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Video Game / Return to Zork

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Return to Zork (1993) was the first graphical game in the Zork series.

The player character is a sweepstakes winner who won a trip to the Valley of the Sparrows, which turns out to be a rather depressing place. The PC enters the town of West Shanbar and hears from the townspeople that East Shanbar mysteriously disappeared. Naturally, the PC has to be the one to check it out, and ends up on a magical quest to stop the evil Morpheus from taking over.

Notable that this is the first Zork game to incorporate full graphics and even full-motion video, featuring a number of well-known actors, including Jason Hervey of The Wonder Years, Sam Jones, who played the title role in the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, A.J. Langer, who went on to co-star in My So-Called Life, and Robyn Lively, from Teen Witch and The Karate Kid Part III, plus a few of her family members to boot.

Want some tropes? 'Course ya do!

  • The Alcoholic: Boos Myller. Every meeting you have with him, he offers you rye. If you can figure out how to get him drinking without drinking yourself (one shot of rye will knock you out), he will always drink until he passes out. It's implied that he drinks to block out the bad dreams caused by the Big Bad.
    Boos: Want some rye? 'Course you do!
  • All There in the Manual: Physical copies of the game included a book that discusses the game's lore, as well as provide hints. Digital versions also include this booklet in a PDF. In addition, it's also a form of Copy Protection, as you have to enter one of the days of the week to Ms. Peepers in order to keep going any further. Which one of the seven days is randomized, and the only way you can get the answer is through the book. (At least, the only way in the pre-internet days).
  • And I Must Scream: When Morphius turns people to stone, they stay conscious. The old wizard calling you through the Tele-Orb is one of such victims. Fortunately for him, he's a telepath.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Rebecca Snoot has one named Alexis, although it never attacks, despite being called a hellhound. Although it's still intimidating enough to where a recording of its bark to get you past the Orc Leader later in the game.
  • Anti-Frustration Feature: Several items can be picked up multiple times, or puzzles can be given multiple tries without a game over.
    • You need to feed carrots to a cow to get it calm enough to milk it. After opening the silo, there will be a pile of carrots so large that you can go back as many times as you need for more of them.
    • If you fed the rotten meat to the vultures without sprinkling fairy dust on it first, you can always go back to Rebecca's freezer to grab another steak.
    • Ran out of zorkmids? You can find a money tree in the forest. Smacking it tends to drop some zorkmids if you're too low.
    • Did you forget to pick up the mirror back at Rebecca's home? You can still reflect Canuk's spell by finding a dirty plate, and wiping it with a rag to turn it shiny, then hold that up to reflect the spell.
    • If you pick up the bonding plant the wrong way and killed it as a result, you can either destroy or eat it and it will grow back at the place you found it.
  • The Artifact: You still retain the ability to drop items and leave them behind, even though you no longer have a limit to how many items you can carry at once like you did in the text adventures. The only time this ever comes in handy is for leaving the rotten meat behind, but otherwise you'd be forgiven for not knowing why it's in the game.
  • Call-Back: The game opens up with a visualized representation of the iconic opening segment from the very first game. Except this time instead of getting a leaflet introducing the game out of the mailbox, you get your sweepstakes winner prize.
  • Chess with Death: The final battle against Morphius is a game of Survivor, which is somewhat similar to checkers or chess.
  • Copy Protection: Two parts in the game (one with Ms. Peepers, and one where you encounter Rebecca Snoot) requires you to take a pop-quiz where the answer can be found in the hint book included with the game. Fail to answer three times, and it's game over.
  • Darkness Equals Death: As per usual in the Zork series, pitch blackness means that you are likely to be eaten by a grue. The only way to avoid this is to have an alternate light source or have more than one person in an area. You can even die in a hotel room this way unless you find a way to keep the room lit while you sleep.
  • Demonic Possession: The Wizard Canuk is possessed by Morpheus, who barely tries to hide this fact. He doesn't do a very good job, as his Voice of the Legion breaks through several times.
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: The Flying Disc of Frobaz. You need to find all of the pieces to break through the magical mirror wall that protects the place where Morpheus is hiding.
  • Dirty Coward: The Troll King, who is less intimidating than his thugs, and bargains for his life the moment you threaten him.
  • Drinking Game: "Want some rye? 'Course ya do!" The solution to the drinking game against Boos is to toast him, pour out the rye into the plant, then "drink" the empty cup. Somehow, Boos doesn't notice.
  • Dungeon Bypass: Get a whistle and a magnet, and you'll never have to wander around any of the maze-like maps looking for an exit again.
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: The blacksmith. It's heavily implied that English is not his native language.
