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Grinding, accelerated, with story, August 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

I have fond memories of grinding away in RPGs when I was much younger, but all the same, I don't want to do too much for that again. There are other goals. I'm no longer just grateful computer RPGs exist. Zenith is not a grinding RPG, or even close to one, but it brought back those memories. It helped remind me what I liked about them.

In Zenith, you simply climb up a mountain. The rooms you go through are designated at random, and sometimes in these rooms, you find special items. Then, at the top of the mountain, you have a chance to chase your real quest, to fly to the "real" tower. You can just take a cheap glider back down the mountain if you think you're not prepared enough, and the game gives you some idea of how far along you are. The penalty for failure is losing all your items. The more items you have, the better chances of success.

This usually takes several times, and at first, you're not sure how many items could be in the backpack. You only know how you feel based on the place where you're given a choice (fall or jump,) this being an entry in the Single Choice Jam. Eventually you'll get to where you're not getting new items. That's a clue jumping may be a good idea. It's not hard to go back up the tower, as you just mouse-wheel down and click the link at the bottom. I sped up, so things seemed to blend together for me, while I noticed the room descriptions themselves were generous, with the exits different. There's a paradox here, of course--you want to get back up the tower quickly, but go too quickly, and you have less hope of finding new items to help you make your jump!

So mechanically Zenith can be expressed as "just keep clicking until you have enough items," but that's really unfair. First, the writing is too good, and second, I became conscious of several things while playing, both related to play and not. One was that even during a short grind, my mind wandered a bit as I quickly said "hmm, give. Items. Now." But there were others, and you may think back to lyour own long-term can-I-or-can't-I because-it-is-there accomplishments you had.

My other goals were getting a certain rating on a chess website (did I study enough? Jumping might mean pulling an all-nighter and possibly failing and giving up on chess for two weeks.) There's more random stuff than you'd think there, based on opponents' relative strengths and openings and so forth.

There was also my city's bike-share program, where you can ride for free for 30 minutes between any two docking locations, but after that, you get a charge. So I had a goal of making it between two seemingly distant locations without having to dock and start another ride. I would get closer, and finally I could do it. There was that faith in the final leap, when I didn't need that alarm saying I'd been riding for 25 minutes, so I'd better dock soon..

I wound up playing Zenith a few times more than I anticipated, because first of all, there's a high score listed at the end, and I managed to mess things up and not put my name on. (I thought I had to hit enter, instead of ... as happened through the game ... clicking on "enter your name." The author kindly obliged me by adding a feature.) But even if they hadn't, I wouldn't have felt my time was wasted. Obviously you can overdo the description but it wasn't, here, and if the descriptions were dry, perhaps my mind would not have wandered so productively. Even if I didn't know the strategies and number-crunching, it still reminded me of other times I was pretty sure I got things right, and other times when I really should have been sure I got things right, but I didn't jump, because I was a bit scared of other things that didn't work out.

Zenith reminded me, too, oddly, of Dragon's Lair, where you had those three parallel trips through the castle before meeting the dragon. That was more deterministic, but the randomized bits still scrambled things well enough that replays were fun and surprising, and I felt like I was navigating the randomness, which I don't feel in real life sometimes. Or it could just be like building levels and items needed to win a boss fight, or even memorizing a poem ("Do I remember how all this links together?")

It's a tricky thing, writing something that efficiently condenses longer works without getting too brief, and everyone's sweet spot will vary. But it worked for me, and rather quickly. It's one of the few Single Choice games that used randomness, and I think it did so very effectively. It could be done in other contexts. For instance, you could have a "prepare for a marathon" game where all sorts of factors on the day of the race could affect things. But the choices would be hamstrung and maybe artificial. (Eat nutritious or not? Train too much, enough or too little? And so forth. How much are you willing to put work and social life aside? The choices feel artificial, stated so. You know what the game wants, so it feels like a loaded quiz.) Perhaps even having Zenith with "you can go left/right" would be artificial. The first time, after failing, it was neat to succeed. On replaying Zenith I had that faith the RNG would work out in my favor even after not getting items on an early trip through. And it reminded me of times I thought or hoped I'd tweaked life's RNG in my favor to get things done. But I also saw how, once I succeeded, I thought "I'd better not fail--I need X items!" (I encourage you to find what X is.) It was empowering and revealing in unexpected ways. I think this was probably the author's intent, since they avoided moralizing and such. It seems like it could help push you away from some mindless RPG-based game (say, on Facebook) to realize, no, THIS is what I really want, if I go look for it.

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Hituro, August 22, 2023 - Reply
Thank you for the review!

This is a fascinating take on a game which, I think, I intended to be about obsession which is not at all at odds with how you found it. The character is ostensibly climbing the tower to search for their missing father, but that's really a lie, they are climbing it because they have inherited their father's obsession. Even when they find clear signs that they should turn back, they don't, which is why there is never an option to give up, only to start again.

As you may have noticed, some parts of the tower only appear on second and subsequent climbs, or in a couple of cases, only on the third time around (assuming you start over, if you jump and fall you also lose that progress along with your items you died). Those areas contain the most information about why you are there, and coincidentally the items which contribute the most to your chance of success.
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