The Zuni Doll by Jesse Burneko (1997)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I once owned a Zuni doll myself. A rather well-proportioned female Zuni doll to be exact. My experience was nothing like what is depicted in the game, though. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that SHE wasn’t the one making holes with her tiny sword. Believe me, the return process was super awkward.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Ever since I started playing this game I’ve been unable to sleep or put on a bathrobe. I’ve already destroyed my deceased mother’s priceless antique doll collection, but I’m still seeing that THING out of the corner of my eye everywhere. I’m not seeing a Zuni doll, though — it’s actually a 1959 original Barbie doll wielding a bazooka which is way more terrifying.

My Verdict:

Jesse Burneko likes action-oriented horror, cats, and random misspellings. So do I! Jesse Burneko also likes rigid and horrible parsers. He lost me there.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Jesse Burneko wrote three games during his short late 90s IF writing career which seems to have roughly corresponded with his time studying computer science at Lafayette College. All his games are action-oriented horror adventures, and two of the three take place on a college campus which makes Burneko the almost undisputed King of Collegiate Horror IF. Now he writes RPGs and blogs at Play Passionately .

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: A Breath of Fresh Blair, The X-Child

My screen name wasn’t always No1JesseBurnekoFan. In 1999, I trashed Jesse’s game A Breath of Fresh Blair. I apparently gave it a 2 and said I wanted to shoot it in the head (???). All I can think now is that it must not have been the best time in my life when I wrote that review. My broken memory managed to turn this event in my mind into, “Remember how Jesse Burneko did that interesting but flawed game you played and reviewed on the old site? You should totally go play another Jesse Burneko game!” To be fair, I did end the old review with a semi-promise to one day check out The Zuni Doll so it’s not like I completely wrote off Jesse as a talentless hack. Looking back, I don’t entirely trust my old review of A Breath of Fresh Blair, and it’s not just because of the murder threat. I know I tried to write reviews quickly back then primarily for the sake of having a steady flow of fresh content for the site. In my foolish youth, I had this idea that no successful IF review site could get away with publishing new reviews only every five months or so. Obviously, I don’t feel that way any more. At any rate, I very well may have been too hasty in my judgment and unfair in my critiques. It seems like the least I can do is offer apologies to Jesse Burneko before I proceed to attack another one of his games.

I think what I didn’t appreciate in 1999 is that Jesse Burneko was trying to do a very difficult thing. He wanted to make action-oriented horror games that would be more akin to Friday the 13th than Psycho. His games aren’t brooding or psychological and he wasn’t aiming to be subtle. He wanted to use his words to create an environment of constant, violent, and kinetic danger. This isn’t Anchorhead — it’s an anchor to the head. This isn’t The Lurking Horror — it’s the horror that’s about to stick a sword in your eye unless you think fast. Unlike your typical Lovecraft-influenced text adventure, The Zuni Doll places you immediately in the midst of terror. There’s no slow buildup. Menacing words aren’t used to create a sense of fear and a dark atmosphere. Instead, you start up the game, get out of bed, and suddenly find yourself in a fight for your life.

This simple and direct approach makes sense given that The Zuni Doll is about a doll that comes to life and tries to kill you. The plot was obviously heavily inspired by one of the stories featured in the classic 1975 horror anthology Trilogy of Terror directed by Dan Curtis. “Amelia” was written by Richard Matheson and stars Karen Black as a woman hunted by a murderous knife-wielding Zuni doll. For a budget made-for-TV movie, Trilogy of Terror has memorable visual effects and to me the Zuni doll in “Amelia” is just as if not more menacing than his spiritual cousin Chucky. While I knew I was a big fan of Trilogy of Terror long before I played Jesse Burneko’s game, it took The Zuni Doll to show me just how easily I could imagine myself as Karen Black barely wearing a bathrobe. In a nice homage, you are actually wearing the bathrobe in the game, and you need the bathrobe tie to solve one of the puzzles. You don’t really need knowledge of the movie to play the game, but it might help you understand why you can’t just stick the little bastard in the oven.

Jesse is an effective enough writer for the type of game he was creating. The last thing he would have wanted to do is distract the player from the action so you won’t find any long paragraphs or detailed descriptions here. He tells you only the bare minimum amount of information that you need in order to navigate through your apartment and thwart the bloodthirsty doll. Luckily, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely no room for a line like “hunt and kill, 25 human” which is as chilling as it is ungrammatical, but for the most part the author is very much to the point. The directness of Burneko’s writing helps give the player the feeling that the action is happening quickly. This feeling is further reinforced by the tight time limits required to stop the Zuni doll from killing you during your first two encounters with the thing. In the bathroom scene in particular, you are allowed very little time to digress and so you’ll likely die a few times before you figure out how to get through it. If Varicella had only featured more explosive bouts of diarrhea, it no doubt would have had a very similar scene.

