Boss Fight Books: ZZT (#3) – Anna Anthropy

4 out of 5

The general remit for the Boss Fight Books series has, thus far, been: give us some history on your assigned game; flesh it out with some personal details.  The entries have been interesting; each written with unique flair; and more or less checking off those boxes.

Anna Anthropy has a challenge for her third entry – ZZT: ZZT was a kinda-sorta platform / programming language, not a single, highlightable game; while there was a creator of ZZT (Tim Sweeney) and some “classic” boards created in ZZT’s Object-oriented-programming language, it doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of lifecycle a typical game would go through.  It’s defined by how it spread to a ring of dedicated followers, and how it evolved amongst that community; it definitely doesn’t have the same brand name value as Earthbound, or Chrono Trigger.  Inviting in readers perhaps only marginally familiar with it, or possibly those who’re just following the Boss Fight series and otherwise have had no exposure to ZZT is tough.  We’re talking about a game that was completely designed out of ASCII art, in which most of the entries were developed by teens going under aliases; there is just not an easily digestible “story” here.  And there are signs of that about 1/3rd of the way in to ZZT, when Anna decides to dive in to some details on how characters and actions were scripted, as a key throughline for Anthropy’s take is how important ZZT was for how empowering it was – putting the tools in user’s hands – and it’s a tough sell.  I’m not sure if it works if you weren’t screwing around with making ZZT boards back in the day; I have brief but distinct memories of my time with the games (and trying, and failing, to make them), and I felt myself losing a bit of steam with the book as more programming details piled up…

But: this is, hands down, the best written Boss Fight book so far.  Anthropy’s writing style is crisp, and clear, even when navigating these drier elements, and is injected with whip-smart humor that has – for my tastes – just the right dose of colloquial lingo to ring fresh and also true: a writer writing from experience, and not just looking up info via Google to craft into clever phrases.  This is combined with a rather mind-blowing, but incredibly relevant, exploration of how ZZT affected Anthropy’s self-identity, and is done in a way that never veers away from the book’s m.o.  In this sense, those two guiding principles – history of the game; personal recollections – are not separate things for ZZT; they are intrinsically tied together because those affected were also those creating.  While the overall structure of the book feels a little open-ended in trying to tamp down key points in the game / platform’s evolution, this emotional tie comes across incredibly strongly throughout, brought to a head toward the book’s conclusion in discussing the way ZZT has been attemptedly preserved and remembered on some cited internet sites.

ZZT is a weird thing.  I sincerely forgot my experiences with it until I saw the book’s title, and then my brief obsession with it came flooding back.  The people who dove into it and propped up early online communities around it would seem, in several mentioned examples at least, to have prospered from the experience, moving in to tech jobs later on.  Interestingly, I myself am in a tech job as well, and I’m brought to wonder… were some seeds secretly planted way back when?  And that is probably one of the best effects of a book – when the concepts and thoughts contained within have you thinking of things in a new light…