Published Under: FILTERware
Released: August 08, 1995
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Today's game, is Sivion by Mothingos. It's a 1995 release of considerable importance, and I want to do things a little differently with it. Instead of the usual coverage from the start of the game to the end (which all too often feels more like I'm writing a Let's Play than anything), I'd like to break Sivion down to a few parts and discuss what makes this one a ZZT world that's somewhat difficult to give a verdict on in 2017.
Let's start off by discussing the game's legacy. As a 1995 release, ZZT was going through its adolesense, games were becoming more complex, Alexis Janson's release of Super Tool Kit the year prior began a new era for ZZT graphics, the potential of which was still just barely being scratched.
Enter Mothingos, with the idea of creating a grand adventure in a detailed world filled with inhabitants who had their own lives and motivations. Sivion, I can only imagine, must have been groundbreaking at the time of its release. Perhaps surprisingly, Sivion manages to achieve its goals for a while. The first half of the game takes place in the village of Bespin (named after the cloud city from Star Wars) where the protagonist, Rook, spends much of his time running around fulfilling quests for villagers. Some of these are a bit more concretely defined as quests, such as a friend in the village who wants to get some strawberries, while others, including rescuing a man trapped by a malicious djinn are more Rook stumbling into a new adventure and saving the day.
As Rook finishes his quests, he'll begin collecting keys. While Town of ZZT starts right off in saying the goal is to get five purple keys, Mothingos keeps their purpose more ambiguous for quite some time. You'll likely have three or so of the seven keys (one of each color) before understanding why you need to use them at all to unlock a guest bedroom in a wealthy lord's manor. It's very much in the middle of being a fleshed out world where everything has a reason for being there and a traditional video game where you won't question why a bedroom has seven locks and how come the various townsfolk happen to have the keys for them.
In the mid-1990s however, these quirks that remind the player that they are in fact playing a ZZT game are far from dealbreakers. Sivion is outright impressive even today, and while a modern audience will have plenty of severe flaws to point out, at the time of its release I feel like this had to be a massive undertaking that exemplefies what could be done with ZZT.
Most of Sivion's flaws are the usual ZZT fare. There are a few bugs which force the player to cheat in order to complete the game. Some items can be missed without the player even realizing and running around in an unbeatable world. The second half of the game feels rushed (and the writing especially suffers). It's all the sort of thing you sign up for when you play ZZT worlds, and if you can accept that you'll need to crack open the editor a few times to figure out just what you should be doing, you'll ultimately have a wonderful time.
The game opens up in Rook's home in Bespin with a bit of backstory. Mom tried to take over the kingdom and got killed for it, and so Rook had to flee to avoid the same fate. He settles in Bespin and befriends a local named Dulcis that he lives with.
It's not a lot, but for the era it's much more rationale than just jumping right into things, waking up and saving the world. There are hints that there's more to the world of Sivion beyond what the player will see.
Rook and Dulcis's home sets the baseline for the game's graphics. Boards tend to have a pattern of boulders as a background, and use basic fading from one color to the next. Mothingos also uses box drawing characters to create beds, something I don't think I've seen anywhere else. It gives them a very distinct look and isn't half bad if you ignore the solid black sheets and pillows.
Another feature which is a bit ahead of its time is the inventory. A single object near Rook (and Dulcis?)'s bed is used to list the contents of Rook's pockets. In later years, the ability to set flags with the cheat prompt would be used for inventory systems, but here the functionality is relegated to this single object. There's never any prompts about using items. If Rook has something he can do, he'll do it
In the earliest portions of the game, there's some surprisingly detailed writing. Mothingos doesn't just tell us that Rook got dressed and grabbed his bow. There's clearly an interest in making this world a detailed one, but like so many ZZT games, the attention to the writing lessens as the game progresses to the point where the latter half of the game features a lot of laughable dialog. But it does put on a good show at the beginning! Exploring Bespin in the early portions of the game shows tremendous love and care for creating a realistic world that you won't find in most games.
The Village of Bespin
Bespin is mostly contained to this single board with several buildings throughout. The village itself has a few people scattered throughout, including a traveling merchant who strikes up a conversation with the town's noble, Lord Charles.
