jeanne thornton is a good friend and big sister figure, and has been a part of my literary career since the very beginning, when she edited rise of the videogame zinesters. she’s the author of incredible books like the black emerald and amazing comics like bad mother, but back in the day she produced a bunch of games with a shareware game-making tool called zzt. when i was putting together a questionnaire for my book on zzt, which i sent to people who responded to an open call for interview subjects, jeanne helped me decide which questions went into it. as part of this process, she was also the first person to answer it.
1. what’s your name? this can be a psuedonym, an internet handle, whatever. a name to use when i quote you.
Jeanne Thornton / bongo
2. what are your preferred pronouns? (she, he, they, etc.)
3. what was your first experience with ZZT? how did you encounter it, what was playing it like? how old were you?
I was 13, and I found out about the game in 1996 by doing an AOL search for Calvin and Hobbes video games (at the time, I was involved in a weird Calvin and Hobbes email fandom community that was the first “online community” I was on whatsoever.) There was this neat, really rough C&H world that tried to emulate the Calvin and Hobbes strips where the characters go down the hill in a red wagon by using CW/CCW sliders; it didn’t work well. I remember thinking that the game engine seemed terrible even at the time.
4. did you make any / many ZZT games? what was your first ZZT game like?
I think the first game I tried to make was another Calvin and Hobbes one, to “do it better,” and then a ridiculous LucasArts-styled comedy game about college kids.I remember not knowing how to use STK at all and the boards being really big and gross, and I remember an “action scene” called “Drive like mad” that used bears to represent cars, because bears moved in a straight line, like oncoming traffic! I made a stupid little theme song for it and that’s all I really remember from the game beyond gross color choices.
(Weirdly, I didn’t know you could play ZZT full-screen for a long time, and I had gotten about halfway through making a sequel to that game that used STK colors without knowing that some of the colors flashed on and off—so like when you ran ZZT in a window, those colors showed up as dark foregrounds, light backgrounds, and some of the ASCII characters rendered differently because of whatever Windows installation I had. When I finally realized that you were *supposed* to run ZZT full-screen, I realized that like twenty or thirty boards of this game were just hideous and unusable because I’d inadvertently chosen “flashing colors.”)
5. what was your life like at the time you were making ZZT games? was there any major upheaval happening in your lie?
Other stuff: I fell in love for the first time; I dated a girl for the first time—I remember going on walks with her around the neighborhood and telling her that a character in this game Rhygar 2 I was working on was “based on her,” which I don’t think was even true, but I remember really wanting it to be true. I remember feeling that my life at school with friends was distinctly not my “real life,” that this weird online world of ZZTers was more in tune with the kinds of friends I wanted to have, corresponded more with the world I wanted to enter. I felt kind of generally disconnected from reality throughout my adolescence, which got more pronounced as it went on for reasons I couldn’t at the time understand, and felt like being a part of this community, working on these games that this just ludicrously small population of people cared about, was real life.
I never mentioned ZZT to anyone I actually knew until later, beyond I guess a couple of close friends—installed it on one’s computer while staying over to make a game about a mutual enemy, confessed to another that I was making a game and showed it to him; he laughed at how completely primitive and awful it was. It had this real weird stigma of being a useless thing, something I had no possibility of communicating to the outside world.
Yet like all of my meaningful memories of adolescence somehow revolve around ZZT or people I met through ZZT. I spent most of my time in the real world just literally thinking of how long, in years, months, and days, it would be until I could graduate high school and move out of my house and into the larger world. I wasn’t picked on, and I had some friends and everything, but it’s like there was some profound sense of not fitting in with anything or anyone I knew in real life outside of a very few people: one girl I fell in love with, one good male friend whom I still talk to, that’s about it.I feel like I wasn’t even there at all, just like this wraith creature waiting to escape out a crack in the door.
6. what influenced or inspired the ZZT games that you made? other games, movies, music? events happening in your life? other ZZT authors?
All of them were shameless ripoffs because I didn’t know how to talk about my life whatsoever, and was in fact terrified of talking about my life whatsoever. When I play my old games, really infrequently, I’m just like completely ashamed because of how little they reflect anything in my life and how much they obviously reflect things I was reading or playing or whatever at the time. Simpsons jokes, the comic book adaptation of Clerks, Final Fantasy games generally, the Wheel of Time, the comic book Bone, just this shameful mishmash of influences.
