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Closer Look: Compound

By: Dr. Dos
Published: Jan. 15, 2020

♬ Fix us a wire you're the Compound man ♬ Fix us a wire tonight ♬ Well man's destined to die from catastrophe ♬ While aliens watch in the night ♬

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The ruined atrium is a sort of small maze where walls that are only one line thick can be torn down.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
You: Lily!  Lily!
Lily: Huh...?  Oh Gaia - it's you!  You
look so...young...you havn't...changed...
You: What's wrong?!
Lily: My love...I am...at the end of my
You: Don't say that...
Lily: I must join...my Mother now...but
please...listen to my final words...

You: Lily...
Lily: When...it...happened, many of the
others...died...the west and east were...
cut off from each other...the atrium was
dying...I tried to save it...
You: Oh, Lily...
Lily: Something's happened...the animals
have changed...mutated...the plants too...
they got into the observatory...don't go
You: Lily, please rest.  You need...
Lily: I found food...but it ran out...days
ago...I came here to die...and now I must.

You: No, Lily...no...
Lily: The earth - Gaia - is dying, my
love...now I go to join her...
You: Lily...
Lily: I love you...we shall be together
with our Mother, Gaia, someday...I will
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

The conversation with Lily is probably exactly what you'd expect. Unfortunately it offers no clues as to what happened or how Lily and others survived for decades.

If you think to hard, then no, Compound doesn't make a lot of sense. It's unclear how damaged by war the outside world was, but it's pretty lush and green outside. Biological warfare maybe? The idea that nobody leaves the compound would lead me to believe that for some reason they couldn't, and poor Lily ran out of food just in time for her husband to wake up and be perfectly fine.


The tower now has some bullets giving it a functional purpose in addition to its previously established role of making the tower feel like an actual tower to ascend.


Back underground I discussed how the tight corridors alleviate any issues with the fast enemies and having to be careful with your shots.

Here Testa throws that all away and makes this awful board where the player is ambushed by eight "Berserkers" all at once with no place to hide.


These enemies move very erratically making them a huge threat now. They still die to one bullet, and still have that death animation the other foes had, but now that animation benefits the other monsters, giving them a chance to go around the temporary wall and close in on the player.

A major difference between ZZT's creatures and objects is that you can't shoot objects that are adjacent to the player, so if one actually gets up in your face there's nothing you can do but take the hit.

It took me numerous tries and I was very close to just cheating for some health to make it through, but ultimately I persevered. Still though, this is hands down the weakest board in the game by a large margin.


And in the end, it's all for a single piece of wire. There is obviously a theme here. Unfortunately, it also looked as if I had reached a dead end. I had no idea what I needed the wire for and had to turn around and start searching.


Heading back underground to the generator, I was wondering if there might be anything else about David, the person responsible for all this. Sure enough he has his keys on him. At least with "David's apartment" it was clear where I'd be using the key, but I was still searching for what to do next.



Repairing the generator with just some wires lying around isn't a very good quest. Lily's been alive for a decade and in that time nobody did the extremely basic repairs needed to keep the compound running after the incident.


The actual next location is east of the atrium. The layout of the room means that the player needs to go in the passage, and then leave the tower room to spawn on top of the passage and make their way past it through some more weeds.


The walkway does lead to this really nice looking side view of the compound. I do really like getting an overview of the whole thing like this, and the pipes and tunnels that connect the surface portions to the underground labs. It gives a feel of progress to the adventure as you head to new areas and get a nice summary of the places you've been to get here.


The first passage leads to the "spiritual district" which is just this one board.


While it's implied to be larger than just this one building, the protagonist only gets to explore this lone church. As far as ZZT churches go, this one is pretty bland looking, but I think it does fit the tone of the game at this point. It's drab, empty, and feels more dead than anything else.

On the floor is a small cross which can be collected.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
A small wooden cross lies here, abandoned.
You pick it up...your father wore a cross
like this around his neck as we went off
to war.  It was the Final war, that left
the world as your generation found it.
Your father was drafted by the army; you
were young, but you remember your parents'
tearful good-byes...and your father was
gone.  He never returned from the war...
your mother was killed by a biological
weapon.  And now, the world is dying.
After all your attempts and progress...
everything was undone by one man...did
your father die for nothing?
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

The cross yields a small glimpse into the protagonist's and the world's history. It's a pretty straightforward "war is bad" story, but that's not really a common theme in ZZT worlds. The idea that things don't have to be the way they are is a nicer take than the typical fantasy where you take on the role of a personal who single-handedly defeats a cartoonishly evil empire.

