Once again we had a tie vote for the monthly Closer Look poll, and both of the winning games were Patron nominated, meaning I got to make the final call. Originally, I was going to make life simple for myself, Dragon Ball Z, from what I had seen, is an incredibly simple and repetitive game, and would make for a quick and easy article. The alternative after all, was another Flimsy Parkins game, and after Sixteen Easy Pieces consumed my life for a month, leading to text and video guides, a live performance, and an article on just how well crafted the game was... Well, I didn't know if I wanted to put myself through that again so soon.
Fortunately, Shades Of Gray is a much more accessible title, but like Sixteen Easy Pieces, it's best if you have some familiarity with ZZT before going into it. In particular, a decent grasp of Town of ZZT.
Shades Of Gray is Flimsy's first release to the community, and while it's still very weird, and well constructed, it's also much more traditional. There are still plenty of moments to wow you, but it feels like a traditional ZZT game at least. It takes a fun concept and runs with it.
Shades of GrayBy: Flimsy Parkins/XR7
Released: October 10, 2000
Download | Play Online | View Files
The title screen is simple and by the numbers. It's monochromatic, and as we'll soon see, the vast majority of this game is in... black and white.
Except, it's still a Flimsy Parkins game, and so of course there's plenty to be discovered right from the start. Like this drawing of a person made out of black on blinking-black elements. The only reason I found this was because the auto generated screenshots on the Museum site rendered blinking colors with their "bright" backgrounds.
If you've played ZZT before. You'll immediately recognize this opening screen and know what you're in for. If you haven't, it's the opening hub from ZZT's first world, Town of ZZT, except... dead. Something has happened, and it will be the player's quest to figure out what's going on, why the town is colorless, and how to stop it.
The armory is a good place to start out exploring in Town, offering some much needed supplies, and it helps that there's somebody sitting outside the passage to speak with.
There was some sort of unknown disaster which befell this world. The guardian is a bit friendlier here, but still steadfast about keeping their key, if only because it's some of the last color still remaining in town.
Flimsy does a great job converting Town's colorful world into an empty husk. The game elicits a dark atmosphere that's not scary, but is maybe a bit tense. One of the conveyors is broken and no longer spins, the shopkeep is just gone, and the supply room is in shambles, but fortunately accessible without the guardian's key.
The secret path to the bank combination is both revealed, but also blocked off by a boulder. Flimsy plays around with the board connections here in a way that works quite well, turning the non-linear layout of Town into something that is far more limited in how its explored in order to convey its narrative, but there are still plenty of alternate paths to take and dead ends to stumble across.
The supplies provided are adequate, but just as in Sixteen Easy Pieces five years later, Flimsy hands out what is essentially the bare minimum amount of torches you'll need.
Heading west, the Three Lakes have begun drying up, and many of the spinning guns have been destroyed. This works out in the player's favor. The traditional gameplay devices of Town are still _here_, but they've been neutered to make the point that this journey isn't one of conquering challenging boards, but rather unraveling a mystery. There's very little actual danger, and the town being "safe" makes it feel all the more eerie.
Town's famous Rube Board is broken. There's no puzzle left to solve, and several of the passages are cut off to begin with. It actually looks more like somebody tried to solve it and broke it.
There is still a bomb, but it's malfunctioning. The countdown is a crawl.
Showing some humor, the bomb not only doesn't explode, but keeps counting down to one half and one quarter.
And then it _does_ explode and I _immediately_ stop playing to figure out what brilliant technique Flimsy did to manage to make an object explode like a bomb!
The answer is rather brilliant. This board is in fact covered in black fake walls, except for the portion of the screen where the explosion happens, which is instead done in gray, white, and dark gray empties. When the object "explodes", it simply changes the empties to breakables which are perfectly shaped like the explosion a bomb would have. When the breakables are cleared, so are the ones that formed the barricade. It's a masterful illusion.
The rewards are a
Err, well perhaps not.
The bonus points are not doing too well either. The music is distorted and the 1000 points is reduced to just 10.
But look closely! Flimsy even breaks the score display using another trick. This is probably the best attention to detail I've seen in a game. ZZT has some issues with its counter displays where taking away multiple figures away can leave a trailing amount. Flimsy gives the player 1000 points, which sets the display to 1000, and then takes away 990 of them immediately after, leaving the player with 10 points, but not erasing the old 0 from the 1000. This is documented in the ZZT Encyclopedia, but this is the only time I've ever seen it actually used as part of a game.
