Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Zork 1: The Forces of Krill by S. Eric Meretzky

Zork 1: The Forces of Krill by S. Eric Meretzky is the first in a series of three Zork Adventures published by Puffin Books in 1984 under license from Infocom (and published earlier in 1983 in the USA by Tom Doherty). Curiously, there is absolutely no overt mention that the book is based on a successful series of text adventure computer games. Being an avid player of the initial Zork trilogy I knew this link however, but for some reason never deigned to play these gamebooks when they came out. Partly then, this review is an attempt to find out why I avoided Zork Adventures in favour of other series when I was younger...

Theme - 2/5

In essence, two kids from our world find the Sword of Zork in the bushes behind their school and are transported to the land of Frobozz, now under attack by the armies of the uber-bad Krill. To defeat the forces of evil they must locate the three Spheres of Power, which, curiously, are called Palantirs inside the book. This Palantir reference highlights other LOTR influences, such as the names Aragain and Ellron, but makes them look somewhat incongruous alongside Zork stalwarts such as Frobozz and Dimwit Flathead. There are plenty of references to Zork 1, including “an ancient sword of Elvish workmanship”, “a battery-powered brass lantern”, and even “a white boarded up house in a large clearing in the woods” and a fragment of “the Great Underground Empire”, both of which you get to explore. There’s also a couple of chances to be devoured by grues (though a text description of them remains elusive, as per Jack Vance’s original creatures), and, thanks to the anti-cheat section on page 124, I now know the Patron God of Decision Novels (and presumably Gamebooks) is Vindictus, who has the power to reach out of a gamebook and turn all cheaters into hideous toads (hasn’t happened to me yet!).
What gnomes look like in the world of Zork

Illustrations - 2/5

I like the cover illustration by Phil Parks, but it’s completely wrong: Krill is some sort of inhuman demon, not a human wizard; and his sophisticated saurian guards are at odds with the brutal drooling lizard creatures frequently encountered inside the book. Paul Van Munching’s internal art isn’t as good as his awesome-sounding name, and for example, on pages 67 and 76 we get Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit instead of a generic anonymous gnome. Page 57 frustratingly reneges on the promise of showing us what grues actually look like, although this is made up for by the cool map on page 61, which includes “Known Grue Lairs”! 

Gameplay - 1/5

The structure of The Forces of Krill is that of simple branching paragraphs, usually with only two choices. One choice almost always leads to some variation of hideous instant death, but this is leavened by providing the reader with a points score out of ten rating their progress so far, and an invitation to return to the page where they last screwed up and try the other choice. A couple of times there are very broad, heavily-telegraphed hints as to a future choice you must make. Curiously, on one of the few pages you get to make three choices, one option is instant death (forewarned by a hint), one option is technically correct (but wrong if you choose it immediately), and the final choice shifts to a scenario only knowable by those who have actually played the Zork 1 text adventure game.

A map of the Great Underground Empire

 Exposition - 2/5

The writing is serviceable and workman-like but offers no indication the author would later hook-up with no less a talent than Douglas Adams himself to write the Infocom text adventure version of The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. In particular, the segue from school kids Bill and June into fantasy peasants Bivotar and Juranda is handled weirdly and abruptly, begging the question whether the tenuous link between Zork and the real world was ever really necessary. In addition, some sections look like they have been copied verbatim from the Zork 1 text adventure. While this does provide a certain joy of recognition, it also results in strange info-dumps, as when Juranda says: “It’s supposed to be the greatest engineering feat in the history of the Great Underground Empire, designed by Lord Dimwit Flathead himself”, when there’s no possible way she could know this unless her alter ego June was putting in the hard yards playing Zork 1 at home.

Rules - 1/5

There’s no rules system to speak of, though at a couple of points you are asked if you possess certain items. One of these leads to the previously mentioned anti-cheat section at page 124. Page 88 shows you four different buttons for controlling Flood Control Dam #3 but doesn’t do anything as radical as actually letting you choose which one(s) to press.
These are buttons but you can't choose which one to press.

Total 8/25

Not quite leftovers but better than carrion, The Forces of Krill is really only of interest to the serious gamebook historian or collector, or if you have a soft spot for the old Zork adventure games. Certainly, I won’t be actively seeking out subsequent adventures in the series, such as The Malifestro Quest or The Cavern of Doom, but if I saw them going cheap in a second-hand book shop I’d probably buy them just to check if they could improve on The Forces of Krill. I can however see why my younger self never read them beyond a brief scan, and, unfortunately, it’s because they’re not very good.

Carrion? Leftovers? Pah! Make up your mind!


  1. Great review. I had no idea they made gamebooks from Zork, but it makes complete sense. It's just unfortunate that this one sucks.

  2. An excellent review neatly demonstrating that not all gamebooks were created equal. For myself, my interest in FF never translated into a liking of other gamebooks (or RPGs for that matter), so learning about them this way is entertaining.

  3. Nice Blog. I'm a collector and own more than 270 gamebooks but even then there are still plenty of obscure gamebooks I don't own and haven't played and unless someone reviews them, I don't know if they're worth getting so I support your endeavor. Yes, there's Demian's gamebooks, but the thing is... the most obscure ones DON'T have reviews on his site. Also I like the fact that you bother uploading illustrations in the books. Keep up the good work, I'll be reading you for sure.

    BTW I might have a super obscure gamebook for you to review in a few months, namely, mine. ;) (yeah cause that'll get published..well...maybe i'll self-publish on lulu or something...)

  4. This book and the following ones are indeed unbelievably silly. They might be interesting as a way to introduce very young children to gamebooks, but anyone over 6 won't get much enjoyment out of them.

  5. Glad you liked the review! I was on holiday on Australia and found this one in a 2nd hand bookshop, hence the post. Plenty more to come from Stuart and myself!



  6. A couple of points of clarification here...First, you might want to mention that Steve Meretzky is one of the most famous names behind Infocom, being designer, writer and programmer for many of the famous games. Secondly, the name "Aragain" is quite definitely not a Tolkien name; it's the name of a huge waterfall from Zork 1. (Hint: Try reading it backwards.)

  7. I actually have / had a massive collection of Gamebooks, and I actually had the first three of this series) there actually was a fourth one, published later on, which I found online and briefly played through).

    This one was definitely my least favourite of the three, with a much more serious tone that the other two, which were much more light-hearted.

    The path to play was VERY linear in all the books, similiarly to the Interplanetary Spy series - almost all choices were of the Good / Bad variety.

    Have just discovered the blog, and have been pleased to see that I owned both this book and the Douglas Hill one above.

  8. @John Evans: I'd linked Meretsky's name to his Wikipedia profile but I didn't mention his other exploits because he hadn't done them before he published this, and there's nothing in this book to indicate what he would go on to achieve.

    Thanks for the Aragain Falls spot - never noticed it! Aragrain just reminded me of Aragorn, as with Ellron echoing Elrond, which was kick-started by all the references to Palantirs (which is a LOTR term).

    @Aussiesmurf: I'm tempted to check out the others just to see if they improve any, but it's fairly far down the 'to do' pile at this stage. Thanks for reading!