Ah, what a poll winner. A patron nominated suggestion created by a different patron, and one with a cool backstory behind its creation!
Star Wench hails from 2014, one of those years where ZZT wasn't doing particularly well. The game was never put onto z2 which makes sense when the latest front page post on z2 at the time would have been four years old., It also wasn't actually put on the Museum either until just this year (despite me having a copy in a folder called IMPORTANT full of things that should be sorted through and uploaded...). In an era when the mainstream ZZT community over on z2 was calling it quits seemingly for good, Anna meanwhile had done some impressive work on giving ZZT some much needed acknowledgment. At the time she would've been working on her book about ZZT, simply titled... ZZT as part of the Kickstarter for the creation of the first books in the Boss Fight Books series.
Star Wench was created specifically as a Kickstarter stretch goal arguably giving it the largest known budget of any ZZT game. Clearly a triple-A title.
As you might expect, the game made is pretty short with writing a book being given a bit more time. Star Wench was far from an effortless obligation though and the game fits quite nicely into the story-focused single session adventure style that's only increased in popularity in the years since. Arguably games of this style were the predominant type of ZZT world created in 2014 with other works like Growing Up and International Jetpack Conference fitting a similar mold in a year with seven known titles. Though it's hard to call that a trend when the three games mentioned here never hit z2 when they would have been contemporary titles.
Where Star Wench particularly excels is in its visuals. The game uses the bright colors of ZZT quite nicely but doesn't abstain from using dark colors as needed. There are countless ZZT worlds out there that take place in a sci-fi outer space environment, but so many of them fall into the trap of everything having to be cold gray metal. Not to pick on Quantum P.'s excellent Operation: GAMMA VELORUM series, but it's a good example of a game that gets very dark very fast. Anna, having not been part of the ZZT community of the early 2000s has a much easier time embracing the brights ZZT generously makes available.
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Specifically, this page contains depictions of or references to:
Pg-13 Levels Of Sexual Content, Minor References To Kink
As if predicting that I'd need screenshots seven years later, the opening window that sets the scene fits perfectly in a single screenshot.
"The Involuntary Moan" is a great name for a ship, and it's where the adventure begins, floating in space and preparing to use alien teleportation technology to get the drop on the Queen of Space herself!
The logo even works in scroll form.
We also get a little insight as to where the Star Wench concept came from. Is this the first example of a ZZT game based on existing media that isn't a fan-game?
These days that tumblr URL is an empty blog that likes One Punch Man fan-art, but you can get the "choose your own death adventure" on the Star Wench Itch.io page still.
The Involuntary Moan is hardly a generic gray spaceship, and the origins of the name make themselves readily apparent. Visually this is going to be the most "risqué" it gets and I have to admire the confidence here for this to be a bonus ZZT game made for a Kickstarter where I'm sure plenty of folks donated solely because they wanted to read about Earthbound.
The first thing to do is get to touching objects regardless of Suzie's objections. While not everything gets a unique message, Anna really likes to load up on objects as background details throughout the game. There's a lot of good use of non-conventional characters throughout the world. The kind of objects that you touch not just to see what text will come up, but just in hopes of being clued in to what you're looking at.
The most important of which is Suzie who gets the ball rolling. I have to wonder how many folks may have missed all her dialog assuming you could only get one message out of something.
The fun of all the weird objects is also the denial of not being able to access several of them.
This joke got me to laugh when I was playing.
That there's a bathroom that can be explored on this spaceship should be a given when dealing with a game made by someone writing a book on ZZT.
The toilet had to be saved for last, which meant examining the shower and mirror first.
characters that make up the necklace are a great touch and create a visual effect that honestly wouldn't come through as strongly if this was some black on brown object surrounded by various shades of walls to make a more "realistic" skin-tone.
Her cool glasses are of course using special colors, and at a casual glance it might seem like this is the sole instance of STK in the portrait. It's certainly easy to miss that the dark purples to give depth to the face and contrast to the neck uses half block characters with dark purple backgrounds and not the readily accessible dark purple solid character obtained by writing a space with purple text.
The art design reminds me of the philosophy behind games like Shovel Knight, where the graphical style isn't one-to-one with an NES, but a "rose-tinted view of an 8-bit game". Anna seems to not be going for an authentic STK-less ZZT look, but something that you could mistake for one.
There we go.
The final door of the ship leads to a very packed closet.
The instant game over fits the source material and it happens to early in the game that you can simply restart and not even have to anything to get back to here.
Of course this could also be an homage to sudden game enders like the mysterious alpha in Dungeons of ZZT. (As an aside, I love that Anna is actually in the chat for that moment, cheering it on.)
The back room holds the teleporter mentioned earlier with robot double WenchBot half-assedly explaining how to use it.
This isn't a puzzle, the teleporter just needs to be set to something in order for the button to actually activate it. I'm surprised given the nature of Star Wench's origins that there isn't a wrong combination to teleport her into the depths of outer space. I was purposely ignoring WenchBot's suggestion to be able to document such a thing!
Though I will say that by having all the combinations lead to the wrong room it creates a very fun experience for a new player of "I should've listened to WenchBot" for those that didn't and "I shouldn't have listened to WenchBot" for those that did.
