In space, there is no McDonalds. However, there is Bennie's Mac and Cheese. There is an uncanny warmth to the story that unfolds in Zebulon by Matt Slaybaugh. Crafted in the style of classic text-based 'choose your own adventure' games for the 9th Casual Gameplay Design Competition, Zebulon features the exploits of a somewhat wayward space crew. Unlike most fiction set in a science-fiction universe, the atmosphere is neither too grim nor too jocular. The story itself is relatively simple; you're the captain of a small ship that runs regular courier missions for Asmico, a delivery and service IT company. With you are your shipwright and communication officer; your shipright Hariett is a straight-laced, by-the-book stick in the mud while Reynolds, the communication officer, is unlikely to win 'Employee of the month' anytime soon.
The controls are extremely simple. For the most part, Zebulon requires you to read chunks of the story. The game was written using the Choice Of scripts and tools; at certain intervals, you'll be presented with multiple choices, each of which might lead to entirely different endings. Once you've selected your response, hit the next button and life will continue. There's no right or wrong answer here, really; it's all a matter of how YOU want the character to interpret his situation. Different choices will of course lead to different results, and you'll likely want to come back to the game again to find out exactly what changes depending on how you treat people or how you react to certain situations.
Analysis: More than anything else, Zebulon is likeable. In many situations, interactive fiction is often a straight forward matter that doesn't quite engage the reader. In Zebulon, it is easy to picture a good-natured Dungeon Master lurking behind the screen and penciling in your adventures. On certain levels, the jokes feel a tad bit forced but the overall atmosphere of the game is delightful.
While the writing might not win the Pulitzer's prize for its creator Matt Slaybaugh anytime soon, it is more than sufficiently compelling to hold most attention spans till the end. Small touches like being forced to brush your teeth, mentions of Spacebook and a space-bound goldfish are responsible for truly bringing Zebulon to life. Though 'choose your own adventure' games are the province of the past, the inclusion of almost RPG-like elements to the game will make it approachable even to the younger generation. What I like most, perhaps, is how both the protagonist and their crew seem to play equally important roles. In between training, negotiating disagreements and working your ships, there's a lot to weigh and consider. That's also the reason I would happily sacrifice a chocolate bunny (I seem to like sacrificing confectionary rabbits, don't I?) for a much needed statistics system in the game.
In terms of the game's interpretation of the competition theme of Friends, I'm somewhat undecided about its performance. While I'm extremely fond of the characters that power this soap opera, I can't help but feel that their personalities are somewhat stereotypical. It almost feels as though they were plucked from a predetermined roster. Now, this isn't a bad thing per say and I cannot imagine having to conceive fully realistic characters within such a short time frame but you know, I'd like to have been able to second guess my analysis of the people we meet in Zebulon. Still, the predictability doesn't weigh down the fun read nor the imaginative play on the genre; it's definitely something that could be easily remedied in an upcoming sequel. (Hint, Hint)