One issue you'll come across with this worldbuilding is that it can sometimes get in the way of the game itself. Here the two will have their conversation with message popups which likely won't start until Rook begins speaking with the cyan object named Jara, leading to two conversations playing at once. It's alright here since the merchant/lord conversation is short and uses pop-up windows, but later on there will be segments where NPCs hold flavor conversations while Rook is talking with somebody causing multiple messages to rapidly appear and disappear on the bottom of the screen.
The player is also given a seemingly massive amount of choices for where they'd like to go first. The board has exits on every side, and there are five buildings in town to explore, all labeled by signs. There's a library, two shops, a forum, and a jail. Like Town, there's no right or wrong choice for where to go first, but just the same some may be better while the player's supplies are limited than others.
The library seemed a good a place as any to begin, since it was the closest building to Rook's home. It's empty except for single book that has fallen off the "shelves" made of line walls. Posters on the wall include minute details such as the cost of obtaining a library card or the 0.10 gems per day fine for overdue returns.
The book offers some important lore. Sivion gives its own branding to ZZT's built-in monsters, changing lions to trolls, tigers to goblins, centipedes to "snake wyverns", and ruffians to Aprithian spies and assassins.
Tired of reading,
Rook places the book back on the shelf.
• • • • • • • • •
Some of the information is just there to write about ZZT's default enemies, but some information is crucial to solving certain puzzles later on. Unfortunately once Rook reads the book, he reshelves it and it can never be read again. It would have been much preferred to keep this information accessible.
Next up, the blue building is a store which deals in adventuring supplies. (Sadie merely giggles if you ask her for a date.) A common issue with ZZT games is the combination of finite resources and mandatory purchases making the player reluctant to actually spend their money on health, ammo, or torches. Sivion is at least up front about the purchases here. It should come as no surprise that both the jailor key and rope are necessary to complete the game.
As far as the availability of gems goes, it's pretty reasonable. Later on in the game money will cease to be an issue entirely for a bit. As long as you're not constantly being brought to near death in fights there shouldn't be any problems keeping the money flowing enough to complete the required purchases.
One of the passages to the back of the shop leads to a forge where a smith is working on forging a new sword or some chainmail. These items line the top of the main storefront (along with crossbows), all of which Rook talks himself out of spending the money on due to the price and/or his lack of ability with the item in question.
Farther back is a dark room filled with arrows to pick up. Some more are also given to Rook just by talking to one of the people in the shop. With 165 shots available before even leaving Bespin the player will quickly find themselves ready to begin exploring more dangerous territories.
The town forum is busy and makes for a very lively board! The tables are mostly full, and a waitress loops going around from table to table, delivering checks and drinks endlessly.A musician is onstage playing some music, but gets fed up when nobody seems to be paying any attention.
Shortly after leaving, the bar is suddenly overrun with Aprithian assassins! Rook fights them off with his archery skills while all the patrons continue to sit and enjoy their food and drink. The waitress continues her duties as well, making for a pretty amusing scene of nothing happening while Rook finds for his life.
The actual purpose of the bar is to get some healing. Sivion is one of those games that's ambiguous about what you'll get for your money leading the player to try them all. In my case though, I didn't actually buy anything here the whole game. Sivion has plenty of faults to discuss later, but it does a good job with providing the player with the resources they'll need to complete the game.
Looking at the code here reveals two fun facts: Rook doesn't drink alcohol (selecting either "brande" or wine results in losing health from not liking the taste), and that if Rook can't afford the bill twice, the bartender will refuse service in the future. It's another example of the little details added to the game to make Bespin feel realistic, though it's one that will likely never be seen.
Next up is the second store, "Joan's Amazing Shop" and compared to the previous one it certainly is.
You can buy the usual items here (and some well priced health) along with some more esoteric choices. Spend 10 gems on a dragon and a door will open to the room with the giant centipede inside. Have fun. The ride is also pretty silly, opening a passage that leads to the back of the shop where Rook will ride against a conveyor belt and be dumped outside the rear of the building. It feels more in the silly style of worldbuilding you'd see in Town or Smiley Guy
The shooting range offers a luck based way to get some more money. There will be better sources of funding later, but if you can spare the arrows you can easily walk out with more gems than you started with.
Lastly is the town prison. Similar to the original ZZT worlds, your main objective will be to bust people out of jail. At first all Rook can do is speak with one of the prisoners who asks to be set free. Rook agrees to this immediately and the officer next to him takes offense. It'll be some time before the jail comes into play.
