zzt: an excerpt

ZZT – as in, the book that i am writing about the game, and the game-making tool, and the communities surrounding it, and the messy teen angst it acted as a canvas for – is available for pre-order now! the book itself won’t be out until next winter. meanwhile, the manuscript is an archaeology project, an excavation of a personal history of game-making, shareware, cyberspace in the 90s, and transition. below is an excerpt from the start of the book. if you like it, maybe you want to¬†reserve your copy?

(also, as a side-project, i’ve put together a blog for some of the text i’ve unearthed from zzt games.)



I must have been nine or ten.

There was a flea market at my school – the cavernous space of the gymnasium packed with vendors, tables, booths. The man who was selling software was old, white, and white-haired. He probably was not humming the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, but since I don’t remember, let’s agree that the possibility exists, for the sake of thematic connection.

His display bristled with little plastic packages, squat and rectangular like envelopes, shiny like beetle wings. Beneath the plastic, each had a card with a single still image of some weird pixel elseworld and a bunch of text that had no context for me – the name of a game and its publisher, none recognizable to me.

Having already encountered Ms. Pac-man, Missile Command, Asteroids, Super Mario, I could recognize them as games: they had that blocky abstraction that suggested these weren’t merely images but icons, characters in some arcane, magical language.

So they were games. For the computer? My parents had bought a computer recently, Windows 3.1. I was awful at the one game I had found that wasn’t a card game, the one where the mouse tries to trap cats by pushing blocks around. I had the vague sense that this machine spoke the same language as the games I had played, that if I pressed the right button I could make it speak to me too. But I never found the button.

I went home with the plastic package that was the most colorful: concentric rings of polka-dot greens and blues, lines of bright crimson on purple, a plump white smiley face beaming from the center. The label said Super ZZT, Potomac Computer Systems.

This was actually a mislabel: Super ZZT was a spin-off, a sequel, and the picture on the card was “Monster Zoo,” one of the three Super ZZT games. What was in the package was not Super ZZT.

What was in the package was a 3.5 inch floppy disk, a flat, square thing, much thinner than the fat cartridge Missile Command came on. I took it home and put it in my computer. Probably I negotiated a lot of confusion about running the program, installing the thing, booting into DOS, pointing DOS to C:\ZZT. But I don’t remember that part.

What I remember was looking at the title screen for

Game World #1: Town of ZZT

Under the title, a weird bestiary: little red things dancing around inside a box marked “Lions,” flat blue tables shifting restlessly in a box called “Tigers.” And then, promisingly, “Others,” a collection of other weird shapes in diffrent colors that simply sat there, inviting me to wonder what they could possibly be.

A Potomac Computer Systems Production
Developed by Tim Sweeney


How do you pronounce “ZZT” anyway?

Zee Zee Tee, a phonetic reading of the characters? So it must be an acronym, then. What does ZZT stand for? I remember hearing at some point that it stood for “Zoo of Zero Tolerance,” and that made enough sense, what with the Lions and the Tigers. That name was actually suggested later, by John Beck, in a ZZT newsletter.

In an interview in 2009, Tim Sweeney said it was pronounced as it was written, “ZZT!” Like “the cartoon sound effect.” Bam! Ka-pow! Vronk! ZZT!

In actuality, the name was chosen for almost the same reason that Oakland’s local Aardvark Laser Engraving had chosen its name. Tim named the game “ZZT” so it would always filter to the very bottom of alphabetical listings on BBSes and shareware cds.


What’s shareware?

The internet didn’t exist at this time, the early 1990s. My family’s computer had something called Prodigy. It worked like this: our computer had a phone cable that ran to the house’s phone line – all the way across the house, from the kitchen, snaking through the dining room, entering the living room from the rear and creeping up into the computer. When someone on the computer was logged into Prodigy, if you picked up any phone in the house, all you’d hear was this terrible machine screech.

And there were BBSes, “Bulletin Board Systems” that you could dial into, if you knew the number. It was like calling any other number – which at this time meant that calling any number outside of your own area code counted as “long distance,” and cost way more. Consequently, BBSes were mostly localized communities.

Many BBSes hosted downloads of games. Downloads were slow through phone lines, but it was a place to put your game and have people download it – maybe upload it somewhere else, if they thought it was worth sharing. Someone downloads it from this BBS, uploads it to that. Sharing. Games that were popular enough could creep across an entire region, could creep across the country.

