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About the Story
Zero Summer is a wordy western card-playing RPG set in the post-apocalyptic American southwest. Nearly two decades after monsters poured out of Corpus Christi and divided the United States between civilization and the New West, players assume the role of A MAN WITH NO NAME, a gunslinger with no memory or past.
Nominee, Best Setting - 2012 XYZZY Awards
Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling
Emily Short reviews Zero Summer, second-place winner of the inaugural StoryNexus World of the Season competition.
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Rock Paper Shotgun
Live Free, Play Hard: The Week's Finest Free Indie Games
"The prose is dripping with cowboy juice -- okay, let me try that again. Itís twangy, dusty, third eye on a yellow-bellied sow straight out of a hard ride to Hell and back if you know whatís good for you with the smell of redemption on your whiskey whiskers. I MEAN THAT IN A GOOD WAY. Confident writing that sets out to paint a picture, while at the same time the card format keeps the paragraphs digestible."
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Zero Summer is a browser-based game using the StoryNexus platform (best known for Echo Bazaar/Fallen London, and a bit like a social network game without the social network nonsense). It's set in a strange postapocalyptic Texas: you show up in Amarillo with amnesia and are obliged to find your way in the world as The Man With No Name.
The StoryNexus platform has a good deal more friction than is usual in a CYOA. Your choices are never single-click: you have to draw cards, mouseover them to see what they mean, click to bring up the card's options, assess those options, decide between them. In some games (this one included) you have to travel between regions to get the options you need, which is not in itself a content-offering process. Grinding -- repeatedly doing the same thing in order to raise your stats -- remains a significant game element. Even on a decent internet connection, none of this loads instantaneously; every click is a little slower than might be desired. And the system itself limits how much you can play by giving you a set number of turns that refresh slowly over time.
All of this, importantly, is dumb friction: it doesn't add challenge or engagement to the experience, it just slows the rate of content-delivery down. This places really high demands on the content itself; and, indeed, the Failbetter house style has generally been to set very high standards for the writing side, with strong and distinctive worldbuilding that's evoked with dense, punchy, elegant prose, richly evocative but (at its best) understated.
Zero Summer's take on the house style is a little different, but only a little. It veers somewhat away from the generic characterisation of Fallen London, towards more specific, continuous characters. Its snippets of text are more on the lengthy side. But these are very small departures, and most of the core elements are much the same: a strange, dangerous world full of sinister wonders and gradually unfolding mysteries, explored by a enterprising (but vague) jack-of-all-trades and delivered as a series of anecdotes in juicy prose. The rhythms of the text, the way the story is paced, the detail-oriented aesthetic feel for the subject-matter are fundamentally familiar.
As with Fallen London, the world of Zero Summer has been transformed by a fantastic and sinister apocalyptic event. In Zero Summer, however, it's less a matter of mysterious fiendish machinations and more a force of the harsh, inhuman desert. Demons won't be offering you scones and employment, here. On the other hand, the protagonist feels like less of a hedonistic sociopath; this is a story concerned with hospitality, with getting to know people because you'd like to know them better, rather than for the sake of money, sex, information, patronage. Notably, while three of your base stats correspond to Fallen London ones, there's nothing that matches the thievish Shadowy. (The particular combination here, of people who are immediately hospitable but also very private, thorny and hard to get to know, feels just right for a frontier US context.) It's concerned about staying human in a tough world.
Insofar as Zero Summer has failings, they're generally to do with problems inherent in StoryNexus. The art is stock. The world is, at present, perhaps a little sparse; you can travel to areas before there are any actions unlocked there, and you often find yourself drawing the same five cards over and over again (which undermines the purpose of having a card-based opportunity system instead of a static set of options). There is a shade too much grind required, and the turn-limit system remains an unhappy compromise. But within its established idiom, Zero Summer is a capable and engaging piece of work.
I donít usually play video games, but I have been really enjoying Zero Summer. It is like reading an interactive book. The storyline begins with the main character waking up, unable to remember his name or who he was before that moment. This leaves the player to fill in the background with his or her imagination, to create what he or she believes the character is like, all the while getting little hints to help shape their mental picture.
What I enjoy even more than that is the writing. The prose is both evocative and descriptive, and I find myself delighting in the storylets as much as the overarching plot.
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