Even if I do find a solution, I will continue exploring until there's really little else to do but solve the puzzle.
  4. The previous rule does not preclude me from solving stand-alone puzzles that don't require external clues.

I had a few reasons for these rules. First, I cannot properly analyze the game if I breeze through it darting from solution to solution until I'm done. The developers created a world I was intended to absorb for better or worse, so I was going to absorb it. Additionally, I wanted to use the puzzles as the barriers they're supposed to be. I can't change the fact that I know where each puzzle's solution is located, so the least I can do is just visit every area and explore each branching path until I actually arrive at the solution's location. I really wanted to test how far I can get in each place before the game basically tells me I can't proceed any further.

Warning: Dead baby jokes.
Now that I'm done, let's explore my great Zork Nemesis findings.
The following sections will contain spoilers. If you do plan on playing the game, finish it first.

I clearly didn't understand the story when I was younger.

I have played Zork Nemesis: The Forbidden Lands a bunch of times, and the story is hard to ignore, especially if you do explore all the areas as I did. Much like Myst and its ilk, you play a lone traveler who happens upon a world gone awry…somehow, but I will go into that later. You arrive at a temple and discover that a woman, named Alexandria, has been murdered by the Nemesis, who's haunting the Forbidden Lands. Inside the temple are four alchemists in tombs who ask you to save them, which might also lead to reviving Alexandria and defeating the Nemesis. Part of fixing what's wrong in the present is discovering what happened in the past. Unlike Myst, Zork Nemesis adds more cinematic cutscenes triggered by finding notable objects in each area. Simply clicking on them sprouts a vision of a scene from the past that provides more detail to the sordid history of the people you're tasked with saving. However, there are still books and letters between the alchemists to read.

Zork at her computer.
Well, it's apparent that I never bothered to put together the chronology of the story until now. After completing the four major puzzles in the temple, you are given the ability to travel to four areas around the world to continue piecing together the grand puzzle of what happened. (This is not like the grand puzzle in Riven, which is literally a huge puzzle you must solve to finish the game.) You are able to visit each area in any order you like, and each area contains historical clues that are out of order. Thus, you don't just visit one to learn what happened 20 years ago and then another one to see what happened 5 years after that. It's the players job to figure it out, and I never really bothered.

Oh sure, I did figure out that Alexandria was basically created for the purpose of some alchemical ritual. She was born at the asylum, raised at the monstery, learned music at the conservatory, fell in love with Lucien, was prevented from marrying him by his father, and then ended up dead at the temple. The one thing I never paid attention to is how the alchemists even came to know each other or why they would want to do so, much of which is contained in letters instead of cutscenes. If anything, the cutscenes reveal Alexandria's mistreatment. Here is what I derived.

  1. Dr. Sartorius started everything. His father dabbled in alchemy as well, and he pursued the Quintessence, which could grand immortality, all his life. Sartorius, in turn, tried to refine his father's studies and figure it out.
  2. Brother Malveaux had reached out to Sartorius because of his ailing health. Although Sartorius did manage to make him feel a bit better, death was still looming. He took a risk and asked the monk to join him on his alchemical pursuit with the promise of eternal life.
  3. Eventually it became apparent that they needed more people. Each person needed to master each element – earth, air, wind, and fire. It's unclear, but Malveaux knew Sophia Hamilton and invited her to join.
  4. Sophia was a mistress of a famous war general, Lucius Kaine, who is majorly power-hungry. She had fallen deeply in love with him but knew he would not leave his wife. She utilized his lust for power to lure him into joining the pursuit for the Quintessence, figuring that if they were both immortal, he would be with only her.
  5. Sartorius came to the conclusion that the ritual would involve a child born or conceived (not sure) on a day when the elements' planets are all aligned. To pull this off, he impregnated a patient at his asylum, Zoe Wolfe, via in vitro fertilization. (The father is never made clear, but I'm led to believe he was also a patient, named Leon Mason.)
  6. Thus, Alexandria is born. She is given some kind of alchemical christening and raised at the monastery with Malveaux. She is encouraged to study violin with the ulterior motive of purifying her spirit via "The Harmony of the Spheres." So she ends up studying at Sophia's conservatory once she is of age.
  7. Lucien, Lucius' son, discovers Alexandria after attending a performance at the conservatory. He pursues her somehow (never made explicitly clear). When the alchemists discover the romance, mostly by Sophia's nosiness, they try to figure out how to put an end to it. This would be when the cruelty towards both of them starts.
  8. Alexandria picks up on the weird plot against them and begs Malveaux to marry them, so they can be off to travel the world. Malveaux, whom she does not suspect, warns the others, and the two lovebirds' wedding is ended prematurely as Lucius arrests Lucien at the monastery under the veil of draft evasion.
  9. As a solar eclipse approaches, despite some possible failings in their research, the alchemists hasten to complete the ritual at the Temple of Agrippa. They all end up dead-ish, and all their deaths, including Alexandria's, are attributed to the Nemesis. So begins the game.
Please correct me or add in details if I'm wrong, but I have gone through the majority of my life thinking all the alchemists just knew each other other and started plotting all this together. It never occurred to me that it doesn't make a lick of sense.

