Three Games By Steph Cherrywell

In 2019, Steph Cherrywell became only the second person in the 25-year history of the Interactive Fiction (IF) Competition to win it twice. The other person to have done so is writing this post. So I was inspired to check out Cherrywell’s work, and managed to find some time over the holiday break to revisit my old IF-reviewing ways.

Now, I should make clear that I’m no longer keeping up with the IF world overall, so I haven’t been reading other reviews of her work, or of anybody’s work for that matter. I’ve played very few games from the last 15 years, so something that seems new and exciting to me might be old hat to people who’ve kept up. My perspective is basically that of a former expert who’s done little more than toe-dipping since 2005. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s jump in!

Cover art for Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s first comp winner, from 2015, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Plus, for my next Watchmen essay I’m researching a bunch of background on 1950s sci-fi movies, and Brain Guzzlers looked like an affectionate parody of ’50s sci-fi, so I was predisposed to dig it.

And dig it I did, though I quickly learned that the game wasn’t exactly parodying ’50s sci-fi movies, which generally involve earnest scientists and square-jawed military types grappling with monsters, aliens, giant bugs, or giant alien bug monsters. This game’s tone is closer to Firesign Theater’s “High School Madness” sketch — a broad exaggeration of ’50s teenage tropes as seen in Leave It To Beaver and Archie comics. (Malt Shop Archie, that is. Not Sex Archie.) Cherrywell crashes the ’50s teen universe into the ’50s sci-fi universe, and comedy ensues, with a subversive edge provided by details like mixed-race NPCs, homoerotic undertones, and the ’50s-defying female action lead.

That comedic tone is Brain Guzzlers From Beyond‘s greatest strength — you can’t go three sentences without running into some delightful turn of phrase, well-crafted joke, or witty perspective. Take, for example, this description of a “Modernist Living Room”: “This circular room is ultramodern, like something from twenty years in the future. The sleek, smart-looking furniture is a symphony in avocado, orange, and mustard-yellow.” Or this description of the Drive-In: “You’re standing in the drive-in on the edge of town, where all the coolest teens come to ignore movies. To the north is Make-Out Mountain, and flanking it are a number of less controversial mountains.” Those mountains? “There’s Propriety Peak, and Constance Crag, and Mount Homework.”

The whole thing is a great deal of fun to read, and pretty fun to play too, thanks in part to Cherrywell’s smooth fusion of parser and choice structures. The game follows a familiar pattern of using the parser for exploration and multiple choice for conversations, and that works well, especially with Cherrywell’s charming illustrations of each character to flavor the dialogue. But she takes the structure a little further by rendering the action scenes via choices too.

Action scenes, though they can be done quite well, are rather difficult in parser IF, because there’s always the chance that some confused response or failure to understand input will deflate the pace and tension. Cherrywell makes sure this doesn’t happen by flipping her action sequences into a structure where input is limited and can’t be misunderstood, but still preserves a sensation of choice with options like:

1) Swing around and punch that monster square in the snoot!
2) Scream for help and try to pull away.

Another ingenious use of choice comes right at the outset of the game, in which the player is asked a series of questions. The game’s conceit is that you’re taking a quiz from a teen magazine, but in fact what you’re doing is defining the PC. Those choices affect gameplay in both superficial and substantial ways — everything from altering the “X ME” description to bypassing a puzzle entirely.

The tone and writing were my favorite parts of playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond, but they weren’t flawless. There were a surprising number of typos right in the beginning, which gave me an uneasy feeling: “corresponding your choice” rather than “corresponding to your choice”; “absense of stars”; “your were practically almost sort of his girlfriend”. But either the game got better as it went along, or I just stopped noticing because the experience was so absorbing. Either way, it’s laudable, and in fact may have even been more fun for exceeding my wary expectations.

