The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
By: Robb Sherwin
It took me some time to appreciate Robb Sherwin's work. I found his first comp game, Chicks Dig Jerks, a really unpleasant experience, due to its misogyny and its bugginess. His second comp entry, A Crimson Spring, fared better with me, partly because it concerned superheroes, one of my favorite genres. But that game too was quite bloodthirsty in its content, and quite buggy in its execution, so it wasn't really to my taste. Even then, though, the change had begun. Sherwin's writing, which won praise in some quarters from the very beginning, was sharpening, and his coding discipline was increasing, albeit slowly. Subsequent games like No Time To Squeal and The Recruit gave Sherwin's writing a chance to shine while somebody else took care of the fussy coding details, and outside the comp he bucked the general trend towards short games by releasing sprawling long-form works like Fallacy Of Dawn and Necrotic Drift. Not to mention, I met the guy on several occasions, given that we're both IF people who live in Colorado, and it turns out that he's one of the nicest people in the community. Belying the outrageousness of his writing, the man himself is a gentle, witty, soft-spoken presence, a real mensch who's done me many a good turn over the years.
Which brings us to today, and Cryptozookeeper. It's the most Sherwin-esque Sherwin game I've yet seen. It's gonzo, it's funny, it's extreme, and it's shambolic, and it's all these things to the most highly refined degree I've ever seen Robb accomplish, which means it's all these things to the most highly refined degree I've ever seen anyone accomplish. And is it still buggy? Oh sure, of course it is. There are bugs in this game that had me pounding highly creative curses into my keyboard, just so I could log them in my notes and remember how aggravated I was. But then some well-crafted joke or unexpected linguistic fireworks would burst forth from the screen, and suddenly I was having a great time again. I don't know whether this means that I've finally acquired the proper tastes, or whether Robb has finally pushed his work over my personal tipping point where good writing outweighs bad coding, but in any case, I found myself enthusiastically quoting the game to others, and recommending it to at least some of my friends — those with strong stomachs who could handle the gore and grotesquerie. Cryptozookeeper is by turns enthralling and infuriating, fascinating and repellent. Its reach ultimately exceeds its grasp, but oh, what a mighty reach it is.
Like many of Sherwin's other games, Cryptozookeeper is a multimedia work, taking advantage of Hugo's ability to present images and sound integrated into the text game. I found the pictures a mixed bag. Many of the character photos, especially those of the PC, were both funny and informative, providing visual information that nicely rounded out the characterization provided by the text. The location shots, on the other hand, were sometimes useful but more often just a bit baffling. They were almost always washed with some weird filter that oversaturated colors and downplayed contrast, making the images so information-light that I soon mostly ignored them, a habit which ended up biting me later when a puzzle depended on me watching for subtle differences in the location photo. The music, on the other hand, was a roaring success. Cryptozookeeper is equipped with an excellent soundtrack of ominous electronica, which almost always enhances the game's mood with creepy synthetic overtones. I enjoyed the music so often that I found myself using the "NP" command (which displays the title and artist of the song currently playing) every few minutes, and periodically made notes to myself to seek out the tunes for my iPod. Another gimmick which worked well was the dynamic credits and help screen — in order to avoid spoilers, the game's documentation keeps a few of its cards hidden early on, only displaying instructions for new commands and new actor appearances after they've been revealed in the story.
As with any Sherwin game, though, the star of the show is the writing, and Cryptozookeeper does not disappoint. The room descriptions in particular dazzled me over and over. Standard issue in the Robb toolkit is the extended aside that starts out original, then piles on harder and harder just to make sure that it's absolutely matchless. To pick a sample room description more or less at random:
Building Corner The corner of this building has a window at ground level. There aren't any security signs upon it, or systems that seem to be in place, other than "windows make a lot of sound when shattered," which is a feature you get for free with windows, even the ones in this town sold door to door. You were under the impression that the place was recently constructed, but judging by the deep scratches along the exterior, the place has apparently been under siege by either a pack of ravenous, wild, roving bobcats or sentient handclaws.Calling "windows make a lot of sound when shattered" a building's only security system is original, and funny. Mentioning that this is "a feature you get for free with windows" not only adds to the funny by belaboring the obvious but also, by its use of the word "feature", echoes the sort of advertising claim that comes along with the operating system that happens to be called Windows. But it's still not done! We learn that Christmas City, New Mexico (the game's locale) apparently suffers from door-to-door window salesmen, whose products may be shoddy but not so shoddy that they aren't still noisy when broken. And that's not even mentioning the roving bobcats and the sentient handclaws. The vast majority of room descriptions contain this sort of wit overload, and they make the game a joy to read.