The battle command puzzle at Irondune is actually solvable using clues, but it seems like the writers disagreed.

One of the hardest puzzles in the game for me was at Irondune, Kaine's castle, where the player is tasked with purifying iron. The first room of the castle you discover is the foyer, and there are sounds of war going on outside. Before Kaine abruptly left, he was at war with another land owner, Ellron, who was being backed by the Enchanter's Guild. Despite having left, war rages on. Eventually, you will reach a point where you have done all that is possible to do inside the castle, and it is apparent that whatever you have left to do is located outside the front door. However, clicking on the front door causes a rather ornery old soldier to come inform you it's not safe to leave. If you proceed with clicking, he yells at you to get away from the door.

After rummaging around, it is apparent that the soldiers lack leadership and a plan to defeat Ellron at last. Eventually, you find a communication table that allows you to provide commands to them via numbers between 1 and 12. When I was younger, I could never figure out the commands. Painting on Lucien's easel somehow reveals the list of commands. There is also a complete battle plan map in the General's bedroom. Finally, there is a torture chamber where six codes are revealed to you, but you only need five. I cannot figure out why, but I could never piece together all these clues into the solution to the puzzle. Admittedly, the battle map lacks the order of commands, but if you really look at it, the chronology becomes apparent. There are arrows on it, for goodness' sake.

This room looks cheap compared to the Vatican.
So how did I manage to complete the game multiple times all these years? Included with the game is a PDF of a journal by someone who visited the temple before you did in an attempt to investigate these people of note. He died. Anyway, the journal, as a whole just provides some backstory about the area, and there is nothing in it you won't find in the game. However, on the front cover (page one of the PDF), is a series of five numbers. Out of curiosity, my thirteen year-old self plugged these numbers into the command table. It works! I thought this was crafty of the writers to force the player to look outside of the game for clues or answers. After all, this is one of the lauded features of The Secret World, which contains its own web browser to consult the internet. But it isn't really. I realized that all the clues to solve the puzzle correctly are in the game itself, and somebody who worked on the game thought maybe it'd be impossible and threw that out there for kids like me. After all, I had a storied history of waltzing over to the the nearest Electronics Boutique to consults their game guides rack. (They are wrapped in plastic nowadays for a reason.)

The developers clearly never predicted the future of faster processors.

This place has seen better days.
This could apply to lots of games, I know. When purchased off of GOG, the game actually comes with its own DOS emulator. That's how old it was. I played it on a Macintosh Performa, and I remember the CD-ROM drive making that crazy sound every time I clicked to move forward to the next scene. It was a slow experience, but I guess it never bothered me. About five years ago, I purchased the PC CD-ROM edition of the game cheaply off Amazon because nostalgia hit me. Unfortunately, I encountered a major speed problem then that I encountered again this weekend, which almost ended my playthrough entirely both times.

My computer now is notably faster than computers back then. The immediate problem when loading up the game on Saturday was that turning speed was ridiculously fast. Zork Nemesis is one of those games that allows "360°" rotation by moving the cursor to the edge of the screen. Of course, calling it 360° is a stretch considering what you can do in games nowadays, but it was definitely a step above performing 90° turns. Anyway, when I tried to turn for the first time, I almost immediately became dizzy. What once was a simple rotation became a dizzying spin in one direction. I adjusted the preferences to set rotation to "slow," which was still fast but workable.

