Zero Summer

by Gordon Levine, Tucker Nelson, and Becca Noe


Web Site

Go to the game's main page

Member Reviews

Number of Reviews: 2
Write a review

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Ghost Train, January 8, 2013
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

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.

Comments on this review

Previous | << 1 >> | Next

Zero Summer, January 8, 2013 - Reply
Thanks for the review Sam!

Re: grind friction, I certainly hear you -- but at the same time, I think (and hope) it serves a number of functions in the narrative. Specifically:

* Zero Summer -- and, I think, StoryNexus games in general -- tend to be more like serial novels or TV series than traditional novels or movies. They're meant to be sipped, not gulped. Including an element grind allows us to enforce a certain level of sipping (although obviously, the faster you grind, the faster you'll see content...)

* Grind allows us to build the setting by creating repeatable prose that reinforce certain themes. We want players to read certain things several times. It's one of our best tools for establishing Zero Summer's mood.

* There IS challenge to Zero Summer's grind content. That is: there are strategies and tactics. Especially with the new content, players are juggling three elements through the grind: 1.) how fast their Styles rise, 2.) how fast their Menaces rise, and 3.) how often they hit certain rare successes. It's not like you're playing a platformer, but we've created a system which we hope encourages long-term thinking about how to grow your Protagonist.

And speaking of the Protagonist: I wouldn't write him off as vague just yet! Stay tuned. As they say: (much) more on this story as it develops. :)

By the way: new content (Day 2/Morning) is coming out next week. You'll see a deepening of some of our mechanics, including Antagonists, Menace states, and the much-requested Job/Reputation system. Should be good times! Love to hear what you think.

Gordon Levine
Head Writer
Zero Summer
Previous | << 1 >> | Next