Jack O' Lantern

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Closer Look: Jack O' Lantern

By: Newt/John D. Moore
Published: Oct. 21, 2018

Newt revisits his iconic ZZT horror game and explains just what the heck is going on

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The passage is stairs! We find ourselves in a space nearly identical to the one from the floor below, but with a different paint job, different flooring, and a slightly different bathroom.


Beyond the door to the left is something like an attic with the world’s easiest slider puzzle.


Really, it’s not so much a slider puzzle as it is an implausible lampshade on the idea that what’s behind it wouldn’t have been found by someone else long ago. Ted and Jennifer’s family is apparently too lazy to move the boxes up here to find…




Yep. His name was Harvan apparently. When you enter, a gentle melody plays as if to let you know this dead guy in a bed isn’t a scary dead guy in a bed. Still, I think the surprise here might be one of the most genuinely creepy things in this game.

Touching the red square next to his bed reveals that it’s his diary:

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
It's Harvan's Diary.

November 26, 1914

Today, I know, is my last day alive.  I
have no relatives alive.  My family left
me last year and moved to New Jersey.  But
now I fear for the next owners of the
mansion I built.  I had locked up my
tormentor, Algar, in the basement behind
an iron wall, but he has found a way to
transfer his ghostly powers outside of it.
But I can do nothing.  Now I lay with my
last breaths upon my chest.  Farewell,
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

This, of course, is the backstory that is supposed to have given rise to the current drama. This dead man Harvan had a ghostly tormentor named Algar he sealed behind an iron wall--hey, you the player might say, I know something about an iron wall!--whose evil can permeate the wall and... eighty-four years later, then, it looks like the current occupants are now being tortured by him. Looking back on this now, I have no idea why I didn’t let this last diary entry be October 31, 1918, or something. Instead, everything about this ad-hoc explanation is as arbitrary as the characters’ names and the reference to New Jersey. It’s a pretty flimsy justification for skeletons and potions and disappearing partiers, but here it is.

There’s a gem at the foot of the bed that changes colors (it’s actually an object). When you touch it, it plays a super-high-pitched sound and gives you two gems and tells you “You take the super magical gem.” Huh. Wonder what that’s for.


Back to the previous hallway and up north one board, we have the mansion’s master bedroom. You can open two drawers from a dresser.


Each drawer can only be opened once. One has nothing in it. The other has a can of oil. You only find these out after opening the drawers and going to close them. The can of oil might put us in mind of a certain rusty object from the previous floor, but before we go back, we might as well explore this floor a bit more.


At the upper wall, it’s apparent that there’s another inaccessible room to the north of this one (you might note that this section of the hall on the floor below has an entryway to the north of it). Is the way in through the room on the left?


Nope. The guest room has even less interest to it than Jennifer’s room. Nothing to touch. Not even a ZZT plant. Let’s go back to the kitchen.


Now when you touch the bafflingly described rusty wire, you can use the oil on it. Doing so makes the object disappear and tells you “You can now use the dumbwaiter.”


The first place the dumbwaiter takes you is a small yellow room. When Dr. Dos played this game on a Worlds of ZZT livestream last year, he was perplexed and assumed young Newt had no idea how a dumbwaiter worked. This… is understandable. A dumbwaiter board as a transition space would’ve made a lot more coherent sense. Instead, each of the three dumbwaiter location--this yellow room, another room, and the kitchen--were supposed to be the three floors the dumbwaiter went to. Instead, with the weird looping of the passages, it ends up appearing like an illogical mapping of space.

You can discover a gem below the stool in the lower left, though it’s still not clear why you want these. Touching the weird blue contraption at the top of the room, though, gives you this fascinating choice.


Sure. Why not light this machine… on fire? Are we sure it’s not a gas-powered machine that needs a pilot light? Momma-lovin baby or not, this seems like a bad idea. But the game tells us to, really, so let’s try it.


A flame burns, the wall starts freaking out, and then it explodes, leading to a long passageway. This makes no sense. But I’ll point out: I said this was a port of an unrealized text adventure game. Not a port of a good unrealized text adventure game.


