ZZT, by Anna Anthropy

ZZT-cover-nospine-shadow-wide_1024x1024Anna Anthropy’s ZZT, part of the Boss Fight Books series, is something of a partner piece to her previous text, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. It acts as a specific example of the game subcultures she outlines so thoroughly in the former.

In fact, ZZT is a sort of case study. A hard example of how the possibilities within a game space can turn it into a tool of expression for players, be it personal, political or educational. She expresses her beliefs (and those of others, through interviews with both players and designers) that ZZT, an MS-DOS adventure game/level editor released in 1992 and developed by Tim Sweeney, is not just a game. It is also an engine through which a player can understand and create their own games, and express themselves using the language of games and game narratives. While this manner of thinking did not necessarily exist at the time of ZZT’s release, Anthropy shows how the thirst for such concepts did. By her description, ZZT slaked that thirst with a robust level editor, powering a subculture that helped pioneer co-authorial game design, and personal expression through interactive narrative.

Academically, ZZT is a useful tool as a case study. It outlines the game’s history, as well as how it works, which could be of particular interest to game design historians. However, the academic meat of the text comes in Chapter 3: Unlawful Invisibles. The chapter describes Anthropy’s own personal experiences with ZZT, then places it against the experiences of other ZZT  “authors” and the self-discoveries the stories they crafted within the game-space offered.

It is that insistent terminology, that those who participate in the creation of ZZT‘s levels are authors, not just players, that makes Anthropy’s text useful from the perspective of those looking to study the narrative possibility of games. While ZZT is an old game, the narrative lessons Anthropy pulls from it are applicable today. While players may not immediately be interested in playing ZZT or using its editor, they could see the building blocks of narrative possibility space first put together in this book. Anthropy’s text clearly outlines the level of expression afforded by ZZT’s editor, which is similar to the modern interest in simple game makers like Twine, or level editor software like those in Mario Maker, which in turn can be twisted around and used to tell a story. The player of the game becomes the practitioner through that co-authorial desire to create and share. The co-authorial perspective on design could be of particular interest to academics as it is often missing from discussions of game narrative play and design. ZZT proves how important that perspective is, by going directly to the people most affected by it.

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