Closer Look: Big Beast in the Maze

By: Dr. Dos
Published: April 15, 2021

Deal with mazes and monsters in this far out game

This month's poll winner is a rather recent release! KKairos's Big Beast in the Maze, a 2020 title that I ended up overlooking due to the timing of its release. BBitM had the misfortune of being released less than a week before WiL's The King in Yellow Borders took the spotlight with its use of a custom ZZT fork which meant that you could never be sure what rules of ZZT would be broken (perfect for a horror game). This got compounded by the fact that a week after TKiYB, Verasev released her action packed dungeon crawler Dark Citadel, another eagerly awaited title over on the Worlds of ZZT Discord.

So, it kind of fell by the wayside. At least for me. Luckily these days I'm far from the only person that plays ZZT worlds and so my presence is hardly what makes or breaks a ZZT world's success.

Perhaps also lucky for me, is that Big Beast isn't a ZZT game meant to have a grand scale. If you're looking for that, KKairos already delivered an impressive feat of code with the original release of Computer Dungeon Slash: ZZT the previous year and its refined 2.0 update in May of 2020. So I don't have to feel too guilty having missed out on a more simply-designed world.

But as much as I do love seeing ZZT pushed to its limits via procedural generation, intricate combat systems, or just weaving the reconstructed source code into something new, sometimes you just want to play a fun little world and move on with your day, and for that, the game absolutely delivers.

Big Beast in the Maze is a ZZT world that I would highly recommend to newcomers. It's a light experience that tries to let the player lose themselves in atmosphere, something that most ZZT worlds establish primarily through their writing. KKairos tries for something a little different here. The story is mostly told through its introduction, and while there are plenty of characters to meet, there's no real conversation to be had. This game takes on the challenge of making a maze fun, and does a great job balancing a feeling of progression with a subtle fear that at any moment the game will stop being about exploring "the maze" and turn into dealing with a "big beast".

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Big Beast in the Maze

By: KKairos
Published Under: Aevaze, Mean Girls Games
Released: September 09, 2020
Played Using: SolidHUD v3 via Zeta
Download | Play Online | View Files

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As one of these modern ZZT games that loves its company kayfabe, the title screen starts off with an autoplaying animation of the Mean Girls Games logo before transitioning into the proper title. The actual title screen is a nice contrast of empty void and this claustrophobic maze-space.

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The main menu runs with the theme as well. Making the menu out of a maze is certainly a unique choice, though I don't think anybody will struggle to navigate their way to any of the options.

How to Play
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
In Big Beast in the Maze, you play as a
prisoner of the Empire of Agora, condemned
to die as a rebel for your crimes.

You are tasked with exploring a big,
labyrinthine island and pacifying the
man-eating beast within to win freedom.

To play, just explore things using the
[↑] [↓] [←] [→] buttons. Very little
except the Empire or the Beast can
actually hurt you.

I do recommend that you save when you find
the beast. There are multiple endings, and
not all of them are good.

The game is mostly atmospheric, designed
to be played a slower pace--there is one
"action" sequence which may occur, but
there is an option for a warning before
this happens.

If you want to see a bit of maze generator
action, check that out up top.

This game isn't procedurally generated the
way that Computer Dungeon Slash: ZZT is,
but I did start with generated maze pieces
and work mainly from there.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

The help scroll gives the backstory. You take on the role of a rebel made prisoner and have the chance to defeat this monster in order to win your freedom.

KKairos describes the game as atmospheric and slow paced, with a warning that there is one action sequence. This warning is itself a trick to build the mood. He's not lying, but by having it upfront that "there will be an action sequence", it keeps you on your toes at all times, just waiting for whatever will happen to actually happen.

For those who such a thing might be an annoyance in an otherwise more relaxed game, KKairos offers the ability to actually have the game say "Hey, the action sequence is coming up." to prevent any unexpected surprise.

There's also some information on the maze itself. After numerous ways of generating mazes in Computer Dungeon Slash: ZZT, (very well covered by KKairos in his postmortem of the game), this one used a random maze generator as a base, and was then tweaked. This makes the experience the same every time, but the difference between infinite mazes and one maze with special care put into it is what makes this game memorable.