Not only that, there are a variety of miniquests built into the game's design, and Sherwin frequently employs them as excursions into unusual writing styles, like the Rybread-level psychedelia of the section whose rooms have titles like "Were you ever content or did you assign it in retrospect?", "Esophagus", and "Despair and mouth." Not all these experiments work perfectly, but each is executed with such bravura gusto that I was more than happy to be carried along. There are also a ton of inside references for Infocom and IF nerds, which I found quite enjoyable given that I am one such nerd. Every time the game threw out a phrase like "oddly angled" or "it all comes down to this", I grinned wide. There's plenty of food as well for other kinds of computer geeks, sports geeks, and aficionados of the weird and twisted. I can't say I enjoyed every bit of it — this game prompted me to look up a few things I wish I'd never learned about — but I sure enjoyed a lot of it.
Sherwin is also well known for his dialogue, and there's plenty of it here. It's embedded, sometimes awkwardly, in a conversational system that provides a list of topics and makes TALK the central command. Though NPCs are nearby the vast majority of the time, most commonly there are no conversation topics available. However, when the plot is ready to move forward, Cryptozookeeper cues the player that a topic is available by highlighting the word in another character's dialogue. Sometimes you even get your choice of two. Having three or more topics available at once is pretty uncommon, though. This system eliminates the need to code lots and lots of responses into an NPC, and considering what excessive care Robb puts into his dialogue, it makes perfect sense to have such a labor-saver on hand, but as a player I found it clumsy more often than I wanted to. There were situations where an NPC would ask a direct question of the PC, but the topic of the question would never be made available in the topics list, which forced me into the situation of not being able to pick up a rock-solid conversational cue, and not being able to even acknowledge to the other character the reason for my silence. Other times, there were some things going on that seemed to beg for discussion, but the system didn't allow for it.
However, when dialogue is available, life is pretty good. All Robb's characters are more or less the same character: intelligent, self-hating, morally bankrupt, directionless individuals whose primary skill is hyper-referential and hilarious snarky commentary, and who are nursing some secret or semi-secret pain, often connected with a failed relationship. This results in a fairly low level of emotional engagement with their stories (at least for me), but an extremely high level of entertainment in their banter. Again, picking a sample more or less at random, how about a section where the cute goth host of a local access TV show is speaking to the PC:
"...It's all right down here, but I'm originally from Colorado and I think I am moving back. Shortly. I just signed a contract to do this show on a station that way. Not that I'd tell any of the turnips around here. Do you have satellite TV?" "I - ah, I'm between televisions right now. Trying to see what format emerges dominant. The color versus black and white thing really screwed with my ability to trust technology. That and the wireless revolution: I developed a fixation and craving for power cords." The truth is that you could not afford programming for your TV once Elephant Memory fired you, so you just sold the television itself. (The part about power cords is also true.) "Well, download my show off Usenet," she says. You brighten, pretending you know what Usenet means. "It'll be a lot of the same show, but with a slightly bigger budget. It's really going to fly!"Almost every sentence contains some offbeat note — "the turnips around here", "a fixation and craving for power cords", "pretending you know what Usenet means." And that's when the characters are flirting with each other. When they start sniping at each other, clever digs abound. That's also when a lot of their backstories come out. As I mentioned, I don't relate to these characters much on an emotional level, and that goes for their histories too, which in my mind generally tend towards the category of "sob stories from asshole guys." For the most part, these people tend to behave in despicable ways and then suffer the inevitable consequences of doing so, which doesn't make them very sympathetic. Even they have their moments, though. There's something a little touching about the way these misfits find and sometimes help each other. The ending, in particular, I found satisfying and even moving as a character moment.
