Closer Look: Compound

♬ Fix us a wire you're the Compound man ♬ Fix us a wire tonight ♬ Well man's destined to die from catastrophe ♬ While aliens watch in the night ♬

Authored By: Dr. Dos
Published: Jan 15, 2020
RSS icon

Page #1/2
1 2 >

Anthony Testa returns with a swift victory in the polls for his 1998 adventure Compound. While I'd love to say Testa won due to his reputation for for making good "dark" ZZT worlds I suspect the true reason it won was because of its hook in the text file of being "riddled with quotes from Billy Joel".

Maybe it won based on this strange premise, but you won't find me complaining about it getting such a quick selection. Testa's games have always been favorites of mine and over the years I've streamed >Blind Remix, Jami's Undercity Remix (video missing), as well as playing through Deep December. Testa tends to create dark settings that come off as fun places to explore in ZZT, well aware that creating horror in ZZT is probably asking a bit much of a game where the person you control is perpetually smiling. Despite the challenge he's capable of coming up with some interesting settings that make you want to learn their secrets.

Testa could pull off strange premises for games while still coming off as sincere. You won't find the player arguing with the author about how stupid the story is or pointing out every time a trope shows up and rolling their eyes. You're also not expected to go in and swallow a bunch of overwrought writing where to make something "scary" one just keeps adding more adjectives. (Well, Compound avoids this at least.)

Compound is an earlier release of Testa's, the earliest we've seen so far, and in some ways it shows. There's not a lot of story to tell, and the enemies are basically identical. There aren't even all that many Billy Joel quotes. Still, it hits that sweet spot of ZZT games where you're neither struggling to survive nor loaded with so much health and ammo as to be unstoppable. This is a game that has a story to tell and doesn't want to push anyone away before they can hear the whole thing.

So let's see what Testa and Billy Joel have in store for us!


First off, I've got to give Testa credit for this title screen. Its oddly shaped red geometry combined with the bizarrely stretched out font does a lot to make this one stand out. That font is so wide, that I assumed I was supposed to look at it sideways and wonder what "UOEDO]CD" was supposed to be.

Honestly, managing to make "P", "O", and "D" characters distinct with a two-character's high vertical resolution is remarkable.

Compound is also a game with lots of interesting scenery. The game drops the player directly into things before popping up some introductory text.
c  o  m  p  o  u  n  d
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
It's the fairly distant future.
The third World War has ripped across the
world and decimated every organized
government and eradicated an entire
generation.  The world was left to a
generation of young adults - peace-minded
young men and women representing every
culture and religion on the earth.  They
have built a new world - a world dedicated
to peace and to learning, to science and
poetry, and to the arts.  Their city,
Renessiance, lies deep within the South
American rainforests, built of man's
greatest technology in harmony with
nature.  And, lo and behold, utopia was
born.  But, can they rebuild it...again?
There will be miracles
After the last war is won
Science and poetry rule in the new world
to come
Prophets and angels
Gave us the power to see
What an amazing future there will be
         - Billy Joel, Two Thousand Years
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

The background story for Compound is that war has destroyed pretty much everything and now young people are in charge and doing things a lot better than the previous leaders of the world did. Props to this game capturing the political mood of 2019 so well without even trying.

Testa wastes no time and promptly quotes some Billy Joel with, Two Thousand Years which is pretty clearly the inspiration for this game's setting.


It's the 21st century and humanity has finally got their shit together. It's left quite vague as to just what state the world is in as a whole. Is the compound a Utopian group of survivors of the last great war? Is the world as a whole a utopia and this is just one of many compounds dedicated to a future of science and poetry?

For all their knowledge though, there are still some strange things going on. Mysterious lights in the sky are being studied, but what they mean and where they're coming from remains unknown. The nameless protagonist is just a messenger delivering data as needed.


There's very little in Compound that doesn't advance the game or the story. Talking with the various astronomers just provides messages about how you need to deliver the data or how there's no need to bother the others.


I'm always a fan of games that commit to giving every board a visible title. We've seen this way back in Toucan's Pop! which barely predates this game as well as Myth's Nightplanet, which is also from the summer of 1998. Perhaps it was a short lived fad?

This board is "pointless" in that there's nothing to interact with, but it gives the compound more of a sense of space by having the player actually move up and down several floors to get from one place to another.


The ideal world in Compound isn't one that denies human emotion in favor of cold logic. Several of the people living within the compound have a heavy interest in Gaia theory and spirituality in general.

Compound is also a rare ZZT game where the protagonist has a wife.


