zzo and The ZZT Community
zzo38 is a name that's been part of the ZZT community for twenty years now, and he's always been a notable character. Back in the earlier days of the 2000s he was very much an enigma to most folks with some unusual mannerisms and ideas. The ZZT community was hardly full of people who were run of the mill, but zzo stood out amongst the outsiders. It got to the point where there would be debates on IRC about whether or not he was an actual person or a different ZZTer doing a bit. (A made up ZZTer? Uh huh.) The general vibe of the ZZT community around him back in the day was a bit less than stellar to review these days, but luckily for us zzo never let the community's "antics" keep him away for long.
From a non-ZZT standpoint, he is most famous for the long lasting legacy of the "Elavater butins":
The elavater with only 2 butins qestin mark, exclamasen mark, wich butin do you want to push?
If you went in a elavater and ther is only 2 butins, qestin mark and exclamasen mark, then wich butin wood you push?— "Elavater butins" article on ZUltimate
The thread was a hit with what, if any meaning the buttons had. These days the community still loves the question as a bit of an absurd personality test. Which would you pick? Why not the other? Why would somebody else choose differently? What does all this say about you?
Probably nothing, but it's fun and celebrated now. Don't dismiss the question. You may be asked it yourself some day.
zzo's games meanwhile, never got that much attention. His first release looks like most ZZTers' last: a compilation full of all sorts of files and projects that can be difficult to comb through. His first standalone title, Aksana also doesn't seem to have much going for it, with a lone confused and harsh review giving the game low marks.
Today though, zzo's name gets more respect. 2018's ZZT Programming Tricks and Techniques is a recent and wonderful compilation of some of ZZT's more esoteric behaviors and demonstrations of functionality that were previously unseen. It's akin to a one man ZZT Encyclopedia and will frequently be cited on the Worlds of ZZT Discord server when folks are looking for more obtuse information. Above all else, there are some really impressive demonstrations of using the leader/follower values intended for centipede segments to create some powerful effects.
Game of XYZABCDE
This time, we're off to check out zzo's latest game uploaded to the Museum, the simultaneously generically named plus Town sounding Game of XYZABCDE. It was a patron request for a game that I likely would have overlooked otherwise. zzo was kind of always doing his own thing, making his ZZT output feel like it was made for himself first and foremost, and if anybody else happened to enjoy it, then great. Not too long ago, zzo was lamenting on Discord how he wasn't really a fan of how many newer ZZT worlds were more about telling stories and less about challenging gameplay. After playing this game, it's very clear to me that this is the kind of ZZT game he would like to see more of, and after spending some time with it, I can totally see why.
XYZ is a challenge unlike any other in ZZT. I've played plenty of games that have been known to be difficult. There's been Barjesse's Nightmare, a classic puzzle game that will leave you scratching your head. Alexis Janson's got a plethora of titles which potentially strain your ammo count and don't hold back on the slider puzzles. Those are some of the good ones. There's of course a nearly infinite supply of ZZT worlds with extreme difficulty to the point where one may incorrectly perhaps associate difficulty in ZZT worlds with poor design.
That's obviously stupid and wrong, you don't need to tell me. Regardless though, games over the years ZZT and otherwise have generally gotten easier- hang on this train of thought is going to end with me saying "The Dark Souls of ZZT games" and I want to preserve some dignity.
A typical ZZT game that's well made and high in difficulty these days tends to utilize something to give the player a bone. Making challenges optional, allowing puzzles to be skipped, or offering additional supplies. The idea is for the game as a whole to be able to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, letting those who want to reload their saves be able to do something to go the extra mile. Being "good at ZZT games" is pretty tough to define, but there have been at least been instances where I've been warned of challenging boards/worlds on stream and flew past them effortlessly because I am so great.
Actually, a rather nice example can be found as far back as 2003 with John W. Wells's Evil Sorcerers' Party, a game which usually avoids action and so whenever it brings it to the foray likes to present the player with some ways to tone things down for those with a slower trigger finger. This particular board lets you destroy the enemies, be given extra health, or remove a time limit.
zzo doesn't do this. The challenge is the point here and without it, there really wouldn't be anything to XYZABCDE. If you're even slightly attuned to video game culture online you've seen all the discourse imaginable about difficulty, authorial intent, accessibility, and whether it's anybody's business if somebody memorized the "remove wanted stars" cheat code in Grand Theft Auto 3 because they used it so often.
