Just the other day, the very first batch of winners from Failbetter Games’ World of the Season were announced, and while Samsara and Evolution (placeing first and third respectively), were wonderful bits themselves, I found neither of them able to stack up to second place’s Zero Summer–a narrative-heavy ‘old western’ adventure in which you play as a nameless man (who I aptly named ‘No Name Ned’ in my playthrough) who wakes up one afternoon in a train station, not aware of how you came to be here, or what your name was.
Initially, I quite nearly turned away from Zero Summer altogether as its description described it as being well-rooted in ‘moral choice'; moral choice systems and I never get along very well seeing as some of my favourite games have been decimated in quality because of them (Infamous, Mass Effect, even Bioshock shoehorned it in there)–it’s like that mechanic some RPG’s use that causes weapons to break over time in that it never seems to improve the game in the slightest. But then again, the adventures one can create on Storynexus are rather different from anything you’ll find on a console or on Steam; they’re those text/image games where you have some number of action points to use on missions which level up some skill or another, etc. etc.. WHat I like about the model of Zero Summer versus a FaceBook variant thereof is that for one, Summer doesn’t try to scam you on every other screen, but more importantly it is driven by a plot rather than competition. In Mafia Wars you just throw in an hour of play here and there for the single purpose of just beating your friends; Zero Summer on the other hand features a rather interesting cast of vivid characters set in a descriptive world that is written to an end of impressive immersion.
It plays well enough; skills are replaced by qualities like ‘Doc’, ‘Gunslinger’, and ‘City Slicker’ which function in a similar manner, though failing some challenges will increase your ‘White Noise’ quality, which increases the likelihood of unfavourable results in some scenarios. As far as moral choices go, you get to make one in the beginning of the game, and then for a while you just choose whether to act like Han Solo or a Care Bear, neither of the two seeming to have any effect on the game’s progression. However, what I do enjoy about this game’s take on morality is that rather than just the binary of ‘Good & Evil’, it asks what is right or wrong, to an end anyway. “Child steals bread and gets caught and beaten for theft: do you empathize with the child because he’s a hungry child or agree with the actions of the woman selling bread who he took bread from?” It at least draws a line–in any other game your options would go along the lines of “Give the woman a stern lecture on punishing thieving children or join in and beat the child up too.” Though I think by awarding me the ‘Man in Black’ quality for agreeing with the victim of theft was pushing it a bit.
What must be considered, of course, is the code structure of Storynexus. ‘missions’ or whatever you want to call them are unlocked by meeting certain requirements, quite nearly always quantitative in value, meaning that it is highly likely that some missions are only playable after you’ve racked up enough points in a certain alignment, so flip flopping back and forth is just going to lose you action points pretty quickly, and then you’ve gotten nowhere. Regardless, this sort of thing is hardly noticeable as the game includes hundreds of tasks to complete, few of which even focus on ‘Man in Black/White’ types of decisions, so much as ‘Doc, Gunslinger, City Slicker’ decisions. These tasks themselves are very well written, just like the rest of the game, and some do provide options for all three qualities and affect future tasks you perform as well, so there is at least a reason to do them.
The actual story-missions, though, are where things begin to fall flat. Once I arrived at an acquaintance’s house from the train station, I spent around one fourth of my action points milling about with other people there as a mandatory progression of plot. I actually preferred the optional missions where the exposition was weaved into context and the point was made at the expense of only one of my twenty action points; in the story quest, I spent five times that amount just getting acquainted with the patrons, and I didn’t even feel like any of that mattered because I kept acting like Han Solo to see if I could get any more ‘Man in Black’ points to get the better alignment-based quests, if there even were any out there at all! In fact after a time I didn’t even have that binary to play around with, the last three or four action points I spent were choosing between “Advance the plot or go to bed.” and even that amounted to nothing as a I spent three points just to open up a challenge that I then failed, gaining nearly nothing for my failure. Though let it be said that you do earn points even for failing, so while a single failed task may not feel like a waste, dicking around on a roof while a man shoots at bats for one point in the quality I’m not even trying to rank up in does feel a bit ungratifying.
The design behind Zero Summer is at least good for its cause: rather than being a linear game of increasing arbitrary qualities that become increasingly tedious to keep track of (Samsara), Zero Summer is a bit more of an open world, consisting of a series of interconnected zones, each containing its own deck of story missions as well as randomly selected tasks for you to grind with. It keeps the game fun and interesting, but at times it would seem as though the writer’s talent is a bit too good. Which is to say, some story missions will draw you in with a wonderful narrative structure and then the next thing you know your clicking on the same quests five times to grind up your qualities so you can finish the next quest and repeat the process, causing the otherwise well-paced experience to skid to a temporary standstill.
- Well maintained with new content in development often.
- Rife with imagery, making it more appealing than a normal text/image game.
- More intuitive moral choice system that takes advantage of ambiguity therein.
- Story plots pace the narrative therein well to pull the player from one to the other with ease.
- Interesting plot and characters that compel the player to progress.
- Although not as painful, grinding still exists, and all the beautiful wording gets watered down after the third click-through of a task.
- Moral choice is still a binary and does impact the plot very much at all–most situations are completely neutral.
- Story missions are paced well, but the grinding on small tasks grinds it all to a halt.
- Complex missions are often poorly designed with concern to what effort must be put in and what reward is received.
Article from Gamersyndrome.com