  • Exposition Fairy: The Tele-Orb, where you can talk to the wizard within to find out a lot about the world around you.
  • Featureless Protagonist: The game uses Second-Person Narration, and no other description is ever given. The game assumes that the adventurer simply is you, and reacts accordingly. All that's said about the adventurer is that they won some sort of sweepstakes, and that's as much description as is given to the player's avatar.
  • Final-Exam Boss: About a quarter of the way into the game, you play "Survivor" with Moodock, the one-armed man in the inn. You play Canuk, who can move to any square. He plays the wizard Trembyle, who has to move like a knight in chess, and makes a square into a "pit" every time he moves off of it. Canuk's objective is to stop Trembyle from moving, while Trembyle's is to make every square but two into pits. At the end of the game, you play Survivor again, except this time it's against Morpheus, and the roles are reversed. Your only real chance at winning is to learn the "pass" move from Ms. Peepers, which says that Trembyle's player can choose to pass their turn.
  • Forced Transformation:
    • Canuk is a duck by the time you meet him, so your first necessity is turning him human again. Mishandling your dealings with him can get you transformed into a duck as well.
    • Witch Itah can turn you into a rodent if you get on her bad side.
  • Grail in the Garbage: The Waif that lives beneath the bridge gives you a broken piece of the Flying Disc of Frobozz, which is a legendary magical artifact.
  • Guide Dang It!: A trend of Zork games and adventure games in general. Perhaps the worst of these is learning that the wizard Trembyle can opt to pass a turn in Survivor, learned by talking to an NPC you had probably forgotten about by the time you need to learn it. This is crucial to winning the final game of Survivor against Morpheus. Good luck trying to win the game without passing your turn every once in a while.
  • His Name Is...: One of the first interactions with Trembyle in his orb is the old wizard trying to tell you about the wild boar that guards the Forest of the Spirits. However, his crystal ball runs out of batteries as he's telling you, causing him to fade out. When you install a new battery in the orb, he comes back in with "...and that's the only way to get out alive. I hope you remember that when the time comes!" Naturally, you can't ask him to repeat any of what he just said.
  • Hope Spot:
    • If you opt to swim to West Shanbar, you make it to the bridge. Too bad it's out of your reach and the currents are too strong to grab it, and you still die.
    • Seemingly invoked by Canuk, who tells you of a piece of a disc inside the bottle ship (which is used to discover Morpheus' location). There's a shark in there (if you hang at a certain spot long enough), you can drown if you take too long, and even when you do complete your quest, he's waiting for you to come out just so he can turn you into a duck.Solution 
  • Inn of No Return: You will die in Molly's hotel unless you find a way to keep your bedroom illuminated when you go to sleep, as apparently, grues (adventurer-eating beasts who live within pitch-black darkness) live inside the hotel. For some reason, sleeping with the lights on simply isn't an option.
  • Interface Screw:
    • Getting mauled by a vulture results in a shattered screen.
    • Triggering a trap in the forest will turn the game 180 degrees, and will remain as such on the game over screen, including the text.
  • Invincible Boogeymen: As always, grues can't be seen. For added fun, they seem even more widespread this time around, turning up not only in dark forests and mine shafts, but in your hotel room if you don't find another light source.
  • Irony: You get a magic Necklace of Fear from the troll leader. By intimidating him.
  • The Lost Woods: There's two forests in the game. One is fairly standard, with no actual threats and a relatively easy layout. The other is incredibly dark and a very long maze. Without some assistancenote , you'll quickly be surrounded by darkness and die.
  • Loophole Abuse: Drop all your items and stand in front of an annoying NPC. Then stab or strike them to kill them. Drop the sword, so then the guardian will come and then take away all your nothing. Meaning that once you're done with an NPC, you can just kill them and see some of the most hilarious death animations (and poses) ever.
  • Lost in Transmission: When the Tele-Orb battery runs out, the Wizard will be telling you about the wild boar in the Forest of the Spirits. Once you put in a new battery, he comes back on, saying "I hope you remember that when the time comes."
  • Made of Evil: Morpheus is the accumulated Evil Magic of the Great Underground Empire; while magic was thought to have been erased from existence during the events of Spellbreaker and Beyond Zork, small amounts of evil magic actually accumulated underground within the illumynite over centuries, eventually gaining sentience and becoming Morpheus.
  • Magical Incantation: "Yozozzo!" A spell that turns people into ducks.
  • The Magic Comes Back: By the time the game starts, the effects of the Great Diffusion are starting to wear off, and magic is coming back. Canuck and Trembyle banked on all the evil wizards being dead of old age by the time they got around to restoring magic, and they were right. Mostly. All that evil energy resulted in the creation of Morphius after the dark magic seeped into a massive illuminyte crystal.
