Zero Summer is the second place finisher in the seasonal StoryNexus competition, after Samsara. The setting is an apocalyptic western dated to 2026: Corpus Christi has become ground zero for an outbreak of monsters, and much of Texas has become essentially frontier territory again. And you’ve been clubbed on the head in a train robbery and forgotten everything, so that you are now the Man With No Name. Soon you fall in with people who offer to help you, and you begin to be embroiled in local plots.
There are several ways to go with this sort of setting. Happily (at least in my view), Zero Summer seems more interested in the society that might result from such a disaster, the sorts of people who would find themselves living in it, and how everyone gets on, than in dwelling on the monstrosities first thing. There’s a good establishing scene of creepiness, but it’s played with a lot of restraint, and then the player is sent out to get to meet people and be part of the life of the town.
The setting and the writing alike set Zero Summer apart from what I might call the StoryNexus house style — aspects that are not at all inherent in the system of StoryNexus, but that show up a lot, because a number of the existing works are written by Failbetter and then many of the others were written by people who liked Failbetter’s content and to some degree were inclined to emulate it. Fallen London, Samsara, Night Circus, Winterstrike, Cabinet Noir, The Silver Tree share a tendency towards artisanal virtuosity; towards luxury and violence, slashed silk and blossoming wounds; towards perfumed encounters with NPCs forgotten in the morning. If a story were a meal, the archetypical StoryNexus work would be a box of tiny, exquisitely intense bonbons — not chocolates, but Turkish delight, crystalized violets, spun-sugar caskets of anise liqueur.
This is by no means a complaint. StoryNexus is hardly the only language or system with a house style. Twine’s house style tends towards stream-of-consciousness and highly personal narrative, perhaps thanks to Anna Anthropy’s championing of it as a tool for self-expressive game design, while ChoiceScript’s tends towards highly customizable protagonists with a lot of stats and minimal pre-defined characterization. There’s no reason that has to be the case. Twine and ChoiceScript have most of their feature set in common — just different ways to visualize those features, and different supporting cultures.
So I tend to think the use of a system is driven as much by the community of people who are already using it as by the technical affordances. If a new author doesn’t like what’s been written already, or is not on the same wavelength with the existing experts who could help her, she’s much much less likely to be drawn to using that system. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you get a sufficiently complex ecosystem that the house style starts to break down, and people are trying lots of new things, and tool becomes separate from genre. But it takes time, and examples, and variation.
Zero Summer takes StoryNexus a step in this direction. Zero Summer is not a box of sweets.
In Zero Summer, you’re a man who doesn’t know exactly what is going on. You do not have panache. You exist in a setting where panache is an unknown concept. You drink home-distilled “cornskunk” liquor and you’re grateful for it. There’s dirt under your fingernails and also most likely everywhere else. And this difference is manifest not only in the setting, but also in the structure, the characterization, the prose style.
Zero Summer is heavy on tutorial content: perhaps the wordiest StoryNexus game I’ve seen in the opening stages, with lots and lots of italicized advice text. Sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, and it didn’t always feel artfully done. But then again, sometimes I welcomed how overt it was being about the system. It’s absolutely clear from the beginning that you’re going to have a main plot to pursue (non-optional) and some subplots (you get to pick among several), and it tells you how to access all those, and what progress will look like; so that you get rolling with a sense of how to drive the story on. There’s less of a sense of having to hunt about for wisps of plot than in FL.
Zero Summer is also structured (on average) around larger units than most SN games. Often an event does not consist of just a single storylet and a single choice, but developed conversations that last several cards in turn, sometimes fairly linear internally. As far as I can tell, this is because they’re using StoryNexus’ ability to assign “MUST” cards — storylets that the player is obligated to draw when certain stats are achieved — in order to present several storylets in a row without giving the player a chance to pick a new card. As a result, the feel of the narration is more continuous and closer to projects I’ve seen in Varytale, with its capacity for long, multi-choice storylets; the experience feels a little more conventionally literary.
At moments of real crisis, such as a fight with an important character, play can also become more tactical. I had one prolonged battle that I resoundingly lost, because the luck ran persistently against me; but though I was sorry about how it turned out, I felt both more invested in it and more accepting about its outcome because it was the result of many rolls, not just one.
Characters are sketched in swift, bold strokes during these extended scenes. Men and women alike are drawn in terms of their capacities and what they do around town, rather than their attractiveness. There’s Warren, the man who first offers you rescue; Padre, a hard-drinking priest who worships guns; Sermon on the Mount, the formidable woman who runs the Mission, who walks onto the scene with a fresh-killed deer over her shoulder. They all feel like semi-mythical figures, but their strength and inaccessibility is a large part of their allure.
I rapidly developed an interest, not just in the secrets of the setting (a common attraction in SN worlds), but in what I could do for these characters to become better friends with them, to find out what animated them, to earn their respect. The setting sharpens the thirst for personal connections. The creepiest thing about it is not so much the threat of monsters (seldom seen in the first batch of actions, anyhow), but the loneliness of the place, the fact that you are so obviously reliant on the meager civilization around you, and the way no one is in a great hurry to open up to you. You’re a stranger in a town that doesn’t really take to strangers. Friendship, being scarce, has value.
The prose is generally longer and less diamond-cut-precise than the best of Fallen London. Sometimes there are a few more adjectives than strictly necessary. There are some blemishes here and there: typos, misspellings, not numerous but present.
That’s not to say, though, that it’s badly written. The text of Zero Summer offers its own pleasures. It sets its jokes out gently for the reader to pick up or not as she likes. Of a religious statue: “The sculptor caught him in the middle of renouncing his worldly possessions, including his clothes.”
I have a few quibbles. Moving from one place to another in town is an important mechanic and opens up some additional options, but it’s not always easy to remember where in town new content is waiting for you, especially if you’ve been forced by an action refresh to put the game aside for a while. It’s easy to spend several actions bumbling about, looking for an interesting pinned card. Some of the grind is handled well, with opportunity cards that change interestingly as your stats improve, but there are other cards that keep turning up even after all of their branches have become “straightforward” and therefore they’re nearly useless at improving your skillset. Also, there aren’t really very many grind cards at a time, so you’re likely to be doing the same things over and over in order to increase your skills and unlock plot.
Finally, the more long-form structure made me repeatedly wish for something that the StoryNexus platform just doesn’t provide: the ability to go back and look at the content of a previous storylet. In the scenes where I was conversing with NPCs and had several choices in a row, I sometimes wished I could remind myself about something they’d said earlier. In Varytale, this would be an earlier portion of the same storylet; in inklewriter or conventional parser IF, it would just be scrollback; but in the StoryNexus system that text is already gone, vanished into ether even though it happened ten seconds ago in both real and fictional time.
(Also, for what it’s worth: I was planning to take this slow and review it in a couple of weeks, as I’ve got a lot else on the plate; but I was sufficiently drawn in by the story to buy a couple of paid action refreshes and see more sooner. So there’s that.)
The full story of Zero Summer isn’t complete, but more content is planned in coming months, and there’s already a substantial helping there.