The 2010s of ZZT

By: Dr. Dos
Published: March 15, 2020

Celebrating ZZT in the 2010s

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Overview

Finally we make it to 2016, which is when ZZT just barely begins to climb out of its grave. The games are still few in number, but signs of life are out there. There are still people out there who care about ZZT, and 2016 is when they make sure people know it.

In January, the Worlds of ZZT Twitter bot makes its first tweet. What began as a fun project to show random screenshots to what I figure will be maybe a dozen interested people would eventually grow to an account with nearly 900 followers and became the central hub for discussing ZZT's present and future. Frankly I still can't believe it. Who are you people?

In February, Archive.org launched its ZZT Software Library, which brought thousands of ZZT worlds to a modern audience with the ability to play them from the browser. That month the Museum has a small launch linked on z2's forums soliciting feedback on the work-in-progress site and whether its goal would be to replace z2 entirely or supersede it as a new site entirely. (For the longest time, the repository for the Museum's codebase was simply called "z2" even!)

2016 was a great year for cementing ZZT's past, but the feeling remained that the GCS had no future. The state of ZZT in this era is reflected in a lot of what little was being made. Ruins of ZZT was created for Ludum Dare 36 late that summer, taking on a classic ZZT style with an overwrought intro about one last adventure. Ruins dwells on revisiting the past one last time. Even the name "The Museum of ZZT" came from the idea that the site would be a mostly "finished" archive, with next to no new worlds being produced. Suffice to say these assumptions were incorrect, and it wouldn't be much longer before it was clear there was still interest in ZZT and those who wanted to continue to wow others with their games.

omg this looks awful

For games, the earlier portion of the year consists of some rather odd titles: Red Dwarf and Better Off Alone. Two worlds that don't have a whole lot to them. More notable is the comparatively rapid turnaround on ZZTV 11, being released a mere four years after the previous iteration rather than the nearly twice as lengthy gap between volumes 9 and 10.

Most Outstanding Title

Oof made a surprise return to z2's forums to post an incomplete engine he had made years ago, Ecco the Dolphin which was a really impressive demo with very smooth controls and the first time I've seen a ZZT platformer game that let the player travel back and forth between boards indiscriminately. This is definitely the sort of game that would have turned heads had it been finished and released back in those earlier years, but by 2016 could only serve as a reminder for the still yet to be unlocked potential in ZZT. Ecco has very little to actually do in what's there, but its coding is top-notch enough that it can easily stand among other finished platformer(ish) games like Sid's Disaster, and shows a level of physics and movement unheard of in most ZZT games.

Release Breakdown


2017 Overview

In 2017 the titles are still scarce, but the games are all complete. Most importantly however, they are also good. There are still only three worlds and one of them is mine so I again don't want to praise myself (QuickHack is by far the weakest of the 2017 lineup anyway), but what's amazing about 2017 is that the two other games are both of a very high quality as well as representing a major shift in how ZZT games are treated. Both Benco's Ana and John Thyer's Atop the Witch's Tower focus on telling a story. They both do a damned good job of it too.

The idea of ZZT as a storytelling medium is nothing new. You'll find games with a heavy focus on telling a story in ZZT throughout its history. From early RPG epics like Rhygar, to the ZZT musical Freedom, to Anthony Testa's doomed utopia in Compound, there are a lot of games where the plot is meant to keep you invested more than anything else. The difference between these games and the ones of 2017 is that in 2017 these stories are actually good. That's a harsh judgment to pass on older works, and it's downplaying some mid 2000s releases that improved on storytelling immensely like the Frost series and Evil Sorcerer's Party, but very rarely did the story of a ZZT world manage to actually hook the player in a way the author was intending. This is a medium where the bulk of releases are made by teenagers, and as well meaning as they may have been, rarely can they manage to tell a story that isn't incredibly melodramatic or purposely afraid of showing sincerity. The stories of most ZZT games that try to go beyond a barebones justification for why the player is traveling from board to board almost always fall flat, often lift a story from a non-ZZT game, or just demonstrate the youthful naivety of trying to depict relationships in ways that read today range from embarrassing to worrying.

Most Outstanding Title

I'd like to give this one to Ana because of how well all its components clicked with me, but this needs to go to Atop the Witch's Tower solely because Thyer wasn't returning to the ZZT community with a stellar release, but making his first appearance. Witch's Tower marks an entirely new generation of ZZTers who don't have these ancient ties to the past, but are fresh faces who saw ZZT and thought it would be a great way to make a game, without having any background to build off of beyond seeing the Worlds of ZZT Twitter account and more importantly reading Anna Anthropy's book ZZT. Atop The Witch's Tower represents what I see as ZZT's healthiest possible future, one in which ZZT isn't a tool for ZZTers to play ZZT games, but as an accepted medium for independent game creators to create their ideas into something playable. ZZT not as a novelty in which a 30 year engine gets a quirky release, but something that can hold its own with other highly approachable tools for game development such as Twine or Bitsy.

Thyer could have told his story easily as well in many other mediums. It could have simply been a short story told entirely through non-interactive text, an 8-bit adventure in Pico-8, or perhaps even a story told through Mario Maker and Miiverse comments to narrate the level (RIP). Maybe it was chosen for the novelty after reading through ZZT, but it marks an opportunity for ZZT to not just survive into the 2020s, but thrive.

Release Breakdown

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