Credits
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
:touch
PRODUCTION

KKairos             Scenario, Programming,
                    Art, Game SFX

Philosoraptor       Beta Testing
WiL
Zephyr
Rabbitboots
astral

INSPIRATIONS

Lancer-X            Unlimited Maze Works

Rabbitboots         Pathfinding work
                    Maze Minders

Laughing Manatee    making me want to make
                    maze game that needs
                    mapping

Rabbitboots         encouraging my trolly
Philosoraptor       game design impulses
Zephyr
WiL

All the ZZTers      inspiring me
who've inspired me

SPECIAL THANKS

WiL                 Mean Girls Games tune
                    to go with logo

                    Helping with MGG logo

                    This on Discord:

"Mean Girls Games" would be a pretty good
rival zzt company for Burger Digital"

                    which sort of inspired
                    the joke company/logo
                    to begin with. Look
                    forward to many aevaze
                    releases which are
                    also under MGG or BD

Tim Sweeney         Making ZZT

Alexis Janson       Expanding ZZT

Dr. Dos             Preserving ZZT

asie                Zeta & Reconstruction
                    of ZZT

God and all my      Supporting me all this
peeps IRL and       time, because nobody
internets           survives alone

                          --KKairos, 2020
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

And lastly, the credits. Of particular interest is the inspiration of Lancer-X's Unlimited Maze Works. These two titles really contrast the difference between a maze game you'll enjoy playing and a maze game where you'll have nothing but regret upon hitting "P" to play that is very much a maze game.

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Despite the static maze featured in BBitM, KKairos has provided a demonstration of the system used to generate it. It looks great and quickly generates what is unmistakably a maze.

It's kind of nice to see how everything was created like this.

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Actually starting the game you'll come across this slightly expanded introduction. The nameless protagonist here isn't going to just wander a maze until they find the beast. There's a bit more to it with kidnapped royals to rescue, stolen treasure to reclaim, and the explanation that the beast is a "pet" of an enemy of the empire.

The alternative to this impossible mission is death. Good luck.

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As the help scroll mentioned, there's a chance to ask for a warning when the game is about to challenge your reflexes. I opted to turn down the help.

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The game seems to get right to it. There's the maze alright, along with plenty of visible treasure, a locked away prisoner, a scroll, and a conspicuous arrow.

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Picking up a few gems on the way to this prisoner, and the core gameplay mechanic is quickly revealed. Each of these cells requires a 10 gem deposit to open. For now, this prisoner will have to wait.

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The arrow plays a tone indicating that it can't be accessed from this side. You'll find plenty of these throughout the maze, and while they're never outright explained to the player, you can probably guess that they serve as shortcuts.

Less clear is exactly how they work on this first board. Perhaps you touch them and can slip through once, perhaps they open permanently, or perhaps the downward arrow is actually meant as some kind of triangular indentation and an item needs to be slotted into the door to open it.

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The final item of interest is the ship you arrive on. At any time you're free to leave, but without completing your objective of killing the beast, it might not be wise to do so. Before boarding KKairos provides an outright warning and explanation about this so there's certainly no surprise for what will happen if you board the ship.

Also it's a very nice little ship. I'm a big fan of the parenthesis sail.

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One of the enjoyable aspects of this game is mix of gentle introduction and foreshadowing. It would have been so easy to just dump the player in the maze and let them be off, but KKairos does this nice little beach outside the maze. The fact that maze isn't just "one way in, one way out" makes it feel more organic. The origins of the maze are never explored, but little touches like this change the feel.

The obvious parallel to this is the myth of the minotaur in the labyrinth of course. In both cases we get a dangerous creature lurking about inside a difficult to navigate space, but the labyrinth is a constructed space, meant to be an impossible challenge to overcome. This maze is certainly still a dangerous one full of captive prisoners and a dangerous beast, but the numerous tunnels seem less intentionally constructed and more like the beast has been tunneling around this island for who knows how long.

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This second board actually lets the player get inside, and introduces two new aspects: boulders/sliders and keys/doors.

The boulders and sliders in these narrow halls aren't used for making me waste an hour of my time solving a puzzle, but help manipulate the player's flow through the maze. They are simple lock mechanisms essentially which draw the player's attention both in making them want to see what's beyond the gate and in making them want to find out how to move around in order to open it.

The keys and doors are the same thing, but with a more substantial feel. A lot of the maze is designed to have clear areas of interest to explore, only to hide them behind lock and key. They of course also motivate the player to find the other half. If you find a door, you want to find the key to open it. If you find a key, you want to find the door and discover a new area to explore.

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The gems also play into this, again appealing to the player as somewhere they should be heading, and they have the extra benefit of making it easier to identify where the player has and hasn't been yet. In this screenshot I've cleared out all the gems I could and sadly am one short of being able to open this cage since I spent some earlier gems on another one.

I could have put what was collected into this one, but I wanted my reward, and instead turned back around. I was so excited to see what these prisoners were all about that I managed to completely overlook the blue key on this board!