It was natural that some authors would want to hear back from some of the strangers on the other side of the country who were playing their games. Send me a postcard of wherever you’re from, at this address (snailmail, mind you, not email). I collect them. It wasn’t too long before people thought to ask for money: donations, at first. But then developers realized they could offer incentives.

Send me fifteen bucks, and I’ll mail you a code to remove the five-second-long screen that asks you for money each time you start the game. Or one that unlocks extra features: play a two-player version! See past level three! Maybe I’ll send you the updated version of this new game I’ve been working on.

In 1987, Scott Miller founded Apogee. This was their scene: they would develop games in series. The first “episode” in a series was free: you were invited to download it from a BBS, upload it to a BBS, give copies to friends. If you wanted the rest of the series, though, you had to pay: for Episode 2, 3 or 4, mail me $9.95 each. Or save by buying the complete series for $20!

When Tim Sweeney decided to sell a little game he’d been working on after school, it was this model he emulated. The first game in the ZZT series was Town of ZZT – that’s the shareware chapter. If you sent some money – $8 per volume or $24 for all four – you could buy Caves of ZZT, Dungeons of ZZT, and City of ZZT (and, later, Best of ZZT, ZZT’s Revenge, and Super ZZT).

Version 2.0 of ZZT by Potomac Computer Systems ends with the following message from Tim, replaced in later versions with a sales pitch and ordering information:

We’re trying to distribute ZZT as widely as possible, but without your help, we won’t be able to reach the:

* More than 400 independent shareware vendors in the world.
* Over 600 User Groups across the country.
* More than 15,000 Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) available to the public.
* Total of 30 Million Personal Computer Users in the world.

So help us out! If you do nothing else, please see that this software gets CIRCULATED! We would like to see copies of ZZT reach all of the 50 states, and then the rest of the world!


Potomac Computer Systems

The version of Town of ZZT I had was credited to “Potomac Computer Systems,” based in Potomac, Maryland. This is a name Sweeney came up with before computer games were a blip on his rader, when he thought he was founding a computer consulting firm, that would set up databases for clients. That never panned out. When the time came to give ZZT to the world, though, the name was already there.

Sweeney made ZZT while attending University of Maryland’s engineering school. During the day he would go to class. During the night, in his parents’ house, he’d build his little game world. He operated Potomac Computer Systems out of his bedroom: orders went to his parents’ address; he’d copy the games onto disks and then mail them out.

To this day, according to the 2009 interview, Sweeney’s father still gets an order for ZZT every few weeks.

After publishing ZZT, Sweeney decided to change the name of Potomac Computer Systems to something that sounded more like a videogames publisher. He renamed it “Epic MegaGames: the New Name in Computer Entertainment.” The “Mega” really sold it: it suggested, at once, everything digital (like megabytes) and everything big, vibrant, overwhelming. Videogames.

ZZT made Sweeney enough money to keep making and selling games. I could write a second book about Jill of the Jungle. Soon Epic MegaGames could take on more and more designers and projects. Cliff Bleszinski, known to bro-dude games culture as “Cliffy B,” was hired at age 17 on the strength of a point-and-click adventure game he had made, “The Palace of Deceit: Dragon’s Plight.” In his first game for Epic MegaGames, Dare to Dream, the player has to unlock a door with a fish.

I remember having an Epic MegaGames print catalog as a kid: it was pretty substantial, and advertised the possibility of a Nintendo-like experience – on your computer! I remember the catalog pushing something called a “Gravis Gamepad,” that looked like a Super Nintendo controller, but plugged into a PC. (In the Epic MegaGame Jazz Jackrabbit, the protagonist collects Gravis Gamepads for points.) Some shareware deveopers made a single game and vanished; Tim Sweeney was able to spin the games label he operated out of his parents’ house into a Publisher.

Today, after another name change, his company is known as Epic Games: creators of Unreal, Gears of War, Infinity Blade.