What really ties the whole game together and makes it work is the comedy. Sherwin has become a master of the well-turned IF joke, and Cryptozookeeper has many many many funny funny funny bits. Just to pick a few of my favorites:
These jewels are strung together in a structure that doesn't put much emphasis on puzzle-solving, branching, or interactivity. Quite frequently, the dialogue trees and even the compass directions equate to more or less a "turn the page" command. That's not to say that Cryptozookeeper is some kind of foulmouthed, pseudoscientific Moment Of Hope. There are some puzzles, and certain aspects of the game in fact offer a vast variety of choices (thanks to the magic of combinatorics). There's also a branching narrative in certain places — more about that in a bit. What's true, though, is that this is a pretty conceptual game. It is far less focused on presenting the player with a landscape and objects than it is on presenting a definite plot (admittedly one studded with a lot of optional goals), a variety of set-pieces, and of course lots and lots of dialogue, jokes, and joke-laden dialogue. Consequently, quite often a directional command isn't so much a method for getting through a physical landscape as a way of getting to the next piece of the story.
I mentioned miniquests earlier, which is where the opportunities for branching and optional goals come in. The PC is hunting for DNA samples from a wide variety of animals — nevermind why. A few such samples are required to finish the game, but for the most part, gathering a whole lot of them is entirely voluntary. I strongly recommend pursuing all available paths, though — the optional quests are quite often the occasion for crackerjack showcases of prose style experimentation and, of course, more jokes. Not only that, the DNA samples that are invariably the prizes of these quests open up greater and greater richness that can be brought to bear on the game's midsection.
On the other hand, it's in the miniquests where I encountered the game's worst bugs, which were generally of the "unstable inventory" variety. Items, as well as people, disappear and (occasionally) reappear throughout the game without explanation. Or sometimes the explanation is so lame and the player so powerless that fury results. In particular, there was one occasion when an NPC purloined a number of my hard-won DNA samples, which never returned, and I never even got the opportunity to engage him in conversation about it or otherwise try to retrieve my stuff. This almost ruined the game for me, and I spent dozens of turns cursing at the screen about it. Few occurrences in IF provoke more ire from me than when inventory that took a great deal of work to obtain suddenly disappears, irretrievably, for no good reason. In fairness, at one point the game declared that it would eliminate an important item of mine, only to have the item reappear later on, seemingly none the worse for wear. So sometimes the instabilities worked in my favor, but they were still bewildering.
I should say here, by the way, that I hardly want to be the guy ragging on what was obviously an enormous labor of love. Like Peter Nepstad before him, Robb Sherwin obviously put a colossal amount of energy and dedication into this game, so much so that it in fact sent him to the hospital at one point. Plus, as I said, he's a hell of a guy in person. However, a review that avoids mentioning any of a game's flaws does a disservice both to the author and the audience, in my opinion. Thus, we say what must be said, albeit sometimes a bit sheepishly.So while I'm complaining, let's spend a little more time on the game's defects. The biggest problem was the bugs, as is par for a Sherwin game, but it wasn't the only problem. In some ways, the entire premise of the game is flawed, in that it seems to purport that the main character has some sort of special power to bring cryptids into the world, but the reason, such as it is, for the character's power is very flimsy. The creation process is extremely simple, and completely facilitated by technology. Literally anyone could do it, but everyone in the game acts as if the PC is the only one capable of this rudimentary button-mashing. The only thing I could piece together from the background given in the game is that his ability springs from his utter scientific ignorance and incompetence. In other words, anybody could do these simple things but only the most ignorant person would, because someone with even a shred of scientific understanding or basic sense would dismiss the entire thing as preposterous. So I guess this is a little subversive, having a PC whose abilities spring from stupidity, and it might work well for a one-time puzzle, but Cryptozookeeper forces the PC to engage in this process over and over. It seems to me that once everyone witnesses the process succeeding, the ignorance premise becomes invalid.
Speaking of repetition, let's talk about the combat. Have I mentioned the combat? Loooong stretches of the game's midsection are taken up with RPG-ish combat scenes. The game will allow an unlimited number of these, and a fairly hefty minimum is required in order to proceed to the endgame. Crucially, it's unclear how much leveling up and how many combatants will be necessary in order to succeed in that endgame, so I decided to have ten combatants, and grind away until I'd leveled one combatant up to the highest possible level (which is level 5). This took a whole lot of grinding. I've got literally thousands of lines of transcript devoted to this fighting.