The scroll also gives us our first introduction to the personality of the beast. Clearly whatever is living inside this maze has some intelligence to it, and all the same it is still very bestial in revealing that these "prisoners" are meant to be food.

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Back near the ship the rest of the gems are used so I can see what to expect from a rescue. KKairos included a colorful cast of characters in CD:Slash, and I was expecting something similar here.

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Oh.

I mean, it's certainly no points deducted from the game. This one is meant to be a shorter experience. There might have been something interesting that could have been done with the interaction between captured persons being saved by a rebel to the empire they pledge allegience to, but perhaps that would have tilted conversation into a more antagonistic direction.

Reducing them to a collectible that rewards bonus points is also an easy way to deal with the non-linear structure of the game. The complexity of the game could increase significantly if there was tracking of who was saved and them giving clues to secret passages that the player might have stumbled across on their own or whatever.

These are also entirely optional. Your mission is to slay the beast. You can ignore everyone else if you like.

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Heading back up the coast and entering the maze once more (and still missing that blue key). This is where the game gets to being a proper maze. No more gentle coastlines, just pure unadulterated narrow corridors.

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So here's the thing. "Maze" as a genre is something that I inherently don't trust. It's only because this game has a 2020 release date and a recognizable author that I wasn't dreading playing it.

Mazes on their own are really boring. They feature themselves rather prominently in plenty of older ZZT worlds, and are almost universally un-fun. For a lot of games, mazes of this type (winding narrow corridors) stick to being single screen affairs, but you can come across lots of examples of other mazes that aren't enjoyable.

Frequently throughout the Closer Look series I've been forced to navigate these things. My biggest complaint is typically that the maze has no sort of danger to it. If there's nothing in the maze but a hidden path from point A to point B, the only challenge is whether your interest in the game is high enough to deal with the tedium of navigating one of these spaces.

I play ZZT games using a personal ZZT-fork with a noclip cheat for a reason.

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KKairos goes all in on the concept. The maze is the bread-and-butter of this game. You should see a screenshot like this and want to do something else with your time. Lucky for us, KKairos has a far sharper sense of game-design than your average ZZTer of the 90s, and found a way to make Big Beast actually fun.

The most important thing of all of course, is the length. Nobody wants to run around one of these things for literal hours. A limited maze works.

Secondly, there's a hook to why you're navigating this maze. Playing this game you'll want to see what this beast is all about. There's more to this maze game than a twisty maze of passages, all alike. For the most part ZZT has done a good job of avoiding a game that is literally just a maze you'd find in a children's activity book whose size has been factored by ten, but if you've ever owned an MS-DOS or early Windows shareware CD you've almost certainly seen plenty of games that were just this.

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Third, having a better understanding of how games whose focus isn't a constantly escalating challenge towards the player has- OH NO IT'S THE BEAST THERE THEY ARE.

Tucked away in my little corner I am safe, but here in the heart of the labyrinth large blue circular eyes stare out, not at the protagonist, but at you sitting at your keyboard.

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They're shifty eyes too! A large number of scrolls surround the beast's home, no doubt warning the player that they're too close.

I must admit, despite the title, I didn't expect this beast to be so big.

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Ahem, as I was saying:

The appeal to a game like this is definitely something that would have been lost on me when I was younger. Big Beast isn't exactly a challenging game, and that's okay. You get to scratch of itch of curiosity without having to commit yourself into a lengthy or tedious experience. The challenge here isn't for the player, it's for KKairos to earn the player's attention and to hold onto it for the length of the game.

It would be very easy to quit here and "get" the game. The beast hasn't been interacted with, but pretty much everything to see has been seen by now.

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Jumping ahead a few boards and reaching the beast's lair more directly, but still not from the side with the scrolls, there's some apprehension towards picking up a nearby gem, and that tension is what seems to hold the adventure together.

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Thanks to the one-way passages that politely open when touched from the correct side, the game starts to open up for the player's sake. Once a board has been stripped bare of gems and captured nobles, they lose that creative spark that lets them rise above a simple maze. KKairos is smart enough to use these shortcuts to let the player skip (or at least minimize) the time spent on empty boards. It's a respect for the player's time that I welcome with open arms.

This board was the start of the journey, and now it's been opened up to connect what seemed to be the heart of the maze with the opening area.

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KKairos also has to deal with content the player missed. The cages are the obvious ones, especially these early ones where gems are a very limited resource. This opening up of the maze via shortcuts is what makes it worthwhile for the player to tread back and do some cleanup.