The impossible part comes in the monastery. After solving a puzzle where you need to figure out the sequence of "The Seventh Bell," whose reason for existing I couldn't find, a hatch opens from the bell tower ceiling, and the bell's rope descends down for the player to pull. In my obviously hazy memory, I remembered that pulling on the rope would raiser the player with the rope to Malveaux's quarters, which contain some important puzzle solutions. But clicking on this rope with a fast computer only shows some quick flashing of something happening on the screen, and the player is left on the floor still. I could not figure out what was happening when I encountered this five years ago. I thought I was completely stuck, and I ended up downloading someone else's save file to proceed. I felt really crummy about that, so you know.

I promise you that the existence of magic does not explain everything in this game.
As this forum thread points out, I clearly didn't remember what's supposed to be happening well enough to move beyond that. Apparently, the rope doesn't lift the player to Malveaux's quarters. It actually initiates a camera panning sequence, where the rope lifts the player up to a window that needs to be clicked on to go through. So when I was clicking on the rope, it was actually working just fine; I was just waiting for a cinematic that actually never happens. Aside from using an application like CPU Killer, which slows down your computer considerably to assist with older games like these, the solution is really to click the rope and immediately click like a maniac over to the left to get through that window. It does work, but it does break the immersion.

Unfortunately, much of the story is fudged.

Evidence of a man's home being his castle.
Although it did not prevent me from enjoying this classic game at all, there were a lot of cracks in the narrative and in gameplay elements tied to the narrative that don't really make sense. Here we go!

