Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is probably going to be “the Zero Punctuation guy” right up until generational turnover turns him into “who?” He’s already getting there. Zero Punctuation hasn’t been a big deal for like eight years, there’s gamers today who’ve never even seen one.
I was in his target demographic right when he became a big deal, though, and in addition to watching the complete ZP archive, I also went to Yahtzee’s site and dug up all his games. Yeah, turns out Yahtzee is an indie game dev in addition to being a game critic. There’s a reason you haven’t heard of his games, though. They’re not agonizingly bad or anything, many of them are a perfectly enjoyable way to spend two or three hours of your life, but not above replacement level. If you picked out another (completed, non-asset flip) indie game at random, then you’d probably get something about as good. None of them are really spectacular, but a few of them do rise above replacement-level, and I need a Tuesday article and don’t want to play a bunch of new games to get it, so we’ll be looking at each of Yahtzee’s games briefly, because I already played them all back in high school.
Also, Yahtzee’s currently doing a thing where he develops a video game every month for a whole year. I won’t be covering any of those right now because I stopped following Yahtzee by the time he made them, although I am leaving open the possibility that I’ll come around and look at those once the year is up and I have a full set of twelve to poke at.
This is a trilogy of adventure games about a guy who gets abducted by aliens to become the savior of the galaxy. It’s terrible. Yahtzee was like fourteen and it shows. Rob Blanc is a self-insert fantasy character, the gameplay is just a series of bad adventure game puzzles, and while you can see the faintest glimmer of developing wit in the dialogue, it’s few and far between.
Age of Evil
A Doom mod in which a terribly violent man checks himself into a mental asylum on account of his terrible violence, only for the world to be overrun by demons a day or two later. He must now use his terrible violence to kill Satan. It’s a halfway decent concept and is also a Doom mod, which means the gameplay is as good as Doom pretty much automatically.
The Trials of Odysseus Kent
Yahtzee attempts to imitate the Monkey Island adventure games. Relying more heavily on dialogue and with a better handle on how jokes work, this game is a marked improvement over Rob Blanc. That’s about the nicest thing you can say about it, but Yahtzee relying on his strengths is a good sign for the future, but really, we’re getting the dreck out of the way so we can get to…
5 Days A Stranger
The first installment of the Chzo Mythos, Yahtzee’s most popular series of games, although I’m pretty sure that’s riding entirely on how good Trilby’s Notes was. 5 Days is a ghost story about five strangers trapped in a haunted house who are being possessed into killing one another by an evil ghost. Our hero is Trilby, master thief, and he must solve puzzles in order to investigate the house’s dark past and how to exorcise a ghost before everyone gets machete’d to death. An actual grasp of plot and character is emerging, although it does kill its scariest moment by having a somewhat obtuse puzzle on an aggressive timer which results in death. That might sound frightening, but in practice you’ll do it like four times and it kind of loses the punch after the first go.
7 Days A Skeptic
It’s 5 Days A Stranger but IN SPACE! Trilby ends up working for a secret Ministry of Occultism and fires the ghost’s phylactery into space, where it’s discovered centuries later by an exploration ship. Once again, people get possessed and murdered one by one, but this time it’s not because they’re locked in a haunted house, it’s because they’re on a spaceship and there’s space outside. The only remotely reasonable and intelligent characters are the protagonist and maybe the captain, who is naturally the first to go. High points include the point when the first officer suspects you’re the killer and imprisons you, her reasoning being that you discovered all the bodies after being told to investigate the killings, and the twist at the end where it turns out you were the impostor the whole time, having faked your credentials because “I JUST WANTED TO GO TO SPACE!” A reveal so terrible it became memetic in Yahtzee’s following.
The Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment
An older, more cynical Yahtzee tells a tale of a random schlub being abducted by aliens, but this time instead of being immediately crowned Space Jesus, he is sent on a suicide mission which goes wrong and winds up captain of a particularly shitty trade ship because no one else wants to be officially responsible for the clusterfuck they’re about to get into. Notable for being made in an adventure game engine and yet having turn-based combat and a trade system. Grindy as Hell, but probably the first time Yahtzee reaches that “replacement-level indie game” mark where you wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon on this, even if you’d probably only resort to it if you’re a fifteen-year old with no money who hasn’t yet worked out torrents and inconsistent internet access that makes games you can download onto your hard drive preferable to flash. I realize that I may be the only human being who was currently in that category at the time these games were released, but the point is that I did enjoy the game, even though it would not be hard to find something better, particularly when your options include “pay fifteen bucks for Hollow Knight” or “steal Hollow Knight.”
