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zzt interviews: alexis janson

robots of gemrule

one of the most prominent voices in ZZT the book belongs to alexis janson. her games – like code red and mission: enigma – and utilities – the super tool-kit – probably shaped more people’s experiences of zzt than the contributions of any other person. presently, she works as a designer for the card game magic: the gathering.

over the next while i’ll be posting the full text of some of the interviews i did for ZZT, with their authors’ consent. these interviews were conducted via email. here’s the first of those interviews: with alexis janson.

So, the most basic question first: how did you first encounter ZZT?

I wanted to design my own video games since I was six, nearly as early as I had my first computer. I started learning to program at six (Commodore 64 BASIC) solely to that purpose. When I’d acquire new video games for my C64, I was inherently drawn to any games that had level editors. I’ve probably tried any C64 game during that time period that had any sort of level-editing capability. When I got my first PC and started mucking about on BBSes (on my 2400-baud modem over long-distance connections) I would download and try any game that promised the ability to create your own levels. It was in this way that I stumbled upon ZZT.

ZZT became an instant obsession. I devoured all the game worlds I could find, tinkered with the editor until I understood every possible option and command, and began pushing the game to it’s limits. As I already knew how to program in “real” languages (albeit not very well) I found myself fighting to write complex control structures and other standard programming constructs in ZZT-OOP, which quickly led me to discover many of the game’s inherent quirks. (limitations on number of flags, objects, memory usage, etc.)

I actually had almost as much fun digging into all the nooks and crannies and working around these flaws as I did making the colorful portion of the STK. (The STK wasn’t just colors- it also had a variety of tips, tricks, and hacks bundled with it)

You were actually selling ZZT games at some point. I remember mailing away and getting a disk from you. How did shareware go for you, and how did you start selling games? Were you very successful?

I was pleasantly surprised, in retrospect, at how many people were willing to pay for my silly little ZZT games. A lot more people were willing to pay for MegaZeux, but I’m not sure I would’ve tried had I not already seen that the model worked. Of course, I was a teenager living with my parents, and so my overhead was virtually zero. I used most of the profits to fund my ever-growing Magic: The Gathering collection. I don’t actually remember how much I made- it felt like a ton as a teenager but I’m sure it was a pittance compared to a normal job.

I later (after a couple of normal jobs) went on to try self-employment as a web programmer, which was very eye-opening (in that I was unable to sustain myself financially), however I long for the days where I could spend all my time writing games and getting paid for it. I’ve been seriously considering getting back into indie game design recently, and I credit my positive experiences with ZZT and MegaZeux for that.

I think the ZZT game of yours that has most resonated with me is Robots of Gemrule. (I actually make reference to it in my first published book of fiction, Star Wench). There’s something about a deteriorating society of robots that suits ZZT really well. What art, culture, other games, personal experiences informed your ZZT work? Was that a period of relative stability or tumult in your life? How old were you?

Honestly, I don’t remember much of the inspiration for my games. My family life was pretty stable, but I was somewhat of a social recluse and ZZT was certainly a creative outlet and a way to escape from the world. I didn’t get to the most tumultuous part until after MegaZeux, of course.

When I was little, I remember going online and discovering all these ZZT games that looked so different from mine, that had all these colors I’d never seen in ZZT before. the Super Toolkit seemed like some kind of contraband collection of illegal colors – it drastically changed what ZZT games after it were to look like. Can you explain how it was created? My understanding is that it involved hex-editing ZZT to change the color values of things?

The very first version of STK didn’t involve any hex editing. ZZT had some tricks (and bugs) that allowed you to create some odd color combinations by overlaying one object over another. I don’t remember any of the tricks anymore, but I believe one example was overlaying an object over a passage to get a background color.

Once I realized that there were extra colors available, it wasn’t much of a stretch to open up the ZZT file and start poking around directly in the bytes. Luckily, the format wasn’t that complicated, and it was pretty easy to simply hand-code all the different color combinations in. There really isn’t anything surprising or tricky to tell here – it’s exactly what any programmer or hacker would expect.

I do remember being part way through Code Red when I figured some of these things out- there were portions of the game that were primarily or even entirely done with no special colors, and other scenes that utilized the new technology.

What ZZT communities did you interact with, and what did you think of your role as being within them? The Super Toolkit affected how ZZT games were made in a big way. I’ve been playing lots of ZZT games as research for my book, and a lot of them seem to pattern themselves off of Code Red pretty transparently: busy, thoroughly implemented family house segueing into gonzo adventure. I think you’re the most-mentioned author in response to the “what games or authors had the most impact on you” question in my questionnaire.

The first ZZT community I was part of was on a pre-Internet service called Prodigy. I believe it was called the “ZZT Club Part Two.” I never understood where Part One went. The Three Trials was actually an “entry exam” to join the club- my work up until that point was considered too derivative and the other members wanted to see more originality. I believe I came up with the initial STK as a member of this club, and I distinctly remember initially receiving a bit of pushback for affecting the “purity” of ZZT.

Later on, I was definitely part of various ZZT communities on the Internet, specifically spending a lot of time on IRC. I don’t honestly remember any names.