Other people can express similar thoughts to mine better than me so I'm not going to bother. XYZ is unapologetic and based on those Discord conversations clearly intended for zzo and those who happen to like games how zzo likes games. This makes XYZ undoubtedly one of the most difficult ZZT games I've ever played. What surprised even me though, was how much I began to get into it. Once you understand the burden placed on the player to succeed, the game feels like a ballet. You and you alone must gracefully cross every obstacle unflinching. If you miss a shot, you should reload your save. If you get hit by a lion, you should reload your save. This sounds incredibly unfun, I know! By all means it should be. These criticisms are the criticisms of countless games which flood fill the board with tigers and ask the player to get through them with half as many bullets as there are enemies.
What zzo has in Game of XYZABCDE that these bottom of the barrel games don't though, is an understanding of what the player can do with the resources they have. zzo is endlessly threading the needle of playable and frustrating, and by doing it so well, I couldn't help but find myself loving the experience. The maneuvers you'll make in order to not fire your limited ammunition at technically dodgeable creatures will make you long for a dedicated quickload button. SolidHUD, which I used to play the game always lists the most recent save at the top of the list, which helped immensely in letting me rapidly return to the fray whenever I messed up.
This is very clearly not a game for everybody. For probably a majority of the modern ZZT community this is a nightmare to play, and that's fair. If you can get yourself standing up to the game and meeting it head on though, you'll find a type of challenge that I honestly haven't seen before. This isn't Kaizo. This isn't kusoge. This is taking the basic building blocks provided by ZZT and finding a way to turn it up to 11 without actually breaking the equipment. It's classic Sweeney ZZT on steroids.
Take a look at this starting board. Devoid of context it would like like any number of Town derivatives. Immediately though zzo begins his onslaught. Your health upon starting the game isn't the expected 100. It's ONE. Not only does the player begin in a state so fragile that a single attack will end the game, but to such a degree that you'll need to find ten gems, or diamonds as the game refers to them to even be safe for a single blow.
One of the most common criticisms of Sweeney's worlds is the lack of ways to replenish health. The store in Town offers 3 ammo for a gem or a single torch for the same price. These are outright generous deals compared to what you're dealing with here. A single shot costs five diamonds! One whole unit health may be more than you can buy in Town, but consider the cost. In order to be able to survive one extra hit the player must fork over FORTY-ONE diamonds.
The scary thing though? I've used this store. I've bought these items. If you're running around XYZABCDE with 9 health, you don't say no when you have the ability to increase that to 11.
I don't know a good spot to bring this up, so I'll just say it now. I did not actually finish this game. I got something like two-thirds through. I mention this because I had barely 1000 points to buy "special packs" with that provide a single gem, ammo, torch, and health. I entirely forgot this was even an option and would have absolutely spent all my points on them if I remembered.
What kind of game is this? Well it's one where you're advised to buy the glass of poison. If you do you drink it and die of poison. Game over.
zzo is not afraid of using instant death on the player. Recently in Warlock Domain I discussed how I felt that game used game overs sensibly, providing ample warning and frequently asking for confirmation. zzo just doesn't care, but you'll be so rapidly trained to save before anything and everything that I can't even complain about it here. Frankly its worth a section of its own.
Undoubtedly the lesson this game will teach you is that every shot counts and every hit is one that you're going to feel. In the earliest portions of the game you'll be way too weak to clear most boards. A single shot from any of these tigers means a reload. Survival means choosing your battles wisely. This board isn't something that can be cleared with the health and ammo here, but you don't need to clear it. You just need to get to the other side. Alternative tactics like luring bears into breakables will save ammo and clear up more space as you juke your way past the enemy's defense and pray you can somehow make it to the end zone.
At the same time, this is ultimately a game with a Town style structure and that does mean that you're going to be hitting most boards at least twice. I even got in the habit of pausing before hitting a board transition so I could view the board in a paused state and make sure my positioning was good to get through some boards.
