Cryptozookeeper: Inside the Red House

2019-10-04 · by Anya Johanna DeNiro
tagged Columns

“Someone make sure Eeyore there has herself a nice long gulp!” You’re not sure who said it. It could be any one of your friends. It could even be you! -Cryptozookeeper

Sometimes, the moments that stick with you from a game—for years, even decades—are not significant moments in the game itself. Instead, they’re the off-hand moments when a space is created inside a game that feels extremely ephemeral.

* * *
College towns are strange places. Living in a college town after you’ve graduated is even stranger. In 1997 I was twenty-four with an MFA in poetry writing and I had stopped writing poetry. I couldn’t write another line. I was broke, but not poor, because I still had plenty of privilege and safety nets. I always felt displaced, having come from the Rust Belt and living in a rarefied, genteel place, but I was white in a deeply segregated city, and at the time—and for many years afterwards—I thought I was a man. I was deeply anxious and way too precocious for my own good. “Precocious” is another way of saying “arrogant.”

I worked in the college bookstore and taught composition at a university an hour away. Since I couldn’t write another poem to save my life, I started writing science fiction but instead of talking about that much, I would go to parties with the writing program still—scratch that, “receptions,” because visiting writers would be received. There was usually beautiful carpeting and a colonnaded balcony and free booze. Or it would be the ramshackle grad school housing on boulevards crammed to the brim with people coming, or going, or moving far away, or remaining rooted in the small city forever. Then I’d go back home to Erie it would be trailer parks and bar-fight bars and broken-down houses built during the time of the McKinley administration.

I didn’t feel at home in any of those places.

Two men in coats and hats stand over a table with an alien-looking corpse lying on it.

* * *
In Cryptozookeeper, the scene in Christmas City, New Mexico at a house party was instantly recognizable, and maybe that’s why it’s stuck with me since the first time I played the game in 2012. The Red House isn’t especially important to the plot, even. But it’s an immensely satisfying, even poignant, place to visit.

A man sits at a table with his arms crossed. The picture is tinted red.

Robb Sherwin’s games are glorious messes—sprawling, jagged, often a bit on the broken side, yet packed with the kinds of writing that set off fireworks in my brain. The metaphors and descriptions collide into each other, and help create portraits of intermittently unpleasant people with deep scars.

Scars which you could see on the outside, sometimes.

* * *
You are crashing the party. Actually, you’re probably trying to save the world, at some point, but for the time being you’re at the Red House. Here, the quips and jokes aren’t part of larger set-ups but work fantastically well as bits of overheard conversation and shouts of ridiculous drunken joy while the tequila bottle is passed around, and the endlessly flowing soundtrack and the vaporwave images.

A woman leans against a kitchen counter

What makes Cryptozookeeper probably his best game isn’t the Pokemon-style cryptid battling (although that can be fun), or even the long superstructures of story that drive the plot forward (although those are rich and rewarding). What makes it great is its sense of camaraderie in the midst of deep displacement, of people who (for one reason or another) are where they’re not supposed to be. If Fallacy of Dawn is about the allure of old-school video games, and Necrotic Drift is about the potency of Dungeons and Dragons, Cryptozookeeper is about how hard it can be to learn and grow and make friends when everything around you is literally crumbling. (That, and crafting werewolves and harpies.)

It’s also important to note that the scene would have been a lot poorer had it not been for the women who inhabit these spaces. Jane, Deanna, and Bleem shine in the Red House scenes and Cryptozookeeper as a whole, and considering Robb Sherwin’s first game is called Chicks Dig Jerks, this is a whole evolutionary era of character development in his writing.

And at the Red House (after traversing a shattered abandoned landscape), yes, there’s a feline humanoid acting as bouncer, and yes, there’s an alien autopsy going on in the study. (Or “study.”) And yes there’s a pamphlet on alcohol abuse somewhere in the place. And yes—quite so—there may, or may not, be an exorcism. But mostly you have your friends, and you’re drinking together in an ought-to-be-condemned house. You even have your frenemies. But very few of you are students anymore.

You’re someplace else in your lives.

* * *
Eventually, you might have to start over. You might You might unwittingly find yourself back at one of these houses at 2:30 in the morning, crying on the patio. Transitioning doesn’t have to mean that you have to break apart your life and stitch it back together into forms that you hope will become to familiar to you again.

But sometimes it does.

* * *
Ultimately the game is about having a posse, about having your own people who have your back, however imperfectly. It took me a long, long time to find my posse—and find myself—but Cryptozookeeper is poignant for me because everyone knows they’re not quite where they want to be yet. But they’re trying. They’re hoping. And in those fleeting moments inside the Red House, you’re all able to share a little bit of hope together.

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