It does provide some insight into exactly what happened to the world though by making it clear that the war was fought with biological weaponry, and now the planet is dying.


With the ruined labs and deserted church examined, the one place left is the residential district which is also confined to being a single board.

All the apartments are locked, though in the top left is David's whose key was collected off his body. Starting to maybe piece things together, I'm going to guess the compound was completely sealed off and David blowing up the generator was just to destroy the quarantine that kept the occupants safe from whatever biological weapon was responsible for destroying the rest of humanity.


I'm a bit disappointed that Testa doesn't make any attempt to give David motivation. He's written off as crazy and the player moves on.

I'm not asking for a sympathetic portrayal of this person who may have single-handedly and deliberately locked humanity on a path towards extinction, but by having nothing here whatsoever, it could just as easily have been anyone's apartment that get explored. David is a hook to draw in your interest and all you get for it is "idk he was nuts i guess".


The only other thing of note here is an open grate which leads to a hidden recess in the vents. Maybe there's hope yet for getting to learn about David.


I think the overall structure of Compound is pretty good. That passage in the atrium is poorly placed, but other than that the arrangement has made sense and given a decent sense of place.

For some very bizarre reason, on this board, and this board alone, Testa just throws all sensible design out the window. Let's just skip ahead and turn on the lights.


What is this? It's just a twisty path with some transporters and nothing to do but burn up the last few torches the player has. It comes down to a guessing game for the player with nothing but an arbitrary punishment of wasting time and torches if the player guesses incorrectly. It really goes against the rest of the game.


So there is a hook here for the player.


Not only is there a sprawling underground cavern, but there are buildings constructed inside. The protagonist brings up the obvious theory that David built these, but there are several of these buildings which would imply that more people than David were going down here.

So hey, a cool mystery. Perhaps Testa is building up to something with all this.


The tiny building is furnished with chairs, a table, and a light source, and has a closet filled with ammunition.


The ammo is immediately put to use as there are some weird creatures living down here. The objects are just named "Sigma" so that's not particularly helpful as to what the protagonist is defending themselves against.

After clearing them out, there are two paths to take and a small pile of old mining equipment.


The first path leads deeper into the caverns where there are all the staples of the underground so far: sigmas, ammo, and mining equipment.

The weirdness of everything down here does a surprisingly good job of creating an unnerving atmosphere. You don't know what to expect, but I definitely felt like this was going to lead to some big reveal of like a secret underground society or something.


I mean look at this! This isn't just some hastily constructed shack. It has tiling.

A small refridgerator. It's empty.

A small oven.

A purple sofa.

There's a fridge. There's an oven. There's a couch.


There's a communications device! I desperately want to know what this is all about, where everybody is now, and if they aren't elsewhere down here why they left.


Not only does this larger building have a passage deeper underground, but it has an entire basement! It's naturally dark, and doesn't have a whole lot to it, just some pipes and supplies behind various doors.


The two things that need to be obtained are a screwdriver towards the top left, and then a gear on an engine which can be taken using the screwdriver. After that, it's a dead end and the protagonist needs to climb back up to the cavern entrance and check out the path not yet taken.


The other path starts off extremely similar to the first, with ammo, equipment, and sigmas in an irregularly shaped room.


It's a far shorter branch though, consisting of just two boards. The second is a mine, which has this strange device in it. I figured it was probably a drill or something.


Attempting to interact with it reveals that it is indeed a drill. It's a drill that won't function until the gear from the basement engine has been placed onto its generator.


The drill, stupidly begins drilling into itself, damaging the wiring.


All of this, it turns out was so the protagonist could pick up another piece of wire. This is incredibly absurd and I cannot get over how wild it is that this entire section of the game raises so many questions that it neither attempts to answer nor even have the protagonist consider them for more than a second and it's all just to pick up another wire.


Some considerable backtracking later, and the generator can finally be repaired after over a decade because of some wire repairs.


It's too bad everyone seems to be dead by this point, since I guess the compound is working again.


The only place that hasn't been explored is directly west. Now that there's power flowing, the barriers can be removed and this unknown room can finally be explored.


Is all of this a simple "We dug too deep" scenario?


There's nothing that stands out other than the hole itself. An attempt to check it out reveals that there are some invisible passages in there to transport the player elsewhere.


Elsewhere, in this case isn't a deep pit, abandoned underground complex, or secret last holdout of humanity. It's something alien.


It's red and gold and has funny writing and the only thing there is a "snazzy" new gun.


