Zest, by Fear of Twine (a collective title which will in no way cause confusion with the game jam-ish thing of the same name, comprising Richard Goodness, lectronice and PaperBlurt) is a CYOA Twine piece that bills itself as a management game.
(IF Comp 2014 is over, but I have a couple of reviews to finish up for the sake of completeness. They’re belated on account of I’ve been sick and brain-dead.)
From the blurb, I had assumed that ‘zest’ was a nod to the lemonade stand as the archetypal American symbol of small business – and, indeed, the game’s protagonist does work in the citrus-oriented service industry – but in fact zest is a stand-in for drugs. Mostly weed, although needles and mirrors show up also.
Zest presents itself with console fonts and grubby pixel art that suggests rather than shows. This is a cultural divide, right here. For some set of people – a big set, in the indie gaming world – this stuff is catnip, the aesthetic equivalent of King James English to a traditionalist anglophone Protestant. I’ve never been there. My reaction, when first shown Mario and Sonic, was (and basically remains) ‘god, that’s ugly and inane.’ Maybe this is because I grew up with Macs and never owned consoles – all my friends had more and better games, but theirs all looked hideous. So, yeah, when it comes to this aesthetic I always feel as though everyone else is being directed to these warm snuggly nostalgia feelings and I get a lump of coal. This mode is the one way in which it even half-works – where the point is that things are ugly and shit.
The protagonist, Billy, is not in a great place. He’s sleeping on a couch, working an insecure service job, toking up regularly – evidently more as palliative than out of any enjoyment. It’s by no means the most astoundingly shitty situation one could be in – which is emphasized in your encounters with homeless panhandlers on the bus – but it’s still pretty shit. There is never any privacy: whether you like it or not, when you go home you’re hanging out with fellow messed-up stoner Frankie, who rambles on about stupid stoned-inspiration projects he’s planning on, all of which are attempts to get over his ex. You can acquire stuff – hey, I’ll get a pipe, then I won’t have to waste money on papers and tobacco – but you’ll probably just break it with stoned fumbling. There are stoned hook-ups that mostly leave you hungover and grody.
We don’t actually see a lot of this; the narrative is delivered in brief snippets with a lot of space in between them. There’s a sense that a lot of Billy’s life is fogged-out routine. We don’t see what Billy looks like when he’s snapping at the customers – we can’t tell if he’s a little snippy or a towering asshole. We don’t see what Frankie’s like when he’s not on a stoned rant. “I always have my best ideas under the shower,” it declares when you take a shower, followed by no ideas.
Billy’s a Catholic, and this seems like a pretty big deal to him – PRAY is one of the regular options, and there aren’t a whole lot of those – but he’s not in good standing. There’s a sense that this is as much to do with the church as with him: confession is only possible in a tiny time-slot on one day of the week, and attending it results in a great deal of invasive questioning, the response to which is a prescription for a number of Hail Marys. (This anticlimax is a pretty regular thing in any story with a confession-box scene, no? So I assume that this imbalance is uncomfortable even to Catholics.)
There is a lot of text that’s delivered in timed ways, with faded-out effects and the like. This adds weight to the words that they would not otherwise have, but it gets kind of excruciating when you’re replaying – and for me, it’s a little over the saturation point for effect, like a movie which has SUPER ENORMOUS ORCHESTRAL SOUNDTRACK BEATING INTO YOUR EARS WHAT THE APPROPRIATE EMOTION IS AT EVERY MOMENT.
Zest has, for a game about being stuck in a shitty trap of an existence, very few actual bastards: mostly it has a lot of people who would like to be good to one another but are extremely ineffectual at it, or are busy protecting their own scarce resources or trying to cope with their own issues. (This venality can have big consequences, however.)
Too, for a game about being stuck in a shitty trap of an existence, it feels as though it’s very easy to get out. It’s almost as though it’s making a gesture to something you know already – yeah, you’ve played Cart Life and howling dogs and Papers Please, you know how this sort of game is meant to go, now let’s talk about some endings.’ Games about shitty situations are a fine balance – if you repeat the shittiness ad nauseam then you lose all your players, but if you escape too early then they’re left with a sense that it isn’t really as bad as all that, right? Looking at other reviews, I see a bunch of people who found the game super-monotonous and got bored – and yeah, there is a pretty good piece of repetitive tedium in this thing, which is much worse when you’re replaying. (Given that it’s tracking previous playthroughs, a mode where previously-read text appeared immediately rather than going through the whole dance again would be a really valuable addition.)
Other things about the balance of this gave me pause; you start out with enough zest that all my playthroughs reached an ending before I needed to visit my dealer. This isn’t really a game about struggling to grub up cash for your next hit; I only missed getting high for stupid-mistake reasons, like forgetting to buy papers.
Golly gee, but the reviews made this look like a strong Banana contender. A number of people seem to have seen this as a woohoo-gettin’-baked kind of thing, and… I didn’t get that at all, really. Nobody in this story really does drugs for fun – well, your manager, perhaps. Everyone else is doing it as an (highly imperfect) way of coping with their issues. My sense of it was much more towards Emily’s take of undeserved grace – perhaps because I get zero warm fuzzies from pixel art, perhaps because I didn’t really pick up anything enthusiastic about the depiction of zesting, perhaps because the endings I got were all fairly upbeat and redeeming, and also featured the strongest writing of the game.
I suppose – okay, it calls itself a life sim. Everything in that category exists in the shadow of The Sims, in which the basic story is an American capitalist dream in which consistent work leads predictably and swiftly to material prosperity and a perfect family; you never need to interact with your community the slightest bit more than you want to, and no catastrophe exists big enough to disrupt your chosen course. Zest‘s stance is that life is more of a punctuated equilibrium than a matter of steady growth and stat-nursing: you’re basically in a holding pattern most of the time, and then something happens – crisis or opportunity – which you didn’t really forsee and which changes everything. To a certain extent this can feel cheap, in game terms – you bother going to Mass once and bam, now you’re an inspirational preacher. But life isn’t always what you deserve.
Overall, very mixed about this. Some strong moments, some mutton dressed up as lamb; an odd mix of nasty-spirited jabs and humanism. An ill-balanced thing, with saving graces.