  • The Magic Goes Away: It did in the backstory, at least. Evil magic became so prevalent that an emergency council of wizards and mages teamed up to disperse all magic, resulting in a cataclysm known as the Great Diffusion. That way, when magic finally returned centuries after all the evil wizards in the land had died of old age, the Long-Lived Trembyle and Canuck could restart the practice of magic without any negative influences. Too bad for them that the evil magic seeped into a cluster of illuminyte, becoming sentient and turning into the Big Bad, Morphius.
  • The Many Deaths of You:
    • Most of the deaths involve Morpheus laughing at you after you die, and some don't. Usually, the one's that don't are deaths that there wouldn't be much to leave behind, like death by explosion or being Eaten Alive by a grue in the darkness.
    • Some things can logically kill you, like being assaulted by a vulture or drowning in a river. However, you can also die by failing a pop quiz, putting a rodent in your pocket, and being too depressing for a comedy show.
  • Mayor of a Ghost Town: The mayor of West Shanbar who has no idea what happened to the east side of town. There are only five people remaining in what's left of the town, including the mayor himself. The mayor is thus left with little to do but keep the files organized.
  • Meaningful Name: Rebecca Snoot. Her last name is a slang term for a nose, and she's a very nosy person.
  • Mine Cart Madness: Combined with a maze. The only way to get through is to listen to a conversation from some NPCs outside, which give you the directions in order every time they say "left," "right," or "straight."
  • Non-Standard Game Over: Opening both doors of the incinerator or striking a match in Boos' millhouse skips the Evil Laugh that normally plays during death sequences, since you just went boom.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Of all the places you could meet your demise in, the mine-cart ride and maze is the safest part of the game, and it's a very unnerving ride down the cart on tracks where you have to decide where to turn.
  • Orphaned Setup: Several character try to tell the joke about "the boar in the Forest to the Spirits", but all get interrupted in some way before they can reveal the punchline.
  • The Password Is Always "Swordfish": Subverted. Upon meeting the Lighthouse Keeper, he tells you not to try it. Further subverted in that the password is never made clear; after rambling on for another minute, he forgets whether or not you've told him the password, decides you have told him the password, and lets you in anyway.
    "Don't try 'swordfish', I know it's not that. I tried it myself, I couldn't get in! So I know it's not that."
  • Picked Flowers Are Dead: It features this with the appropriately-titled "bonding plant." If you pull the plant straight out of the ground, it instantly dies. The correct solution is to dig it up by the roots so that it likes you.
  • The Pig-Pen: You, potentially. If you're carrying around rotten meat, several characters will comment on how bad you smell. Some will even outright refuse to talk to you until you get rid of the rotten meat from your inventory.
  • Punny Name:
    • Witch Itah. Her name is a pun on the town of Witchitah, Kansas.
    • Boos Myller. He loves his booze, and he lives inside of a mill.
    • The zorkmid tree. It's meant as one of the game's Anti-Frustration Features, since it means you always have a way to get more money if you ever run out. In short, you'll never find yourself short of coin... because money grows on trees.
  • Residual Evil Entity: In the backstory, evil magic became so prevalent that an emergency council of wizards and mages teamed up to disperse all magic, resulting in a cataclysm known as the Great Diffusion. That way, when magic finally returned centuries after all the evil wizards in the land had died of old age, the Long-Lived Trembyle and Canuck could restart the practice of magic without any negative influences. Unfortunately, the evil magic wasn't completely destroyed, but merely seeped into the soil until it settled in a deposit of Illuminyte known as the Cluster... which became a bit of a problem when the Dwarves started mining it. The Cluster eventually gained a malignant intelligence, renamed itself Morphius, possessed Canuck as a henchman, began stealing personality traits from its victims, and eventually carved out a new Underground Empire through slave labor - becoming the Big Bad.
  • The Runaway: The Waif, who hides under the half-bridge in West Shanbar, ran away from home. He won't trust you to get too close.
  • Sadist Teacher: Failing a pop quiz with Ms. Peepers is punishable by death. A pop quiz on things like the names of the days of the week, or lore. While it is somewhat justified, as this was a form of Copy Protection, it still makes Ms. Peepers very unnerving, especially since she shows absolutely no other signs of her sadistic behavior.
  • Scenery Porn: For the time this game was made, this was Scenery Porn. It's the first example of being able to see anything in the Zork series, at that.