Creating an area that the player has to navigate in darkness without any torches is definitely a challenge, and once again Anna does it right. There's plenty to laugh about with the random junk Star Wench can stumble into blindly. The spike even takes away a single point of health.
All of it is arranged so that the player is funneled to the flashlight object they'll need to pick up with the loose junk being scattered enough that you can bump into it and easily step around it rather than fumbling for an open space. The "electric torch" is an object as well so it isn't visible in darkness like an actual torch item.
The torch is used more for the sake of being a sensible thing to use than this being anything like "Level 1: The Queen of Space's Storage Room". You light the torch, get the key, open the door, and that's it for darkness in this game. It lasts maybe a minute in total.
(Oh wow I just noticed this actually gave a single point.)
The sense of space is also great here. This board is broken up into several little rooms with one visible at a time connected by passages. You might not even realize that it matches up perfectly with the walls visible in the storage room previously!
Now we're on to the torture chamber and a lot of spikes and other devices make this room more cramped than storage was.
In addition to a lot of (non-damaging) pokes as you pass by each spike, the background features some effects of the occasional thunderbolt and smoke animated rising as well. The extra detail really does a lot to make these rooms pop out. Plus we've got plenty of brights again with the exterior of these rooms being shown to be a bright blue/cyan mix. These walls break against the usual fade of solid to normal to breakable to water that would be used to give a sense of corners and depth with Anna pulling off the same with fading through colors rather than characters.
Her way with assigning meaning to ASCII symbols is unmatched.
As those more familiar with ZZT mechanics might have guessed, there's a boulder that needs to be pushed onto this spot between the brackets which will open the door.
This was also where I realized I was getting deja vu here where a similar puzzle relying on using poking spikes to push a boulder where it needs to go can be found in John Thyer's Atop the Witch's Tower. Sure enough, that game's text file cites its origins as wanting to try to make a ZZT game after reading ZZT and playing Star Wench.
There's more flavor throughout the room including the boulder itself which starts out as an object explaining it to be a crate full of synthetic rope. It helps give some meaning to this little square thing that's being pushed around otherwise.
There's also a helpful button to get rid of the crate and spawn in a new one to reset the puzzle for players that accidentally get it stuck in a corner.
Exiting the traditional-torture chamber leads way to the less-traditional tickle-torture chamber.
It's definitely the most well designed tickle-torture room I've come across in a ZZT game.
Once you step inside a pusher is freed which forces Star Wench to be subjected to it with various messages of her laughing as she's brushed past the wheels.
Star Wench's cover has been blown! So far this has been stealthy enough, but now there's some resistance.
Which happens in another great little room. This introduces new players to duplicators without actually explaining them, so they're in for a fun welcome.
Really though what makes this room memorable are the decorations. Those cyan phi symbols? They aren't scrolls. They're all objects.
And that convenient gun look object on the ground? Well...
As is often the case, the player will find themselves surrounded by SUBS as a few more are hidden in the walls. Whenever the player is out of ammo (after any shot since these blasters only provide one bullet) the next one appears. It's structured in a way to keep the player moving and to drop a SUB quite close to the weak point to destroy the duplicator and progress.
I had assumed the other blasters were kept by duplicators as well, but they're all just unique objects that move in and out of the walls and blend in. It's a smart effect and cuts down on busy duplicator noise quite a bit!
But this is why the room is so good. It's a shootout of Space Wench vs the security droids in a room full of priceless vases!
It's so good and really plays well with ZZT enemy AI being so simplistic. If the player opts to take cover behind the vases, it's very likely a droid will shoot up a few!
And of course more mischievous players can indulge in the fun as well.
One well placed SUB shot later and the droids are all destroyed. What danger will Star Wench find herself getting into in the next room?
The items in this collection of sharp objects does hurt the player when touched, but it's only for one point of health, and some of the best jokes are contained within. The sharp boomerang here (it's the < obviously) looks to be a clear winner at first.
There's still some danger though! An electrified droid barges in and gives chase. If your goal is to just navigate this tiny corridor you'll have no trouble, but if you're like me and trying to touch every object it becomes an actual challenge.
But it's totally worth it for the purple sea anemone.
Hopefully by now you'd have saved your game, but since Star Wench is a game about looking at details first and foremost, it really wouldn't take all that long to get back here.
A second attempt with less dawdling goes much more smoothly.
For the final room, Star Wench will have to get through the holodeck.
The room itself is hazard free, but the next door refuses to open until a simulation has been loaded. This room just has a remote, the computer, and in the corner a large pile of shuriken! Even Star Wench is confused by this with the descriptive text opting for a question mark as punctuation when they're examined.
The computer allows Star Wench to run GAME.EXE which reveals a hidden passage tile in the computer. Stepping inside begins the simulation where Star Wench is thrown into an incredibly realistic ZZT world.
All of this still matches up with the layout of the Queen of Space's castle. What was shuriken are now ammo. I especially like the transformation of the remote and bulkhead into a purple key and door.
The shuriken are put to the test as the simulation creates a room full of deadly tigers with guns! Luckily the ammo here is abundant which keeps things from getting out of hand.