The Forests will Echo with Laughter

The first thing one sees upon pressing the P for “Play” key and starting Town of ZZT is the town in question: big, bold-colored buildings, and labelled: an “Armory,” probably the first time I’d ever seen this word, bright red in the upper left. The mundane “Bank of ZZT,” green and white, sits side-by-side with the impressively-titled cerulean “Palace.” The streets are paved in an intensifying black. In the center of the screen, two objects: a tall white smiley face on a navy-blue rectangle – that’s me – and a weird white thing that looks sort of like a brass lantern, but probably to nine-or-ten-year-old me just looked like a weird white thing.

When I bring the two things in contact – that is, when I move my smiley face next to the white thing and press against it – a big blue window appears on the screen, unfurling like a paper scroll:

Welcome to the Town of ZZT!

Your task is to find the five purple keys that are hidden throughout the Town. These keys unlock the doors leading into the Palace, your destination.

Your search for the keys will lead you through the town in all four directions. On the way, you will battle ferrocious creatures and solve intricate puzzles.

This town square is the bright central midway of a carnival of Fuck Yous. To the south, a maze of twisting, rainbow-colored walls, swarming with centipedes – they work like the kind in the arcade game, Centipede, monsters that split into two when you shoot them in the middle, otherwise you have to carefully whittle them down, segment by segment, from the front or the back. A sign on the wall – or is it graffiti? – reads “Ecch! Bugs!”

To the west, “The Three Lakes,” a frankly impossible screen where the player tries to weave between three flashing grey bodies of water while acres of little white bullets fly at her like an army of cheerios. If a single cheerio hits, you’re zapped back to the edge of the screen where you started. To the north, the road leads toward a Castle – through an obstacle course of lasers and guns. To the east, a doorway invitingly labelled “Cave,” and past it, a forest thick with monsters.

But it’s the Armory that first and lastingly flavored my impression of the game and hooked me into a twenty-year-long study of its neon incongruities. The Armory is a cavernous red room, broken up into three smaller booths. There’s a “Stock room” full of supplies – ammunition, gems, torches, the sacred trinity of ZZT scarcity – locked behind a Green Door. Nearby, a booth labelled “Guardian of the Key.” Inside, a black and white smiley face, a skeletonized version of the Player’s own avatar, moves slowly left to right – patrolling, sure – behind a green object that, yeah, looks key-like enough.

You can’t get in and grab the key: there’s an opening, but it’s bookended by these revolving pink turnstiles that push you away from the entrance. Beside the turnstiles, though, is a small red circle. I touch it, and it reveals itself to be a doorbell. The guard stops, stomps across the room and marches over to the doorbell. Then the words “Go away, cretin!” flash on the bottom of the screen in rainbow colors. “Cretin” is another word I had ever seen before, at age nine or ten.

This sequence of events sets a weirdly vernacular tone that was like no game I had ever played before, and few I played after. No one in a Super Mario game calls HIM a cretin, and if someone did it’d probably be some sort of villain, not an anonymous joe working a job at the local Armory.

Here’s the puzzle: if you ring the doorbell at the right moment in the guard’s patrol, they’ll take the key along with them on their journey over to curse at you, pushing it through the revolving turnstiles to the outside of the booth, where you can grab it and us it to unlock and loot the stock room. When I solved this puzzle by accident, I remember feeling like I had cheated – I considered starting the game over.

The only other skeleton in the Armory is the “Vendor.” When you approach, you’re offered a list of options: you can by three rounds of ammunition for one gem, a single torch, also for a gem, or “advice.” Advice is free.

If you ask for advice, what you get is this:

“It is whispered that soon
if we all call the tune,
then the piper will lead us to reason.
“And a new day will dawn
for those who stand long
and the forests will echo with laughter.”
-Led Zeppelin

13 thoughts on “zzt: an excerpt”

  1. Was it really supposed to be pronounced like the sound effect? That renders the blues man’s song devoid of rhyme.

    I’ve got my troubles,
    and my troubles they’ve got me.
    It ain’t easy being an object,
    in a game called ZZT.

  2. This looks like it’s going to be a fascinating book – I’m looking forward to hearing about your experience, particularly if you ever touched the madness of the community in the early 2000s.

  3. This is late, but Anna, was there a real-time sort-of roguelike that you made a scenario for? ’cause I feel like this post finally let me know how I might be able to get past it, something like five years after I tried it, but I have no memory of what it was called and I can’t find it on your site.

    Does this sound familiar at all? Am I completely hallucinating?

