IFComp 2014: Zest
I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot
Zest: A Management Simulator
By Fear of Twine (Richard Goodness, lectronice, PaperBlurt)
Type: Choice-Based / Twine
Play online: http://www.ifcomp.org/1164/content/Zest_IFComp.html
Hello young Limonista!
It’s the hottest week of the year, and ordinarily this would be a problem!
But you work at the most popular lemonadery in Sufferette City, and the citizens depend on you to keep cool!
“Zest” is a very short game and doesn’t immediately seem to offer much (outside it’s gorgeously polished aesthetics) but it develops a deeper flavor upon replay that I really appreciated. I completed five of the nine endings – I tried for the others, but I am not sure how to get them.
Stylistically it is gorgeous. The creators have paid a lot of attention to the look and feel of the game, and it shines. They completely modified Twine and exploited many of the interesting macros others have created (and, I think, created some of their own) to form some unique effects with text.
The font is great and bold and the blocky look makes it feel like the world is big and loud. Stomping comes to mind to describe it, but the all-caps look of it also produces a kind of sameness monotone throughout the game (which I get into a bit later). The environment changes with each location. Your home shows a lazy, gross looking human lying down on a couch with no other furniture. Your bathroom is a faucet that drips. The lemonade store you work at has a neon sign pulsing with light. The animation details don’t overwhelm or distract – they add something you rarely see in a Twine game, where authors tend to focus on the narrative and lack attention to these kinds of details. This is what I’d expect from a really polished Twine.
There’s these vignettes in the game – little conversations that happen before you – that are just wonderfully created. They consist of multiple lines of text that scroll or flash between different utterances (not a sentence, not a word, but a literal spoke piece of speech). Together they make up a half-formed rambling conversation that reflects an eavesdropping protagonist, or perhaps one that just can’t be bothered to give his full attention to the speaker. These vignettes are stories like a woman with a whiny kid, a patriotic veteran who can’t visit his son, and a drunk accosting you on the bus. Other vignettes are the protagonist’s comments – such as taking a shower and finding it cold. This moments appear to be random, so replaying the game reveals more of these little slices of life.
My only complaint with its aesthetics is that many times the words scroll too fast, including in places where the text is not about leaving impressions (as in those one-sided vignettes) but also in places where it’s telling you a story (such as during endings).
To reiterate: I absolutely adore the style and writing in these vignettes. There’s real skill and care here.
All of that is reason enough for those who are interested in Twine to go and play this game. I highly recommend it for that purpose. Aesthetics is something that I think a lot of Twine users skimp on, which is always a shame because they can enhance or contextualize your piece in ways that pure text cannot.
There are RPG-like stats on the left side of the interface that appear to have a function but, really, they don’t serve much use. I engaged with them initially and then ignored them. It’s an odd decision, to me, to have them so prominent on the UI when they are relatively minor actors except in a few endings. I interpreted it as a concern for your material wealth (and health of your body), but I’ll get into that later.
The content of this game, initially, turned me off. Reading about a drug-fueled haze of existence and the malaise of a man of questionable hygiene who works at a convenience store does absolutely nothing for me. I don’t think stoner stories are interesting by themselves, and my first impression was that there’s really not a lot of depth to the narrative. It’s definitely a game you need to replay in order to develop a sense of the overarching themes.
The game is not just about drugs. Religion plays a rather important role, hidden, but only just barely, beneath the veneer of your dependency on drugs and attempt to keep a steady, low stakes job. Your options to Shower, Zest, Exercise, and Pray all have equal weight (i.e. they appear at the same time and none are emphasized over others). The fact that Pray is even an option implies a character with religious habits or upbringing. After the work day, you can choose to hit up your dealer, or go to the hippie ‘tobacco products’ shop… or go to church. It’s almost as though it’s an arbitrary choice whether to continue the path of drugs or seek out religion. They aren’t necessarily pitted against each other as alternatives: the player can pursue both, they can get high in the morning and pray afterwards. The game tells you that you are or were Catholic, though it doesn’t say if you’ve lost your faith: it makes it entirely your decision what relationship the protagonist has to his religion.
