zzt was created in 1991 by tim sweeney of potomac computer systems, which, funded by the sales of the zzt episodes, published shareware games throughout the nineties as epic megagames, and is now known as epic games, the publishers of unreal and that game where gigantic men fuck each other with chainsaws. this first game of theirs, zzt (the name was chosen so it would always show up at the very bottom of title lists on shareware cds), remains the most interesting to me by far because: it includes a level editor.
lots of games include level editors, but few level editors include a scripting language so robust as zzt-oop (“object-oriented programming”), so versatile that authors have completely subverted tim sweeney’s expectations for zzt worlds and created games that look nothing like his. at the same time, though, authors are limited to sixteen-color graphics comprised of the 255 characters in the ascii set pc speaker sound and music.
what that means, though, is there’s no need to create external resources, to draw sprites or model figures or record sound effects or compose music. limitations can be liberating: free from the need to create assets for their games, authors can simply create their games. and the ascii characters are abstract enough symbols to serve as atoms in the creation of almost anything. those without game-making experience will still find zzt approachable: it already contains everything that will be in any game.
these are by and large the people who were drawn to zzt – people with the desire to make games or tell stories but without the experience or knowledge or technical skill to take the conventional route to game creation. kids, amateurs, dabblers, and hobbyists. videogame zinesters: much of what they produced is unpolished and unplayable, and much of what they produced is incredible outsider art. which is why i thought a list of recommended games might be a useful place for the interested to start exploring.
like my knytt stories reading list, this one began (and was mostly completed) on the gamer’s quarter forums. and like knytt stories, this is a good time to consider zzt’s library – not because it’s changing, but because it’s probably complete. the long-running game archive z2 just declared zzt dead, and why not – it’s served its purpose: allowing people who aren’t programmers or digital artists an avenue to game creation before game maker or construct existed. now they do.
the following is a list of the zzt game i think are most interesting to someone who has no experience or interest otherwise in zzt. there are games that are more technically impressive – zzt’s object-oriented programming is powerful enough to allow for things like platform and puzzle games that look little like zzt – but what’s technically impressive in zzt isn’t impressive outside it. and if these games pique your interest, there’s almost two decades of material to explore.
ned the knight. a very ambitious work, ned the knight tells a charming adventure-game sort of story in a world that becomes gradually larger. the game introduces and teaches skills in a way few zzt games attempt, and develops a set of recurring symbols, characters and tunes that keep the game cohesive despite its length. there are some pretty clever setpieces – the vent maze, with its sierra-style instant deaths, is unfortunately not among them.
zapzak feels – more than anything – like a short story, the perfect length for an adventure of its type. it comprises several tasks that stand apart from the typical puzzles of zzt adventures. on a technical level, there’s a lot of ingenius stuff going on in this game, but it’s all very subtle – some people have jury-rigged zzt to run lemmings or minesweeper, but the results of tim gallagher’s zzt witchcraft are so natural that only zzt authors are likely to notice them.
kudzu is a strange adventure through a surreal landscape where the discord between one scene and the next form the thread that ties them together. has a terrifying and abrupt ending that may not have been the author’s intention – he later revised it. however, you should play the original version (linked here), because its ending fits the tone of the game perfectly.
death is a straightforward shoot-em-up clearly inspired by doom. there are plenty of zzt games about shooting lots of monsters, but death borrows from doom more than just superficially: the game makes sure you always have enough ammunition, enough health, an interesting space to move through and something new to look at. there’s lots of incidental scenery and the enemies never overwhelm.
mission: enigma is another game replete with technical achievements, but unlike zapzak it wears them on its sleeve. the title screen itself is a long, scripted movie: a kind of zzt machinima. but why i like the game has nothing to do with its clever scripting: i like it because the first handful of screens have more going on in them than many games do in their entireity.
pop. clearly informed by kudzu, pop is an adventure that’s not quite surreal enough as to be impenetrable (as is the case with many USE-THIS-ON-THAT zzt adventures). it’s also gorgeous, almost as much a gallery of ansi art as it is a game. and there’s some clever commentary about the nature of games and the relationship between player and protagonist.
winter. in a similiar key to myst, winter attempts to guide the player through its fine internal puzzle logic. a rich but ambiguous sense of place reverberates throughout the game – a title has rarely done so much to characterize a work. and though its tone is very different from that of the stock zzt setting, the game repurposes elements of zzt which are often taken for granted to very clever ends.
robots of gemrule is an earlier work from the author of mission: enigma, alexis janson; gemrule is hard, possibly asking too much of the player and dangerously easy to make unwinnable. but regardless, i find it among the most compelling of her games: i think it’s how the game’s structure, the way your explore the world, makes it feel much bigger than it is.
nightmare is another puzzle game, but the puzzles are staggeringly inventive. you drift through a dream world searching for parts of your shattered consciousness. appropriate to its setting, many of the puzzles obey the ephemeral nature of dreams: mazes that change shape around you, patches of noise that can only be navigated by seeking the patterns.
sixteen easy pieces, on the other hand, is almost the opposite: traditional zzt – sliders, teleporters, boulders, centipedes and ruffians – parcelled and arranged with deadbolt precision. there’s almost no scripting in the entire game, yet it is one of the most wickedly and smartly designed of zzt worlds. the interlocking pieces of the game’s visual design reflect the elegance of how its challenges and puzzles fit together.
ezanya. there’s something about this game that enchants me. maybe it’s how the game’s use of darkness makes it feel larger than it actually is, or how the sheer amount of things going on in each screen lend to that same effect. but it’s also that the game was crafted entirely with the stock palette and tools that existed before zzt authors hacked the game to allow for more stuff and prettier tricks; there’s an enforced minimalism here that epitomizes why i find zzt games so compelling.
smiley guy and toxic terminator. al payne’s smiley guy adventures have some of the strongest design sense of all of the zzt worlds i’ve encountered. they’re inventive, smartly paced, and avoid many of the common pitfalls of amateur developers: uneven difficulty, “learning by death.” they’re pretty to look at, too: and all, like ezanya, with the original zzt palette and toolset.
darby town and the mask of cortez. there’s a certain charm to earlier zzt titles, where the author is working with the editor rather than against it. dave bishop’s worlds are action-adventures in the style zzt was created to build, but they manage something most of those types, including tim sweeney’s own zzt episodes, can’t: they aren’t unmanageably difficult. consider darbytown an alternate take on tim sweeney’s town of zzt, cortez an alternate take on caves.
eli’s house, finished in 2008, gives zzt a fitting swansong. it’s a game that could only have been made so late in zzt’s life, both because of the technical knowledge with which it was crafted and the backwards-looking perspective which informs so much of its sensibility: you’ll find pieces of all of the above games in here, and more. it’s appropriate that zzt’s last great confrontation should take place on top of a windmill, a vantage from which all of zzt’s legacy can be seen, stretching off to the laughing forests.