The one authentic thing in there was this like obsession with women, in particular this proto-dyke character who was like a general and hated my (male) main character, but slowly this weird respect and understanding grew through infinite conversations. I remember thinking over and over that “if I were female, I could create something real; too bad it didn’t work out that way,” and then kind of burying that thought and trying to just replicate something I enjoyed. Now I’m inclined to think of it as this trans feeling before I even know that trans feelings existed: this deep, deep sense that life, creativity, emotion, and human connection were something that only women had access to, and I had just like been born wrong and had to make do, trying to access this thing from the outside. There was this weird quasi-Quranic thing for me about depicting women in any way, in my comics, in my writing, in anything—like I was really, really afraid to do it because it felt like it would be revealing something, like everything would fall apart if I did it—and this one big ZZT game was like one of the few times I felt like I seriously attempted it. And it was okay to do so because not that many people would ever see it, certainly no one I knew for real, and because it was wrapped in this big cloak of fantasy-novel mishmash about magic and destiny and whatever.
I don’t know how obvious it is to anyone else in the world that this was a big deal for me at the time—probably I thought more people were going to perceive what was going through my mind while I was doing it than actually perceived it. (In the never-finished ending, the main character dies, and the female general like goes on to be the main character of future games set in the main world; the idea of just having a female character be the main character just seemed like something too dangerous to actually do, something I was straight-up afraid to do ever.) Later, in one of my online comics, I did a story where the main character’s soul like transmigrates into a female body, thinking it was going to be this really explicit “coming out” kind of confession, but nobody got it at all! So I don’t know what I was even afraid of, or probably still am afraid of. ZZT was some kind of first step out of that all-consuming fear: putting a story I told containing elements I cared about somewhere where other people could see it in a way I couldn’t control.
7. did you interact with any online ZZT communities? how did you discover those communities? what were they like? what did you feel like your role or position in the community was?
Yeah I started posting on the AOL boards, and then eventually migrated to IRC when the AOL boards got shut down. I don’t know if I had any role in the community but I was super arrogant and had some vague notion of trying to make the “best ZZT RPG ever,” even though I knew like nothing about programming, art, or good storytelling. Whenever I think of ZZT days I feel terrible thinking of just how arrogant I was, whether or not anyone knew that, like I was this basically “false person” even in this online community.
I remember spending all this time on IRC in this channel my friend Vinhalf-owned called #darkdigital, talking about music or like pornography or games or who knows what. I remember feeling distinctly uncool always—like I enjoyed totally different music than everyone else, didn’t watch MTV, read long fantasy novels no one else liked, felt cut off from cultural things they were talking about. I grew up in Texas where David Bowie wasn’t played on the radio (beyond Let’s Dance and a couple of other 1980s songs) because he was a Weird Gay Freak, and thought his music was this weird arcane thing—just these really mainstream tastes that I still had no way to access and soaked up online. I feel like most people got their sense of culture from real places and I just got it from the people I met in this one IRC channel, these things that were and are still important to me. I remember trying out slang in IRC that I was too reserved to say in real life, reciting the lyrics of songs endlessly, sometimes trying to be cruel to people because I was afraid to actually offend anyone. It was this combination of real life and like hurtful playground—something about online distance made it possible to encounter people with fewer barriers and fears.
8. what sort of reactions did you receive to your work, if any? did any reaction to your game have a strong positive or negative effect on you?
People really really liked one of my games, this like ridiculous Final Fantasy style RPG epic. When I got a piece of fan mail from some kid I didn’t even know, it felt like this was going to be the beginning of my “real creative life,” like I could instantly move into adulthood if the final chapter of this game was really, really good. Everything would begin then.