The new hallway leads to a strange room with a purple carpet and a familiar yellow object holder. You can put the orb on or take it off of the holder. This is actually supposed to be the hidden room we could see from upstairs, though that’s unclear without a clear direction as to what direction the dumbwaiter took us or a reference back to that room. You can touch the table to put our red fluid on there--so far, the only fluid you’ve found.

I’m not sure if you want to use all this just yet--I can’t remember myself as I play this through--so let’s remember this and come back later.


Going back through our dubiously Euclidean dumbwaiter gives us a room full of torches and a weird-looking impression of a spiderweb. We know what that means: there’s a dark room coming up, and presumably it’s behind the door you couldn’t move for some reason back at the mansion’s entrance. Going back through the door confusingly lands you back in the kitchen.


Back in the entryway, touching the door now gives us the option to use… the twist tie that we got in the entryway at the beginning of the game. It would have made sense if the game told us before that it wasn’t just “a door,” but was “a locked door!” Alas.


Oh well. You would’ve needed the torches anyway. It’s the dark room, as predicted! Up here, there’s a tiny bed, some kind of window, and a yellow object in the same shape as the red potion/fluid from before.


There’s more fourth-wall-breaking comedy options for this object. When you take it, it plays a really bad, short jingle.


Here’s the room undarkened, by the way. As is custom, it greets the cheater. Further, it advertises my website, plugs ZZTimes again, promotes ZZTers Anonymous, offers hints that give away the solution to the game’s one real puzzle, and closes with an astoundingly pointless declaration that this was my most recent game at the time.


You now have two potions, red and yellow. You can attempt to mix them through the inventory menu.


If you do, however, it creates an orange fluid that explodes in your face. The godawful poem from the garden wall at the start of the game suggested that while an orange potion was dangerous, a green potion could melt through anything.

All the Pieces

Really, there’s one thing left to try. Back to the orb holder room!


If you put the red potion on the table and the orb in its holder, a flash of light appears between them, transforming the red portion to blue.


Now you can go through the inventory menu to make a green fluid.


Going back through library takes you to the iron wall that you once tried ineffectually to pour red fluid onto. Now, though, the wall melts when you pour green fluid onto it (I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine just what is going on here).


If you venture forth into the cavernous room behind the wall and approach the passage, a white slider appears, blocking your path of retreat. A voice begins to talk to you:

Voice: Aha!

Voice: So you have come to rescue your
friends. I am Algar.
And you will have to defeat me.
I enjoy a game once in a while.
To make it more sporting...
Take this sword.

Now come fight me.

Aha! So you have come to rescue your friends. I am Algar. And you will have to defeat me. I enjoy a game once in a while. To make it more sporting...Take this sword. Now come fight me.

This Algar ghost seems weird. And now you have a sword? What did you fight that skeleton with before? Why does the ghost want you to fight it with a sword? What the hell is going on?

As a game designer, I have no idea why I didn’t let the sword you wield here be something you got from defeating the skeleton earlier. Oh well.

Amusingly, that dialogue is delivered by an invisible object in front of the passage when you touch it. It doesn’t lock, so you are welcome to enjoy the monologue again and again.

Anyway. Nowhere to go but through the passage.


And the year is 1998 so we have… an RPG battle! It says it right there: “-= RPG Battle =-.” Final Fantasy VII and Pokemon are all the rage, so this was almost mandatory for adventure games of this vintage. I’m not actually sure whether I built this engine from scratch or modified someone else’s existing engine. Judging by my object names and labels, I’m kind of inclined to think I borrowed the objects from someone else, though I can’t remember if it was me using another system as reference or wholesale theft.

The RPG battle was not part of my original QBASIC plans. The full map I have of the 1997 plan had the ghost defeated with a flashlight, which the player would have to find batteries for.