Although points are given, the object still doesn't disappear. It waits until the player touches it a second time.
This causes the music note to suddenly disconnect from the world and fall rapidly to the bottom of the room. It smashes into several pieces, sixteenth notes rather than eighth, which themselves explode into shrapnel. The effect is extremely well animated. This breaks open a part of the wall connecting to a damaged passageway that in Town is a part of the palace and can't normally be accessed via The Rube Board.
It's dark and scary and the final stretch of normal Town.
Another damaged scroll.
This portion is almost unchanged from the original. The player still needs to ride a pusher through some conveyors while dealing with a lot of tigers. It's Town's toughest action sequence by far, and it's still quite dangerous here.
In fact, it's made even more dangerous by the missing conveyors causing the player to get rotated sometimes. Combine this with ZZT having trouble keeping up with stats being spun around on conveyors, and I found myself softlocked with the player losing its stat and the tiger turning white and I'm guessing taking it instead? Conveyors are real buggy is what I'm saying.
My next attempt isn't any better, since I try to rush past the corrupting conveyors and straight into the tiger den. It goes about as well as expected.
Finally I make it through, but the reward isn't a purple key.
Instead, it's merely half of a gray one.
There's another crack in the cavern connecting it to the rest of the board, which is the back of the cave to the east of the starting hub. These weird disjointed connections like this work so well in this game because none of it is Flimsy adjusting paths. The Rube Board does connect to a cave. That cave is the same cave as in Town. All of this links up to the Palace. It's entirely consistent with Sweeney's mazelike design, and by shifting the walls Flimsy gets to make the familiar unfamiliar again.
Even these keys are consistent with the original game! Town is all about collecting five purple keys, but once inside the Palace, there's a sixth in the tiger room, and then there's also a seventh hidden behind an optional purple door in the main cave. That these two halves are on the same board is just using the existing keys as well!
Speaking of the Palace, the two key halves combine to a gray (white to ZZT) key, which matches the door to the Palace area from the starting hub.
Venturing deeper into the Palace is as productive as it is in Town itself. There's another door immediately.
The next path I opt for is to the north where there should be a castle to explore, but first is this badly damaged arrangement of blinking walls and spinning guns. Several of them have been completely destroyed, and a few of the blink walls will never activate. The general disruption to the board changes the path needed to make it across from its original form.
There's a key, but it's too badly damaged to actually collect.
The uh, castle has seen better days as well. All that remains is a massive crater, but there is a survivor here.
Yeah, you bet there was something here.
The Castle of Lots n' Lots of Evil! Then
all of a sudden-HEY! I ain't tellin' you
Unless you get me some gems...
• • • • • • • • •
The troll isn't particularly cooperative, and even without a castle's entrance to block, they still demand payment.
All of the gems we've seen so far have lost their colors, and aren't up to snuff for the troll. Still, this is somebody who might have some answers as to what's happened to this town.
The southern path doesn't have much going for it either. There are a few surviving centipedes in the bug maze, but only one key and three doors. This path is effectively blocked off.
And even the one key is no good. It's wedged into the walls? ground? too tightly.
The east path is the last one to travel, and isn't exactly long either. Flimsy was honestly really smart about this whole ruined Town of ZZT thing. The boards serve a purpose, and if a board can't be useful to the narrative being built, they're simply cut. There is no jail. There is no outer forest. These boards are removed and aren't missed because they're just not needed.
The cave still is however, and it remains unexplored.
Shades Of Gray ups its creepiness factor by several magnitudes here as the player gets to watch a bizarre band of color annihilate an object to the point where all that remains is his background.
The rest of the cave is forgettable. It remains mostly unchanged aside from no longer being a dark room in order to let the player witness the horror.
The back of the cave can be ventured into as well, but it's a dead end from this side, connecting with the Palace/Rube Board from earlier.
By this point, I've explored the four major branches and am running out of leads. I don't have a combination for the bank, but it's worth checking out regardless.
It looks about the same, but one of the inputs has been pushed out in such a way that it's a dead end. The original bank make it very easy to softlock the game so I decided to cheat the lights back on in order to find out if it was safe to push the one input that can be moved.
I've never been more owned in my entire life.