John W. Wells

What have you created with ZZT, or related to ZZT?

My completed projects are, in order of creation:

Scarlet, Green
Gilbert and Sullivan ZZT
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents: Aceland
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents: Despair
The Evil Sorcerers' Party

The Evil Sorcerers' Party
When you think about ZZT, what games come to your mind and why?

Aside from the ones I wrote? Code Red, first and foremost; I spent a lot of time with that game. Burglar!, Nightmare, Town of ZZT, and Mission: Enigma after. With the exception of Burglar!, these were the ones that I played as a young kid/adolescent and that most influenced my style, so naturally they're the ones that stick in my mind most.

Have you created any games outside of ZZT?

I spent my childhood writing games for the Apple ][+ in BASIC, impressing my second-grade class with an awful attempt at a dogfighting game in text. You'd choose from different options in a mostly random combat - one choice was, prophetically, "DO A BARREL ROLL." Most of these games were awful, but YOU ARE A RAT! remains a humble masterpiece.

Favorite bad puzzle I wrote: Using a giant Venus flytrap as a trampoline.

In college, I worked with a group making an adventure/RPG in the mold of Quest for Glory; while the project continues, my role has diminished. I was a dialogue and plot editor, for what it's worth.

Do you have any artistic pursuits other than making games?

I occasionally write song parodies, but not in any concerted way, and I was in a men's chorus for four years in college. But, generally, my non-academic creative life has been limited, although I did lead a small team in creating a mad science-themed live-action team adventure game in my last year of college.

What are you up to, lately (in life, generally)?

I'm a first-year in graduate school, trying to decide on a laboratory to stick with. Long hours, but it's still a nice gig if you can get it. They let me do mind control on fruit flies!

Has your experience with ZZT or the ZZT scene made any sort of lasting impact on your life?

From now on, I'll always know that I pursued a project to the end, in spite of setbacks, doubts, and the general silliness of the thing, and made a game that some people enjoyed. I always wanted to write an adventure game, and I did. So I think ESP has had a lasting impact on my life - it's given me confidence in my stubborn persistence.

What works of non-ZZT art have inspired you the most?

The ones that had the biggest effect on ESP were the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Specifically, I got the idea for ESP by combining Iolanthe, in which magical fairies take control of English Parliament, and Ruddigore, in which the main character overcomes a supernatural curse using the rules of logic. Other influences included the Sherlock Holmes stories (Cleatle was partly modeled off of Professor Moriarty), Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games, with a special nod to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, countless ZZT games, Hitchcock movies, the novels of Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Dorothy Sayers.

So, you see, there was nothing at all original about ESP. It was cobbled together from geek-lore.

But, ignoring ESP for a moment, the works of art that have inspired me the most in general would be the fruit fly genetics manual Fly Pushing, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, archy and mehitabel, by Don Marquis, W. H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror, David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified, and, for good measure, the webcomic Narbonic. All of these selections are liable to change, but if I ever write another game, every one of these sources, including the mushroomguide, will leave its mark.

Do you have any interesting stories to relate about ZZT or the ZZT scene?

I was never that involved in the scene, though I did participate in an April Fool's joke where a "long-lost" game by Alexis Janson was uploaded and awarded Classic Game of the Month. It was really just a trivially modified version of The Three Trials, I don't think anybody cared, and now The Fool's Quest is permanently credited to Alexis Janson. Sorry, Ms. Janson.

Do you plan to create any games in the future, with or without ZZT?

If I make another game, it will probably be a text adventure. That said, time constraints are an issue.

Anything else you'd like to add?

The three most important rules of ZZT game-making:


Only send a game out to be tested when you're sure you've eliminated all of the bugs. This will leave the beta testers time to remark on the glaring weaknesses in your gameplay. At the very least, play through the game once before sending it to beta. Ideally? Check each board, over and over, as you program, and replay big chunks of the game. Not only will this catch subtle bugs, it will let you polish the gameplay as you go. How do you know which parts are monotonous or unfairly hard? Play the game thirty times, and take note of the places that make you want to strangle yourself.


Really. It's either slow as dirt or unreadably fast that way. The only good way to cut your writing down is to slash extra words wherever you find them, make constant stylistic edits, and demand honest feedback from beta testers. If you think ESP was wordy in its final incarnation, you ain't seen bloat. Bloat was the betas. Nothing kills a game more than twenty pages of straight exposition.

Rule 3 is not "HAVE FUN." That should be obvious. It's NEVER GIVE UP.

If you write a bad game, you'll at least have gotten a bad game under your belt, and can move on. Don't abandon projects. Scarlet, Green was the big lousy game I had to write before I could write ESP, and I'm glad I finished it, even if it was derivative, hokey, and dull. It meant that I could finish a game. Later, when ESP ran into trouble, I had some practice in that critical skill of not giving up.

(Oh, and read. Read voraciously. READ. That's how you learn to make games that don't involve saving the world from yet another evil sorcerer.)

- April 2007