Zero Sum Game by Cody Sandifer [Comp97]

IFDB page: Zero Sum Game
Final placement: 11th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Zero Sum Game (hereafter called “ZSG”) is like the proverbial apple which is shiny & enticing on the outside, but inside is rapidly rotting away. The game starts with a fun premise: You’ve won. You’ve collected treasures and solved puzzles, and now (before the first move of the game) you’re bringing them home to your mother. Unfortunately, she doesn’t approve of theft and killing and other such goings on, and orders you to go back and put right all the wrongs you’ve committed. Thus the game’s name: you try to bring your score down to zero before your moves (5000 of them) run out. This could have been a fun romp of reverse thinking, or an interesting exploration of the morality of the traditional stock adventurer character, or even both. As it turns out, the game doesn’t really succeed on either count.

The main problem that I had with ZSG is that it takes a much more callous approach to cruelty (no, not Zarfian cruelty. Real cruelty. [No offense, Andrew — yours feels pretty real at the time.]) than I’m comfortable with. [SPOILERS AHEAD, for the rest of the review] For example, early on in the game you pick up a loyal sidekick named Maurice, a childlike being who follows you around making funny comments a la Floyd. In another similarity to Floyd, Maurice must die in order for the game to be completed. However, that’s where the similarity ends, because Maurice does not sacrifice his life to save yours, nor does he suffer to save the world. No, you kill him to get a pear. The game describes it this way: “You split Maurice wide open; seconds before he expires, Maurice beckons you closer. ‘Oooh,’ he says, ‘was that a mystical treasure?'”. Then you take the pear from his dead body and tromp off to solve the puzzle which requires it. In another section of the game, you take your cute animal friend Chippy the chipmunk, cover him with honey and poison and feed him to a stereotypical “Beast guarding the door.” These (and other) scenes make it apparent that the author has not taken a thoughtful, mature approach to the implications of his theme. That’s OK — not everything has to be thoughtful and mature. But ZSG reached such a level of cruelty that it wasn’t much fun either. Dead bodies piled up in proportions comparable to any hack-and-slash MUD, and even though there’s a resurrection spell in the game, you can’t use it to revive Maurice, or the dozens of dead elves and villagers, or any of the other beings killed in the game, with the exception of Chippy. The game’s ending provides the final barb — it kills you. Not as penance for your sins, but because you’re a “mama’s boy” (or girl, as the case may be.)

To give it its due, the game does have a clever premise, a promising start, and some good puzzles. Some of these puzzles have no particular moral bent, but are cleverly designed (getting the scroll, getting the key). Others in fact do have the particular ethical direction of reversing wrongs: you give the candy back to the baby, for example. That’s why it left such a bad taste in my mouth to learn that other puzzles required coldly slaughtering your friends for the sake of a few points. I learned this from the walkthrough — I had already thought of killing Maurice to get the pear, but couldn’t believe it was the right thing to do until I heard it from the author himself. After that point, I detached from the game, using the walkthrough to see the whole thing and make notes for this review. It didn’t get better. Zero Sum Game‘s gimmick is one that works best the first time it is used — too bad this game did such a poor job of using it.

Prose: The prose in ZSG is actually pretty good. It’s what enabled me to become a little affectionate about Maurice and Chippy before I had to slaughter them. Still, much like the rest of the game, the prose is a good tool used for the wrong purpose. It’s like a beginning carpenter using the best quality wood — the result may look pretty, but it falls apart much too easily.

Plot: I think this is a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be about. I considered the notion (and this is giving a lot of credit to the author) that perhaps the driving idea behind the game is that there is no escape from unethical behavior, that even in putting some things right other ethical boundaries must necessarily be crossed. If we allow this rather extravagant benefit of the doubt and assume that such an examination of ethical entrapment is the game’s purpose, I can only say that it does a really poor job of it. The game’s arbitrary limits force brutal answers to trivial problems — not a very powerful demonstration of the concept. But I don’t think the game is aiming for anything so thought-out. Instead, its plot is a wandering mess, ending in a big “piss off” to its player. Unsatisfying and unpleasant.

Puzzles: The puzzles represented both the best and the worst things about ZSG. On the one hand, the first couple of puzzles I solved (the baby and the key) were really clever and interesting, and they raised my expectations from the already high level achieved by the game’s premise. Unfortunately, the excitement of these only intensified the letdown of consulting the walkthrough and discovering what cold solutions were required for the other puzzles. It’s a pity that the author didn’t keep a consistent tone throughout — I was much more disappointed than I would have been had all the puzzles required nasty measures to solve.

Technical (writing): I only found one grammar error in the entire text, a misplaced modifier.

Technical (coding): The coding was relatively coherent, though there was one major problem: the warning system was a complete failure. To test it, I ate the candy, killed the merchant, and killed Maurice in the first few turns of the game. No response. Other than that, I found no major bugs.