Return to Zork is a first-person point-and-click adventure, developed by Activision and released under the Infocom label which the previous Zork games had made famous. Gameplay revolves around exploration of different areas, collecting items, talking to characters, and solving puzzles. Combat is fairly minimal in the game. Often the player will have to combine a variety of odd items from their inventory to make a single item that will allow them to progress further into the game.
The game was originally released at a time when CD-ROM gaming on the PC was new. As a result, it uses FMV (Full-Motion Video) sequences liberally. The game features numerous references to the original text adventures.
The opening cut scene features the famous white house from Infocom's first text adventure, Zork I. The first few lines from Zork I also appear on-screen, starting with: "You are standing by a white house." After movement commands are typed in (as part of the cut scene, not by the player), the mailbox outside of the house is opened. Inside is a message delivered through a Tele-orb. The player hears that they have won a sweepstakes trip to the Valley of the Sparrows, and that the man is "looking forward to..." but he is cut off before he finishes the message. The assumption is that the man is attacked by an unseen enemy.
The next part of the cut scene is a fly-through of a range of mountains, eventually leading to what is no longer the "Valley of the Sparrows", but is now the "Valley of the Vultures". The player receives another message via a Tele-orb from Wizard Trembyle about needing "a new battery", which is the first puzzle of the game, although the solution does not come until much later. This Tele-orb is carried by the player in their inventory and Trembyle contacts them at several points during the game to deliver hints, often in the guise of cryptic messages.
The next area is a lighthouse owned by a deranged keeper, who warns of the "Road to the South." This is where a puzzle involving different objects begins; the player cannot journey down the road but must find a way into the town of Shanbar.
After the player leaves the lighthouse, Wizard Trembyle appears again, saying "What a bore! Oh! That reminds me, did you hear the one about the appe...[laughter] about the appetite of the wild boar in the forest of the sp..." but the transmission cuts out. This is a reference to the Forest of the Spirits, a maze-like forest that the player visits in the latter half of the game.
Ultimately, the player unravels the plot of Morphius, who is using the vultures to carry people away to serve as slave labor in his underground construction and mines.
Interacting with NPCs
Although non-player characters are often depicted by actors in FMV, the character played by the user is silent. Players can respond to NPCs' conversation by choosing one of three "stances": "threatening", "interested", or "bored". They can also show NPCs their inventory items, or locations on a map. Additionally, they can play tape recordings of prior conversations to the NPC, and can take pictures during the game and share these pictures with the NPCs.
Actors appearing via FMV include Jason Hervey of The Wonder Years and Sam Jones, star of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Character actor Ernie Lively and several of his family members appear, although his daughter Blake does not. Lively's acting student A.J. Langer (My So-Called Life) portrays fellow adventurer Rebecca Snoot, and her mother Deena portrays schoolteacher Ms. Peepers.
The puzzles in Return to Zork are generally considered to be obscure and non-intuitive. Producer Eddie Dombrower has stated that this was a reaction to feedback that the puzzles in Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 were too easy.
Notoriously, it's possible to lose the game in the opening scene and be unaware of it. If a seemingly innocuous decision is made in that scene, it will only become apparent to the player at the very end of the game that that decision has rendered the game unwinnable.
As had become traditional for Infocom, Return to Zork's packaging contained collectibles (or, as they were referred to, "feelies") to help set the mood of the game. Return to Zork's feelies were:
- The "sweepstakes" letter and envelope.
- The Encyclopedia Frobozzica, a 64-page-long guide to the lands in which the game takes place. (This also served as the game manual, and was used in the copy-protection scheme.)
The line "Want some rye? 'Course you do!" -- which a character endlessly repeats until the relevant puzzle is solved -- has achieved infamy in the interactive fiction community.