You find some odd things, poking around the dusty corners of the internet. Take Cryptozookeeper, a darkly comic splatterpunk interactive fiction adventure with grisly Pokemon type elements. It sounds like an unholy abomination of game types but for the most part it’s a narrative interspersed with fairly conventional puzzles. The story isn't conventional at all though. It starts with a courier collecting some alien DNA from a rundown shack containing a large one-eyed man and his pet bear-dog, Puzzle, and swiftly becomes increasingly deranged. Later on you'll be merging DNA to make battle-beasts even more uncanny than a duckbilled platypus but first you just need to deal with that bear-dog. The game is free to download although there is a deluxe copy for sale, which comes on discs in a box like olden times.
If you’ve started downloading already, you may have noticed that it’s a massive chunk of game considering I described it as interactive fiction. I wasn’t lying to you, the entire game uses a text-based interface, but there are lots of pictures to assist with the dingy and unnerving atmosphere the words are a-weaving. There’s also a splendid soundtrack that flits between ambience and industrial trance, which is a genre I’d assume I made up just now except any sequence of words shoved together is a musical genre these days.
I’ve already encountered some annoyingly specific puzzle solutions but I find the story and the setting compelling enough to forgive that. There’s a sense of freedom in the use of language that's refreshing and makes my mundane little words feel a bit self-conscious right now. Robb Sherwin, who wrote the game, is tapping into something old-fashioned and anarchic, something that's missing in a lot of what I play and read.
When I say it's old-fashioned, I don’t mean in the sense that it’s a text-based game, I mean the scenario itself and the game’s attitude. In a strange way I can’t quite put my finger on, I was reminded of The Maxx and there is a definite underground comic vibe to the whole thing. Although Cryptozookeeper takes place in 2015, it feels like a future based on an alternate history. It seems strange to say a future is alternate, because alternative to what, but that's definitely what this is. Alternative to more sane and sober visions, perhaps.
Trying to nail it down, I think it’s a combination of the creative, clever wordplay and a deliberate aesthetic ugliness, which makes for a strange marriage. The world and the characters seem like a total mess, but it’s a carefully constructed and cohesive mess. I keep coming back to the words 'mood' and 'attitude', even though they lack what I'm trying to get across, but those are the things that hold it all together.
You do get to make strange things hit each other and it's not everyday that happens in a text adventure.
Does that thrill you and make you want to know more? If you’re at all interested I'd suggest trying it out. That said, it is a hefty download and if you don’t like interactive fiction, the pictures and music won’t change your mind. It’s a game where the difficulty often stems from trying to find the right combination of verb and noun, long after you’ve worked out the solution to a puzzle, but it’s also genuinely funny, creepy and clever.
The chap behind this, Robb Sherwin, has more games available on his site, which I’ll definitely be trying when I can find the time. I’m glad this sort of thing is still being made on such an ambitious scale and it’s always pleasant to find a new (to me) practitioner.
Before I go, I should admit that I really struggled to work out the first puzzle. The logic and suggestions in the text didn't work for me. The solution's here if you are similarly stuck. I didn't find later parts expected quite so large a deductive leap on my part but maybe that's just because I'm becoming as deranged as the game, which is a terrifying thought. I like this, I really do, but I definitely don't want to think on its terms.