And of course, when it's me playing, it also helps prevent frustration when I realize I could've gotten this key earlier. Playing games for these articles, I feel very compelled to not deliberately skip content. In the context of somebody who just downloads this game for a new ZZT world to play, these accommodations go a long way compared to having to backtrack through several maze boards in order to grab a forgotten key, and who knows if a player would feel like it was worth the time to do so when the reward is "Rescued Manservant Jones!" and 100 points.

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Approaching the beast board from this northern area, there's finally a clear path to the scrolls (and another captive).

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So this is Georgie. Georgie isn't the big beast in the maze. She's just a big beast in the maze. The good news is that means that there's nothing to fear. Here at least.

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The beast the player has been sent to kill is not monster-vegan.

The fake-out with Georgie works quite nicely. Immediately the apprehension on her board is gone, and the player is able to continue exploring with a newfound sense of peace. If that's how big a beast is, there's not going to be any surprise with the beast suddenly appearing in any random corridor.

Probably.

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Just as things are about to fall into a rut, a scroll gives us a new tease. It makes sense that killing the beast requires a bit more than walking up to it. A weapon has to be acquired, and that gives the player something to hunt down.

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Georgie isn't just a joke to play on the player's fears. She's now actively guiding the player to a tool necessary for victory.

Again though, all of this is arranged in a way to only appeal to those whose interest has been captivated. These scrolls are in a corner and behind the locked blue door. Previously the scrolls haven't exactly been all that helpful, and the blue key and door are in opposite corners. Your attention and enthusiasm for exploring every last crevice of the maze is rewarded with the location of a weapon. A player in a hurry who doesn't feel like 100%ing this game can look at that corner, see three gems to collect and just decide to carry on, incorrectly assuming the scrolls to be nothing more than a Burma shave joke.

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In testament to the good use of space in the maze, wandering by this wall after touching the scrolls will reveal a hidden passage within.

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And what's inside is still more maze. There's commitment to this theme.

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At the end of the hidden area is quite a bit. Not only is there a sword, but a shield and some armor as well. This kind of mythical equipment isn't anything unusual in games, though I couldn't help but wonder if originally these three items were going to be found separately and if that unbroken respect for the player's time didn't lead to them being combined into one.

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The knowledge of the first hidden path also bestows upon the player the knowledge of this second one. Both are indicated by having some of the quotation characters flicker occasionally acting as another guide for the player.

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This one is a bit more unusual. It leads back to the coast, and now part of the ocean itself gives way to reveal another scroll.

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Once more the player is given two choices. They can continue following these scrolls, or they can get on with it.

I can't really imagine anybody making it this far and deciding now's the time to opt out of wherever this is leading. And this isn't all that long of a game. Reaching this exact spot took something like 23 minutes of playing. This game isn't about rewarding the player for spending hours in a maze with more reasons to be in a maze. Everything is nicely paced to keep interest high. To have the player (on their first playthrough) not pick up the sword and then speak with Georgie would be a failure of this game's mission to be engaging. The novelty of alternate endings is pretty much exclusively just the sort of thing you'll save and load a game to see the rest of. This is clearly the one that KKairos wants the player to take, and anybody who isn't willing to do so, probably got tired of this game in the first 10 minutes and should honestly have probably just politely tapped out.

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Okay. This isn't exactly where I thought this was going, but sure.

Remember how this game had an unsettling atmosphere where the beast could be lurking behind any corner earlier? That's gone out the window by now.

But that's okay because I desperately want Georgie to succeed.

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There's not a whole lot left by this point. I'm having a realization that most of the maze has been cleared out, and that it would be wise to finish clearing any boards I can as there likely aren't going to be spare gems for opening cages. This position really demonstrates what you'll be dealing with at this point. Just enough gems to coerce the player to returning to this board from other entrances, and a convenient shortcut to make it easy to jump back to a much earlier area and be able to pick up anything that was missed in the past.

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Everything is so thoughtfully placed. The red key was originally up top almost directly above the player's current position, and the layout means that the player will see the flickering indications of secrets if they missed them.

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Okay. This is the beast room. The maze before felt somewhat organic, but this last board feels much more constructed. The beast has their own chamber here, and KKairos once more provides foreshadowing with this more linear path that ensures the player will be stuck on the outside and have to work their way in.

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Which is as simple as just following the path. This bend would have been trivial to not include, and I can't help but feel like it's a very direct homage to the corner of Town's Rube Board where there's a tiny bend in the corner that's used to navigate to the final challenge of the game.

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There's one final captive to free, and at this point it seems that all that's left to do is to confront the beast whether with Agora's Sword or Georgie's Word.

