Learning from the Best of Text: An Essay on Zozzled by Steph Cherrywell

This essay was offered as a prize in the 2019 IFComp. I’m pleased to write this essay on Zozzled, as this is a game I heard rumors about for quite a while before it appeared, and was everything I had hoped for: a polished, funny, light puzzler. I wanted to discuss a few features of the game:

Themes:
Cherrywell has a habit of pairing pulp genres with important real-life issues. Chlorophyll mixed space sci-fi with the relationship between mother and daughter. Brain Guzzlers from Beyond mixed monster sci fi with race and class divisions.

Zozzled is a flapper-era comedy ghost game that deals with vices, both alcoholism (which is thrust into the forefront) and deeper societal ills which are more subtly depicted and provide an interesting contrast with the alcoholism.

For example, the main character, Hazel Greene is hooked on ‘hooch’ and can’t get enough alcohol. Sobriety is a sin in her eyes. One of the final messages in the game is a warning to drink less, coming from a former prohibitionist who died in her one moment of weakness through poisoned alcohol. The games overt message is ‘alcohol is problematic’.

But it’s a blind. Hazel’s alcoholic habits cause no problems in-game, and all true progress is obtained by consuming alcohol. Despite our character’s ‘societal ill’, she is not depicted as a bad person. Neither is Donnie Cantaloupes, the owner of the Grand Poseidon Hotel and.gang boss.

In contrast, some people in the game are depicted as bad people, albeit with more subtle ills. The medium who wears a wig and goes by ‘Madame Ping’ is heavily implied to be a Westerner co-opting Asian culture. The architect comes off as the typical megalomaniac creative who ignore people below him. And the prohibitionists are shown to be motivated by revenge.

So, whether intentional or not, one theme seems to be the contrast between public sins which are openly condemned and private sins which are covered through hypocrisy. The game seems to favor the former, and I’d have to agree with it’s viewpoint.

Writing:
Cherrywell is an excellent writer, and this is probably the game’s biggest strength. Zozzled is a funny game, and it draws on a variety of humorous techniques.

Much of the humor is pun-based, with the various meanings of ‘spirits’ carrying a lot of weight. The game’s most difficult puzzle contains several pun-based hints, which make its solution obvious in hindsight but opaque in normal play.

Another chunk of the humor depends on setting up and subverting expectations. The bit with the two lovers who need help, the flashback showing the gang leader rushing towards the prohibitionist, the beginning attempts at getting drunk.

Finally, the pure ridiculousness of the writing does a lot for it. Brendan Hennessy once advised me that a trick for overcoming writing anxiety is to make things so over-the-top that no one would notice if it’s bad. And Cherrywell certainly throws things over the top. Notable examples include the enormous scale model of the hotel which contains, itself, a scale-model of the hotel; the ridiculous reverse speech impediment of the Donnie; and the list of possible symptoms of exposure to ghosts.

Outside of humor, the game shows evidence of deep research into 1920’s lingo. This attention to detail is lovely. I remember researching Depression-era gangster lingo for a bank heist game I was working on, and there’s a lot of overlap between the two sets of slang. It definitely heightened my enjoyment of the game.

Puzzle Design

Cherrywell is known for engaging interactivity, usually light puzzles that are organized in a branch-and-bottleneck structure. In her other games, you generally unlock a couple of puzzles at a time before moving on to a new area. The constrained environment makes guessing and experimentation easier.

Zozzled is a bit of a departure from this. Almost the entire game is an ‘open quest’ structure, sandwiched between the puzzle-free opening and epilogue. All puzzles are available for you to work on at once.

This directly affects the narrative impulse of the game. Her past games had this sense of motion, almost like a comic book. Zozzled is more of a stately game, and a different kind of challenge, as the state space is larger. Many times we find a clearly defined problem or set piece whose purpose is not made known until later.

It’s a different design, but it’s a good design. It feels player-friendly, and adds a different dimension to player experience.

Conclusion:

Zozzled is an excellent addition to the IF canon. The Cherrywell portfolio is fleshed out now, and anything from this point on is gravy. Winning IFComp twice is incredibly rare (only happened twice so far!) and I could easily see Cherrywell making it three.

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