Twine Weekly: Zest

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started Zest. It has been sitting in my Twine backlog for a while now and I had completely forgotten why I originally wanted to play it. This was actually the best way to play the game and I urge anyone to take 15-20 minutes to play it through at least once before reading this critique.

To begin with: Presentation. From the opening screen to every ending the game is overflowing with visual style. Each area has it’s own background and this greatly helps with the immersion, which is typically a Twine game’s biggest weakness. Ambient conversation is told through multiple lines of text updating simultaneous and at a pace that is impossible to keep up with. As someone who pauses sitcoms when I leave the room — just in case I miss one of those all important details — not being able to read every line of text was an annoyance. It wasn’t until I realized it was idle banter that I realized it was a genius design decision. Even the text itself is stylized using flashing text to show importance and typography to add artistic flair to, what would typically be, mundane blocks of text.

After having played many narrative driven Twine games with little player interaction Zest provided a much needed reminder of how versatile the engine is. The story is open ended and stat driven, allowing the player to direct how the tale unfolds while allowing some random events to occur — random insofar that the player isn’t privy to the systems that govern when these occur. The open gameplay brings with it at least five endings, all of which are drastically different. In one I became a sales person at a quasi legal drug store selling legal drug paraphernalia and in another I lost my nine to five job and ending up calling home for some help. What is most interesting is that each decision seems small and innocuous yet can drastically alter what happens at the end of a week.

Zest has an interesting ending, not so much that it is an actually interesting finale but that games rarely touch on the subject. While there are many endings, the achievement list shows that the canonical ending is the one where the player goes to church and becomes an active member of the congregation, so much so that they are given robes. Faith and religion aren’t topics that spring up in games too often and when they does it is usually portrayed negatively and often as the organization the opposes the protagonist. I would like to see more of this in games, though I doubt it will ever be found in AAA gaming due to the way those games pander to the audience they think they have. That’s just another reason we need more games in the alternative sphere making unique design and narrative choices.

The game does a lot of things right, however it suffers on subsequent playthroughs. This is a huge issue as the achievements encourage finding all of the endings. Sometimes your commute to work and the work day are summarized in one screen — “The commute was uneventful” or “You had a normal work day” — but other times events happen and they are unskippable. Worse is if you have seen the scene in a previous playthrough. There is a specific scene that can occur when you contact your dealer where he tells you a story about a monk and a scorpion. It feels like it goes on forever and I’ve seen it in almost every playthrough. Since the game records progress I would actually prefer if it keep track of scenes that have played and pick from a pool of unseen one.

Despite that flaw though, Zest is still something worth playing. It’s one of the few games that actually has player interaction at it’s core. The mere fact that the branching stories don’t coalesce to form a single ending is more than enough to praise Zest as a response to the illusion of choice represented in the well known narrative driven games like The Walking Dead.

Created by: R.Goodness, lectronice, PaperBlurt
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