How do you portray "utopia" in ASCII? I'd say something like this does an excellent job of it. "Basking in the glow of its own existence" is a surprisingly powerful phrase to find in a ZZT game.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
Your wife Lily sits in the grass, watching
life go by outside in the rainforest.  She
is a Gaian, believing in "mother earth"
and how all life is connected.  She
has jetblack hair, shoulder-length and
curly; she has accented her hair with
wisps of green dye, green being the color
associated with nature and Gaia.  He eyes
are deep blue - when you've stared into
them, you could see your future together,
your first child, growing old together,
leading a new generation into a peaceful
society.  She's wearing a sky-blue tank
top and cut-off jeans.  As she sees you
approaching, she smiles warmly.  The two
of you embrace, kiss, and chat for a few
minutes before you head onward, content
that after delivering these printouts, you
will have the rest of the day to spend
with your wife.
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

It's really refreshing to have a game so optimistic about things?


This Is The Time

Of course, this is still a video game, and so the utopia can't last forever.


Venturing underwater through a tunnel to the sea lab, the player can hang out with some more scientists and deliver the papers.


Spooky. There's so little known about this world that "lights in the sky" can mean anything. Aliens? A man-made doomsday device from the war? There's no information and it creates a sense of unease since you know something has to go down.


It's easy to miss, but if you look back on the title screen you can see nine red lights around the planet.


Ah, well, there it is. Whatever it is.


Underground, things get a lot more boring visually. It's a bit of a shame going from these nice background of a rainforest and underwater to just solid black.

There are two wheels which control the two grates that allow access deeper into the underground facility, though only the correct one leading to the generator can be turned.


Well, it was a good utopia while it lasted.

  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
You recognize the man as David, a
scientist whose extremist theories have
not been taken seriously by neither the
scientific nor the spiritual community.
He's holding a sword above his head.

You: D-David, what - ?

David: Fools!  All of you!  You don't

You: Realize what?

David: You can't rebuild on the remains of
the old world!  You must wipe the slate
clean, make a new world to shape into

You: Madness!

David: Madness, insight - there is no
difference.  They called Nikola Tesla a
madman.  And now, my weapon - a sword of
pure diamond.  Now, to the new world...

You: No!!
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

Aw jeeze David. This guy's here to ruin everything. Rejected by both communities, he's convinced that humanity can't escape its past flaws without starting over from scratch, and using his very cool diamond sword he slices up the generator powering the compound intending to forcefully make humanity abandon its accomplishments.


In a very striking visual effect, once the cables are cut the entire board blinks out of existence, asking the player to wander in the void towards a previously hidden passage.


I think a lot of other ZZT games would've started right here, with the character waking up from a coma, having amnesia, and having to piece together what happened.

We don't really know exactly what happened. There's no idea why the player is fine, or why breaking this generator would just destroy everything forever, so there's still a mystery, but both you and the player actually have some investment in figuring out what happened.


David is still here too. He's yet to wake up and he never will. He can be looted eventually though.


There was this little alcove seen previously with what looked to be a gun and some bullets.


Admittedly, having an emergency handgun and bullets makes me question the "utopia" a bit.

And the game designer in me is asking why Testa bothered to make the bullets corroded and then just give bullets from looting David. Actually planting the gun and bullets on David, who is supposed to be a dangerous person would make way more sense than having them lying around in a place meant to exemplify man's newfound peace.


All the other exits are blocked off by rubble, so the only way to proceed is to the east.


Nevermind. The gun is good.

Before the player can really react, a bunch of snakes and "Rockos" according to the object name make their way towards the player. Although their code is different, Rockos try to move towards the player, and snakes move randomly until they're aligned and then move extra fast towards the player so the hallway quickly becomes a shooting gallery.


Unlike Testa's later games, in Compound bullets are the only way to attack enemies, with no melee option available. Since the enemies love to line up with the player accuracy really isn't much of an issue so it's difficult to run out of bullets.

Each enemy goes down in one shot and fades to nothingness when they're hit. This works in the game's favor since it means the player can't just hold down the fire button, but must stagger their shots a bit in order to not waste bullets shooting an already defeated enemy.


One of the terminals down here is still functioning, but with the generator down there's not much that can be done. Digging through the menus, the only thing that can be done is opening/closing the sewer maintenance safety door, but even that fails as there's damaged wiring.

This is the sort of game where you'll be fixing up a lot of wiring.


Scattered throughout the ruined compound are these ammo cartridges. Not scattered throughout the ruined compound are any forms of healing. You get 100 health and have to survive the entire game on it. Enemies deal 10 damage, but emulate ZZT's builtins and are destroyed when they attack which limits the amount of damage you can lose in a fight at least.

Compound would be too difficult were is not for the constant choke-points that make it easy to get through an encounter without taking any damage or missing any shots. I mean, I got hit, but I'm pretty sure that was me testing if there was a melee attack.

