This month's Patron selected Closer Look didn't take long to get selected. Flower of Light, created by Shujj feels like an early ZZT world that somehow fell into 2004.
The ZZT community was already creating outsider art, and what we have here is outsider art to these outsiders. The ZZT community in the early 2000s when this game was released was a mix of Americans, Canadians, Brits, Dutch, and New Zealanders. Here however, we have a game created by somebody (most likely) from India. Shujj credits the game's story as being a retelling of a film called "Gul-E-Bakawali". That film appears to be a 1939 film that's in the Punjabi language.
The film itself is based on a book, so we're a few layers deep before we get to the ZZT game. What we have here is a non-native English speaker's attempt of retelling the story in ZZT who has found ZZT but not interacted with its community, which gives the game its out of place feel. I'd guess that Shujj found some early classic ZZT worlds, and Super Tool Kit (or some other toolkits) and basically worked in a vacuum. The end result feels very strange for a ZZT game as it doesn't follow the "rules" of design that the mainstream ZZT community had constructed over the years.
The title screen is your basic color flashing large text, with some simple art of what this flower of light happens to look like. The strangest choice is the epsilon character being used to create depth in the lettering. I wonder if this is a case where Shujj's computer used a different code page for MS-DOS character graphics and something here is lost in translation. Alas Googling for this sort of thing mostly brings up nothing but unicode related information, and while wikipedia has an extensive category of character sets, I'm basically clicking at random. Aside from this single board, none of the graphics elsewhere look out of place, so who knows!
There's some very slick text art that loops on the bottom of the screen as well. There's also some music, but it's very very grating to listen to and sounds a lot like mashed keys.
The game opens to a quick backstory which sums up the game's plot. The king was cursed to go blind if he ever saw his firstborn son. You play as that son who was raised without ever seeing his father until a chance encounter when out hunting. The king is blinded, but a magical flower that grows in fairy land can cure it. You set out to restore your father's eyesight as do your siblings who are more interested in the reward of half the empire.
The writing in this game is not very good. It's certainly just an issue of English being a second language. For the most part there's no difficulty in understanding the author's intent, so while it's off sounding, it's not so distracting as to really negatively impact the game.
Oh, and also the fairy queen is touring Earth for her birthday, but she's not allowed to meet any men while she's there.
I like the weird stripes around here for some reason?
The gameplay begins soon after, with one last bit of text to bring the player to the prince's current location on his journey.
Shujj wastes no time and starts the prince off in the middle of a forest filled with lions, tigers, and snakes. Fortunately the player is armed with 100 arrows.
And also right away we get the unique visuals of this game. The stark contrast between the more modern dark greens of the grass and path versus the very classical ZZT looking bright green on black trees. It's a style that you really won't see anywhere else.
There are also some yellow and red fruits that the prince can consume for a few points of health.
There's a mixed understanding of ZZT's mechanics on display. The author knows to have fruit #become fake rather than #die in order to prevent empties from appearing, but not that you can put a fake wall under the player to prevent the empty tile that does appear in the center. The trees look nice, but have breakables and water which mean bullets can cross over or destroy parts of them.
And none of these things should be seen as deal breakers, but developed independently it's interesting to see what design ideas Shujj has that would be discouraged or encouraged within the main ZZT community of the time.
To the north are more stock enemies (and snakes) plus several dead combatants who met their demise in battle.
Ammo is replenished by picking up the leftovers from the fight, and the prince is free to continue along the path.
The next screen has an old lion that the player has to either fight or run away from. It moves about and shoots bullets, and isn't really very threatening, but it does take multiple arrows to defeat.
Representing a lion with a double exclamation point is another unusual design decision given ZZT's visual vocabulary already have a dedicated representation of a lion with the omega character. (Shujj has another release of a platformer based on The Lion King which uses the same character for Simba.)
This board offers a bit more than the previous with both this encounter as well as the first time the player is given a split path with not only a cave to explore, but another exit to the right side (although it blends in a bit and can be hard to tell).
The cave seems like the best place to explore right away. The prince is immediately attacked by more lions who happen to live in a cave with candles on the walls. The candles animate through various accented lowercase "i" characters which you would see in many other ZZT worlds.
There's no need to fight if the player doesn't want to. The prince can run past the lions and collect the key on the wall at any time. That's all there is to the cave, so it's necessary to pick one of the other paths from the previous board.
The northern path is exhausted quickly as well, with an immediate dead end.
Shujj could have left this board mostly empty, but they still took the time to populate it with the enemies and fruits you'd see earlier in the game despite them being positioned where the player can never reach them. It's a nice way to make sure the world feel more alive.
The only place to go from here is to the right of the cave.
Upon traveling to the east the player is suddenly yanked into a cutscene! This is a really cool technique Shujj uses that I don't think I've seen anywhere else before. Typically when going from gameplay to a cutscene, the player has to go through a passage, either manually, or automatically through some use of a player clone and a duplicator. What Shujj does instead is has the player walk onto a new board that contains nothing but a duplicator just about to fire and a passage to duplicate onto a player clone. The end result is just the slightest flickering of an (almost) empty board before the player is transported via passage to the cutscene.
You can check out the transitional board in the Museum file viewer
It would be neat to see this technique masked further by having the transition board appear as a duplicate of the board the player was on just prior.
The cutscene begins with the prince laying his bedroll down and getting some much needed sleep.
As soon as the prince awakens however, he's attacked by a snake! And then we learn that Flower of Light has RPG combat!
But oh man, it's kind of rough.
The player can pick from two attacks, a weak sword or a stronger bow and arrow that also costs ammunition.
The sword consists of a slider being placed and then disappearing. Psychic Solar War Adventure it ain't.
But it's not the simple animations that make the RPG combat seem poor, it's the lack of balance and shoddy implementation of randomness. The player's health bar appears empty, but in reality the player's actual health is what's used with enemy attacks dealing 10 damage per hit. The player has a huge lead over the enemy, and enough arrows that there's no real reason to use the sword at all.
Then there's the randomness which is handled by the two white gems at the top of the screen. They simply wander randomly in their constrained space and if they happen to be above the circle objects then the attack is a hit. This could maybe work if they moved fast and predictably, making the player's attacks based on timing, but they move slowly and will try to move in directions they're blocked. This results in the gems not moving much at all. Once the player takes their turn, the enemy instantly takes their own which lets the player basically spam attacks faster than the gem can really have time to move.
All together it results in a very mushy experience with no sense of danger and victory just being a matter of time. Unfortunately, there are a lot more of these battles, and they only get worse.
Defeating the snake leads to a new cutscene where you quickly defeat a tiger and rescue your brothers who are also looking for the flower. They betray you in hopes of claiming the reward for themselves, and we're introduced to a "running battle".