Code Red was patterned after the classic Japanese RPG cliche of “normal kid wakes up, discovers something crazy is going on, saves the world”. I believe it was directly inspired by Chrono Trigger, including the multiple endings. Of course, my main goal was to write the largest ZZT game ever, and to have multiple endings- the quality of the plot or any individual scene was never a priority. Quantity over quality. At the time i didn’t think about any sort of impact to a community- I was just trying to do the coolest thing possible.

Later, I felt I needed to make up for unleashing this travesty upon the world. Mission: Enigma was an attempt to do exactly the opposite and fit as much content as I could into as few boards as possible. The title cinema emphasized this before you even started the game.

Megazeux was an attempt at a kind of grown-up ZZT, maybe. What led into this project, and how successful did you consider it? How was the community that grew around megazeux different than those that formed around zzt? I always felt like Megazeux’s community sort of resembled a demoscene community in where its interests lie, that emphasis on technical show-offiness. There’s a lot of Megazeux stuff that is very much its own sort of thing – I ran a Megazeux game, Ruin Diver 3, at a convention called Indiecade last year and it was pretty well-received.

MegaZeux was just me being frustrated with the limitations of ZZT. I loved the core concepts, but felt it left so many things short. Coming from programming on the Commodore 64, I was used to editing character sets to create game graphics, and it felt like a natural extension of the ZZT concept.

Initially the community was just an extension of ZZT, and a lot of the initial games were people writing ZZT games with a few bells and whistles. Really, for years, MegaZeux games were very similar in style to the “Adventure Game” model of ZZT. It wasn’t until much later that people started realizing how much more potential power there was in MegaZeux and started writing things like side strollers, space shooters, etc. I specifically remember making Weirdness partly to try and show people there was a lot more to do than write ZZT-style games. (the choice to do the kid-in-a-house-saves-the-world model was somewhat tongue-in-cheek) The “demo scene” mentality seemed to start around that time.

My main regret with MegaZeux is just how terrible of a coder I was. The original source is probably still out on the Internet somewhere. If you have the opportunity to read it, don’t- it’s some of the most painful code I’ve ever worked in. If I had written the code today, MegaZeux would be much faster, more powerful, and intuitive. Of course, it might not have nearly the same charm. A large part of the appeal with both ZZT and MegaZeux was certainly overcoming limitations and trying to push them to do things they weren’t designed to do. It’s possible that if MegaZeux didn’t have any of its quirks or limitations and had a decent language built-in, it just wouldn’t be that interesting.

I did attempt to write a “better MegaZeux” twice – once as UltraZeux (lost to the ages) and more recently as GCSx (probably still on SourceForge). Neither project got very far, but I definitely feel like GCSx was less interesting as a project precisely because I tried to do everything “right”.

I had already begun transition when I started interacting with the communities that would shape my work. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to transition in a community where my work was already well-known. Was that weird? Difficult? Did you have to distance yourself from those communities, or were they supportive?

I didn’t actually transition “in community”. The need to be myself became more and more overwhelming until I felt my only option was to distance myself from anyone who knew me as Greg. This was when I released MegaZeux into open source, handed the company over to a friend, and disappeared. I completely forgot about ZZT, MegaZeux, and the whole community for years while I dealt with my personal issues.

I didn’t actually transition at this time- I was out to my closest friends, and I spent nearly all of my free time either with them or on IRC, where I could just present as myself and not deal with real life.

One of my biggest regrets is not having the courage to transition during this time period. I knew what I wanted, but was convinced at the time that my parents would never understand and that I could never successfully transition. I was actually convinced at the time that it was an impossibly difficult process and that I would never live up to the standards of society. Trans community, back then (only 15 years ago!) was much, much more focused on passing and standards of femininity, and I took that to heart.

After a few years, I came back to the community quietly- I even entered a “Day of Zeux” contest where you had 24 hours to create a game from scratch, and I came in second place with “Rush”. No one even knew who I was until afterwards. By that time, the community had formed its own rumors about why I had left in the first place, but they quickly settled on the truth because I didn’t try to hide anything, and insisted on being called a different name. Some people didn’t care, some were supportive, and a handful were typical immature teenagers. Well, most of them were immature teenagers, but some of them were still generally OK about the whole thing.

It was a little weird coming back, but mostly I realized I just didn’t fit in. I’d matured a lot and wasn’t all that interested in hanging out with a bunch of teenagers on the Internet who sat around and hacked and chatted all day.

For the record, I didn’t really start transitioning until I started work at Wizards.

You came on staff at Wizards of the Coast through a Magic design contest, right? What was the trajectory like, from digital shareware games to designing for a collectable card game? Has the former informed the latter in any real way? What’s it like to work on a game that’s been around as long, has as much history, as Magic?

I was hired initially through The Great Designer Search (part one – there has since been a second contest) along with several other contestants. Between being done with MegaZeux/ZZT and working at Wizards was a fairly significant gap – 7 or 8 years? – during which time I did no game design or programming. It was interesting to discover that all of the lessons I learned were still kicking around in my head and fairly relevant, even if a bit rusty.

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