Exploring the 'Best Games': Cryptozookeeper, by Robb Sherwin

I’ve been interested in playing this game for a long time, but I had put it off during my ‘Exploring the Best Games’ series last year because it is very intense, and makes use of some of the most varied and creative profanity I’ve ever seen. After finding a way to put a filter into Lectrote, I finally finished it.

Cryptozookeeper took quite a bit of work, according to this interview:

"[Interviewer] I read that Cryptozookeeper took you about five years to complete. I’m about to ask you a personal question. The question is in two parts. As you answer this question, please keep in mind that we at Fwonk* also spend a lot of time and effort putting work onto the internet for free. The question is A: how many hours do you think you spent (rounded to the nearest hundred) on Cryptozookeeper? B: why would a person go to all that trouble?

[Sherwin]I’ve tried to estimate it, and I think it took somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 hours to make Cryptozookeeper. There were stretches where I woke up early, downed a pot of coffee and didn’t stop until it was time for bed. There were also times where I was on vacation, or trying to get in shape after work, or was waiting for a new clicky keyboard because I spilled a pot of coffee on the old one. I tried to work on it each weeknight no matter how tired I was, as doing that gets you into the zone."

There was a big dispute the year that Cryptozookeeper won the XYZZY’s, as that was the year that the very active Choicescript community voted en masse for Zombie Exodus (which has spanned a sequel or two and has been extremely successful sales-wise). After playing through, though, I can see why this game won. What did it do right?

==Strong Writing==

Some writers seem to have their brain tuned to a different universe, and it gives their stories a haunting, uncanny valley feel. Stephen King has it, Philip K. Dick has it, and a few others; a way of writing that seems completely consistent, but not with the world you live in.

All of Sherwin’s writing is like this, but Cryptozookeeper is the apotheosis of his work. It is a game that transgresses so many social rules; close friends will throw incredibly painful jabs at each other, while enemies will forgive each other at a moment’s notice. A character may use extreme violence one moment but be shy and squeamish another. The game is full of profanity, but characters are polite. Every room transition or introduction of a new item spawns a confession of some major life event told in a throw-off way.

The game never mentions it explicitly, but I realize in writing this that the friendships you build are the whole point of the game, in a way. The ending seems to imply this. Perhaps all those throw-away stories just let you know in a ‘show-don’t-tell’ way that the characters are building deep relationships with each other.

==Depth of implementation==

This game is sort of oxymoronic. In some ways, it is very underimplemented. Scenery is often completely unimplemented.

On the other hand, standard responses are completely customized, so that the game is pervaded by Sherwinisms.

Like a darker version of the later Pogoman Go, Cryptozookeeper is centered around collecting (and battling using) monsters, and contains quite a bit of code for it. There are many types of DNA that can be found in the game, and, when mixed together in correct combinations, they create monsters that range from the subtle but terrifying (like the will o’ wisp) to hilarious but deeply disturbing (like the behinder). Each monster’s birth is heralded by a personalized story, and they have stats that vary widely and which can be increased through combat.

This combat system and monster-merging storytelling require a very large depth of implementation.

==Strong NPCs==

Cryptozookeeper also achieves that Holy Grail of NPC design, the large cast of NPCs which follow you around but stay largely relevant. Sure, Jane or Lebbeus may stay quiet for a few dozen turns, but generally, everybody is talking all the time with fresh, new material, so much that it can even get overwhelming (well, when I was trying to finish the game quickly, there was a lot of reading. But it was fun to read).

Altogether, this is something that is impossible to achieve without hundreds of hours of work, and I wish all games could be like this, technically wise.

==Modular story design==

One place where Cryptozookeeper really shines is in its ‘episodic’ nature, as described by Robb Sherwin in a different interview:

“[T]he text file I wrote down all the plot in was organized into episodes and that’s the feel I wanted the game to have. Like, in Season One Episode Five, they meet their evil twins, in S02E06 they all go to a party, one episode is the “flashback” episode — that sort of thing.”

The whole game is arranged around this episodic structure, where you fight a bit with your cryptids, then head out on a choice of an episode (in a nonlinear fashion). Each episode is self-contained, but advances the overall themes of the game.

Again, this is hard to do in IF because it requires a great deal of effort to generate content.


This game is fully illustrated and has an extensive soundtrack (one review said something like ‘Even the mailbox has a theme song!’). This makes the file several gigabytes large. The images are from photographs of the authors’ friends and acquaintances. This makes the game extremely polished. However, it wasn’t compatible with the Lectrote interpreter I used to enable the profanity filter. I have played the opening scenes in the standard Hugo interpreter it comes with, though, and i was impressed by the art.


In conclusion, Cryptozookeeper is clearly deserving of its XYZZY award. It achieves things that some designers can only dream of. It is polished and packed with content, with unique writing and a coherent world.

I don’t know if I’ll play again, because its world view is so different from my own. But as a technological and storytelling achievement, it ranks with Blue Lacuna in the ‘mega-game’ world.

This is also the least-played XYZZY winner, counting by IFDB ratings. It has 16, while the next-lowest IFDB winner has 35 ratings and the lowest IFComp winner has 24. I’m sure this is primarily due to the choice of language/interpreter, and secondarily to its mature content.


I have enjoyed reading your “Author Highlights”-series. It introduced me to several authors I had either not played anything by (does this sentence even parse?), like Brendan Patrick Hennesy, or that I hadn’t even heard of., like Katherine Morayati.
I’m curious to see what will be in store for me in this series.

As for Cryptozookeeper, I started playing it twice in the past, but I was put off by the look of the game. (straight out of a dank cybersewer. Which is not so bad now that I put it like that. Anyway, it hurt my eyes.) Apparently, I’ll have to go in for another try.

but I was put off by the look of the game

Note that Cryptozookeeper is perfectly playable with graphics off.

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