Objects are always completely wild. Something like a treasure chest is a blessing you won't forget. It's pretty obvious though that at any given moment you'll always want health or ammo considerably more than anything else.
The non-linear hub structure also means making tough choices when you see something like this and want nothing to do with it at the time. If you turn around you're going to cross a board with enemies again, and of course have to go through it a third time when you finally muster up the courage to deal with the game's puzzles which are every bit as nail-biting as the action sequences.
One of the more clever ways the game keeps the player from playing unerringly cautiously is the use of stars. zzo has done what others deemed impossible, and figured out how to use stars effectively in a ZZT game. The trick is to use them to merely make the player dance. Numerous boards will have an object that throws one or two stars, waits for them to vanish, and repeats the process. Without this purple smiley here, it would be straightforward enough to just wait for a brief gap and start running north. Thanks to the stars though, the idea of what's a "brief gap" becomes much smaller. If you're not willing to take a plunge you're going to have to reposition yourself to put some distance between you and the stars.
There are boss fights too. "§" has become fairly universal ZZT for "dragon", and in a Town inspired game the expectation is that they'll need to be bombed.
In Town, this fight is against six dragons with twelve bombs. In Game of XYZABCDE you get ten dragons and a mere seven bombs. In Town the fight is quite easy and the dragons are readily corralled allowing you to take out multiple with one bomb. Here that becomes mandatory, except when the dragons end up hitting each other when they shoot at the player, they react by throwing stars. Stars can push bombs which makes it incredibly easy to have your bomb pushed far from where you intended it to explode. Like that slider puzzle shown earlier, after a minute of this board I opted to try another path, this time fearing that none of them would be suitable for me.
Eventually I returned at a point where I was on board with this game's demands. I refused to cheat for health or ammo as it wasn't that this was badly designed. It was intentionally designed to not let the player get away with just lighting a bomb and hiding behind it until the last moment.
The eastern path is reasonably tame, but serves as an excellent demonstration both of star usage and dealing with limited ammo. A smart player (me) will take advantage of the ability to design your own paths through the forest tiles and keep the stars out of your hair. Once inside the main part of the board, safely tunneling to a boulder allows you to crush most enemies rather than attacking directly. On a board like this, the ammo savings can be pretty significant, and getting to a state where you can afford to miss a few bullets is critical to keeping your spirits high.
But just when I thought I finally beat zzo at something, I found myself taking damage out of nowhere! It was only then that I realized that this board has a time limit as well! Expect that to show up in a lot of boards to once again make sure that the player moves. It's a trick that basically forces a reload as you don't want to lose health from something so avoidable. Once you're aware of it however, you can feel a sense of smug satisfaction by taking a brief detour to any of the connecting boards and an immediate return to the previous to reset the timer and complete the board at a more leisurely pace.
What impresses me the most about zzo's action board design is how incredibly subdued it often appears. (The gray walls here are all water, bad timing on every screenshot I took of this board.) There are boards in ZZT games that you enter and immediately want to leave. Puzzles are of course the most notorious about this and this game is no exception as I'll get into later. This board doesn't seem too scary when you first look at it. There are ten tigers, a single lion (what?), and a few spinning guns with a lot of space to cross their paths. Plus the one set even has some red boulders nearby that will be great at neutralizing some of them.
Forty health, nearly 70 ammo after grabbing what's at the start of the board. This doesn't seem bad at all but wound up being my favorite board for how deceptively difficult it actually was.
First off, that purple thing in the lower left corner is a slow endless star thrower.
Immediately the tone of this conflict shifts. The walls are all water and the stars will gladly take a free direct path to the player. The creatures are of average intelligence so they'll stay slightly scattered but make good progress to get to the choke-point the player needs to funnel through to enter the main play-space. Oh, and did you notice that the player is limited to one shot on the board at a time? Don't miss.
