Code Red has long been recognized as the most influential ZZT game ever created. This is true, and what is more, you cannot understand what it meant to be a ZZTer in the late 90s and early 2000s without understanding what Code Red meant to a generation of aspiring young game designers. Code Red was nothing short of revelatory. Tim Sweeney created the universe, but Janson was Sweeney's Michaelangelo, an artist whose transcendent work gave us a glimpse of just how vast and sublime that universe could be. I know that's bombastic, but it's true.
I recently replayed Code Red, navigating through all eight plots in a 24-hour period. I know very little about Janson and her process of creating the game, but binging the game this way reveals a lot. You can tell, for instance, when Janson was truly inspired and invested in her creation, and when she was just getting the job done. The toxic waste puzzle is a noticeable high point featuring non-default colors, flashing rainbow boulders, a well-thought-out and challenging puzzle, and a masterful song that sets the mood. The entire plot through Jay's house is a triumph, and in my opinion, the best pathway through the game. It shows Janson running on all cyclinders, with a richly detailed plot, clever programming tricks, a larger-than-life multi-stage inventory puzzle, and a genuinely surprising and melancholy ending. The file editor says this is the first ending, and I can't help but wonder if Janson lost a bit of steam after putting so much into it. Gameplay here still suffers from rooms that are way too big and a couple puzzles that feel tangential and forced, but it never feels not worth the effort.
The Funhouse, by contrast, is truly awful and not "fun" at all. The first board features way too many star-throwing enemies, making it virtually impossible to clear without cheating. The next board is a large invisible maze. The exhausted and frustrated player is then thrown into a giant and ugly teleporter puzzle. This board is followed by a an object-based ricochet puzzle that Janson was probably quite proud of, but by this point the player is so done with the tedium that the temptation to just cheat is overwhelming. The ironic thing is that the reward for enduring the funhouse is one of the better space stations in the game. This contradiction characterizes not only Code Red, but most "good" ZZT games in general. Very few ZZT games get everything right, but good ones have enough charm to warrant forgiveness. The space station after the funhouse is small, yet full of fun details and some classic inventory puzzles. One object in particular stands above the rest: an alien officer who, once incapacitated, offers a stunning supply of inventory items which, when selected, make beautiful ascii drawings appear in the text box. Three gems, a knife, a floppy disk, a pair of gloves, a ring, an id card, a badge, and a slip of paper with a secret code are all drawn lovingly and great detail, in a way appearing no where else in the game. These random moments of inspiration and magic absolve the games many sins.
It seems remarkable that Code Red became a sacred text despite being, in many ways, deeply flawed. Like so many other ZZT games, Code Red suffers from poor level design, occasional catastrophic bugs, and tedious gameplay. The action boards are particularly bad and rarely rise above mediocrity. So what makes Code Red special, and why did it have such influence?
There is a moment in Code Red that always moves me. In the space station after escaping Jay's House, there is an airlock leading out into space. After going through the airlock and heading south, the player enters a starfield. There are no ships, no planets, no markers of any kind--just the player in empty space surrounded by a field of white stars. Venturing further south the player finds a beautifully-rendered satellite containing a necessary object. It's all very simple--the player moves across two boards and returns to their starting point-- but I always feel like I've just traveled some unfathomable distance. And it is this feeling of vastness, of infinity, of limitless possibility, that sets Code Red apart from any other ZZT game and makes it such an enduring treasure. Code Red is not so much a game as an entire universe to explore at your leisure. It begins in a house, then stretches outward into a neighborhood, a zoo, a jail, a casino, an amusement park, the White House, a sewer system, a television network station, an airport, eight different space stations, the moon--in short, the entire universe itself. That this expansive spatial universe also showcases an equally broad and deep collection of ZZT-OOP tricks and one of the most ambitious and memorable soundtracks in ZZT's history makes it not just a "classic" ZZT game, but THE classic ZZT game. In Code Red, Janson introduced many ideas and pieces of code which would be referenced, copied, and blatantly stolen for years to come; its influence in this way is beyond question. However, more significantly, Code Red offered ZZTers a glorious vision of what ZZT, and what a ZZTer, could be.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about Code Red is that it exists at all. That most of us never came close to the scale and grandeur of Code Red, despite innumerable attempts, is a testament to its achievement. I have deep admiration for Janson for pulling off such a wildly ambitious project, the scope of which by all accounts should have doomed it to fail. And yet it exists, and we are all better off--more ambitious, more creative, and more joyful--because of it.