Religion pervades the piece through various endings and random vignettes you stumble across, not just through choices like attend church or pray. You can overdose and be sent to the pearly gates of heaven – only to be turned away because “Your name isn’t in here”. You can get high with your friend Benny and he might ask you if you’ve met God, or you might tell him a story of a scorpion saved by a monk. A woman comes into the store you work at to evangelize with get-rich-through-God style worship. You can go to mass and become a preacher.
Drugs and religion have gone hand-in-hand in many cultures, but there’s no “Doors of Perception”, or psychedelic religious experience here as you’d expect when you mix the two. The game, instead, seems to focus on the mortal body versus the immortal soul. You play a protagonist wasting his life, with a structure that pits his physical attributes – height (as in a drug-induce “high”), grossness, and toxicity – and his material possessions – tobacco, bongs, money – against his mortal soul and the meaning of life. It’s not a coincidence that prayer lowers the negative effects of taking drugs (height, grossness, and toxicity).
There’s a story the protagonist or his friend (not sure which) tells the other. It’s a story of a monk who saves a scorpion from drowning. In turn, the scorpion stings the monk “for it was in its nature to do so.” Perhaps this focus on the empty, material world is just human, just “in its nature”, rather than seek out greater meaning in the world.
I may be reading too much into it. I may not be the best person to interpret it – neither religion nor drugs have had much of a role in my life. I enjoy musing on why the authors chose to incorporate religious narrative into Zest.
There is just one last thing I want to cover: pacing.
Most good stories AND games embrace some kind of pacing – you increase the stakes, increase the intensity, and then drop it every so often until you reach a climactic moment! The epilogue or resolution is where you finally let the player (or reader) cool down.
On the left is a normal pacing chart. On the right is how I felt about Zest.
Normally that right side of the chart is a poor experience for a player – or perhaps, considering the content, “user” is a better term. An audience expects highs and lows. Drugs imply highs – the manic excitement – and lows – from withdrawal and coming down from that high. There’s a few excitedly hyper moments in the game when you are taking drugs with your friend, but these are short and fizzle out so quickly that they didn’t really affect the overall sense of pacing in the game. Obviously, these moments are the handful of escapes – for protagonist and player – from the deadened, mundane, and monotonous life you lead 99% of the time.
In Zest, I don’t think the “flat” pacing curve is a problem. The protagonist’s friend even mentions that they are in “maintenance”, where they get just high enough to take the edge off but no so high that they are unable to function. The “flatness” of the game is an example of harmony between structure and narrative. This is something I push from a game design standpoint, where I say your mechanics and your narrative need to be aligned at a core level (and when they aren’t you get “ludonarrative dissonance”).
Zest itself is a great word. A person can say, “they have a zest for life!” to describe a kind of excitement or unbounded passion. You add the zest of a citrus fruit to many recipes, the sharp, intense, colorful flavor from the outside of the fruit. It’s a wonderful word to use as a euphemism for a drug – one that’s intense with the power of amplification. Some of that feels lost here in the game – this intensity never rises. There’s no big bang. I feel like it’s a game running on empty. It’s lost its zest.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s trying to say… the protagonist has lost their zest for life. They are in ‘maintenance’ mode – there’s no room for ‘zest’ there. Note the full name of the game “Zest: A Management Simulator.” Two concepts set in marked contrast to one another. Zest: excitement. Management Simulator: about as far from excitement as you can imagine. The latter half pretty much kills the first half.
As you can by how much I wrote, I liked this piece a lot. I started out not liking it much at all. The more I wrote, the more I enjoyed it. I don’t think it completely sold me – there’s some details I’d have done differently, and some mechanics (like my character stats on the sidebar) that I didn’t feel were really explored to their potential. But overall, I think it’s got a lot of interesting things happening beneath the surface, but it does require you to dig a bit.