IF Comp 2019: Zozzled

zozzled.jpgZozzled (Steph Cherrywell, Inform) is a lightly-puzzly comedy adventure game. It’s Prohibition; ghosts have invaded a Seattle hotel, turning all the booze into water. As flapper Hazel Greene, you’re getting to the bottom of this. By drinking (wait for it) spirits.

If you’ve played Steph Cherrywell’s earlier work, you’ll have a pretty good sense for what the score is here. The writing is over-the-top slangy in a way that could grate, but which I mostly found contagiously enthusiastic; the design of the puzzles and map is very solid; the protagonist is a fun-loving lady of curves; some of the jokes are really good.

If anything, the puzzle difficulty is set a notch lower than Steph’s previous games. I needed to look at the walkthrough once, and everything else moved along very promptly – not so effortlessly as to feel trivial, but without getting hung up on puzzles very long. It’s very clearly signposted which bits constitute a puzzle, and the puzzles are mostly pretty straightforward.

There was at least once puzzle – the fruit-bowl – where when I thought of the solution I was so delighted that I felt I’d be very disappointed if it wasn’t the answer, and then it was the answer and it was just such a fitting solution for this game. (On the other hand, I felt that trying to dance on the seance table really should have been acknowledged, however improbable it might be as a solution.)

The one big issue I have with this is that the mystery plot is a little bit detached from the rest of the game. The opening and concluding scenes switch to menu-based choices, and this is the only time we see the main characters of the mystery – neither of whom have any relationship to Hazel Greene. And none of that mystery is really revealed through piecemeal clues over the course of play – it’s just dumped on you at the end. So the narrative stakes aren’t really very connected to who you are or what you’re doing.

And – okay – Hazel is a character whose natural environment is a crowded room, and this is a world that feels kind of abandoned. There’s some pathos about Hazel’s determination here – that the party’s broken up, but by god you’re a party girl and you’re gonna have a party. Steph’s last game, Brain Guzzlers from Beyond, was notable for giving the protagonist a bunch of established friends; here, the closest things you have to a friend are a perky elevator attendant (who you have one conversation with and then stops being very interactive) and an artist who you were crushing on earlier (who is too wrapped up in his artistic preoccupations to pay you much attention). If Hazel had any friends at the party which the game opens on, they left her behind; and, as I said, the plot isn’t really about you. There’s a bit of a lonely undercurrent to these high times, and the ending’s a bit of an anticlimax. I felt that Hazel deserved a goddamn party, or at the very least to sweep an idiot artist boy off his feet.

(A contrast: if you’re doing a mystery with flappers, you inevitably invite comparison to Miss Fisher. Hazel Greene has a lot of similar appeal, in that she wants to have a good time and look fabulous and is entirely unapologetic about that. But Miss Fisher is also a very found-family kind of setup, and that colours her hedonism: she’s already got lots of people who care about her, so the text is pretty clear that she’s running around partying and getting laid because that’s her best life, not because she’s trying to fill a void. Hazel feels more isolated than that, which puts a different light on ‘get wasted, chase boys.’)

It’s probably worth mentioning how the text handles Hazel’s weight. The fashionable body of the flapper era is really famous and recognisable – very tall and long-limbed, very slender, with a flat chest and a boyish waist and hips. Hazel is, the text reminds us at various points, rather larger than that – but this is never phrased in a negative way, other than making it awkward to fit into small spaces, and Hazel is entirely confident about her status as hot stuff:

>x mirror
Wowee! You are one tempting tank of tomato juice, if you do say so yourself. And you do!

The one implementation issue I had: the blackened locker, which triggers the game’s conclusion, has a few wobbles with it. If you try to enter it without OPENing it first (my mental image of it had it blasted permanently open, for some reason) it offers up some fairly misleading messages – and then while trying to figure out the deal, uh, I got this sequence:

>touch locker
If you want it, take it.

You feel nothing unexpected.

>take it

You are carrying:
a blackened locker […]

This didn’t break anything in the game, but the reason I found it was because of less-than-ideal implementation in the first place.

(Another note: the walkthrough suggests that the game will be winnable with only five ghosts defeated, but offers a different ending if you get all seven. I checked with six ghosts and with seven, and I didn’t see any difference in the endings. There might be an off-by-one error here.)

This is a good game but not a great one: it’s funny, enjoyable and strongly-designed, but it falls a little short on being a really satisfying narrative, and I’m not sure it completely nailed the tone it was aiming for. I think that’s a 7.

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