You begin the battle with this warning:


I’m not entirely sure, but I think the notices about double attacks and non-attack turns might come from a bug when I was designing the RPG battle, no doubt modeled on things from Chronos’s ZZT Encyclopedia and other popular ZZT adventures of the time. At last, the gems become relevant: they represent magic. Amusingly, I let the language of ZZT-OOP slip into my description of the health bar: “I would not cast [heal] twice in a row, unless Algar got rid of all that you already put when you were healed.”

Any gems you collected before are now treated as mana. You’re given five in addition to any you found up to this point. That actually may not be enough to survive the battle. It’s also a weird thing to spring on the player this late. Your health--diminished, surely, from the skeleton battle earlier--has nothing to do with your health bar here.

For some reason, I was, around this age, obsessed with drawing ghosts with these weird dark face mask things with yellow eyes and mouths. I designed one for an imaginary fighting game that I revised a few times between the late 90s and 2000, Haunt. In fact, a couple years ago, I drew a similar type of ghost as an enemy for a game I never finished. I don’t know where I got this idea.

But the RPG battle here is a boring fight with mechanics that have no relevance to the game that precedes it, but at least it’s mercifully short. It does have some animated effects for magic that aren’t particularly special, but aren’t terrible either. Kind of pathetically, when you succeed, Algar himself doesn’t undergo any kind of effects and you’re merely instructed to march through to a passage.

Enter the passage and get this ending message with predictably spooky implications:


There’s been some kind of time loop! What even happened?! You find yourself in a recreation of the entryway board, but now the Halloween party is happening. And by happening, I mean there’s a few ZZT cameos and two previously named NPCs standing around a rug.


The blue paragraph sign is Paul Paragraph, the hero of my 1998 ZZT platformer The Punctuation People and he wants to know if you like his costume.


Barney the Dinosaur gets a cameo that allows the player character to muse that they wouldn’t have gone to great lengths to save their friends if they’d known it would save Barney’s life. To be frank, dear reader, I’m ashamed about this joke. Because this was entirely performative. I was still watching Barney with my youngest sister around this time and I enjoyed it. This, my friends, is entirely me giving into peer pressure.


My cousin and fellow ZZTer Glynth (green) makes a cameo. Organizer of the first 24 Hours of ZZT in July of 1998, Mono (cyan), makes an appearance in accordance with what’s written in the old ZZT community wiki, ZU: “For a while, it was holy writ that he be cameoed in as many games as possible.” The last cameo is me, Newt, who ominously seems to be the only one who knows anything about what you just went through and more.

You can’t explore the mansion (though I realize now it would be interesting if you could!), so all you can do is step out into the night.


A plain outdoor scene on a grassy expanse. The moon looms large. A star twinkles. A bad melody plays, as if to suggest some kind of metaphysical melancholy. Credits (which amounts to my name, the year, my email address, and my website) scroll at the bottom. And the game is over.


Jack O’ Lantern is not a classic ZZT game. It is maybe a little bit known as one of the few Halloween-themed games in the ZZT corpus--hence Dr. Dos’s streaming it last year for Halloween. The aspects that would have made for a slightly more interesting text adventure are weakened by my inflexibility with the design, both in terms of exploration--large empty rooms mapped too neatly onto a map designed for a different interface--and mechanically--reducing what could’ve been a slightly more interesting set of inventory challenges negotiated via parser to obvious solutions that present themselves if you just touch everything. Still, the writing is sophomoric at best--but more frequently juvenile. It can’t quite commit to a tone, and the logic of the threadbare story may not really hold up. It aspires to something like horror, but has no real grasp on how that could be accomplished with ZZT, partly owing to my own inexperience with the genre. And why the hell is it called Jack O’ Lantern? And, seriously, why that extra space in the title?

Some years ago--probably about a decade now--a ZZTer contacted me via instant messaging to ask if they could have permission to remake the game. I remember granting them a go-ahead, though I now don’t have any idea who that was. I wonder how far they got with it.

When I play Jack O’ Lantern, I see several games happening at once: There’s the game as it actually exists. There’s the ZZT game I remember having in my head that was thwarted by awkward prose and clumsy execution. And then there’s the game that it was originally conceived to be, an incomplete dream of a text adventure.

This guest article was written by John D. Moore
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