  • Shmuck Bait:
  • Shout-Out: If you look in a certain area in the bottled ship, you can find a skeleton dressed up like Guybrush Threepwood. Examining the skeleton gives you the message, "Looks like his ten minutes are up."note 
  • Slasher Smile: The Orc, when he attacks you.
  • Smug Snake: Morpheus, who will give an nightmare-inducing Evil Laugh at your demise. He has Canuk under his influence and doesn't bother hiding this fact from you, but that doesn't stop him from charging you with a very dangerous quest, with a small possibility of success. He is also very proficient at Survivor, and decides to test your intelligence by playing that with you, knowing he'll win. When he loses, he goes through a Villainous Breakdown of epic proportions.
  • Spell My Name With An S: The villain's name is spelled alternatively as Morpheus and Morphius in the subtitles.
  • Stupidity Is the Only Option: If you attempt to use the front door to Rebecca's house, all you get is an unanswered knock. Even when Rebecca is perfectly fine with you using said door retroactively, you must invade her home via the window, and be mistaken for a burglar.
  • Super Drowning Skills:
    • Most of the time, interacting with the water results in the player drowning. One notable exception is when you try to swim to West Shanbar, only to find that the bridge is beyond your reach, resulting in drowning.
    • Another exception that averts this is when Canuk shrinks you to enter into a ship in a water bottle, though you are given only so many turns before you eventually drown.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Contrary to other adventure games, such as Maniac Mansion, putting a rodent in your pocket can have lethal results, as it will chew into your pocket and bite you. Granted, you die of hantavirus - which does not kill anything that fast.
  • Taken for Granite: Several of the NPCs you meet in the game end up turned to stone by Morphius. And if you fail the final game with Morpheus, you meet the same fate.
  • Talk to the Fist:
    • When you first meet Rebecca, she's brushing her teeth. Since you did just sneak into her house, she coldcocks you in the face. When you wake back up, she's got the business end of a shotgun pointed at you.
    • Asking Ben Fisher about the contents of his letter to the witch results in him punching you so hard you get knocked into the next screen.
  • Transformation Discretion Shot:
    • During a visit to Canuck's shack, the eccentric mage offers to shrink you down until you're small enough to retrieve a piece of the Flying Disc of Frobozz from the ship-in-a-bottle. However, because the game takes place entirely in first person POV, the budget is spared having to animate your character being shrunken down; instead, the virtual camera cuts to your POV getting lower and closer to the bottle until you can simply climb inside.
    • Once you've obtained the piece and returned to normal size, Canuck is possessed by Morphius and tries to eliminate you by turning you into a duck. However, if you're armed with a mirror or something suitably reflective when you return from the bottle, the spell will be reflected back on him. Here, we cut directly from the close-up shot of Canuck casting the spell to a wide shot of the shack interior, where - with a flash of light - Canuck has been transformed into a duck.
  • Unwinnable by Design: Being an adventure game from Infocom, it should come as no surprise that there are several ways to render the game unwinnable. Unlike other examples of this though, the game actually notifies you in the event that you screw yourself out of victory with a warning message, turning these into a bit more of a Non-Standard Game Over:
    • Visit Witch Itah without Ben's love note and without Pet Vulture Transit, and you'll be stuck.
    • Put the rats into the box with the mice, and they'll both end up dead.
    • Kill someone with your knife or sword. When this happens, the Guardian will appear on screen and wipe items from your inventory as punishment, which renders the game a dead end as everything has a use.
    • Take the bra box from Pugney before he says you can have it, and the Guardian will also show up.
    • Throw important items into the incinerator.
    • Give the token to the ferry man on the way to Canuk's island (unless you are carrying the whistle).
  • Videogame Cruelty Potential: Unlike pretty much every other Infocom adventure game (or most other adventure games in general), killing non-hostile NPCs is neither impossible or immediately punished by death. As a result you can stab to death almost every single NPC in the game. A vigilante highwayman will show up and destroy your inventory, rendering the game unwinnable (doubly so if you still needed the dead NPC to do something), but you're still allowed to wander around and do stuff, including saving in an unwinnable state.
  • Villainous Breakdown: "You cheated! Blast it, I never lose!" Morpheus does not take losing Survivor all that well, as his concentration breaks long enough to undo the spell that turned your friends to stone, leading to his defeat when the witch and the wizards use magic to seal him away.
  • Warp Whistle: You can use a literal whistle to make a vulture fly overhead. If you have a magnet in hand, you'll attach to its metal talons, and gain the ability to travel to any location you've previously visited.
  • What the Hell, Player?: Towards the end of the game, there is an orc that you stand no fighting chance against and are warned numerous times you need to find a different way around. If you opt to take the weakest possible line of attack (kicking him), a text box comes up that says "Seriously?"