Brain Guzzlers combines fun writing with clever structures, but I can’t leave out its puzzles. Time after time, this game made me feel smart by presenting puzzles with just the right amount of clueing and lateral thinking, always perfectly in tune with the light and breezy feel of the story and setting. It rewards thorough exploration and leads players right up to the gap that they need to jump across, without building a paved bridge there.

My favorite puzzle of the game was the RPS cannon, and I was pleased to see that it also won the 2015 Best Individual Puzzle XYZZY Award. I confess that I didn’t solve this puzzle on my own, but seeing the solution made me wish I had. All the clues were there, I just didn’t put them together.

All in all, playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond made it easy to see why the game won the 2015 IF Competition, and made me eager to play the follow-up. So that’s what I did.

Cover art for Zozzled

Zozzled

Zozzled was Cherrywell’s 2019 IF Comp winner, and where Brain Guzzlers was a funny pastiche of 1950s tropes, Zozzled is a hilarious pastiche of 1920s tropes. It becomes clear when playing these two games consecutively that Cherrywell is in fact a master of pastiche. She scoops up a whole bunch of slang, stereotypes, and style, stringing them together in rat-a-tat fashion for a wonderfully enjoyable ride. The best comparison I can make for Zozzled‘s style is to Alan Moore’s pieces in the voice of Hildy Johnson at the end of some of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. In other words, excellent.

Sure, she hits a bum note once in a while — using the term “sheba” for a woman is great once, cloying many times in a row — but overall, at pretty much every level, the writing in Zozzled is sharper than that of Brain Guzzlers, which is high praise. It’s quite a bit funnier, for one thing. Where Guzzlers frequently made me smile or chuckle, Zozzled had me laughing out loud. Some of my favorite examples:

The response to EXAMINE GLAD RAGS (because this game would never call a dress a dress if it could instead call the dress “glad rags.”):

If the right dress makes you feel like a million bucks, this little black number makes you feel like Rockefeller’s bank account. And much like Rockefeller’s bank account, it generates plenty of interest.

This description of a refrigerator:

This refrigerator, much like the old lady that time she chaperoned your senior year homecoming dance, is sitting in the corner, humming quietly and radiating bitter cold.

And finally, a great easter egg for Zork fans, in the description of some locked-away valuables:

Just a few odds and ends that guests have deposited – brass baubles, golden eggs, platinum bars, ivory torches, sapphire bracelets, that sort of thing.

It’s not just turns of phrase either — there’s a character who is described as “constitutionally incapable of telling the truth”, which the game then plays out literally to great comic effect. Not only is the wit superb, the story is more sophisticated too. Where Brain Guzzlers was pretty much “fight the sudden arbitrary menace by solving puzzles”, Zozzled sets up story beats in the beginning that pay off in the end, giving the puzzles a reason to exist that transcends “something bad and inexplicable happened here”, replacing it with an unexpected love story to which the PC is a witness.

So, if Cherrywell upped her writing game in Zozzled, how about her… game game? I’m sorry to say that the game aspects of Zozzled were a little weaker than those of Brain Guzzlers. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a weak game overall. I’m about to dive into criticizing a couple of its flaws, so I want to make clear that generally speaking, Zozzled is well-crafted — solid implementation, intriguing design, and reasonable puzzles. It takes the same approach as Brain Guzzlers, which is to say “breezy puzzle romp fusing parser and choice mechanics”, albeit without the illustrations. Its concept is equally solid, maybe even a little less checklisty, but it does stumble in a couple of places mechanically.

The first of these is the transition from introducing the ghost conceit to turning the player loose on the puzzly middle game. In a long choice-based sequence, Zozzled stages a conversation between the PC and an elevator operator named Kipper Fanucci (another Zorky reference, methinks.) That conversation does a lot of expository work, explaining that the hotel setting is haunted, and that Hazel the PC has the rare ability to see ghosts, at least once she’s wearing a pair of magical “cheaters”. Then it transitions from a conversation to a choice-based action sequence, except unlike in Brain Guzzlers, where the possible actions were rendered in prose, Zozzled phrases them in parserese, like so:

1) >ASK KIPPER ABOUT GHOST.
2) >KILL GHOST.
3) >TALK TO GHOST.

