Return to Zork

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Return to Zork
Return to Zork Coverart.png
Cover art
Developer(s) Activision
Publisher(s) Infocom
Designer(s) Doug Barnett
Engine MADE
Platform(s) Macintosh, DOS, PC-FX, PlayStation, Sega Saturn, FM Towns
Release September 15, 1993
Genre(s) Graphic adventure
Mode(s) Single player

Return to Zork is a 1993 graphic adventure game in the Zork series. It was developed by Activision and was the final Zork game to be published under the Infocom label.


Unlike the previous games in the Zork franchise, which were text adventures, Return to Zork takes place from a first-person perspective and makes use of video-captured actors as well as detailed graphics; a point-and-click interface replaced the text parser for the first time in a Zork game. The overall gameplay style was somewhat similar to Myst, although Return to Zork predated Myst by a few months. Unlike Myst, which had no extraspatial dimensions of functionality, Return to Zork features multiple ways of interacting with each object in the game world, as well as with several non-player characters also present in the world via a menu which appears on the left side of the screen. It also offers multiple ways to "complete" the game, encouraging replay.

Among the actors who appear in the game were a number of recognizable character actors as well as a number of well-known younger actors: Robyn Lively of Twin Peaks as "The Fairy", Jason Hervey of The Wonder Years as "The Troll King", and Sam J. Jones from the 1980 film Flash Gordon as "The Blind Bowman" and A.J. Langer of My So-Called Life as fellow Zork explorer Rebecca Snoot whom the player encounters on several occasions.

Game designer, Doug Barnett, worked independently with Activision and wrote several "choose your own adventure" style books. Art designer Mark Long (co-founder/owner of Zombie Studios) had several goals in mind to "make the game realistic" and "avoid things like mazes in text adventure games," and "multiple ways to solve puzzles, and to finish the game." In an interview in 1999, he stated these concepts:

  1. All of the puzzles in the game reference real, albeit esoteric, references to various cultures and archeological history and studies. A common example would be the exploration of the pyramids in Egypt along with the mythology that surrounds them, but uncommonly known examples were chosen over better-known ones. Mark's overseas duties in the U.S. Army (retired Major) combined with a year of historical research enhanced the puzzles that must be solved to finish the game.
  2. Navigation is "always correct; if you move north then south, you are always in the same place. Solving mazes was overdone, dull, and annoying."
  3. There are multiple ("at least three") ways to solve puzzles, as well "as a half-dozen ways to complete the game." His reasoning: "I didn't like games that you had to follow a single, specific, obfuscated path for each puzzle, and just one way the game could be finished." This was contrary to text-based adventure games and the widely popular Myst series. It also "gave the player a reason to play the game more than once, trying to discover new ways to solve puzzles and to finish the game. Serious gamers said they had worked out dozens of combinations to complete the game."


As a tribute to the original Infocom, Return to Zork included feelies. The feelies include:

  • A sweepstakes letter; some packages also included a sweepstakes letter written in French and/or German
  • The envelope for the sweepstakes letter
  • The 966 GUE edition of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, which was combined with the game manual


The player's character is a sweepstakes winner who wins an all expenses paid holiday to the Valley of the Sparrows, in Zork. Upon arrival, however, the player quickly learns that the entire area has fallen under some dark and sinister influence, becoming decayed and dysfunctional. Whole buildings have mysteriously vanished, murderous vultures infest the land, people have frequent and disturbing nightmares featuring some dark being which refers to itself as Morphius, and many of those who have survived have become reclusive and paranoid. The player must survive countless perils whilst exploring the valley, investigating the causes of the powers that have gripped the land and ultimately putting a stop to them.


The game was packaged with an abridged version of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica (see above), which also served as the game manual and assisted in the game's copy protection scheme. (At various points during play, the player had to provide information from the Encyclopedia, although the information was widely known trivia from the Zork canon.)