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Except I just really have to know what this shortcut is all about. Every other one has had a black arrow and this one uses blue.

For as much as any fear of the beast has gone by the wayside at this point, KKairos gave a warning about one reflex-based sequence, and I'd prefer to know what was up with this false shortcut before I have to learn the hard way.

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Ah. It's a one-way shortcut. I should've tested it before picking up all the gems and rescuing that final captive.

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There's certainly no doubt, but this beast is looking to be the big beast in the maze.

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Put this on your Twitter profile.

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After plenty of stalling, the beast is confronted. The options are pretty limited and mostly tie 1:1 with regards to what ending you'll receive.

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No surprises for the first option, but this isn't an instant game over or anything.

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Instead, once you've reached the end of your journey, you're taking to a calculation screen which crunches some numbers to determine the details of your ending.

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This, one might call, the bad ending.

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One final board tallies up some bonus points, and the game comes to an end. The points for rescuing captives are surprisingly generous seeing as how according to my ending, none of them actually made it safely off the island.

(There's a small typo with the objects here. KKairos is going to be doing a small bug-fix for the game that I suspect will be complete between this article being available to patrons and its public release.)

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With the Georgie subplot in full swing, to actually do what you were told and unceremoniously kill the beast doesn't really feel all that right.

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Check out this gory beheading. The deed is done and it's time to return to the ship, but before you can go galumphing back...

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A thick slime begins to pour out of the beast's body! The player has to outrun the slime in order to make their escape.

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This is never a prompt you want to see, and when I first killed the beast, it did in fact catch me off guard and quickly surround me.

This is what the game warns you about needed reflexes for.

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A bad ending for the player and Georgie no doubt, but the captives on the island are probably okay with this.

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IF you escape from the slime, you're home free. The rest of the maze can still be explored if you wanted to max out your points as only the beast board has slime.

Georgie acts no differently, currently unaware of what has happened to her beloved.

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The ideal, non-secret ending (though really I don't think the Georgie subplot really counts as all that secret). This whole "rebel" thing is quickly forgotten.

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Well. It was worth a shot. Trying to tell a joke dumps you right into the same path as "cower with fear".

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Running away provides a one time change to disengage. The game isn't kidding that you won't get away so easily as attempting to run away again leads to the player tripping and then the cowering ending.

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Finally, the ending the people demanded. No heads are chopped off. no rebels are eaten. It's just pure romance.

One final casual stroll back to the boat later and...

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Nice.

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The happiest possible ending. Beast marriage.

Final Thoughts

What a pleasant surprise this was! I mean, okay, it's not really that surprising for a KKairos game made in 2020 to be enjoyable, but this was one of those games that I unintentionally missed when it was new, and later in the year when I went and played a few 2020 games for myself without intending to stream or write about them I still skipped it. "Maze" is a very powerful word with so many negative connotations in gaming, and generally for good reason. Mazes in ZZT often add nothing but frustration to otherwise enjoyable games, and those that dare to make the entire game be about navigating a maze are typically just asking players to call it quits. For a maze to work, there has to be a hook to keep the player invested, something readily accomplished by the game's light-horror beginning that gives way to a more whimsical fairy-tale of a end.

KKairos absolutely figured this one out. Big Beast in the Maze correctly (subjectively of course) handles with the size of the maze, the duration of the game experience, and gently guiding the player with a breadcrumb trail of gems and scrolls. For what began with a randomly generated maze, you can really feel the care that was put into taking that raw lump of corridors and coaxing it into a far more deliberate design. A lesser design could have easily turned this into a dull slog, but instead this is a brief and pleasant journey that I highly recommend you take for yourself on a lazy afternoon sometime.

Truly, the closest thing to a flaw here is ironically the multiple endings. The effort required to 100% this game is barely more than the other endings. (Plus you can still get lesser endings if you get the beasts together but don't save all the captives.) I can't imagine a scenario in which somebody would play long enough to explore enough of the maze, kill the beast, and leave. These other endings feel like they exist more to handle weird combinations of play and say "Ah, but I thought of that!" when the structure of the game itself is constantly pushing the player to solve the problem without spewing purple slime everywhere. There's nothing wrong with these alternate endings, but they play the conceit of "kill the monster to win your freedom" entirely straight. Without Georgie's note, the endings available feel significantly more dull.

But it remains absolutely trivial to get that good ending which will leave you feeling much more satisfied with the time spent. So do go ahead and check out this not-too-big-maze with some big beasts inside. It's a bite-sized adventure that won't disappoint.

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