The fights are not without their charm. When the battle begins, a window displays the crucial stats for each fighter along with a little tagline, just for fun. As with everything else in the game, the nature of the creatures themselves as well as their taglines were often a source of laughs. For instance, the wolverine's tagline is, "I'm the best at what I do." Not quite a direct X-Men quote, but close enough to make me laugh. Also, each attack made by either enemy is described with some colorful little sentence, along the lines of "The sloth could have avoided that last blow, but craves oblivion, taking 3 points of damage." There are maybe 20 of these sentences, and they're fun and fine and everything, but like I said, the combat goes on for thousands of lines. Even this level of variety gets numbingly repetitive pretty quickly.
I wonder -- for a game structure like this one, could the damage descriptions be crowdsourced? Say Robb got on ifMUD, or Jolt Country, or intfiction.org, (or maybe all of these and more) and asked 20 or 30 co-conspirators to come up with 5 or 10 damage descriptions each? Suddenly the algorithm's options increase by an order of magnitude, and even thousands of lines of combat might still yield the occasional surprise. For all I know, this has been tried in the past — I haven't bothered to check it out. All I can say is that a handful of even the cleverest lines wear thin through constant repetition, and I wonder if it would have worked better if there had been a barrelful. Thankfully, there is quite a bit of variety in the randomly selected enemies, and there's a great deal of richness to be found when creating the combatants -- more than I even wanted to take the time to find, really. Not that I wasn't pissed when losing the opportunity.
Despite the repetition, or perhaps because of it, I found myself attaching distinct personalities to each of the fighters in my little ragtag army. I knew which ones were the badasses, which ones were the chokers. Some weren't as good as their stats might imply, while some seemed to pull out an unexpected victory surprisingly often. The PC is portrayed as having paternal feelings towards the fighters, and damned if I didn't find myself echoing that very dynamic. It was a peculiar phenomenon — code constructs that had almost no description, couldn't be interacted with, and had virtually no personality at all aside from a photo and a tagline, suddenly became characters that I cared about, and whose foibles I knew, just because I watched them each go through randomized combat dozens of times. I don't know if everyone would have the patience to do this (really, I doubt it), but I found it bizarrely and surprisingly rewarding, especially when the fighters came into play in the endgame.
On the other hand, given that there was so much repetition, I wish the game had done a better job of smoothing the path. Each time I wanted to set up a fight, I would go north, push a keypad, select a fighter, and go south. I did this over and over and over again, like a few hundred times. I dearly wish the process would have been condensed into one command, or even less than one command. Perhaps every time a fight ends, the game could ask me if I wanted to trigger another, and if I said yes, allow me to pick a fighter, then start the next fight straight away. That would have been so much less annoying than running through a litany of steps over and over.
There are a few interface stumbles like this. Several times, some kind of action scene involving the PC would begin, but action-y verbs like "KICK [object]" would still result in comically inappropriate standard library messages like "Venting your frustrations on [the object] wouldn't accomplish much." Or perhaps someone is coming at the PC with an axe, but "GET AXE" yields "You haven't seen anything like that." Oh, well, what a relief then -- guess I can stop worrying about being chopped to bits by it! Finally, I found the conversation system syntax awkwardly staggered. The game enforces this formulation, with the "T" command for talk:
>T DEANNA Please enter a topic >> GUNSOver and over again, I'd forget about this enforced second step and type something like "T DEANNA GUNS", only to be told "[That is not understood by the game.]" I really wish it had been.
Okay, enough of that. I want to praise one more thing before I close: the cueing. This is the art of very subtly guiding the player into typing an unexpected or non-standard command at the prompt, and Cryptozookeeper does it masterfully. I won't cite any examples, because that would obviously take the fun out of them for potential players. Instead, I'll just say that several times I was rather flabbergasted at what the game got me to type, without being at all overt or on-the-nose about hinting at that response. Every time that happens, the player gets to feel like a genius. It's one of the best tricks IF can pull, and Cryptozookeeper does it beautifully.
This game is definitely not for everybody. If you find gore and repulsive behavior too upsetting, avoid it. Similarly, if repetitive RPG combat makes you want to shoot yourself, stay healthy by not playing this game. For me, though, IF that makes me laugh over and over again, and occasionally astounds me with something sublime or defiantly ridiculous, can be forgiven of almost any sin. Cryptozookeeper is that kind of IF. It's Robb Sherwin at the top of his very strange game, and I'm glad I finally figured out how to enjoy that.