I passed on the opportunity to have dinner with Robb Sherwin back in 2007 when the two of us were (separately) attending the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. “He’s funny, you’re funny, come have dinner with us,” said mutual friend Jason Scott. Unfortunately I already had plans to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame with other friends of mine that evening, so I had to decline the offer. Their pack of nerds went one way, my pack of nerds went another, and fate was postponed for a couple of years.
Since then, Sherwin and I became mutual fans of each another’s work. He purchased my book Commodork and gave it glowing review. I, in turn, fell in love with Sherwin’s writing style, both in his text adventures and on his multiple websites. In June of 2010 while visiting Denver, I was able to swing by Sherwin’s place and check out his collection of arcade games; earlier this summer while visiting the Oklahoma Video Game Expo, he was able to check out mine. Along with our mutual love of classic arcade games, we also share common interests in old computers, video games, and of course, text adventures.
Summary: Robb Sherwin and I know one other. If you’re looking for a completely neutral and unbiased review of Cryptozookeeper, this may not be the one for you. (That being said, I’ll still be writing it.)
And now, on with the review.
Like most gamers, I drifted away from the world of text adventures around the time graphics, sound and joysticks were invented. I played my share of text-based games in the early 1980s, but quickly moved on to “the graphical stuff” and didn’t revisit the genre until my interest was re-piqued by Jason Scott’s documentary Get Lamp.
There’s a reason the genre tends to identify with the more modern term “Interactive Fiction” versus the classic label of “Text Adventure”: Cryptozookeeper is roughly 600 megabytes in size, mostly due to the game’s graphics and 70-song soundtrack. To put that in perspective, the entire text of the Bible is 1.2 megabytes. (For the Devil sends the Beast with wrath, because he knows his downloads are short.) The game’s interface consists of four windows: a picture of who you’re talking to, a picture of where you’re at, a status update window, and the game’s text. Each of these windows are constantly changing depending on who you’re focused on and where you are, giving you a visual glimpse into the twisted world around you. This is not your father’s text adventure, in more ways than one.
In Cryptozookeeper players become William Ezekiel Vest, a man stuck in swarthy Christmas City, a town that’s part-nightmare, part-dark comedy. Things here are a little sick, a little twisted, and a little goofy in this place where the X-Files meets Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 3. In the game’s first location, players must solve a puzzle involving a dog named Puzzle. Assuming you outwit Igor Cytserz’s killer mutt, you’ll be gifted a vial of alien marrow from which DNA can be extracted. This package sets in motion a series of events in which Vest meets, interacts, and travels with multiple NPCs, traversing the city to find and collect DNA samples, all while solving classic IF puzzles along the way.
Midway through the game, Crypto morphs into a Monster Rancher-style game in which cryptids (creatures unknown to modern science) are created by mixing and matching your previously discovered DNA samples. Players have the freedom to create whatever kind and how ever many cryptids they want. Players will then spend time pitting these cryptids against other cryptids in order to level them up in order to finally face … well, I don’t know because I’m still leveling them up. But I’ll bet it’ll be a humdinger of a battle when I get there. While the battling cryptids contain varying attributes, the battles are mostly luck-based and randomly decided (I just had my Bigfoot unceremoniously defeated by an Aardvark). Fortunately your cryptids never truly “die” — instead they end up back at the pen, where they recuperate after a bit of resting.
The dialogue system used within Crypto is interesting in that the game-related topics each NPC knows about appear in color. (“I see you brought some DNA with you.”) The Tads.org article on NPC conversations refers to this style as “hyperlinked replies”. The advantage of hyperlinked replies is, you’ll never walk away from an NPC without gaining all the knowledge you are supposed to receive. (Typing “Topics PERSON” will list any you missed.) The disadvantage of this style is, conversations quickly become a laundry list of topics to be checked off until none remain. To be honest I’ve played all the major IF conversational styles (“free form”, “menu driven”, and “hyperlinked”) and they all have advantages and disadvantages. While free form conversations feel the most interactive, they leave the most to chance (and can lead players down a slippery “guess the noun” slope).The other two don’t allow for as much freedom; then again, they don’t allow for as much floundering around, either. As an author, I can appreciate forced dialogue systems for no other fact than I would hate to waste exposition (or worse, a great joke) on dark nooks and crannies that players may never encounter. Worse yet, put a game-advancing tidbit in there and watch your players’ progress grind to a halt.
Like all of Robb Sherwin’s games, the world of and characters within Christmas City is a conglomeration of pop culture references and technobabble. Sherwin entertains as earnestly as he offends. There are jokes about baseball and stigmata and trolls who edit Wikipedia entries. Not every joke sticks and I doubt everyone will get all the references (I know I missed some), but the ones I did get made me laugh. As with his previous games, Sherwin’s strong suit continues to be his writing.
If there’s any downside to Cryptozookeeper it’s that parts of it are insanely hard. I struggled with some of the puzzles for days, which, in all honesty, could be more of a reflection on my relative inexperience and re-introduction to text-based games than on the game. Some of the puzzles took me days to solve, and at least one side-plot involving an exorcism (I can’t tell if solving it was integral to “beating” the game yet or not) I can honestly say I have would never, ever solved on my own. This particular puzzle boils down to coming up with a single word, which I ultimately came up with after pleading with the author via e-mail. Cryptozookeeper may be enjoyed by beginning gamers, but it probably won’t be defeated by one.
From the text to the puzzles, Cryptozookeeper is a challenging game. It’s a game that engages players on multiple cylinders. I’m guessing the subject matter, language, and puzzles may not strike a nerve with all IF gamers, but for the ones it does, Cryptozookeeper is a guaranteed good time.