Eventually, this sequence reveals the way in which Hazel can exorcise ghostly presences, a command which nicely ties together her carefree flapper persona with her ghostbusting abilities. Moreover, once you exit the Kipper sequence, wearing the cheaters allows you to see ghostly presences in various places, with the spectral stuff rendered in bold, a cool and effective choice.

Except… now that you can see the ghosts, you can’t interact with them anymore! Try to EXAMINE GHOST and you’ll get tersely rebuffed: “(That’s not something you need to fiddle with.)” The entire ghost concept gets introduced via specific IF commands allowing the PC to interact with and contain a ghost. Then, immediately afterwards, there are a bunch of ghostly encounters in which the ghosts aren’t even implemented as game objects. Pretty unsatisfying.

Eventually, I figured out that you have to first solve the puzzle with which the ghost is associated before you can interact with it, which makes perfect sense but could be much better explained. If the answer to X GHOST had given a description indicating that the ghost was deeply embedded in its container and would have to be driven out before I could deal with it, that would have felt much less jarring and buggy.

Similarly, some solution-adjacent feedback would have also helped with the game’s most frustrating puzzle, the fruit bowl. Without spoiling anything, this puzzle has a solution which is logically sound and emotionally satisfying, but which requires quite an intuitive leap. Moreover, the solution requires the destruction of game objects, which goes pretty heavily against the grain of experienced IF players. As with the RPS cannon in Brain Guzzlers, I found myself turning to the hints, but unlike with the RPS cannon, I didn’t feel dumb for failing to solve it myself.

On the contrary, I saw that I came extremely close in a couple of different ways, but the game didn’t give me the feedback I needed to make that final leap. In fact, I would argue that the puzzle should be more tolerant of solutions that fit the spirit if not the letter of the intended answer. Luckily, this puzzle was an outlier. Others, such as the seance and the oyster, brought together actions that made perfect sense in context and worked beautifully with the tone.

Playing Zozzled right after Brain Guzzlers made it impossible not to compare the two, and what I found was that each game was very strong on its own, but each also had its strengths over the other — Zozzled its (even more) masterful writing, and Guzzlers its silky-smooth structure and puzzles. It turns out that Cherrywell has written one other Inform 7 game besides those two, so it was my third choice for this survey.

Cover art for Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll came out in 2015, the same year (amazingly) as Brain Guzzlers. Where Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s entry into the main IFComp, Chlorophyll was for a Spring competition called ParserComp, a themed long-form game jam focused on traditional text adventure format, i.e. excluding choice-based mechanics. Consequently, Chlorophyll is pure parser, unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers.

And you know what? It turns out Cherrywell is still a hell of a writer, even when she’s not penning snappy dialogue for branching-path conversations. Chlorophyll really has no conversations — it hews closer to old-school IF by ensuring that the PC is on her own, navigating through a seemingly abandoned outpost, albeit one that bears unsettling evidence of violent disruption. Until the third act, her only encounters are with minimal-personality robots. Structurally, the game is deeply reminiscent of Planetfall, albeit without Floyd.

Except, instead of Planetfall, a more apt title might be… (I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to stop myself) Plantfall? See, in Chlorophyll, the PC is a sentient, walking plant, a la Groot, but with a better vocabulary. (Or, in the specific case of the PC, Teen Groot I guess.) She and her species depend on sunlight to produce nutrients (hence the title), and without it they slip quickly into unconscious torpor. In the first act of the game, this works out to a tight hunger timer, keeping the PC tethered closely to sunny areas and requiring her to find ways to light up more and more of the outpost with artificial sunlight. In these explorations, she also figures out that her goal is to power up the outpost so that it can restore sunlight to the whole planet — which happens to align perfectly with the 2015 ParserComp’s theme of “sunrise”.