One odd aspect of Burneko’s writing is his almost random misspellings. He’s fully capable of writing at length without error so when you see a basic word like “curled” suddenly misspelled it can be a little jarring. Are we really to believe that College Boy Jesse Burneko is writing stuff like “My favorite sport is cureling” and “I like nothing better than to curel up with a good book” for his English assignments? It might be dyslexia, in which case we’re terrible for even bringing it up, or it might just be that the author had a strong distaste for proofreading. It did also cross my mind that Jesse might be including some kind of hidden message embedded in the misspellings that I just wasn’t smart enough to uncover. You can’t tell me that the line “Thanks must be given to: Graham Nelson for his generious gift of Inform” in the Acknowledgments wasn’t intended to throw shade at Graham Nelson. “Yeah, British Guy, it’s mighty generous of you to offer up your programming language for free, but at the same time it’s pretty generic.” Jesse Burneko can be ice cold when he wants to be. Can you feel the Burn…eko?

I played through The Zuni Doll honestly wanting to like it. The premise is cool. The action can be exciting. Plus, I felt personally motivated to try to redeem myself for a past review that was probably too negative. Unfortunately, the game is a good example of how a bad parser can make puzzles much harder than they need to be. This is a short game that you should ideally be able to solve in around fifteen minutes, but in practice it took weeks of infrequent play for me to actually slog through it. None of the puzzles are honestly all that hard, and figuring out what to do is generally the easy part. The problem is that the parser is prone to reject perfectly reasonable inputs which makes you think you’re doing something wrong which in turn makes you try to do unreasonably complicated things which just leads to more and more frustration. If this game has taught me anything as a veteran player of IF, it’s that trying to set up a floss trip line should be an absolute last resort option. The reviews that call the game easy aren’t entirely wrong, but they leave out the fact that you kind of need to mind meld with Jesse first so you can phrase all the commands just right. My general approach to solving puzzles is to start out simple, try something more complicated if simple doesn’t work, and then go back and try something simple again if complicated also fails. That strategy is helpful here, but it still takes some trial and error to figure out the game’s quirks. For instance, you can only tie two objects together if you don’t mention what you’re trying to use to do the tying or do the tying in two separate actions. In another scene in the game, you can attach object A to object B, but you can’t attach object B to object A (trying this just leads to a generic error message with no hint that you’re on the right track). I get that that would make sense if you’re attaching something small to something big — you stick a magnet to a refrigerator, not a refrigerator to a magnet, and you attach truck nuts to a truck, not a truck to truck nuts — but in this case both A and B are pretty small so it’s not so straightforward. During my first playthrough, I thought that puzzle was the best implemented in the game because I attached A to B right away. During my next playthrough, I stupidly tried to attach B to A first and got really puzzled when it didn’t work before I remembered what game I was playing. You’ll probably enjoy this game more if you can remain patient and trust your first instincts. When something sensible doesn’t work, you may very well just need to word your command slightly differently.

IF can sometimes reveal aspects of an author’s personality in a way the creator perhaps might not have intended. For instance, the parser in this game is probably rigid because Jesse utterly lacks the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective…just kidding, this isn’t that kind of review. No, this paragraph is actually about cats. You no doubt come to this site for intense analysis, and I’ve got a take you’re going to want to brace yourself for. Ready? OK, the conclusion I’ve reached after deep reflection is that I think Jesse likes cats! After all, this game features a great little kitty named Elmo. He does accidentally hasten things along with the killer Zuni doll in a way that could have proven deleterious to your long-term health, but you can’t really be angry with Elmo for very long since he’s such a nice little kitty. The only time this game surprised me and the only time it made me laugh was during my interactions with Elmo. These were quality interactions to be sure, but I think the reason Elmo made such a big impression on me is because this is a rather austere game all in all. There isn’t much description, there certainly isn’t much whimsy, and most superfluous but relevant inputs don’t receive any unique response at all. Bear in mind that this is a game which will happily tell you that “I don’t suppose the Zuni doll would care for that” when you try to pick up the Satanic fetish object and piledrive it into the floor. It’s only in those moments with Elmo where it becomes worthwhile to try to type different things that might not actually win you the game. Elmo can even help you solve a puzzle at a certain point because he has a response to both items you need if you show them to him. That was the one moment in the game that I felt was really well-designed and satisfyingly implemented. It also made me realize that Jesse Burneko probably could put together a high quality game under the right set of circumstances. Presumably, the game would need to be about cats and only cats. Jesse would need to add some synonyms and recruit a few more beta testers in addition to the Russian chick who hates IF and was credited in the Acknowledgments. I’m not saying drop the Russian chick — I think we need her in all honesty — but different people could offer different perspectives and would undoubtedly type quite different things. For instance, I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the command “say to zuni doll cyka blyat” and ragequit until at least my third playthrough so I could have provided very different feedback until then.

One last thing: aren’t Zuni dolls made by the Zuni people? Why, then, would there be an African warrior Zuni doll like the one in this game? It’s almost as if the only research that was done here involved watching a 1970s TV movie. I promise to do much better with my text adventure version of When Michael Calls. In fact, I intend to research phone phreaking for at least 25 more years before I even start writing it.

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 23/50

Story: 5/10


Playability: 4/10

Puzzle Quality: 5/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10