The goal is this constantly changing letter which cruelly decided to be the same letter in my screenshots. I promise it changes characters wildly, a bit like a stone of power item from Super ZZT.
Upon reaching the goal the simulation ends and you get this great moment of re-orienting yourself as you realize that Star Wench was really moving forward this whole time.
The "tigers" were of course just more security droids whose bits of debris litter what was moments ago an ultra-realistic arena, now just an empty room.
The door to the holodeck's computer room is also shut tight. There's no turning back now.
All this to get where Star Wench was hoping to teleport to in the first place.
But first, the player's ammo from the holodeck needs to be removed.
The sauna room is the grand finale of Star Wench. All that remains is to sneak up on the Queen and do whatever it is you're trying to do here. The last little detail to check out is just a plant in the corner. The only course of action is forward.
Just like the tickle room, each step generates a new outburst from Star Wench. Stealth is not her strong suit.
What should be the final step through the shallow sauna waters is actually a row of passages leading to a close-up portrait of the Queen of Space. She looks appropriately badass and her cyan skin makes me suspect Star Wench is actually purple and that it wasn't just a ZZT palette limitation.
The bright red on her eye-patch blinks too!
The sudden portrait does more than just give you an idea of how the Queen looks, but is used to put the player back on a copy of the sauna board in very specific spot. One where upon taking a single step, robotic arms appear from the sauna and grab on to Star Wench!
True to the source material, Star Wench isn't a game about succeeding in your quest. It's a game about finding out what's going to do her in this time. In this case, robo-sauna.
It is a bit abrupt, and if you go into the game unaware of what's being reference (me, before starting to write this article) it is a bit easy to interpret this as just another way to die with some puzzle to be solved. There's no solution to be found here though, whatever Star Wench tries will be futile. The Queen of Space will merely enjoy the show.
Final ThoughtsStar Wench is short and to the point. As an introduction to ZZT it's certainly an interesting choice, taking the time to teach the player a few things they'll be encountering in greater depth in further ZZT adventures more than within Star Wench. Yes, you'll light a torch, discover fakes and invisibles, and unlock a door as you go through the world. It's almost a backdoor tutorial honestly. Boulders are pushed. Tigers are fought. Sliders are slid, and all the while Anna is never really upfront about it. I do like that the game made for a Kickstarter feels so genuine. When making something and knowing that it's going to be a lot of people's first introduction to ZZT there's a struggle that's elegantly avoiding in not guiding the player every step of the way or over explaining concepts that they don't need to know about.
Anna doesn't do anything particularly advanced here which not only helps newcomers who are playing, but those who want to poke at the world in the editor and get an idea of how a ZZT game is made in the first place. Somebody with no experience ZZTing can figure things out like the hidden passages in the sauna to the Queen of Space portrait. They may even get a feel for the things ZZT can't do, as they realize that each room in the castle is a distinct board, intuiting that ZZT has no concept of rendering "inside" vs "outside". I think my one complaint in that regard would be that the toolkit boards used to create this game were all removed. (Anna was unaware of KevEdit at the time.) This could legit be (and this is wild to say about ZZT) a potential liability as unsurprisingly ZZT toolkits aren't exactly accompanied with well thought-out licenses and this is one of those rare ZZT games where money was involved in the game's creation?. But clearly as a baseline for new ZZTers the game worked quite well as anybody who played Atop the Witch's Tower can attest. There are questions about making ZZT worlds that take more than just this one game to answer, and luckily Anna's ZZT book goes into more detail about the graphical revolution and use of Alexis Janson's STK.
Treating Star Wench as if it should be some perfect tutorial isn't really being fair to it. It's a story driven adventure that's all about exploring the strange abstract worlds that ZZT provides the tools to create. On the play side of things you get a quick story to enjoy with strange symbols to decipher and plenty of jokes to reward inquisitive players for touching everything they come across. The world is also quite polished! The background scenery throughout the castle is fantastic and the portraits are genuinely some of the nicest looking ones I've seen in ZZT worlds made all the more impressive by their sheer minimalism. They wouldn't look as good without the few touch-ups of STK colors here and there, but the personality would be conveyed all the same.
Because of its unusual method of release and lack of easy availability for so many years, this is one game that I suspect most readers may be unfamiliar with. Definitely take a few minutes to have a go at it yourself. I promise there are some more goofy items that I didn't show off. And while you're at, I can't recommend ZZT, the book that led to this world being made in the first place enough.
Let's get right to it, the title screen is amazing. Right from the start with some bright colors that really make it pop, and some lettering that's genuinely some of the best I've seen in ZZT. I never would have thought that "s" and "r" could be mirrored characters. Clearly I wasn't thinking enough.
But there's more than just some pretty letters. The starry background gives some clues to the game's content as well that will be made apparent once the game begins. We can see our protagonist's ship hovering in space above its target on the planet's surface, a massive castle to infiltrate.
You don't need to be familiar with Anna Anthropy or her ZZT book to see this title screen on a poll and want to know what this is all about. You shouldn't judge a ZZT game by its title screen, but if you do with this one you won't be let down.