A very bleak sci-fi story about waking up in a prison cell with a bandaged face, no memories, and a gun. You must then use a combination of realistic (ish) platforming and murder to solve the mystery of who you are and why you’ve been imprisoned. It starts out bleak and goes downhill from there, but both the gameplay and especially the story hold up reasonably well. It is kind of annoying that whether or not you hit someone you’re aiming at is determined randomly, but most foes die in one or two shots, so for the most part you can just panic-fire at enemies and let the law of large numbers average things out in your favor before it’s too late. Graphics are still shit, but hey, you can’t have everything. At least, not when you’re a one-man show with no budget and it’s like 2005 or something. And even if they’re not great, they’re at least good enough for some decent environmental storytelling.
Yahtzee decides he wants to expand the lore of his ghost stories from 5 Days/7 Days and makes an adventure game with very obvious influence from Silent Hill. Notable for introducing the Tall Man, a demon with a blank white head lacking any facial features, dressed in an 18th-century frock coat with limbs of ordinary width and thickness but which are stretched out until he’s some eight-ish feet tall. Clearly the inspiration for Slenderman (Slenderman was created several years later in a “spooky image manipulation” thread on Something Awful, a site where Yahtzee was very popular, especially at the time of Slenderman’s creation a few years into Zero Punctuation – the odds that Slenderman was not directly based on the Tall Man are basically nil). Much like the original Silent Hill, the game is able to make its haunted atmosphere work despite the limitations of its engine and the limited ability of its artist. The Tall Man is intimidating despite being slightly shoddy pixel art and the cult lore surrounding him is pretty spooky, although the cult symbol is dumb (and thankfully used sparingly).
Funny enough, the game’s dark world segments work primarily because of the precedent established in 7 Days A Skeptic, where you would periodically be chased around the ship by a possessed crew member. That precedent made the dark world frightening because it felt like a chase could start up at any moment, although that never actually happens and the dark world is actually perfectly safe (I think there was a hazard that could kill you if you walked right into it, but that hardly counts).
6 Days A Sacrifice
In which Yahtzee gets swallowed up by his own lore. This game is a sci-fi horror taking place in between 7 Days and Trilby’s Notes, and a huge amount of its plot revolves around trying to tie the previous three games into one grand saga taking place in non-linear time. The problem here is that the baggage of 7 Days A Skeptic damages the entire series and it would’ve been better off ejecting 7 Days from the lore completely. It wouldn’t even have to be an official retcon. Just let the malevolent ghost from 5 Days A Stranger cease to be relevant. The Thin Man created him, but that could’ve been just one of his many acts of terror in the mortal world, with it being relevant only because it’s the lead that drew Trilby onto the Thin Man’s trail.
That’s not what happened, though. Instead what happened is a cyberpunk horror story about being trapped in a cult compound for five days (plus a sixth day that’s a flash forward because non-linear time). The Thin Man is dethroned as avatar of the pain god Chzo and replaced by another, considerably less intimidating demon. There are spooky parts, but where Trilby’s Notes expanded the lore, 6 Days is hemmed in by it, trying to tie everything together, even the parts that kind of sucked.
The Art of Theft
A stealth game made in adventure game software. Perfectly serviceable stealth mechanics despite that, which is kind of impressive by itself, although it sure ain’t no Mark of the Ninja. This game stars Trilby from before he was a traumatized occult investigator, and is more light-hearted, drawing focus to the accidental character arc Yahtzee had given Trilby by having him be witty and unfazed in 5 Days but haunted by trauma in Trilby’s Notes. By playing up his brash bravado in this prequel, it helps make the transition feel more intentional. Also you sneak around and steal stuff from an evil but totally ghost-free corporate conspiracy. Fun except for the part where you have to press X to not die, notably after Yahtzee was already making fun of other people for telling you to press X to not die.
And that is the last game Yahtzee released while I was still following him. If he came out with games after this, I missed them. Overall, I’d say give 1213 a look and Art of Theft a look for having actual gameplay, and if you don’t mind mild doses of adventure game bullshit, also play 5 Days and Trilby’s Notes. 5 Days mainly just for context on Trilby’s Notes, but it’s not bad, and only like two hours long. If you really want to finish the Chzo Mythos, you won’t miss anything if you play 7 Days third in the series rather than second, and you can finish up with 6 Days. 7 Days is basically just 5 Days but again, though, and 6 Days mainly just ruins most of the best parts of Trilby’s Notes. I don’t hold to the idea that Trilby’s Notes can be retroactively worse because of what 6 Days does, because Notes still exists and can be played on its own, but 6 Days itself is still bad for making a mess of the elements of that made Trilby’s Notes great.
Many of these games are bad, but in all but the very earliest of them, you can see Yahtzee trying to accomplish cool things. I think one of the marks of someone who will eventually be good is seeing their ambition exceed their abilities.