I don't think this is how wrenches work.


But I'm going to be proven wrong quite quickly as the player acquires a wrench and flashlight from a nearby closet. The flashlight is an object and provides five torches.

With the wire then wrenched to perfection, the console from earlier is now able to activate the door to the sewers.


There's no time to get your bearings in the sewer before almost immediately being hit by a snake.


So was everybody carrying a gun with them in this peaceful utopia free of war?


The sewers thankfully aren't really a maze as much as they're two paths, one of which is closed off for now. The layout is straightforward enough that when my torch burned out on the way back I was able to get back to the start without needing to light another.


Enter the room of damaged wiring. The magic wrench can I guess bend one wire back into place, but its connecting wire is corroded and requires something else to repair it.


The second console in the room is promptly smacked into repairs and the bulkhead can then open up.


The path again splits in two. This time, both paths are dead ends, though they each contain a necessary item to collect.


I thought that's what the wrench was for!


The northern path offers up some desperately needed torches and a few more bullets.




Now here's something a wrench can't do. With these new tools it's time to turn around and do yet more electrical repairs.


Gate A opens up after redirecting and sealing the wires. The old dead end becomes a new path to traverse.


Alas it doesn't take long before Gate B is reached. This creates a very real fear that the bulk of this game is going to be exploring a dark sewer and not the compound itself.


For the past decade or so, the ruined generator has been incapable of opening doors, but it sure has been powering several dangerous garbage crushers.


It's your basic ZZT crusher challenge. The maintenance grate up top is stuck and wrench-proof, so the only way out is through. Get caught beneath a crusher for an instant game over.

Both crushers are somewhat staggered rather than being fully synchronized, but the timing is generous enough that it's not too hard to get through. And of course this is ZZT so you can save immediately before and after each one.


The reward is the most powerful tool yet, a cordless drill.


There's also this one last split which I hate. It leads behind the crushers to the grate which can't be opened from the other side either, so it just wastes your time.

I would've liked if the drill let you drill through the grate or something.


I'm relieved to say that the second gate in the sewers never opens and that there's no reason to go back to the sewers ever again.

The drill lets the player get through the rubble and opens up exits to the north and west here, though the exit north of the generator room can't be opened (and never will open).


Ultimately though, Compound is an extremely linear game. Not that this is a bad thing, but if you're not going where you should be, you'll hit a dead end right away. As long as Testa keeps on blocking off paths sooner rather than letting the player waste their time (and he will), there's no issue here.

This board I'm just noticing, doesn't have a title!


Moving upwards to the lab, there's still nothing more than corpses and broken machines. The tunnel to the surface has been damaged and can't be accessed while its flooded, but fortunately a solution is present nearby by taking the new passage that wasn't here previously.


I'm not sure what the implications of this previously unknown launch bay are. Surely it was there this whole time.

The corpses continue to point towards David's attack on the generator doing something that resulted in everyone dying pretty much exactly where they were.


It does mean there's a cool little submarine to pilot around a bit.

Submersible Mini-game
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •
Welcome to the Submersible Mini-game!
    Your mission, if you choose to accept
it (or not), is to repair the tube that
connects the lab to the atrium.  To do
this, you must use the controls to
navigate.  Press an arrowkey to move in
that direction, and shift plus an arrow
key to shoot in that direction.
    To fix the tube, you must steer the
ship into a piece (those grey things on
the bottom.  The piece indicator on the
bottom-left will show a grey square.  Now
you must steer the ship up into the small
circle in the lab.  Repeat thrice.
    If you come into contact with a purple
jelly-mutant thing, you will lose a hull
point (see bottom-left).  Seven hits will
destroy you.  You may shoot them, but you
are only allowed five torpedoes (there's
an indicator for that, too).
  •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

This minigame means well, but it's definitely not something I'd associate Testa with. Going by the scroll it should work out alright, dodge some enemies, use limited ammunition to get through tricky spots, and make some repairs on the underwater tube.


In practice though, there's really nothing to it. The mutant jellyfish only move horizontally and there's no buoyancy or anything to add a challenge via the controls. The player can just hug the right side and dive to the bottom without even having to deal with any of the jellyfish.


And because the enemies only move on a single axis, you can always hit them by just shooting sideways.

Restricting the directions torpedoes can be fired or adding some kind of "underwater" physics to how the craft maneuvers would go a long way to making this a bit more fun. Instead it's just a somewhat out of place bit of gameplay that pads things out a bit.

I will say that the interface for the engine in the lower-left corner is very nice looking however.


With the tube repaired, our protagonist can return to the surface.

Through sheer stroke of luck, the sole survivor of the attack is the player's wife Lily.

Page #1/2
1 2 >

Top of Page
Article directory
Main page