  1. The four alchemists are dead, right? When you meet the alchemists in the grand room of the temple, they are all in tombs with glass windows in front. Let's ignore the fact that the temple's creator had the foresight to create four tombs in the main hall. Clicking on them makes them beg you to save them. After playing through the game for a while, every time you wrap up the other areas, you see a flashback of how each one was murdered. They are not just weak or passed out. Sartorius was set on fire, Malveaux was impaled, Sophia was choked, and Kaine's throat was slashed. These guys are dead. How are they pleading with you? More importantly, every time you find an element or purify a metal, they talk to you more clearly through a kind of spiritual window above their tombs. How are they doing that? Your efforts actually revive them completely for the end game, which leads to the next problem.
  2. How is each alchemist revived by his/her element exactly? The alchemists tell you that helping them with the Quintessence will bring Alexandria back, and they still pursue it despite the fact that they must already be immortal to be talking to you. The thing is that they ask you to save them by finding their elements, tucked away in each corner of the temple. Somehow, the Nemesis hid them away. How do you hide an element if the temple is filled with it? The ground is stone (earth), there's a fountain in the hallway, there are candles about, and well, you're breathing air all over. OK, let's accept this. Unlocking the elements revives each alchemist enough to chat through that aforementioned window. Why? Does this work on other alchemists who mastered the elements? If not, why does it work on only them? Then, you are tasked with traveling to their home bases and purifying four metals. How does purifying a metal at your house wake you up in the temple? Couldn't I just do this here at the temple? When you're done with all this, they are up and about, and not a single letter or book in the game explains why. Great!
  3. Why is there a machine in the temple that transports the player to these folks' areas? After unlocking the elements, they all pop up in their windows to thank you and ask you to purify the metals. The Nemesis appears as an apparition and threatens you, and they perform some spell that turns the apparition into a golden ball. (Unexplained, too.) You put the golden ball in this device that represents the solar system, and shining the light from the ball on the planet tied to each element brings you to the associated alchemist's area. This doesn't make any sense. The temple was built hundred of years before they existed. There is no particular reason why this device exists solely to bring people to these specific areas, but thank goodness it does, you know?
  4. There are no roads. Using the device drops you through a hole in the bottom, and magically, you fly to each of the four areas. The 3D CGI fly-through is one of the most awesome mechanics used by 3D puzzle adventure developers. This time, however, I noticed there are no roads that lead to any of these places. The asylum is located in the middle of a vast snowy plain, the conservatory is on the bank of a river surrounded by green grass on any side, Irondune is in the middle of a desert, and the monastery is in a prohibitive volcanic area with flowing lava all over the place. The journal I mentioned contains accounts of traveling to these places but it doesn't really explain how. It seems like a very strange oversight to put so much detail in creating a believable world with believable locations but neglect to create a visible and reasonable manner to visit these locations.
  5. The flashbacks are cool, but it doesn't make sense that they happen at all. As I mentioned, clicking on some objects reveals flashbacks to events of the past. Although it is possible to assume that the player in the Zork world is not actually viewing them, too much effort is put into animating these objects to make that feasible. There's a candle that blows smoke around before showing you a vision, a flashlight that spins around before shining in your eyes, and a ring that you have to click on to watch the flashback before you can proceed. The biggest flashback is in the conservatory. By placing an intact poster, which advertises one of Alexandria's performances, on an A-frame poster stand, the entire place is transported to that night, and the player is even tasked with completing the performance in order to proceed. That is one powerful poster. It's a neat effect, but it is a bit silly.
  6. The end game is completely ridiculous. After returning from purifying the fourth metal, the alchemists plead with you to drink the "Quintessence" and join them in immortality. If you don't do so, it disappears, you find out they're evil, and Lucien is the Nemesis. That's fine. In a desperate attempt to right the wrong, Lucien's apparition throws a ring at you, and you are magically transported to the hall with the fountains while the alchemists try to finish the ritual. If you try to enter the hall during the ritual, they laugh at you, and you die. Seriously! You're supposed to turn off the fountains to find a hand that reveals a door if you click on it with the ring. There is nothing indicating that this would happen, but it's seriously the only option. Take note: you descend down a staircase to a sublevel of the temple where Alexandria's body is apparently buried.
    Clicking on her tomb causes her ghost to appear briefly and leaves another ring, which you have to click on with the other ring to create…two rings. From there, you need to bring the rings to the four mechanisms in the room to manufacture the Quintessence, each of which represents each element. It turns out the secret to the Quintessence is love after all, and these machines were just hanging out waiting for you to use engagement rings made of random metal to create it. When you do, the room shakes, and you float (somehow!) out of the room and into a hallway located above the alchemists performing the ritual. Clicking on the alchemists with the Quintessence zaps them out of existence, floats you out of the temple, and makes the temple explode.Then a very alive Alexandria and a no-longer-deranged Lucien greet you and thank you for your efforts, inviting you to join them on their journey wherever. You are winner! But why? I have no clue.

Well, some cutscenes left something to be desired.
It's all fun. I love solving environment puzzles, and I love games that deal with the four elements. I also really enjoy the story of everything that happened, and the "worlds" you visit while you unravel it. It's all honestly immersive. There are just these narrative problems I never considered before that are completely baffling. As for your ability to magically travel about, it is clear that the writers, lacking an element like linking books from Myst, which do actually transport you to areas built like islands but are written to be that way, had no choice but to fulfill the players' dreams of magically flying about. I don't really fault them for any of it except for the end game, which Catherine Tate's character, Nan, would call "a crock of horse shit."

Oh well. Still love this game and heartily recommend it. Go get it.

Image of the Zork Nemesis game cover obtained from Wikipedia. Screenshots obtained from


  1. I've never had this feeling of a failed end. A t this time, it was original, enjoyable, and in my opinion totally unpredictable. I was delighted to see that the game does not stop after the release of the four characters. No, really, for me this game is very good from beginning to end, and nothing ruined for me the pleasure of playing. And the war's code in the castle of Irondune, I immediately thought of the one written on the instructions of the game (a number that obsessed me since I started playing). For the rest, your article is very good and it's great to see that there are still fans of this opus of Zork.

  2. Indeed, in a very literal context, thousands of details pertaining to various aspects of the setting and the puzzles don't make sense, but I feel that this largely misses the purpose of the game. In my interpretation, Zork: Nemesis presents its components within a context that is largely intended metaphorically, and this carries over into the actual setting in which the player is deposited, in which the game's own brand of "fantasy" fuses literal elements with symbology.