With that, we've seen all of the main hub of Bespin. It's time to explore the nearby countryside.
The western forest is a winding path that needs to be traversed with a few caves. One of the caves is currently claimed by a lot of trolls, but the other can be freely entered.
Inside the cave is a large monster Rook needs to destroy to make it to the back (as well as a puzzle that I'll talk about later). It leads to a lost temple dedicated to Venus being ran by a group of pacifists that have been attacked by servants of the evil demon Aprithia.
Rook is given a quest to defeat the Mothingos (and thankfully though it shares a name the creature is not a self-insert of the author) below which has been killing their priests. Accepting the quest lets rook open the doors to the other chambers and collect large quantities of ammo and torches which will be necessary to complete the quest.
The cave is a straight path to the Mothingos (and it's usually dark, necessating the torches), but it's not an easy one. Four priests, possessed by the dark creature stand in the way. When the player is aligned with them they shoot an endless stream of bullets. Rook needs to time things so he can proceed through narrow halls and manage to shoot an arrow without being shot back at, utilizing the projectile's slow movement as a way to hit the enemies without the arrow being destroyed by the preists' own volleys.
It can be difficult. Thankfully one arrow is enough to defeat the priests, and the player is given health and ammo with each one defeated.
The Mothingos is no different, with each of its eyes shooting when the player's lined up, but at a slower rate and it also can't move so it's a lot easier to deal with. Though once defeated one last surprise priest appears who takes multiple hits, making for a suddenly difficult fight.
The reward for all this is to make some wishes on a magic orb. Each wish can be used once meaning Rook will get health, ammo, torches, and most importantly one of the seven keys.
Back outside, I speak to the troll chief who orders the other trolls to attack me. Rook swiftly slaughters them, leaving the chief helpless and silent. The reward is just finding a nice cave that can't be entered.
Up above is a nice tribe of trolls. Well, nice enough to not attack Rook. The chieftain says he has some strawberries, but will only give them in exchange for a poisoned needle to kill the other chieftain with. So now Rook knows what he needs to do to finish the strawberry quest at least.
Then there's Lord Charles's estate north of Bespin. There's nothing to do on the outside (well you can attack the guards, but then they close off the entrance and you can't complete the game) except head on in.
The estate has a museum that's open to the public, but Rook is unable to enter until the current tour is completed. In most ZZT games, seeing this line would make you think that either the area was never accessible, or you'd find some way to sneak in. Here in the realistic world of Sivion, Rook just has to do enough quests to make time pass and can then enter freely.
The only other exit in the manor leads to a room full of beds locked behind seven doors. It still seems very uneventful early on, but this room is the end goal of all these quests. In the screenshot you'll see I have a blue key as well which I purchased from the shop as a jailor key. Compared to Town's palace, it might not even be obvious that the player is actually intended to get here. Seven keys is a lot and Rook has no reason to want to actually go inside for quite a while.
South of Bespin is another winding path. Sivion has too many of these for its own good, and it can get very tedious with how much walking is involved for no reason. The path is blocked off by a single large tree forcing the player to turn back around. I cheated my way back across.
Lastly, is a series of boards to the east. Right away Rook runs into a farmer that needs help moving some rocks out of the way. Once he's done so the farmer invites him up to his home for a reward.
For the second time today, Rook is attacked by Aprithian worshippers. Depending on the order Rook does things, this can make a lot of sense or none at all. If you haven't done the quest with the Venusian temple, there's no real reason to have these Aprithians want Rook dead so badly. The more the plot advances however, the more sense it will make for these people to want him dead.
The Aprithian begins to attack Rook, mostly by just moving and shooting randomly. It's a very easy fight, with the nasty surprise of a bunch of ruffians (aka Aprithian henchmen) revealing themselves once their commander is defeated.
Rather than fight them I just walked out the door.
This entire scene may seem like it can be skipped, but a flag is actually set once the leader is defeated. I think this is a good example of one of Sivion's main flaws, where it's not always obvious that something changed. I only realized a flag was set when incorrectly writing that this area was optional, and didn't discover the flag until it occurred to me there might be some additional dialog or reward for defeated the ruffians that show up. (There's not.)