Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The ZORK Chronicles

An adventure gaming acquaintance of mine gave me a copy of George Alec Effinger's paperback Infocom novel The ZORK Chronicles several years ago.  It was published in 1990, a decade after the mainframe game DUNGEON made its downsized personal computer debut as ZORK I-III.  As I've recently been revisiting the classic ZORK trilogy, I was inspired to finally get around to reading it.

The ZORK Chronicles is not a choose-your-own-adventure book; publisher Avon Books wisely recognized that fiction and interactive fiction are different experiences, and that what works very well in the digital medium feels clunky and disjointed on paper.  Instead, established author George Alec Effinger (1947-2002) was commissioned to deliver a light fantasy novel of the sort that Dragon magazine readers would probably enjoy, set solidly in the ZORK universe.  The story concerns the adventures of Glorian, a Supernatural Guide (one of those mysterious figures who restore our heroes to health after dying and provide the occasional in-game hint), and his heroic charge, a beefy prince of a warrior named Mirakles.  There are plenty of puns and tongue-in-cheek sword-and-sorcery references, wrapped in the usual band-of-brethren-against-unspeakable-evil storyline, and as a quick bit of fiction it's not bad at all.  Effinger is a clever and talented writer, with Hugo and Nebula awards to his credit, and for extra street cred here, I note that he was also involved in game writing and design, working on what is perhaps the best of the late-era Activision/Infocom graphic adventures, Circuit's Edge.

From a gaming appreciation perspective, this is a book best read soon after playing through ZORK I: The Great Underground Empire, ZORK II, and ZORK III, because most of the action takes place on these game's familiar maps.  Many of the novel's surprises and jokes depend on the reader's familiarity with what happens when we play as the famous "unnamed adventurer" who, in this story, is historically renowned for efficiently looting the G.U.E. of its fabulous treasures and solving its most vexing puzzles, some years in the past. 

Most of the familiar locations are here -- the white house with the kitchen window slightly ajar, the Engravings Room, the Round Room -- and though the familiar locations' contents and "puzzles" are generally new for this story, knowing references to the original game's items and events abound.  I can't imagine anyone who hasn't at least sampled ZORK I getting most of these gags -- Effinger even adopts the Infocom style for capitalization of location names, and there are plenty of other little Zorkian asides, like references to the Dimwit Flathead regime, and the regular appearance of legends reading This space intentionally left blank.  The transition to ZORK II territory takes place through the same Stone Barrow as in the games, and the characters visit the Bank of Zork, the Carousel Room, and the topiary garden, and the famous hot air balloon comes into play along with the adjacent ledges.  By comparison, not much time is spent in the world of ZORK III, as by that point the story is well underway and building to an appropriately satisfying conclusion.

Not all of the circa-1990 references will hold up over the long term -- there are a number of early IBM PC computer terms woven into the story for comic effect, touching on Embedded Characters, the Scroll Lock, a Hot Key and the Autoexec (as the ultimate authority in the world of ZORK, superseded only by the possibly mythical Control Character.)  Today, the original games remain playable on any number of platforms, thanks to diligent porting of the Infocom Z-machine by dedicated interactive fiction fans, but the context continues to evolve and these vintage terms are already obsolete.  At least the Implementors, the original ZORK programmers, remain revered and relevant.

In a feat of literary derring-do, Effinger's story manages to be fresh and interesting -- the author has a deep appreciation and familiarity with the Great Underground Empire, and gives the impression he too has spent hours wandering through its digital caverns, reviewing the items in his inventory and scratching his head.  But Mr. Effinger does not feel obligated to retell the story of the game itself, and that makes a big, positive difference in how this novel reads.  This tale features a band of adventurers, unlikely allies on a shared journey, which makes for much better reading than the gamer's engrossing but generally solitary experience.  The novel is set in a different time and place, and some sequences explore territory that's unavailable in the game -- in one chapter, Glorian and a companion must venture beyond the Entrance of Hades, into the desolate landscape beyond.  With his deft, funny prologue and epilogue, Effinger establishes a framework of myths, magic and monsters that places the ZORK universe squarely in the classic tradition, with plenty of inspiration from Joseph Campbell's meta-myth analyses and a few Lord of the Rings references.  It's a knowing nod to the Implementors' inspirations, and a prescient recognition of interactive fiction as a legitimate medium for fantasy literature.

I won't go into detail about the story -- suffice it to say that it works, is entertaining in the way it's supposed to be, and is structured in all the gently inevitable ways that good adventure games cannot be.  The characters are entertaining, recognizably human despite the magical gewgaws and hyperbole, and it's a decent little adventure story with a great deal of humor.  It's also completely family-friendly, without seeming childish or unsophisticated; the few "adult" references are slyly and intelligently cloaked, in keeping with the broad age appeal of a good adventure game (at least circa 1990!)

Avon Books published a series of these Infocom novels in the early 90s, each based on a different game, and The ZORK Chronicles is the first of the series that I've read.  If the others are similarly entertaining, I may have to track them down.  Is The ZORK Chronicles a great book?  Not really; its very nature constrains it, as certain expectations of its rather narrowly-defined audience must needs be met.  But I don't think it's inaccurate or unfair to call it a very polished piece of fan fiction, written by a very talented author with evident respect for his source material.  The late Mr. Effinger brought more energy and intelligence to this work than the job specification called for, and that alone deserves praise.  Good stuff, adventure fans!


  1. If the others are similarly entertaining, I may have to track them down.

    My recollection is that it's head-and-shoulders above the rest. Quit while you're ahead!

    The ZORK Chronicles is not a choose-your-own-adventure book; publisher Avon Books wisely recognized that fiction and interactive fiction are different experiences, and that what works very well in the digital medium feels clunky and disjointed on paper.

    Hey, Meretzky authored four Zork-themed CYOA gamebooks and they're awesome.

    Really the question in my mind is why, in the world of video game novelizations, the adaptations of the highly literary Infocom games are so wretched while the book adaptations of, eg., DooM, are so much better than they need to be.

  2. I think the rather tight, literary plotting of Infocom's text adventures actually made it harder to adapt them to other media; what Effinger did here was to tell a new story in an established setting, which I think was a creative way to get around those limitations.

    A game like DOOM establishes an atmosphere and a general framework -- it wouldn't make sense to write a novel that just plods through the established levels, but it's not hard to find new stories to tell within those worlds. Anyone who's played the games will be pleased to see certain elements referenced, but there's no lead character or detailed "canonical" plot established, giving an author a lot of freedom to use the game's world as a jumping-off point. Halo is somewhere in between, I suppose, but it's still not as restrictive as a text adventure with a world map and objects that the reader knows in detail.

  3. I've enjoyed reading The Zork Chronicles a few times since it came out; as for the other books, *most* of them get really good reviews. Unfortunately, none of those were the two that I found and read:

    -- Planetfall was poorly-written, didn't even contain any references to anything in the game (let alone a plot); humor-wise, at its best it was like a fourth-grader's attempt to imitate Douglas Adams.

    -- Lost City of Zork (by Robin Bailey) had no real reviews; I didn't find it funny, and it had plenty of names relating to the games but has a completely generic "warrior-wannabe travels with an inept wizard to run from an evil tyrant and find the lost rightful king" plot.

    Like I said, I do think the other books are probably worth it...just not those two. (I should've taken it as a bad sign when they were so easily found on Bookmooch.)