    In reference to why the "dead" alchemists appear alive and talking to you, I interpreted this as a result of Nemesis(Lucien's) keeping them in a perpetual (or again metaphorical) state of suspension in order to extract their knowledge. Perhaps the alchemists themselves grow spiritually stronger by the strength of the elements in which they specialize, further punctuated fully once the sacred metals are recreated via alchemical rituals.

    Once again, I feel that to literally evaluate the physical components presented within the world of Zork: Nemesis sort of defeats the intended purpose of the setting. High fantasy stories may fuse elements of magic and supernatural within a setting that would otherwise make sense in a material world. "Zork: Nemesis", in my opinion, exists within its own brand of fantasy, in which reality and metaphor are fused together within the construct that is visually presented to the player. Indeed, many of the puzzles and architecture may not make any literal sense, but I don't think that was the point.

    1. Indeed, the point is to have fun and enjoy the game, which I do immensely. This is a title which I just adore. And I think your interpretation of the dead alchemists can make sense.

      But it does not miss the point to evaluate the information you're being given. Games are to be criticised the same as any other art form. In this case, the writers put a lot of effort into adding details to make the world believable, but by doing so, they also created a world that can be scrutinized every time something is not believable. Whether or not it ruins enjoyment of the game is subjective. In my case, it does not. For someone who demands more out of a fantasy, it could.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I know that I'm late in the discussion but..while browsing for some information I stumbled upon your blog.

    While I don't mind talking deeply about the game and it's inner workings, I think you're over analyzing the minute surrounding details and I agree with the points made by Anonymous (3/6/13). That is not to say that I don't value your input, I do, as it shows your devotion to the game.

    To put it bluntly, to ponder such details as why there is an Orrery in the temple, how the coffins got inside the temple, or how you are able to fly to the alchemist dwellings, etc. is futile. While they would flesh the game out more, somewhere you have to draw the line. They are simply means to an end. I know this sounds like a cop out, but coming from the world of programming / game development, it's the "sane" way to approach things.

    What the game does not lack are (essential) plot details, unlike most other games with a simple slapped on story. The clues needed to unravel the mystery are there and after playing the game a couple of times you were able to formulate the intricate back story of the game.

    With respect to the Irondune battle tactics puzzle, the necessary clues to solve it (along with the battle map and Lucien's canvas) are the screams of the torture victims in the castle's dungeon. There are six codes revealed in the screams, one of the codes "3 equals retreat" does not match Lucien's canvas, which is the one to discard. You then use the battle plans to get the correct order to put in the intercom.

    I would like to address some other points you've made:

    1. Similarly as stated by Anonymous (3/6/13), the way I see it is that Nemesis put them in a temporal suspended state in order to gain knowledge. In the game, the elements and metals represent power and each individual is linked to an element / metal. In the magical realm of Zork Nemesis power equals life.

    2. The way I see it is that you're trying to locate a (pure) element. The earth from the courtyard temple is simply not going to cut it. As Sartorius states, "Pure air, pure life." Or something to that extent. If I'm not mistaken, the strategy guide also referred to the lost elements / metals as being pure.

    6. As a preface, if I remember correctly in one of the alchemist's dwelling the player can learn that the Temple of Agrippa features an underground chamber. This is just FYI, as it still does not help the player find it.

    In my opinion, the cruel thing to do would have been to let the player explore the whole temple. While throwing you into the inner courtyard in the final act may not have been ideal, I can agree with their (developers) decision. One developer to another: "How about this. Let's have Joe run around the temple for god knows how long and try to locate the entrance while the Alchemists are close to completing their ceremony." I don't think so.

    As it currently stands, you are limited to the exploration of the courtyard, and what's in the courtyard? For the most part it's barren with only two fountains in the middle. The immediate death (by going outside the search perimeter) enforces a rule on the player, limiting their search and guaranteeing that they find the passage within a reasonable amount of time.

    I've read somewhere that there's a timer implemented in the final act, the good thing is that it starts around when the player obtains BOTH rings. This enables the player to find the passage without any pressure. Once the player takes the ring from Alexandria, the music picks up signalling the player to hurry in creating the Quintessence.