Now normally, hunger timers are one of my major pet peeves in IF, but the one in Chlorophyll worked, for two reasons. First, rather than being an arbitrary limit imposed in the name of “realism”, this game’s hunger timer was a crucial character detail, one that drives the PC’s initial problem and that lends lots of tension to the first several sequences. Second, about a third of the way into the game the PC finds an object which obviates the timer altogether, so that it goes away permanently. Not only that, the mechanism that eliminates the hunger timer also has strong emotional resonance, lent further weight by the player’s relief at removing the constraint. More about that a bit later.

Unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers, there’s very little humor in Chlorophyll. Instead, Cherrywell creates a strong atmosphere of eeriness and foreboding. After playing those first two games, I was all the more impressed that Cherrywell has a whole other register, and is equally great at it. The SF concept was intriguing and logical, the setting evocatively described and sensibly constructed, and the mood of the whole game was just terrific, all the more so for not being another wacky pastiche of a bygone era.

The story was well-structured too, with sudden action at the beginning leading to a series of increasingly compelling discoveries. There are powerful, stomach-dropping moments as the PC discovers more and more effects of the antagonist’s presence, and a sensational climax and denouement.

The puzzles for the most part are solid, with a particularly expansive middle game, in which two entirely different different chains of puzzles (one for good behavior, one for bad) can be pursued, either of which unlocks the climax. I quibble a bit with one solution on the “good” track, as it involves the breaking of an object described as “unbreakable”, with no clear rationale that I can see for how that breaking makes sense. But no matter — that’s a pretty minor objection to what is overall an accomplished piece of craftsmanship.

I think my favorite part of Chlorophyll is its strong emotional core. Neither Zozzled nor Brain Guzzlers prepared me for this. While there’s a love story in Zozzled, Hazel (the PC) is just a bystander to it, really, with no particular emotional investment in anything. Bonnie, from Brain Guzzlers, witnesses a close friendship but is herself mainly either a cipher or a punchline. But Zo, the PC of Chlorophyll, begins the game enmeshed in an instantly familiar and warm mother-daughter relationship, so when her mother gets incapacitated, I found myself drawn in immediately.

Zo is an adolescent, who feels like she’s grown out of childish things but that her mother doesn’t recognize her abilities. Then she’s thrown into the adult role without that mother’s support, and must become the caretaker herself. That makes it all the more moving when Zo discovers evidence that her mother really does recognize Zo’s growth, emblematized in the new solar vest that deactivates the light-hunger timer. This is a wonderful example of using IF constructs to serve and strengthen the story — as we remove a game constraint, we also remove a mental constraint from the PC, allowing both more access to the world and more understanding of her place in it.

Similarly, when Zo finds her unconscious mother, and realizes the jeopardy that they are in from the antagonist, the moment lands harder than anything in Zozzled or Brain Guzzlers. Granted, nothing in those other two games was meant to land that hard, as a sudden emotional jolt would have really wrecked the mood, but having played those two games first, I was all the more surprised and transported by the weightiness of this one.

With these three games, Cherrywell has become one of my all-time favorite IF authors. I’m grateful to have spent my time on them, and I greatly look forward to whatever she releases next.

5 thoughts on “Three Games By Steph Cherrywell

  1. Welp, I did not know about Sex Archie. Consider me enlightened. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mention had me researching what came first in the “League of…” things. What immediately came to mind for me was Robert Fripp, who briefly had a band and LP called “The League of Gentlemen”, and also was known for his “League of Crafty Guitarists”, which is making a comeback.

  2. Pingback: End of December Link Assortment – Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  3. By the way, I recommend playing other games from ParserComp too, if you have the time. It was a surprisingly solid set of games, including many from unknown/little-known IF authors who later became well-known: Buster Hudson, Chandler Groover, Bruno Dias, Caleb Wilson, Caelyn Sandel. It’s kind of the “Dazed & Confused” of IF comps…

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