Everything's connected as examining the symbol on the wall reveals it to be the one that appeared in the sky back before David took out the generator.


Any doubts as to the protagonist's location are put to rest. It's an alien spacecraft orbiting the ruined Earth!

The aliens don't make a very good first impression. This one throws a single star and begins moving about generally towards the player for a melee attack.


Reduced to 10 health, this actually makes the fight incredibly difficult and almost as bad as the observatory earlier. It took me a few tries to land enough hits and dodge the star simultaneously in order to defeat the alien.


The reward is knowledge. Defeating the alien allows the protagonist to comprehend the aliens' script.


Which is good because the only other board on the ship holds a tablet that can't be read otherwise.


The protagonist is warped to what begins as a completely empty screen, though after a moment three white figures teleport in one by one.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
Greetings.  We are the time lords, the
race that built the machine which you have
used to save your world.  We regret to
inform you that you no longer exist.

Rest assured, you have saved your world.
David's sword left at the moment of impact
and he smashed into the core and was
knocked unconscious.  You, as in the you
that exists and was unchanged, dragged him
back to the compound for judgement.  He
was tried and banished, mercifully.  We
can only hope that mercy was not abused.

Your life goes on in time as it did
before, with your wife Lily and your
triumphant world.  The you that stands
here no longer exists in time.  Come,
then, and come with us as a time lord, to
travel soace and time.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Alright. Who saw this coming? Nobody? Yeah.

From what I can piece together here, the time lords (as in Gallifrey?) were watching the Earth from a distance knowing that the human race was about to be doomed by David, and just hung out in the sky for a few years until our protagonist managed to board their ship (which has a connection from within the compound so I assume some folks must have known about it?). From there the machine was used to grab David's sword out of time and prevent the core generator from being destroyed.

It's a bit of a roundabout way of doing things. The time lords had to split the time timeline and strand this version of the protagonist outside of time so that history could be altered and humanity could persevere.


I mean. I'm glad the human race was saved from extinction and can live in an era of peace and knowledge and all that good stuff. No complaints there.

But as an ending to a video game this kind of sucks? It doesn't feel like there's any lesson learned here. Some kind old aliens showed up and made everything better. There's not even anything to imply that the protagonist was needed to use the machine.

Instead Mr. protag gets to travel through time and that's cool, but also he watched his wife die in front him and gets to live with that memory.

There's also no explanation as to why there was an alien on the ship that attacked. Nothing in this game is explained, and maybe at first that's okay as a way to keep the player interested in moving along, but this isn't a case of wanting to know all the nuances and minutiae. Testa doesn't tell us what happened to the rest of the world other than "war". David's motivation for wrecking everything is "crazy". The bizarre underground buildings are just denied even having the protagonist comment on their oddity. Things just kind of resolve themselves thanks to our mysterious alien benefactors.

Final Thoughts

Maybe the ending for Compound was a bit sour, but its lackluster ending doesn't change the fact that the game was a lot of fun to play. The compound itself is a neat place full of rooms that feel like they have a purpose within the world. As I went in expecting, Testa creates a cool setting that the player will want to explore. The basic combat livens things up versus the alternative of a lot of empty rooms, and until you realize that you're just chasing shadows in terms of getting any explanation, the mystery is a fun one. There are strange lights in the sky and weird homes underground. David's belief that a humanity on the brink of its own extinction deserves to finish itself off is the sort of villain I wanted to learn more about. It's just a shame that it seems to boil down to "this would be cool to put in my ZZT game".

Still, I find myself impressed. There's surprisingly little dialog in this game, meaning that Testa builds up expectations and suspense entirely through the game's environments. That's a pretty strong accomplishment for a game of this vintage. He manages to build up the world through graphics, strange machinery, and unusual creatures. You never really know what's going on, but it's handled in such a way that it feels like you're searching for clues. If only you actually were!

Compound is one of Testa's earliest worlds, and I think his later worlds only do better than this one, yet the weird setting and mystery of it all make me wish this game had a sequel or "remix" version like some of his other releases. As it is, the game feels like it just abruptly ends. It's a pretty short game and one that's mostly pretty easy (maybe cheat for health once or twice for good measure). This is one I'd recommend for newcomers to ZZT for demonstrating how to build up an atmosphere, use simple action and puzzles to mix things up a little, and does quite a lot with what little is actually there. Don't hesitate to try this one for yourself, and see if you too can get into that New York state of mind that makes you want to keep exploring and figure out the secrets of humanity's ruined future and/or peaceful utopia.

====== A Worlds of ZZT Production ======

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