A Nostalgic Adventure Game


My Lesson in 90s Game Design

Oct 14, 2014

I’ve previously discussed the charms of JZT’s text-mode graphics, a relic from the early DOS days that I now find delightful. But this graphical style comes with its own set of challenges, too. While a limited character set lets the player’s imagination take hold, it can also be confusing and abstract—particularly when we’re used to beautifully shaded, and increasigly cinematic gaming experiences.

Having been an enthusiastic fan of ZZT for years, I suppose it was easy for me to assume that a capital Omega (Ω) could be instantly identifiable as a lion. The upper loop is a bit like a mane, and the two flat parts at the bottom ressemble outturned feet. But I had accepted this for years without a fresh set of eyes and a clean experience.

In the weeks leading up to JZT’s beta release, I pestered my primary play tester (i.e. my spouse) for some criticism and suggestions. The feedback was always gentle and helpful, but there was one recurring request that I had a hard time understanding: A popup of some sort that would remind the player what things are called.

“I keep forgetting what the purple ‘club’-shaped things are called,” I’d be told. “They’re called ‘Ruffians’,” I’d say, “but why does it matter? Part of the fun is just going with the flow and accepting what the game throws at you; if you really want to know what something’s name is, visit the zoo at the beginning of the game.” It wasn’t until a follow-up comment that I finally understood the gravity of the argument: “Somtimes,” I was told, “I feel that I’m looking at a screen full of random stuff, and so I touch something random, and something random happens, and it’s all random.”

As someone who put a lot of thought into introducing concepts at a comfortable pace, being accused of creating something incomprehensible was devestating. In The Village of JZT, for example, I took care to start off the player in a room with very few things to interact with. Virtually everything you touch explicitly says what it is when you touch it, and the objects are introduced in a specific order to help reveal the rules of the game without being overwhelming or overly risky to the player’s progress. (Bombs are introduced before you need to use them to solve puzzles, for example, and the very first interactions with boulders and sliding objects reveal how they work without allowing the player to get stuck. Even getting the player to discover how to advance after finding the ammunition prepares them for how to shoot enemies before they’re encountered.)

The problem here, I realized, wasn’t really the names of the things (after all, lions could just as easily have been called tigers, and ruffians could have been called Queen Elizabeths). Rather, the problem was having to assign meanings to a lot of symbols that already have meaning in another context. Without that re-enforcement, things seem—well—random. The graphics in JZT are necessarily abstract, and assigning new meanings to them so that the player thinks “Key” instead of “Venus sign” needed re-enforcement. A lot of re-enforcement.

Hopefully the changes I’ve made to the game now helps keep the player’s mental model aligned. For example, I’ve scattered signposts and interactions throughout the game that remind players what enemies and items are supposed to be: “Please don’t disturb the sleeping bears. –Management,” reads a sign before a significant bear encounter; “You must collect all the gems,” says another character, surrounded by gems. I also added a legend at the bottom of every JZT world’s host page, which players could consult at any time.

Now, there’s still a lot of discoverability and exploration for the player, and some of the behaviours are purposefully unexpected or unexplained in advance, but I think the player can now at least delight in finding out what these things are knowing that the letters and symbols they’re looking at are at least consistent and identifiable by reference.

I still have lessons to learn about good game design, but that’s part of what makes this such a fun project. I’m genuinely looking forward to learning even more from others once the game world editor is released and anyone can create their own JZT game worlds.

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