  4. you’re either thinking of the chalice of goldcastle, which i made for the game tombs of asciiroth, or blood-slave of gargax, which i in fact made for zzt. just use the search bar and you’ll find em.

  5. Tombs of Asciiroth it is, thank you! And the solution was nothing like this (there was no guard) but I managed to figure out how to get past the first puzzle anyway.

  6. feel free to contact me if i can be of any help, somehow.

    the zzt/mzx community of the 90s was my childhood as an undiagnosed autistic kid with no friends in a small town surviving parental abuse. i wasn’t universally liked, and got banned a number of times, although that did happen to the younger members (i’m 27 tomorrow). so this book will be mandatory for me once i get some money.

    other than reading, zzt/mzx was just about the only thing i did of my own volition back then. i never finished a game though :/

    it’s surreal to come across this, because the zzt/mzx community was the childhood i carried around with me (along with the stuff child abuse survivors know), and i learned early on that normal people wouldn’t understand if i tried to explain it to them. now normals, literature normals even, will understand what i am talking about. that’s pretty cool. thanks for taking this on :)

  7. Man, this is inevitably nostalgic. Grew up with BBS games and shareware, particulary ZZT, Dare to Dream, and then Apogee games were what initially got me interested in PC Gaming. I’m certain that ZZT was what got me interested in tinkering with designing game ideas, though so far even this long it’s been a hobby that I’ve mostly kept to myself. I remember spending hours on BBS games like Land of Devastation or Usurper or LORD, then games like ZZT, Zork, Commander Keen, Hugo’s House of Horrors, Jill of the Jungle, Monster Bash, Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure, the list goes on and on. In no particular order of course.

    Man, those were the days when you just needed your good old 386 computer, a soundblaster sound card, and a gravis gamepad. I remember Mom always fighting Dad to play his games at night so the phone line wouldn’t get tied up :)

    Definitely hope this comes out soon, sorta been having all sorts of fond childhood memories even just from a few of the mentions here. Definitely glad I found your site.

  8. I made ZZT games when I was a teenager. Large, rambling worlds which were focused on crude ASCII art and pushing hard against the limited potential of ZZT-OOP.

    I’ve lost these levels. I can’t remember when I lost them, where they were last saved to hard drive. Probably left them behind sometime in my late teens and early twenties when they no longer seemed important.

    They’re still something that comes back to me every now and then. I’ll be sitting at my computer and get odd flashbacks to little bits of these worlds that now seem so remote.

    Each time they rupture into waking thought I find myself struggling more and more to build a clear picture in my mind. They’ve become fragmented screens of ASCII characters and memories of hours writing and re-writing code to achieve intended results.

    A lot of the worlds were built around a kind of personal humour, the intimate in-jokes that we have with ourselves, characters invented for our own amusement. A kind of humour I’ve lost, characters that I no longer remember.

    More than friends I’ll never see again or places I’ll never visit again, these receeding worlds built out of smiley faces and pixelated rectangles offer a guage to my mind of just how far away I’m getting from my young teenage self.

    Each time I think about them, it hurts a bit. Not that I lost these worlds as much as their distance feeling like an internal distance to myself.

  9. Looking back, for me zzt seems like a logical extension of building spaceships out of cardboard boxes, or under the cellar stairs. I can’t say I remember the first time I booted zzt off a shareware CD with of hundreds of other games, but I don’t recall any of the other games that were on it. Incidentally, I still look twice when I see a giant box.

  10. The comments here sum up most of my experience with ZZT. The community around it in retrospect reeks of lonely teen (mostly) boys, building worlds and bonds over a system that was dated when it was released, but, limited like a box of five crayons, challenged us all to stun one another with what was possible to create. At the time, however, it was a refuge and an alternate reality world, secret and unintelligible to outsiders where I made friendships that have spanned more than half my life.

    Seeing it pop up on news websites and in the form of a book are like running into a long-lost friend in a different city. Those commentors who remember ZZT alongside other DOS games are impostors; ZZT is not another game or even game-making system. ZZT is a universe, a language, and a sacred home. ZZT stands alone.

  11. Ah, ZZT. What a blast from the past. And MegaZeux, as well.

    I wish someone would consider porting a ZZT “emulator” for iOS so I could play those all over again, wherever I was. Even the weird stuff.

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