The poll winner for the start of 2021 is Growing Up, by Hax Shannon, and it's a rough one.
ZZT has its history of edgy games made by tactless teenagers that take any criticism of how serious topics are handled with a response of little more than a "fuck you". Growing Up, however, is hardly an edgy title by a teenager. It's a much more modern world, created in that very quiet era where ZZT had mostly gone away. As a 2014 release it shares that year with just four other ZZT worlds, and of its contemporaries, only Shannon brought something this serious to the table.
Growing Up is a very short game with very little to do, but that's okay because it's a story first and foremost. It tackles some rather heavy subjects through the perspective of a young teenager. In particular, well, let's get the content warning block here from the very start.
The following content contains material which may be offensive to some audiences. It was most likely originally created by a teenager who has since grown up. This material does not necessarily reflect its creator's current opinions nor behaviors.
Specifically, this page contains depictions of or references to:
Alcoholism, Self-Harm, Domestic Violence, Sexual Content
Shannon describes the game in the included text file with simply: "this is a little game about trying to get out of the house to go on a walk". The game itself makes no warnings about its content, though the spilled bottle on the title screen doesn't exactly hide the more serious tone taken here. Growing Up is hardly the first ZZT game to deal with alcohol abuse, but it's probably the first to do so in a completely serious game. There aren't any jokes to be found here, just the unending anxiety of living with a family member suffering from an addiction and the strain that puts on the children in a single-parent household.
I can't recall where this game came from. It's too recent to be available on z2, but too new to have been rediscovered in somebody's personal ZZT folder. I have a vague recollection of this game being e-mailed to me from the author, but can't find any such e-mail today. The origins wouldn't typically be too important, but what I'm interested in here is the inspiration behind this one. I fear it's non-fictional. There's at least the relief that if this game is about actual events, or even sensationalized a bit for the sake of telling a story that the author has most certainly gotten themselves in a better position than when they were a powerless teenager trying to protect themselves and a younger sibling.
Often, when I do post a content warning for a ZZT game, I worry that my own pre-emptive explanation of what's going to be coming up may be making things sound worse than they are. The violence in this game is handled entirely through text, and while the protagonist is going to be shot at with ZZT bullets, they're almost certainly not intended to be treated as bullets being shot from a firearm. As always, if it hits too close to home, don't hesitate to opt out of spending time with this one.
Growing Up hits hard. It easily packs more emotion into seven boards than most worlds can do with seventy. Shannon's story is one that's all too common, and for those of us fortunate enough to have grown up under better circumstances, most likely you're familiar with somebody who's childhood was more like the one depicted here. Regardless of whether this whole game is based on true events, or even if it was merely a short story entirely fictionalized, you can't help but be sucked into this world. You'll be brought to a time where a teenager had to hold on to what little they could, a sibling, friends online, creative outlets, whatever they needed to keep themselves in an okay state physically and mentally as best as they could to defy the forces around them. The fear of a younger sibling who has a plan that they can't bring themselves to act upon, or that of the protagonist hurting themselves for a form of control, it all resonates deeply. These characters aren't even given names and I want nothing more than to get them out of that house and away from PARENT.
And I can't help but appreciate the design of PARENT too! Suffering from alcoholism, they find themselves hurting themselves, their child, and almost guaranteeing that these two will one day be long long gone. For a ZZT villain, they're very effective at demonstrating why the kids are so anxious and afraid, but they're still a human in need of help as well. The ending here isn't really a happy one. When the protagonist heads home, there's no telling what awaits them, but Shannon does a brilliant job of depicting those precious moments of peace. Sitting on that bench, watching the sun go down, the protagonist can finally stop thinking about home and let themselves relax, even if it's for just a little while.
I've praised ZZT's ability to tell stories, and for somebody new to ZZT Shannon has done an impeccable job here. There's no complex scripting, no cutscenes, and the artwork would fit right in with a game from 1996, but none of that matters because this is a game that serves to tell a story and it does everything it needs to. So many ZZT games rejected being taken seriously, and plenty of them that wanted to be failed spectacularly at getting the audience invested. Growing Up pulls you in on the very first board and you'll find yourself unable to pull yourself away as the story develops. If you can stomach the serious subject matter, this one is a must play.
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