Because if you do miss, you're waiting multiple seconds before being able to fire again. Keep in mind that SolidHUD is giving me an advantage here by telling me I can only fire one shot on this board. Under a normal ZZT v3.2 setup, you'd get to be surprised by that information. The best plan I could come up with was to deliberately leave some items in hopes of blocking the stars. What looked like a big open board is actually a congested gunfight where if you miss a shot and then a tiger lines up with you they can just freely shoot until you're able to return fire. Technically, some very bad luck with the stars could still see them opting to move north a lot more than east from their spawning point and getting at the player from the left, though in practice this is incredibly unlikely. Still, it could happen, and so with bated breath you watch each star come in, praying for it to drift right as quickly as possible.
Eventually it's time to make a break for it. The remaining enemies will be penned in by their AI and the player will need to make a break for it since stars can still get past the tigers. Then it becomes a dance to get the last tigers and having faith in your accuracy. The conveyors offer cover from the stars and are probably the best bet, but you definitely don't want to get pushed along by them and knocked elsewhere.
It's just doing so much with just a few pieces. There's more oddities around. Large chunks of the board don't really serve any purpose. Once you get the blue key you can ignore that quarter of the room completely making the red boulders unnecessary. The passage in the bottom right is a fake and leads to "private property", a fun little joke that's just a source of more stress as you have to cross the guns on the right wall to see it.
The Story and The Protagonist
Oh yeah. What is this game even about exactly? You probably won't be too surprised to hear that the story isn't that grand with how the game I've been compared it to most has been Town. Sure enough, the scroll in the center of the starting hub board tells you what you need to know.
• • • • • • • • •
You have fallen from the sky because your
wing suddenly broke when you were trying
to go to Mornington Crescent and now you
are badly injured. But, this is ZZT so
there are magic diamonds that can help
you! Maybe the doctor can fix your wing
(if you can find them anywhere).
• • • • • • • • •
There's definitely more to it than Town. Despite needing purple keys to ultimately reach your goal, they go unmentioned. What's more curious is the identity of the protagonist. Your broken wing is mentioned and you need a doctor to fix it. This is kind of a clever way to not just provide motivation compared to Town's "Enter the palace because it's there", but it also justifies the single health point to start with.
In addition to justifying the starting health, zzo takes things one step further and even finds a way to reckon the player acting on information about what's happening through walls. I've never seen a ZZT game attempt to do this. Everything always just rolls with what the board's perspective means. A library book explains that you have psychic powers! Relatively minor ones which allow you to see nearby places that aren't actually in the character's line of sight (dampened by darkness) and to be able to acknowledge a place as being too dangerous and just leaving. This may be intended as abstracting health. You at your computer know a ZZT player can survive being shot nine times no problem. Perhaps you may be less confident in being able to specify exactly how times you at your computer can be shot and be just fine.
So you have some psychic abilities and wings. Cool. One of the more fun aspects of the game though is trying to figure out what exactly you're supposed to be playing as. Throughout the game you'll come across small bits of descriptive text when you perform certain actions. Early on everything points to you being some sort of bird man. The police station lets you stick your beak in a hole in a table. There's mention of claws as well. You've got broken wings. It seems pretty reasonable.
A pair of glasses reveals there's a bit more to your shape than expected. Out of nowhere it's revealed that you've got five eyes!
It gets even wilder as things progress. On occasion you're presented the opportunity to "eat blood" from victims. They're never killed from the act, and it restores some hit points. In some games this might some sort of moral quandary where you have to weigh whether you should eat somebody's blood and restore your health or not. The use of of the verb "eat" over "drink" also really intensifies the gruesomeness of this consumption. Of course, with the player beginning in such a sorry state, it's really difficult to not do so. Nothing in the game really frames it as a good or bad thing. You just... eat blood. Rules of nature.
Other details about the player's body are revealed as well. The more you progress the more you feel like a mishmash of random pieces, vaguely avian sounding but definitely monstrous. You'll be referred to as a monster in several places which certainly covers it, but the playful vagueness really makes imagining what the protagonist is supposed to look like a lot of fun. As a child I had some monster maker sticker book where you'd create creatures by combing a werewolf head with Frankenstein arms, a skeletal rib cage, and so on. Going through XYZ really brought me back to it. It's a fantastic gag that takes advantage of the player's immutable white smile. That figure can represent anything, so why would it happen to be a human being over anything else?