I worked really hard on the final chapter of the story and never managed to finish it because I was trying to make it so elaborate that it consistently crashed the ZZT “board limit” of 20kb, corrupting the entire file and ruining like months’ worth of work. I made most of the whole game twice only to have this happen, and the second time I just gave up altogether because I wasn’t a good enough programmer to get around the limit. I felt totally doomed by this decision, like I had just wanted to do something great in this little isolated pocket universe of ZZT, and now I was ruined forever because I couldn’t even do that. (Someone who was a fan of the previous games even went through the files and “fixed them” to use less memory and I just didn’t even want to talk to them.) Even today—like literally today, while I’m typing this—I keep thinking in the back of my mind that ANYTHING I TRY, I WILL FAIL AT, because I didn’t release this stupid game when I was like 15. It’s a useful fear and I attribute stuff like finishing my novel, getting a job in publishing briefly, doing comic strip collections to having decisively failed at this one thing that could only have possibly mattered when I was 15 and never, ever wanting to go back to that feeling again.
I don’t know why this was so important to me and I think it’s a strong indication that I was a bad person that I put so much stock into this one stupid thing. But it was like this laboratory of being an adult creative person.
One of my IRL friends actually did end up playing my games, and said he was disgusted by this one board in the never-finished final chapter with these two characters in bed together; like this visceral horrified reaction at the notion that I had depicted sexuality of any kind really stayed with me. I hated knowing that anyone in my life was playing this; it still makes me really uncomfortable when people I know in real life read anything I’ve written.
(Weirdly, like a month before writing these responses in 2013, I got another fan letter about the game asking me what the ending was going to have been—I barely remembered most of the details of it and had to re-download the game and dig around in the boards to try to remember. It’s creepy how something like that follows you, and originally I thought it was some creep from like 4chan trying to mess with me for being trans; as far as I know it wasn’t?)
9. are there any ZZT games that you remember as having a strong effect on you?
tucan’s game p0p was for some reason very influential—tucan’s whole aesthetic made me feel bad about my entire life. There was this richness to it, this sense of joy in language, of being grounded in these kind of real visions: I may be remembering it wrong, but there was this one board where you crawl through these vines and look through a spyglass and see these singing, hallucinatory whales, and it depressed me on some level because it’s like you could feel the joy tuc took in depicting those whales, and I wished I could do that. In particular there was this game by this guy Chronos that I don’t think was ever formally released—I feel like he must have emailed it to me or something like this—that was just this really dense, elaborate, well-programmed reconstruction of his high school. He was doing it as some kind of gift for friends of his. I remember wishing that I could do that, but it felt like there was nothing about my friends or about my life to say, that it was just this weird blank. This one game called Quest for the Floating Isle that felt somehow really pure—it was a big Zelda-style map of a huge island, and the entire game was just exploring this island and solving inventory-related puzzles, all of it really sunny and polished and without this strong sense of individual overwrought teenage “voice” a lot of ZZT games had, which I liked. The Sivion games, because on some level I felt like they were sort of also inauthentic in the same way I suspected my games were inauthentic—like there was this really elaborate presentation of something that wasn’t deeply felt. I felt like the author must have been the same kind of scumbag and took weird joy in this.
10. do you still make games or other forms of art? has working with ZZT informed your current work in any substantial way?
There’s this line in Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comics where Hopey and Maggie are trying to explain punk to this jerky Christian guy, and Maggie says that punk is in everything you do, “the way you stir your coffee in the morning.” I feel like it has something to do with that—there’s no explicit connection but it’s stuck there in the back of my mind. One specific weird memory: in college, thinking about how a paragraph of text in a novel should be as dense as a board in ZZT, like how you should be able to “push on” different nouns in a sentence and have things happen. When I try to write a paragraph of description of a place, I’m on some level thinking about ZZT, how the environment would appear in ZZT. When I think about color combinations in the comics I draw I think about what would look good in ZZT. It’s always there.
11. what’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your life, unrelated to ZZT?
Transitioning, being public/out about transitioning. It was the most horrifying thing to me to have something fundamental about my identity be publicly, uncontrollably *visible* in this way. Thus it was this thing I didn’t let myself become fully aware of for the longest time, and that I didn’t let myself acknowledge as any kind of actual option in my life until long, long after I became aware of it. It’s still really, really hard, and there’s at least one point in every day when I think about how this is clearly impossible. I don’t know what would have become of me had it not been for ZZT, if I had tried to find creative outlets in person in the small Texas town I grew up in. I really don’t know what would have happened had I not had this sort of safe-yet-dangerous online space. NOTHING GOOD.