Throughout the game, the player can take photographs of the environment with a camera and record significant information with a tape recorder. The game also automatically generates a map as the player progresses, and takes notes in a notebook as the plot unfolds through dialogue or events in the game.

Return to Zork is set in the year 1647 GUE, later than any other game in the fictitious history of Zork, including those made after it. Even the relevant backstory postdates all other games, beginning with the Great Diffusion in 1247 GUE. The sweepstakes letter included with the game implies that the events of earlier games and even the Great Diffusion, to a degree, had come to be regarded as mere mythology by this time, and touts exploration of recently discovered ruins of the Great Underground Empire as one of the holiday attractions.

The video introduction features a 3D animation, and the very first lines of text, of the famous opening scene of Zork, featuring the familiar White House and Mailbox.

Unlike earlier text-adventure games by Infocom, violence against innocent bystanders is possible. It is possible to kill several of the game's civilian non-player characters, whereas in every other Infocom or Zork game, such actions are either impossible to accomplish or immediately punished by death. Killing causes a masked vigilante who is also the "Guardian" to come and remove all the player's items, with the intention of rendering the game unwinnable. It is worth noting, however, that dropping all of one's items prior to killing circumvents this effect; the items will still be there after the Guardian comes and goes.

As in the Zork text-adventure games, there are several ways to make the game "unwinnable" by using or altering an object or item in an unintended manner. For instance, burning many items with the matches will usually result in an unsolvable game. The most commonly cited example of this occurs with the bonding plant by the side of the road near the beginning of the game. Although the plant is essential later on, it is very easy to unintentionally kill it, and the game gives little indication that the plant is important. (It is in fact possible to obtain a new one, although the secret is well-hidden and arguably makes little sense even after it is accomplished, a criticism that is often leveled at many of the game's puzzles, despite being clearly documented in the game's major source of hints.)

Game bugs made some of the puzzles harder, or more specifically, stopped the game from providing the hints that would make the puzzles easier. A patch was released that fixed these bugs. However the patch also introduced a new bug that made an inventory item disappear, rendering an endgame challenge unsolvable by its intended solution, though alternate solutions exist.


The game disc is also a 26-track audio disc. Each track on the disc plays in a specific location in the game. Some tracks are used in more than one location. In a few cases, a MIDI version of the music is used in the game instead of the CD recording. The tracks are as follows:

  1. (Game data; not a music track - a conventional CD player will play this as a blank track)
  2. Prologue (unused)
  3. Opening of the Mailbox
  4. White House AND Vulture Pits
  5. Opening Credits (Journey to the Valley)
  6. West Shanbar AND Front of Lighthouse AND Road to the South
  7. Bel Naire Temple
  8. Entering the Great Underground Empire AND Closing Sequence at End of Game
  9. Files in Mayor's Office AND Notebook AND Sliding Tiles Puzzle
  10. Guardian of Zork
  11. Dreaming of Morpheus AND Inside the Vulture Pits
  12. Fool's Memorial
  13. Hero's Memorial AND Boar's Memorial
  14. Hardware Store AND Ferryman's Dock AND Troll Defeat
  15. Troll Fight
  16. Gift Shop
  17. Boos Miller (unused - MIDI version used in game)
  18. Dwarven Mines
  19. Whispering Woods
  20. Entering the Citadel of Zork (unused - MIDI version used in game)
  21. Endgame of Survivor (unused - MIDI version used in game)
  22. Moodock's Armory (MIDI version used in game)
  23. Forest of the Spirits (this piece is the Pavane by Gabriel Fauré)
  24. Cliffs of Depression AND Bogs
  25. Blacksmith AND Incinerator
  26. Medley (unused - possibly a rejected version of the final credits)


Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World wrote in a preview of Return to Zork that modernizing the Zork series was "treading on sacred ground. It's a little bit like daring to remake Casablanca".[1]


  1. ^ Ardai, Charles (November 1993). "Little White Houses For Grue And Me". Computer Gaming World. pp. 73–78. Retrieved 28 March 2016. 

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